Another Pentecost

Earlier in this pandemic situation, some clergy people of a charismatic persuasion wondered aloud online, “What if our first return to the church building is on Pentecost?”

Well, we know now. Nothing will look like we had imagined or expected. And yet we are here, in body or in spirit, celebrating the symbols of our faith: broken bread for a broken body; wine for spilt blood; candles for fire; prayer for our universal language.

Come, Holy Spirit.

While the disciples were all gathered together in one place, including Jesus’ mother and his brothers, the eleven and about a hundred others, they prayed, and sang, and broke bread. They kept the faith, they kept the memory of Jesus alive, they kept one another.

When the Holy Spirit erupted among them, anointing them with fire and driving them before her with a great wind, they emerged among the people to great confusion.

“Who are these?” the people asked. “Where have they come from? What are they saying, and why am I hearing them, and never mind, they must be drunk.”

How quickly the crowd turned from Hosanna to Crucify; from hearing the miracle of the Holy Spirit poured out upon God’s chosen ones to proclaim salvation to writing them off as a drunken mob.

But those who remained to listen learned something that day about the nature of God’s mercy, and the love of God that would go even to the Cross for us; love that would suffer in solidarity with the oppressed, the undermined, the unjustly executed, the betrayed.

The people who were prepared to listen to Peter and the others were cut to the heart when they heard of the injustice they had been complicit in visiting upon Jesus. They asked, “What then should we do?” Peter told them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Repent: repent, and be baptized. Then you may receive the Holy Spirit.”

I was on the periphery of yesterday’s demonstration in downtown Cleveland, of the loud and peaceable march from the Free Stamp to the Justice Center early in the afternoon, before some other things happened, a part and yet apart. As the crowd surged past, I headed for higher ground with my mask and my breath and my social distance. I prayed the chants (selectively) as they marched by, but one woman called out, “Come down here! Come down here!” I didn’t realize until later that I knew her. I stayed where I was, praying. Perhaps, on a Pentecost like this one, a preacher like me shouldn’t be trying to speak in tongues. Perhaps, instead, she should be listening.

Later, other things happened. You know, the Bible describes different kinds of fire. There is the pillar of fire that led an enslaved people out of Egypt and protected them on the way to the Promised Land. Then there are the dumpster fires of Gehenna, where the worm never sleeps. We recognize the fire of the Holy Spirit which rests upon the disciples but does not burn them. It is a refiner’s fire, not a forest fire. It doesn’t even scorch the foliage of the shrub out of which God speaks to Moses.

But don’t let the smoke obscure the truth that is poured out upon all of God’s children. Black Lives Matter. Racism kills. Even this pandemic discriminates, stealing the breath of more Black, Indigenous, and other people of color than that of Whites. And just in the past week, George Floyd was killed Monday in Minneapolis, and it is only by sheer luck that Christian Cooper walked away unharmed from Central Park after a white woman called on the police to punish the Black man for holding her accountable for her dog.

While Jesus was crucified for failure to cooperate with the authorities.

You know, when the Gospel says that “as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit was absent until ten days after the Ascension. We even saw her descend like a dove at Jesus’ own baptism. But just as Jesus is the source of living water, and his followers can only dispense that living water themselves once they have received it, once they have drunk of it – think, perhaps, of the instruction that any baptized person can themselves perform baptism, in an emergency – so it is that we as Christians come to recognize the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the light of Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension; the promise of his return with power and great glory, to judge the living and the dead.

We cannot recognize the powerful wind of the Holy Spirit if we will not bear witness to the breath crushed out of the neck of the crucified man. We will not hear the Holy Spirit in our own language until we hear the resurrected Christ call our name, although we mistook him at first for someone else, for the gardener (he matched the description). We will not feel the fire of the Holy Spirit until we come with fear and trembling to accept the judgment of Christ the King, and his mercy. His justice is unassailable, and in the last days, the prophet says, it will fall upon all flesh, with portents of fire and smoky mist, swept in on the breath of the Holy Spirit; a new vision of the kingdom of God drawn near: the vision of a new creation, not of destruction but of new life. Not of vengeance but of justice. Not of murder but of mercy.

“Then all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Peter promised, and thank God for that.

And so yes, this is a Pentecost like no other. Yet the Holy Spirit still shows up to do her work, breathing life to those in the dust, renewing the face of creation. May we know her by her gentle fire, and by her urgent provocation to prophesy what we know: that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.


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Preaching Pentecost

How will the rushing wind feel to one
whose neck is pressed into the dust?

Will we hear the Spirit speak
through tongues of fire?

Would you inhale Jesus’s unfiltered breath,
recently stolen by a suffocating death,
reeking of righteousness and resurrection,
the Judge of nations, unmasked?

More than 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the US.
Nearly 360,000 people have died from the disease worldwide. Close to 6 million cases have been confirmed overall.
George Floyd died after saying, “I can’t breathe,” as a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

Thanks to the Revd Canon Percy Grant for the image of Jesus’ tomb-breath.

John 20:19-23
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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An arpeggio rising beyond our ear, they
who strum and straddle the lines
between heaven and the earth, the angels incorporeal, they
think us foolish to strain after touch, sight, sounds,
the echo in our marrow of a descending chord
that sits in the solar plexus skewering us to the pew.
You will find him, they say, as you saw him leave,
wounded and glorious, witnessed by others and told to you
as though in a dream, fixed and risen barely beyond translation

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A new creation

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, still under stay-at-home orders.

Since Peter’s letter invites us to remember the story of Noah, let’s imagine ourselves into the Ark, and out of the Ark, emerging to see the first rainbow. Can you imagine what it would be like to see that accident of light for the very first time, blazed across the sky? Can you imagine, having come through a storm that devastated everything familiar, that ended life as you knew it, and deposited you on a mountainside to build a new life out of the debris of the old creation; can you imagine then seeing in the sky something so beautiful, so terrifying, so bright, so inexplicable (if you were Noah)? Would you run towards it, seeking God where it seemed to touch the earth, or would you fall on your face in fear, uncertain what this new sign, this new promise, this new covenant might mean?

Some of you know that the clergy of this diocese met earlier this week with our Presiding Bishop by Zoom. One of the crossbeams of his message to us was that, as much as we hear the phrase, and use it, we are not seeking a new normal on the other side of this pandemic, whatever that might look like and however long it might take. Instead, we, as Christians, Bishop Curry said, are always looking for, always embodying God’s new creation.

Noah wasn’t looking anew for the old world, on the Ark or after the Flood. That ship had sailed.

Paul wasn’t seeking a new normal for his life after the road to Damascus; he preached the new creation of a life in Christ, with Christ, the new life of resurrection.

Jesus was not looking for a new normal when he returned from waking the dead after his resurrection. Nothing was normal. His own disciples both saw him and didn’t recognize him, believed although some doubted, were afraid and full of joy, promised to love him, and feed his lambs, and still sheltered in place, behind locked doors.

I have said a couple of times that one of the best, most serendipitous things I did before our quarantine, not seeing this situation coming, was to adopt our two kittens from the Euclid Pet Pals. They have been a godsend to our lockdown days. Of course, they think they run the Ark.

Last week I had to bring the kittens back to Euclid for their little operations to make sure they couldn’t grow more kittens. Pet owners are advised to keep their patients quiet and calm for a period of convalescence after surgery; try that with a pair of prime young cats. One of the sisters healed beautifully, but I had to bring the other back this week for fresh stitches and a bit of remedial care because she simply will not follow her treatment plan. Even after this latest set of warning signs, she insists on picking at her stitches and has now been rewarded with a cone of shame, for her own protection. Because she wouldn’t follow the rules for recovery the first time around, her healing will take more than twice as long than it should have. And it’s true, and unfair, that her sister broke all the same rules she did and is perfectly healthy; one person’s luck is not a scientific study in what we can get away with.

We all want to reassemble our common life in Christ, to celebrate the Sacraments and to worship together, to see the faces of those whom we love and for whom we pray daily, to work out our salvation together with fear and trembling.

But what if we prepare for that reconstruction not by working out how to work around or set aside the sacrifices that public health and our common good requires of us at this time, but by imagining a whole new creation; not by trying to retrofit the future onto the patterns of normality to which we had become accustomed, but by entering freely into the creative imagination of God?

As Paul has preached,

“The God who made the world and everything in it, the One who rules over heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since it is God who gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

It is true, I am convinced, that God meets us in our buildings, our upturned Arks; in our rites and rituals, in our calendars and feast days, since we are bound by space and time; that God graces us through the Sacraments. This is true; and/but we do not contain God that way, and if God’s grace is uncontained by our construction of normality, then it follows that we, made in God’s image and inspired by God’s Spirit and led by Christ’s example, may also find ourselves called to be not entirely normal. We are a new creation.

New creation is hard work. While Bishop Curry was preaching it, I could almost see it, almost taste it, because he is that good and persuasive a preacher; but even God rested after six days. Creation, finding a new way forward, is exhausting. It’s so tempting to fall back anew into an old normal instead.

But “God waited patiently in the days of Noah,” the first letter of Peter tells us. God is patient as we work out with fear and trembling the path of the Cross set before us, knowing its dangers, knowing, too, that it leads toward life.

When Noah began to build the Ark, its dimensions were beyond his capacity to grasp. As he saw it come together, he must have thought, “This is not normal.”

As the storm hit, and its intensity hit home, and as it showed no signs of letting up, the world must have thought, “This is not normal.”

As the Ark drifted on the surface of creation for months, by biblical account, not for forty days, but forty days followed by one hundred and fifty days followed by a season of gradual abatement of the waters first from the uninhabitable mountain tops and only slowly to a level where a man and his family and somewhere between two and fourteen of every kind of animal in the world might have room to disembark – as life on the Ark stretched from month to month, its inhabitants must have found some sort of routine, some rhythm, some method of accounting for the days and their demands, but God knows, it cannot have felt anything like normal. And what followed, after the tide ebbed, after they all emerged, after Noah built an altar and made his sacrifice to God; what followed was a new creation, the sign of the rainbow in the sky.

There were survivors of the old days, the old ways. Olive trees still grew, doves and ravens still flew, Noah still knew how to make an altar and offer sacrifice. And when God responded, with a whole new creation blazed across his vision, across the sky, did Noah fall on his face, or hide his eyes, or did he look with wonder toward that infinite and creative space between the arc and the earth, filling it with his imaginations of what other new and wonderful things God might have in store for him, and his family, and somewhere between two and fourteen of every living creature on the earth?


Featured image: Noah’s Dankgebet, by Domenico Morelli, Public Domain (detail) via wikimedia commons

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Living stones

If I were preaching this morning, I might want to say something about living stones.

(I was not preaching this morning; our Senior Warden offered a strong word of grace and encouragement. Nevertheless:)

When Jesus entered Jerusalem and the people sang and chanted and waved branches and coats and created a holy cacophony, some asked Jesus to ask the crowd to tone it down.

“If these were silent,” he said, “the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)

Have you ever wandered through an old graveyard, reading the tombstones, wondering about the stories that they tell? Most give little away. Many speak names, dates, perhaps a close relationship or two. My mother’s stone has the fragment of a poem I wrote for her funeral, but when she was dying she chose a different epitaph. One day, when I visited, she was repeating the same phrase over and over, in her absent murmur: “well loved. Well loved.” She was well loved.

Stones have little space for ambiguity or nuance. They are hard-nosed, they get straight to the point. They do not give up extra flourishes easily. “Well loved” is the kind of distillation of a life they can support. Names, dates, and one salient detail to sum up the measure of a man, or a mother.

When Peter’s letter wrote that we should become living stones, chosen and precious, it might have had in mind (it might not) the kind of exercise that asks, “What will be on your tombstone?” An examination of our cornerstone values, our foundational tenets, and whether or not not they are reflected in the facades of our lives; whether they would be recognized and rendered by those who will choose the word or phrase by which we will be recognized and remembered, that our stones will speak for us.

“Well loved,” my mother said. I suppose that I would like to be remembered for having loved well, but the truth is that always I have relied on the love and mercy, the forbearance and forgiveness of others, which is why the Gospel holds such appeal for me: if all else fails, the churchyard will bear witness that God had mercy on my mortality; that by God’s grace, the first and last word the stones shout is of love.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. …
…Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2: 4-5,10)


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Rizpah marked mother’s day

as any other, sitting on her sackcloth

in grim imitation of a picnic blanket,

strewn about with the bones of her sons,

watching hope deteriorate, refusing

to let it be picked clean in the face

of overwhelming evidence

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images 

Rizpah keeps watch in the tranquil night over the decaying bodies of her sons. Mezzotint by R. Dunkarton and J.M.W. Turner, 1812, after the latter.

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

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Known and unknowns

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter during the pandemic suspension of public worship.

So here we are again, on the road to Emmaus with Fred and Cleo. We know that Jesus is risen from the grave. We have heard the stories. We have witnessed fear, joy, awe, and the tears of great consolation in the midst of great grief. And yet, somewhere on the road, between there and here, going about our daily business and its many steps, we forgot how to recognize him. We began to doubt that he was with us. We forgot what he looks like.

A lot of the time, perhaps, we are content to let the rituals of bread and wine stand in for understanding; we allow the Sacraments to serve as our certainty. He is known to us in the breaking of the Bread.

But I wonder, as they hurried back to Jerusalem, their hearts full of the joy of Jesus, whether Fred and Cleo nevertheless harboured some regrets, at not recognizing him sooner, not following the promptings of their hearts.

Before he was made known to me in the breaking of the Bread, Christ made himself known to me through the stories of the Bible, through prayer, through the kindness of certain teachers. He saved me from an emptiness that I was just beginning to recognize. He raised me to a new life, one which would last me a lifetime, so far. It was as though I was born again.

If I had waited to look for him, to find him, to recognize him; if I had waited until I was allowed to share in the breaking of the Bread, for me, it may have been too late.

When I was a child, I took myself off to church looking for the God that I had heard about in Bible stories and in prayer: the one whose name was hallowed, whose name was intimate, who would deliver us, me, from all evil. I found a church with dark wood pews and a boat-like ceiling; with an unlikely yellow carpet and a stained glass window of the Lamb carrying a flag emblazoned with a cross. It looked like something out of a picture book.

I heard prayers in a language that I barely understood, but whose poetry sang to me. I don’t remember many of the sermons, except one when the vicar referenced a new blockbuster movie, which he thought was called The Empire Hits Back, and one when a woman preached. I don’t remember her words, but her presence was astonishing to my adolescent spirit, a witness to the resurrection.

I found the Psalms of Morning Prayer to be almost interminably long. But twice a month, we celebrated Eucharist, and I learned to get in line with the adults heading up the steps toward the altar, between the choir stalls, to kneel at the altar rail, where the priest would place a blessing on my head. I would file out with the others, through the Lady Chapel. There was one man who would leave right from the rail, straight out of the back door of the church. The rest of us remained for the Post Communion prayer; I would fret over the words, knowing that I had not consumed the Body and Blood of Christ as it was placed in the hands of the adults around me, but grateful, nevertheless, to have drawn near, to have known his presence so close to me.

Even before I was admitted to the Communion of bread and wine, Christ made himself known to me in the breaking of the Bread.

But first, he came to me in story, in word and prayer. As we heard in the Letter of Peter, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. … That word is the good news that was announced to you.” (1 Peter 1:23,25)

Like Fred and Cleo, my heart burned within me as, through the salvation story, Christ made known to me God’s love for a child such as myself. Had my heart not burned, and had I not followed my heart, I would never have come to that supper of the Lamb, the breaking of the Bread.

We are living in uncertain times. We hear mixed messages about opening up and continuing to keep ourselves to ourselves – at least physically. While we received some clarity from the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter issued Friday, which confirmed that we will continue to fast from public worship for a while yet, we may feel as though we are in famine from our Holy Communion. But if Christ is known to us in the breaking of the Bread, that Bread is his Body. We have seen him broken on the Cross. But even he himself told the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4); and he is the very Word of God. He is known to us in the mystery and majesty of his Resurrection, and in the uncertainty of unfamiliar terrain, and in the prayers and concerns that we share, and in the doubts that we discuss between us, in our grief and in our hope.

We are on the road to Emmaus still, uncertain and excited; and Christ is still with us, meeting us at the crossroads, walking with us, telling us the salvation story and waiting with us, waiting for us to understand, for as long as it takes for our hearts to awaken, our eyes to open, our joy to be complete.

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Easter 2: What Thomas saw

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter in 2020, preached from home

It wasn’t what Thomas didn’t see that gave him pause, but what he had seen, out there, while the others were safely sequestered. He wondered, if Jesus was raised, why he was not on the streets, laying on hands and healing as in days past; teaching truth and challenging vested and vaunted interests as he had until so recently, so suddenly.

While the other ten disciples sheltered in place, fearing contagion from their fellow men, Thomas was considered an essential worker. He worked nights in the ER, making life and death decisions, wrangling resources, frequently pushing to the back of his mind his own life and death. Or he worked there as a security guard, explaining why a mother could not hold her bleeding son, pretending to be a brick wall between them while his insides crumbled. He drove the dark roads, seeing the fear in the face of the woman as he changed her tyre; fear not of the strength of his body, but of the sickness he might carry within. He worked at the bank, mostly from home, slipping out at odd hours to finish bits and pieces of paperwork, ignoring taps on the window from the man with whom he used to exchange the sports stats daily, the currency of his mental and social health. He was a delivery guy: a brown-skinned young man now wearing a mask by order of his employer and common sense, and more afraid than ever of being misconstrued, misidentified, shot by some suburban homeowner. Thomas was a pharmacist, but he had run out of hydroxychloroquine when his favourite RA patient called for her regular refill. He stocked the shelves at the supermarket, trying not to see the anxious plea in the eyes of the people standing in front of an emptiness that he couldn’t fill. He remembered how Jesus would turn water into wine, bread and fish into a feast fit for thousands.

When Thomas heard that Jesus had visited with his disciples behind locked doors, he was incredulous. More than that, he was angry. Didn’t Christ know how much he was needed out there, in the city? Didn’t he know how much he, Thomas, needed him?

Of course, Jesus came back for Thomas. He always did, he always would. He had promised it, faithfully.

When Thomas saw him, he fell to his knees in the astonishment of recognition. “My Lord and my God,” he cried out, once more almost incredulous.

Because Thomas saw Jesus’s wounded hands and recognized the firefighter he had treated last week in the ER, who had hurt himself helping a family escape a house fire, who had put himself between them and the blaze. He saw the rough-rubbed hands of the harvester, the twisted and arthritic hands of the truck driver, working to feed the multitudes.

Thomas saw Jesus’s face, and for a moment he thought that his eyes were those of the bus driver, masked and gloved, who came faithfully to pick him up day by day.

He saw Jesus’s scarred feet, and he recognized the aching arches of the nurse whose Fitbit showed by the end of the day that she had walked the distance to Emmaus and back (and back again). He felt the ache in his own big toe, which he had stubbed yesterday on the cheerfully painted rocks left out by the neighbour children which spelled out, ironically, “Stay Safe.”

Thomas saw Jesus’s pierced and bleeding heart, and he recognized another neighbour who had slipped by the disciples’ place during the week, knowing their trouble, knowing their fear, who asked in a whisper through the locked door if there was anything she could do to help, who left matzo ball soup on the doorstep, who slid a card with a little cash under the door, that they knew was more than she could afford to give away. He saw the teacher who stayed up past midnight making sure she had a plan for each of her quarantined children. He saw Jesus’s pierced and bleeding heart and he recognized the grief of the widower, and his joy when his son, for the first time in months, facetimed him out of the blue.

Thomas realized, as he had known all along, that of course Christ could not be confined behind locked doors, hidden away with his disciples, any more than he could stay sealed in the tomb. Of course he had been active in the world, as he had since the beginning. Of course, his love would reach within, and without, whatever bounds Thomas’s imagination set for it.

And Thomas remembered that Jesus had, after all, given him, given them authority to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to return life to the dying, to feed the hungry, to love the people of God beyond all reason. Thomas and all of the disciples had received that authority, and the responsibility; a shared burden with God’s own Christ. It’s the burden and joy of all Christians: little Christs, anointed by God to share in the works of mercy and creation. It is our mission.

“My Lord and my God,” Thomas murmured, once more in awe of the complicated, comprehensive, simple love of this man, this Son of God, once more incredulous at his power to turn the world upside down and right way up, all at once; to make the world turn.


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Rolling stone

I like to imagine that
instead of rolling the stone
he turned it into bread
for the birds to swarm
and peck, hungry for spring
time and their nests,
carrying it crumb by crumb
to feed their young,
open-mouthed and shrill,
laughing at the devil

Mark 16:1-3 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

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Easter 2020: empty

On page 880 of the Book of Common Prayer there begins a series of instructions for finding Easter and other moveable feasts. If you have the Golden number and the Sunday letter, it promises, you can find Easter in any century or year …

Easter is a moveable feast. It is linked to a lunar and sacred calendar more ancient than the one that we use. Even other Christian churches use yet other calendars. For some of our siblings, today is Palm Sunday; Easter is yet to come.

I have seen churches saying that when we come back together, when e back in our buildings, when we are able to sing our alleluias together, that will be Easter. Easter is, after all, a moveable feast. And Easter is seven weeks long – fifty days. Is it unreasonable at least to hope that, by the time we are together again, it will still be Easter?

In the meantime, our aumbry, the tabernacle remains void of the reserved Sacrament. Our pews remain empty of our voices. The building remains empty of alleluias.

But I was reminded this week that on that first Easter, it was the tomb that was empty. And that reminded me that before God created the heavens and the earth, all was empty and void. And see what God created out of that emptiness. And remember the new life that Jesus brought out of the empty tomb.

And so I invite us not to shy away from the emptiness of this Easter, hard as it is, but to remember and to wonder what new thing God will create out of this new emptiness.


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