Sunday, May 27, 2012

May the Wind Be at Our Back

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ

May 27, 2012

Year B: The Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:25-35, 37

(Romans 8:22-27)

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

May the Wind Be at Our Back

It’s been fifty days since Easter, so following the chronology of Luke the Evangelist, today we celebrate the second greatest Christian feast, Pentecost.

Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. And that’s about right. Before Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were dazed and confused, still reeling from all that had happened to Jesus and all that had happened to them.

The disciples had put their trust in Jesus of Nazareth, believing that he was the long-promised and long-hoped-for messiah. And then everything seemed to go horribly wrong. When Jesus was arrested and executed in the most shameful way the disciples’ world seemed to come crashing down around them.

But then, when all hope seemed lost, the disciples meet the Risen Christ. Just when their heads must have been spinning and their hearts were broken, suddenly they knew for sure that God’s love is more powerful than death itself.

The Evangelists Matthew, Luke and John reach the limits of human language trying to describe what it was like to meet the Risen Christ – it was still the same wounded Jesus, yet it was a transformed Jesus – able to appear and disappear without warning. It was still the same wounded Jesus, but now sometimes even those who had known him so well in life couldn’t recognize him, at least not right away.

Luke tells us that then, when the disciples were just beginning to wrap their minds around this new reality of resurrection, the Risen Christ takes his leave of them at the Ascension.

As Lauren described last week the disciples then entered an uncomfortable in-between time when we’re told they busied themselves with bureaucratic matters such as finding a replacement for Judas.

But now on Pentecost that in-between time comes to an end in an amazingly dramatic way.

And once again, an evangelist reaches the limit of human language.

Luke writes, “suddenly there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.”

As Jesus had promised, the disciples received the Holy Spirit.

At Pentecost the Church was born and the Good News of Jesus began its long journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

But, the greatest thing about Pentecost – and one of the reasons it’s such a perfect day for a baptism – is that Pentecost is not just a historical event that happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Pentecost happens all the time.

Now, maybe our experience isn’t as dramatic as what happened in Jerusalem back then, but like the first disciples you and I receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism and throughout our lives.

But, like the evangelists, it’s hard for us to put into words, isn’t it? We push the limits of language to describe our experience and understanding of the Holy Spirit.

There are some visual images of the Holy Spirit that maybe are helpful – the tongues of flame and, of course, the dove. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus uses a legal term, the advocate, to describe the Holy Spirit.

Our word “spirit” comes from the Latin word meaning breath. And, that’s the oldest and most powerful image of the Holy Spirit. And, given the limits of language, it’s probably the best we’re going to do.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that in Genesis sweeps over the waters at creation.

The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that prevents us from falling down. The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that keeps us aloft when our world seems to be crashing down around us.

The Holy Spirit is the wind from God that carries us into the future that God has dreamed for us.

The image of the Holy Spirit as the wind of God reminds me of the Irish Blessing, which begins, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back.”

The Holy Spirit, God’s wind, really is always at our backs, keeping us aloft and carrying us into the future.

Pentecost really does happen all the time.

The Holy Spirit keeps us aloft when it feels like there’s no way that we can get through this, no way that we can find the strength to deal with a crisis or a loss, no way to take care of - to love enough - the people who count on us.

The other day I gave someone a ride home from Morristown Hospital. As it happens, I was meeting her at the entrance to the cancer center. While I was waiting there, I saw maybe a dozen patients come and go through the hospital doors. Most of them bore the obvious marks of chemotherapy. I was moved by the fact that all of them were accompanied by a family member or friend who - often literally - held them up as they inched from car to hospital or hospital to car.

For a moment, I could sense God’s Holy Spirit somehow holding these people – both caregivers and patients - aloft.

Sensing the Holy Spirit at work that day reminded me of what I’ve witnessed many times as a priest. Over and over I’ve been with people – with some of you - who in the face real suffering are somehow kept aloft by God’s holy wind.

Sometimes the suffering is caused by our own illness or the illness of one we love. Sometimes the suffering is caused by broken relationships or economic anxiety or worry about a child or a friend making bad choices.

Many times people have said to me things like, “I don’t know how I can get through this” and yet they – you – have discovered vast reservoirs of strength, patience and comfort.

God’s Holy Spirit is always at our back, keeping us aloft.

With God’s wind behind us we’re somehow able to keep going and we’re able to discover and pour out seemingly bottomless amounts of love.

Pentecost happens all the time.

But, God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t only keep us aloft. God’s holy wind also carries us into the future that God has dreamed for us.

After the day of Pentecost, the first disciples could have gone back home and picked up their old lives. Who knows, maybe from time to time they would have reminisced about that amazing day in Jerusalem with the sound of wind and tongues of flame and people from all around the world somehow able to understand the Good News of Jesus. Over time, though, Pentecost would have become an increasingly faint and kind of embarrassing memory.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, Jesus’ first followers said yes - and allowed the Holy Spirit, God’s holy wind, to be at their backs, carrying them into a future they could scarcely have imagined.

There were lots of struggles ahead and many of those first followers gave their lives for Christ yet, through it all, God’s Holy Spirit carried them forward, spreading the Good News and sparking the transformation of the world.

And what was true for the first disciples is just as true for us.

In a little while, Eve Zoila Albiston will be sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. Throughout her life, no matter what, God’s holy wind will hold her aloft and carry her into the future that God dreams for her.

But just before Eve is baptized we’ll all renew our baptismal promises. Like the first disciples, we’ll say yes, allowing the Holy Spirit to carry us forward. We’ll promise to spread the Good News and play our own part in the ongoing transformation of the world.

It’s a lot to promise. And the only way we can hope to ever keep those bold promises is with God’s help.

Fortunately, Pentecost happens all the time.

God’s help is the Holy Spirit – the holy wind of God that keeps us aloft when it feels like our whole world is crashing down.

God’s help is the Holy Spirit – the holy wind of God that carries us into the future that God has dreamed for us.

Happy Pentecost!

May the wind – God’s Holy Spirit – be always at our back.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love Is Possible

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 13, 2012

Year B: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 10:44-48)
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Love Is Possible

I don’t know about you, but as a “religious professional” I take an interest in church signs.

There are lots and lots of churches down in Florida, and most of them had some kind of sign that tried to get the church’s message across to motorists as they sped by.

Some of the messages on these signs were basic: service times, phone number, the minister’s name, those sorts of things.

Others tried to use clever or corny messages. I’m sure you’ve seen these. One I remember read, “God answers knee mail.”

Others would actually have the title of the upcoming sermon. It always impressed and shamed me, a little, that these preachers knew the title of their sermon a week in advance. I admit that sometimes seeing those signs reminded me that I needed to get cracking on my sermon!

Around here for the most part church signs aren’t so interesting – like ours, they mostly just display the basic facts.

But one I like is the Presbyterian church in Florham Park, on Ridgedale Avenue. I pass it at least twice just about every day and often they have a special message on their sign.

One I like is blue with a picture of a dove accompanying the words, “Peace is Possible.” Have you seen it?

Good message, but of course, like with everything we say, tone is important.

Even in the face of our violent and broken world, we Christians can say with confidence: “Peace is possible!”

On the other hand, in the face of our violent and broken world, we can say, “Peace is possible…” implying that, let’s be real, real peace is not very likely.

The theme of today’s lessons from the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John is not peace, but the only force in the universe capable of bringing true peace: love.

In the gospel lesson we pick up right where we left off last week.

You may remember last week in the Gospel of John we heard Jesus use two more of his “I am” statements. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” And then a little later Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

In her sermon last week, Lauren reflected on our interconnectedness as the Body of Christ in the world, as branches of the vine that is Christ.

Well, today we pick up with Jesus describing what that interconnectedness should look like.

God the Father loves the Son and the Son loves us so we should love one another.

As Lauren mentioned last week, this is not a sentimental, lovey-dovey kind of love but a fierce, sacrificial, self-giving love.

It’s the love that is a gift from God – it’s the love that is God.

It’s the kind of love that’s modeled perfectly by Jesus himself who, in the powerful words of one of our collects, stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.

That’s the self-giving, self-sacrificing kind of love showed to us by Jesus. And that’s the kind of love that Jesus commands us to share with one another.

Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus shows us that, with God, this self-giving, sacrificial kind of love is possible.

Love is possible.

But, what kind of tone do we use when we think about the possibility of loving one another this way? In our hyper-competitive, materialistic and often violent world, do we really believe that this kind of love is possible? Do we think, well, that kind of love may be possible for Jesus but not really for me or other people?

Do we say, “Love is possible, but…”?

Well, Christian history is filled with people who took Jesus at his word and tried their best to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Some of them are famous, like Francis of Assisi. He lived in the late 12th and early 13th Century, a time when the leaders of the Church had seriously lost their way, more concerned with worldly power than imitating the sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus.

Along comes Francis who through the example of his life reminds the Church that we are called to simplicity, to overflowing generosity, and most of all to love for one another and for all of creation. Along comes Francis, so bursting with sacrificial love that he had to be ordered by his Franciscan superior to stop giving away his clothes every time he encountered someone dressed more shabbily than he was.

Love is possible.

But, let’s be real. That’s St. Francis. How many of us could really love like St. Francis?

Here’s another example from Christian history, from the more recent past.

For a while now I’ve been interested in the life and work of Dorothy Day. She was born in 1897, baptized in the Episcopal Church and grew up in a religiously indifferent family. Yet, she always felt the pull of God. After the birth of her only child, she had a powerful conversion experience, which ultimately led her to co-found the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression.

Day and her fellow Catholic Workers took Jesus at his word and tried their best to love one another as Jesus has loved us.

The Catholic Worker is probably best known for its newspaper that’s still published, and still costs only a penny, and for the houses of hospitality that were founded in New York and across the country.

Day and her fellow Catholic Workers tried to treat every person who came through their doors – the poor, the smelly, the alcoholic, the drug addicted, the demented and even the violent, as if he or she were Christ himself.

Day lost a lot of friends when during World War II she insisted on maintaining her absolute pacifism. She made the lonely argument that if Christians are really serious about loving our neighbors as Jesus has loved us then there can be no justification for killing under any circumstances.

Despite – or maybe because of – her radical love, when she died in 1980 she was widely revered as a modern saint. Although she had misgivings about it whenever the topic came up, there is a strong movement underway in the Catholic Church to formally canonize her as a saint.

Love is possible.

But, let’s be real. That’s Dorothy Day. How many of us could really love like Dorothy Day?

Here’s another example from just the other day in a place not so far and not so different from here.

On Thursday, May 3, an apparently deranged homeless man walked into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in affluent Ellicott City, Maryland, and shot the parish administrator and the co-rector. He then apparently crossed the parking lot and shot and killed himself.

The administrator was already dead when this was discovered and the priest died two days later.

It was a horrific and sad story and throughout the Episcopal Church there were prayers and concern for all those involved. But, unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of shock about this incident. Let’s face it, we’ve all heard stories like this before.

But, here’s what is surprising about this story. Echoing the dramatic forgiveness offered by the Amish community after the well-publicized school shooting in 2006, several nearby Episcopal churches have taken Jesus at his word, offering to host the funeral of the shooter, expressing forgiveness to him and love to his family.

Love is possible.

Finally, we know that the self-giving, sacrificial, love of Jesus is possible because we experience it all around us.

Today especially I’m reminded of the sacrificial love of my own mother. Here at Grace over and over I see the self-giving love that mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers give to their children and grandchildren.

As priests, we have the privilege of often being with people during many big moments of their lives, and most especially as their lives draw to a close. Over and over I’ve had the experience of being with spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends who manage to transform sterile hospital rooms into places of love, who manage to turn days of decline and death into times of love.

Love – the fierce, sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus – is possible.

Our challenge is to obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another – to love not just the people we like, the people who like us, the people who are like us, the people related to us, and the people who agree with us but to love those who drive us crazy, those who repulse us, and those who have wronged us or others.

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. We bear fruit when we follow Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us.

This is not a sentimental, lovey-dovey kind of love but a fierce, sacrificial, self-giving love.

It’s the love that is a gift from God – it’s the love that is God.

It’s the love that we see shared throughout Christian history. And it’s the love that we see – that we experience – shared among us.

Love is possible.


Tuesday, May 01, 2012

After We Believe

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Associate’s Message
May 2012

After We Believe

Every year the gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday of Easter is John 20:19-31. In this passage from the Fourth Gospel we hear the story of the Risen Christ appearing to his disciples in the locked room. He greets his frightened and bewildered friends by saying, “Peace be with you” and showing them his wounded hands and side. As the disciples are filled with joy at meeting the Risen Lord, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. But, one of the disciples was absent for this dramatic appearance: our old friend the doubting Apostle Thomas.

Thomas is famously skeptical when the other disciples share with him the amazing news of the Resurrection, saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas, of course, is very much a stand-in for all of us who do not see Jesus in the flesh and yet are called to have faith – to trust that God reaches out to the world in a unique and ultimate way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that our lives are a mix of doubt and faith. Sometimes we’re like Thomas when he doesn’t believe a word that the other disciples say and demands to see proof with his own eyes – and to feel proof with his own hands. And other times we’re like Thomas when he meets the Risen Christ, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”

In my sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter I quoted Ruth Burrows, an English Carmelite nun and spiritual writer: “Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven’t. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, to take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being ‘authentic’ we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.” We cannot have certainty, yet, we choose to believe every time we pray, every time we come to church, and every time we reach out our hands and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

And then, what? What happens after, despite our doubts, we persist in believing? What happens after we put our trust in the Risen Christ?

I recently read a book by N.T. Wright, noted biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham in England, called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. In his book Wright argues that for historical reasons Protestant Christianity has been heavily focused on conversion, the actual process or event that leads to faith in Christ, while downplaying the works that we might do after we believe. Wright is clear that we are not saved by our good works, yet it is essential that we continue to develop our Christian character. Wright suggests that we develop our Christian character through the fruit of the Spirit which St. Paul names as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) All of these are gifts from God, but like seeds planted in a garden they require careful attention and nurturing by us otherwise they can wither and die.

Fortunately, here at Grace Church there are so many opportunities to further develop our Christian character by nurturing the fruit of the Spirit.

There are all the year-round opportunities such as serving as an acolyte, a worship leader, or as choir member. We have the privilege of serving at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown or simply dropping an item into the Food for Friends barrel. There’s the experience of volunteering with the Recycling Ministry. One of the youth confirmands said that she “met the Risen Christ” when she spent the day with one of her friends and Kit Cone delivering furniture and other household items to people in need.

Then there are some once-a-year opportunities to nurture the fruit of the Spirit. As I write this volunteers are hard at work accepting and arranging donations for our annual rummage sale. As you know the sale provides may of us with the opportunity to clear away clutter, offers affordable items to those in need, and raises money for outreach. In the fall, the same thing will happen all over again at the clothing sale.

In August a group of us will be spending a week in West Virginia working with Habitat for Humanity. Next month, some of our men and older boys will be involved in our second mission retreat, fanning out around the area for two days offering service at places like Apostles House (which provides social services to people in Newark) and Haven of Hope (which offers a get-away home in the summer to families of children with serious illnesses).

Like the Apostle Thomas, we have our doubts, but also like Thomas, we persist in our faith. We believe - placing our trust in the Risen Christ. And, after we believe, we are blessed here at Grace Church with so many exciting and rewarding opportunities to further develop our Christian character by nurturing the fruit of the Spirit. The challenge – and the gift – is to take advantage of these opportunities and grow!