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Posted on Jun 25, 2017

The water of life—sermon for 25 June 2017

The Water of Life

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Photo Credit: Viking Visual Flickr via Compfight cc

June 25, Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7):

Genesis 21:8-21 & Ps. 86:1-10,16-17
Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

When the water of life, wanted to be known on earth, it bubbled up in an artesian well, flowing freely without effort or limit, giving itself generously and abundantly to any who wanted it.

And people, who were thirsty for this water, who had wandered in the desert, drank deeply from this well and found health and healing, deep joy and great satisfaction. They called others to come and experience these miraculous waters. And others came and also drank. And more and more came. And before long it became necessary to build a wall around the well to protect it. And with so many people coming and going some became worried about the purity of the water, and others became focused on the potential economic benefits. And so fences were put up in addition to the wall, and gates with locks appeared, and then set hours with an admission fee was added. And the people still came. So they wrote laws about water rights and property ownership, and of course they needed to collect taxes to maintain the administrative infrastructure that kept the well running. And still the people came. Those who were there first got very rich, and became powerful, and those who came later were put to work. And everyone was busy processing, or selling, or buying the water, and what no one noticed was that it was no longer the water of life. The water of life had become distressed at all of the conditions placed on it, and it left, and started bubbling up in another place.

A few people realized what had happened and they left everything set out to find the water of life again…which they did…and this cycle has continued to this day.

[I have found two different versions of this parable, both mention that it was reportedly Carl Jung’s favorite. I have adapted it for this homily. The two original versions are here: and in Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert A. Johnson].

Where do you find the water of life? What are you prepared to give up in order to find or follow it?

Our scriptures were written by people intimately acquainted with the desert, and the nomadic cultures of the desert…consequently wells show up all over the place—today literally and miraculously.

Wells are vital communal gathering spots. They are sources of life and sustenance…and they are where people encounter the divine—the water of life.

This isn’t the first time Hagar has met God’s emissary at a well. Hagar is an Egyptian slave woman, she is Sarah’s property. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is barren, and she gives Hagar to Abraham planning to claim the child of that union as her own—so that “I (Sarah) shall be built up through her,” is how the line reads…and if you’ve read or watched Handmaid’s Tale you know how this story goes…

Abraham and Hagar conceive Ishmael, and Sarah, becomes jealous and mistreats and bullys Hagar, so Hagar flees, and finds herself by a “spring of water,” where God’s messenger tells her to go home, it’s going to be OK.

The abuse continues and finally when Sarah sees Ishmael—“playing” is not the best translation, there’s a pun buried here. Isaac’s name means “laughter” and what the text actually says is Sarah saw Ishmael laughing or really “Isaacing” i.e., acting like Isaac…acting like the heir—when Sarah sees that she tosses them both out. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p. 103) And at the climax of Hagar’s anguish, the Divine hears and appears to reassure, to guide, to sustain. And Hagar’s eyes are opened to see a well of water—the water of life. It is often in the midst of the deserts of our lives…when things seem most dire that we are able to discover the water of life.

Our scriptures are written by people who understand the desert and wells…Our scriptures were also written by people passionately dedicated to trying (and failing) to live into the promise of being God’s chosen people—of trying (and failing—over and over) to follow the Torah…of trying and failing (over and over and over) to care for and share the water of life. Our ancestors in the faith have built many, many structures around the wells that we have found.

The multiple law codes in scripture, the 613 mitzvoth (the commandments or precepts that shape the moral and religious life of many of our Jewish siblings), the rabbinic teachings, are often referred to as “building a fence around the Torah.” Protecting the source by making it easier to uphold the positive practices and harder to break the negative ones…so, for example: if you’re not supposed to spend money on the Sabbath, it’s even better if you don’t even touch money. Jesus does this with the sermon on the mount…You have heard it said, don’t murder, but I say…if you’re angry with someone go and be reconciled…deal with the lesser before it escalates…

Building structures around what is vital is a natural and to some extent necessary and good process. When we encounter the water of life, we naturally want to keep it flowing…We construct things that make it easier for us—and (we hope) for others—to access it…We create language around it, establishing ever more precise terms for things (that’s not a plate, it’s a paten, that’s not a cup it’s a chalice, this isn’t a poncho it’s a chasuble…We come up with doctrine and dogma (a sets beliefs about the water). We establish forms for worship…

This happens in every profession not just the church…It’s just that in church we call it “spiritual formation” while in the secular world it might be referred to as “life-hacks.”

Anywhere people find meaning, and community, and connection…walls, and fences, and custom, and language develop around it…and alongside all of that come gatekeepers, and authorities, and judges. What happens is that paradoxes develop…so that what is a deep well of life-giving water for some, is an empty form for others.

The structure (and even the length) of our service? The way we do baptisms, the way we do communion, wafers or bread, sipping or intinction…Deep well for some, empty form for others.

The hymns that we know and love? Deeply meaningful for some…teeth-grinding for others…

The old, new, traditional, contemporary, gendered, non-gendered way-too-specific, not-nearly-specific-enough language that we use…water of life for some, wet blanket for others.

These structures—the fences and the walls and the guidelines—aren’t bad…in many ways they are incredibly important…and we do this all the time…in every area of our lives…

Jesus does this himself…remember all of the guidelines last week? Two by two, no money, just the clothes you have, find the ones who will listen to you, shake the dust off your feet…be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…and Jesus also consistently reminds us that doing all this will create opposition…especially as you begin to realize and point out that the water everyone else is drinking is just water…not the water of life…that the structures that we have built in our hopes to create a more perfect union are unhealthy…unjust…fallen…sinful—being aware of that and speaking about it will create some divisions, in case you hadn’t noticed…

And Jesus and Paul are also consistently reminding us that ultimately even the structures that have been given us…to sustain us through the deserts of this life…even those will ultimately have to go. Even those things most dear…the things we cling to…we will have to let them go in order to slip fully into the water of life. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism so that we too may walk in newness of life.”

The water of life flows freely and without limit…it is given abundantly to any who thirst…

Where do you find it? And what do you need to give up in order to continue following its flow?

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Posted on Jun 18, 2017

The Benedict Option—sermon for 18 June, 2017

The Benedict Option

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Totila, king of the Austrogoths kneels before Benedict. By Spinello Aretino. Source

June 18, Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6):

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) & Ps. 100
Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35—10:8,(9-23)

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

 

I want to tell you the story of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. A colossus of military might. A dynamo of economic forces. The pinnacle of civilization. But for all it’s power and grandeur, this empire was falling apart. There were grave threats from foreigners—foreigners who roamed the steppes of central Asia, and who seemed to emerge from nowhere to strike terror even at the very heart of the empire—savagely attacking the great symbols of its economic and military might…its secular temples. Consequently, the military of this empire was engaged in many frontier wars.

There were terrible social ruptures. It was an empire of many, many cultures but very little actual unity. What unity there was was enforced through brutality or coerced through the provision of vapid entertainments. These ruptures were made worse by an immense gap between the haves and the have-nots. The well to do, did pretty well. The rest, subject to floods,  droughts, famine, disease, not to mention endemic violence—did not do well. And they became unmoored from their communities. They became refugees, migrants, day laborers. These people were also viewed as a potential threat and were watched, administered, and repressed or imprisoned. The religious leaders weren’t much use. They were either cozied up with the empire, or were too embroiled in their own theological disputes to offer any critique.

Of course, you know which empire I’m talking about.

Rome.

It was into this world that Benedict of Nursia was born in 480. St. Benedict—known as “founder of western monasticism,” is credited, by many, with no less than “with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages.” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict. p. 15) Don’t you want to know how?

At the conclusion of his influential 1981 book, After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, warned of the dangers of drawing “too precise parallels” between historical periods—particularly between Rome and the contemporary US. Nevertheless, he praised Benedict, and the men and women who followed him, saying: “What they […] achieved was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained[…],” and he concluded, that this is what really matters now…“the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us…We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” (After Virtue, p. 263.)

New and local forms of community within which the moral life can be sustained…and passed on to succeeding generations.

I’ve long thought, “that’s a really compelling idea for a church.” To be the kind of community within which civility and the intellectual, artistic, and moral life can be sustained. Is that what All Saints is?

One of the core principles of Benedictine spirituality and practice is hospitality. “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.” That is how chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict starts. And the Rabbis remind us that “Hospitality is one form of worship.” (Chittister, Rule, p.140).

We’re offered two glimpses of hospitality today…Abraham running out to meet these strangers…offering them “a little water,” and “a little bread,” yet providing them with freshly made bread, and tender meat—this lavish feast. And Jesus and the twelve going from town to town reliant on the hospitality of others. We’re given an opportunity to reflect on both giving hospitality (Abraham) and receiving hospitality (Jesus and the twelve).

Which role are you more comfortable in? I don’t even have to think about it. I’m much more comfortable in the role of providing hospitality, than being the one in need. And yet, if we are to be a kind of community that truly sustains the moral life, Benedict and our readings offers us a profound challenge.

Have you seen this cartoon that is a parable of Episcopal evangelism? There’s a fish tank on a beach, right next to the ocean, with a “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign right next to it. And the caption reads: Episcopal evangelism “is liked unto an aquarium set by the ocean’s edge. Any fish from the ocean are invited to jump into the aquarium if they happen to be passing by and feel like it.”

via SIZZLE

But notice what hospitality in the scriptures looks like…Abraham sees the three strangers and runs to meet them…bows down and practically begs them to come in.

Jesus looks at the crowd and sees people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd…and he sends the twelve out to offer them healing…and hope.

When I look out at the world today, I see a lot of strangers…I also see crowds of harassed people. People who feel helpless, who are trying to make some meaning out of their lives…when they’re not just struggling to get by. People who are hungry for hope, and justice, and peace.

People are come here…through choirs, and pre-schools, and twelve step groups…because of our space…We have a tremendous gift…this building…that we share…but I wonder if it’s just the space…or if maybe people are drawn here because they sense something deeper…something bigger…something life-giving here?

I think we all sense that…and we each have gifts…things that we bring here, and things that we receive here…things that we can share.

It’s dangerous to draw parallels between very different historical eras…our contemporary world is not at all like that of the fifth century when the Roman empire was changing, and Benedict wrote his rule. Our world is not remotely similar to the world of first century Judea, ruled by that same Roman empire, when the twelve went out as laborers into the harvest. Our world is not similar to the mythopoetic world of Abraham and divine visitors…Our would is not like theirs. At. All…except in all the ways that it is.

Benedictine nun and author Joan Chittister says, The Benedictine way of life, the way of hospitality, simplicity—the rhythm of rest, work, and prayer, grounded in the scriptures  … “is credited with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages.” And then she goes on: “In an age bent again on its own destruction, the world could be well served by asking how.” (Chittister, Rule, p. 15)

How these local communities sustained the moral life was this, she writes:

“Benedict called the class-centered Roman world to community and calls us to the same on a globe that is fragmented. [Benedict’s] Rule called for hospitality in times of barbarian invasions and calls us to care in a world of neighborhood strangers. It called for equality in a society full of classes and castes and calls us to equality in a world that proclaims everyone equal but judges everyone differently. [It] challenged the patriarchal society of Rome to humility, and challenges our own world … whose heroes are…military powers and sports stars, the macho and the violent. Benedictine spirituality calls for depth in a world given over almost entirely to the superficial and tinny…It offers a set of attitudes to a world that has been seduced by gimmicks and quick fixes…[it] is good news for hard times, [because] it teaches people to see the world as good, their needs as legitimate, and human support as necessary. It doesn’t call for either great works or great denial. It simply calls for connectedness[…]with God, with others, and with our inmost selves,” (Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily 3-4).

I don’t want All Saints to become a Benedictine monastery, but I do want us to live as deeply as possible into our call to be a community that constantly strives for depth, that continually fosters the intellectual, artistic, and moral life of our broader community, that that joyfully seeks and receives the gifts of others… that remains hungry for deeper and deeper connections with God, and with others, and that is emboldened to go out and share these gifts with the world.

Amen.

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Posted on May 28, 2017

Left behind—sermon for 28 May 2017

Left Behind

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Photo Credit: stevienichx Flickr via Compfight cc

May 28, Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36;
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

 

The endings of the gospels fascinate me, because they all end in such different ways.

Mark, the earliest one, ends abruptly with the women standing at the empty tomb seized with terror and amazement. [The longer endings probably got added later].

Matthew ends with a command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and a promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Because Luke and the book of Acts were written by the same person, as a set, the passage we heard today is like a hinge…the end of Jesus’ story and the beginning of the story of the early church—the story of the Spirit in the world. Luke’s is the only version with the Ascension.

And just before he ascends Jesus also gives set of instructions…“you will be my witnesses…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Not “go and make disciples” (which can be interpreted as pretty imperialistic) but “Go and be witnesses.” In other words: “go and see, and tell, and share.”

We are to be witnesses…but “witnesses to what,” exactly?

And in John, something completely different happens.

In John there’s this lovely breakfast on the beach with Jesus and the apostles, and this cryptic conversation with Peter where Jesus asks three times, “do you love me,” and Peter answers three times, with increasing exasperation, “Yes, Lord, you know I do,” and Jesus tells him to “feed (or tend) my sheep.” And then Jesus says. “Follow me.” Which Peter does, but then turns around and sees “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (presumably John himself), and asks, “what about him?” And Jesus says, Don’t worry about him. He’s going to stay here. What he actually says is, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

That word “remain” is the same word that gets used throughout John chapters 14-17 (the chapters we’ve been hearing for the last three weeks…the chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse”), but there it’s often translated as “abide.” As in “abide in me as I abide in you.”

To abide…is to remain…and “To remain,” says one scholar, “is to be one who survives [survives] Jesus and the horrifying events of the cross.” (Rambo, p. 102).

The cross is the traumatic event that we have all survived. We experience the resurrection as well…but we are left…we remain…here…to witness.

“I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” Jesus says of the disciples, and of us. He is no longer in the world, but we are…We are the ones who abide…We are the ones who remain. We are the ones who, to reclaim a contemporary phrase, are left behind.

It’s amazing to me how prevalent this trope is in contemporary pop culture. Not just the ridiculously popular Left Behind novels of the past twenty years, but all of the post-apocalyptic dramas that we have: The Leftovers, the Walking Dead franchise, The Handmaid’s Tale; all of the teen dramas (Hunger Games, and Divergent…are all about being the remnant…the ones who remain after the cataclysmic event. This feeling of remaining…of having survived a trauma…and being left behind is palpable and pervasive…and telling.

Shelly Rambo, who teaches theology at BU, has written a remarkable book called Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, wherein she explores this metaphor in the context of trauma.

Through decades of research with veterans, and other survivors, we have come to understand that trauma, in Rambo’s words, “is what does not go away. [Trauma remains] It persists in symptoms that live on in the body, in the intrusive fragments of memories that return. It persists in symptoms that live on in communities, in the layers of past violence that constitute present ways of relating.” (Rambo p. 2)

We live in a world of trauma, and many of us are survivors of it…and we remain…to be witnesses.

Trauma can be individual, and communal, and generational.

Just this week, another community and many more individuals experienced a trauma in Manchester. More dead, and more who are now left behind. Manchester is added to the list of recent traumas: the suicide car bomb in Aleppo, the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt, The St. Petersburg Metro bombing, the Camp Shaheen attacks in Afghanistan, the mass shooting in Libya, and those are just the deadliest out of the 100 terror attacks that occurred across the world just in the past 30 days. (according to wikipedia)

Add to this the over 30,000 violent gun related deaths in the US each year… the statistics that 1 out of every six women has been the victim of rape in their lifetime, the statistic that over 10% of children in the US live with an alcoholic or addicted parent… Add to this the people who grow up in poverty, or who grow up in abusive households…all of them carry those traumas in their bodies.

Then there are the communal and generational wounds…the devastating impact that the trauma of slavery and segregation continues to have on entire communities and on individual black men in particular through the traumatic recurrence of racist violence…The communal and generational wounds suffered by the people in the gay, lesbian and transgendered communities…the everyday sexism endured by women…

The point is not that everyone suffers (we all do), nor that all suffering is alike (it’s not)…my point is simply that there is a LOT of trauma out there. When we talk about people who have experienced trauma, we only need to look around. Because if you’re not a survivor, then someone sitting next to you is. They are your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, as well as those faces on the news.

And every incident of trauma means that there are those who are left behind…who remain…to witness. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That’s us. We are the witnesses to this…to the trauma, and to the surviving…Which are the two oscillating movements of the Spirit, says Rambo.

The Holy Spirit, she says, persists through trauma…it moves between death and life…“attending to the suffering [the losses, the grief, the chaos] that remains long after an event is over” —”tracking the undertow,” she calls it—and it moves between life and death sensing life…pointing out “the forms of life that appear tenuous and fragile.”

Attending to the suffering—tracking the undertow—and sensing the ever emerging signs of life…however tenuous. That is the work of the Spirit. That is our work. That is what it means to be witnesses.

To be witnesses of this sacred story, she writes, “is the work of making love visible at the point where it is most invisible.” (Rambo 170)

To witness to Jesus’ story of life, death, resurrection, and ascension is to “to receive it for the truth that it tells: love remains, and we are love’s witnesses.”

It’s always tempting to write our own story as a story of triumph…of overcoming…but the ends of the Gospels point to something different…something deeper…

The story of our faith is not often or even necessarily a triumphant story…more often it is a story of remaining. Very often, despite all of the hymns with joyous and conquering alleluias…our story is really more like a cold and broken alleluia….but an alleluia nonetheless. To witness is to see and understand our Christian story as neither tragic nor triumphant, but rather as a story of “divine remaining, the story of love that survives.” (Rambo 172)

Amen.

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Posted on May 21, 2017

Good News for Idolators—sermon for 21 May 2017

Good News for Idolators

May 21, Sixth Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 66:7-18 ;
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Sermon by Nicholas Hayes, Seminarian Intern

 

 

At an intersection along a back country Michigan road, about 30 minutes from the town where I grew up, stands a small, ramshackle, faded white church. I’d drive by it a lot growing up, when my parents and I would make our monthly pilgrimage from our 8,000 person town to the “big city” of Ann Arbor. The church was one of the landmarks I’d anticipate seeing along the way.  What made it memorable was the large sign that loomed over it, which looked like it might have been lifted from a truckstop: “Only Jesus saves from the fires of Hell! Repent and believe in Him! ”it proclaimed to those driving by, in large black, block letters.

 

As I grew older, it came to appreciate the absurdity of such a road sign, not least on account of its contrast with the next sign along the road: “Dinosaur Park, next right.” But when I was younger, I would feel a mounting sense of dread every time we would approach it. And even as I began to find it funny, in my teen years, the discomfort never quite went away. By then, I had started to have more personal and direct encounters with the same brand of Christianity that would put a sign like that on the road. To me, that sign became the symbol of what “evangelism” was. “Evangelism” was about hell, and judgment, and the demand to  “believe…or else.” “Evangelism was about fear.

 

Whether it’s a street corner sign, a street corner preacher, or an episode of the 700 club, I’d venture to say a large number of us have experienced that kind of evangelism. That may be why, for many of us Episcopalians, evangelism is so often an uncomfortable subject: the evangelism of fear has made us afraid of evangelism. It’s not something we’re particularly keen to talk about, or do. Even though we’d love to see more people in our churches, our preference is for newcomers to find us, and like us, and decide to stay—rather than for us to go out and find them.  That certainly sometimes works, and it seems a whole lot less problematic than other kinds of evangelism. But on the other hand fewer people seem to be naturally “finding” Church these days. As Bishop Gates suggested in his meeting with our vestry two weeks ago, church communities are no longer something many people seek to belong to by default, in the way they used to. If we want to preserve our communities, we may need to get better at evangelism.

 

But surely filling our pews isn’t the only reason evangelism matters. If we look at the practice of the first Christians, evangelism—actively “sharing the good news of Christ”–was absolutely central to their understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Our selection from the letter of Peter this week features the mandate to give an account of the hope that is in you. And in today’s Acts reading, we see Paul almost literally preaching on a “street corner”—the street corner in this case being the Areopagus, also known as  “Mars Hill,” one of the central public spaces in Athens. Paul’s “Mars Hill” sermon to the Athenians is one of the most famous examples of evangelism in the New Testament. But it represents a very different vision of evangelism, and its importance, than the one held up by that road sign. And it’s a vision that’s still quite relevant today.

 

In sharing the good news with the Athenians, Paul is not concerned so much with hell, nor with unbelief, but with idolatry. Paul’s evangelism is a response to idolatry. Just before this passage, the Scripture tells us that when Paul came to Athens, he was “deeply distressed” by all the idols he saw, and Paul begins his sermon by speaking of the Athenians’ religion.

 

Rather than simply condemning the Athenians’ idolatry, Paul takes it as a sign of a hunger for God, and appeals to that underlying hunger. He interprets the famous Altar to an “Unknown God” on Mars Hill as an expression of the Athenians’ own recognition of something beyond their idols, and suggests that God is already intimately close to them, yet not recognized as such. What Paul does is give that unknown God for which they already long a name, and suggest God is much greater than any of the idols imagined by human imagination. Only then does he testify to the marvelous things that God has done for him and his community in raising Jesus from the dead. This is not an evangelism of fear. In the language of the first letter of Peter, Paul “gives an account of the hope that is in him, with gentleness and reverence.”

 

Now at first, Paul’s approach may seem very far removed from the present. Idolatry in the literal sense isn’t exactly one of our problems; to the contrary, our society seems less religious every day.  But I think Paul means something deeper than mere “statue worship” by idolatry. Idolatry, for Paul, means worshipping in God’s place things that are not worthy of our worship, not only because they are not God, but because they are not even worthy of us, as God’s children.” That is the real significance of the Athenians’ idolatry. And idolatry of that kind is alive and well today. The late novelist David Foster Wallace—an atheist who eventually converted to Christianity—captured its features particularly well in a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, called “This is Water.” As it’s that time of year, I’d like to share some of it with you:

 

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, Wallace wrote, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing nd the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

St Paul and David Foster Wallace may seem an unlikely pairing. And yet I think they are each on to something profound about us human beings. We are natural idolaters, but our idolatry is also the flip side of something deeply good about us—our insatiable hunger for the infinite, for what we as Christians know as God. Our hunger for God is a product of the Spirit, which works in all of us. But unless that hunger is kept oriented towards its true source, we will seek to feed it by turning to an idol, with which our ego becomes defined—money, beauty, power, knowledge, even a violent image of God (as in the evangelism of fear). And the idol will eat us alive, and drive us to eat each other alive. that’s why it is so important to anchor ourselves as individuals in spiritual practices that call us constantly out of our false selves back to our Source, practices that teach us how to love, how to be free.

We don’t have to be Christian, or religious at all, to recognize how true this picture remains today. Idolatry is alive and well in our culture, and this is no less true of us as Christians than it is of anyone else. The idols are different than they were in Paul’s day, but idols they remain, and some days it feels like they eat us alive. At the same time, at some level, many of us recognize the emptiness of our idols, and their destructive consequences. And nearly all of us hunger for “something more.” People are searching for ways to connect to something greater, to teach them how to love, and how to be free. Many have simply stopped looking to organized religion to do the job. Hence our “spiritual but not religious” moment.

But religion may yet have something to offer to that spiritual hunger. One needn’t be religious to find an anchoring spirituality, but how much more surely we anchor ourselves if we practice in community with others, upon the firm ground of an ancient tradition. We need not believe that our Christian faith tradition is the only path to God to recognize that it is a remarkably rich one. The person of Jesus gives us a model of perfect love to imitate in our lives, and a sign in which to hope, that God’s love is stronger than anything, even than death. The prayers we learn, the table we share every Sunday, the works of service and justice we perform for each other and others are the ways we keep ourselves anchored in God. And the language of our tradition gives us a way to see and to name the ever-present work of grace—of the Spirit–in our lives for what it is, and to try and bring our lives into greater conformity with it. As Christians, our faith tradition, and our faith community, is a gift we can offer to others. Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill offers a model of how we offer it to others. Rather than relying on fear or judgment, we meet others where they are, connect to their spiritual desires, and give an account of the hope that is within us.

So as prepare to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in our midst, on Pentecost, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves: Where is the Spirit already at work in the world around us? Beneath the idols of our culture, which we all know too well, where is the Spirit stirring up hunger for God? And how shall we connect to that hunger, and offer our tradition, and our community, as a gift to it? Wow shall we go out into the world, and give an account of the hope that is in us?

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Posted on May 7, 2017

Signs and Wonders—sermon preached by the All Saints City Reach Team

Signs and Wonders

May 7, Fourth Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 23;
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Sermon by the All Saints City Reach Team. On April 28, 29 a group of youth and adults from All Saints attended City Reach in Boston. This Sunday they were invited to give their reflections on the experience using the reading from Acts as their prompt: “What wonders and signs did you witness among the community gathered at City Reach?”

Last weekend, I along with my fellow preachers here had the privilege of living in community with the people from CityReach. CityReach is an opportunity for young people to learn first hand about homelessness from people who are or have experienced it. We walked through the city at night with individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living without housing, prayed together, ate together, and offered hospitality, food, and clothing to unhoused guests.

Becky:

We arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral Church on a warm Friday evening. Members of the City Reach staff were mingling with participants on the front steps of the church. This was my fifth time at City Reach, and as I approached I waved to Pastor Mary. Her face lit up. “It’s so great to see old friends again!” she exclaimed. In the crowd I spotted Brenda, a City Reach staff person whom I’ve gotten to know through my participation in MANNA’s Monday lunch program. Brenda gathered me close and kissed my cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here!” she told me. What a welcome! I expressed to her my sadness about the recent death of Frank Brescia, a longtime member of the City Reach and MANNA leadership teams. “What a shock that was. It’s hit us all very hard,” she told me, shaking her head sadly. “We really, really miss him. He died doing what he did best: helping people who are homeless.”

The next day, the City Reach staff had first dibs at all the donated items we’d brought. Tommy, one of our hosts, looked through the suitcases and backpacks we had at our station. “Do you need one of these?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “A friend does.” Picking up a medium-sized rolling suitcase he said, “This will work.” He stashed it in a corner, covering it with his jacket. “Don’t let anyone take this,” he told me. “I won’t,” I replied, trying my best to honor the friendship.

This time at City Reach I sensed with greater clarity the community of care that exists among people who are living with the challenge of chronic homelessness. They know each other. They watch out for each other. They miss each other when one of them is gone. Those who serve them – the City Reach pastors – are part of that network of care and love.

When you go to City Reach, you become part of that community of care, too. Pastor Mary calls you “Beloved.” Pastor Laura patiently explains and encourages. The homeless folks share their stories and answer your questions honestly and openly. On Saturday we all work together to provide hospitality to complete strangers, our “guests.” What a precious gift it is to be part of this community of care, even if it is only for a day!

Miles:

On my trip to St. Paul’s Church to attend City Reach, my friend Sam and I met a man named Scott. Scott asked us about our experience during the time. At first, I didn’t really know what to say but eventually, I mustered up an answer. He explained to me that knowing what we got out of the experience was important to him. It made some sense to me: he had gotten what he needed from City Reach and now he wanted to know if I had, too.

Scott was one of the big stand-out wonders for me at City Reach. Not only because he was a sincere person, but because he actually took time out to talk to me about my experiences at City Reach.

But let’s get back to that answer I gave Scott. What I actually said was something along the lines of “erm, uh well, uh it’s been really eye-opening and, uh, I’ve been really, uh, moved by, uh, seeing the reality of homelessness.” What I thought was much more eloquent. I was thinking: The reality of homelessness is so often regarded as a problem that only affects certain people but the stories that I heard from the City Reach staff showed me that it can happen to anyone.

The second answer sounds a bit better, doesn’t it? But I meant what I said. And not just Scott but all the staff and people I was there to serve are the greatest wonders I found at City Reach.

Grace:

Sherlock Holmes. What a detective. Don’t you just love that he’s able to make all those conclusions about a person based off of how they appear in the doorway? How easy it is for him to make quick assumptions and be right. We’ve all tried to be him at some point. Making educated assumptions based on what we see.

But what you see is not always the case or the full story.

At City Reach, even Sherlock would be surprised to know that some people choose to be homeless. If you saw Jayne, a City Reach staff person, on the street, you probably wouldn’t guess that she came all the way from England and gave up everything to live on the streets with her husband. She chose love over money, after getting tired of being separated from her husband who was homeless.

While at City Reach Becky said to me, “If I met Stacy on the street, I’d never know she was homeless.” Stacy, one of our City Reach hosts, doesn’t have the stereotypical rags and stench that many of us associate with a homeless person.

The personal stories that our City Reach hosts told were so much more than what their appearance said about them.

City Reach teaches you to take off the deerstalker hat and put on your listening ears instead. Many people distance themselves from people who appear to be very different. When you listen to these people’s stories, you begin to realize that there isn’t such a big distance between you both. They are in fact very relatable and each one has a story more elaborate than the clothes they wear.

Sam:

This past Saturday was the first time I had been to CityReach, and it may be one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had. I will probably never forget it, and the morals and lessons of those 20 hours.

The people I met there taught me a few things, some directly, some inferred. First, the common image of a homeless person as a panhandling bum is wrong. Homeless people are in fact people, and really great ones at that. Our guides and mentors, Tommy and Stacy, were some of the nicest people I have ever met. Stacy was a kind and sweet lady who was always helpful. While we gave out the clothes, she was a master at handing things out and talking to people, as that can be difficult.

On the other hand, Tommy was a tall and grizzled man, who seemed like he had seen much in his life. He took a leaderly stance and guided us around the Common as he told us stories of his life, childhood, and what it is like to live on the streets. He gave us some advice, like don’t fool around in school, etc. but the best advice he gave was “Keep your ears open, keep your eyes open.” He was telling us to always stay alert and on top of things, so you don’t get into precarious situations.

The scripture says Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. These men and women that we met last weekend might not have been baptized in the traditional sense, but they surely devoted themselves to teaching. The way they talked to us and the other homeless folks who we were giving the clothes to was quite teacherly and it appeared that they really believed in their mission with their whole hearts.

Nick:

Over the years, I have grown as a youth member of this church and as a young person in the world. I have grown through my experiences and the advice handed down to me from the generations above me as well as a few welcome surprises from below. Last friday was my 4th time participating in the City Reach program with All Saints. I have loved every single one of them, and have learned a lot through them. Even though the program each year is identical, there is always more to look forward to, because ultimately we know that the people we meet and the goings on that go on each year will bring new surprises, new advice, a new perspective on life and what it means to be homeless, and a whole lot of love. This year, there was a very special person that we met, who really embodied what City Reach means to me, especially in regards towards the growth of the volunteers. He also happened to be one of our guides on the night tour around Boston. His name was Tommy. While Tommy showed us around the Common, he did something that I had never experienced before during a City Reach. He turned his experiences and his mistakes into life lessons for us, the kids, and openly and strongly gave us life advice that really impacted me in a way that I hadn’t been before. At one point, started to talk about his tortured childhood. He was raised as an orphan, being shipped from house to house, never holding on to one family for long, until he became a drug addict. The most important thing, Tommy said, is to love and respect your parents, to keep working hard in school, and to never give up, because your parents never will. Your parents love you, and will do anything in their power to help you. The best you can do in return is love them and give it your all in whatever you do. For me, it is lessons like these that really define the City Reach experience, and bring life and light to the world.

Sarah:

As we walked around Boston Common and the Public Garden on Friday night, Stacy shared her story with me. She was a clergy spouse and Sunday school teacher when she became homeless. Listening to her history, one burning question came to mind. “How did becoming homeless affect your faith?” I asked her as we walked. Given her circumstances, I was surprised by her answer. It didn’t, Stacy replied, becoming homeless mostly just affected how she practices her faith. Keeping kosher is really not an option, although she told me she still hasn’t had a ham sandwich.

On Saturday, as we prepared our station to welcome guests, I had a long conversation with Larry about what makes a person wealthy. He shared that only twice had he ever prayed for money. And, both times, his prayers were answered with unexpected acts of generosity. But, regardless of his sometimes overwhelming material need, Larry considers himself to be extremely rich. Not only that, but it’s extremely important to him to only accept what he needs and to help out his ‘neighbors’ whenever he can.

Both Stacy and Larry exhibited a depth and strength of faith that fills me with wonder. It seems to me it would be so easy for each one to blame God for their circumstances. Yet, instead, they are both overflowing with joy and love and generosity. The invitation to share in this outpouring of gratitude is, at least for me, one of the true gifts of CityReach.

CityReach Prayer:

In closing, we’d like to share the prayer that was composed near the end of our experience:

Dear God,

We are thankful for growing this community of love as we share our time together. We have broken stereotypical boundaries by learning about patience, hospitality, and gratitude. Through hope, we’ve found joy from overcoming hard times.

Spreading laughter and kindness through peace shows us the blessings of compassion and humbleness. Serving people who are homeless has taught us that life isn’t all about money and it isn’t as scary as you may think. It’s very courageous to step forward and advocate for chronic homelessness, and to be kind while doing so.

We pray that with God’s help, someday everyone will have a safe place to stay.

Amen.

7

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Posted on Apr 30, 2017

Collecting Stones—sermon by Sarah Brock, postulant

Collecting Stones

April 30, Third Sunday in Easter:

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17;
Acts 2:14a,36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

 

Sermon by Sarah Brock, postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

This summer will be the 30th year of my family’s annual vacation in Ocean City, NJ. I have a lifetime’s worth of great memories from the time we’ve spent together at the beach. But, I think some of my most cherished moments there have been walking along the beach with Grampa collecting stones. Now, there are a couple of things you need to know about collecting stones with Grampa:

1. It’s not about quantity. You don’t just go and pick up every stone you see. Each one has to be just the right size and color and shape.

2. Since each stone you choose has to be just right, you have to walk very slowly. Pausing often to inspect the stones lying on top of the bit of sand just in front of you. Reaching down and picking up all sorts to look over more closely before deciding whether to keep it or toss it back.

3. Taking a walk to collect stones with Grampa isn’t about talking. The conversation is mostly kept to ‘hey, look at this one’ or ‘let’s see what you’ve got.’ And, that’s just fine with us. Walking together and looking for stones.

This is not the only walking I’ve done. But, there is something different about these walks along the beach with Grampa that just seem different than taking a walk around the neighborhood or walking home from work or any of the other walking I’ve done. I think perhaps there is something sacred about these particular walks that make them different.

Cleopas and his companion are walking together on that first day of the week. The very same day that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. After several very long, terrifying days they walk together to Emmaus, sadly discussing the events that have passed. Perhaps, wondering what it all means. Perhaps, wondering what, if anything, has changed. Perhaps, wondering if they have changed. This, too, turns out to be a different kind of walk.

As they walk together, talking over what they have witnessed the past few days, Cleopas and his companion are joined by Jesus. And, although they are kept from recognizing him, they welcome him to join them in their journey. They tell him the story of what has happened to the one they thought would be their mighty savior. In response, Jesus interprets his life to them.

Upon arriving in Emmaus, these two disciples invite Jesus to stay with them for the night. He joins them at the supper table and, as he blesses and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened. Recognition dawns upon them in the familiar ritual of eating together.

Jesus vanishes, but the sanctity of this walk, of this meal, are only beginning to emerge for Cleopas and his companion. Only then do they recognize how their hearts burned as Jesus walked with them.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of the truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

These are words of Isaac Newton which I recently came across and I imagine this is much how the disciples felt following the events of Jesus’ death- diverting themselves with the familiar forms of the pebbles of ordinary life: the rhythm of walking, companionship, a shared meal at the end of a long day- while the great ocean of resurrection lay mysteriously before them.

This is how I, and I would suspect many of us, have felt in the wake of the death of a loved one. Clinging to the familiar pebbles of routine while the great ocean of resurrection lay mysteriously before me.

Resurrection is one of those concepts that is quite challenging. After all, the disciples, who actually knew Jesus and who heard him interpret the scriptures himself, had to see it to believe it! But, we don’t get to see the risen Lord in that same concrete way. So, we need to find just the right stones to carry with us as we dip our toes into the mystery of the resurrection. Something familiar and concrete that draws our attention away from the distractions of the world and keeps our eyes open to where there is resurrection in our lives. And the road to Emmaus is a trail of just such stones.

Did you notice the familiarity in the rhythm of this journey to Emmaus?

Gathered community,
Sharing the story,
Interpretation of the Scriptures and events that have passed, Blessing and breaking of the bread,
Re-entering the wider community and sharing the good news

How about now? Sound familiar?

These are the stones that we’ve collected over the centuries to help us enter into the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. These are the stones, worn smooth by humanity’s prayers through the ages, that draw our attention away from the distractions of the world; that draw our attention away from the distractions of the beach- kids yelling and splashing water, music blaring, the noisy people on the next blanket over- and open our eyes to the wonder of creation, the joy of a moment, the victory of light over darkness as the sun breaks through the clouds to warm your back as you walk.

The victory of light over darkness as beams of color stream through the stained glass, the joy of voices joined together in song and prayer, the wonder of creation as the water is poured into the font, the bread is broken, and the wine stings your tongue. Smooth stones collected and carried with us as we, too, re-enter the wider community of our daily lives to share our journey.

For in joy and wonder and victory, we experience resurrection.

There is one more thing about this journey that feels very familiar. Cleopas and his companion experience resurrection in the context of community. Neither one of them meets Jesus alone. Together, they come to recognize the resurrected Jesus in their midst.

Friday evening through most of yesterday, I had the privilege of coming to know the resurrected Christ in the midst of the community of people who are homeless in Boston. I’m immensely grateful to the individuals who were willing to share their stories with me as part of the CityReach program. CityReach is an opportunity for young people to learn first hand about homelessness from people who are or have experienced it. We walked through the city at night with individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living without housing, prayed together, ate together, and offered hospitality, food and clothing to unhoused guests. My heart burned as I recognized the Holy in these people who are both very different and, also in some surprising ways very much the same as me. In connecting with resurrection in the people in this community, my eyes were also opened to see resurrection in my self.

It was in the joy of a shared journey through Boston Common at night, the wonder of sharing our stories together over breakfast, the victory in searching for and finding the perfect shoes with someone shopping for items to help meet their basic needs that I experienced resurrection.

It was and is in the context of community that we experience resurrection.

Wherever you find yourself in your own journey, I hope you’ll carefully select a couple of stones that are just the right size and shape and color to bring you joy. I hope you’ll find someone to walk with who is happy to go slow and pause a lot along the way to wonder. I hope you’ll encounter moments of quiet companionship that leave space to really appreciate the warmth of the sun as it breaks victoriously through on a cloudy day.

But mostly I hope that, wherever you are in your journey, your heart burns with the experience of resurrection.

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