Sermon for Holy Cross Day

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Sermon for Holy Cross Day

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Holy Cross Day
September 14, 2018

‘He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.’

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is, I think, an innate desire within us as humans to mark places of significance. We do so in part to ensure that we do not forget things that should not be forgotten. This impulse to mark place is especially powerful for those we consider holy. Examples from Scripture abound. The book of Genesis tells us that following his vision of a ladder extending to heaven Jacob takes the rock on which he had laid his head, sets it up as a pillar, pours oil over it, and marks it, believing it to be none other than the ‘house of God and the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:17). In a similar way, after Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan River he takes twelve rocks from the river and sets them up as a monument to mark that spot as the place where God had led the Israelites to safety (Joshua 4:20-22). The monument was to remind the Israelites, their children, and their children’s children that the Lord had provided and protected them in the past and would continue to do so in the future.

The origins of the feast we celebrate today, Holy Cross Day, emerge from this same desire expressed by early Christians to mark holy places, especially those associated with the events of the life of Jesus. In the early fourth century the fortunes of the fledgling Christian movement were radically changed with the decision of the Emperor Constantine to extend religious tolerance to Christians in the Roman Empire. This decision would, within a very short period of time, shift Christianity from the religion of an often persecuted minority to the religion of the establishment. According to tradition, a few years after Constantine’s declaration of tolerance for Christians his mother Helena went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem during which time she discovered the True Cross, the remnants of the very cross on which Jesus had been crucified. An order was soon issued by Constantine and his mother Helena that a grand church be built over this site in Jerusalem believed to be the place where Christ was crucified. Nine years later the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated, with a portion of the True Cross remaining in the new church.

This church, for obvious reasons, soon became a place of great devotion and pilgrimage for Christians, especially during Holy Week, that period in which the Church remembers the passion of our Lord. One of the most valuable accounts of early Christian worship comes from the diary of a Spanish nun named Egeria who traveled to Jerusalem in the late fourth century, just a few decades after Helena is said to have found the True Cross, and recorded her experiences of the Holy Week liturgies in the city. On Good Friday the faithful came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to the very place believed to be the site of our Lord’s crucifixion, for worship. At the core of this liturgy was the veneration of the True Cross, a time for the faithful to come and kiss the wood of the cross on which our Lord was believed to have sweat, bleed, and ultimately died. Egeria’s account of this liturgy notes that the bishop sat in a chair holding the True Cross for the faithful to venerate so as to ensure that no one would attempt to steal it. Deacons attended the bishop and were charged with ensuring that none of the worshippers attempted to bite the cross and secure even a tiny portion of it. This act of devotion clearly held enormous power for the faithful of late fourth century Jerusalem.

Those of you who have journeyed through Holy Week here at Christ Church may recognize some similarity between the practice of late fourth century Jerusalem and our own here at Christ Church. It was, in fact, Egeria’s writing that helped to spread this practice of veneration of the cross across the Christian Church. Though undeniably filled with great power, this act of devotion also reveals the depths of the mystery and paradox that is the cross. I was deeply struck by this realization on Good Friday. As we made our way toward that cross situated under the rood screen, as we fell to our knees and bowed down in worship, I was overcome by the power and indeed the absurdity of this act of devotion. I realized that there was nothing else in this world to which I would bow down in such a way. As if for the first time, I realized that we came to venerate an instrument of death. Yet even still I knew that we also came to bow in awe and wonder at the saving power of that cross and the incomprehensibility of God’s love for us.

The great mystery and paradox of the cross is well described in the beautiful language of today’s epistle reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s widely believed that this passage was a pre-existing hymn that St. Paul incorporated into his letter to the church at Philippi. This Christ hymn extols Jesus’ self-emptying death on the cross. Though in the form of God, Jesus willingly humbled himself, becoming human. He humbled himself even more still, for he, of his own accord, willingly submitted himself to death, to a humiliating, brutal, and painful death on a cross. But the story does not end there. An instrument of brutality becomes the means of our salvation, humbling to the point of death becomes an exaltation to glory, the way of death is transformed into the way of life. This, St. Paul reminds us, is the paradox of the cross. This, St. Paul exhorts us, is the mind we are to have.

Jesus knew his journey would lead to the cross– to humiliation and death. And so in today’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to some Greeks who had come to the Passover festival to worship telling them, ‘and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ That is an image of perfect love– Christ our Lord nailed to the cross and raised up, drawing all people to himself. This image has particular power for those who worship in this space. The magnificent rood that so captures and demands your attention when you enter this space reminds us of Christ’s crucifixion and of his drawing all people to himself. Look with me at his hands. You might be able to see that they aren’t completely nailed to the cross. They are outstretched and open. They are reaching out, drawing people toward him. Jesus reaches out with words that say: come to me and bring your sufferings and pains; come to me and bring the deepest longings of your heart; I will take away your sins, no matter how terrible you think they may be; come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. There is something about the intensity of this divine love, something about being confronted with the fierceness with which God loves us, with the brutality and violence of the cross and Jesus’ suffering that disarms us. It is not comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. And so the temptation to avoid the cross is always present. We may attempt to speak of love as if it were a cheap, easy, or convenient thing. We can try to avoid the cost of love and the reality of the cross, but we cannot escape it. For the cross is at the very heart of the Christian story. It is the fullest revelation of God’s love for us. Perhaps the only thing we can do in the face of such incomprehensible love is bow down and worship.

For nearly 1700 years pilgrims have journeyed to Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, drawn by the power of that site’s believed connection with the True Cross and the passion of our Lord. Perhaps some of you have already or will someday be able to make that holy journey, but for most of us that is not a reality. This feast is, of course, about so much more than the commemoration of the dedication of a grand church. In some parts of the Church this day is known as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This name seems to best capture the power and paradox of this day. An instrument of death becomes the means of our salvation and the path to life. We need not visit any place of significance to experience that power. We know its power because we bear that very sign on our foreheads in baptism. Whenever we mark ourselves with the cross we are reminded of the self-emptying humility of the one who hung upon it and are empowered to follow his way. And so we glory in the cross of Christ, and praise and glorify his holy resurrection; for by virtue of his cross joy has come to the whole world. May we be people foolish enough to believe it, and may God give us grace to take up our own cross and follow in the way of the one who emptied himself for the life of the world.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Cost of Relationship

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The Cost of Relationship

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There’s a story that friend of mine tells about a third friend--it’s several degrees removed, so it may not be exactly as I relate it--but it’s a useful story for me, and so I like to revisit it occasionally. I hope you’ll indulge me.

A priest and parishioner--we’ll call them Charlie and Dorothy--were traveling from the South to New York via train for a conference. Charlie was well-beloved, and Dorothy was the sort of parishioner that we might call a pillar of the community. She was chair of the altar guild, she served on the vestry, and she coordinated the casserole ministry of the parish, taking food to shut ins and the bereaved. St Saviours Church couldn’t run without Charlie, so he thought, but the parishioners really knew it was Dorothy that kept the whole thing running. She was on every committee there was. She did it all. And so they headed off to the conference in New York, and when they arrived at Penn Station, they came out to hail a cab on Sixth Avenue and, predictably, someone came up and asked them for money. The priest, wise to the world, waived the man away, but the parishioner, a generous, well-heeled woman, pulled out of her purse a fifty dollar bill and gave it to the man, who slipped away as quickly as he’d come.

Fr Charlie, a worldly and wise man, was shocked to see what Dorothy had done, and he upbraided her: “Dorothy, why did you give that money to that man? Don’t you know what he’s going to do with it?” But Dorothy replied with a wry smile, “Father, that may be the case, but I am not on that committee!”

Dorothy was able to give without concern for how her gift would be used--without anxiety about what came next. She did what she could, and she didn’t worry about the thing she couldn’t control.

Now, there are lots of reasons to give and not to give money when folks ask for it on the street, and there’s no one right answer to whether or not to respond for a request for money. Each of us has to discern what’s right for us--what we can, or what we should, do.

But I love this story because it shows Dorothy in the most nonanxious way. She did what she could do, and she left the rest alone. She’s not on that committee. She’s not in charge of what the man decides to do with her gift.

This is not how I usually operate. This is not how I respond to great need. Maybe part of why I like the story is the freedom that Dorothy exhibits. I generally get anxious, frustrated, sometimes even angry, when I’m presented with a need that I cannot meet, a thing that I cannot fix. And I have to work hard to back up and really see the situation--to identify what I can do, and what I can’t. To try to love the person who’s asking, even in the most complicated situations--and to also love myself enough to admit where my limits are.

Maybe I am on the committee and shouldn’t be, but that’s where I am sometimes.

The needs of the world can feel overwhelming sometimes, and I want to step back, to take a break, to escape.

I wonder if Jesus ever felt that way. We hear over and over again in the gospels about Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place; of Jesus moving on when the crowds grew too large; of Jesus going off alone, or with only his disciples. And today’s gospel is no exception:

He’s crossed the sea of Galilee several times, he’s fed the five thousand, the crowds have followed him, and he’s headed northwest from the sea of Galilee to the city of Tyre, on the shore of the Mediterranean, a couple of days’ journey away. He goes to a house there, and scripture is clear that he wants to avoid notice. He wants to retreat. He wants to be left alone, if just for a moment. (Mark 7:24)

But a Syrophoenician woman, that is, a gentile, someone who is not Jewish, seeks him out and finds him and asks him to heal her daughter.

Jesus’s words are harsh: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (27)

Her response, which we say in the words of our own Prayer of Humble Access in the communion service, echo down through the millennia: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (28)

And her persistence pays off. Her unwavering faith is rewarded. Jesus assures her that her daughter has been healed. The woman leaves and returns to her daughter, and it’s true. She is indeed healed.

There are many things to commend this passage to our hearing, not the least of which is the Syrophoenician woman’s persistence. Even though she’s an outsider, not a member of one of the tribes of Israel, even when she is spoken to harshly, she perseveres and asks Jesus for what she needs. She believes that Jesus, whom she’s never met, can heal her daughter. And she’s right. We can learn something from her courage, her persistence, her faith.

And, I suspect, this outsider status is part of why the story is included in the gospels. We learn from her persistence that even the gentiles, even those outside of the tribes of Israel, are included in Jesus’s reconciling work--that all are welcome, all are valued, all are whole in the kingdom of God. This is an important message that our world needs to hear; after all, we are the gentiles--we are the outsiders in every way--that are included in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,” we pray before receiving communion, usually in this parish during Lent.

It’s important to note this broadening out of the gospel--that all are included, even the unexpected foreigner, the outsider, the gentile--and that we must model our own lives on this principle of radical hospitality. That we are called by Jesus to seek out the other and find our common humanity--to recognize that all are beloved of God.

But I’m also interested in Jesus’s complicated words.

It seems to me that, traveling to a port city, a Roman city, a city that’s not particularly Jewish, Jesus shouldn’t have been surprised to meet a gentile woman. Wouldn’t there have been more Syrophoenicians in Tyre? Is it possible that Jesus and his followers from Galilee would have been the outsiders?

Without having been there, it’s hard to understand the exact context of the exchange.

But Jesus’s frustration is not hard to recognize. And maybe it’s not so hard to understand.

He is trying to withdraw, to keep away from the crowds, to take a break perhaps--maybe to rest--and the needs of the world keep coming, like a wave, a force he cannot escape.

It’s not fair! Jesus actually says. A woman he’s never met, that he has no connection to, that isn’t even Jewish, hunts him down in the house where he’s hiding. “He could not escape notice,” scripture says.

And Jesus is frustrated.

And he heals her daughter.

I don’t know the particulars of the situation; I don’t know how Jesus was feeling at the moment. I only know the brief encounter as it’s reported in the gospel texts. But I know that the woman’s daughter was healed.

When Jesus comes near, there is healing and wholeness. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when the needs of the world are overwhelming. Even in the hard places there is healing with Jesus.

I’m curious about why we expect Jesus to be nice all the time. If Jesus is fully human, as we are, surely there are moments his physical body needs rest--moments his spirit needs a space to stop and reflect. And yet also fully divine, he is always about the work of his Father’s kingdom--love, reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. Even in the midst of the chaos of the world’s great need--especially in that place--Jesus is saving.

Is it possible that, unlike Doris, who could give away money to someone she’d never met with no anxiety whatsoever, that Jesus is genuinely grieved by the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman? Is it possible that he is genuinely frustrated and saddened by the plight of her daughter? That he is also frustrated and saddened that he has to give up a moment of peace, a moment of quiet, a moment of rest and reflection to dive back into the world’s broken places, to confront again the powers of fear and death, and to bring hope and life even in the midst of a fallen world?

Because that’s where Jesus eventually ends up. We hear in the garden of Gethsemane that Jesus prays that the cup of his crucifixion might pass--but it does not, and he goes, sinless victim, to an execution, to step again into the breach, to die, but also to rise--to proclaim that life conquers, that love is all there is.

One of the problems of this story of the Syrophoenician woman for me is that it confronts my sanitized view of God’s saving work--of the life of Jesus--that makes it seem easy for Jesus to do the work of salvation.

There is a cost to the work of healing, of wholeness, of reconciliation--there is a cost to salvation.

Jesus bears it on the cross.

He bears it in this moment of healing, even as he gives up a very human need--all he wants is a little time apart.

Why would we expect anything different?

In our relationships, in our lives, we may want things to be clean, comfortable, well-ordered, and there’s nothing wrong with that desire--and it’s wonderful when things can be. But we needn’t be surprised, when we really get in relationship with the world, that we may see things that aren’t as we wish they were. When we see pain and suffering that alarms and saddens us. That our own lives may be made a little more inconvenient when we reach out to others whom we may not even know in love.

And that’s okay.

Let’s don’t make the mistake of avoiding the hard places, avoiding the uncomfortable relationships--let’s not make the mistake of distancing ourselves from difficult things because it seems too hard, or too painful.

God promises that the eyes of the blind shall open, the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, the lame will leap like a deer, and even the mute will sing in the chorus of salvation that is God’s redeeming work. All of creation will be healed and whole.

And we know it’s true because we have seen Jesus risen. We know the empty tomb.

So let’s get involved with the world around us. Let’s go out in hope and courage. And let us not be afraid of the cost of relationship with the person who is different, who is other, who is full of need. For Christ has already paid the cost, and he walks with us into those difficult places, bringing health, healing, and salvation.

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A God So Near

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A God So Near

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?

 For ancient Israel, the knowledge that God seeks to be close to those who follow God’s commandments, who obey the law, is a sign of God’s faithfulness. It’s a sign of God’s constant presence and involvement in human life.

For Ancient Israel, in freedom or bondage, at home or exile, in peace or chaos, God is present. The God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, seeks to be nearby. In a burning bush, in a pillar of fire, in the spreading of the sea, God is present.

For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?

 The manifestation of Jesus as the messiah, as the Son of God, expands the scope of God’s desire to be nearby. While God chose Israel to be a beacon for the world, the light that shines through Israel cannot be contained by a sole nation or a single people. There is no doubt that God’s holy covenant with the Jewish people remains intact, and at the same time, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God makes a new covenant with the world. A covenant that invites all of creation into union with God. A covenant, a promise from God that grants us who follow Christ a new identity. An identity that cannot be limited by any human standards. Neither by nationality, class, or status. An identity that seeks to unite us, even across our differences.

After all, our differences are in fact a good thing. I give thanks to God that I don’t belong to a Church filled with 2.2 billion versions of myself. God’s new covenant in Christ, affirms what has already been revealed to ancient Israel – you and I have a God so near that he is able to hear us when we call.

Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, compares this morning’s text from Deuteronomy to the words of the Psalmist who proclaims, “God is near to all who call upon him, to all who invoke him in truth. (Psalm 145:18).

Professor Levenson goes on to write, “The Psalmist appears to be saying that the presence of God does not depend upon one’s location, but upon one’s willingness to call him from a stance of truth. However, the Deuteronomistic homilist goes further. He implies that God’s ubiquity, [God’s faithful presence,] differentiates him from the would-be gods of the nations [that surrounded ancient Israel], who are not able to draw near in answer to the call of the heart because they are somehow spatially confined.”

Our God is not only capable to hear our prayers of gratitude and supplications, our shouts of joy and our deep cries, but God desires to hear our voice. God desires to hear us for our voice is a sweet melody to God. Our God is not some abstract and impersonal being, somewhere out there, detached from us and from this present reality.

Our God is here.

Our God is made known to us in the physical world. As Christians, God is made known to us in Jesus, who in the words of Saint Thomas, is our Lord and our God.

As some of you know, I’ve had the chance to visit Cuba twice since 2017. A truly unique place to be a Christian. It is probably the only country in the entire Western hemisphere in which being a Christian is not the norm. Yes, this modern reality in Cuba is tied to the communist government’s pledge to a militant atheism, and a once proactive and even violent persecution of the Church.

In 1961, the Episcopal Church in Cuba was left with eight out of its 43 clergy, and with no Bishop. Most of the Church’s clergy fled for the United States and Europe, while some were arrested. Over 80% of its laity fled or fell in line with the government.

But those remaining eight clergy and the small handful of laity, carried the Episcopal Church in Cuba as it operated on the margins of the empire and facing near extinction.

Just a month ago, I was with a growing and vibrant Episcopal Church in Cuba. Surrounded by screaming teenagers and children running around in a field. Surrounded by mothers and grandmothers who for decades preserved the words of the Lord’s Prayer if just in their families. Surrounded by young men and women committed to serve as leaders for the Church of God.

While their earthly nation has condemned and persecuted them for their faith, they know they belong to a greater nation. Empires, kingdoms, governments, and nations have persecuted countless Christians who are now numbered among the noble army of martyrs. Now belonging to a greater nation than this world has ever seen or could ever produce.

As we journey ahead through this thing called the Christian life, let us not forget that our identity is defined by water. Through the waters of baptism, we affirm our status as children of God, and we claim our citizenship as members of the Body of Christ, that mystic sweet communion that challenges and frightens scribes, empires, and rulers.

For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?

Thanks be to God who gives us the Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Words of Eternal Life

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Words of Eternal Life

The Rev'd Deacon Armando Ghinaglia
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Today as we commission our new Saint Hilda’s House interns and welcome back new and returning students, I urge you all: please don’t read too much into this! You just got here!

But in all seriousness, we are thrilled to have you all here, to worship together in this place, and to share in the work that God has given us to do in this city and beyond.

Going back to our gospel reading for today, I want to draw our attention to that short exchange between Jesus and Saint Peter at the end, because I think it illustrates for us the way that thinking about eternal life bears on the way that we move through our lives, here and now.

Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Peter must not have been a stranger to the way that the world bombards us with countless messages about how to live forever—or at least look like we will. Go to the gym and eat organic, and you’ll find happiness and health. Do these 10 things and avoid these 12 things, and you’ll find love and friendship. Study this subject and pursue that career, and you’ll find comfort and meaning.

But what the world offers us is often fleeting. A relationship we expect to last falls to pieces. A hope we dream of for years is dashed by tragedy. Minds and bodies we take for granted fail us, and someday, we will all die.

Peter claims he has found something more than this. He has found lasting happiness and health, love and meaning, in the words of Christ. Peter has found the words, not just of life, but of life everlasting.

What are these words of eternal life? These words that are lamps to our feet and lights to our path? Words that are sweet to our taste, sweeter than honey to our mouth?

What are these words that run swiftly from pole to pole? That strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees? That revive our weary souls and delight our fearful hearts?

In the mid-1930s, Pastor Paul Schneider spent years protesting against the violence and immorality of the Nazi regime. He was arrested and interrogated several times for his preaching but continued, despite his friends’ protests, arguing that his job was to prepare others for eternal life. In 1937, Schneider began working to excommunicate active Nazi party members from his church, which earned him two months in jail and a stern warning to leave the area and not return, or else. After his release, Schneider spent two months with his wife and family before coming back to his congregation in October 1937. Some parishioners who welcomed him at their home told him they feared for his life and urged him to flee. Schneider recited Jesus’ words later in the gospel of John: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  The next month, Schneider was arrested by police and sent to the newly-opened Buchenwald concentration camp.

At Buchenwald, Schneider worked to uplift his fellow prisoners’ spirits. From early on, Schneider was given the chance to return to his family as long as he agreed not to return to his congregation. He refused and instead worked the grueling 16-hour days with others, fasting every Friday and giving his rations to those hungrier than him. Moreover, Schneider persisted in his disobedience to the rulers and authorities, refusing to offer the Hitler salute, arguing that one “may only receive Heil—salvation—from the Lord and not from a mere mortal.” In April 1938, several months after his arrest, Schneider refused to remove his hat in honor of Hitler’s birthday and to salute the swastika flag, saying “I cannot salute this symbol for thugs.” As a result, he was whipped publicly and moved to solitary confinement. Schneider’s cell overlooked the location where prisoners were assembled by guards every morning. Using this to his advantage, Schneider climbed up to his window daily at roll call and denounced the mistreatment and murder of inmates while encouraging all who could hear to believe in Christ. SS guards repeatedly tortured Schneider for preaching the gospel and denouncing summary executions at the camp.

On Easter morning 1939, a few months prior to his execution by lethal injection, Schneider, ailing and emaciated, climbed up to his window as thousands of prisoners assembled below. Schneider managed to cry out to them before being silenced by the guards: “Brothers and sisters, listen to me. This is Pastor Schneider. In this place, we are tortured and killed. Thus speaks the Lord: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life!’”

Paul Schneider was asked time and again, “Do you also wish to go away?”

And all he had to do to avoid his fate was say “yes,” and leave.

Instead, Schneider answered in his last sermon as a free man,

“[Christ is] the living God and his word … alone nourishes the soul for eternal life.”

Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

All the disciples had to do to avoid their fates was say “yes,” and leave.

Instead, Peter answered Jesus:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

What are these words that convince Peter and others to stay when the multitudes have left?

What are these words so powerful that they convinced Peter and Schneider and others to follow Jesus to his death, and theirs, to bear insult and injury, to stand courageously against violence and terror, and still to declare with Saint Paul that they would gladly “boast in [their] sufferings” and “rejoice in the Lord always”?

What are these words of eternal life?

Hear them from the lips of Christ himself:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.” And “this is eternal life, that [we] may know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [he has] sent.”

Here is lasting health and happiness, meaning and love, peace that surpasses all understanding. We gather in this place to remember Christ crucified and risen because the God who raised Christ from the dead is faithful, and he will give life to our mortal bodies also if we believe in Christ and follow him. Nothing, then—nothing—not rejection or failure, not earthly powers or human rulers, not illness, not even death itself—can take this life away from us.

Jesus asks us, as he asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

He does not ask us this to make us feel guilty or to express his disappointment. He asks us this to make us consider whether there is something about him, something about what he says, something about who he claims to be, that makes us pause.

If we end up answering like Peter, “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” then great. May we hold fast to that confession and live it out in our own lives.

But if we aren’t so sure… If we don’t really know what to make of Jesus or of God… If we don’t really know what to make of churches that so often struggle to live in accordance with the commandments of God, of Christians who fall short of the calling to which they have been called…

Let us consider Jesus’ words an invitation for us to come back, to read the Scriptures, to hear the Gospel, at least a few more times, until we can hear Christ speak for himself.

Let us consider Jesus’ words an invitation for us to seek out a community of faithful Christians who seek to model their lives according to his precepts.

For if we listen attentively, we might just find it possible to embrace a love that restores us to right relationship within ourselves and with others, a love that sets aside what we hold most dear so that others may live, a love that emboldens us to withstand the evil around us, and having done everything, to stand firm.

All of this is possible if we put our trust in God and believe that, in Jesus Christ, there is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. All of this is possible if we take Christ at his word and follow his footsteps where they may lead, even unto death, because death is not the final word. This is the fullest happiness and health, love and meaning, peace and comfort, that we may ever know.

As Paul Schneider wrote shortly before he died:

“If we lose our lives here, Christ will safeguard them in life everlasting. He will empower us to behold his glory both here and there: for through our suffering here, we find our way to glory, through the cross to the throne. We will believe, according to his word. We will trust his promises, and we will give him our thanks with joy.”

Amen.

 

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Bread of Life, Hope on the Green

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Bread of Life, Hope on the Green

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2018

 

In the name of God, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About fifteen years ago I went on the Atkins diet--a low carbohydrate diet that was popular in the 2000’s.  One of the features of the diet, of course, is that you can’t eat bread.  Or pasta.  Or anything with sugar.  But you can eat lots of meat and green vegetables.  And the more fat the better.  I ate lots of bacon while I was on the Atkins diet.  But bread was elusive.  I was hungry for it.  I eyed the basket of dinner rolls with envy.  Never before had I been so hungry for bread.

A few years ago my doctor remarked that my cholesterol was slightly elevated, and so I went to a nutritionist in New York and worked out a low-cholesterol diet.  I could eat most anything I wanted to as long as it was low in fat.  I  could even have a little bread. Just no butter.  And so I lost a little bit of weight.  But on this low cholesterol diet my cholesterol went up by ten points.  I stopped seeing the nutritionist.

I like food.  I enjoy cooking it, and I enjoy eating it--preferably with other people who like food, too.  I’ve always had enough food--and I suspect you have, as well.

 I’ve never known what it is to be truly hungry, and I’m grateful for that.  Sure, sometimes I get a little peckish and eager for my next meal, or sometimes I really want a snack--but I’ve never felt the sort of hunger that leads to despair.  I’ve always known where my next meal would come from.

A friend of mine who loves New Haven and has known the social landscape here for most of her life says that it’s almost impossible to go hungry in New Haven.  There are so many places to get a meal--the Community Soup Kitchen being one of the largest--that starvation is not the issue here.  Housing, healthcare, food insecurity--lots of other issues plague our city, but starvation is not one.  I think she’s probably right.

But there is a hunger here in New Haven.  Part of our city is crying out in hunger, longing for something that’s unfulfilled.

We saw the beast of hunger raise its head this past week when the national media reported on this week’s rash of overdoses in the Elm City.  Over one hundred overdoses in a three day period.[1]  A friend who works on the Green described it as crazy.  Friends from all over the country phoned or messaged to express their concern.  Emergency responders were running as fast as they could between the Green and Yale New Haven Hospital, and staff from Cornell Scott Hill Health were triaging on the Green itself.[2] 

I was sad to hear the statistics, but I was more saddened to realize that many of the people that had overdosed and were taken to treatment had multiple instances of overdosing.  Apparently a feature of K2, the synthetic drug involved in this past week’s overdoses, is that it’s fast acting and short lived.  So after recovering from an overdose, people often use again. 

That may explain why, according to the New Haven Police Department, 47 people were treated for overdoses, but there were about 120 separate ambulance calls during the epidemic. [3]  

It’s easy to wall off the suffering that this latest rash of overdoses represents.  To contain it to a presupposed ideal of “those people.”  It’s “the homeless” that are overdosing. It’s “those people on the Green,” we might say.  But Alison Cunningham, CEO of Columbus House, points out that the problem is much more nuanced than that.  She relates that the Green has become a destination for people who are not experiencing homelessness but are seeking to buy or sell drugs--and how many of Columbus House’s clients who do live on the Green have been just as traumatized and unsettled by this occurrence as everyone else in New Haven and in the country.[4]

Duo Dickinson has written in the Register about the nature of the Green itself--how the Green in New England towns was a place for life, for survival--the place that crops were grown, that bodies were buried, that God was praised in meetinghouses and churches. 

But in the 19th Century, Duo says, Greens became “portals to the time of their creators, rather than to the Creator”--places reminiscent of a history rather than working space offered up to God.  And this shift parallels, Duo says, a declination from our focus on faith in God to faith in ourselves--a faith that seems to have gone awry.  

Part of our national foundational story, the idea of religious freedom, shifted to a focus on personal freedom.  And, Duo says, “that freedom made commerce, education and culture explode over 300 years — most often pirouetting around the hundreds of Greens at the center of everything. Now, that freedom has morphed into a tolerance for self-destruction that screams at us from the New Haven Green this week… If we are truly outraged at the human tragedy and hopelessness of overdosing on toxic drugs, the tragedy happened long before the OD-ing happened. Somehow faith in a future was lost.”[5]

What is it that people are hungry for that they’re willing to risk death, go to hospital, and then risk death again?  What is this great hunger that’s seizing hold of people?  That’s seizing our city?

Is it this great loss of hope in the future?  A chronic despair?

The texts from Proverbs, one of the Hebrew wisdom texts, give us images of a banquet--of a feast.  The portion we read today is the banquet of Wisdom personified:

Wisdom has built her house,

   she has hewn her seven pillars.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,

   she has also set her table.

She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls

   from the highest places in the town,

‘You that are simple, turn in here!’

   To those without sense she says,

‘Come, eat of my bread

   and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,

   and walk in the way of insight.’  (Proverbs 9:1-6)

But we don’t hear the passage from the end of this chapter of Proverbs, the banquet of Foolishness personified:

The foolish woman is loud;

   she is ignorant and knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house,

   on a seat at the high places of the town,

calling to those who pass by,

   who are going straight on their way,

‘You who are simple, turn in here!’

   And to those without sense she says,

‘Stolen water is sweet,

   and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’

But they do not know that the dead are there,

   that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (13-18)

It would be easy to corral, to contain, the devastating behavior of addiction or even escapism to a group that we can regard as other--as not ourselves.  But if we’re honest, as Duo points out, it’s not a problem of a particular group but of our whole society.  We’ve turned from love of God and one another to a love of self that is killing us.  And perhaps turned is the wrong word, because hasn’t it been like this from the very beginning?

Addiction, substance abuse, deleterious escapism affects and infects every place and every culture within creation. 

The hunger to escape the difficulties of life, the pain of existence, the damage done to us by the wickedness of others, by systemic evils, or by our own poor choices--that hunger is deep and ravenous.  “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant, but they do not know that the dead are there…in the depths of Sheol.”

The gospel today points out that Jesus is the Bread of Life.  “The one who eats this bread will live forever,” Saint John’s gospel says (6:58).  Isn’t this the thing that people are really hungry for?  Don’t they need the bread of life?  The very presence of Jesus?  Why won’t they just come to church? Whoever eats this bread will live forever!

I once volunteered with a homeless shelter, a rescue mission, that had been founded out of the 19th Century evangelical movement.  It sought to feed folks, to get them off the bottle--this mission was very focused on recovery--and to lead them to a faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, all of those things were worthy activities. But the particular way the mission went about talking about faith in Jesus was problematic for me; it was largely about belief and assent, about moral behavior and purity codes, and it didn’t leave much room for difference.  Their Christian counselors were unable to embrace glbt and trans folks as created in the image of God, and so I eventually stopped working with this particular agency.

They did good work.  But they couldn’t embrace all of God’s children.  And that worried me, and so I left.

I suspect that, at some level, we are all afraid of telling people they need Jesus -- because it sounds like we’re asking them to sign up to some program, some belief system, that tells folks they’re wrong, that draws lines, that says who’s in and who’s out.  A system that might not include us, or our friends, or our uncle Bob, or whatever.  That makes us nervous.

But the truth is that everyone is included in the love of Jesus.  In the love of Jesus, the person overdosing is just as valuable to God as the EMT attending to her.  In the love of Jesus, the homeless or unemployed person, the hungry and the vulnerable, is just as valuable as the person in political or economic power.  In the love of Jesus, everyone is loved.

Earlier in the spring, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, asked a question in his homily at the Royal Wedding that rang across the world:  “Imagine a world where love is the way.”  What would it look like if the world were ruled according to the principles of the love of God?  What if we made all our decisions through the lens of the good news of the love of God in Christ?

The New England settlers might have thought were aiming for something like that, but Eden has fallen, the Greens have become wastelands, the metaphors could go on.  As Dickinson says, “Greens do not create behavior; they reflect it.”

So what would it look like to live differently?

In the love of Jesus, housing could be more available.  Drug treatment and supportive therapies rather than punitive jail sentences might change lives.  All of those things would be wonderful.

But what about people who are desperate, who have lost hope?  Why won’t they just come to church and hear that Jesus loves them?

It’s not as simple as all that, is it. We can’t institutionally tell a truth that, at its core, is relational.  We have to tell it in relationship.  “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  This is a relational proposition--we must abide in Jesus Christ in order to share Jesus Christ with the world. To tell the love of Jesus, we have to be in relationship with one another--with the city, with people on the Green, with people in despair. 

That’s why we’re engaging in this Living Local, Joining God project--to get to know our neighborhoods.  To walk the streets and ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  Because in relationship we can share the love of God in Christ with one another--through the gift of the Holy Spirit--in authentic, real ways.  Not a proposition to be believed, or a concept to assent to to get a hot meal and a bed for the night--but a truth told in love and shown in deed and action. 

Jesus is the bread of life.  His love can fill the aching hearts of our cities, of people in despair. 

That’s why we start at this altar--receiving the real presence of our Lord in the sacrament of Holy Communion--his Body and Blood--because we know that Jesus is here, here in this place, here in the streets of New Haven, here on the Green.

And because we know it, because we’ve received this real presence of Christ, we can share it.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. 

If you know Duo Dickinson, you know that his column didn’t end on a note of despair.  On the contrary, he believes that the presence of the Church on the Green--the visible sign of the Body of Christ in the world--is a place of hope even in the midst of fear and despair.  He invited all of New Haven to come to church.

Let us do likewise. May we receive at this altar the presence of Christ--and may we go out into the streets of New Haven and show people Jesus.

+      +      +

 

[1] Brian Zahn, “Police: 3rd person arrested in K2 overdose crisis,” New Haven Register, Friday, August 17, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/Police-3rd-person-arrested-in-K2-overdose-crisis-13163468.php.  NB--A parishioner notes that “overdose” is the wrong word.  “Poisoning” is the better word, she says, because it highlights the activity of the dealer rather than the victim.  I share her comments here and am grateful for them.

[2] Jessica Lerner, “More ODs on Green today, more than 80 so far,” New Haven Register, Thursday, August 16, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/New-Haven-police-Rash-of-synthetic-cannabinoid-13160491.php.

[3] Lerner, “Emergency crews, volunteers try to make sense of mass ODs,” New Haven Register, Saturday, August 18, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/Emergency-crews-volunteers-try-to-make-sense-of-13165811.php

[4] Alison Cunningham, newsletter from Columbus House, n.d. (circa August 16, 2018), accessed online at http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Alison-Cunningham--CEO--on-Overdoes-Crisis.html?soid=1110058879869&aid=sAEqbEzMFOI.   

[5] Duo Dickinson, “Tragedy on the New Haven Green,” New Haven Register, Thursday, August 16, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/opinion/article/Duo-Dickinson-Tragedy-on-the-New-Haven-Green-13161639.php.  

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Glorious Assumption

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Glorious Assumption

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- The Assumption
August 15, 2018

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In his book entitled Mary for All Christians, Fr John Macquarrie opens up his chapter on the Glorious Assumption with these words:

“In the expression `Glorious Assumption' the adjective and the noun go together...  An assumption could not be anything other than glorious, for it means a taking up from the drabness and ordinariness of earthly life into what we call “heaven,” the unimaginable glory of the divine presence in its immediacy” (78)[1].

An assumption could not be anything other than glorious.

In scripture, the Glorious Incarnation, the Glorious Resurrection, and the Glorious Ascension of Jesus take place as acts and signs of God’s glory. These events take place to reveal, once again, God’s love and power over all creation. 

We know from the Old Testament that resurrection and assumption are part of God’s landscape of radical possibilities. Through Elijah, the Lord resurrects the son of the widow of Zarephath. In Genesis, we’re told that “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him. And Elijah is taken up in a chariot of fire, in a whirlwind into heaven.

In all these acts, as in the Glorious Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus, God over and over again reveals to us his power and might. But he also reveals his deep love for us, for we are made in God’s image, body and soul.

God resurrects and takes up to himself not only the body of Jesus, but the bodies of the faithful. For God, our bodies and our humanity have value. The God who created us in our mother’s womb desires not only that we have life and have it abundantly, but that we one day return and come into union with God. That our bodies like the body of Elijah, the body of Jesus, and the body of the Blessed Mother enter into union with God.

And today the Church Catholic remembers God’s desire to be in union with us and all creation, as we remember God’s union with the Blessed Mother. As we have prayed in the collect today, we give thanks to God who has taken up to himself the Blessed Virgin Mary. We give thanks for God’s desire to take up to himself not only his son, our Lord Jesus Christ, but his Blessed Mother and one day us.

Today the Church rejoices and sings Marian hymns because in the Blessed Mother we are reassured of our destiny. We celebrate that in the fullness of time, we and all creation will return to God as we celebrate and remember Mary this day. While our Prayer Book marks today as The Feast of Saint Mary Virgin, its designated collect hints at, if not affirms, her Glorious Assumption

And our Lady’s Glorious Assumption affirms, in the words of Fr John Macquarrie, that “the heaven which Jesus ascended to, and into which Mary [and we will be assumed to] is not a region in the skies, but a new level of existence” [2].

Our humanity is transformed already by the Incarnation and Resurrection, and then again by the Ascension of Jesus. In these marvelous acts, we are brought closer to God, closer to God’s purpose for us. “The Assumption is a transformation of the human condition from its familiar earthly state to a new mode of being in which the body enjoys an immediate relationship to God” [3].

While our relationship with God in the life to come promises to be more intimate than we can ever experience here on earth, our Lord’s Ascension and his Mother’s Assumption lets us know that our selves, our souls and bodies, have a place in heaven. That our most beautiful features, our wounds and imperfections are received by God just as they are. And if they need to be transformed, they are not transformed by force but by the love of God which draws us in.

Today, on the New Haven Green at least 30 beautiful and imperfect members of the family God overdosed on a substance. Pray for them, pray for their healing and recovery, and if any are to die, for the repose of their souls. Pray that those who are weakened and consumed, all of us gathered here this evening, and this whole city, pray that we may come to realize how radically loved we are by God. God’s love is so deep that nothing can keep us away from his love in Christ Jesus. So be prepared to be drawn to God, body and soul, as was the Blessed Mother. Receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and rejoice that God is near, and that he seeks to be close to you.

Hear these words from Lord Byron’s Don Juan:

Ave Maria! ‘Tis the hour of prayer!

Ave Maria! ‘Tis the hour of love!

Ave Maria! May our spirits dare

Look up to thine and to thy Son’s above!

Ave Maria!

Thanks be to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

[1] Macquarrie, J. (2002). Mary for All Christians. T & T Clark Limited, 78.

[2] Ibid, 84.

[3] Ibid, 85.

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Jesus, the Living Bread

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Jesus, the Living Bread

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.            

The Gospel reading appointed for this week hits close to home. As some of you may know, I grew up an hour’s drive from New Haven, in a small town in the outskirts of New York City, Port Chester, NY. Where for 16 years I lived on West Street, a block away from my childhood parish, Corpus Christi, that is the “Body of Christ,” and across the street from the famous JJ Cassones bakery.

For 16 years, I lived down the road from Corpus Christi and across the street from the bakery. The imagery of bread and the Body of Christ was everywhere. It is impossible for me to listen to this morning’s Gospel passage and not be drawn to a childlike understanding of God. And by childlike understanding, I don’t mean this in any negative form as if it were irrational or undeveloped, but an understanding that is deeply personal and rooted in experience. An understanding that is enraptured by an experience with God, rather than some mental understanding of God.

I remember a seminary classmate’s story in which she recounted a five year old screaming at his mother, “I want the bread from heaven,” as he was brought up to the communion rail for a blessing. This little boy was done with the blessing. He no longer wanted a blessing from the priest but wanted the bread from heaven, the boy wanted Jesus — the living bread.

While we may not shout as that little boy, “I want the bread from heaven,” when we approach the communion rail, I will argue that we share in that childlike desire to hold and have Jesus. A deep feeling rooted in our earliest memories that God has made himself known to us. That God wants to be close to us, and we want to be close to him.

While some of us may no longer tuck at our parent’s shirt to help us receive Jesus in the Sacrament, that childlike desire to simply be close to him has not dissipated. Has it?

This shared desire to be close to Jesus has brought all of us to this place. From various backgrounds, cultures, and ages. We trust and find comfort in the words of Jesus who says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

While God is able to reveal himself in great and mighty acts, God seeks to reveal himself in bread and wine. For God alone can miraculously provide food for the wandering and hungry, for us today, as he did for the people of Israel, Moses and those in the desert.

But Moses was only able to point to the manna and say, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you for food” (Exodus 16:15), but Jesus points to himself and says, “I am the bread of life… [and] I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:35,50). Moses points outward, but Jesus point to himself.

Jesus is the living bread that is capable of satisfying our hunger and emptiness. Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven, as the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel proclaims, and he was in the beginning with God. And all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Jesus is the living bread, which not only fulfills our hunger but offers us more then we can handle. Jesus relives our hunger for the living God because in him we meet the living God, made known to us in the flesh.

But Jesus does not only fulfill our hunger but he is able to vanish our gluttony — our hunger for power and control, our hunger to be satisfied and full as those around us beg, our hunger for more than we actually need to survive and prosper. Jesus not only meets our hunger, but challenges the hunger that seeks to fatten us with nothing more than sin and death.

Jesus is the living bread that seeks to satisfy our spiritual hunger and wandering hearts. Jesus is the living bread that seeks to show us the way of love and peace in a world that has forgotten God’s love. Jesus is the living bread that gives us hope in the darkest moments of our lives. Jesus is the living bread that promises that we will not hunger and be left for dead, but that we will be full and raised on that last day. Jesus is enough.

If you don’t believe me, look at the cross. There you will find Jesus, our Lord and our God, stretched out on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

Jesus is enough.

Jesus is enough to draw people to him, and our only job is to tell the world of his love and his saving embrace. Our job is to quite literally share the good news of Christ, yes, to evangelize. And don’t be scared by this task, it is not as difficult as some people make it seem. In the words of Pastor D.T Niles, “Evangelism is nothing more than a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”

And we have found the living bread. We have touched, felt, and tasted the living bread. In Jesus, we are filled with enough — enough for ourselves and for others. We have been given an abundance not because we need it, but because God desires that we be filled and share the living bread with others. Because God desires to be known to us as the living bread that came down from heaven. God desires to be know in the simple presence of bread.

Thanks be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Be the Sign

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Be the Sign

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2018

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The Mercy of God

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The Mercy of God

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
July 22, 2018

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have been traveling with Jesus throughout Saint Mark’s Gospel. We have witnessed his baptism in the Jordan River, we have witnessed him healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead, and we have even witnessed his rejection in his hometown of Nazareth.
 
Jesus has been on a mission, and the word has gotten out. So much so, that we’re told that “people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
 
People have come out from the shadows and hidden places, all seeking to be close to Jesus. All seeking to be in his presence and touch him, even if just the fringe of his cloak. And as the crowds move towards him, Jesus does not retreat or run away. Jesus does not ask those who approach him any questions. He does not critique or inquire about their past. He does not preach or teach, nor are there dialogues or parables. Jesus simply heals them without question, without requiring anything of them.
 
Simply put, Jesus shows them complete and utter mercy.
 
And God’s mercy is one of a kind. See, God’s mercy does not only make the unimaginable happen, but creates a new set of possibilities never imagined before. It challenges and expands our minds to believe that God can act beyond our human understanding. That God can act through the greatest ailment and hurdles. That God can act even through death itself.
 
All of the great healing miracles of Jesus — the healing of the sick, the casting out of demons, and the raising of the dead — are meant to prepare and point us to God’s ultimate miracle, the ultimate unimaginable possibility — the Resurrection of Jesus.
 
The mercy of God transcends our human inclinations and invites us to embrace God’s grace, God’s love, not as things we earn but as free gifts. God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s love, cannot be bought or sold. They do not have a place in the market, it is simply given to us.
 
The act of self-giving and self-emptying is part of God’s very nature. And we come to see and understand God’s desire to give away his love, mercy, and grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
 
Father Frederick William Faber poetically captures God’s divine mercy in his hymn text, as he writes:
 
“There's a wideness in God's mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There's a kindness in God's justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven.”
 
The mercy of God offers us a way forward, it offers us life. It allows us not only to conquer that which consumes us, but let’s us hope and reassures us that God will not abandon us.
 
If just by touching the cloak of Jesus many were healed, imagine what can happen to us who day after day, week after week, touch Jesus in the Holy sacrifice of the mass? Imagine what can happen to us who touch Jesus at the Soup Kitchen and in the streets of New Haven? Imagine what can happen to us if we seek and touch Jesus in our own loving and even broken relationships?
 
What can happen, what will happen, is God’s mercy will pour out to show what lies ahead.  Thanks be to God who seeks not to abandon but to save. Thanks be to God who seeks to bring life in the face of death. Thanks be to God who is constantly giving and emptying himself for the life of the world.
 
Thanks be to God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

+   +   +

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Look for the Plumb Line

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Look for the Plumb Line

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2018

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.  +

Many of you know that I come from middle Georgia, from a town called Sandersville, a town known for agriculture for most of its history but, for the last century, known more for its deposits of a mineral called kaolin--a white clay, a china clay, used first for porcelains and pigments and now more often as an inert coater and filler, often in papers for high speed printing processes.  Your service leaflets this morning undoubtedly have a high content of kaolin in them.  That’s what makes the paper more opaque and more smooth so it prints relatively nicely.

Kaolin was a big part of my early childhood years, and for part of his life my father worked at a large locally owned mining firm in Sandersville where, among other things, he coordinated the construction activities of outside contractors across the firm’s middle Georgia operations. 

This sort of work involved coordinating between the architects, the engineers, the draftsmen, the estimators, and then the crew foremen to make sure that the slurry tank, or the box car loading platform, or the crude storage warehouse that had been ordered was actually being built properly--that the work that had been contracted was being carried out properly.

My father was not an engineer, though if you gave him a pencil and a piece of paper he could sketch out about anything that needed to be built, whether it was made of wood or steel or concrete.  He could figure it out, design it pretty accurately, and build it himself. 

So he had a bit of a dog in the fight when working with someone else’s blueprints.

You can imagine his delight when, one summer, he came home from the plant one day for lunch, telling a tale of a construction project he was supervising--a loading platform for box cars carrying kaolin.  The engineers had drafted a plan to build a loading platform, a ramp of sorts, for a front-end loader to drive on up and over the elevation of the box cars so that the front end loader could dump its bucket full of clay over into the box car.  Simple idea, really.  But the engineers had failed to take into account--and this is what vexed my father to no end--the wheels of the front end loader itself.  They were large, and the bucket itself wasn’t capable of extending very far out in front of them.  When the ramp was build, just to specification, and the first front end loader went up it, it stopped short of the edge of the box car.  The wheels couldn’t get out far enough to get the bucket over the edge.  The front end loader couldn’t deliver its cargo.  And the ramp had to be demolished, redesigned, and built again.

If only the engineers had taken into account all the variables! 

If only they’d dropped a plumb line from the front of the bucket down in front of the tires of the loader, they’d have known how many more feet they needed to give the ramp for it to achieve the purpose it was built for.

Do you know a plumb line?  It’s a weighted string, a string with a piece of metal, usually, at the end, held up at a point and held straight by gravity.  It shows a straight vertical line.  We use a level now--a glass bubble level when I was growing up but now often an electronic level--to make sure things are plumb, or level, or true.  But in the days when this church was built, and in the days of Amos to be sure, a carpenter would have used a plumb line.

(If you’ve lived in Saint Hilda’s House, you’ll wonder if the carpenters there had left their plumb lines at home, but that’s another matter entirely.)

The plumb line sets the standard.  It’s a point of reference.  If something is off, or wrong, the plumb line shows it.  If you want something to be right, look to the plumb line.

In today’s first lesson, the prophet Amos relates that God is holding up a plumb line for Israel.  Showing what the kingdom looks like.  And pointing out how God’s people have strayed from the divine truth--the plumb line.

Amos prophesied almost three thousand years ago, around 750 BC during the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel.  It was a time of great peace and unprecedented prosperity in Israel; people were making money left and right—the marketplace was humming, trading was good.  Life was great.  But Amos saw something else going on—he saw a neglect for the poor—for those at the margins of society.  He saw that the people who had something—the folks who had enough—were getting more—and the folks who were in need were getting even less.  As wealth grew in the kingdom, the gap between rich and poor stretched to a breaking point.  And so Amos called on people, in the name of God, to care for the poor.  And he called out their greediness--and their dishonest dealing.  Here’s a little of his indictment, which we don’t get in our reading today:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,

   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

saying, ‘When will the new moon be over

   so that we may sell grain;

and the sabbath,

   so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,

   and practise deceit with false balances,

buying the poor for silver

   and the needy for a pair of sandals,

   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’  (Amos 8.4-6)

It’s a stinging indictment—a call to repentance—a turning to God first before commerce—an observance of Sabbath.  A change to honest dealing, to fair trading, from cheating and stealing.  And a turning towards life—especially respect for the lives of the poor—more than the value of money, goods, or commodities. 

Does that sound like a voice we could use today?  What would Amos say to us today—to how we keep the Sabbath? How we find balance in our lives—how we put God—and time for God—first in everything?  What would Amos say to our world about how we do our deals—how we make our money—who wins and who loses—how we play the game?  And what would Amos say about the poor among us—folks who are working multiple jobs but still need to visit the Soup Kitchen because they can’t make enough to pay for rent and groceries?   What would Amos say about folks that can’t afford somewhere to live, whether because of poverty, or addiction, or disability, underemployment, or whatever thing that keeps them bound, take  to our streets or even shelters to find a place to lay their heads?  What would Amos say to us today?

Would he remind us of God’s plumb line? 

When I read this gospel lesson six years ago at another parish, as I was reading the story of John the Baptist’s beheading, a young man, dressed all in white, with a full scraggly beard and long hair and sandals, came down the center aisle; I remember thinking, “This guy should play Jesus in a television movie…”  He stopped halfway down the aisle as though he were going to enter a pew, but he did not--he just stood there-- and, just as I reached the ending of the gospel lesson, the part where John’s followers bury him, the  young man raised his arms and shouted, “I have seen John the Baptist!  And he lives!”

Ushers intervened, the sermon went on, and later, after I recovered from my initial astonishment, I grew curious about what the man would have said had I asked, “Where is John the Baptist?  And what does he have to say to us today?”

And that’s what Herod was afraid of.  He was afraid that John the Baptist, whom he had killed, was raised again, and would agitate, and proclaim God’s kingdom, just like Amos was doing. That he’d be called, along with all of God’s people, to repentance--to change. And he wanted to live according to his own terms.

Little did he know that it was Jesus of Nazareth, not Elijah or John the Baptist, but the very Son of God, who was proclaiming the kingdom--holding the plumb line--calling God’s people to a greater truth, a way of being in the world, of loving God and one another--that would change all of creation.

We have a plumb line in the revelation of the law to God’s people, in the revelation of God’s love to the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  We have a plumb line in the experience of the kingdom of God coming near.  We know what the kingdom looks like because Jesus shows us.

Lately it seems that our society has made an idol, a false plumb line, out of jurisprudence, out of the very laws we have made as a society.  We’ve heard voices from the political spectrum holding up following the law as the standard of how to live a common life together--rather than the standard of the kingdom of God, the mercy and love of God.  Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t need laws.  We do, and as a part of our social contract they’re important ways we organize our common life together.  But just by purportedly following the law, we as a society have separated children and families at our southern border as a result.  We’ve locked up a disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters--a disproportionate number of people of color.  We’ve just followed the law.

On the other hand, we also hear a drumbeat for prophetic speech and action in our church.  To be like Amos.  To be like John the Baptist.  To speak truth to power.  To individually and collectively speak out as a prophetic act.  And we know that communal action, community activism, does move policy, does get a conversation started in the national discourse, does have an impact.  Activism is a valuable part of our common lives together.

But I wonder if having a prophetic voice is enough.

But did you notice what Amos says, when Amaziah, the court prophet, upbraids him?  “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”  (Amos 7.14)  Amos, with a wry retort, locates himself among the poor, not those in power.  Among the ordinary folk, not the professional prophets.  He is only a shepherd, he says, and to make a little money on the side, he tends the tiny figlike fruits of the middle eastern sycamore tree, which need to be pricked with a sharp stick to help them ripen.  Not a cash crop, but more like picking wild berries or fishing in the river to supplement your supper.

Amos is not the professional prophet that Amaziah is.  He just sees the truth and speaks it.  And calls the world to repent, to change, to live differently.

John is not a professional prophet—he’s Jesus’s strange cousin that happens to see that the kingdom of God has come near.  And he calls people to turn, to repent.

And God has called them both to tell the truth.  To show the plumb line.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  To point towards Jesus.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to tell the truth.  To repent.  To turn towards God with everything we have.  And to be the ones brave enough to say, this is the right thing to do. And then to do it. We are the ones to speak on behalf of the values of the kingdom of God--but also to live our lives as Christians according to the values of the kingdom of God.  We are the ones to live differently.  Even if we’re herdsmen and women and dressers of sycamore trees.

It is dangerous work to speak up and live for the good news of Jesus.  It is dangerous to live differently in the world around us.  John the Baptist loses his head and is laid in a tomb.  But we remember our Lord’s empty tomb. 

And we remember the words of Amos.  I am not a prophet, but a dresser of sycamore trees.

Amos, John, and ultimately Jesus are all calling us to repentance.

To live differently.  To change our lives. To live according to the vision of the kingdom of God.

All of our plumblines, our laws, our policies, our liturgies, our speech, can be measured against this one plumbline:  Does this show God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ?

All of our lives exist for one purpose: to share and to show the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Are our walls crooked?  Our windowsills sloped?  Does our ramp not meet up where it should?  Of course our world does not meet up to the plumb line.  The kingdom of God has come near but is not yet fully realized. But that doesn’t mean that we should despair. 

The good news of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is coming and is here.  We know what it looks like when Jesus comes near.  And Jesus is saving us.  Jesus is redeeming us.  Jesus is remaking us into the people that live in that new way, in that new life, that Jesus describes when he reads Isaiah:

 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free…  (Luke 4:18)

This week, this summer, this life, look at the plumb line.  And make sure that everything we do shows God’s love.

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Working for Peace

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Working for Peace

Mr Jack Karn
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2018

In the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning, it is a great joy and honor to be with you on this day.  My name is Jack Karn and I am the Site Director for the 3rd annual Jerusalem Peacebuilders Service-Learning Program being hosted here at Christ Church.  As the setting for my first sermon, I must say that I am excited, humbled, and a little, let’s be honest, scared. 

Between July 1-12, 16 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers (Muslim, Christian, and Jewish) between the ages of 15-16 are here learning about service and its multiple connections to peace.  They do this through volunteering at IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), visiting Yale University and meeting students engaged in public service, traveling to New York City to visit the UN and the US Mission to meet with diplomats, attending leadership and peacebuilding workshops, and developing speeches on these topics to take home and present to their communities as follow-up activities during the upcoming 2018-2019 school year.

These teens come from diverse backgrounds, both in terms of their religious and ethnic identities, as well as their hometowns and perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For nearly two weeks during the program, they play together, they dialogue together, they learn together, and they grow together.  Positions are challenged, deep feelings are expressed, and good will is exchanged freely.

As a person who feels called to the ministry of peacemaking, my work with Jerusalem Peacebuilders fills me with that sense of total satisfaction that can only come from God.  Over my five years of working with JPB, I have facilitated nine summer programs and launched JPB’s in-school programming in the Holy Land.  In total, I have worked with over 300 young peacebuilders in these programs.   

What began as a cry out to God for a purpose to serve humanity, has now unfolded into a blossoming confidence and affirmation to participate in reconciliation and service, as opposed to only wish for it. In my mind, there is no doubt that God is guiding JPB and opening up the hearts and minds of those we serve to hear this prophetic message of mercy, justice, and love.

Today’s Gospel reading is about the Great Commission.  And that work of spreading God’s love, healing lives, and shaping the future, is alive and well among these young people and the mission of Jerusalem Peacebuilders.

The story reads that after being rejected by members of his hometown, Jesus’ moves to other nearby villages and continues teaching. He begins to send out his most faithful followers, the 12 disciples, to share in his mission. He gives them authority over unclean spirits and orders them to only take the most primitive of supplies, meaning that they must rely on the hospitality, charity, and kindness of those they meet along the way. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to distinguish between whom they meet, Jew or Gentile, but simply to go out into the surrounding area and trust in the generosity of strangers who will welcome them. Interestingly, he does not tell them to submit to those who reject them, but to “shake off the dust on their feet as a testimony against them.” This commission to serve all who will welcome the 12 disciples can be seen as an invitation for us to share God’s Justice, Mercy, and Love all across this Earth. That Justice, Mercy, and Love isn’t just for Christians, it’s for the whole world.  And it’s never easy sharing it.

For me, it hasn’t always been easy to share it.  While serving a year abroad in Jerusalem as a Missionary for the Episcopal Church, I would travel once a week to a refugee camp in the West Bank to teach in an impoverished, all-Girls, Muslim school.  Each time, I would cross a maze of traffic, military checkpoints, pollution and noise, and increased danger to reach the school.  I traveled lightly and always on foot, as I knew in my heart I needed to experience this place of great suffering from a place of near total vulnerability. With a little pocket money in my backpack, a small bottle of water, and the clothes on my back, I relied on my faith in God to get me to the school and back home to Jerusalem safely.  Once at the school, I again navigated a maze of corridors and hallways, where every woman wore a hijab and a conservative dress down to the ankles. When I made it to the classroom, I was met with regular power outages that caused some disruption to the educational environment. As the only young, white, American, male for miles, it was truly humbling and a bit unnerving.  At times, I didn’t think I could do it.

Two things kept me coming back: 1). The confidence that I was participating in Christ’s Mission of healing the world; and 2). That the joy and happiness I witnessed in my nine students week after week for coming and serving them though teaching peacebuilding.  For me, these intangible gifts have brought me far more satisfaction than any amount of money or success ever will.  For me, I knew that even though my impact was small, I was contributing to a positive change in educating these nine young girls to be peacebuilders in their community.  

The story never ends with me, but only grows longer with each year that JPB welcomes more and more brave young teens into our programs.  I remember a young participant from last summer named Adan, who shared her struggle with depression and self-confidence – an issue people face all across the world.  A faithful, and intelligent young woman, she told me how she had considered taking her own life to end the pain of it all.  Like all of us, she faces the overwhelming weight of a world filled with sorrow, misery, and violence. But something happened in Adan that changed her life. I am not exactly sure if it was a specific moment or a change overtime, but in a dialogue one beautiful afternoon in the forests of Vermont, Adan told her Jewish participants that she loved them no matter what happened. She told them that she would not let the divisions of this world stop her from loving them. She told them that she was committed to staying connected for the sake of a greater good.  

Like Adan, and myself, we are all commissioned, Jew or non-Jew, by Jesus, to go out into this world and share in the Good News that is God’s Love and Mercy. Christ sends out his disciples in pairs for a reason, that without being in relationship with someone else, our power to transform this world is greatly diminished.  Ultimately, we must rely upon our trust in God and in that of our fellow brothers and sisters to help us along our journey as healers and peacebuilders in a broken world.  We need each other for mutual generosity and sharing in the gifts of God.  And with this type of loving community and support, the work of making peace, healing lives, and shaping the future will only continue to grow. Amen.

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Miracles and the Power of God

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Miracles and the Power of God

The Rev'd Elaine Farmer
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2018

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Miracles. They’re troublesome things. Difficult to understand in our questioning world let alone accept. I don’t think understanding miracles is what faith is about but that doesn’t stop people getting uncomfortable with things that can’t be understood and explained. Modern minds, educated to observe and question and analyse, want to pick miracles apart. To sort out their component bits, work out cause and effect, pin down their glory in ways that make sense within our way of seeing things.

Our language gives us away. We call things ‘miraculous’ when they’re probably nothing of the sort. We say ‘miraculous’ when we should probably say ‘extraordinary’, or ‘coincidental’, or ‘wildly unexpected’, or just plain ‘impossible to believe’. A gravely ill person suddenly recovers and relieved families speak of miracles. An unexpected turn of events rescues someone’s life from disaster and they speak of miracles. Of course, all these things might be miracles. But we play too freely with ‘seeming knowledge’, wanting to make ‘familiar’ that which ought simply make us silent and deeply respectful.

At the same time, while miracles may be troublesome things, they are highly attractive. It’s impossible to ignore the pull of Jesus’ healing the blind and the crippled, stilling winds and storms, walking on water. Actions giving glimpses of how things were meant to be. The light of God’s will for the world, of how things are in the kingdom of God, flashes into our ordinary world, and just for that moment, the storms of chaos are stilled and nothing is impossible. But the moment passes and the ordinary rules once more: the blind do not see, the crippled limp on, and storms batter our lives as before.

But having glimpsed the possibility of God’s power, why wouldn’t we want miracles for ourselves? I’m sure we’ve all prayed for one at some stage but it just isn’t that easy. As often as not, prayers don’t seem to be answered and miracles seem in short supply. What’s worse—particularly for Episcopalians and Anglicans who like things to be tidy and orderly—is that there isn’t anything orderly or predictable about miracles. Nor is there any way of analysing and guaranteeing access to this extraordinary power of God. There’s no formula we can apply to make our virtue so obvious, or our particular causes so urgent, before God, that God will disturb the mysterious order of things to right the wrong in our lives or ease the enormity of our suffering in one flashing miracle.

In today’s gospel we hear of miracles in the ordinary course of human lives. A woman with debilitating medical problems who had bled for twelve long and painful years is made well. A little girl who is dead is brought to life again. Both were considered outcasts or unclean. Taboo. Yet Jesus didn’t spurn them. He ignored religious law that demanded he purify himself after the bleeding woman touched him. Instead, he went—carrying that ritual contamination—straight to a death bed, making himself, a holy man, doubly unclean. In the process, he gave healing where there was need, created outrage among the religiously virtuous, and provided the gossips some of the juiciest titbits they’d had to chatter about in years.

A bleeding woman and a dead girl. Why a miracle for them? We cannot claim to know the mind of God, so there are no definitive answers, only more questions. Why did the healing power of God cut right across the brokenness of their lives? Was it because of virtue, or innocence, or faith?

We get into dangerous territory here. One of the oldest truisms in Christianity is that if we pray hard enough all our prayers will be answered. It’s an attitude that, despite good intentions on the part of plenty of good Christians, has confused the issue and caused hurt and chaos in people’s lives. When answers to prayers are not apparent, or forthcoming, in the desired way, the corollary is trotted out: ‘Your faith isn’t strong enough, so God isn’t answering your prayers.’ Shame and guilt are thus heaped on suffering, and faith turned into a weapon to batter at the heart of God.

This is a long way from any kind of useful truth or understanding about miracles. Exhortations like—‘You must obey the will of God! Sacrifice yourself as Jesus sacrificed himself! Pray harder!’—these kinds of exhortations are less about faith in God than they are about coercing God. About who’s in charge of our lives, who’s in control—us or God? All of which is not faith but idolatry, the age-old business of worshiping gods of our making. Martin Luther called it justification by works. Which is simply thinking we can earn the favour of God through deeds, through how we pray, how we worship, the amount of money we give to charities or the church—how busy we are doing what we think is God’s business.

Which is all hopelessly misguided because miracles are just that: God’s business, not ours. When we forget that every moment of our lives is a gift from God we forget that it is not in our power to determine whence comes the breath of life and how the Spirit of God will work in our lives. When we forget that, we forget that it is God who works miracles, not us and not our faith. As one theologian puts it: ‘To concentrate on the strength of our own belief is to practise magic. To concentrate on the strength of God is to practise faith … This is the difference between believing our lives are in our own hands and believing they are in God’s. God, not faith, works miracles.’[1]

Did the bleeding woman and the dead girl—or her father whom Mark called Jairus—have faith? Only with the woman is faith mentioned at all. ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well,’ Jesus said to her.[2] If she had faith it was silent, not paraded. She was cowed by years of suffering and rejection, but nevertheless approached Jesus, content to be unnoticed, concentrating only on the strength of God’s power in Jesus to heal her. It was that strength of belief for which Jesus commended her, and when he spoke she was healed.

As for the dead girl, and her father—there’s not a word about faith from Mark, nor from Matthew and Luke who both tell these stories. The girl was dead; we know nothing about her faith. The father, a synagogue leader, believed, we can imagine, on the basis of what he saw in Jesus, that he was encountering the power of God. This man, whose very position in society demanded he obey every religious law, nevertheless knelt publicly at the feet of this radical rabbi who was challenging everything he, Jairus, stood for. That action alone declared that an outsider could restore life to his daughter. It wasn’t faith that made him act, but belief in the strength of God’s power that he encountered in Jesus.

The key player in these stories is God. The power of God was there to be encountered in Jesus and the miracles here are the explosions of belief in these people. The woman could have huddled on the edge of the road, unable to risk more rejection, and watch Jesus pass by, condemning herself to permanent isolation. The synagogue leader could have valued his social and religious position more than his daughter and buried her surrounded by flute players and wailing mourners. But in these two stories, ordinary events moved ordinary people to belief in the strength of the power of God. They saw Jesus, God acted, and everything in their lives was changed. Permanently.

I imagine all of us will go on praying for miracles. And so we should. After all, we have an excellent precedent. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for a miracle. ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me,’ he prayed.[3] If that was the miracle he wanted, he didn’t get it. The miracle was that he drank from the cup because he believed more in God’s power than in his own to decide God’s purposes for the world.

So let us go on praying for miracles. Remembering that all God asks from us is what the ancient scriptures called Hesed—steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty. Let us be steadfast in our love and trust the working of miracles in our lives to God’s power. After all, it’s our business to pray; it’s God’s business to work miracles. If in prayer we put out our hands to touch the fringe of Christ’s cloak, who knows what will happen? Miracles do happen and we might just catch a glimpse of the glory of God’s kingdom.

©  (The Rev’d) Elaine Farmer, 1 July 2018

 

 

 

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass., 1997, p.139

[2]  Matthew 9:22

[3] Matthew 26:39

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How do we restrain Jesus?

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How do we restrain Jesus?

The Rev'd John P. Gedrick III
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2018

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

The Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright, publishes a weekly and often pithy reflection, and for his topic this past week, he chose the word “restrain” from this morning’s gospel.  His thoughts stuck with me, and I thought, this morning, we, too, might consider Bishop Wright’s question, How do we restrain Jesus in our own lives?  Restraint does pop right out at us, The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, He has gone out of his mind.  We know that he hasn’t, of course, or knowing what we know about Jesus, we’re, at least, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  This Jesus who offers us the freedom of release, the freedom of unrestrained love, the freedom of knowing that Here, gathered, are my mother and my brothers, and Jesus assures us, Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Thy will be done.  It is that for which we pray.  It is the assurance for which our heart longs.  Inspire us to know what is right, we pray, and guide us to act upon it.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  It is what we, our souls long for, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.  The psalmist reminds us in his great plea out of the depths that we long for God because God forgives.  There is forgiveness in heaven, and we pray for it, we hope for it on earth.  If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?  For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.  With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall save Israel for all their sins.  We wait or as Paul puts it, We do not lose heart because it is by God’s mercy that we are assured of our place in heaven.

A trouble, perhaps, the trouble is that the world, the earth and humankind upon it is not apt to forgive.  Often, it hates.  The enmity of old is powerful, and because of its power, we often succumb to it and do not choose to forgive.  Thus we pray, Forgive us our trespasses.  Help us not to give in, we might say.  Help us to persist in love.  Help us to wait.  Enmity, after all is a strong and powerful force, and we, very often tap into it and accuse, He has gone out of his mind.  We, very often, restrain, He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.  Jesus, thank God, catches us in our own game, loves us, and asks us to recognize what we’ve done.  With Jesus, you see, there is forgiveness; withered hands are restored; the lame take up their pallets and walk.  He knows his father’s will, the very spirit within him, and he’s trying to show us how it is to be done, how to resist the hate of the world, the devil, no less, here, on earth.  How can Satan cast out Satan, he asks?  Divided, anyone falls, he reminds, and for the record, he reminds us still further, I’ve bound him up. 

Just before this little lesson, Mark relates to us that Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him, as we have come this morning.  And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.  There is it. 

By proclaiming the good news, that there is forgiveness even when it is in short supply, even in the midst of hate, it is then that we cast out demons, and we weaken the power that enmity holds in the world.  The Holy Spirit within us, God’s grace within us, is the source for living without restraint, so let us not blaspheme against it.  Instead, let us tap into it, let us receive it in the host, let us tap into it, let us not lose heart, let us tap into it, let us wait for the Lord by forgiving others.  The way not to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is recognize what is within us and to wait.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us wait for the Lord in the knowledge of our own forgiveness. 

More than watchmen for the morning, let us hope in the Word made flesh.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us keep asking for the inspiration to know what is right.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us ask for guidance in acting upon it.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us never give in to the power that hate holds in the world.  More than watchmen for the morning, let us ask for forgiveness when we do.  More than watchmen for the morning, may we forgive others as we have been forgiven, for in forgiving, God’s will is done, and we find life unrestrained on earth as it is in heaven.

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Remember the Sabbath?

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Remember the Sabbath?

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 3, 2018

I wonder if you have heard or use the phrase “play clothes.”  Specifically I wonder if you use this phrase with your children, or if you’re a child, for yourself.  I wonder if you differentiate between “Sunday clothes” and “play clothes.” 

When I was a child, we had strict delineations between parts of our wardrobe; there were the clothes we might wear to school, and there were the clothes we wore to church--our “Sunday best.”  Always a jacket and tie, or a little suit, or something that just came out for Sundays or special events. 

And then, there was another designation for clothing:  play clothes.  For you see, after church on Sunday, we’d go visiting.  We’d often visit my great grandmother, who lived in the country.  And we’d leave right after church and go to her house, about half an hour away, for lunch.  But after lunch, we would change out of our “Sunday clothes” and into our “play clothes”--and the afternoon was ours.  In our play clothes we could run and play and get dirty and no one minded.

Woe be unto the child who got grass stains on her Sunday best--but in play clothes everything was forgivable.  Everything could wash out.

Sunday was always a time for church and family.  Shops were closed, many restaurants were closed, and we didn’t mow the lawn or do any sort of work except the kind involving hospitality--cooking meals, bringing people food, having friends over.  Maybe there was a pickup softball game in the backyard, but team sports didn’t practice on Sundays.  There were no soccer games to go to on Sunday; we just kicked a ball around in the backyard with our cousins.  

And if, when we were driving to my great grandmother’s house, we saw a road crew working, or a construction crew making repairs to a building or a bridge, it was unusual.  We wondered what had happened.  We were sorry they were working on a day off.  On the Sabbath.

Because that’s what Sunday was for us.  A day off.  A day to go to church, to see family, to see friends, to rest and relax. 

Jewish families and some Seventh Day Adventists might have Saturday for the Sabbath, but for us it was Sunday.  And thanks to the labor movement, both Saturday and Sunday were generally free days.  I was urged to finish my homework on Friday so that the weekend would be free for play, for church, and for visiting family.  We didn’t work on Sunday.

That’s rapidly changing in our society today.  The idea of being free from work, of being “off” work, of taking a break, is almost elusive.  I hear again and again from parents with children, from grandparents, about the constant and persistent stream of events that young people are scheduled for--soccer practice, soccer games, dance recitals, school plays, birthday parties--how can one person fit it all in?  And so Sundays have become taken up by all these events--practice, sporting events, school meetings.  One father I spoke to a few weeks ago lamented how hard it was to come to church with his family.  There was always something demanding their time.  Do we go to the soccer match or come to church?  Will Sarah be penalized for missing tennis practice because she comes to mass on Sunday morning?

I know many of you who work on Sundays--who leave this place to get just a few more hours in the office, to deal with a few more emails, to finish up that report that’s due on Monday morning.  The pace is unrelenting. 

When is there Sabbath rest?  When is there time to stop, to stop work, to stop being busy, to stop and just be.  If we take a break, won’t we fall behind as someone else gets ahead?  Won’t our children miss out on the extracurricular activities they need to get into college?  Won’t our families suffer if we don’t make every event we can?  And with this much going on, how can we even justify finding time to stop, to slow down, to come to mass?  And yet you have.  And here we are, together. 

In the gospel lesson today we hear that the Pharisees have criticized Jesus’s followers for picking grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus replies that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath… “(Mark 2:27)  And as though to drive the point home, Jesus, in another incident, heals a man, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath.  The religious Pharisees are enraged.  Jesus has broken the laws of the Sabbath. 

Now, it’s easy to make light of those laws as Christians.  As gentiles, we don’t have the same strict rabbinical rules around the Sabbath.  We can drive cars, go to parties, bake a cake, cook a meal.

I recently ordered a light switch cover to keep folks from turning off a light in a particular corner of the parish house that, because I live here and come in and out through that door late at night, I like to leave on.  It’s good to have a little bit of light in the darkness of winter, and so I ordered the light switch cover.  It arrived, $5 from Amazon, from a manufacturer in Brooklyn.  The packaging made it clear that this product could help keep you from accidentally turning off your light switch on the Sabbath! 

It’s a great light switch cover, just perfect, and it works just as advertised.  And though I’m not worried about the moral implications of turning on and off the lights in this particular corner of the building, I was reminded of the very clear rules around the Sabbath our Jewish sisters and brothers have.  The kinds of rules the Pharisees were concerned about.  If Jesus is a Jewish teacher, how’s he breaking the laws about the Sabbath?  Is it true that Jesus is saying that the rules don’t matter?  The Sabbath is made for man, not the other way around!  Don’t worry about those pesky rules.  Go ahead and turn that light switch off.

I once served at a Saturday evening wedding, as the officiant, where the maid of honor was Jewish.  It was summer, and the days were long.  The bride knew that her best friend, the maid of honor, was a religious Jewish woman; she could come to the wedding, a religious service; she wasn’t violating any of the Sabbath restrictions she observed in taking the subway, in walking down the aisle, in witnessing the wedding.  But at the end of the service, about seven thirty in the evening, as the bride and groom signed the wedding license, the maid of honor took me aside and said she needed to wait until sundown to sign the civil document, the marriage license, for her friend.  As dusk fell everyone packed up and left the church to go to the reception.  And the maid of honor and I waited.  We walked outside and looked up at the night sky.  And she watched.  She waited.  I called my friends to say I’d be late for dinner.  And she waited until she could see three stars -- not an easy task in light-filled Manhattan. When she saw the third star she came inside, we signed the marriage license, and she headed off to the reception.  Her Sabbath was over.

Her Sabbath wasn’t about rest, or fun, or relaxation.  It wasn’t about an escape from doing something, an escape from work.  Her Sabbath was even a little inconvenient, truth be told.  Her Sabbath was about none of those things.

Her Sabbath was about God.  Keeping God first, even in the midst of a fun social occasion.

She may have been the most religious person at the Christian wedding, because she knew her life, first and foremost, depended on God.    Her Sabbath was an act of prayer and praise.  And the time we spent waiting was itself a prayer.

In our secular world we may think of “time off” as rest, as relaxation and refreshment.  And that’s certainly good; there is no end to the psychological and physiological benefits of taking a break, of getting rest.  And I recognize that, as we enter this summer season, that we need breaks.  We need rest.  We need a time to recharge, to regroup--for our brains and bodies to process what’s been happening, and to prepare us for what’s next.

I hope you get some rest time this summer--some time to be with friends or family or just alone.  Some time to think.  Some time not to think!  To read a good book or catch up on correspondence or just stop what you’re doing, to be thankful for the here and now and not work for what’s coming next.

But I hope you get some Sabbath, too.  For what the maid of honor taught me, what the Pharisees are so worried about, what all those Sabbath laws are about, is that Sabbath is about time for God.  Sabbath is about stopping what we’re doing and giving God our time.  About realizing and naming and enacting that God is first, above all things.

The Pharisees were afraid--they couldn’t see how breaking Sabbath was about God; breaking God’s law, surely, was defying God.  But they didn’t realize that God God’s own incarnate Son was there, showing them the truth of the law, showing them what Sabbath can look like.

Sabbath involves stopping to feed the hungry--to heal the sick--because these things look like the love of God enacted.  “Imagine a world where love is the way,” Bishop Curry said to Megan and Harry--and to the world watching--at their wedding two weeks ago. 

Sabbath involves stopping to give time for ourselves to be fed, for ourselves to heal, to pay attention to our connectedness with God and God’s creation, with one another.  Sabbath involves putting God first -- which takes time.

And so we stop what we’re doing.  We pray.  We come to church.  We spend time with one another, putting off for another day the things that have been left undone--not merely to rest--but to be reminded again of our connection with God.  To put God first.

When I am trying to make a decision about what to do, about how to spend my time, I often ask myself a question my mother used to ask me:  In ten years, in 20 years, will I remember the decision I’m making now?  Will the outcome matter in a decade or more?  And often that helps me re-align what I’m doing.  Spending the time with God will matter in a decade, in a lifetime, forever.  Whether I’ve finished the report or made it to the cookout or soccer match--maybe that’ll matter for a year or two, but not for a lifetime.

And that’s what my parents were modeling for us when we were growing up.  Leaving church and changing into our “play clothes” wasn’t about rest or leisure or relaxation.  It was about relationship.   Relationship with God, and with one another.  About connecting.  About taking time to be fed, to heal.  About keeping God first. 

In this world where there are so many things that demand our attention, so many places to be, so many things we have to do to keep up, so many things that call out to us--as we enter this summer season when resting and relaxing is raised up culturally to a high standard--I invite us to think about Sabbath.  About what it means, and how we do it.

It’s not merely about rest; it’s about connecting with God.  About responding to God’s love and abundance.

And I invite us to measure everything we do--all the decisions we make about our time--through the lens of Sabbath. 

How does this keep God first?

How am I feeding and healing, being fed, being healed.  How is this use of my time praising God? 

Let us look for God in our lives, in our work, in our rest, in the world around us.  For he is already there, calling out to us in love.

Comment

Remember to Keep the Feast

Comment

Remember to Keep the Feast

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Corpus Christi
May 31, 2018

Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth, and forevermore. Amen.

In his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Saint Paul reminds them of the tradition he himself has inherited. The very tradition that was passed down to him, which he has taught them about Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.

Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

Richard Hays, former Dean and professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, writes, “[that when Saint Paul speaks of what he has received] he does not mean that he learned about the Lord’s Supper in some unmediated experience of revelation but that he received it “from the Lord” is in the sense that it was Jesus himself who originated the tradition of sharing the bread and cup as a sign of his death and of the new covenant… Even though there were no written Gospels in [Saint] Paul’s time, the telling of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection stood at the center of Christian proclamation from the beginning.”[1] In other words, to speak of Jesus: his love, his care for the poor and disenfranchised, and for those of need of healing and mercy, is to speak about his death and resurrection.

Saint Paul is not giving the Corinthians some new information about the Lord’s Supper; rather, he is recalling to mind the story that he told them about the foundational moment, that redemptive event, a story that they themselves repeat - or should repeat - every time they gather at table.[2].

Before the Church, its rituals and order were hashed out, let alone solidified in any one shape, the Church gathered to simply break bread as Jesus taught his disciples on the night of his capture. This simple act of taking, breaking, and receiving bread and sharing the cup is at the heart of the Christian faith.

As simple as this act might seem, Christians in Corinth were having some difficulties.

What we would find in Corinth is a Christian church divided by wealth, class, and status. Christians with great financial means would offer great banquets to remember our Lord’s Last Supper. As was the costume, then and now, all are invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper, however, not all were allowed to participate. While rich homeowners would generously offer a meal in remembrance of our Lord’s Supper and share with their friends, they would offer nothing to the rest of the gathered body. And these were, of course, the poor, the widow, and slaves, some were not even invited inside. It’s as if at Mass we decided to only commune those we knew or simply liked, those who were of a certain social class or economic background or a select skin tone.

There was something amiss in Corinth, most concerning, the Lord’s Supper was being corrupted. “The problem was not that the Christians at Corinth were failing to say the right words but that their enactment of the word is deficient: their self-serving actions obscure the meaning of the supper so thoroughly that it no longer points to Christ’s death and [resurrection]”[3] Rather, than pointing to God’s love, his care for the poor and disenfranchised, it was pointing to our human sin and greed. Preventing them from receiving the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, which are, as described in our Prayer Book, the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.

When Saint Paul retells the story it is to spotlight the death of Jesus as the central meaning of the supper. What Saint Paul’s reminds the Church in Corinth, what Saint Paul reminds the Church in New Haven, are the words of Jesus. That our Supper, our Holy Eucharist, is the Last Supper of Jesus.

In his commentary, Professor Hays points out that one of “the most striking features of [Saint] Paul’s recounting of the tradition is the emphasis he places on memory: The church is twice instructed to “do this in remembrance of me.” This act of remembrance links the Lord’s Supper with the Passover. The Passover is to be “a day of remembrance for you,” a day in which Israel recalls God’s deliverance others people from bondage. In the same way, the Lord’s supper is to be an occasion for the people of God to remember God‘s action of deliverance through the death of Jesus.”[4]

This is why when we celebrate the Eucharist in this place, the priest proclaims “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” What we are doing in this place is offering Christ’s Passover, following his own instruction. And in following in Jesus and his command we are participating in his life, and he is present here with us in the substance of bread and wine. What more can we say to this great truth than, “Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

You’ve come here to remember that Jesus is Lord, made known to us in bread and wine. I invite you to stare at what’s really in front of you, bread. Bread that we believe is something far greater. When you look at that bread, I invite you to hold on to that image and walk around New Haven. Seeking God in bread and in the ordinary.

 


[1] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 197.

[2] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 198.

[3] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 200.

[4] Hays, R. B. (2011). First Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press. 198-199.

Comment

In Adoration

Comment

In Adoration

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Trinity Sunday
May 27, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, the Church Catholic celebrates through its prayer, worship, and praise the nature of God. The divine Trinity of persons is lifted up, in a special way creating for us a heighten awareness of God’s full reality. Today, above all days, we celebrate the fullness of God.

And like all Feasts of the Church, this Feast calls us to focus our attention on a divine truth that’s always been with us and will always be true.

Just as God shares in our humanity in the Incarnation we celebrate on Christmas Day, and just as God is raised from dead forever on Easter, today, we remember God, the Most Holy Trinity, this day and always.

Like many of the Church’s Feasts, this day invites us to center ourselves in the divine mystery of God. Focusing us to dwell in God’s nature, God’s reality, first and foremost through our worship experience in this place.

After all, all the Feasts of the Church invite us to praise God for his mighty works and at the same to find ourselves in the midst of what we’ve come to celebrate. In other words, this Feast, this day, Trinity Sunday, is as much about God as it is about us.

We come to understand the Trinity most fully, and most intimately, primarily through our worship and praise of God through prayer, litanies, and glorious hymns and anthems. Our grasping of the Most Holy Trinity is attained through our acts of devotion. Through art and hymns, the Church comes closer to grasp God’s divine nature.

If you had the chance to read this week’s Epistle, you received a quick refresher on some of the images and explanations for the Trinity. Fr Stephen pointed us to one image in particular, Andrei Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity.

Borrowing imagery and symbolism from the Book of Genesis, Rublev writes for us a divine image of the three persons of Trinity seating around a table. All three persons are distinct, and at the same time seem drawn to each other in a deep and intimate way. The persons of the Trinity, as Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, are in divine Union with each other. And this divine union we see a glimpse of our own destiny, we too shall come to divine Union with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as they are in Union with each other we shall be in Union with God.

Rublev’s depiction of the Trinity, like any depiction, manages to capture the truth of this wonderful mystery without being able to encompass all of it.

And this is a good thing. After all, there is no human image, theology, or summa that is able to capture the full nature of God. Rather, all of it, all the art and theology, affirms for us what God has already revealed to us. Pointing us to the fullness of God which we will all encounter on the last day.

Our art, our theology, and our prayers acts as our yes to God. It is our affirmation that We believe in one God. As if we were the Blessed Mother, Mary most holy, when we speak of the Most Holy Trinity, when we utter the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are saying “yes” to God and proclaiming who God is, who God has always been, and who God will always be.

At Mass, our opening acclamation: Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, captures at least two powerful points. It affirms God’s divine nature and calls us back to our Baptism. You and I, and all the baptized, and the soon to be baptized, are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are are baptized in the name of God, bringing us one step closer to Union with God. Not in the form of a great singularity or as a fusion with God but as the Trinity itself, we enter into utter intimate harmony with God.

If you’re anything like me, you have an interest in religious art. Guessing that you’re here, where we’re surrounded by religious art, I think it’s a safe bet to make that you enjoy religious art, even if just a bit. One of the most powerful pieces of relgious art of 19th century is arguably Jean-François Millet’s renowned painting “The Angelus.”

If you’re not familiar with this painting, I commend that you search for images of “The Angelus.” You will find thousands of images online, as well as thousands of websites to purchase printed copies. It’s really that popular.

The painting depicts two farmers bowing in a field over a basket of potatoes to say a prayer, the Angelus, that together with the ringing of the bell from the church on the horizon marks the end of a day's work.

“The Angelus” both the painting and the prayer itself, capture for us God’s divine action in the Incarnation and in the faithfulness of the Blessed Mother.

If I were to follow in the vein of the French artist, and attempt to capture the reality of the Most Holy Trinity, well… I would paint a picture of all of you.

I would paint a picture of you from the altar looking towards the tabernacle as we offer to God our sacrifices and gifts of bread and wine. I would paint the reflection I see of you every time I lift chalice at mass. I would paint our participation in the Trinity through our prayer and worship of God. I would paint Teddy's Baptism, in which he is baptized in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… I would paint our choir singing of Te Deum as clouds of incense fill this sacred space.

And yet my depiction, like your own depictions of the Most Holy Trinity, only point us to the true and full nature of God. A reality we might not be able to fully understand or comprehend but one that we are able to adore and worship. A reality that makes us sing:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts:
Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory.
Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.

Amen.

Comment

Come, Holy Spirit

Comment

Come, Holy Spirit

Mr Zachary Fletcher
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
May 20, 2018

"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."  Please be seated.

It’s hard for me to think of a place more annoying than airport security.  With each passing year, at least in America, my experiences in airport security seem to get more and more anxious.  I’m so afraid of getting in the wrong line, or upsetting one of the TSA officers.  And those creepy body-scanning machines...  Anyway, it seems that based on my experience, airport security is forever doomed to be a miserable place that puts me, and everyone else, on edge.

So whenever I have a pleasant or interesting interaction with someone in airport security, it’s all the more memorable.  I have one such memory from several years ago.  I had just been in Bermuda for Spring Break.  Now as you might imagine, Bermudian airport security is much more laid-back than anything we have in the States.  The lines were so short, and the officer inspecting my backpack was super nice.  I was studying Greek back then, and the officer came across my Greek textbook.  He says, “Ah, I see you’re studying Greek!”  I say, “Oh yes, that’s me!”  So he says, “You know, I’ve been trying to teach myself Hebrew.”  He leans in, as if to tell a secret: “When God created the world, he was speaking Hebrew.”

I don’t remember how I responded to that.  I probably just smiled and nodded, but I was laughing inside.  I thought, what does that even mean?  God speaking Hebrew?  Seriously?  God doesn’t speak anything!

But I’ve been reflecting on what that Bermudian officer said, about God speaking Hebrew.  And guess what?  I’ve come around.  I think he’s right.  What do I mean by this?

Our religion descends from Judaism.  The Hebrew Bible, which we believe contains God’s promises to his people as revealed in his relationship with Israel, is almost totally Hebrew.  In that context, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom we call God the Father, is understood as the universal Creator, but the narrative of his activities in the world takes place in a particular language, Hebrew.  So in that sense, yes, God did create the world in Hebrew, because that story is a Hebrew story.

And if God the Father speaks Hebrew, then what about Jesus?

While Jesus may have known Hebrew for liturgical purposes, and maybe some Greek, his native language was Aramaic.  This means that the Christian message, from its earliest beginnings, was originally happening among people like Jesus who lived in a world of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, a very particular context.

So if God the Father speaks Hebrew, and if Jesus speaks Aramaic, then what does the Holy Spirit speak?

Maybe I’m jumping the gun a little bit.  I probably shouldn’t talk about the Trinity too much, since Trinity Sunday is next week.  I’m not assigned to preach Trinity Sunday.  And yet, this question is immediately relevant to what we’re celebrating today.  What language does the Holy Spirit speak?

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  We’ve already gotten a little demonstration of the answer to that question, during our reading from Acts.  You probably noticed, it was different from how we usually read lessons at Christ Church.  And that’s what we learn on Pentecost: we might say, the Holy Spirit speaks every language.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit, the moment when the message of God in Jesus – once understood as particularly Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – began to be heard more widely, more universally, among people, Jews and non-Jews, who spoke all kinds of languages.  It’s the Holy Spirit, newly given to the world at Pentecost, which would help the disciples tell people about Jesus and build the Church in every language under the sun.

This is miraculous work.  Notice what the crowd says when they see the disciples speaking other languages: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”  In other words, despite the particular Jewish identity of these disciples, their stories of “God’s deeds of power” are heard by all present, regardless of national origin, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And it’s no coincidence that this is happening on Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή, the Greek term for the Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot, occurring on the fiftieth day after Passover.  It’s no coincidence that God’s definitive gift of the Holy Spirit is predicted by the Jewish prophet Joel.  This is part of the Pentecost miracle.  It’s only through God’s particular revelation to the Jews that the story of Jesus makes any sense.  On Pentecost, we come to recognize that story as universal, through our own very particular languages and cultures.

This is the mystery of Pentecost, which extends all the way to today.  We may not speak Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek – as we just witnessed during the reading from Acts, we speak a number of other languages.  And yet we have still received the good news of Jesus Christ.  The message of Jesus has been passed to us, two thousand years later, in a totally different cultural context from the one we read about in Acts.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  So however you understand this bizarre scene as reported in Acts – the “rush of a violent wind”; the “divided tongues, as of fire… resting on” the disciples – make no mistake that we are participating right now in the miraculous reality of Pentecost.  We, the Church, would not be here without Pentecost.  As members of Christ’s Body in baptism, our fellowship transcends not just linguistic barriers, but also time and space as we know it.  Just as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to build the first churches, that same Spirit is working today, calling the people of God together, in all their languages, into the One Church of Christ.

And what is the purpose of this unity, brought about by the Holy Spirit?  As we read in the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit empowers the Church to show a world enslaved to sin the true way back to God.  Of course, that true way is… Jesus.  Jesus says, “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world wrong about judgment: […] because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  The ruler he’s talking about is the Devil.  Our culture worships the Devil in so many ways.  The news cycle, with its endless stream of violence and hatred – and it’s not getting any better – reminds me of how we, as individuals and as a culture, are addicted to sin.  As we’ve seen once again this week, we’re addicted, and thus enslaved, to a false logic that values “freedom” over the dignity of other human lives.  It’s not just about guns; it’s about so much more than guns.  Without the Holy Spirit, who condemns the Devil and all his works, and who shows by contrast what holiness looks like, we remain totally lost, unable to understand the gravity of our individual and corporate sin.  If we are open to receiving it, the Holy Spirit exposes the poverty of our own, chronically misconceived human judgment, and corrects it with God’s eternally perfect wisdom.  And that’s the best, most liberating thing that could happen to us.

This is why we need the Holy Spirit.  And no matter what language we speak, we must listen for the Spirit’s wisdom, as Christians living in such a time as this.  So, let us pray with the Church today, on this Pentecost Sunday, with Christian hope that our prayer will be answered: Come, Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Comment

The Rule of Love

Comment

The Rule of Love

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
May 6, 2018

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            For most of my early childhood my mother ran a daycare out of our home. She usually watched over ten or so children, of whom I was the youngest and most feared. Though some struggle to believe it now, I was a very wild child who struggled with behavioral issues. I was full of energy and had a very active imagination that often spilled over into troublesome behavior. I was scolded many times for pestering and chasing much older children around our expansive backyard. When the time came for me to begin preschool my mother was certain I would be the problem child of the class. She warned my teacher to prepare a special section of time-out reserved just for me. After a few weeks of school my teacher came to my mother and expressed her deep confusion. ‘I’m not sure what you were talking about,’ she told my mother. ‘Patrick is the most well-behaved member of the class. He is an angel.’ My mother was baffled. At home I was still the wild and disorderly child that I had always been, but at school I was on my best behavior. It turns out that I love rules and can thrive in a clearly structured environment.

            This love and reverence for rules has followed me throughout my life, especially in my faith journey. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition in which prayer was almost always extemporaneous. When I came to the Anglican tradition, I discovered the Book of Common Prayer and its rich cycles of daily, weekly, and yearly prayer that are governed by an at times elaborate system of rules. I was at home. I poured myself into this way of being and praying and found it to be so life-giving. The structure and rubrics of the Prayer Book became second nature. It all felt very good and I had a sense of deep connection with God.

I carried this love with me to seminary, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that there were some major distortions at the heart of this system. One morning in Berkeley’s St. Luke’s Chapel a student officiant leading us in morning prayer offered the opening versicle ‘Lord open our lips,’ and we good seminarians responded with gusto ‘And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.’ We continued with the ‘Glory be’ and moved toward the invitatory psalm. Those of you acquainted with the rhythm of Morning Prayer may know that this psalm is often bookended by an antiphon, a short sentence that varies with the seasons of the liturgical year. In Easter, for example, we say, ‘Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.’ That morning as we continued our prayers the officiant offered an antiphon that was not ‘allowed’ for the season of the church year in which we found ourselves. ‘How could they!’ I thought. They used the wrong antiphon!! I was so distracted I missed the entirety of the invitatory psalm, and was then reminded again (!) of this travesty when the same ‘incorrect’ antiphon was offered again.

I was so consumed with the ways in which I thought this minor breach of the rubrics hindered our common prayer that I completely missed the psalms, the lessons, canticle, and homily. By the end of the liturgy I had calmed down a bit, but my fervor was reignited when, after the service, I grabbed a cup of coffee and had a conversation with my colleague who had served as officiant. In hindsight I want to believe I was trying to control myself, but in truth I know I was just waiting for the opportunity to let this person know of this great antiphon tragedy. A comment was finally made about the morning’s service, and I was ready to pounce. ‘You used the wrong antiphon,’ I said with a gleeful smugness. My colleague gave a bit of a shoulder shrug and that was that. I was indignant. Another colleague joined in and asked what I meant. I rigorously defended my position, confident that I was in the right. She listened closely to me and then asked, ‘But why does that matter to you so much? We still prayed, and God was worshiped.’ I sputtered and struggled to get something out about the importance of following rules, of communal prayer, and of saying the same words, as my level of anger rose. Unsatisfied with my answer, she asked again. I was by then incredibly frustrated and decided to excuse myself from the conversation. I knew I was right and they were wrong, and someone this felt so important to me. The antiphon, Patrick! This is of critical importance!! The Prayer Book says so clearly! I went home and continued to reflect on what had transpired. My arrogance quickly turned to embarrassment. I began to see that I had actually been the one who hindered our common prayer. My desire to follow the rules had prevented me from actually praying and connecting with God. My reverence for rules had become idolatry.

            We live in a world filled with rules, and necessarily so I should add. Without the structures of government that establish and enforce the diverse laws that enable our society to function, we would sink into a world of anarchy. Rules are not inherently bad things. We benefit from shared understandings that one is required to drive on a certain side of the road and to observe certain traffic laws. We benefit from having laws that identify unacceptable behavior and punish those who offend. Rules and commandments are, of course, not restricted to the secular and political world. As Christians we believe God has given us certain commandments to follow, and we hear about them in today’s readings. First, let us consider the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which gives an important example of how the early Christian community grappled with these commandments.

            This reading describes one of the most revolutionary moments in the history of the early church, though unfortunately for us we only heard a small portion of this story that spans the entire tenth chapter of Acts. The chapter begins with a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort who lived in Caesarea (10:1), a city far to the north of Jerusalem that served as the headquarters of the Roman governor. Cornelius is immediately identified as the ‘other’ and an outsider from this early Christian group centered among Jews in Jerusalem. Despite this identification, Cornelius is also described as a ‘devout man who feared God with his whole household’ and who ‘prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). The story tells us Cornelius had a vision in which an angel of God came to him and instructed him to send men to Joppa to get Simon Peter. Cornelius dutifully follows instructions, and then the author of Acts shifts the perspective to Peter. While praying outside on a roof, Peter has a vision in which heaven opens and a large sheet comes down containing all forms of four-footed creatures. Peter hears a voice instructing him to, ‘Kill and eat’ (10:13). Being a good pious Jew, Peter exclaims, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean’ (10:14). The voice comes a second time, this time telling Peter, ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane’ (10:15).

            Peter wakes from this trance and is quite puzzled by what this vision could mean. At that very moment, the men sent by Cornelius come seeking Peter. The Spirit comes and tells Peter to follow them. The next day they travel to Caesarea and upon their arrival they find many assembled in the house of Cornelius. Peter reminds this group of the strangeness of this situation: ‘you yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean’ (10:28). Peter then begins to speak to them and tell them about Jesus, ‘how he went about doing good and healing’ (10:38), about his death on the cross, his rising from the dead on the third day, and how he had charged his followers with proclaiming this message.

            Today’s reading picks up at the end of this speech. As Peter is giving it, the Holy Spirit comes upon all the Gentiles gathered there. The circumcised believers who came with Peter are ‘astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles’ (10:45). Even the Gentiles. Can’t you imagine what they were thinking? ‘Those people aren’t like us; they are outsiders; they don’t belong. The rules tell us they are to be avoided and excluded. We shouldn’t have even come here in the first place. It is not lawful for us to associate with them.’ They were astounded. How could the Holy Spirit come upon these Gentiles? It seems Peter, too, continued to be surprised by what was unfolding. He asks, ‘can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ (10:47). The answer is, of course, no, and I think Peter knew that. Nothing can stop the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blows where it chooses and cannot be contained.

            This story can be thought of as a Gentile Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is lavishly given to those thought to be outside the inner circle, and in the process boundaries are torn down, rules are broken, and diverse peoples are united. Such is the way of the Holy Spirit. Lest we think this experience is one known only by the early church, I remind us of the many ways in which the institution of the Church throughout its history has developed systems and rules that create boundaries and draw lines, marking those who are in and those who are out. For too long people have been excluded because of their gender, because of the gender of the one they love, because of skin color, place of origin, language spoken, the list goes on. For too long the institution lived by these rules and found great safety in them. But as the reading from Acts reminds us, nothing can contain that mighty power of the Holy Spirit. I thank God that the Holy Spirit has come and shaken up our church in recent times to consider these questions, to consider how our rules might actually be serving to exclude or oppress those whom God is seeking out.

            But how are we to know it is the Holy Spirit moving among us? How are we to truly discern whether the Holy Spirit is pushing us to new life or if it is something else motivating us, either societal or political pressure. The answer, it seems, is found in today’s gospel, where Jesus too is talking about commandments and rules. One commandment in particular, however, is highlighted as the greatest. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ This is the same commandment from the thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel, the one we hear every Maundy Thursday when Jesus gives his disciples this ‘new commandment’ after the footwashing. ‘Love one another, as I have loved you,’ he tells us. Though it might be easy to believe that love is always a warm and comfortable thing, Jesus reminds us of the pain and sacrifice that love sometimes requires. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13). And of course he would soon demonstrate that great love to his friends by giving himself up to death on the cross. And that, my friends, is the image of perfect love. Love isn’t always easy, but it is always the way that leads to life and to joy. Jesus said, ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11).

            This commandment of love is a means by which we can measure all our other rules. This is one that can never lead us astray. We will know we are following in the way of Jesus and we will know we are being guided by the Holy Spirit when we abide in that radical, reckless, sacrificial, life-giving way of love. Friends, abide in that love, and you will not go astray. Abide in that love as Jesus abides with the Father, and you will know joy.

            I still love rules and like to follow them. I still think it’s important to follow the rubrics of the Prayer Book, and yes, I still think it’s important to use the correct antiphon. But I now understand that all of these things must be taken as guides that help us to follow Jesus’ ultimate

commandment, to love another and abide in God’s love. I pray that we might be open to the surprising ways in which the Holy Spirit is moving among us, disrupting, breaking down boundaries, but always leading us into that fullness of God’s love. May you rest this day in that abiding love and experience the complete joy that comes only through our triune God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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