Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Easter 7B. 24 May 2009.



ur Gospel lessons for the Easter season started off with accounts of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, and as the Great Fifty Days of Easter draw to a close, we've been reading from the "farewell discourses" in John.  I mentioned last week that these farewell speeches are unique to John's Gospel.  They are unique for more than just their ethereal tone.  These words are unique in that they are written to be heard both in their context in John's Gospel, but also for their context in the early Church.


          Remember that the Gospels were written long after the Ascension of Jesus and perhaps even after most of the original twelve disciples had been martyred.  These sayings of Jesus are reconstructed in John's Gospel, probably mostly from oral tradition. 


          We still have a great deal of oral tradition in the Church.  In the last few weeks some of us have been in the initial stages of grief following the death of the Rev. Bill Pendleton—a man who was formative for many of you, a man who represented the essence of this parish.  The stories about Bill will be in your minds and on your lips, much like the sayings and stories of Jesus that were finally written down.



          Almost a year ago, the Rev. Churchill Gibson died.  Some of you knew Churchill.  He was another one of those priests who had a way about him that made you want to know him.  When Churchill died, the stories started being told—lest we forget them—and one particular joke he told so many times and in so many different ways that everyone knew the punch line, but no one agreed on the body of the joke.  The oral tradition was too varied, and it's likely that he told the joke in all of the ways that people remember it.  In the same way, the Gospels contain several versions of Jesus' words, but there's nothing to say that he didn't convey the same message many times but organized differently, or with different expressions.


          But again, the oral tradition lasted much longer than the original audience for whom Jesus' words were directed; therefore, we read these words as words to the early Church—and then to us. 


          Most of the language of our lesson for today sounds so sweet, and so tender.  "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."[1]


          It's a lovely prayer.  A lot of "you in me," and "I in you," and "watch over them," and it's kind of like when a long serving member of a club steps down, or when a beloved teacher retires and is asked to give the commencement address.  There is some nostalgia in the air.  "Do you remember the healing of the paralyzed man?"  Yes, yes.  "Do you remember the loaves and fishes."  Yes, yes.  It's the kind of nostalgia that brings faithfulness to mind.  "We stuck through the bad times, and now, we're all a little older and wiser for the journey, but looking back, those were the good times, too."


          You look out over the congregation assembled to hear John's Gospel being read out loud for the very first time, and you can see the son of a man Peter baptized nodding his head, remembering his dad's stories about Peter.  Over there in the corner is one of the congregation's oldest members.  Her cousin was one of Mary's best friends.  She still knows some stories about Jesus from when he was a boy.  John should write some of that stuff down, too, but she wasn't there, and she can't remember all the details.


          There's a cozy feeling to all this nostalgia.  You know what I'm talking about.  The men get together at the VFW and share stories from their years in the Army—things they can't really tell their wives: jokes, stories. 

          You see them over there laughing at something as if the last forty years where easy-breezy, but in the back of their minds they wonder how they made it through combat.  A buddy got shot on this side, and a buddy got shot on the other side, and I survived.  Why?  He's been living with that question for the last forty years.  Easy-breezy? 


          He came home—couldn't tell his wife what he'd seen, couldn't tell his children, couldn't tell his priest.  It has felt like guilt for the last forty years.  Easy breezy?  No.  That laugh—if you listen to it carefully—has a question mark at the end of it.  And that question mark is the biggest question of his life.  What would have happened if I had been twelve inches to the right, or twelve inches to the left?


          Now, you might say to me, "Well, Alexander, that's a different kind of nostalgia.  There are no brooding questions in Jesus' words," but I would say to you, "Keep reading."  Jesus goes on to say, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."[2]


          It is one of those questions that—to my mind—intensifies the feeling of distance between us and God.  Jesus came to bridge the gap, to embrace humanity in all its sinfulness and redeem us totally.  But there is still the gift of life to be lived…with all its uncertainties, all its aches and pains. 


          This life is a gift, no question.  But it is filled with pitfalls, and illnesses.  I don't have to number them.  You know what I'm talking about.


          This part of Jesus' prayer is very unsettling.  "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."  It's like the Fall, and the parents have moved their seventeen year old child into the dorm room.  The mother has made up the bed, and put the clothes in the closet.  Dad has lugged the furniture and the books and odds and ends.  Mom and Dad are excited for their child, but they also know that they're going to have to leave the little boy they held on their laps—they're going to have to leave the little girl who was only just swinging on the swing set a couple years ago. 


          Seventeen years old.  He doesn't know anything about anything.  He's got that cocky smile on his face—he thinks he's going to make the starting line-up freshman year.  She's just a little too pretty.  Why doesn't she wear something a little longer?  I don't know if she should look that way around all these college boys.


          They have dinner at a little cafe just around the corner, and then, the time has come for the parents to say goodbye.  What do you say?  "Don't get into trouble—but have fun."  "Study hard—but make lots of friends."  The parents don't want to let go, but they don't want to hold on either.  It's time for this.  It's time for this. 


          And what's their prayer?  "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one."  They're going to have to face the real world.  They're going to get their hearts broken by stupid and immature boys or girls.  They're going to make a C on a test they studied for for hours. 

          It's not high school.  It's college.  The training wheels have come off.  You're not there to guide the bicycle by the seat.  It's time for them to grow up.


          Jesus is on his way to the Father.  He is saying goodbye, but he will ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to be with us.  Dad will send little emails and little messages from home.  "Son, you'll never guess what happened today.  You remember the neighbor's old gas range we used to joke about?  He got a new one today…it's nice.  You would have enjoyed seeing that old one getting picked up by the guys from Lowes."  Little messages about little tiny things that convey the big message—"I love you, son.  I'm with you, even though you can't see me, I'm right here.  I think about you all the time.  I miss you, son.  I am so proud of you."


          Mom was going back through the closet and found the shirt that they spent half an hour trying to find.  She wraps it up in a mailer with a note to her daughter.  "You'll never guess where I found it!  It was under the Christmas sweater!"  The mailer will arrive and there is the shirt with the note that the college girl will open up.  A little thing.  She's got a million shirts.  Who cares where the shirt was?  That's not what the message says.  The message says, "I love you, sweetie.  I can't stop thinking about you.  I think about you learning to walk in heels in our bedroom.  I can't stop thinking about that silly little laugh you make when you play with my hair.  I miss you so much."




          "I don't ask that you take them out of the world.  I ask that you protect them from the evil one."  I ask that you keep the things that sting from stinging too much.  I ask that if he has to be told he's not going to be on the starting line-up that he'll find the girl of his dreams.  I ask that you watch over him when it's late at night and he's out at 7-11 getting a hot dog with his buddies. 


          I don't know why Jesus wants us to continue on with this life with all its sorrows and complexities.  I don't know why life itself has to be filled with so many shades of meaning and varieties of experience.  But we've been pushed into the world as children of God, as much a representative of God as our own family. 


          And the world will not understand us—just like no one would understand the little notes that come from home.  But the notes will keep coming.  And below the surface of what the neighbor said, or what the dog got into, they all say the same thing. 


          All these little notes that you read in John, and Corinthians, and Ephesians, and Isaiah, and all through the Bible.  And all the little notes that God drops into your head—they all say the same thing, really: "I love you, son, and I miss you.  Remember, I'm here, if you need me.  You know the number.  You know the way back home.  We'll see you again soon.  I love you."


          "I do not ask that you take them out of the world.  I ask that you protect them from the evil one."

[1] John 17:6-11

[2] John 17:15

Monday, May 25, 2009

No more "public figure" clergy

Someone recently told me that I was a public figure. I bristled. To be fair, they didn't say celebrity, thanks be to God, but public figure is almost just as bad. I think her point was that I'm the parish priest of my two little churches.

I have been thinking, since the comment, about other "public figures" in the church: bishops, retreat speakers, etc. None of them are known well beyond the church subculture, but within the subculture, they are celebrities, and I continue to be surprised at how highly they seem to esteem themselves. I know many priests who will not return telephone calls, or emails. I know some who will not willingly listen or respond to any sort of communication; and who will advise others to behave in the same way.

I do not understand this mentality. Honestly. I do not understand the idea and practice of inaccessible or non-communicative clergy. It goes against my understanding of basic Christianity, and effective priesthood. So get over it. Return your phone calls. I don't care if you're busy. I don't care if you think it's a waste of your time.

If you can't be bothered to touch the wounds of the people who find God in you, then you shouldn't be representing Jesus at the Altar. Take off your collar, buy a mansion, and write your books, but don't put on vestments and pretend that you're too good for the people of God.

Thursday, May 21, 2009



lmighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:  Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.





It is difficult to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus.  He is not a cuddly baby in a manger, a suffering servant, or even a newly resurrected Savior we can approach and talk with.  He leaves us today.  We can shout up after him, but he will not suddenly turn back for the last word or the last question.


We are left with the uncomfortable time between now and Pentecost.  The words of the Angels will ring in our ears, "Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  In like manner as you have seen him going into heaven, so shall he come again."[1]


He has gone away.  We are left below.  The Spirit will come, yes.  The Spirit will lead us into all truth, yes.  But we won't have him in the same way.


It has long been the tradition of priests, nuns, and monks to wear black.  I remember hearing, years ago, that it's a practice that conveys the mourning of the Church until the return of Christ.  I like that quite a lot, because I consider myself often in mourning that our Lord has yet to come again.  He is here in Spirit, Word, and Sacrament—but there is no face, no eyes into which we can look.


You can say, "Well, yes, but you're meant to look into the eyes of the poor and the needy."  Yes, yes, yes.  I know.  But that's a Pentecost message:  turning affection into mission.  It's like when a husband and wife are apart, and he turns his devotion into house chores—or she turns her devotion to sorting through his clothing.  But that doesn't really take the sadness of the separation away. 


I suppose we are given this time—after the Ascension and before Pentecost—to reflect on the earthly life of Jesus—remembering the good times, the stories, the people healed, and wondering what will come next.  Yes, back to the mission field eventually.  But let's wait here a couple days.  Let's take a moment to catch our breath.


I don't think we're meant to go around all "victorious in Jesus" all the time.  I think sometimes we are given space by God simply to be, to reflect, to take in the mystery of the sacred story.  If someone asks you for a cup of water, give it to them, of course.  But if you can, pull aside from the frenetic service side of Christianity.  Leave the ladle on the side of the soup kitchen pot, and take a minute to say a prayer in that little chapel of your soul. 


"Thy Kingdom come.  Thy Spirit come. And one day soon, Lord Jesus, come."


I hope he returns today.  And if not today, then certainly tomorrow.  And if not tomorrow, then certainly the day after.  



1. See, the Conqueror mounts in triumph;
See the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds, His chariot,
To His heavenly palace gate!
Hark, the choirs of angel voices
Joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted
To receive their heavenly King.
2. Who is this that comes in glory
With the trump of jubilee?
Lord of battles, God of armies,--
He hath gained the victory.
He who on the cross did suffer,
He who from the grave arose,
He hath vanquished sin and Satan;
He by death hath spoiled His foes. 
3. While He lifts His hands in blessing,
He is parted from His friends;
While their eager eyes behold Him,
He upon the clouds ascends.
He who walked with God and pleased Him,
Preaching truth and doom to come,
He, our Enoch, is translated
To His everlasting home.
4. Now our heavenly Aaron enters
With His blood within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan,
And the kings before Him quail.
Now He plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting-place;
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of His grace.
5. Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God's right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with Thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension
We by faith behold our own.

[1] Acts of the Apostles 1:11

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


oly Spirit, Spirit of truth, come into my heart; shed the brightness of thy light on all nations, fill me with all love, all wisdom and understanding. Speak to the Father through your groanings within me; and draw all souls to prayer for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


ome, Holy Ghost, inspire the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The garden in your heart

There is a garden in your heart.  You may never have seen it, but it's such a beautiful place that when you discover it, you will want to return again and again.  It's a beautiful garden.  There are roses and marigolds.  There are gardenias in full bloom—fragrant, pure white. Lillies, amaryllis, petunias, hedges of boxwood, and intricate lattice work.  It's a beautiful garden, and you can go there anytime you want.  God has planted all those wonderful flowers inside you, and he tends the garden constantly.


In the middle of the garden there is a well.  If you pull on the rope, a pail will emerge with a full bucket of water.  You can drink as much of it as you need to be refreshed.  And you can sit down in the shade of a large oak tree that waves in the gentle breeze under the warm sunlight.  It's all inside you.  If you don't know the way, ask God to show it to you.  He'll point to the gate. 


Now, in order to get there, you might have to pass through some other areas.  You might have to pass through a toll gate, where you have to confess your sins.   Don't worry.  Just let them out, God will forgive, and you can move on.  You might have to go through a barren place for awhile.  Nothing is growing there.  In order to pass through the barren place you will have to forgive the people who have hurt you.  But once you start to forgive them, God will help you out of the barren place.


You may have to go through a land that is rocky and uneven where there are overgrown vines and strange creatures.  This is a place of grief.  Take your time, pray very hard, rely on the kindness of others, but eventually, you'll emerge.


But I don't want to give you the idea that you have to pass through all these places to get to the garden.  You can actually get to the garden anytime you want.  Pass through the gate, smell the flowers, sit under the oak, drink the water, and just relax for awhile.  You will still be you, and God will be God; your crazy family will still be crazy—that's okay. 


The point is that God has placed the goodness of his Holy Spirit inside you; and when you let the Holy Spirit move around, you will begin to see all these beautiful flowers and taste this delicious water.  No one else can show you their garden—it's not for you, it's for them.  Yours is for you.  God has planted it just for you.  You are welcome to visit it anytime you wish and for as long as you can.  You might not be able to live there, but you can visit it when you need to.


When you pass through the gate the first couple times, you won't notice the sign. That's right.  The garden has a name.  Most people never know the name, or if they did, they often don't remember it; but that's okay.  The name of the garden is meaningless to most people.  If they see the name, they just think "Huh!  What a strange name for a garden!" and then they walk on in and never give it a second thought.


But because I'm writing to church folks, I think you'll understand that the name explains the meaning of the garden, why it exists, and why you can always visit it.  You see, the name of the garden is: Grace.
Enjoy your visits.

Easter 6B. 17 May 2009.



          I am going to do something today that I have never done.  I'm not going to break into liturgical dance, or anything like that.  Don't worry.  I'm going to go back and preach again from the same text as I preached last week.  For those of you who keep score, I preached last week about Jesus' teaching that if we abide in him, then we can make our requests, and God will honor them. 


          When I started to go to work on the text for today, something about last week's text would not let me go.  I set out Monday morning to walk to church, and it was as if the text ran up beside me and said, "Hey, buddy…you only talked about a little bit of me.  What do you say?  Why don't you tell them about the vine and the branches?"


          I said, "No, you're done, I've got another text for this week."  He said, "Yeah, but you could still go back.  You won't see me for another three years."  So, here we go.  The following is from last week's Gospel lesson:


          Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned."


          I suppose the text would not let me go because as I walked to church I couldn't help noticing all the new leaves on the trees, especially the leaves that were pushing the the cherry blossoms out of their way.  "I am the vine, you are the branches."  It's an interesting verse in John.  I can envision Jesus saying it.  It's so simple. "I am the vine, you are the branches."


          Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before the events leading up to his arrest and crucifixion.  This section in John is referred to as the "farewell discourses" and is intented by John to be read as a monologue of Jesus both to his disciples and to the early church.  You won't find anything like it in any of the other Gospels. 


          There is a paradoxical quality to the farewell discourses.  On one hand, they convey a sense of urgency, as if Jesus were saying in front of every verse "Remember this…remember this…don't forget," and yet at the same time there is a peace about Jesus' words, as if they are floating on a deep river that flows through all eternity. 


          You might even get the feeling that these words are attributed to Jesus but really came through the oral tradition of his disciples.  If you think that, I know of a couple biblical scholars who would agree. (Pause.)


          We had a grape arbor when I was a boy.  I remember when my mother would get out her clippers and she'd go all over the vines pruning things back, and my father and I would haul away the branches.  And then weeks would pass and new vines would come to life and start stretching themselves out like bright, green buggy whips.  The vine stretched itself out and the thinner parts became thicker and the leaves became larger, and by and by, little tiny things that looked like peppercorns appeared on the underside.  And then they'd look like green marbles, and one day, they would become beautiful purple grapes.


          I have memories of plucking those grapes off of the arbor and eating them right there.  My mother would pluck them in batches and make grape juice with them.  Delicious grape juice.  In time, that juice would get just the tiniest little kick to it, and then you knew the process of fermentation was beginning.


          I think it was Bernard of Clairveaux who preached a sermon about Jesus turning the water into wine...  You remember that story?  It's Jesus' first miracle in John's gospel.  He and the disciples are the wedding in Cana, and they run out of wine.  Jesus has these enormous—I mean, hundreds of gallons large—water barrels filled to the brim, and when they're presented to the steward of the wedding feast, the steward discovers that the water has become wine.[1]


          I think it was St. Bernard of Clairveaux who wrote that we should not be surprised when Jesus changes water into wine.[2]  God is always changing water into wine.  He sends the water to the earth, and then to the vine.  And using common clay—in the form of human beings—he crushes the grapes, and over time with the process of fermentation—which God himself has created—wine is produced.  He says, We should not be surprised at the wedding feast.  We should be surprised instead that God most often chooses to work through human hands.  God could give us wine just as easily as give us water.


          I thought about that during my walk, and I kept saying the words, "I am the vine you are the branches."  I said it over and over.  Do you have sayings of Jesus that you just find yourself saying over and over?  For me it is usually, "If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he will give you another comforter, even the Spirit of truth…"[3]  But sometimes I get stuck on ones like this one, "I am the vine, you are the branches."


          I suppose part of my inability to move on is that Jesus has said something rather astounding here.  It doesn't seem that way when you read it…it looks like a very simple metaphor.  But when you look at a vine and its branches, you're not looking at two different things, do you see that?  You don't say, "Here is a vine and over there…those are the branches."  It's all one thing. 


          Do you realize that Jesus is saying that we're part of him?  That's pretty amazing when you think about it.  And the metaphor really is a very good one, because some branches get all tangled up and out of control and have to be pruned for the health of the vine.  But I don't want to talk about the tangled up branches.  I want to talk about living as part of whole vine. 


          I think a lot of Christians think of themselves and the church as pretty small.  And that's understandable.  Everyone notices the big churches, especially people who go to little churches.  People who go to little churches sometimes get an inferiority complex about their own church.  They think, "If we were just a little more child friendly we'd be big, like that big church.  We wouldn't have to worry about the stewardship then!  We wouldn't have to worry about getting volunteers for coffee hour!


          But do you know that big churches have problems just the same?  As a matter of fact I was talking with a rector of a big church, and I just sort of assumed that he could kick back and go on retreats and take sabbaticals, but he said to me, "You name any problem you've got, and we've got it, too." 


          Big churches and little churches…they've got their own crosses to bear, but no church is without its difficulties.  And the fact is that most churches are about the size of Beckford Parish, most churches see less than a hundred on a Sunday.  And sometimes the people in these small church look around and think, "Well…you know…we're just a little church.  Nothing much going on.  We're not all that important."


          And sometimes they are tempted to think, "You know…my faith is not all that important.  God's got bigger fish in the sea.  It doesn't matter if I just coast.  Maybe I don't need to pray all that much.  Maybe I don't even need to go to church or give all that much."  And that's when the branches begin to wilt—and frankly, that's when churches begin to die.  "We'll just keep plugging along…business as usual."  You look at those branches and you see a couple grapes from time to time.  "We're doing okay.  Well, you know…we're getting up there.  Been there, done that.  Let the younger people do it, I don't want to fool with it anymore."  And the branches begin to wilt. 


          Folks, I want to show you something.  If you are a baptized Christian and you come here regularly, then here we go…  You are a communicant in good standing at (Emmanuel / St. Andrew's) Church, which is part of Beckford Parish, which is part of Region 14, which is part of the Diocese of Virginia, which is part of Province III, which is part of the Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion, which is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is part of the Body of Christ, which is part of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


          Now, you might feel like a little branch…just a little branch, two leaves, a grape or two, but you are part of the vine that stretches from "Let there be light" to "Even so, come Lord Jesus."  You might be out there, waaay out there, but when you hurt the whole vine hurts.  When you bear fruit for the kingdom of God, the whole kingdom benefits.   


          So I am asking you to plant within your hearts this knowledge that your faith, your life, your witness of the Gospel does matter.  Matters a great deal.  Your prayers matter.  Your service matters.  Do not despise your youth or your advanced age, because God has not called you to live at any other time.  He has called you to live now.  To be alive now, and to serve him now. 


          Don't succumb to the temptation to think that you can't be the person God has call you to be—or to do what God has called you to do.  "I am the vine," says Jesus, "and you are the branches.  By this my Father is glorified that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples."  (Pause.)


          I know a church…a little tiny church.  It was planted some years ago by a dynamic young priest, who did everything he could to grow them.  I mean, he did everything.  He sunk his family into debt; he used every resource he could get his hands on, and the church just limped along and limped along, and finally the difficult call was made to the bishop's office.  The church had to be closed.  It wasn't anyone's fault…it just wasn't a viable church.


          The bishop made plans to conduct the service to close the doors.  Various other Episcopal parishes in the area that had supported the plant sent representatives.  Everyone gathered for the last service.  There were tears; people holding each other's hands.  People were bewildered and afraid.  And then it was over. 




          Except that it wasn't.  The priest moved on to another parish, but a small group of people from the plant decided that they wanted to get together to pray.  They had formed spiritual relationships that just couldn't go away, and from nothing but the faith of those two or three people, other people started to get interested. 


          And time passed, bit by bit, and one day I went to a regional meeting, and there was a representative from that church.  I said, "Didn't the bishop close that church?"  She said, "I guess the Holy Spirit had other plans."


          She told the story.  It sounded like something out of the Acts of the Apostles.  Just a handful of people who loved each other and wouldn't stop coming together to pray…and then they asked a retired priest to come to celebrate the Communion and preach, and little by little…a tender little branch.[4] 


          Now, next to them, we look like a big church, but in fact, that little tiny church is pretty big, too.  Because, you see, we all draw from one vine.  All it takes is healthy branches—people who have real faith and are not afraid to stretch it.  You will find them in every active church—people who are not afraid to dream big dreams, pray big prayers and who are willing to support the church with every possible resource.  You need that in every church.  Big, small, city, town, country.  You need those people in every church: earnest, intensely faithful Christians.  The question before you, of course, is whether or not you will be one of those people.

[1] John 2:1-11

[2] I could not find any references for this.  I came to hear about it second hand, and have always wanted to see the text of the sermon and who wrote it.  My best guess is St. Bernard of Clairveaux, but it could be someone else.  Cigar to anyone who finds it.

[3] John 14:15-17a

[4] Church of the Cross, now named St. Andrew's Church, Charlottesville

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Finding the well of living water

It is easy to bemoan the lack of spirituality in our world.  Many a sermon sets the Christian gospel and secular experience on separate cliffs overlooking a great chasm between the two.  The sermon seems to say, "You can't get there from here," leaving parishioners wondering why they should even bother.  The silent response is to shrug off the sermon, the Bible, and the preacher.  "They don't live in the `real' world." 
Indeed, one can feel this way about the Bible entirely.  The narrative of scripture seems so filled with God--so unlike the narrative of the nightly news.  But remember that scripture was written by people who saw the world through the lens of a God-rich world.  God brought the rain.  God brought the food.  This was not innocence, or naivete; it was and is an act of faith that God does not stand on an opposing cliff, wagging a finger at us.  God bridges that chasm with love incarnate--Jesus--who absorbs the distance, and who "sets a table" for us in the wilderness. 
Do not depend on others to feed your spirit.  Depend on Christ.  Do not depend on others to show you the Christian life.  You live the Christian life.  You must find the well of living water inside you, drink from it deeply, and then share it with your thirsty neighbors. 
Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen.  No one will say, "Look, here it is!" or "There it is!," because the Kingdom of God is inside you." (Luke 17:20-21)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Easter 5B. 10 May 2009.

          This is our text for today:


          Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."[1]


          There have been many times in my life when I've picked up the Bible and just flipped around.  I hope you do that from time to time.  I hope you have a Bible in your home that you can actually read if you want to.  We don't have a very strong tradition in the Episcopal Church of people reading the Bible at home.  If you go to one of these big churches you'll see that people bring their Bibles, and they're expected to read from them both in church and at home. 


          You don't have to bring a Bible to an Episcopal Church. The irony is that we read more scripture out loud in one of our services than many of those churches do.  And we read from all over the Bible every Sunday.  In most churches, it's just one or two lessons from wherever the preacher wants, but in our church we read from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels and the New Testament, every Sunday.  We read a lot from the Bible, but one of the downsides to our lectionary system is that it clips the Bible apart into little segments, and you don't get a sense of the whole.


          I hope you will think seriously about picking up the Bible and flipping through it, and just reading.  That can be very moving experience.  You will come across teachings that inspire and challenge, and some things that might even surprise you.  I remember many times reading through the Gospels and coming across something that Jesus said and thinking, "Did he really say that?"  In fact, today's text has one of those surprising sayings.  Jesus says, "Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."


          I would stumble upon that text during my teenage years, and I would think, "Wow!  I haven't been asking for much…I should ask for some things.  Jesus has said, ask for whatever you wish…"  And then I'd forget about it, and I'd be flipping around again, and I'd find it somewhere else.  Luke 11:9-12  "Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead…Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?"


          Flip over to Matthew's Gospel.  Chapter 7, verses 7-11, and you'll read almost word for word the same exact teaching. It's like Jesus is saying you can have anything you want. 


          I have stumbled on these texts time and again, and I say "stumbled" because I literally forget that they're in the Bible, so when I come across them they amaze me all over again.  I don't think of God as being all that willing to fulfill my prayers, if I'm asking for something for me.  I don't have much trouble praying for good things to happen to other people, but I have trouble praying for my own needs and wants. 


          You remember the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life?  Jesus says, "Keep the commandments."  The man says, "I have kept all the commandments to the letter."  So Jesus says, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  You remember how it ends?  The man was sad and walked away, because he was very rich.[2]


          How do you square the teaching of the rich young ruler with all this ask, ask, ask language?  Don't you want to ask that question?  Doesn't it bother you that Jesus tells us in such plain language that we can ask for whatever we wish, but then in another place he says, "Sell it all and give the money to the poor"?  That bothers me.


          I recall hearing a sermon… I don't remember who preached this sermon, but it was about asking God for things.  The sermon was on one of these texts, and the preacher offered a very simple formula for prayer.  He said that what you had to do was define exactly what you wanted, and then you have to remind God that God has promised in the Bible that he'll give us what we ask.  You pray for it directly, and then you refuse to believe that God won't give it to you.  The shorthand expression for this formula is:  "Name it, Claim it, Blab it, and Grab it."


          Now if you're a lifelong Episcopalian, chances are you've never heard one of these sermons, but they're out there.  I find the message very disturbing.  God loves us, yes.  God wants to bless us, yes.  And the text reads, "Ask whatever you wish, it will be done for you."  But it sounds too much like an entitlement program.  Or that God is petty—you have to ask a certain way.  And then you've got to make up your mind that God has to give it to you. 


          That sounds like childish behavior to me.  Peter wants another cookie.  He asks again and again, I say no.  He asks again and again…he refuses to believe that the final answer is no.  Am I to understand that God wants us to act like children?  That can't be right.


          I think what really hinders the appropriate understanding of this text—and I'll just speak about the text from John—is that we read the sugar daddy part, but we ignore the context.  Let's read it again very carefully.


          Jesus said, "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me…Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."


          Now I trimmed the lesson down a bit to highlight what I think is the operative word in the lesson: Abide.  We don't use that word much in everyday speech.  It's one of those old fashioned words that has become "churchy"—like "transgress" or "countenance."  Great words. 


          Abide is a great word.  We just say "stay" now.  But abide is much better word.  I've known people to use the word "linger," but I don't like linger.  Linger sounds like it's up to no good.  But "abide" is a comfortable word.  "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide." 


          You really only hear the word "abide" in everyday speech if it's negative.  "I cannot abide that man."  The synonyms are negative, "to stomach" something, "to put up with," "to take," "to tolerate," "to bear," "to stand for."  But abide has such a wonderfully positive meaning, too.  It's like the feeling of having a nice meal with wine and good friends, and you just sit back and no one feels the pressure of conversation…you just…abide.




          I get that feeling about this text.  "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…you can ask anything you wish."  And that, I think is what the text means.  If you abide in God and God abides in you, and God's teachings abide in you…you can ask anything you wish and it will be done for you.  Why?  Because if you truly abide in God, then what you wish will be holy wishes.  You won't sit there pleading with God for a new watch and a Lexus and maybe new shoes. 


          If you abide in God, your wishes will start to reflect the relationship you have with God.  And God, seeing that your wishes and your dreams are part of his wishes and his dreams…well, who doesn't want to help out a friend? 


          It's not that we schmooze God.  Let's understand that, too.  God knows when he's getting talked up.  And I think I fall into the category of the "talker uppers."  There is a bishop I know.  We were talking about spiritual matters one day and he said that he's had to stop praying out loud in his private prayers, because he said he had started to get all wrapped up in the wording.  He would pray with flowery detail, and great, sweeping descriptions of God's grandeur, and at the end of the prayers he was left with a sense of self-satisfaction.  He was schmoozing; he wasn't praying.  When he told me that, I realized that I do the exact same thing. 


          Abiding in God is resting in God—like the nice meal and the friends around the table.  You just kick back and talk about what's really going on.  Do you see how that's different?  It's heart to heart.  It's sharing your life.

And if something comes up about a need you have or something that would help make things better, tell God, and he'll see what he can do. 


          But it's not a transactional relationship, do you see that?  It's not pray the right formula: Name it, Claim it, Blab it, Grab it.  It's a real relationship.  It's about abiding God. 


          Do you know what I would like to ask God for?  There are lots of things.  And I can't tell you that they're all selfless.  But after God and I have had some time to sit around and talk, I'll sometimes lean in and make a few requests. 


          I sometimes ask God that more people will come to this church.  Not that you all aren't enough, but I think there are people out there who would benefit from this place, and the kind of relationships we enjoy with each other.


          But I pray for other things.  I pray for many of you who are sick, or grieving.  I remember hearing of a priest say that beside every human being there is a pool of tears.  That thought stays with me. 


          I think a lot of us are worried.  I think a lot of us are quietly licking our wounds.  There are many people out there who think that they have to shoulder all the pain and worry alone, and they don't.  They could also abide in God.



          But my most earnest prayer is that you all to know God more deeply, and feel the love God has for you.  To know that God thinks you're wonderful.  That he's in love with you.  I want that for you, because I think some of you don't really believe it yet.  I think some of your are afraid to believe that God is all he's cracked up to be. 


          You hear these big themes in church about mercy, and love, and redemption, and it all sounds so good, but the bad stuff doesn't stop.  And a lot of people think that God cannot be so good if you worship him but you still have to put up with the same fuss as everyone else.  And here we go back to the idea that God is a sugar daddy, "Ask whatever you wish,"  "Name it, Claim it," magic trick God.


          But the truth is that Christianity is not a talisman, or a set of magic incantations that make you immune to bad things.  Christianity is a relationship.  And as we abide in God and God abides in us, we make our requests, and God helps us out.  He'll do it his way, but he will do it.


          Some years ago I heard someone say, "God doesn't usually deliver you from your situation.  Usually, God delivers you in your situation."  Do you catch the difference?  So often we want to place the 911 call to God, "Hey, God, get me out of this."  But what if the prayer went like this, "God, this his hard…could you help me with it?"  I think that's a really good prayer.  I think if we abide in God, he'll answer that prayer.  Don't you?

[1] John 15:1-7

[2] Luke 18:18-25