The Promise

I had the great honor of preaching at the marriage of Fr. Jody Burnett and Julia Stewart this past Saturday at the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Jacksonville Mississippi.  Several people asked me to post it here.  The audio of the full sermon can be found below.

Here’s an excerpt:

Jody and Julia, as you know, I’m an optimist when it comes to marriage and that’s mostly because of my good fortune to have Debbie in my life. I don’t just believe, I know that is possible to be in a relationship where over time you become better for each other than when you were at the beginning.  Borrowing an image from the Rule of St. Benedict, marriage is “God’s little workshop” a place and a partnership where a man and woman help each other to become their deepest and truest selves.

I say I’m an optimist, but not a romanticist.  The more experienced and tested among us know that God’s little workshop of marriage seems awkward, as unromantic at times as a sink of dirty dishes.  It is not all-smooth sailing in a cloudless sky!  Nevertheless, Jody and Julia, you will do well to bear in mind the observation of Jeremy Taylor, the great 17th century Anglican writer, who said that a husband must learn “to tolerate his wife’s infirmities, because in so doing he either cures her, or makes himself a better person.”  This observation, I must hasten to add, could equally, if not more so, apply to a wife’s toleration of her husband’s infirmities.

Audio of sermon here.

Bread of Heaven, Bread of Love

From my sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost:

What is the food our soul craves, the bread that Jesus offers?  What is the part of us that is hungriest and most in need of feeding?  We could ponder that question for some time, but at the core of it, I want to say, is the reality and experience of human and divine love. Real soul food is to know that we are loved without measure and without limit.  That we have always been loved and always will be.  Jesus came to reveal the true compassionate and loving nature of God, and he willingly gives his life to reveal that love conquers everything.

Fundamentally, this is what I’ve preached for my entire ordained ministry, it’s my underlying message. That God is a God of love – that we are loved not for who we should be, but for who we genuinely are.  The good news lies in believing this. Our emotional and spiritual health lies in believing this!  St. Paul said that human life is transient but faith, hope, and love, remain, and the greatest of these is love. This is the bread of the soul, the bread of life, to know we are loved and wanted and from that deep place, to bear the love of Christ to others.

Sigmund Freud mocked this idea of unconditional love – he argued that many people are not worthy of love.  Well, that’s to state the obvious of course.  I certainly enounter people who are difficult to love and accept. It would be dishonest to say otherwise.  Part of that difficulty is that we find it very difficult to disengage love from merit.  The religious leaders found it difficult, for their response to Jesus offering bread from heaven was to say,  “Do we not know his father and mother?” “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” “How can he claim to have come down from heaven?”  I love Jesus’ response “Stop complaining.”  How easy it is for us to complain and transfer our anger and brokenness on to others.  We feel that in order to be loved we must deserve to be loved, we must be worthy, and mostly we feel that we are not worthy and so we focus on the unworthiness of other people.

Thomas Merton once wrote: “God is asking me, the unworthy, to forget my unworthiness and that of my brothers and sisters and dare to advance in the love that has redeemed us all in God’s likeness. And to laugh, after all, at the preposterous ideas of ‘unworthiness.’” 

We’re all guilty of missing the mark but we are all received like the prodigal with open arms if we’d only place ourselves into them.  And in just a few moments we will be invited to do just that.  There is a moment of divine grace ahead of us found in the miracle of the Eucharist that can make all the difference in our living.

Full sermon here.

Preparing for Pentecost

Preparing for Pentecost

Pentecost10Life with the Holy Spirit is different from life without the Holy Spirit. Think of the Holy Spirit as God breathing life into us and into all we do. This is what Metropolitan Ignatios of Latakia observed in an address to the World Council of Churches (Uppsala in 1968) some years ago:

Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is a dead letter,
The Church is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of domination
Mission a matter of propaganda
The liturgy is no more than an evocation
Christian living a slave morality.

But in the Holy Spirit:

The cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth pangs of
The Kingdom,
The risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost
The liturgy is both memorial and anticipation, and
Human action is deified.

Breathe on us breath of God. Fill us with life anew!  Amen+

This Joyful Eastertide

This joyful Eastertide,
Away with sin and sorrow!’

My Love, the Crucified,
Hath sprung to life this morrow.

Had Christ, that once was slain,
Ne’er burst his three-day prison,
Our faith had been in vain:
But now hath Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

My flesh in hope shall rest,
And for a season slumber:
Till trump from east to west
Shall wake the dead in number.

Had Christ, that once…

Death’s flood hath lost his chill,
Since Jesus cross’d the river
Lover of souls, from ill
My passing soul deliver.

George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1894

The “Bright Sadness of Lent”

“A journey, a pilgrimage!  Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see–far, far away–the destination.  It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the kingdom.” 

— Alexander Schmemann in “Great Lent: Journey to Pascha”

ash WedThe words, “bright sadness,” captured my imagination this week after reading this passage in Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful meditation on the Season of Lent.  What can be “bright” about sadness?  What is it about sadness that can actually illuminate our self-awareness and longing for God? The readings for this Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, can help us form an insightful answer.

We will read the story of the departure of the prophet Elijah taken up in a “whirl of wind” to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12).  We learn of Elisha’s close relationship with Elijah and his sadness at their impending separation. In the closing verse of the passage, Elisha sees a vision of a chariot and horses of fire coming between him and Elijah as Elijah is taken up by the whirlwind.  Elisha cries out, “My father, my father! You-the chariot and cavalry of Israel!”  All that Elisha can do is rend his clothes in grief; he has gone up with Elijah to the place of his ascension, but now he must return alone.

In Mark’s Gospel this Sunday (Mark 9:2-9), Jesus has led Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. On that mountain, the disciples enter a mystery so great that they fall down in fear and can find no words for the brilliant light they see shining through the humanity of Jesus. But after that high and mysterious experience, the disciples must descend into the valley to face the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Both readings are examples of the “bright sadness.”

In his book, Schmemann suggests that the Lenten season is meant to kindle a ‘bright sadness’ within our hearts. The spiritual focus of Lent is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost or unattended. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this primary relationship in our lives. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the surprising brilliance of the Resurrection and find new confidence and hope for the living of our days.

I look forward to exploring this theme of “bright sadness” more personally in my sermon for Sunday and consider small steps we can take in Lent to nourish our awareness of God, our deepest selves, and those around us.

Update: The sermon is now posted here.

 

Joy Runs Deep

The fourth week of Advent (this year a full seven days, thank God), promises to be active with preparations, last minute purchases, and social engagements. In my parish office, we are busy getting ready for the Festival of the Nativity and the many guests we expect on Christmas Eve.

Spiritually, the goal is the same: getting ready. We must try to find a way to turn activity inward as we approach the last few days before Christmas and become centered, open to the tremendous mystery at hand. Our model is Mary. Despite what must have been a stressful late-pregnancy, rough travel, and the uncertainty of where she would actually deliver, she is ready. Since that surprising day when her cousin Elizabeth told here she was blessed in her believing, Mary has been waiting expectantly. For us too, the time draws close. We believe and wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

I think of my own daughter Rebecca, in her late pregnancy, and her unborn child expected in late December or early January. The waiting is nearly over for her and her husband Nate. Beyond the labor there will be fullness of joy, though perhaps initially, joyful exhaustion!

It’s important to realize as we turn toward Christmas, that joy runs deeper than happiness, which is so often predicated on favorable life circumstances. Joy is the quiet, confident assurance of God’s love and presence at work within us–no matter the challenges that life presents. Coupled with this conviction, I find the practice of gratitude helps to re-direct negative cycles of thinking toward positive things, especially in times of adversity. There must have been times in Mary’s life when her circumstances left her feeling discouraged and unhappy. Yet there can be no doubt of her deep joy and assurance whenever we hear or sing her wonderful Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

This distinction between happy circumstances and confident joy can help us enter into the mystery of Christmas as we are and where we are, without trying to achieve our own or someone else’s expectations. We cherish the story of Christmas precisely because it is such a human story and because in that story, we find inspiration and hope for our own lives and for the world. May the story of God’s coming as a child of blessing and peace find a home in all of us once again.

A Crack in the Pavement of the Status Quo

The author David Dark, in his book titled, “Everyday Apocalypse” offers this helpful insight:

“Apocalyptic literature cracks the pavement of the status quo.  It is the place where the future pushes into the present.  It’s the breaking in of another dimension, a new wine for which our old wineskins are unprepared” (p. 12).

I wonder if that isn’t a penetrating insight, not only about apocalyptic literature, but about Advent itself – it “cracks the pavement of the status quo.”  There’s something on the horizon, this literature says, something breaking into our ordinary world that needs to be looked for, paid attention to, and be invited in. If you think about it in that way, then maybe we can better understand why it is that we start every liturgical year, with these apocalyptic teachings of Jesus, not to remind us of doom and gloom, but to invite us to pay attention, to reflect on how God is coming into the world, and how are lives might be different and changed in the here and now.

This of course, is the exact opposite of what our culture is urgently telling us to do, which is to get busy in the marathon of shopping and social engagements which leave us depleted and exhausted by Christmas Day. It is hard to believe that stores are now opening on Thanksgiving Day.

Perhaps you saw the outrageous incident on the news where at a Los Angeles Wal-Mart, a woman used pepper spray to get an edge on shoppers in a rush for Xbox game consoles.  And while we may criticize the commercialization of Black Friday, it is interesting to note that some of the people are waiting for hours in line on Black Friday because they can’t afford to buy what they need at full price, and these teaser sales are incredibly helpful to them.  The people standing in line on Black Friday are not usually the wealthy or the well off. It is those with far less income than we have who are most often forced to stand in those lines.

What are we to do?  Can we even celebrate Advent in a culture so out of tune with the liturgical year?  Is it even remotely possible in the month of December to give ourselves time to notice the “cracks in the pavement of the status quo,” to apprehend the ways that God’s future kingdom is “pushing into the present?”

Well, yes, of course it is, but it will require us to make some choices about what we will give our attention to in the days ahead.  It takes faithful effort to avoid rushing towards Christmas. And so I would like to authorize an official slowdown for ourselves in the next four weeks. I invite you to make a deliberate, counterculture decision to spend a few minutes each day in quiet, to create space for Christ to come into your life in a new way. Take a ten-minute break a couple of times a day while you are at work and simply go outside and breathe. When your boss asks you what you think you are doing, just answer, “My priest has authorized this.”  Our health and our future require a more contemplative way of being and seeing.  Find a way each day to slow down and be quiet.  Notice the cracks in the pavement of the status quo.

Listen to the full sermon here.

A Prayer for Advent

A Pastoral Prayer for Advent.

Blessed are you, O Lord Most High, God of all creation: in the darkness and in the light. Blessed are you as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. In this time of waiting we again watch for the signs of your coming. In this changing and broken world where all is not peaceful, we watch for the signs of your coming.

In this world where children are hungry and ancient hatreds continue to fuel division and suffering, we watch for the signs of peace, we pray for courage to embrace our enemies, and we pray for an end to warfare. In this community of faith, where we have known the inspiration of worship and the warm acceptance of friends, we wait for the day when all peoples will be reconciled to one another. In this parish where we have witnessed and experienced loss and brokenness, loneliness and sorrow, we wait for your coming with healing in your wings, especially upon those who are walking the journey of grief.  Give them faith to believe that the lives of those they love but see no longer have changed, not ended. 

O Lord, help us to see that this season of Advent is not only about waiting, but also about offering ourselves to be your light in the world; to pray for those unable to pray, to offer ourselves as answers to their prayers.  Inspire and move us to take the light of our compassion to the world; to come alongside those who are suffering in body, mind, or spirit that we might be Christ for them. 

Help us to move beyond our current mindset, our current ways of seeing, that we may  behold with wonder the many ways you are present in our lives and in our world.  Through ancient prophecies, hymns, and songs of praise, help us to celebrate this season of Advent as the momentous reality it proclaims: Your coming into our midst, sharing our human nature, not only in the past but as a constant possibility in the here and now. We offer our prayers to you in the name of Jesus, the glorious Son of God, the reason for Advent and Christmas, the source of our joy and our strength, now and forevermore. 

For Those Who Are Not Yet Here

Lately, at Church of the Holy Comforter, we’ve been exploring possibilites for improvements to our main sanctuary built in the early 1960’s.  Three central goals have emerged:

  1. To Unify the Assembly (to emphasize a community gathered rather than audience observing participants)
  2. To Illuminate our Sacred Space (more natural as well as digital light to uncover the beauty of holiness)
  3. To Install a New Digital Organ (more fully enhance congregational singing and the ministry of music)

It has been encouraging to see between 35 and 40 people attend each of our recent “Listening Sessions” to consider possibilities for further improvements to our liturgical space at Holy Comforter. There have been a lot of informal conversations in the Narthex between liturgies, and at various committee and ministry meetings over the last several weeks. The process of “listening together” continues, and I believe from this process, a unifying sense of direction will emerge as the Vestry seeks to provide needed leadership in the coming year.

One of the important questions to ask when we consider investing in our physical plant is how such investments relate to achieving God’s mission in the here and now. The Gospel calls us to be passionate about a very few core values and flexible on everything else. What are those things that truly matter, and what are those things that don’t? It is clear that love of God, of neighbor, and of our deepest selves held priority for Jesus and his disciples. Compassion, forgiveness, speaking for those who have no voice, and being generous with our resources were also among the core values Jesus illuminated with his unique life and teaching. This Gospel challenge resonates strongly with our own Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer (page 304-305).

In a world where everything is changing so rapidly, core values such as the ones outlined in the Baptismal Covenant might serve as helpful benchmarks for us in all areas of Christian life. This is particularly true when we are called to be good stewards of God’s money as we renovate or build church structures flexible enough to adapt to the needs of today’s world and beyond. In the final analysis they remind us that the church’s “customers” are not singularly our parishioners, the clergy, or even the diocese . . . our “customers” include those who are seeking a way of life that helps make sense of the challenging world we live in–those who need to hear and see the Good News of Jesus Christ lived out in a welcoming and inspiring way.

How can our sanctuary space communicate the transforming message of Jesus in this welcoming and inspiring way?  What architectural or liturgical improvements will be the most inviting to those potentially interested in our community, yet also preserve a sense of mystery that lifts up the centrality of BaptismEucharist, God’s voice speaking through Scripture, and the Community gathered as partners in God’s mission?  What will I sacrifice for those who are not yet here?

That last question might be one to add to our listening process as we discern the good steps God may be calling us to pursue in the months ahead. If there is a “wideness in God’s mercy,” perhaps our sacred space can help make that truth become more visible and experiential to all who enter.

We give you thanks, O God, for the gifts of your people, and for the work of many hands, which have beautified this place and furnished it for the celebration of your holy mysteries. Accept and bless all we have done, and grant that in these earthly things we may behold the order and beauty of things heavenly; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 573)

The Holiness of Beauty – Pentecost 16

I was privileged last Sunday to worship with the community who call Liverpool Cathedral their spiritual home. The magnificence of the Cathedral, completed just 30 years ago, gives your spirit wings simply by the beauty of the holiness that surrounds you on every side. Or is it the holiness of beauty?

Whether in a towering cathedral or a simple hut made of earth and wood, the people of God deserve nothing less than worship that takes us to the threshold of heaven, and if this is not our experience at least some of the time, something is seriously amiss, and we will need to start again.

At Holy Comforter, we work hard each week to get worship as right and as true as is humanly possible, not because we want a moving liturgical experience merely for our own benefit, but because we know that worship can be a pathway for many to find meaning, community, and joy. Many can trace back their spiritual journey to a liturgy where they awakened to a deep awareness of God’s transforming love for the first time. Worship changes us, forms us, and ignites our passion for making a difference where we work and live.

This weekend, we gather once again around the bread and wine to retell the story of God’s relationship with the world, this time through Isaiah’s powerful and emotional image of a landowner’s disappointment that his carefully tended “vineyard,” in which he has provided all the conditions for a rich harvest, has not lived up to his expectations. Jesus will offer the religious leaders of his day a parable based on Isaiah’s story that carries an urgent message. If they fail to care for what the landowner loves, they will lose the vineyard and it will be given to a people who produce the fruits of faithful living.

 All of us have been given a trust from God to care for something that God owns, loves, and cherishes. We have been entrusted with a vineyard planted by God. It includes our life, our families, the wider human family, our career, our church. That is what stewardship is all about. It is about knowing in a deep place, that everything we have has its origin in God and God wants us to take faithful care of it all. Good worship has the power to move that knowing from the mind to the heart, and from the heart, to the fruit of grateful and generous living.