Citizens of heaven

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 2019. Earlier this weekend, a white terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, NZ, killing at least 50 people at prayer and injuring scores more. Jesus wept.


Our citizenship is in heaven, writes Paul (Philippians 4:20). You may well imagine that as someone who has lived as a native, an alien, an expatriate, an immigrant, and a so-called naturalized citizen in a few different nations on three very different continents that Paul’s words hold particular meaning for me, and you would be right. Some of you feel the same resonance in your gut, in your heart. Paul’s own journey and life was profoundly and inescapably affected by the tension between his religion, his conversion, and his citizenship of Rome.

Our citizenship is in heaven, and Jesus is our Lord. It is a promise that has sustained more wretched wanderers than I have been, protected as I am by privilege. Our citizenship is in heaven, whisper the refugee and the asylum seeker, the trafficked and the traveller, the dispossessed and the disoriented, drawn to the image of a God who shelters all of her children under her multi-feathered wings, a Christ who draws all people to himself.

Our citizenship is in heaven, declare the confident and the confused, the helpless and the hopeful, in every language invented under the Word of God.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand, says Jesus.

A couple of years ago I participated in a Martin Luther King, Jr Day commemoration and celebration at arguably one of the more astonishingly diverse institutions in Cleveland. I was to read from the Bible. The man next to me was to read from the Qur’an. We fell into conversation waiting for the program to begin. He was also an immigrant and had lived in the US for a similar length of time as me. We talked about his work as a pediatric specialist, how he met some of his patients within an hour of their birth, how he accompanied some of them throughout the duration of their young lives, how close he became to their families, their parents, how his work was a ministry of love.

We moved on to talking about our own families. Like me and my spouse, he and his wife had raised their own children in greater Cleveland. Like us, they had discovered that once that happens, despite the strong bonds and heartbreak of elderly parents and relatives back in the old country, we have no choice but to follow our children’s futures, and to throw in our lot with them. We raised our children in America; that’s how we became American.

We are very different people, this man and me, yet arriving at the same destination. And in our hands, between us, we held the words of our holy scriptures, the certificates of our citizenship in heaven. There are very real, significant, and undeniable differences between our religions, but there is one God who calls us each by name, with whose image we are indelibly stamped.

There are real and significant differences between our religious rites and doctrines, but there is one God, who revealed Godself to Adam, to Abraham, and to the prophets. At a vigil on Friday evening, speaking for the Christian community, a representative of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland mourned the murders in the mosques, houses, he said, where “the true and living God is worshipped.” There is one God who is worshipped by those who died and those who weep and pray in Emmanuel church in Charleston, and in the synagogues of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, and in the mosques of Christchurch, New Zealand. They are all our fellow citizens, since God’s realm is without borders. More than that, they are our family.

After Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that too many there were living as enemies of the cross of Christ, his words were most unfortunately used and abused through centuries of Christianity to slander those of other religions. For the longest time, the season of Lent, and especially Holy Week was particularly dangerous for those of Jewish descent and religion. Anti-semitism has deep roots in western Christian culture. We have much of which to repent.

Many, Paul wrote, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. He writes with tears, he tells his audience, he weeps for those whose end is destruction, who set their minds on earthly things and forget their citizenship, their covenant with the crucified and risen Christ, the king of heaven. What a shame, he mourns for them. And how his words have been twisted to bring pain and persecution upon those of another faith. And yet it seems likely that it is the very church at Philippi, and that it is us as their descendants that Paul weeps for, our shame at which he shakes his head. For we have much of which to repent.

Most of Paul’s audience in Philippi were citizens of Rome,* which assessed itself as the greatest empire on the earth, with some reason. But your status in the empires of this world will not save you, Paul warns. It is from heaven that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was not a Roman citizen, nor a member of the Greek elite, but a wandering Jewish rabbi from the outback,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, [when he was] born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:6-7)

That claim of the Incarnation of Christ, the form of God who loved us so much as to be born into our midst, so close that he could gather us into God’s arms like a hen who shelters her chicks beneath her wings, that naming of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us, that is, it seems to me, the defining difference between Christianity and other forms of faith. Understanding that the birth and life and shameful death of Jesus undermined all expectations of power, pomp, status, citizenship, and ceremony should surely protect us from any sense of superiority or supremacy over those around us who also bear the image of God, whom God created out of love and whom God loves as much as God loves us.

Those living as enemies of the cross of Christ are not those to whom God has spoken by another prophet, but rather those who deny that God may speak to whomever God chooses. Those living as enemies of the cross of Christ, as Paul puts it, are those of any religion or of none who denigrate or even seek to destroy that image of God in the neighbours and the strangers whom the Christ of the cross commands us to love as ourselves; those whose end is destruction. They live as enemies of the cross who seek to divide God’s family of faith as the soldiers drew lots to divide Christ’s clothing. Those living as enemies of the cross of Christ are those (please excuse me) who would burn it even as they claim to follow it.

The lies of sectarianism, colonialism, and their cousins, white supremacy and Christian nationalism, touted by the internet trolls and others whose end is destruction, are routed by the Incarnation of Jesus as the Word of God, the Christ, taking the form of a slave when he was born in human likeness, the child of a dispossessed state; whose citizenship was in heaven; whose religion was the most perfect practice of the love of God.

Our citizenship is in heaven, declare the confident and the confused, the helpless and the hopeful, in every language invented under the Word of God; and the kingdom of heaven is at hand, says Jesus, where love is unwavering and indiscriminate; where death is defeated by the stubborn and resilient love of God, and the hope of heaven.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

(Prayer 3: For the Human Family, Book of Common Prayer, 815)


* New Oxford Annotated BibleThird Edition, Carol A. Newsom, Marc Z. Brettler, Michael D. Coogan, Pheme Perkins, eds (Oxford University Press, 2001), text notes

Further reading:

Michael Lodahl, Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side (Brazos Press, 2010)

Barbara Brown Taylor, “My Holy Envy” in The Christian Century, Vol. 136 No. 6, March 13, 2019

Nicholas E. Wagner, “Paul and Cynicism in Philippians 3:2,” https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/pdf/Nicholas.Wagner.CCJL2011.pdf, August 31, 2011, accessed March 14-17, 2019

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Hungry for God

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio


They tempted him at the end, too, taunting him to come down from the cross, to save himself. But he was not in the world to save himself, but to give life to those who need it – hope to the sorrowful, comfort to the suffering, release to the captives of sin, misery, and death, good news to those in most need of it.

After these early temptations, the gospel says, the devil left him until an opportune time, until his next weakest moment, but even on the cross, Jesus’ love was stronger than the devil’s snares.

There is nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. Jesus himself was not averse to using miraculous means to feed multitudes, multiplying loaves and fishes to feed thousands on the hillside. Did he remember the devil’s temptations at that moment, as he gave thanks to God and broke the bread that would satisfy five thousand followers? There is nothing wrong with turning stones into bread. Jesus even turned water into wine, to delight a wedded couple and their guests.

There is nothing wrong with taking care of our own bodily needs, and in fact it is demonstrated throughout the gospels that God, and Jesus, want our health, our wholeness, our satisfaction. Jesus is worried about the congregation on the hillside and their hunger. The discipline of fasting, our hunger is not an end in itself, nor is it designed to be a permanent state. That would be to deny the abundance of God. Fasting, rather, is a means of ridding ourselves of distractions, and even of using the distractions of our bodily prompts of hunger, appetite, desire, to remind us of our appetite for God, our need for mercy, our desire for grace. The first temptation, then, is not to satisfaction. The first temptation, rather, is to take our attention back from God, elevating any other appetite above the hunger to know deeply the love of God.

Thus Jesus answers the devil.

There is nothing wrong with taking care of our own bodily comfort, still less with taking care that all are fed. M

Then who would decide how they were distributed, who was deserving? Who would pay for the delivery, the packaging, the tracking, the clean-up? Who would profit from this miracle? The devil is in the details.

This is the second temptation. The devil tries to deceive Jesus, first by telling him that the whole world has been given to him to manage, to divide and conquer, that the world has already gone to the devil and there is no hope but only to worship me, the devil tells Jesus; only then can you become an influencer, make a difference, change the world. Only submit to me and my rules, and think how much good you could do, how much bread you could spread. But one cannot worship God and the devil.

Making bread out of stones is one thing, but if we think we can partner with hatred and manufacture love, that’s a whole other level of delusion. If we think we can make compromise with injustice and come out with dignity, we are deceiving ourselves worse than the devil could do. If we think that we can use foul means to make a fair profit, we are missing the point of the miracle. Perhaps that is why we cannot be trusted to make bread out of stones, bread rolls out of grains of sand. We may not take short cuts to doing the right thing. We have to love God first, with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and the love of God will help us to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Then there is the temptation to helplessness. It is right and good to trust in the promises of God. We used the self-same words as the devil when we prayed this morning’s psalm:

For he shall give his angels charge over you, * to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands, * lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Throughout the Bible and throughout our history we have learned that God is true and faithful. Part of the way in which God is true and faithful is to design for us and support us in a world that makes sense. It is appropriate to use and to trust the gifts of gravity, and our understanding of how the world works, to do great things, to accomplish marvellous feats of exploration, engineering, inspiration, so far as they enlighten and encourage our vision of what it is to be fully human, made in the image of the almighty God. It is not appropriate to defy the gifts of God, to challenge God to let us fall and fall without ever landing, and throw our lives away as though they were without consequence.

It is a good and appropriate and joyful thing for us to use our God-given abilities to emulate Jesus in the feeding of multitudes, in the healing of the sick, release to the captives, in providing good news to those in most need of it. This is the work that God has given us to do, as stewards of God’s creation, as inheritors of God’s covenant of mercy and of grace, as those made in God’s image, and following in the footsteps of Jesus. Sometimes, it will mean self-sacrifice, fasting, discipline and discomfort, as we reorient our appetites from selfish desires to something more satisfying: sacrificial giving; a shared meal; a sacrament of God’s abundance. Sometimes, it will mean having the humility to turn down deals with the devil: quick schemes and short cuts that threaten to distract and divert our souls away from the goal of loving God, and loving our neighbour, however long it takes. It will mean having the courage not to compromise with promises of false peace that deny justice, whitewashed walls that cover up but do not undo the graffiti of hate, which will one day bleed through. Often, it will mean getting over our own helplessness and hopelessness, to trust in the promises of God to walk the long way with us, to pick us up when we do fall down, to hold us when we stub our feet against a stone and cry out in pain and anger.

This was the last temptation, the one that the devil returned with at an opportune time, when Jesus was dying on the cross, stripped and struck and suffering. The devil and those whom he had successfully deceived taunted Jesus, saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27:40b) Give it up, this plan of being human, God Incarnate, this compassion for, this solidarity with the people made only in your image. Why suffer for them?

But the promises of God are more enduring and more trustworthy than the temptations of the devil, and Jesus came not to glorify himself, but to draw the world closer to the profound understanding that God is faithful, that God hates nothing that God has made, that, come what may, God will forgive all who turn back to grace. Jesus went into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, so that whenever we find ourselves lost, hungry, at an end of hope, tempted to give up on life, on the God who gave us life, Jesus is there to meet us, swaying with hunger between us and the devil, famished, and full of love.

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Remembrance, repentance, and reconciliation

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio


Repentance is not an end in itself. Repentance is a right turn toward reconciliation. It is a re-turning toward the source of our life and our salvation, Almighty God, who is revealed to us in the eternal life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Lent is a time to remember our need for penitence, for lament, for the rending of hearts and the tending of wounds. And it is a time to remember God’s mercy, which is ever-present and unfailing. In Lent, we bury alleluia [the word of ululating praise] beneath our tongues, yet even in dust and ashes it is our song, tuning in to Christ’s love, our hope, the truth of God’s undying mercy.

We recognize in the dust and ashes of this Wednesday, struggling toward spring, the end of all mortal things, the futility of our little battles, our wasted breath, dust and ashes. We recognize Lent as a season of dust and ashes, of self-examination, confession, and penitence. We tend to remember less Lent’s roots in renewal, restoration, reconciliation.

But as we are invited to come forward to receive ashes as signs of our repentance and our need for God’s rescue, we are reminded that from the early days of the Church:

This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism [the Sacrament of a new life in Christ].  It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. (Book of Common Prayer, 265)

It was a time of preparation not for death, but for newness of life, for restoration and reconciliation. Even in Lent, we serve a Resurrected Christ; our hope lies not in the tomb, where mortality crumbles, but in the promise of a life with God that cannot be contradicted even by death.

“Be reconciled to God,” Paul urges (2 Corinthians 5:20). “Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful,” Joel encourages, even in the midst of trouble, and prophecies of trouble to come (Joel 2:13). “Your Father sees you in secret,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 6:4,6,18).

God knows the secrets of our hearts, our bones, our lives, our closets, our hunger, our hypocrisy. God knows the secret of our basest fear: that the dust from which we were made will one day consume us. God knows not only the sins that we have committed but the sin that surrounds us and suffocates us, and the sins committed against us. God knows the dust that we carry on our feet, the dust that we are afraid to kick up, to disturb. God knows the secrets of our broken and bruised hearts, and of the hearts we have broken and abused. God knows.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return; but who made us out of dust and breathed life into us, and who counts the very particles of creation?

When Jesus encourages us to go into a closed and quiet room to pray, Jesus knows that we have memories that we find hard to reconcile to our image of ourselves, of our lives, of how the world should be; memories of our own making and memories of our own breaking.

Lent is an invitation to risk being honest with God, with ourselves, and with one another as a means to reconciliation.

In the Book of Common Prayer’s service of the Reconciliation of a Penitent (Form 2), the priest first prays for the one approaching the arms of God’s mercy, saying,

May God in [God’s] love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and [God’s] unfailing mercy. (Book of Common Prayer, 449)

For one of a certain age in the world, the words “truth” and “reconciliation” in close proximity cannot fail to bring to mind the work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed by President Nelson Mandela to find a way forward after the end of the rule of apartheid in South Africa. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu described the Commission’s hard and heart-rending work of telling and hearing the true stories of the most abject sinners and the most appallingly sinned against. Remembering in truth the sins of those times was essential if there was to be a chance of reconciliation, a new life for that nation.

The legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not a sealed stack of stories. The work of reconciliation is not done. Telling the truth is an essential step towards repentance and reconciliation. Confession is good for the soul, but repentance is the work of a lifetime; a lifetime of working out how to live together, with ourselves, with one another, with God, in new and sustainable, honest and reconciling ways; working out how to do the daily work of mercy, love, and justice.

Archbishop Tutu wrote,

Reconciliation is liable to be a long-drawn-out-process with ups and downs, not something accomplished overnight… (No Future Without Forgiveness, 274)

Nor, maybe, in forty days. But let us begin this Lent on the work of truth-telling, about ourselves, about our sin and our sorrow, our woundedness and our wrongdoing, opening our hearts to the reconciling work of God already begun in us and among us, through the saving grace of God with us, Jesus Christ our Saviour, trusting always in the power of God to bring new life out of hopeless cases, resurrection where we least deserve or expect it.

Amen.


Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Image Books, 1999)

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Revealed, by Angela D. Schaffner

I was excited when I received a copy of Revealed: What the Bible Can Teach You About Yourself from the author, Angela D. Schaffner. As someone in the midst of writing her own book relating stories of the Bible to stories from our own lives and families (more about that much later!), I was intrigued to find out what new angles Dr Schaffner might offer from her perspective as a psychologist.

Dr Schaffner’s psychological insights guide her readers through a journey into a Bible which does not lecture, chide, nor always even guide us so much as hold up a mirror to our own lives and relationships. Beginning with a gentle exploration of pain, trauma, and grief, Dr Schaffner encourages her readers to work through daily readings and weekly practices of journaling and reflection to find the mercy and tenderness of God reaching out to them, helping and healing them. After each daily “story,” the reader is asked to find out what it reflects and reveals to them about themselves. After each week of readings, Schaffner leads readers through a practice of inviting God into those reflections, and recognizing where God’s grace is already at work within us.

Generous and vulnerable with her own stories, Schaffner’s touch is light, but authoritative. When she reflects upon the story of Samson and Delilah, I think that I recognize the many stories of difficult and dangerous relationships she has met in her office. In her experience of miscarriage and disordered eating, I recognize a fellow traveler through life’s shoals and swamps, but I never feel overwhelmed nor overshadowed by her own story, at the expense of mine, or of God’s.

The book is designed to be used by individuals and by groups. A facilitator’s guide at the back helps to navigate how one might introduce it to a church small group or other supportive gathering. If you’re planning to use it alone, as a six-week plan, then you might even decide that you just have time to get it for Lent. It might even be transformative.

In her introduction, Dr Schaffner writes,

Approach the Bible as a friend who wants to give you a gift with no strings attached, a gift that shows that your friend really gets you, really knows your pain, and really loves you. Come to the Bible with healthy doses of critical thinking and respect for what its stories can teach you. Come ready to receive self-awareness. (Introduction, p. 13)

I am guessing that this may also have been the mission statement behind writing this book, and I would consider that it accomplishes its mission with beauty and with depth; depth that is stirred by the undercurrent of strong love, for God and for the reader, rippling throughout.

Revealed: What the Bible Can Teach You About Yourself, by Angela D. Schaffner, is published by Upper Room Books.

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Bright cloud

A sermon for the last Sunday after the Epiphany, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio: the Transfiguration readings


The disciples were terrified when the cloud enveloped them on the mountaintop, but it was the voice of God that called to them, encouraging them to trust in Jesus. Down in the valley, in the shadow of the mountain, a parent was terrified for his child; he turned to Jesus for help, and even there, in the valley of shadows, Jesus had mercy on them, and the people were astounded by the greatness of God.

At the time of the Epiphany in Bethlehem, the Magi were guided by a star to the birthplace of Jesus. They recognized first by its light the significance of this holy child. By the end of the season of the Epiphany, one which is particularly close to our hearts in this place, we find the brightness of God’s revelation veiled by a cloud, even as Christ is transfigured by a vision of glory.

The cloud, that bright cloud, is manifest in more than one form. Literally, a cloud covers the mountaintop. If you have ever hiked through cloud cover on the high ground, then you know that to enter a cloud strikes a chill into your bones. Your skin grows clammy with the unspilt rain suspended in the air around you. Your vision grows vague, as mists veil the path ahead of you. Your breath is heavy with the humidity; even sounds seem muffled, as though you have already been transported to another plane, at some angle to the daylit world from which you entered the cloud. If you have never walked through a cloud, you’ll have to take my word for it: it is a lesson in mortality.

Then there is the cloud that hangs over Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, who are discussing his imminent departure; in other words, not to put too fine a point on it, his death by crucifixion, his torture and political assassination, his self-giving sacrifice which is about to take place in Jerusalem.

There is the veil that is drawn over Peter’s apprehension of the event; and then there is the cloud of anger that darkens Jesus’ brow as he is confronted, in the valley of shadows, with a father in distress, a son in trouble, the clinging power of unclean spirits, after all he has done and with all that he has left to do, after he has commissioned his disciples to do the work for him, and they have, in this instance, failed: “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” It is the cry of a prophet under a cloud.

Yet even this bright cloud proclaims the greatness of God; the astounding greatness of God. Throughout the Bible, a cloud is made to represent God’s very presence among us; God’s care for God’s people; God’s deliverance; God’s revelation. When Moses went up the mountain to talk with God, he entered a cloud, the glory of the Lord settling over the peak (Exodus 24:15-18), and God called to him out of the cloud. And it is out of the cloud on the mountaintop again that the disciples hear the voice of God, affirming and assuring them that, despite their fear over what might follow in Jerusalem; despite their doubts, their coldness of heart, struck with the clammy knife of the cloud, there is no denying that Jesus is the Son of God, the Epiphany, the revelation of God’s mercy made flesh. Even when Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about his imminent departure from Jerusalem, the word that they use, obscured by our English translation; the word that they assign to Jesus’ departure is exodus. Exodus: that great remembrance of God’s deliverance, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy towards God’s people, when the Spirit of the Lord led them with a pillar of fire by night, but with a pillar of cloud by day.

On the way down the mountain, Jesus healed a father’s only son of an unclean spirit, releasing him from the bondage of his sickness, delivering him from the pollution of his illness, and the people were astounded at the greatness of God.

So sometimes we feel as though we are moving through thick clouds, lost in a fog. Some of the mist is of our own making. Consider the smog that wraps major cities of the world in particulates and pollution, unclean air making breathing itself unhealthy. The clouds that come from an unclean spirit, serving profit instead of people, self-righteousness before reconciliation, mammon before mercy. The clouds of sin that have a chilling effect on our ability to love one another. These are clouds of our own making, that veil our vision of God’s kingdom, of the world as it could be, as it should be, if we loved God as God has loved us, with full and hungry hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves. As we approach Lent, the need to reassess our systems, our selves, our lives, our habits to discover wehre we continue to pollute our own environment with sin is evident, and we may hope to begin to clear the air, with God’s help; that’s one way of looking at the clouds that surround us.

Then there are those bright clouds in which we recognize God’s presence already among us, working in us and through us as we struggle to do the right thing, even when the way is obscure and foggy, even when we are terrified, even when we confronted with anger, grief, failure. The way of the cross is not an easy road, but it does lead to deliverance, to freedom from unclean spirits, eventually to resurrection.

There is a profound struggle for justice being played out not only in the world but in our own churches, for people claiming their full humanity, the fullness of the image of God, the call of God upon their lives. This past week the United Methodist Churh voted to continue to restrict the ministries and marriages of LGBTQ+ people. And lest we get too self-righteous, our own Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion; perhaps even parts of this community continue to get caught up in the same debates. When I think of how impoverished our history, our fabric would be without some of the ministries and marriages that we celebrate, my heart breaks. It is hard for me to imagine the harm suffered by someone who is told that the validity of their marriage, their family, is up for debate; that their worthiness to serve Christ is up for debate because of their gender identity, their loving partnerships, but this is still happening in our churches, even in Christ’s church, and he must be asking, “How long must I bear with you?”. Others suffer harm and continuing injustice because of their race, their colour, their inheritance. From the clouds of righteous anger, God thunders, “This is my child!” We would do well to listen.

Even in this cloud, God is speaking, reminding us that it is through clouds of glory that his justice will be revealed.

Then there are the clouds of grief, in which it seems as though our whole world has turned into tears. This, too, even this is a revelation of God’s mercy, for these are God’s tears that surround us, enveloping us in the cloud of God’s great compassion, bearing with us, bearing sorrow alongside us. This is not a silver lining message, but the recognition that God is with us even when we are chilled to the bone and uncertain how we will ever leave the cloud and carry on.

Perhaps the message of the Epiphany, in the end, is not to try to leave the cloud behind, but to find God within it. To pay attention to the pollution that we have introduced, the particulates of sin and pride, and seek God’s help to clean them out. To find, as we work, that the cloud grows brighter, and we see more clearly Christ transfigured within it, his glory at work even on the way to the cross. To hear, as we rest, God’s voice of encouragement. To rest in the astonishing greatness of God’s mercy, filling the whole of creation like a cloud, like the very air that we breathe.

Amen.

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A prayer for the weary preacher

Abundant Word,
your economy of language
makes wine out of water,
a feast of fish and bread,
breaking nets out of sleepless nights

I come with crumbs,
with unslept eyes,
high on the fumes of the day,
my shredded garment of flesh
clothing a crumpled soul,
and what will I say?

Dare I pray for a miracle,
fall on my knees, bruised with sin,
beg you to multiply mercy until
it spills from my lips
like alleluias?


Updated 3/2/2019

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An ordination sermon: submittere

A sermon to celebrate the ordination of Sally Goodall to the Sacred Order of Deac
Luke 22:24-27; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6


It is a privilege to be invited to preach as Sally is ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons. Although we each grew up on a small island, in small villages next door to one another, it was only here in Ohio that we met, and only through our several calls to ordained ministry within the Episcopal Church that we came to talk in the real and true ways that Jesus opens up for us; and I am grateful.

You sent me your choices of readings and let me into some of the workings of why you were drawn to this, of all gospels, and that, of all epistles, and Jeremiah’s, of all call stories. You sent, too, a commentary from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist on servant ministry, that which is commended and commanded and demonstrated by Jesus in the gospel. Br Jim Woodrum wrote, “He entered into our condition, grew up and lived among us to show that the Way of God was not one of brute force and might, but one of gentle servitude.” “I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus confirms.

And here is the paradox of diaconal ordination: our model for service, while humble, is also glorious. It is not passive, but powerful. It comes in heavy with the threat of crucifixion, and sings with the truth of Resurrection. We aim to serve, yet all the time it is Christ who is still serving us.

To provoke this comment of Jesus about coming to serve, the disciples have been debating who is the greatest. In the Gospel according to Mark, this conversation happens out in the open, on the way down the mountain from the great Transfiguring experience in which the glory of Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John; and the other disciples become jealous, and angry, as they jostle for position at the right hand of Jesus.

In Luke’s Gospel, as we hear it tonight, it gets worse. The disciples are sitting at the table of the Last Supper when this dispute arises. They are at the table in the upper room, where Jesus has just this minute passed around a cup of wine, telling them to drink it themselves, since he will not drink of it again until the kingdom of God is fulfilled. He has broken bread, divided it among them as though it were his body, his very life, which is about to be betrayed and handed over to those who oppose that kingdom’s fulfillment.

They begin to whisper and gossip amongst themselves, about who the traitor might be, and from there it is but a quick flip to debating which of them is, in fact, the least likely to betray Christ’s mission, who is most loyal, the best disciple. They fight over who is, in fact, the greatest, while Jesus is sitting there right in the midst of them, still holding the cup of wine!

We often think that we are living in the most divided, rude, uncivil, uncompromising times in history. Perhaps there is something reassuring about knowing that Jesus witnessed the same defensive, boastful, and clueless conversations that we now enjoy.

Whether it was on the way down from the mountain, as the implications of Jesus’ unusual messiahship, the intimations of his passion, began to sink in; or here at the table, already breaking into the bread of his body, sharing out the cup; the problem that Jesus’ disciples had was to submit themselves, their egos, their self-image to his mission, his passion, his kingdom, at the expense of their own ambition.

Submission, now as then, is whispered as a dirty word. We prefer to project strength. But in the context of the gospel, the idea of submitting to God, literally to place ourselves under God’s sending authority, under God’s mission; there is nothing more dignified, nothing more humble, nothing more empowering than that.

To place ourselves at the mercy of God (as though there were any other hope for us, and still); to do so with intention, integrity, and a degree of honesty – that might be the pinnacle of human achievement.

By the way, if you choose to read on from our gospel, you will discover that in the next paragraph, ironically, Jesus promises the disciples twelve thrones, twelve kingdoms, sublet from the kingdom of God. Never mind that Jesus has just included Judas, with his hand on the door on his way out to betray him, a throne next to the other eleven in the kingdom of God. Never mind for a moment that astonishing act of forgiveness; back up to the fact that Jesus has in one breath told his disciples to stop seeking power and glory, and in the very next breath, crowned them with it all.

Each of us is promised the challenge and the resolution that Jesus offers his disciples, those gathered around the table with him. We are challenged to submit our agendas, our fears, our defenses, our ambitions to the service of his mission, his love for the world, his undying faithfulness. When we do, we find ourselves anointed and appointed as Christ’s ambassadors for the gospel, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to discover for ourselves and for one another the healing power of love, and the deep rewards of God’s justice working among us, the crowning glories of God’s mercy and grace.

For the bishop, or the priest, or the deacon, the challenge, and the promise, become quite particular. In a few moments, Sally will submit to the Examination prescribed by the prayerbook for those seeking ordination as deacons, “a special ministry of servanthood … to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, … the lonely … the helpless.”

It is in serving the most vulnerable, the most easily overlooked, ignored, or exploited people that we learn the most about the love of Christ; because it is by the need to listen deeply, by setting aside our own agendas and letting ourselves be led by the pain of others that we find our way to the foot of the cross. It is in the most intractable problems of the world and its children that we find ourselves unable to proclaim our own greatness, nor believe in our own glory. It is here, at the end of hope, that we find ourselves gathered once more with Jesus at the table, with the people whom he most loves, the ones who are broken like bread, scattered like crumbs, poured out like spilt wine.

I think that’s why all of us, priests, bishops, archbishops and all, begin our ordained ministry as deacons, called to stand witness to Christ’s gradual, often painful transformation of the world’s leftovers into God’s feast of life, of fierce resurrection, fit not for kings but for saints.

And so, God tells Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” We are engaged to this ministry by God’s mercy; therefore we do not lose heart, Paul writes. William Temple translated the promise,

“We have this ministry” … There is the fact. Why God called us we do not know; but He did, and here we are. Let us not doubt the reality of our vocation. … The source of our confidence is not our characters, our ability, our eloquence, or anything which is really ours; the source of our confidence is that … God still trusts us. *

Still, Christ serves us, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In the call to discipleship, Jesus serves us, and we can do no other than to fall at his feet and give thanks, and then be sent, not on our way, but on his.

May this way be to you a source of deep and abiding joy, knowing that “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry;” that God called you into this, and while God will not necessarily get you out of it, She will remain with you, serving you, and serving through you, your gifts, your prayers, your promise, sending you out under Christ’s banner – submittere –  to do the glorious work of love.<

Amen.


 
* William Temple, “Social Witness and Evangelism,” in Religious Experience and other Essays and Addresses (The Lutterworth Press, 1958)

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