Month: May 2017

…and They have Received Them

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, and we observed it at our Wednesday Eucharist.  The conversations with Jesus present with his disciples are over and he ascends to heaven. It is still another week before Pentecost, when the church celebrates the Holy Spirit breaking into the church.  From the standpoint of the church’s liturgical narrative, this is an odd time.  You might think, “Jesus is gone and the Spirit isn’t here.” That might make some anxious. Of course, people do get anxious. There are lots of times that people get anxious. And sometimes clergy get anxious about stopping anxiety. But there is one thing that stops that anxiety: It is knowing the truth.

The Gospel lesson today is from Jesus’ long prayer at the end of the supper with his disciples, just before his arrest. It is often called his “High Priestly Prayer.” The truth, from any perspective, was that this was the end of this journey together with these disciples. There was no turning back, and no return to the good old days of wandering around Galilee, teaching and healing and doing miracles. Jesus says this:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

He does not deny the pain of separation or of his death. Yet in his prayer he knows that what his disciples needed, they have gained from him: “For the words that you gave to me I have given to them and they have received them.”

At this point in the Gospel, the resurrection still lies ahead. In the time between Easter morning and the Ascension, he taught them to interpret and understand the scriptures: “It is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” as it says in the Gospel of Luke as it is read on the Ascension. These are things that could not be understood or appreciated without the experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And then he told them, “You are witnesses of these things.” His followers now hold within themselves the whole truth of Jesus, and as witnesses they are responsible for living that truth and sharing it.

And so, at this point, Jesus leaves his followers to it. Jesus ascended to his Father and they are responsible for being his witnesses, his church. At this moment, they are left with that. It is enough, the Gospel is within them. Without any miraculous pyrotechnics or miracles, or sure signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, nonetheless they have the Truth within them and that suffices.

I spoke last week about the Holy Spirit, and next week will be Pentecost with the tongues of fire and many languages and all that. The Holy Spirit is essential in the life of God’s church. But this quiet time, these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, are not a time of being bereft or anxious, it is a time of hope, of being responsible for living in the Truth and being its witnesses. Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning ends with their return to the city, to that upper room, and it lists not only the Eleven, but also several other disciples including women and it says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Notice that unlike the time before they had seen the resurrected Jesus, they are not waiting fearfully, but praying, living in hope, integrating that truth into their lives. Next steps would come, but first they prayed and envisioned.

It has been just short of ten months that I have had the privilege of being here with you. We’ve looked a little bit at Jesus, and a bit at ourselves as a congregation, and mostly we have known the compassion of God in one another.  The good things that we have learned, we carry with us, in our hearts.  I carry with me the generosity of spirit I have seen at St. James, the experience of seniors doing ministry, and taking joy that it is not for their own benefit—blessing pets in the public square, extending themselves to serve and welcome Special Needs Kids and their families for celebration and worship on their own terms and their own times, providing a Community Garden that serves and draws together diverse aspects of the community of Lincoln, California. If you have received anything of value from me, it will dwell in your heart, whether I am here or not. Jesus is still the man from God’s point of view, and it is he that blesses us with his compassion and good humored acceptance.

Thank you for welcoming both Paula and me. She particularly asked me to extend her thanks for warmly including her. I have experienced the healing power of the nurturing acceptance of this congregation—don’t underestimate how important it is for people in need of healing to have your quiet and wise presence. That is a foundation for new things, perhaps significantly different than now or the past. Humbly living the compassion of God, and accepting people, including their hurts and anxieties, makes it possible to live hopefully in all circumstances.

Here’s how our lesson from the first letter of Peter ends:

“Resist the Slanderer or Devil, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

Called to our side

A sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, May 21, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Jesus is talking here about the sending of the Holy Spirit. The word that Jesus uses that is translated as Advocate, is parakletos—Paraclete. Greek likes to make verb constructions into nouns and in this case, what it means is “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems or a friend to stand along with a friend in need. So, Jesus is talking with his disciples about his own departure, his crucifixion, and he says, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another one to stand with you.” Jesus stands with us and God calls the Holy Spirit to stand with us in our life.

But what does that mean? The Holy Spirit is understood and misunderstood in many ways by many people, Christian and otherwise. And even those who claim direct experience of the Holy Spirit—surely most of them have some experience—but how do we know it is the Holy Spirit? What does Jesus have to say in our Gospel today? It starts, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And the passage ends, “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The description of the Holy Spirit is about the love of God.

And it has to do with following Jesus commandments—but what are they?  If we have been reading directly through the Gospel of John, we know. In the chapter that has just ended, where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a commandment. In fact, it is his only commandment in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Period. That’s it. Easy enough. Of course, the way that Jesus loved his disciples and this world was costly indeed—that evening he was led away to be tried and executed. We are invited, commanded really, to become part of God’s love by loving God’s children, in the most costly way, by giving of ourselves.

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love.

The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together.

Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The Love of God is the Truth—as I talked about last week.  In the face of all the un-love, hatred and violence in this world, the Truth is the Love of God. Why can’t the world know this? First we should know that in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John, that term “World” has a specific and special meaning.  It refers to that realm that looks to itself and its own benefit—to succeed in that world makes one powerful and wealthy, and in the world’s eyes those things are all that count.  It was pretty much the values of the Roman Empire, at least of the ruling elites of that empire, but sharply distinct from the values of Christ and Christians.  The values of the world, of course, reassert themselves from time to time, and it is pretty easy to see that now is one of those times. The World has no room in its values for the love of God—it encourages love of self and protection of self, not being called to support those who are poor, or sorrowful, or passionate for justice. The World cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it cannot open itself to love—if it did, it would cease to be the World.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, it is much larger and more inclusive than the Spirit of the World, which rules by fear, and even those most successful in it are fearful, perhaps even more than those who are less successful. We can all be distracted and drawn in by the Spirit of the World from time to time. It’s possible to even try to steer the church by guides of worldly success and measurement. I’m not talking about good management here—the worldly success measures by power, money, and security—Christ measures by the commandment of love: are we living in love.

That’s the reason that the Holy Spirit can be so surprising—it’s not that the Holy Spirit is whimsical, or arbitrary. It’s not that the Holy Spirit is some sort of whoosh of feeling. The thing is, distractible as we are, pre-occupied with our own concerns as we are, we sometimes miss the love that God has for us, and for all God’s children. There are opportunities to be generous or compassionate that are suddenly pointed out—movements of the Holy Spirit—God’s love moving into the world. When we see it, and are incorporated in it, and able to act in the generosity of God’s compassion, it can be a wonderful feeling—but that feeling is not the Holy Spirit. The Love of God moving in this world is the Holy Spirit.

Take a moment to reflect over the past year. In your mind, picture how you have seen or experienced the love of God here at St. James. …  I know that I have. I have received healing and growth. I have seen good people reach out to care for others at times when it was important for someone to stand by them. I have seen the prayerful dedication of those working in the discernment process, seeking how God’s love can be manifested in the years to come in this church. It is fair to say that the movement of the Holy Spirit has been in many ways surprising to many of us. Not arbitrary, not unreasonable when you look at it, but yielding unexpected things that build God’s love in this place, as we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

He says, “I will not leave you orphaned… because I live, you also will live.” All of us are called at one time or another to stand with someone, to be their comforter or their guide.  It’s been a privilege to be called to be with you this past year. All that we have shared together we carry within ourselves.  We share in Christ. So for a time we sojourn together, but the Holy Spirit remains here, and in that Holy Spirit we live in Christ’s love, each of us, wherever we are called by God.

Show us the Father and we will be Satisfied

A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

How many are you are familiar with this number? 80 sextillion, 268 quintillion, 300 quadrillion? …. That’s the number of miles a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled since the big bang (give or take a few hundred quadrillion).  So you can imagine that right?  Maybe we can make it a bit more familiar—think of an airline pilot, flying the maximum number of hours per year over a 40-year career.  That might reach nearly 20 million miles—so this number is only a bit more than 400 trillion times that distance. The thing is, we don’t have any scale to make any sense of those distances. And over those distances what we might experience is vastly more diverse and unexpected than the variation between a life on a sailboat in the ocean, or living in the high desert where I grew up, or the dense, big city of New York, or the Himalayan mountains where my niece’s mother grew up. Reality: Richer, bigger and more complex than we can actually imagine.

The thing is, God is much bigger than that. 80 sextillion miles? In the palm of God’s hand. The truth is richer, bigger, deeper and more wonderful than we could ever fit into our minds. So even when we think we are being hard-headed and scientific, our minds work in a universe of metaphor.  So when Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the Father…” what could that mean? When it says, no one has ever seen God, it’s not because God is shy, or because God is hiding. In this world, where we cheapen words by using a dozen superlatives to describe things that are quite ordinary, God is truly in-comprehensible—more than the circuits of our brain can take in. And the person who thinks they might aspire to that… well they have to increase their brain power a little just to get to the point of seeing that they really can’t.

In a mechanistic universe, where physical manipulation was what counted, that would be all we could say. But that’s not where we live. God, the vast and the incomprehensible, is love. The source of life and the source of love embracing and upholding the universe. So show us—with all the un-love, death and destruction in this universe—show us the Father of Love.

Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was the one sent into this world, a person from God’s point of view, not from the point of view of human fearful confusion or self-serving hate, but the very image of the infinite God. Remember this, love is not just whatever we want it to be, all comfy and without pain or loss or challenge.

Those of you who were at Mary Pierce’s funeral two weeks ago, may remember that my homily was on this same lesson from John.  I will repeat a bit of what I said then: Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and he has given them the only commandment that he ever gave: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Judas has left the supper to go arrange his betrayal, and Jesus assured Peter, the one who was most confident and demonstrative about his dedication, that he too would deny him.  Those were the facts and Jesus says immediately, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus’ compassion was not about everything being just fine, or nothing to be troubled about. Jesus says this in the midst of a real loss.

We know the love of the infinite and eternal God in his son who was betrayed, executed, died and was raised by God from the dead.  God among us, and that’s how we can see and know God. I heard a review on the radio of a new documentary about Roger Stone, who is a political operator. He’s had a lot of recent success, and one thing that he has said more than once, is “hate is a stronger motivator than love.” He’s right of course. If you want a shortcut to power in this world, find what people fear and hate, then amplify and steer it. It’s much easier to find a thousand cowards to hate and kill, than fifty courageous people who will suffer in order to be compassionate to those who suffer. That does not change reality—the living God is the God of love, we see him, we know him, we can talk about him because we see and know who Jesus was, how he healed, and listened, and cared for those who suffer. How he stood up for them, and was taken up on the cross.  This talk of the origin of all things as love, is it strange? Is it made up? The creation is the intimate fruit of its creator, the creator created because he loves that creation.

Today is Mother’s Day. When we think of mothers, we can get all sentimental and tell a bunch of half-truths, or we can think about real mothers: my own, yours, your own experience of being a mother, or the husband of a mother, or a daughter or a son. There are all sorts of people who are mothers, but one thing they have in common, whether they like it or not, is an intimate relationship with a person. Sometimes a person becomes a mother by adoption, or nurtures others who are not their children. Other times a biological mother isn’t involved in the raising of her children, and sometimes women lose babies or are unable to have a child. And they grieve. But in every case that bond between a mother and child is a powerful connection—a creation of an independent life. The love between mothers and children is as complex as all of human life—the 3 a.m. feedings, or the meltdown of a mom who’s frustrated at no time for herself, are just as much a part of that love as the beautiful moments of affection and the joyful rewards of happy, growing children becoming responsible people in this world. It’s not just a responsibility, or a gift—it is real life moving forward in its deepest connection—the creators living for the creation.  And thanks are never what motherhood is about. Though these human beings who have become creators deserve our recognition and gratitude. Thus the Day, which is only a sign, not any real compensation.

Our life, and our world are God’s creation. In creating, God has bound himself as a mother is bound to her child. In Jesus, we know that God has not abandoned us, or left us to our fear and hatred. In Jesus we have the love of the Father and of the Mother, we know compassion and we are invited to live in that compassion—a life of love for others.

Here are the first and last sentences of our epistle lesson today from the first letter of Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—“ “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”

Let us live in God’s mercy and as God’s mercy and rejoice.

The gate of the sheepfold

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

Each year, the fourth Sunday of Easter’s Gospel reading is from the 10th chapter of John about Jesus the Good Shepherd. This year we get the first part, and a lot of it is about the sheepfold and its gate.  The image is of a pen built out on the hillside in the area where the sheep are grazing—usually in ancient Palestine, this was a stone enclosure. Such pens were often shared between the owners of different flocks of sheep.

That’s not much different from when my mother was in college and she spent a summer as a cowboy, working on the range with the cattle on her father’s grazing lease. A number of small ranchers had cattle in that area. Each rancher provided certain resources that were shared, the cattle went where they wanted, ate grass and drank water where they were available, and the cowboys sorted the cows out by their brands, and branded the calves who were at their mothers’ sides. In the sheepfold, the shepherd knew the individual sheep by sight, and had a name for each one.

We are used to sheepherders herding the sheep from behind, often using dogs to push them toward where they should go. However, one of my professors was meditating out in the wilderness in Palestine one day, when she heard a young man singing. When she looked up, she saw a shepherd walking in front of his flock and the sheep were following to their pasture.

So that’s the image that Jesus is using. The shepherd knows the sheep and calls them. They follow him because they trust him, and they know that it is him that they trust, because they know his voice.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about being the Model Shepherd, right after the episode where he healed the man who was born blind. That man who had always been blind could see and believe in who Jesus was, but the religious rulers could not see, and tried to bully him into denouncing Jesus. So Jesus tells the people what it takes to authentically lead God’s people. The true shepherd doesn’t burst in by force and seize the sheep—that is what a robber does.  The true shepherd approaches gently, respectfully and knows his own sheep, and they trust him and follow him.

In the New Testament it’s clear that there were many charlatans about, claiming to have the real word, claiming to be Christ or his representative. Sort of like now. Religious frauds abounded and the church was on its guard about those who would use religion to manipulate people and serve themselves, to seize power over others for exploitation rather than the compassion of Christ. And at this moment, Jesus was in a conflict with religious leaders who were acting out of their own fear, and distorting the law by narrowing it and interfering with its life-giving aspects.

So Jesus talks about being a Shepherd. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep.” That might refer to something like what we think of a gate or moveable wall for an enclosure. Or it might mean situations where shepherds would take their turns sleeping across the narrow opening of the sheepfold wall. Animals are unlikely to walk over a human being, and if they did he would wake up and rectify the problem.  In any case, Jesus says he is the gate of the sheep, in other words, he keeps the flock secure, and is there to stop those who would do violence to the flock.

“Whoever enters …will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus guards his community by compassion—he gives life and vitality—the green pasture, the sign of life, comfort and nourishment. That life is the life of his Resurrection—in this Easter season we know that the Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep, has come to give us life. It is not the priest, or any other earthly leader that is the Shepherd, it is Jesus and it is in the love of Jesus that we know that we are nurtured in that life of the resurrection.

Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles describes the church in those days shortly after the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostles knew the resurrection and lived without fear of this world, they trusted Jesus and the demons melted away. It says of the people,

They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common…

We should not exaggerate or romanticize this picture, or assume all early Christians lived in a commune. What I read here are two things, things we see as well in our own day, and even right here: a community of trust and generosity. They would gather, watch out for one another, and live in generosity of spirit, knowing and serving one another’s needs. And the other is the power of Christ’s teaching—the one who died on the cross and was raised by God from the dead, has taken away the power of fear, and of the demons of our collective fear, selfishness and anger. Marvelous things happen when people are no longer fearful—as it says, “Awe came over everyone.”

They heard the voice of the Shepherd and they followed him. And as we follow him: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”