Year B Epiphany 3: repent and return

When I was a child, I was one of those daydreamers who could get lost in a world of my own. If I were reading a book, I might surface from it to find my mother standing in front of me with her hands on her hips, lips pursed, “If I’ve called you once, I’ve called you ten times,” she might say, and it was probably true. Lost in a world of imagination, I wouldn’t hear her, until I came back to this dimension, this reality, with a bump.

In the distracted times in which we live now, I sometimes wish I could reclaim that single-mindedness, that total immersion in other worlds, or even in the tasks of this one. But there was a time that detachment almost killed me.

We used to travel, every year, to St David’s, a jewel on the coast of west Wales, a city by designation but a fishing village by design. We were walking on the coastal path, a national heritage trail that wound around the cliffsides overlooking the sandy bays with their seals and seagulls. I was skipping ahead, off in my own world again, some story running through my head, when from a great distance I heard not one but both of my parents, and my brother, call my name, and then, “STOP!”

Thus rudely awakened from my daydream, I paused, looked up, saw nothing but seagulls and sky; looked down, and discovered that my foot was on the edge of the cliff, hundreds of feet above the rockfall at the top of the beach. The path behind me made a ninety-degree turn. I, lost again, had failed to turn with it.

We hear the word, “repent,” in two out of three readings today. You have probably heard before that the word means to turn, to change direction, although Frederick Buechner, in his ABC of religious words, writes that,

“To repent is to come to your senses.”*

To come to your senses: to return to reality, to see things as they really are, rather than continuing blindly, or blunderingly, in a dangerous direction.

When Jonah went to Nineveh, to tell them to repent and return to the Lord, the instruction was pretty straightforward. Nineveh had a reputation for sinful living. It was the city that never slept, the city of a thousand idols, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the subject of oodles of oracles of doom; the sin of the city was straightforward and well known and their need for repentance obvious in Israel.

Nineveh was so sunk in its own sin that it took the voice of an outsider, an individual prophet with a strange accent and a sulky demeanour, to attract the attention of the citizens and bring them to their senses. Perhaps it was the smell of fish guts that cut through the perfume of their parties and got them to pay attention to the word of God spoken among them. Whatever it was, they responded, they repented, as a community, as a city, as an empire, of their wickedness, their ungodliness, their vanity and their vaingloriousness; they repented before God, and God relented, and restored them to God’s good favours.

On the other end of the spectrum we find a handful of fishermen, going about their daily business, nothing much to see here, no great evil, no great shakes. Still, Jesus spoke to them, and it was the ones who were paying attention to the words of God, the wind of God, which way the Holy Spirit was blowing today, the ones with a weather-eye, who kept their senses alert and to hand, who were able to recognize the call, and change direction, change their lives on a dime, and follow Jesus.

“True repentance,” says Buechner, “spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”*

Wow, because when we come to our senses, when we really begin to see things clearly: not through the fog of sin or disgrace, shame or discouragement, but through the sixth sense of grace, encouragement, forgiveness, acceptance, love; then we begin to see all that God has done for us, all that God has created for us to live into, all that God is to us, and wants for us, and offers us.

Paul, to the Corinthians, writes that the present form of this world is passing away; he encourages them to see through the distractions of daily living, to give up the drugs of distraction with which we dull our senses; to come to our sense of grace, of God’s power, of glory.

That is what repentance can do: restore our souls to grace, free our hearts from shame, open our minds to wonder.

The second promise of our Baptismal covenant reads,

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God’s help.” (BCP)

The avoidance of evil is not passive but an active and persistent job of work. We know that too well in these days of media coverage and interconnectedness. But the spiritual work of repentance and returning, that is an undercurrent of daily life, a rhythm of fall and return, suspense and resolution, lost and found we come to our senses with one foot in the air, and God and our community calling us to turn, return, come back to reality.

The spiritual work of repentance and return is continual, and it is about living in the real world; not the world of illusions and disillusions, but the world created by God, redeemed and sustained by the God in whom we live and move and have our being. It is about seeing ourselves and one another through the lens of a loving God, the only reality. William Temple once wrote,

“To repent is to adopt God’s viewpoint in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God.”**

We don’t do it alone. We can’t do it alone.

To Nineveh, the city so loud that it could be heard across the sea, God sent Jonah, one grumpy and recalcitrant little prophet with a chip on his shoulder and horrible stench of fish guts. To the Corinthians he sent Paul. To the fishermen he sent Jesus.

We get to hear them all. Left to ourselves, lost in our own little worlds of individuality, illusion, self-delusion we might be lost, we might even fall. But we are not left alone.

We have one another. We have the voices, perhaps, of our parents, or our godparents, calling us back from the edge of the cliff, calling us back to our senses. We have our faith community, to help us work out together where the path should go, when we are lost. We have one another, to help each other along the way, when someone needs help to turn around, or move forward, or go back.

When repentance happens – and it can, it should happen every day that our senses are alive – when repentance happens, it should stop us in our tracks. It should bring us to our knees. It should lift us to the skies. It should restore our souls to grace and to glory, offering us a God’s-eye view of our lives and the lives of those we are called to love, with God’s help.

Amen.

*Frederick Buechner, Wishful thinking: a seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded edition (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 96

**William Temple, Christian Faith and Life, 67, quoted in L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 2

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For tomorrow’s sermon: a little story about repentance

Once upon a time, I was a little girl, and that little girl had the attention span of a sphinx. I would get seriously, eternally lost in books, daydreams, and the stories and songs which soundtracked my inner mind. Fire, flood, and dinner time had no impact, no entrance into my trance state.
Sometimes, I wish I could still go there, that interior world where nothing distracts or disturbs. But there was that one time when going off on my own, with no heed to the realities of this life, almost killed me.
We were walking out on a summer’s day near Whitsuntide. We were on the coastal path in west Wales near St David’s, a beautiful place full of wonder and beauty, but I was not there. Skipping ahead, I was lost again in my own thoughts, my own world, my own head.
As if from far away somehow the alarm came through, all three of them shouting my name in unison, mother, father, brother, then, “STOP!”
I paused, bewildered, shaken out of the waking sleep of a daydream. I looked up and saw the sky, and seagulls wheeling. I looked down, and saw the rocks below. My foot gripped the ground an inch from the cliff edge.
Behind me, the path turned ninety degrees around a bluff. I had not.
My ashen faced family waited for me to return.
Repentance is sometimes described as a change in direction, a turning around. Frederick Buechner calls it “coming to your senses.” (Buechner, Wishful thinking: a seeker’s abc, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 96). It means finding reality in the midst of illusion, delusion, denial, grappling with the reality of God in the surreality of life. Sometimes, it takes others to call us back from the brink. If we will only pay them some attention, instead of getting lost each in our own, infinite little worlds.

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ecclesiastes 3: when?

When is the time for war,
o God of peace?
When is the time to laugh,
Man of Sorrows?
When is the time to die,
immortal One?
When is the time to speak,
o silent One?
When is the time for hatred,
rejected and reviled?
When is the time to lose,
o seeker of souls?
When is the time to break down,
to build up, to throw stones or to gather,
o rock of ages?
When you laid the foundations of the earth,
did they dance?
Did we miss it?

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Year B Epiphany 2: “the breaking of bread and in the prayers”

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked some about our Baptismal covenant, and as Epiphany continues, I want to dig a little deeper into those promises that we have made, and remade, and renewed.

The first seems ideal for an Annual Meeting Sunday, because it is all about community, being faithful in worship and the sacraments, and being faithful in coming together.
It’s that coming together part that many see lacking in the world today. If you’re in the kind of online lists that I am, you see essay after essay about why church attendance is declining, how mainline denominations are failing, and whether virtual church – attending online, or calling it in, is going to be either the death or the salvation of traditional religion.

Sometimes, I think they miss the point. One article I read this week said, along the way,
“The more that worship is at your church is about teaching and inspiration only, the more people will be able to substitute your church offering with digital ones.”

I wonder how the kind of worship the author is imagining fits with that promise “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”

I heard a sermon once about the difference between continuing to pray, and continuing in “the prayers,” the ones that have been passed down by the apostles, from Jesus’ own to us.
There is something more that happens when we come together as disciples, as apostles of Christ, than mere inspiration, as wonderful as that might be.

In the readings that we have today – setting Paul aside for now, because he seems to be having a bit of a moment – in the Samuel reading and the John, the community of faith comes into its own, and does its part valiantly to build up the kingdom of God.

Samuel is a young boy living in the house of God under the guardianship of Eli. His mother and father visit him every year; his mother makes him a new coat each time to bring to him. She must spend the year guessing how much he has grown. Samuel lives at the shrine at Shiloh because of a promise Hannah made when she was so desperate for a child, a promise to return him to the Lord, to the temple where she was praying. Once Samuel was weaned, which would be about the age of three, she brought him to the priest who had witnessed her promise and promised its fulfillment. Eli took Samuel in. His own sons grown, he started over with this young boy and raised him up to serve God.

When the young boy, Samuel, heard God calling, he didn’t know what he was hearing. It took the experience of one steeped in the traditions of the Lord, who had lived his life within a worshipping community, to recognize the voice of God, even in those days, when the word of God was rare among them, and visions not often seen.

Turn and turn about, it took the newcomer, the child, the innocent to bring before Eli the charges against his sons; to speak truth to the establishment and the power. As frightened, as young and inexperienced, as Samuel was, his was the call to offer judgment to Eli for the sake of his sons.

Without one another, without the community of the shrine at Shiloh, their church, neither of these two would have heard, or if they had heard, still neither would have recognized the word of God speaking to them, telling them their own stories, guiding their lives. They needed one another, and it was the worshipping community that brought them together.

In these days, as much as in those, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions not often seen. Of course, they can come unbidden to anyone, anywhere; but if there is no context, no tradition of hearing and seeing, of seeking God, how will they be known? How will they be interpreted? To whom will they be told? If not for the context of a worshipping community, how will our children know to listen for the Lord, to seek God, while God wills to be found?

In the Gospel, Jesus has just come from John and the Jordan. He has called Andrew, and Andrew has called Simon, who will be named Peter, and brought him along, too. Now Jesus comes across Philip, and as soon as Philip hears the call, he runs to his friend Nathanael, and brings him along: “Come and see.” Andrew and Philip each as their first response to Jesus is to turn back to their community and tell those closest to them, “We have found him.” We have found Jesus. It is their natural response, their overpowering urge to share the good news, to bring others along with them, not to follow along alone but to bring and to be and to build a community of faith. The apostles have no notion of following Jesus alone. It doesn’t even cross their mind.

Few of us are designed to be ascetics, withdrawn from the world. Each of us can, of course, listen for God and search for God alone; but I know few people, and I am certainly not one of them, who can sustain a lively, long-term prayer life without a community of faith to remind them, encourage them, to carry them through those dry times when the desert sands burn and we have to hide our faces, or turn away; to lift them clear of the rip tides when the floods overwhelm. Those who can hear the word of God over the clamour of daily living without help are rare; the clear-sighted mystic seldom seen. Most of us need one another, if we’re honest.

When I moved to Ohio, I missed my community of faith so badly it hurt. But when I started going regularly to the cathedral, I noticed that they used the same words at the fraction, the breaking of the bread, as the church we had left behind. We don’t use them often here, but you know them:

We who are many are one body, because we all share in the one Bread.

The breaking of bread, and the shared prayers were my bridge across the ocean. Knowing that my faith community was still one body with me, because we all share in the one bread, lifted me so that I could finally feel as though my head was above water; helped my heart which had got lost somewhere en route, finally to make it to the other side.

Most of us need one another to help us to find God, to hear God, to see God’s face in Jesus.

So will you continue in the apostles’ fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?

I will, with God’s help. Amen.

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Conflict

Hatred slips, hypodermic, under your skin,
while love needles through your veins
to tattoo its name on your heart.

It blusters in where angels fear to tread:
“All’s fair to a soul at war,” it says.
Love demurs, “That’s not how it goes.”

Hatred launches grenades, shredding lives.
Love, shouting from the rooftops, falls
on deafened ears, slides down the drainpipe to land,
crumpled and pleading at your feet.

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The Baptism of Our Lord: profession and practice

Let this be quite clear to us: the killing of innocents anywhere is not a religious act, not by the definition shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews; not by anyone who understands religion as the pursuit of God, the seeking out and searching for the divine amongst us. God Almighty, God who is great, is not worshipped by carnage.

As tragic as the news out of Paris has been this week, the news out of Nigeria, where Boko Haram has massacred of hundreds of families, is perhaps beyond even our scope of understanding.

There is an argument to be made that extremism is its own religion; if we take a functionalist view of religion, then whichever values govern our lives become our religion, regardless of whether or not they worship God.[i] The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, may call itself Christian, but its practice is not one we would recognize as mimicking the values of Christ. But if the values which define our daily function are ipso facto our religion, then the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado, which also happened this past week, might even be thought of as an act of religious violence; for some people, racism is a governing article of faith.

The religion which is practiced by any of us, by all of us, is not always the same as the religion that we profess.

All of this, as academic as it sounds, is thrown into sharp relief when we come to consider our baptism, as we do today: baptism, which forms us first as Christians. Baptism is one of the two sacraments that Jesus gave us and directly commanded us to continue; that he himself participated in and initiated for us. It was the way, from the earliest church, that new Christians entered the church, the household of all believers. We see from the encounter with the Ephesians in Acts, and even from the event of Jesus’ own baptism, the coming together of an act of repentance, of cleansing from sin, on the part of a believer, which Paul names as John’s baptism; and the grace of God freely flowing through the gift of the Holy Spirit, received by Christ and Christians everywhere.

We make baptism very safe, with our fancy fonts and our silver shells and lace christening gowns; but religion is not safe. In the baptism of Jesus, in that river, he fell down under the running water, twisted by its currents and submerged by its strong stream, the Word silenced by the Flood; and the waters of the chaos before creation witnessed once more the Spirit of God brooding over them like a dark bird; the Spirit of God seeking out Jesus like a dove, so that the moment he broke through the surface, gasped a breath, it was there to fan new life into his lungs.

That moment of crisis, when we renounce evil, the ways of the world and the devil, and turn instead to the new creation in Christ, that kingdom of God; that is a dangerous moment, when chaos swells to overwhelm, and is beaten back once more by the Spirit of the living God, beating its wings against the waves. Even when we don’t see it, in our safe, warm churches with their candles and their fonts, the struggle goes on, a strong undercurrent.

Our baptism is not a tame religious rite; it is fierce enough to equip us to deal with the conflicts of the world and its chaos, with the help of God and the anointing of the Spirit.

And this is where I left you last week; at the Baptismal Covenant which we will renew together shortly. It is a covenant in which we attempt to explain to ourselves what is happening here; in which we try to explain to ourselves what our religion is, and what it does.

We begin, yes, with the assurances of the doctrines of our faith: that the God who made creation made us all, and loves us, redeeming us from our sin and squalour, even from the pain of death through Jesus Christ; that we will be resurrected, at the last, with all the saints; that we shall know justice, and the peace that passes all understanding.

That’s where it begins; with the Creed; but it goes on, at least in the Episcopal Church. We name a covenant, a set of commitments, that both demonstrate and promise the new life that we have entered through the rushing river, echoing through the font; a set of active and proactive values on which to base our daily lives; our functional religion.

We promise to sustain ourselves and our religion by participating in the community of the church. We need that community to check our fringes, to keep us from disappearing down rabbit holes; to save us from extremism.

We promise to live out the Gospel; to live it out loud.

We promise that when we fail; not if, but when; we will repent, and return, own up, not hide away. That practice of living in community, with its fallings out and reachings out and forgivings might help with that one.

We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons; this is the difficult one which encompasses loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.

Sometimes it seems incompatible with this last: striving for justice and peace, and upholding the dignity of every human being. How can we love and pray for those who destroy the dignity of so many, for the purposes of extremism, racism, fanaticism? Only with the help of God, and the knowledge that God’s grace can turn even the worst offender to repentance; for that we can pray.

In baptism we are made new creations: whole creations, whose hearts and minds can be in concert with our hope, and our wills, with God’s help. We get to marry our beliefs to our actions, our professed faith with our professions.

In that context, some of you have asked me about Heather Cook, the Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, who has now been charged (but not convicted) with vehicular manslaughter, DUI, driving while texting, and leaving the scene of an accident, in the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo over the Christmas break. I don’t know any more about Heather Cook or about the events of that day than is shared in the media; but she herself preached a prescient sermon last fall, called “Be Prepared,” during which she reflected on that Scouting motto and its implications for moulding and honing our habits, our reactions and responses, so that when an emergency occurs, we will be prepared to respond appropriately. So that, we might say today, we will be prepared to act on our baptism, to act out our baptism. The short timeline from pulpit to press conference might conceivably illustrate how difficult it can be to practice what we profess; that none of us is defended by position or by piety from the dangers of falling short.

Each of us knows from our own lives how close beneath the surface chaos lives. That may be why, if you were wondering, we do this over and over again, season by season, making the same promises, breaking the same bread , so that we can break the surface of false religion, and breathe the oxygen of God’s love for all whom God has made. So that we can be restored, recreated, reunited body and soul, the religion that we profess with the religion that we practice; our faith with our lives; our promise with our hope.

We know from bitter experience that the chaos was subdued but not destroyed by creation; but, we remind ourselves and one another, the Spirit of God still broods over the water. The song of the dove – you know that incessant cooing of pigeons, completely inescapable and irrepressible? – the song of the Spirit still counters the clamour of bad news, if we will listen, if we will let it.

We will, with God’s help.

[i] William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009), esp. pp. 105-118

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Hearing Voices

“And it was,” he said, “as though the heavens opened, I swear to God; the clouds at that very moment split apart like the Red Sea rising, and the sun striking through, fell warm and heavy on my back;
no, not heavy, but as a light hand on my shoulder, bird-boned, filigreed.
It was as though my father reached out of heaven to tell me, all is forgiven; you are loved.” He sighed out, spent.
The weary-wrinkled doctor leaned back a little further in his leather chair.
“Tell me about your Mother,” he began.

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