Trinity Sunday, 2019

We celebrated the sacrament of Baptism with a baby on her first birthday weekend during this morning’s service. Later in the day, we commended a dear friend to God on what would have been her eighth-seventh birthday. We read from the Proverbs: Wisdom … cries out … “I was daily [God’s] delight, rejoicing before [Them] always, rejoicing in [God’s] inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” In the morning and at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, knowing that God delights in the infant and those full of days, each well-beloved.

A minor technical problem this morning meant that the iPad in the pulpit presented me with an earlier draft of this sermon; but this is approximately and hopefully what I mostly preached.

Baptism is such a hopeful sacrament. It is full of promise: the promise of God‘s mercy, and our commitment, our promise, to live into that mercy. It speaks to the hopefulness of humanity, that we believe that we can do better than to wallow in original sin in all of its all too present ramifications. When we promise, for ourselves or on behalf of our children, to resist evil, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to respect the dignity of every human being and to serve Christ in everyone we meet – those promises lay out a roadmap of hope for humanity, for living into the image of God in which we were created.

The waters of baptism speak to us of the original waters of creation, out of which we were created. From the beginning, says Wisdom, God delighted in the human race, in us. In the waters of baptism, we are reminded of John the Baptizer, who saw Jesus coming and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And when he came up out of the water, God declared God’s delight once more, saying, “This is my child, my beloved.”

In the waters of baptism we are reminded of the waters of the Flood; the waters with which God has promised never again to overwhelm us; the deep waters from which God has promised to save us, parting the Red Sea, the River Jordan, breaking open a way when we have run out of ways to move forward.

In the Episcopal church we baptize people of all ages, and we have always baptized babies. When people ask me why, I have to wonder why not, because babies themselves are such hopeful sign up new life, new promise. It makes so much sense for us to invest our hope in them, and to share our hope with them.

How do we share our hope?

We put chairs outside the church this week, in order to sit around and maybe have some conversation with our neighbours who might pass by. Some people have voiced a little shyness around what would happen if somebody asked a difficult question that we don’t know how to answer. This could take many forms. We might want to talk, as we go along, about how to find resources for particular needs that might be presented to us, beyond the immeasurable and often underestimated resource of prayer which, trust me, you each carry. Those are things we should talk more about as a community as we continue in this experiment.

But when it comes to describing who we are as Christians, and what we believe in this church, each of you is as qualified to answer those questions as any other.

When we bring a baby into the church and baptize her into this form of Christ’s body, we promise, as parents, as godparents, and as witnesses, a communion of saints, if you like; we promise to raise her in the knowledge and love of God as it is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And we don’t all promise to do that by going and studying theology at seminary, not that such study isn’t fascinating and useful. But what we more usually understand by that promise is that we will share what we know of the love of God; that we will share the love that God has made known to us in Christ Jesus. We mean that we will share our stories: the stories that sustain us; the stories of hope when all hope was lost. We share the stories of connection and community. We tell the stories of comfort in times of grief, and stories of entertaining doubt. We tell the stories that sustain our own faith, and lift our heads above the water. If we tell our stories of the love which God has for us then we can’t go too far wrong in describing what we believe as a church, because it is those stories that bring us together week by week, that bring us to the font and to the table.

Today is the feast day of the Trinity, when traditionally preachers have turned themselves inside out and committed heresy attempting to explain how God’s unity is expressed in three persons … I am not going to try that today. It is a mystery. But what it means for our everyday prayer is the realization that within God’s perfect being is the reconciliation of relationship, the interplay of love, the communication of difference and solidarity. Those aspects of God promise that we are understood, that we are accepted in all of our difference, diversity, struggle, and longing; that within the heart of a God who knows all about it from experience, we are healed. Within the heart of a God who knows even brokenness, betrayal, the shadow sides of love, we are recognized, accepted, restored.

Within the sacrament of baptism, we participate in a ritual that Jesus modeled for us. The power and the hope of these symbols is tangible. That is the very meaning of sacrament: the tangible, visible sign of God’s invisible and ineffable grace: the mystery of our Creation, the solidarity of Christ’s Incarnation, the continuing delight of the Holy Spirit.

As we are blessed by the hope that is set before us in the sacrament of Harper’s baptism, let us live into the promises we make on her behalf, and on our own. Have no fear, but always to be ready to give an account of the hope that is within you, with gentleness and reverence, by the grace of God (1 Peter 3:15).

We will, with God’s help.


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Fridays are for mortality

It had been quite a week, what with the outrageous fortunes of modern medicine: half miracle, half guesswork, half science; early morning conversations about the (hopefully hypothetical) call to martyrdom in a culture that refuses the way of the cross, preferring to “stand its ground.”

It had been a week, with sudden death, and the impossible burden of stewardship over the life of others; decisions over what constitutes a full life, a good death.

Mortality is a beast, and in the midst of its mob we proclaim eternal life.

Broken eggshells on the ground outside my door might signify birth or its interruption; regardless, the birds sing mightily. I wish my prayer was as articulate as theirs.

Then, the choice of incarnation, an island carved out of immortality, implies that God is not immune to hard weeks.

The endless knotted dance of the Trinity replies that even such grief as love often hatches can find comfort in the intertwining of time and eternity, embodiment and ashes, the lilting of the birds and the sighs of prayers too deeply buried for words, disinterred and sung aloud around the throne of heaven.

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Pentecost 2019: Come, Holy Spirit

A sermon on the Day of Pentecost at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

The church sometimes refers to the time “before the Holy Spirit came,” which is a nonsense, when you think of it, since the Spirit has been present since before the birth of creation, brooding over the waters of the uncreated deep. She breathed life into the nostrils of the first human animals, according to the old stories. She has never been far from us.

The trick is to catch sight of the movement of her wings, to hear the vibrations that she creates, the rush of air, the breath of heaven.

We are often, in this day and age, and in this demographic, and in this denomination of the church of Christ a little frightened of the possibilities and permutations of the Holy Spirit. We do not trust her power not to overwhelm us. We do not trust ourselves to resist her, should she ask of us something outrageous, like preaching the gospel, like laying down our lives for the one in whom we profess to have faith, like opening ourselves to the mockery of the crowd, our peers, the worldly ones; because that is what happened to the apostles on Pentecost.

Actually, it was not only the apostles, but all of Christ’s disciples who were filled with the Spirit and drunk on her heady intervention. So who are we to hold back?

The story of the Babel tower in Genesis is part of the prehistory of the first several chapters: myths and legends from the mists of time, seeking to understand and illustrate our preexisting condition of dependence upon the love and mercy of God. It is clearly on a par with other ancient folk tales that seek to explain how the human race learned to make tools, and bricks for building, and language. It is a story that understands our origins in beings that we would struggle to recognize as human – with few words and little diversity of language; who were only just discovering the means to build beyond the capability of other animals. It is always astonishing to realize how instinctively our ancestors grasped the evolutionary concepts which it has taken us centuries to rediscover.

Anyway, the authors of this story in the Bible understood that it said something not only about our relationship to creation and time, but to our Creator and the eternal Spirit that continues to draw us together however diligently we divide ourselves by language, tribe, and nation. They explained that the reason we were scattered was that in our pride, and in our fear, we, in the form of our ancestors, decided that the only way for us to grow stronger was to contend with God in God’s own domain, and to build such a fortress as could reach out and contain God’s power.

Control issues are so often rooted in fear. Our ancestors were afraid to be a little less than gods, and so they fell away from loving God, and in turn were divided from their neighbour.

I sympathize: I do not like relinquishing control. Once, at college, I attended a Christian Union event in which we prayed for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and I guess my prayers were answered, because I found myself reduced to a weeping wreck. I felt within me my defences dissolve, and the barriers to mercy and embrace that I had, in good faith, erected swept away. I will be honest; I would prefer for that not to happen again. I might even prefer martyrdom.

The experience was, however, cleansing for me. It helped to wash away the shame that came with hiding the grief I had built up through that day. It opened my heart to the tears of others. It spoke in a universal language to those around me – they did not need to know me, my story, my family, to recognize what my tears were saying. In other words, the Holy Spirit did her work as the universal translator, healer, caller.

The disciples who received the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost found themselves opened up to their own experience of Jesus, of death and of resurrection. They found themselves wide open to the understanding and the misunderstanding of others. They found themselves impelled and compelled to share the gospel, the prophecy, the truth that God is with us, that God speaks our language, that God will not leave us alone. That the way of love alone is viable.

We like to say that we live in the most divided times we can remember or imagine. Imagine being at the construction site around the tower at Babel, and in a moment to be divided from your neighbour, your son, your cousin whom you have known all your life, by a sudden change in language, in intonation. We are not the first to suffer this impediment.

Imagine gathering around the City of David, waiting to enter the Temple on the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, and hearing of a sudden that clarion call of the Holy Spirit: the gospel of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world and the grace of salvation offered through the way of the Cross, of death and resurrection, of the rejection of the limitations and liabilities of this world and its empires. Would we be among those awestruck and leaning in – “They speak in my language” – or would we stand with those descendants of the Babel crowd, protecting ourselves from the Holy Spirit, saying, “Go home. They’re drunk.”

The language of the people building Babel was limited. In the RSV, it says, they had few words. They spoke in the slogans that they had inherited and they did not explore nuance nor wait for gray areas to develop in the darkroom. But the Holy Spirit, who brooded over the waters before creation began, has every good idea imaginable in her vocabulary, if we will only hear her.

It is frightening, laying ourselves open to ideas beyond our experience. It is exhilarating, though, to learn another language, to communicate beyond borders, to be understood and to understand as though we were made in one image, descended from one ancestor; as though we were one family, with God as our Mother and our Father.

The people of Babel wanted to control the Holy Spirit and claim the knowledge of God for themselves. The disciples of Jesus were pretty well schooled in the concept that God works outside of our constructions, having witnessed Jesus’ Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The choice that we have inherited is whether to work without or even against the Spirit, risking division, disruption, decay; or with the Spirit, risking mockery, madness, mayhem, in the name of the reign of God that restores our unity in the image of God. The choice is still ours.

We are often, in this day and age, and in this demographic, and in this denomination of the church of Christ a little frightened of the possibilities and permutations of the Holy Spirit. We do not trust her power not to overwhelm us. We do not trust ourselves to resist her, should she ask of us something outrageous, like preaching the gospel, like laying down our lives for the one in whom we profess to have faith, like weeping openly in mixed company.

Yet Jesus told his disciples, Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The story of Pentecost is paired with Babel in our Bible readings because when the lives we thought we were building fall apart, it is the Holy Spirit, our comforter and advocate, who can interpret for us and show us the way forward.

The choice is still ours, but I invite us to take a minute or two, on this her festival day, to pray for the visitation of the Holy Spirit, to do what she may, because she has been with us since creation began. Without her, we have no idea how to build our future. With her, anything is possible.

Come, Holy Spirit. …

I am currently reading The Holy Spirit & Preaching, by James Forbes (Abingdon Press, 1989)

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On Pentecost, #WearOrange

Few languages are universal.
That we have made the gun one
of them is blasphemy against the Spirit
who brooded over creation; ever the image of life.

Would that we would bury the language of death under love,
even if the mockery of the crowd follows us to the morgue.
If we preach the empty tomb, we should be prepared,
perhaps, to explore it.

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who art in heaven

I read the news about Virginia Beach tonight. My heart is open to the wound of despair.

In the morning, I will attend an ordination for seven Deacons, commissioned and set aside particularly to bridge the grief of the world to the hope of the church; Christ’s one, holy, catholic church, in which we pray day by day,

thy kingdom come,
on earth as it is in heaven ,

and I am fairly sure that in heaven, there are no assault rifles, no workplace grievances resolved by the shedding of blood, no schoolroom lockdowns, no accidental shootings of toddlers, or by toddlers, some of whom do live in heaven.

I made one of them an orange stole. He asked for an orange stole, I believe, or at least I made it because of the grief that abides with us, day by day, as long as we resist the call of heaven to live in hope, instead of the threat, the fear, the vengeance of violence; our grievous tendency to enable, to create the occasion and the mechanism for sin.

In the morning, we will gather in joy, as some awaken, from that twilight of sleeplessness, to the unreality of a life flipped in a moment, at the speed of a bullet.

There is nothing wrong with our joy, with our prayers, nor even with our orange stoles, unless they make no difference to the gaping wound that continues to haemorrhage life from this nation, that siphons off hope and replaces it with weaponry.

Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.


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Ascension (when necessary)

When resurrection is not enough;

when, beyond the empty tomb,

mud sucks footsteps back toward hell;

flash flood waters, falling, leave a ring around your soul,

and the sky too close for comfort, despite miracles

of incarnation, resurrection; ascension

gives flight to imagination, lifting

like a swan, lumbering, unlikely.

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Take up your mat

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

I grew up as the youngest in our family – the last, the smallest, the slowest. Not much of an athlete, I also tended to be the last picked for team games at school. I might have been an A-student, but I was no Alpha; no, I was way down the pecking order. So when I came across a story like this, in which Jesus approaches the too-slow, unpopular, loner loser at the Sheep Gate and tells this person, in effect, that in that moment, his life, his wholeness is Jesus’ priority; that no one can come between him and the healing mercies that Christ can offer; that he is first in line when it comes to God’s grace, I fell hard. It was a life-changing, life-saving encounter.

I was lucky to have found Jesus at such a young age. The man at the Sheep Gate had been unwell for thirty-eight years when Jesus passed by.

Now, let me say that I do not appreciate the biblical use of language here. To call a person “an invalid” is dangerously close to calling them “invalid.” Or “illegal.” “Illegitimate.” I have feelings around such language, and I do not think that it is terribly respectful of the dignity of the human beings lying around the poolside at the Sheep Gate.

If you have never been called by a name that labelled you as less than fully human, or less than fully recognized or welcome in society, you may think it a small point. But it isn’t.

One might preach that the label is useful in helping us to recognize the obstacles that people with disabilities of body, mind, birth, or accident encountered in Jesus’ day, as though we are so much more civilized now. As though no one begs for help any more by the side of the road. As though we do not discriminate between those we deem legitimate and those we delegitimize; as though we do not call anyone’s existence among us illegal; as though we do not differentiate between those we commend as valid, and those we write off as invalid.

Such excuses are not worth the paper they’re written on. Not valid for travel.

The man at the Sheep Gate had been ill, and had been ill-used, for thirty-eight years. When Jesus asked him whether he wanted to be healed, he was so weary of hope and its invalidation that instead of answering yes, or even no, he simply described his situation. “No one will help me, and if I try to help myself, everyone pushes in front of me.” The man is stuck in his present as though in the revolving door of a nightmare, unable to get free.

No one will help me, and if I try to help myself, they push in front of me, push me aside.

Jesus does not help the man to get to the water. Jesus does not need to buy into the system that has kept this man down for thirty-eight years. Jesus is the living water, and he has power to heal the man, and he does that; but he does more. He tells the man to take up his mat, and walk home.

Now this was about to get the man, and Jesus, into hot water (see what I did there?); into some troubled waters. This was the Sabbath, and the carrying of furniture or bedding from one location to another was forbidden work that distracted from the intention of the day, which was to focus intently on the providence and creative mercy of God. Jesus knew all about that. So did the man, but when someone sets you back on your feet after thirty-eight years being trodden under the feet of others, if that someone tells you to pick up your mat and walk, you might just be inclined to obey him.

It isn’t long after we stop reading from the gospel this morning that the man encounters the authorities, who ask him, “Why are you carrying your mat on the Sabbath?”

Or, to translate it into terms we might recognize, “Why are you out of line? Why are you behaving suspiciously?”

We thought you were invalid/invalid. Who gave you permission to be here, to work here?

What is in your hands? What’s a man like you doing driving a nice mat like that?

The man tells them, in so many words, that it was Jesus who healed him, and Jesus who gave him permission and authority to carry himself and his mat. Jesus, defiantly, declared the invalid to be valid.

I told you last week that you would be hearing a lot more from the Festival of Homiletics as the weeks go on, and today is no exception. Commenting on another, a different healing miracle, the Reverend Otis Moss, III, said that the reason that Jesus told one healed man not only to get up, but to take up his bed, and carry it home, was that his mattress, on which he had spent so much of his life, bore witness to all that God had done for him. That it was a reminder of how much mercy God had shown him, and from what pain God had freed him.* This is the work of the Sabbath, Jesus might argue.

We do not walk away from our lives unscathed. Even in resurrection, Jesus bore the scars of the cross. When he raises us to new life, in baptism, in the everyday miracles of renewal, after the long seasons of bleak winter, when the night is long gone and the day draws near – even so, we carry the remnants of sorrow in our souls. We bear the scars of our deepest pain.

Some of you have used your recovery from health situations and addictions to turn around and offer yourselves and your scars as an example to those still on the road to recovery of the healing that is possible, the hope that is to come.

Jesus would have us carry our mats, the marks of our past pain, not as a penance, but as a sign of the healing and hope that can be found with Jesus. Because there are too many people who suffer without the hope that we have at our hands.

We carry the reminders of each time someone called us illegal, illegitimate, invalid, not because we want to hold on to the pain, but so that we can bear witness, when someone asks, to how much Jesus has done for us.

But for this man, I think that the mattress served another purpose. Jesus knew that it would attract attention. It was, I think, a witness against the system that served to keep invalids in line. It was an indictment against arrangements that kept healthcare out of the reach of those most in need. It was a placard protesting the hypocrisy of those who threw charity at the feet of the beggars at the gate, but did nothing to change the dynamic which kept them in poverty. The man’s mattress, carried through the temple crowd at shoulder height, was a slap in the face to anyone who claims to do the will of God, to follow the Law of righteousness whilst smothering God’s undying mercy; whilst denying God’s universal justice, which says that no one is invalid.

This, too, is the work of the Sabbath: to proclaim God’s reign, in which there will be no more sinful systems, and no more closed gates, but only the clear cleansing light of the justice of God, and rivers of living water, “for the healing of the nations,” as it says in the Revelation.

This is the word of God for us today, for whoever has need of it: Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.

* Post updated to provide: The Reverend Otis Moss, III, “By any means necessary:” an address on Luke 5:17-21 at the Festival of Homiletics, Minneapolis, 2019

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