Sunday, June 11, 2017

And God Said it Was Good!

Sermon for Trinity Sunday – Year A RCL

June 11, 2017

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Today is Trinity Sunday.  A day where there is a great temptation on the part of preachers everywhere to do one of two – perhaps three things.  The first is to get someone else to preach!  After all that is why we have lay preachers right?  Perhaps if I was smart I would have asked someone else to preach today.  The second is to ignore the Trinity in the sermon entirely and the third might be to actually try to explain the doctrine of the trinity and why it matters in today’s society.  Which will almost inevitably lead down the road to heresy.  My favorite heresy in explaining the trinity is one called modalism.  It is where we look around us and find that matter operates in a Trinitarian nature and try to use that to explain God.  You know you are on thin ice when you start out saying "the trinity is like..."

When I took the General Ordination Examinations – or as some call it God’s Own Exam we were promised that the theology question would never ask us to explain the trinity.  Well… when the appointed hour came I refreshed the browser on my computer and up popped the question.
 “Dorothy Sayers famously observed that if people depended upon the Church to answer the question, "What is the Trinity?" the vast majority of people would respond:
"'The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.' Something put in by the theologians to make it more difficult - nothing to do with daily life or ethics."
Drawing on the allowed resources and your own understanding, write an essay of approximately 1,500 words explaining how the doctrine of the Trinity is relevant to "daily life or ethics."
As you might guess a collective gasp could be heard from everyone scattered around the seminary who were taking the exam.  And perhaps there where a few expletives uttered as well.  After all we were promised that we would never have to explain the trinity on the GOEs!

I will save you the torture of reading you my paper.  I will just say that it was the only question that I almost did not get completed in time and it was the only question that I did not do so well on.  So perhaps that makes me completely unqualified to preach today and I really should have asked someone else.

In the years since that fateful exam I have come to the conclusion that we really miss the mark when we try to explain God.  We as humans are always trying to come up with explanation for things.  We are not comfortable with the mystery and so we need something to hang onto.  I think that is why it is hard for some folk to grasp the nature of God the Holy Spirit.  She is too nebulous for us.  A wind and fire. A driving force that flows through us.  Much easier to understand Jesus – the divine taking on human form and walking among us.  It is so much easier to comprehend God the Father – the creator. We can visualize something called a father.  And then when we try to explain how they can all be one God.  Well that is where we loose people – or head straight into heresy.  The doctrine of the trinity is one that was created to try and help the church explain how we experience God and how we relate to God.  It is only relevant to todays society when it drives us out to do mission.  It is only relevant when we let the trinity work through us to usher in God’s dream.

Which is what we are being commanded to do in our lessons today.  In the story of creation in Genesis we have God creating all of creation. As the spirit moves upon the waters of creation all things come into being.  And in relationship with each other God declares that all of creation is Good.  Humanity being created in the image of God is then asked to take care of that good creation.  To be stewards of the creation in relationship with that creation and in relationship with God. 

In the Gospel from Matthew we hear the Great Commission. This is the end of the Gospel and the resurrected Jesus is giving his disciples – both then and now a commandment and a promise.  The commandment is that we are to actively go out and make disciples of the nations.  Making disciples is an active verb.  It is not a passive thing.  We are commanded to go out and make.

And I think it is important here to note that we are not to go out and conquer nations.  That is not the command.  Jesus says we are to spread and follow his commandments as we go forth.  And to recruit other people to follow his commandments.  There are no commandments of Jesus about forcibly making people do things.  If we look at how Jesus recruited his followers it was not with the threat of eternal damnation if they did not follow.  It was with the grace of healing – with words like “your faith as made you whole”  It was with the simple words – Come.  Follow me.  Jesus’ desire was to recruit people to get all of creation back into relationship with creation and with God.  And Jesus demonstrated that to make disciples happens not through force or coercion but through reconciliation and through love. 

The promise in the Great Commission is that Jesus – that God – will be with us always.  Not that we have to invoke God to appear when we find it convenient but that God is always with us.  And with God in us and working through us we are asked to reconcile, heal and love.  We are called to go out of our selves and out of our churches into our neighborhood and into our workplaces and with God in us change society.  Bring creation back into balance.  We are called to be good stewards of Gods creation and see it all as Good. 

What kind of difference would it make in our lives if we recognized the presence of God working through us in everything we did?  What if we started every action with “in the name of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit” or if you prefer “God – creator, reconciler, redeemer” before we acted?  If we did that it would be hard to do some of the hurtful things that happen around us. 

Oh I know humanity has started wars and mistreated all of creation in the name of God.  But I am talking about making the realization that God is part of all of us and in all of us.  Those who invoke God to hurt and destroy do it by ignoring the God in all of creation.  It really is not possible to follow Christ and say in the name of God I hate God!  You can’t call someone an abomination if you recognize that they too have God with them and within them. Because then you are really calling God an abomination.  Think about it.  If we are following the great commandment to love God and Love neighbor and Love ourselves we can’t honestly invoke God to hate. 

Because our God from the beginning of creation saw that it was Good.  Saw that creation is loved.  God created a creation in relationship and in balance and through time we – as the God given stewards of creation have destroyed relationships and destroyed the balance.  And God’s dream and commandment is for us – with God in us – is to recreate that balance.  To return to God’s economy where all of creation is nurtured and all of creation is good.

We are called and commissioned to show the world that God’s dream is one of peace, reconciliation and love.  It is a dream where we can truly look around us and at our neighbor – and like God did at the beginning of creation say it is Good.  This creation of God’s is very good.  And we are called as stewards to spread that goodness by going out into our neighborhoods and into our workplaces and help to turn society back right side up!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Opening the Locked Room

Sermon for Pentecost – Year A RCL

June 4, 2017

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Happy Birthday!  Today is frequently referred to as the birthday of the church.  There is a little Sunday School Hymn that got stuck in my head this week that commemorates today – and perhaps it is one that you remember from sometime in your past.  It's lyrics go “Pentecost, Whitsunday, you may call it what you may – it’s the church’s birthday”  We call it the  church’s birthday because it is the day when we remember the Holy Spirit descending onto the disciples driving them out of the locked room.  For there would never be a church if they stayed cowered in fear in the locked room!  They needed to have God drive them out to do mission.  They had to have God get their attention in a way that somehow the appearance of Jesus after his crucifixion did not do. 

In this year’s lectionary we hear two different versions of a Pentecost story.  In the Gospel of John Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples on the first day of the week after his resurrection.  And commissions them for ministry.  And the rest of the Gospel of John documents the disciple’s encounters with the Risen Lord.  With Thomas, who was not in the room at the time, then we have the interaction between Jesus and the disciples on the beach – where most famously Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter Loves him.  But we do not see the disciples going out and interacting with the people. And so we have the account in the Act of the Apostles. 

As we set the scene the disciples are back in the locked room.  They are still trying to figure out what they are to do.  First Jesus is crucified but then they encounter the risen Lord on several occasions but now they saw him go.  They are scared, unsure, and even with the commissioning we read in the Gospel of John just not sure how to become what Jesus asked them to become.  So in comes the Holy Spirit.

I have heard the Holy Spirit referred to as the “shy member” of the Holy Trinity.  Perhaps people think she is shy because she is hard to comprehend.  As people who frequently anthropomorphize almost everything it is easy to picture the other two members of the trinity – Jesus – who walked with the disciples on this earth, and the imagery of God the Father fits well with our world view – a human father figure with a great flowing white beard – although scripture is clear that God’s Glory is so great that it is beyond comprehension.  But for many the imagery of God sitting on a mountain with a great flowing white beard is comforting. 

But what are we to make of the Holy Sprit – a rush of wind that settled on the disciples like flames.  Not comforting imagery.  So we put the Holy Spirit into the realm of the incomprehensible and call her shy.  But my friends I am here to tell you that she is anything but shy.  And as my advisor Susana Singer said in her sermon at my ordination two years ago – we invoke her at our own peril!  For this is the Holy Sprit that broke through into the hearts of the disciples and finally drove them out of the locked room.  I see, in my over visually oriented brain – the one that seems to have many reels of Technicolor film that will load and play at a moments notice – I see the great wind of God coming in and blowing the locked doors right off of their hinges.  Literally blowing the doors apart.  So there was no more door to lock and hide behind.

The Spirit then literally drove the Disciples out into the streets to start preaching God’s dream of a society filled with Love and respect for all of God’s creation.  Gave them the gift of language and the people the gift of hearing so that they heard the message in their own native tongues.  It was not a neat Episcopal event that started with a glorious hymn and some respectable readings.  It was an event that was so disrupting that some of the bystanders accused the disciples of being filled with new wine – of being drunk early in the morning.  And drunk they were – on God the Holy Spirit.  Driven out of safety into mission and ministry.

Now if you think the Holy Spirit was done with disrupting lives on the first Pentecost I can tell you that this is not the case.  The Holy Spirit is still active amongst us and is always trying to get our attention.  We just choose all too often to ignore her pleas to go out.  The pleas to spread God’s dream into an upside down society that is hurting and in need of healing.  And sometimes she still blows the hinges off our comfortable lives. 

As many of you know I was called to the priesthood out of this congregation.  It was a long journey that was not linear in any way.  It was a journey that had the Holy Spirit pursuing me for many decades but I had many excuses to heeding her call.  I was not worthy.  The church would not accept a gay man living in a committed relationship.  I am a scientist for heavens sake.  I will work to bring in Gods kingdom through the protection of our natural resources.

Excuses and reasons abounded. But this church made my armor crack.  First when members of the Parish Commission on Ministry looked at me as St. Paul’s was looking at a total ministry model – I think it was Jane Omnes who said “What about you – we think you are called to ordained ministry”.  And then tentative steps towards that possibility that ended in a statement from the diocesan discernment weekend that they sensed a strong call but they were not ready for me.  The timing was not right. 

So I polished up my armor – put it back on.  Replaced the hinges that had been damaged and retreated to my locked room and continued lay ministry among the good people of St. Paul’s.  And every time our Bishop invited me to re-enter the process I had more excuses.  I was not ready.

But the Holy Spirit was not taking my “no” for an answer.  As I attended an ordination service the great wind of the Holy Sprit entered into my locked room and found the real excuse – that I was hurt and was nurturing that hurt– and with her refining fire burned it right then.  A process that left me in tears.  And a few weeks later – when Bishop Beisner had his first official visitation to St. Paul’s – no fewer than six people, culminating with the bishop, asked me between the 8:00 and 10:00 services when I would enter the process toward ordination again.  At the end I realized that the Holy Spirit was calling in the troops and I said yes.  I was ready. 

It was not an easy thing going to seminary – to grad school, after so many years working. The process was not one without a few speed bumps.  But it was one that was filled with the Holy Spirit dismantling my armor.  It was one of thrusting me out to do God’s work.  It was not always comfortable but there was always the companion – the Holy Spirit. God with me. God in me.  And here I am today on this the second liturgical anniversary of celebrating my first Eucharist.

Today we remember the powerful – not shy – member of the Holy Trinity.  We put on our crash helmets and buckle our seatbelts.  Because we are not called by god to sit in comfortable seats and retreat to locked rooms.  We are called by God to go out and turn society right side up.  We are called to sit with those no one will sit with.  We are called to have lunch with people who have no place to go.  We are called to usher in a different economy.  An economy that does not put the one with the most on the top but an economy that values all of God’s creations and pays special attention to those that our human economy would just as soon leave on the trash pile. 

We are called not to a comfortable locked room but to go out.  We are called to join the disciples out in the world spreading God’s dream of love.  And unfortunately there is not a promise that we will always be in comfortable situations.  In fact God never promised that bringing God’s dream to fruition would be easy.  In fact Jesus told us it would be hard.  Because people in power don’t like to relinquish that power. 

The good news is that God the Holy Sprit will always with us.  We will always have a companion in our ministry.  When we let down our defenses we will find that she is always with us.  Drawing us out to do ministry.  Accompanying us on our journeys – and when needed blowing the hinges off our locked doors and using her refining fire to melt the prison bars that sometimes keep us in our locked rooms.

So be ready.  We are once again invoking the power of the Holy Spirit in this place.  We are asking her to once again blow the locks off our locked rooms.  And while you may think you are safe from all this talk of the Holy Spirit I can promise you one thing.  She is nothing if not persistent and she will pursue each and every one of us until we say yes.  She will pursue each of us and drive us out of our locked rooms to turn society right side up.  And the Holy Spirit will be there to both drive us out and to comfort us as we do God’s work in our world.  As we work with God to bring about a society that Loves all people, respects all people, feeds all people, and takes care of this fragile earth as God’s stewards.

Come Holy Spirit!  Inflame our hearts!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Spirit of Truth - the Advocate

Sermon for Easter 6A – RCL

May 21, 2017

Jesus said, ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

The Reading today is more from Jesus’ “farewell discourse”.  Jesus has just washed the feet of the disciples, Judas Iscariot has left to betray him and Jesus has given us a new commandment – to love one another as Jesus loves us.  Jesus then goes on to say that if we keep his commandments then he will send another Advocate to be with us for all time.  And that advocate is the Spirit of truth.

Notice that Jesus says that we will receive another advocate – “another” because Jesus has been the advocate while he walked in human form among us.  Jesus was the advocate who came to show us that God’s dream is one where we do love one another.  Jesus came and showed us that God’s love for humankind will not end – not ever.  Even when mankind tried to kill that love on a cross the love of God refused to die.  And even goes so far as to promise the third person of the trinity – the Holy Spirit – will walk among us forever and remind us that we are never alone.

The Spirit of God’s truth – that same spirit that hovered over the waters at the time of creation will be with us at all times.  That is the promise in this gospel.  And all we have to do is to keep Jesus commandments.  We are to love God and love our neighbor.  Simple enough – or is it.  Sometimes it is not too easy to love our neighbor.  Sometimes our neighbors do things that make them very unlovable.  Sometimes our society seems to be so out of whack that it makes it impossible to love our neighbors.

And sometimes because of all the turmoil in our lives we feel abandoned and alone.  The good news is that even when we feel abandoned by society and those around us we have the Spirit with us.  And I admit the promise of this nebulous thing we call the Advocate of truth is not easy to grasp.  We would rather have the embodied God, Jesus, to walk along side us.  We can understand a companion in flesh and blood. 

But the spirit?  How is that comforting?  I for one have a strong theology of the spirit.  I believe that the spirit is manifested in many forms.  Sometime it is in the form of the friend who is always your companion.  The friend who will tell you when something is not right.  The friend that loves you no matter what you do.  The friend that knows when to just walk by your side in silence – the friend you know you can reach out to no matter what.

At times we feel like we have no one – that the world has abandoned us but if we sit still and open our hearts to the presence of the God we will discover that the Holy Spirit is there.  And sometimes we discover that she has been trying to get our attention for years.  Because she is nothing if not persistent in trying to break through our barriers to show us that we are loved.  

I have has some very strong experiences of the Holy Spirit moving in my life.  In one instance – when I was a lay preacher – I was scheduled to preach during the summer.  The Gospel was the feeding of the five thousand.  I spent the week before preparing for that sermon and had an outline all ready to go.  And then the Holy Spirit showed up and everything was turned on its head. 

On that Friday I came home and in the mail was “The Missionary” – the former monthly newsletter of the diocese.  The cover story was titled “A voice for the Voiceless.“  It was the account of a young man who committed suicide because he was gay.  The article was written by his friends who had not known the despair that this young man had entered into.  I was moved to tears when I read the article.

The next morning I sat down with my outline to write my sermon on the feeding of the five thousand and instead a very different sermon came out.  I sat down and in under 30 minutes I wrote a sermon on the sin of exclusion.  How words indeed hurt and can even kill.  As I wrote that sermon I reached for reference books and opened them to the exact page that had quotes that fit perfectly.

When I was done I read the sermon and thought – who wrote this?  It wasn’t me.  It was certainly a powerful expression of God’s love to all of us.  A sermon on keeping the commandment to love God and Love our neighbor.  It was a sermon written with the Holy Spirit pouring through me.  It was one of the most powerful feelings of God being present in my life that I have ever felt.  God the Spirit – the Advocate – flowing though me and being present to add another voice to the voiceless.  The promise that no matter what happens – whatever horrors society presents the advocate will be with us.

Catherine Keller – a theologian and professor wrote in her book “On the Mystery” that “Whatever horrors we as a species perpetrate against the earth and all its populations, the spirit in process continues to call us towards the “new heaven and earth”: the renewal of creation.”[i]  The Spirit moves though each of us when we Love God and Love our neighbors pushing us to bring God’s dream of Love to this earth. 

The Advocate is with so that we are not alone.  The Advocate is with us to push us to express God’s Love to all of creation.  The Advocate is with us so that we can be ensured of the promise that we are never alone.  That we are never un-loved.  That is the promise Jesus made to his disciples before he was crucified.  That is the promise that God makes to us.

Oh – and just a cautionary note.  When we open our hearts and bodies to the Sprit of God please remember to have your crash helmets ready and hold on tight.  Because the Advocate will show us God’s love and will push us to show God’s love to a society in ways that we may never have dreamed of.  The Sprit will move us to go out and bring God’s dream of Love to this earth in ways we never expected.

May the Holy Sprit be with each of us and move us to show that we are never alone.  To show the world that God so loves all of God’s creation so much that he sent the Spirit of Truth, the advocate to be with us always. 

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!

[i] Keller, Catherine – On the Mystery pg 165