Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Looking for Answers: A Sewanee Sermon

Good morning!  Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.  My name is Colin Mathewson, and my wife and  I graduated from The School of Theology some 18 months ago.  We’ve been priests just 13 months now.  We’re serving at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, where one of my roles is to pastor our small Latino congregation.  I appreciate the opportunity to be with you for this Spanish language Eucharist, because I believe deeply in the importance and possibilities of Latino ministry, and I am grateful that The School of Theology continues investing in and growing its Spanish language and Latino ministry program.  I know my time at Sewanee did much to inspire and prepare me for this current work of mine.  I hope many of you are having a similar experience here, too.  Know this -- for those called to serve among Latinos, the harvest is plentiful!  Keep working on your Spanish, venture out of your comfort zone, laugh at yourself when you sound silly, but keep at it.  The Church needs you.  And Latinos, as do all of us, need the Church.

Except when we don’t need the Church -- or we think we don’t.  One of the favorite parts of my job is having coffee with folks in their 20s and 30s who declare to me that they are spiritual but not religious.  (That phrase makes me smile.)  I listen to their stories, which often involve baggage with some form of the institutional -- and often nondenominational -- church.  They’re not quite sure why they’re sitting down with a priest in a public place (I think the collar is unnerving to some of them).  Yet they yearn for greater purpose and meaning in their lives.   They wear quizzical expressions on their faces while holding a thread in their hands and trailing behind them a pile of unraveled fabric — the fabric of a culture that promised their bodies alluring and comforting answers to life’s biggest questions but left their souls cold.  I loved these conversations as a lay person before seminary, and I love them even more now -- seminary pointed me to a rich wardrobe of Scripture and tradition to share.  Indeed, there is much good news to tell, and so I wonder where to begin.  Evangelism can be dicey with millennials -- their B.S. monitors are sensitive -- pat answers make them suspicious.

The stories of the saints are often a good place to start.  Take Elizabeth, princess of Hungary, whom we celebrate today.  A member of the royalty, she married at the age of 14, was widowed at 20, and at age 24 died an entirely preventable premature death.  She died from an illness contracted from those for whom she cared for in a hospital she didn’t have to build and certainly didn’t have to enter into day after day.  I wonder what could have possibly turned blessed Elizabeth’s gaze slowly, slowly around until all she could see was the poor, and Christ among them?  She had plenty to live for: three kids, an income from her family, many chances to remarry.  But she chose to give her life away for a very real purpose instead.  She gave her life to God.    “Why would someone do that?,” I ask my coffee shop companion.  Why would someone do that?, I ask you.  Why would someone do that?, I ask myself.

One coffee shop companion of mine, a woman in her 30s named Selina, recently renewed her participation in our Latino congregation’s communal life.  She is the single mother of elementary school-aged daughters, and she struggles to find a job while she and her family live on welfare.  On a Saturday night a few months ago, Selina received a call that her father in Mexico City had died suddenly from a heart attack.  Undone and unsure what to do, she came with her daughters to church the next day.  As she wept before and during worship, members of our family-sized congregation comforted her and cried beside her, for Selina’s grief had reminded them of their beloved family members and friends living on the other side of a border that many were not authorized to recross again.

During coffee hour, prompted by a leader in the congregation, I invited those present to offer what they could to help cover the costs of the almost $700 plane ticket that would allow Selina to bury her father.  I issued this invitation obediently, but not hopefully: this Latino congregation was comprised of the working poor: carpenters, carpet layers, truck drivers, house cleaners, landscapers, nannies.

But, thanks be to God, I’m here to tell you that my parishioners gave twenty, forty, fifty dollars each -- and among a couple dozen folks we’d raised enough to fly Selina home.  The church’s pastoral needs fund covered the rest.

Why did my parishioners, these saints of the Church, do that?  Some sense of purpose most certainly lay behind it.  Was it their own devotion to family that compelled them to give so sacrificially?  Was it their devotion to a God of love and abundance that prompted them to take the risk of sharing the few loaves and fishes they had with one another?  There was a hidden richness from which they drew on this extraordinary collective wealth.

I expect our parishioners’ generosity did affect those family members who depended on them in the days to follow.  But as I reflect on this miracle I can’t help but think that their giving preserved and strengthened their devotion to family and to God more than if they had kept their wallets in their pockets.  The invitation to give, issued not by their priest but by the tears of a suffering fellow church member and friend, transformed any sense of scarcity they might have felt in that moment into a sense of abundance.  From this present abundance they gave to meet a real need, and it was the Church, it was Christ, that bound together and made possible this moment.  

I share this not to romanticize poverty or to overgeneralize the generosity (or poverty!) of a particular cultural group.  I share this because I watched Christ sweep away fear and the Spirit usher in Love before my eyes.  I witnessed a grieving daughter who needed the Church and saw the Church come through for her.

A month after her trip, I invited Selina to serve as the Latino congregation’s representative for the Cathedral’s newly minted Evangelism Committee, organized to proclaim joyfully the good news of Christ in our community’s life.  Committee members plan to do this at street fairs, in parks, and yes, even in coffee shops.  I’m certain this single mother of two struggling to find a job is the right person for this ministry, for she has tasted and seen this good news in the spontaneous offering of monetized love from her friends at church.  She can point to it.  It is fresh in her gaze.  She had crossed path with saints who had themselves discovered a deeper purpose and joy in Christ.  

Look, most of us are not called to almsgiving heroics.  Most of us have real financial constraints in our lives, real responsibilities to our families and our dependents (older and younger).  And few of us have access to the precious gems and royal granaries that Elizabeth had at her disposal to care for the needy.  That said, each of us is included in Christ’s call to submit ourselves and our lives fully at the feet of our Lord and Savior — not merely represented by giving ten percent of our income, or twenty percent of our talent, or thirty percent of our time to the church, or any other calculation that constricts our response to Christ’s invitation to present ourselves in our entirety to God, one hundred percent.  (Thank you, Mother Julia, for helping me to see this.)

Giving all of ourselves to God: this is a challenge, this is a purpose, that is at once intimidating and liberating — and compelling.  Sure, it’s easiest to feel how giving ourselves entirely to God is intimidating, for who in this life can boast such a feat?  Our confessions remind us of the ways we withhold our love from God and others.

Yet it is liberating because this call to giving 100% of ourselves means that our financial resources are but one offering God invites us to place on the altar.  Providing for our families in such eminently practical ways as buying school supplies for our kids or helping with cost of elder care for our parents take on a sacredness revealed in all we do that affirms life and life’s intimate relationship to our Creator.

And truly, this call to give our all is compelling.  It is compelling because we humans from an early age have suspected that there is more to living than what our mainstream culture entices us to buy and sell.  There is more to who we are than our net worth, our assets, the number of our Facebook friends, our image.  Indeed, it is Christ who offers us our deepest purpose, answering our dearest held questions: Who am I?  Toward what end shall I labor?  What will my time alive be like?  Christ calls to each of us, inviting us to turn our gaze toward the poor, toward the lonely, toward the sick, toward God -- so that we might fashion answers to the existential questions that hound us.  And Christ gives us the means to do so: the strength, the courage, the joy.

Why did my parishioners do what they did?  Why did blessed Elizabeth do what she did?  

Unsurprisingly, Christ continues to attract the younger generations — that coffee shop-going crowd.  As I sip my tea I reveal to them, and in so doing remind myself, of a precious gift within our church tradition: the saints, who have grappled with great questions of purpose and found Christ in that struggle, and he became their all, and they gave their all to Him.  My conversation partner looks away, holding her latte in her hands, silent.  I wonder if she is thinking what I am: Could I do the same some day too?

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Wedding Sermon for Peter and Fei

Peter and Fei, thank you for inviting us here today to witness and bless your marriage.  Too rarely
these days do we have the chance to celebrate love, to celebrate its power to transform we tiny humans into something greater and more real.  But look!  Look at what you’ve done to each other!  Look at what love has done to you.  We, your family and friends, have witnessed the good that your love has brought both of you, and we affirm it and bless you this day.

It’s easy on the surface to celebrate love between two people.  But real life love goes deeper than that, or it must if it is to weather the challenges and stresses of any marriage. I tell you this because I care so much about what you are to embark upon, as we all do, as we all commit to support the two of you however we can.  And so I submit to you a precious truth that our poet, Kahlil Gibran, revealed: it is the truth that this good, good love that you share is not your love, not really.  It is contained by an even greater Love, an even greater Life, it is contained by God -- and it springs forth in your lives because you are loved by this greater Love.  You are loved by God.  We are all loved by God.  All of us.  Always.

But what does God’s love have to do with your marriage?  This truth about God’s love matters most precisely when you feel like you’ve got this marriage thing figured out all by yourselves.  Because marriage can be a squirrelly thing, full of surprises and joys and its share of sadness.  Ah, but you’ll never need to go it alone.  You’ve got us here, and more importantly, you’ve got a greater Love beside you that never fails.  Trust it, lean into it, and it will carry you places unexpected and filling and new.

Peter, I’ve known you for 21 years.  Fei, it’s crystal clear you are just what Peter needs, thanks be to God.  And Peter, never forget that Fei needs you, too.  

And so we today celebrate this love you share, this glorious Love, this always Love, together by your side.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Quinceañera Sermon for Kinsey

Today we are here to celebrate the childhood of Kinsey Garcia and her journey to adulthood.  It is no simple task to get to this point with health and a good head on your shoulders and with faith.  For this we applaud you, Kinsey, and your parents and we thank God!  And now we’re here, looking ahead with you at the exciting and at times daunting road ahead.

Kinsey, one of the greatest blessings about a moment like this is the chance to look around and see the family and friends who have gathered to support you.  So look around.  Take them in.  Never forget that life is not lived alone -- it can’t be -- we’re not built for it.  God made us for each other, and you have been blessed with an abundance of love.  

We care about you -- that’s why we’re here.  But we’re also here because we care about how our kids become adults.  As parents it’s so easy to ignore the telltale signs amid the hustle of daily life that our children are growing up: they need us less and less for their physical health, their emotional wellbeing, their mental acuity, their spiritual lives.  It can be easy for us to hold on to our kids more tightly because it can be painful to recognize that we’re not needed like we used to be.  So part of what we’re about today is to help Carlos, Ruben, Shannon, and Brittany let go of Kinsey a bit -- let her go, not out on her own, but into a community of support, a community of peers, a community of faith, a world community that still fights for the value of human life, even amid the more harrowing reminders of late of what happens when we forget just how much each of us is worth in the eyes of God.

Kinsey, you’re growing up!  You know that.  You’ve known that.  It’s fun!  We’re excited for you.  But there’s a loss involved as well: you’re losing the special status of childhood that Jesus mentions today in our Gospel reading.  “The least among all of you is the greatest” -- the children of every age are our basic and necessary hope for the future, so we do all we can as a society -- though at times it may not seem like much -- to protect kids and raise them well.  There are some great things about childhood, and maybe the best is the ability to shirk responsibility when things go awry.  When I was 14 I goaded my dad into driving over 80 through the desert highway rises and falls and had a great time until he was pulled over by a cop.  As the officer walked up to the car, my dad turned to me as if to say, “Well?”, and I said, “You’re the responsible adult.”  Ah, the teenage years.

You can try to keep pulling that off, that shirking of responsibility as long as you’d like, but you’ll notice that the person most harmed by irresponsible actions will increasingly be you.  Even more disturbing, as you become more powerful -- as you drive the roads, as you vote, as you buy food and clothes, as you gain fans and followers, as you perhaps even become a mother some day -- others will also be affected by your choices.  Those are the heart-quickening and energizing facts of adulthood.  The world grants you more and more power.

That can be a heady proposition.  And sometimes, a disappointing one.  Remember through it all that what you do, for better or worse, does not change one undeniable, unbelievable fact that if you can trust it will change your life: God loves you and won’t stop loving you for no other reason than who you are, a beloved child of God.  God doesn’t care how much you weigh, how many friends you have, what college you go to -- God just cares about you.  I know, it’s nuts.  But you, and every person in this church, every person in this world, is worthy of God’s love.

Enjoy tonight’s celebration and the Latino heritage it affirms.  Every blessing to you on this road ahead.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Keep Your Books in Their Boxes

Sermon Delivered at Bentley Manning's Deaconal Ordination on June 11, 2014 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Propers for St. Barnabas:

Isaiah 42:5-12 
Acts 11:19-30;13:1-3 Matthew 10:7-16 Psalm 112 

Bentley, you’ve just packed up your study carrel at Sewanee.  For three years you’ve pored over the inhabitants of its bookshelves, searching for insight into the length, and breadth, and width, and height of God.  You have taken in the sacred story of God’s people and made it in many ways your own.  You have been a good and faithful student.  Well done.

Now your books are in their boxes, still to be unpacked.  That’s fine.  I’d keep them in the attic for a while.  Because you’ve got a new study carrel, a new place to struggle and come to grips with the mysteries and glories of God: your new study carrel is Birmingham.  The neighborhoods are your bookshelves.  The people whom you befriend and minister to and with are your beloved texts.  They will share with you unimaginable tales of grief and glory, of God’s powerful presence in their lives.  Welcome to the margin between the church and the world.  Welcome home.

A deacon’s jobs are many, but the one that may be the most compelling and the most challenging is this: to interpret to the Church the needs of the world.  And there’s only one way to do that: to be in the world.

Because we know you’ll be in church.  We know that you love church.  You’ve been nerding out on church for years.  You met Leslie in church. You read about 19th century English clerics for fun.  You even spend your time off in church, having just returned from the ancient sanctuaries of the Holy Land.  Heck, you spent last summer doing extra field education so you could be in church more than was required by your seminary, which is owned by the church.

But the wily, wild Holy Spirit that has so recently come upon us in flames of fire has surprise after surprise in store outside of church walls.  As we understand from St. Luke’s account in the Book of Acts, in the time after the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit led “some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also” -- spoke to the Gentiles, not just the Jews!  And what were they saying?  They were “proclaiming the Lord Jesus!”  

But this wasn’t supposed to happen.  Sure, the tongues of fire that preached the good news through the apostles on that pentecostal day did speak not just to Jews but to all people.  But Jews were God’s chosen people.  And Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.  Something wasn’t right, and the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas -- a Levite who had had a conversion experience, sold his field and distributed the profits to the faithful -- the elders sent Barnabas to investigate the Spirit’s troublemaking in the world.

Who knows what Barnabas expected to find on arrival, but what he did see was the grace of God at work among those who were not Jewish.  Apparently, there was a need among the Gentiles, not just the Jews, to know God’s remarkable love.  Barnabas’ eyes were opened.  This harvest would be plentiful.  He rushed to Tarsus to find a man named Saul, formerly a persecutor of the church, and brought him to Antioch.  And a great many people came to the Lord.

This story is the beginning of a lifetime of missionary adventures for St. Barnabas and St. Paul, many of which they would share together.  But this story also marks the beginning of change in the church.  Barnabas and Paul brought back stories of the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles, and the church has not been the same since.  We have come to understand that all people are chosen by God to be loved; we Christians have come to know this blessed Jewish Messiah to be the savior of us all.  God’s people thus are called to and formed for God’s mission in the world.  And we are called to follow the Spirit’s lead in her curious and powerful troublings among the comfortable, and her comforting ministrations to the afflicted.

The task of the deacon among us is this: to lead the work of God’s people in the world alongside the Spirit, proclaiming the good news, watching for and naming the Spirit’s many movements, and bringing this news of the Spirit back to the church, so that it too might be refreshed, refocused, rejuvenated.  The church needs this, for it can be all too easy to keep our red doors closed.

How is the Spirit working here, right now, in this time and place?  Perhaps only God knows -- but we, God’s people, can surely feel the Spirit among us.  Bentley, we are here as the church to set you apart, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that you might help answer that question of the Spirit’s movements among us, and help us to figure out what to do about it.

This is no easy task.  Your deaconal ministry demands self-effacement.  Don’t worry -- that will happen naturally, as the stories told by those whom you meet in these neighborhoods sink in.  You will hear stories of such need, such heartache, such loss, such suffering that only prayer, communal and personal, will keep your own hope aflame -- for it is risky and difficult to be alive today.  Only God’s every breath into the world sustains us.  Take comfort in God’s abiding love, study the sacred Scripture of God’s people, and delight in Leslie and Mary Bentley, in your family and friends, in the beauty of this earth.  There is grace and power in your ordination -- and it will provide as you struggle to understand and serve and love those whom you meet and minister to outside church walls.

For the needs of the world are many.  But the imaginative Spirit inspires our responses.  In the Diocese of San Diego, Deacon Bob Nelson recently raised funds for a mobile shower unit so that those living on the street might know the blessed peace of a warm shower and the elation of cleanliness.  Who knew the good news could be communicated through a shower head?  The Spirit’s languages are countless.

Bentley, when you return to God’s sanctuaries, when you proclaim the Gospel and bid the confession and the prayers, when you prepare the table and send forth God’s people, you will find your own story richer and more complicated than it was before.  For you are set apart today to be a bearer of the pain and joy of the world, the bearer of the world’s stories, stories of the world’s needs that the church must hear for its own good.  

Thanks be to God, you are home now.  You are a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  Now leave your books in their boxes for a while.  These neighborhoods are your bookshelves, and Birmingham’s residents -- especially the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely -- have stories to tell.  Hear them so that you might challenge us, Bentley -- speak to us the truths of the world -- tell us where the Spirit is working, where we are needed as the Body of Christ, and take us there, so that we may see the grace of God at work, and participate alongside, so that we too may be healed.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Joy is the Power

The thing gardeners do during winter in most everywhere in the United States is wait. Tulip and daffodil bulbs lay under snow and ice, dead to the world. Berries and asparagus become dried sticks, barren. In that season Advent prepares us for the hope of Christmas, the hope that light conquers darkness, that the sun will once again return to warm newly fertile earth. There is a magical quality to the contrast between light and dark, warmth and cold, that adds to the cheeriness of that season. The comforting promise is repeated: all will be made well. 

But spring is different. Seeds planted around Ash Wednesday have silently, slowly stretched roots deeper while reaching toward the well-lit surface. Stems have grown taller, widened into stout stalks. Leaves now extend to soak up the sun. Gardeners in the spring aren’t waiting anymore . . . no, they’re smiling and laughing and enjoying the unmistakable signs of life sprouting around them. The work of Lent has borne another season of growth, thanks be to God, but that is not why we are celebrating this morning. And we are not celebrating a comforting promise of hope either. No. We are celebrating something else entirely, something beyond the expressible, something radically unexpected, something defying the first and concretely steadfast natural law that every one of us learned as a kid, the law that every living thing must die. And stay dead. No exceptions. Even sons of God. 

Almost everything about the Christian story can be explained away somehow. There is nothing particularly unique about a poor first-century Palestinian Jew with an inspiring message and a knack for healing. And this man, Jesus, was clear that he wasn’t trying to begin a new church, much less a new religion. But something happened that propelled us to these pews today. Quite a force, apparently, that still resonates across two thousand years. Resurrection. Resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead. 

He lived. He died. He lives. 

If you have trouble believing this, so do I. There’s no way to believe it with your head. Because the job of your twenty-first century’s head is to separate out the important stuff from the fluff, the agenda-riddled commercial and political ads that bedevil us. 

But help me with this. What was the agenda of a bunch of faithful Jews in Jerusalem confronted with the empty tomb that first Easter morning? I know if I were one of them my first response would not be appropriate to share from this pulpit. Because nothing good was going to come from telling the Roman authorities, or the religious authorities, that this man Jesus who was dead, was, according to him, alive. Yes, according to him, because we’ve just been talking to him. Yep, that wasn’t going to be a great message to tell the folks who just put a lot of effort into killing him. 

There was only one power that propelled those first women and men to tell their friends about what happened: joy. Just joy. Joy! Nothing else. What else could it have been? And do you know when you experience something and tell a friend about the story and it can be quite striking, but when they tell their friends it’s a little less compelling, and the energy and enthusiasm and accuracy of the tale fades away in the retelling? That didn’t happen. How can that be? How can that be? The story sustained its persuasiveness. 

I’ll tell you how the Church understood this to have happened, and I can’t think of a better reason myself. Somehow the risen Jesus was making himself known to more and more people. Sure, there were some good storytellers out there who could tell quite a compelling tale about it all, but there was something else at work, there is something else at work, God’s very Spirit, making Jesus himself known to the hearers of this unbelievably good news. What other explanation could there be? I mean, the four Gospels are good, but between you and me, they’re not that good. Not good enough to sustain two thousand years of this movement’s growth. 

But you know this already, because you’re here this morning. You’re not here because someone told you that two thousand years ago a wise and plucky Jewish teacher died and rose again. No, you’re here because Jesus has made himself real to you in some way. Or because resurrection has made itself real to you in some way.

Because resurrection is something we’ve seen. We’ll witness it tomorrow as 36,000 Boston Marathon runners safely cross the finish line. We’ve seen it in the lives of sobered alcoholics, healed victims, the re-housed homeless. We’ve seen it in our own lives, how the inexplicable has come to pass anyway, and for our own good, however we understood it at the time. We’ve watched how our mistakes, our fears, our sins do not have the last word, that somehow lightning hasn’t struck and we are still living and breathing, thanks be to God. 

So if I may let me tell you what I know -- that God raised Jesus from the dead. Not in some metaphorical, hazy, figurative or poetical way. No. God raised Jesus from the dead. I trust this with all that I am. I know of no other explanation for the behavior of millions of thoughtful people over millennia, starting with those first flabbergasted disciples faced with an empty tomb. I know of no other way to explain my sense of Jesus’ loving presence in my life, reminding me again and again that I am not my fears, I am not my sins, but I am alive and loved and live in Christ, the Risen One. 
No, Easter is not like Christmas. Easter is unlike any other day, any other season, any other event recorded in the history of our people. My friends, the waiting is over. The hoping is over. The living has begun. Living our lives out from under the shadow of death. Living our lives free from the fear that enslaves. Beginning to live our lives in love, like the love we feel for those dearest to us, that kind of love, living our lives with that kind of love for everyone. 

The miracle of life, the miracle of the seed that dies deep in the earth so that it might grow, this miracle is what will feed us in the days, and weeks, and months ahead. The harvest is so plentiful. Be filled by it. Be filled by its joy. There is enough for all and then some. Even death cannot rob us, finally, of life in God, the One who loves us as much as Life itself. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Lenten Meditation on Resurrection

What does the resurrection have to do with Lent?  it’s jumping out at us with the story of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel and in the raising of Lazarus.  In Lent, resurrection is about suffering and hope.  

Resurrection begins with suffering -- it begins with those very many, very dry bones lying in the valley.  The valley was full of them.  Resurrection begins with a beloved friend who becomes unexpectedly ill and dies while we are away so that we cannot be near his side for his final breaths.  It begins with a teenager addicted to meth who can’t seem to shake the pull for another hit.  It begins with a Savior who teaches and heals but is still misunderstood so that he is tortured and crucified for his trouble.  Resurrection reaches down to the depths of our suffering and sits with us there.

Resurrection invites hope.   Ezekiel is shown the wasteland so that he might comprehend the sorrow buried there, and then is offered the chance to address the bony devastation with a powerful, prophetic word.  Could that word revive God’s people?  Family and friends of Lazarus gather to weep over a life ended too soon, and hear that Jesus is on his way.  He couldn’t still do something to help, could he? The drug-addicted teen, now in college, finally admits to a friend her inability to control herself and agrees to enter rehab. Is this the beginning of her road to recovery?  Disciples huddle in hidden chambers and remember together what Jesus said about rising again.  What did he mean?  Resurrection troubles our sense of certainty about what comes next.  It plants a seed of hope that cannot help but grow toward the light.  

Resurrection also tells us about God.  It tells us that God does not give up on us when we fail, when we let God and others down.  It tells us that there is much that we don’t understand about how the world works, that there is mystery here among us with real power.  It tells us that Love is no flimsy Hollywood concoction, but rather a tough-as-nails companion on life’s stony roads.  And God tells us about resurrection.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” declared Jesus.  What do we do with resurrection during Lent?  We pay attention to suffering, and we search for hope.

As some of us heard from Father Benedict at last Sunday’s forum, Lent is not a time to cause ourselves suffering  -- there is enough already in the world!  Instead, Lent is a time to pay more attention to suffering that already exists -- perhaps suffering we have yet to acknowledge in our own lives.  What in our own life causes us great pain?  And surely Lent challenges us also to notice anew the suffering around us.  What do we see in our family, in our community, in our country and across the globe that cuts us to the core?  

Church can help cultivate a fresh sensitivity to the pain of others: Holy Week is fast approaching  -- Our Lord’s suffering is soon upon us -- and our full participation in worship will help us cultivate new eyes to see the very many dry bones that surround us.  I invite you to clear your schedule as best you can for the evening of Maundy Thursday, all day on Good Friday, and all day on Holy Saturday.  Then join us at the Great Vigil of Easter that Saturday night.  These three days pack the whole Christian story into a strikingly moving drama.

Now God doesn’t want us to be only suffering spotters -- God calls us to search out the tiny seeds of hope buried deep within the earth of that dried-bone valley and deep within the tomb in that cave.  And here is why there is reason to hope: God is never the cause of suffering.  And here is another reason: God raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus is the resurrection, Jesus is the life.  Which means that our search for hope in life’s saddest, darkest places is really our search for Jesus among us.

That college student who ended up in rehab?  She didn’t have an easy go of it -- for the next twelve years she struggled to maintain her sobriety, falling and getting up again, praying even and sometimes often, winding her way into and out of church.  Addiction was no easy burden to bear.  When she ended up in jail overnight on an overdose, she prayed like she hadn’t before.  And she noticed Jesus beside her like she hadn’t before.  She discovered a new reason to hope that with God’s help, and with the help of a 12-step group, she could indeed remain sober.  She has, and last year a nearby church baptized her at the Easter Vigil.

There is no easier road ahead for her; baptism is no magic bullet; but she has new eyes now to see the world around her anew -- a world filled with great pain, and underneath, a thousand seeds struggling to the light.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Encounter, Story, Curiosity: Going Public in Epiphany

The process had started innocently enough.  Lily Myers, a 20-year old sophomore at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, wrote a quite personal poem about her family.  Then that poem, entitled “Shrinking Women,” won the 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational last April.  The three-minute video of her winning performance was posted on YouTube.  Over the summer, more people steadily watched the video.  Then a friend sent it to an alum who worked at the Huffington Post, one of the most popular online sources for news and cultural commentary.  The Post recommended it in October.  Then Upworthy, another popular online page, recommended it.  The video went viral and now has 3.5 million views.  Another hundred thousand this week alone.  For a poem.  By a college student.  A serious poem about gender stereotypes and body image.  On Monday, Robin Young of NPR’s Here and Now interviewed the poet, who’s still in shock.  She wrote a poem about an encounter with the truth that resonated deeply with her, and as she shared it, her story resonated deeply with others.  Lots and lots of others.

Now John the Baptist had been sent by God to baptize folks with water to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  He’d know who this was by a sign: when you see the Holy Spirit descend and remain on someone, that’s your man.  How much time passed between this divine insight and Jesus’ arrival?  Who knows?  But Jesus does arrive, and the Spirit does descend on him like a dove, and the public encounters with the Christ begin.  John, wide-eyed, becomes Christ’s first evangelist.  “Behold!  The Lamb of God!” John would cry out, pointing.  
When Jesus came back the next day, and when John blurted out his incredulous proclamation yet again, two of his disciples heard.  And followed Jesus out of the curiosity John’s story had kindled in them.  Who was this man?!  Seeking an encounter themselves with the Holy One, the Anointed One, the Christ, they scuffle slowly along the dusty path some distance behind Jesus until he turns around and says, “What are you looking for?”  And when Jesus invites them into his life, they remain the rest of the day.  Now these two ex-disciples of John are the wide-eyed ones.  Andrew runs back to the house to grab his brother Simon: “You’ve got to come and see!  We’ve found the Messiah!”  Simon runs to Jesus, and his encounter leaves him utterly changed.  Jesus marks this by changing his name to Peter.

And so it went: every encounter with Jesus, the Son of God, the eternal Word, God’s Truth incarnate, sent each person out to his or her friends and neighbors, coworkers and cousins with a new story.  These new stories kindled fresh curiosity that drew more and more people into an encounter with our Savior.  Encounter, story, curiosity -- encounter, story, curiosity -- encounter, story, curiosity: for two thousand years.  And here we are today.

Why are you here?  Did someone in your past tell you a story that kindled the curiosity that drew you near to God?  You sought then God in prayer, or in Scripture, or in an inspired conversation or in a startling act of compassion.  Do you now have a new story to tell?

Or are you here out of curiosity?  Have you heard a story of healing or forgiveness or love that seemed too good to be true?  Did someone tell you in all seriousness that God loves you no matter what?  If you’re curious, you’ve come to the right place: like John the Baptist, the Church has helped point people toward encounters with God for a long, long time.  It does this through its members and its Holy Scripture and through its sacraments.  So take that first step and introduce yourself to one of our members at the welcome table outside.  Join us at the rail for communion and taste holiness.  Walk to the healing station and receive a prayer for wholeness and health.

Or maybe you’ve done these things and you’re wondering what’s next.  Have you ever read a Bible story a few times and then imagined yourself as part of the story, perhaps observing from the back of the room as Jesus heals the paralyzed man or turns the wedding water into wine?  Scripture’s stories can also generate new curiosity that will lead us back into bright encounters with God.

And some of us here have already had an encounter or two with the holy, and we have stories to share, but we cannot tell them for they do not make sense to us and we’re sure they won’t make sense to others.  If that’s true for you, I’d like to invite you to participate in a wonderful experience of group discernment that we call our Listening Hearts ministry.  Over a few hours of your time on a Saturday God is present with you and a few trained and caring parishioners who are praying that the Spirit help you understand and articulate more clearly a truth already inside of you. In the silences and questions and even confusion, epiphanies emerge. I wonder what you might discover about yourself and about your encounters with the holy if you participated in a Listening Hearts session?

And such self-awareness can be very, very powerful.  Look at what some honest reflection by the college poet Lily Myers led to!  Indeed, it is stories that allure us, inspire us, and compel us to action.  Stories that mean something, that mean what they say because they come deep from within who we are.  Now is the time, during this season of Epiphany, the season of the Church that invites us to make known Christ to the world, that we might revisit our own story of faith, to remember and retell anew our treasured experiences of God-with-us.  God calls us to share these stories with those around us.  Curiosity will follow.

In this age of social media, sharing our stories is easier and more influential than ever.  As Christians, we represent Christ and the Church to the world.  How will we share, like, tweet, and otherwise send out our treasured stories into the world to God’s greater glory?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Remembering the Familiar

Text from a sermon delivered during the Christmas Eve family service

Welcome. Welcome to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We are delighted you are here with us on this holy night. 

But you’ve been here before. Well, maybe not this place, or if you have been to the Cathedral, maybe it’s been a while. Or maybe you’ve sat on another church’s wooden pews (or folding chairs, as the case may be), and smelled the piney wreaths, or stared at the stained glass. And even if you’ve never stepped foot into a church until now, you’ve still been here before. Because as a child you knew that something great was happening on this night. Something you couldn’t explain but felt with great certainty. Then you waited expectantly beside brothers and sisters or cousins for your parents to finish dinner or get out of bed the next morning so you could open a present; then you let the music of the season write its melodies deep within you; then you wondered on a cold, clear night just what that wild star over Bethlehem would have looked like. 

But you grew up, and like a shepherd you’ve roamed untamed hillsides and managed dangerous valleys trying your best to keep your flock and yourself together. It wasn’t easy, it isn’t easy. Some nights you awoke and only the great questions sat beside your bed. Other nights, you were surprised by the sense that God’s great Love wouldn’t let you go. 

And when the angels came dazzling white and powerful and pointing toward a small stable on the outskirts of town, you drew near to that place, relenting, and put down your pack and gazed on the face of the Christ Child, quiet and vulnerable and unspeakably holy, and you were undone. There, there, you have been there before. 

We have been here before, year after year, century after century, a people overcome by curiosity with the Child born two millennia ago. Come! Come closer and see! See his fingers tiny and perfect, his just-opened eyes. Hear a cow lowing, a sheep bleating, a donkey stomping. Take in the starlight radiating from this simple shelter, the relief on the face of the father, the calm love pouring forth from the mother. Warm your hands, wait for a nod from his parents, and place your fingers gently on his chest. Touch him. 

It is unsteadying this memory that is not just another story in a book, or even another reading from the Bible, this memory that already resides inside each of us, housed deep and waiting for us to return and be made strong yet again by its blessed food. Now it is time to feast together. 

In minutes we will invite the children to join us at the altar while we prepare the feast for God’s people. This is the feast of more than enough, the feast of plenty and then some, the feast that celebrates the day when God’s Son, God’s only Son, whom God loves, came to be among us. 

Our elders once said that a little child would lead us. Here he is, where we have been before, this place where a memory will not fade but will only grow, inviting us again and again into the mystery of God-with-us, into the dear truth that God loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine. It is the truth that rings out in golden, glorious song on this cold, clear night when we search, and find, a wild star within the cosmos, a hopeful Light within the darkness, the Christ Child in a bed of straw. 

We are never alone. God has been here before. To be with us. So come, young and old, and let us adore Him.