Love

The Spirit helps in our Weakness

A sermon for the Feast of Pentecost, May 20, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. One version of that is the story in our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and everyone in their own language understands, while the apostles preach the Gospel.  But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it.

In the Gospel today Jesus is addressing his disciples, anticipating that he will soon leave them—this is at the Last Supper, shortly before his arrest. And Jesus assures them that they will not be alone: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” The church receives the Holy Spirit who continues Christ’s work among us and in the world.  Yet the world, the powers of selfishness, and service of power for the sake of domination is that very power that opposed Jesus and brought about his death.  Jesus says this: “When the Advocate comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” And “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The Truth that the Holy Spirit leads us into is reality—that is to say real, realistic reality—and that reality is the compassion of the God we know in Jesus.  We know that love of Jesus at the outset—any child can see it—yet it takes a whole lifetime to grow into that compassion.

The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.

St. Paul says this near the end of the passage read from his Letter to the Romans today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.

This passage appointed begins: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” A while ago, I read a wonderful book about the Roman Empire by Mary Beard called SPQR. While the book has little to do with religion and almost nothing about Christianity, it is clear that everyone in the Roman Empire at this time was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines, to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.

Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing; they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.

Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not as common as slaveholding. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son.  This was the Roman version of the succession schemes we often see at modern corporations, where today’s wealth is often concentrated. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had had previously.

So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost, takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously say, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely—without fear.

We are glorified with God as we live for others. We know the blessing of Christ’s presence through being generous and welcoming. We know God by looking Jesus in the face.

As it says in today’s psalm:

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them

All the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in all his works.

He looks at the earth and it trembles; he touches the mountains and they smoke.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

I will praise my God while I have my being.

May these words of mine please him;

I will rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

 

Hallelujah!

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Beloved, since God loved us so much…

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Our lesson today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. In America, the thing that most people notice first is that the eunuch is black, coming as he is from sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, that’s not referenced in the text—the description is of a powerful court official of a faraway kingdom, outside of the Roman Empire; a person scholarly and devout, asking hard questions of the scriptural text of the prophet Isaiah.

The issue of race is an American issue, a modern issue, emerging from a concept that arose in European writing in the seventeenth century. I will be away when the vestry has anti-racism training at the end of May – for a happy reason, I want to add – my middle daughter is getting married.  But because I won’t be with you then, I want to share with you in this sermon some of my experiences and reflections on race and racism.

Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. A few years ago, I was asked to be the regular supply priest at a congregation in the south Bronx. We felt very welcomed and included in that congregation. Almost everyone’s family originally had come from the Caribbean. Everyone, except me and Paula, was black.  I learned a lot in my two years with them.

Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary.  As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career.  I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind, and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp: didn’t everyone get a fair and equal chance? About four years ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other, and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. It was one job and a couple of years for my colleagues and myself, but for millions, that is their everyday life.

It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group.  We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult, is to really see racism; the underlying and not-often-thought-about presumption that what is nice, safe and normal is what is white; therefore, what is not white is suspect, unsafe and probably not quite as worthwhile.

What’s problematic about that is the behavior that results: not taking people seriously; expecting less from them; patronizing… Women sometimes experience this sort of thing from men… or so I’ve been told. Everyone at my church in the Bronx had experienced it, including the wealthiest, best educated and most conservative.

To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good – that’s how people survive.

The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.

It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for this guy, meaning me. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.

So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as the Epistle of James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules, but in our relationships and expectations of one another.

What I want is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.

Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity, and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God, and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Calvary Church as well as every congregation to change, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.

Hear again from the First Letter of John:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; … We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

 

That we should be called the Children of God

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God.

This Easter season, we are privileged to have most of the book of the Bible called First John read in our service. Last week it began, “we have seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands, the Word of Life” and that Word of Life is our Advocate for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the whole world.

This week we move forward. It continues, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are.” In this community, it is clear how important our children are to us: they are our treasure, our life, our future. And not just the little kids, but the ones that are leaving the nest, in college or out working—even our children that have children, or even grandchildren, of their own. The loving parent always wants what is best for those children—not that the children always realize it—and the loving parent will make sacrifices for the sake of a good life for the children. And thus, it says in today’s lesson, that we are indeed God’s children. God cares for us more than anything, and sacrifices for our life, and always wants only what is best for us. God’s love for his children is even more than our own love for our own children.

The lesson continues, “The reason that the World does not know us is that it did not know him.” What is John talking about when he refers to “the World?” The term comes up frequently in 1 John. In the section between the part that was read last week and what was read this morning comes this verse: “all that is in the world—the desire for the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.” The world is that realm of distraction from the love of God and toward things that we think will make us secure or happy.

Indeed, some who are particularly attached to the world believe that having enough: enough riches, or enough accomplishments, or the admiration of others, will protect them, keep them safe in a way that they need neither the love of their earthly parents nor the love of God. Indeed, there are those who immerse themselves in this world to protect themselves, to hide themselves from the love of the living God, our heavenly Father. They might be successful in building up power or wealth, but in keeping these for themselves, in holding on to the World, they end up hurting others of God’s children.

Attachment to the World is really fear. It is not a celebration of the good that we share in God’s creation. It is the opposite. Like the Israelites, who were given manna to eat for breakfast each day. Some decided that they would play it safe, just in case God didn’t keep his promise the next day. They kept the manna overnight, only to wake up and find that it had decayed into a mess filled with worms. So it is for those who think that the world will protect them, if they hang on to its prosperity and attractions hard enough. They hold on to their own power until it slips away and they miss out on the abundance of abiding in God.

This is not a matter of having a contest to see who can be most perfect, or who can give up power the most. God’s love calls us to a loving and forgiving life in him. When First John talks about righteousness, doing right and being without sin, it is about doing loving things, being people who forgive and love, being people who accept God’s love. It is not about talking about it, or even about having sweet or sad emotions about it. It is about caring for our neighbors, forgiving our friends, our enemies and even our families, and accepting God’s forgiveness of them and us.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

In the Gospel today, Jesus came and appeared to the disciples and shared food with them—he ate fish with them. He said, “Peace be with you,” and then he explained to them that it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day. It is written indelibly in the world, that the righteous one will necessarily suffer, and we live with him in his suffering, so that we may proclaim that resurrection. His peace is among us that we may live and share in the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all God’s people, to all the children of the Father.

He is among us, and we will see him, raised from the dead and living among us.

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

A Great Multitude


A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today we observe the feast of All Saints with the baptism of two new saints. In popular parlance, the term “saint” refers to some sort of religious superhero. But that’s not how the Scriptures describe the saints, and I think it is a mistake when the church looks at its saints that way. The word “saint” means holy—that’s its entire meaning both in Latin and Greek. A person is holy because they belong to God—and our reading from the book of Revelation shows a throng of saints, the holy people of God, more than anyone can count—all kinds of people, from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages—every sort and category of person: all holy and blessed and beloved of God.

The saints we remember are ordinary people, in whose lives some memorable things happened that illustrate the Christian life. Martyrs are ordinary Christians, who in the course of doing what Christians do, had a really bad day.

“They have come out of the great ordeal, they have washed their robes and made them white.” “A great multitude that no one could count…”

The image of the people of God—all of them holy, all of them saints. We here are among saints, people blessed and loved by God. We heard it from George last week—of being enfolded and nourished by the love of God in this place by the Body of Christ, which is to say: You.

This week I heard from a friend whose birthday happens to be on November 1, All Saints Day.  Thirty-seven years ago, I met him and his wife Ruth and their two eldest daughters when we were next-door neighbors during my last year of seminary. Sebastian wrote to say that Ruth died of cancer last month.

Ruth Bakare

Sebastian and Ruth spent their lives serving the church and people of Zimbabwe, courageously standing for justice and the poor. Ruth was president of the Mothers’ Union, and undertook projects for the education and wellness of girls and women in places where those things were hard to come by. Sebastian was Bishop of Manicaland and Acting Bishop of Harare, speaking for the church in a time of great conflict in his country. He told me that one time, while preparing the Eucharist at All Saints Cathedral in Harare, he went to the altar rail and said to riot police that had lined up there, “I am in your hands.” They walked away, and the congregation celebrated the Supper of the Lord.

We never know what will next occur in our Christian life, and in Sebastian and Ruth, I have known friends who calmly and confidently lived in God’s compassion, whatever came. Living a life of generosity and caring for others gave them joy, a joy Sebastian continues to share with his three beautiful daughters and grandchildren. We gather with them in Thanksgiving for God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ and known in the love of all God’s Saints.

There are stories like this in our own community. In our church and in our towns, the saints who have been among us and who continue still. The wonderful thing about this time of discernment at Calvary is that now is the time we can pause and listen to those stories.

This morning, Flynn and Grant are presented for baptism into this Body of Christ.  They are our youngest saints, incorporated into the witness of Christ. They are loved by God, more than any of us here love them—even more than their mothers and fathers love them—and I say that, having seen how precious these two children are to Sarah and Andre and to Kate and Frank. God loves each of us more than we can love ourselves. In a few minutes, we will join in committing to support Grant, Flynn, their parents and godparents in seeing that they are brought up in the Christian faith and life, in renouncing the forces of evil in this world, in affirming and holding the faith of the church, serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In other words, as a Christian community we are accountable to God and to one another for living and growing together. We are accountable to Grant and Flynn for being the community in which God’s love is concrete in our time and place. Flynn and Grant will likely live to see the end of the twenty-first century and the church will still be here, witnessing to the love of Christ, not because we are smart or efficient, but because God continues to love God’s people. There is no doubt that life will continue to be complex, that there will be doubts and discouragements. There is no saint that does not have doubts and discouragements—the wonderful thing about the saints is that they are real people, living in our real challenging and complex world.

With all the saints, we celebrate the God of Life—God who is the beginning and the end is not about death, but about life that is not stopped or defeated by those powers of evil and hurt that distract us. When we see and know and remember the saints, they affirm life and do not fear the powers that bring death. As my friend Sebastian said, “I am in your hands.”

We join with all the saints in the feast of life—if anyone is discouraged, or fearful, or confused, rejoice—that shows that you are a real person like the real saints. Rejoice that we have life to give, and we can live it for the new Christians in our midst—our love and accountability to Grant and Flynn is a gift from God, both the sign and the medium of our inclusion in the Resurrection of Christ.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the One who is seated on the Throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Who will separate us?

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

At the end of that statement, St. Paul drops the mic and leaves the stage. But what is he talking about? Paul is talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. It’s easy to have vague and misleading ideas about the Holy Spirit, so let’s look at what the Bible has to say about it. The Gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. What that Greek word 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.  In the church, where Jesus is no longer physically present, God’s Holy Spirit stands alongside us, enabling us to love one another, incorporating our lives into God’s compassion.

Paul says, “The spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought…” It’s common to think that good prayer is somehow an output of a well-informed or disciplined mind, or that somehow if we just pray with enough fervor in the right way we can get God to do the things that are important to us.

Actually, prayer does not work like that at all. In prayer we stand, or sit, or kneel in God’s presence; our desires, our feelings, our needs are there. Our care for other people and perhaps even our words are there.  But it is the spirit of God’s love, the Holy Spirit, that joins us to God in prayer. We are joined, upheld and helped in our weakness, even when we are unaware, even when we may feel that our prayers are going nowhere—indeed, God’s presence is not based on what we feel or perceive at all—often, it is at times of dryness, desolation or even despair that we are being transformed into the compassion of God—into Christ. It is in God’s design that God’s children are formed together for the sake of the good of this world—in Jesus’ resurrection he is the firstborn of a large family.

But this good—the growth of God’s love—is not happening in a world where everything works out easily, where people can do whatever they want and it’s just fine. Paul lived in a world where truly advocating the mercy of God and the good of God’s most vulnerable could trigger the anger and even violence of a world that valued the self-interest of those who wanted to keep power and privilege. So do we. Being formed in the love of God does not protect us from the consequences of this world—of loss, or ostracism, or anger, or attacks by those filled with self-pity.  Paul was arrested more than once, for telling about Jesus. Standing courageously for the values of Christ’s compassion in this world takes a similar risk of real loss, at least if you actually mean it. The Christian life in the Spirit is not happy talk, or silver linings, or magical wishes coming true. It is living by choosing what is valuable, true and permanent over the illusory and the selfish. It is in this context that Paul says,

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

The reality of Jesus’ life and death make it clear that the truth of Christian life takes place in a world where there is suffering and death, indeed in a world where there is cruelty and injustice near at hand. The Resurrection of Christ isn’t something that takes away the reality or the permanence of death; the Resurrection is new life, in which the love of God’s Holy Spirit overcomes the fear, anger, cruelty and despair that bind people into the compromised existence of a selfish world. Paul continues:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or nakedness or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The thing that has distinguished the Christians whose wisdom has most influenced me over the years is that they share in a complete lack of self-pity. Some are great theologians and others regular parishioners. At another church where I was serving I visited a woman in the memory unit of a nursing home. She was a lifelong devout Episcopalian and a tough businesswoman. The church remembered that thirty years ago, she told them that that congregation would never realize its building fund goals unless it dedicated ten percent to outreach to the community. Now she has no memory, except what her friends remember for her. But her character is intact, with no trace of self-pity.  I would visit her, and ask her to pray for the parish and people in the parish, and she would sometimes say something insightful and loving about one of them. The last time I saw her, I asked her to pray with me for the vestry deliberations. At the end, she said, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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.