Thursday, May 27, 2010

I would not have believed

you if you had told me when I was a child, or a teenager, that it would be wise to stay close to the earth. But I have learned that happiness is where the marigolds grow. Happiness is where the lettuce leaves are cut with scissors, leaving some for tomorrow's salad. We will have to plant more after tomorrow, but it will taste good tonight.

There is a difference between visiting the stand where the old woman smokes her cigarettes and sells tomatoes, and the big fluorescent store where the teenage girl in the over sized polo shirt rings you up. She won't even look at you while she plays with her boyfriend's class ring, and talks past you to the other clerk down the line. Some inside joke. You'd have to know him. You'd have to know her. This is not for you.

But the lady with the cigarette at the veggie stand next to that beat up old place that once belonged to Mr. Frank (which wasn't his name)... Well...she has never left the earth. She should give up the cigarettes. She knows that. But not today. Maybe tomorrow. She shouldn't be hanging out with that man who drinks Natural Ice and listens to U2 before going to bed, but you've got to love someone.

She must be all of 100 lbs, but not much more. Late 50s, 60s? Surely not 60s. And tiny, tiny, tiny woman. She plays with that cigarette as she sits cross legged on the lawn chair under the umbrella. There is a far off look on her face, thinking about everything and nothing, and once in awhile she shakes her head just a tiny bit as if trying to get rid of a thought, and she flicks the smallest little tear from the side of her eye, scared that more will come.

I know her. I have seen her before. She was standing behind Jesus with the alabaster ointment, weeping. She had longer hair then. No one paid her any attention then, and no one pays her any attention now. She wasn't welcome to dinner then, and she isn't really welcome in church now, I am sorry to say. We'd have better churches with her in the pews. She stays close to the earth. One day she will buried in it. And if she, and her cigarettes, aren't in heaven, then none of us should want to go.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day of Pentecost C. 23 May 2010.

          We have come to Pentecost.  I don't know how you feel about Pentecost, but it's not an easy thing for me to talk about.  The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity.  It is wonderful, often astonishing, and yet, at times completely elusive. 


          There is so much we do not understand about the Holy Spirit. Scripture does not offer us a comprehensive understanding of all that the Spirit means or does.  We believe that the Spirit was present at the beginning of creation, hovering over the face of the waters.  Luke's gospel tells us—through the angel Gabriel—that it is the Holy Spirit who "came upon" and "overshadowed" the Blessed Virgin Mary to bring about the conception of Jesus.  And here we come to Pentecost and we have the rushing wind and the tongues of fire, and the miraculous ability of the disciples to speak in other languages.


          Again, I don't know about you, but I stand at some distance from Pentecost.  I do not feel the same way on, say, Christmas, or Easter.  I know that we don't come to church on those days actually expecting to see the infant Jesus, or the newly risen Jesus.  I suppose it is the same for the Transfiguration, or the Ascension.  We don't come to church expecting to actually see anything.  These feasts ask us to imagine what happened, and to be fed by the meaning of those events.


          But Pentecost is different.  Perhaps because it is not associated with a physical appearance—but a feeling, a manifestation.  It is commonly understood that the Holy Spirit, when it comes, is like a long lost friend who swoops in and brings us presents and takes us out to dinner and makes everything better.  And maybe that's what we want God to do, or at least what we want to have happen.


          I think most of us sort of get into our usual patterns.  Tuesday laundry, Wednesday store, Thursday lunch with soandso.  And though we like our standard thing, it would always be a welcome change if some benevolent something passed through our lives to lift our spirits. 


          Perhaps we have come to church today hoping that the mighty rushing wind would come through again, and something would happen.  Something that would change things up a little.  I was talking with a priest-friend sometime ago.  He's retired now.  He said that for many years he secretly hoped that one day he would walk into his church and find graffiti all over the walls.  I was horrified at that thought.  I asked him why he would ever want that.  He said, "Two reasons.  One, it would be nice to see that even the troublemakers felt like the church was for them.  And two, it would shake that congregation up.  They would finally see that there are people out there who need them."  I doubt that his parish wanted to learn that with graffiti. 


          Episcopalians are not good friends with disruption.  That's not to say that we are not good friends with the Holy Spirit, but by and large, we like the Holy Spirit to be a little less rambunctious. 


          There are sections of the Episcopal Church and many other churches that have a much more active understanding of the Spirit.  Music is a little louder, and usually more contemporary.  Some folks feel like raising their hands when singing, and there is clapping, and so forth.  I worshiped in that tradition for about six years—so I know that atmosphere very, very well, and I have a great respect for Christians who are fed by that tradition.


          I am personally very deeply moved by high-church or Anglo-Catholic liturgy.  I like the use of incense, and Sanctus bells, ornate vestments and music.  To me the Holy Spirit is very powerfully at work in that tradition.  There is a beautiful devotion known as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, in which the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread is honored, and then blesses the people.  Some people find it strange, but it never fails to deepen my love for God. 


          This is why it is so difficult to speak of the Holy Spirit.  Because there are so many way that the Spirit is present within the Church, and so many hopes and expectations for feeling that edification on this day, as the disciples felt it so many years ago.


          But thinking back to the actual day of Pentecost from Luke's account in the Book of Acts, I'm not sure how we would feel if the same thing happened to us.



          Let us imagine for a moment that the back doors of the church were to open and a gust of wind were to fill this space.  And then let us suppose that everyone here began to speak in a language that was not English.  Maybe you have always wanted to speak French or Italian, and maybe you would hope that the Holy Spirit would give you that language so that you could visit Italy or France.


          The only thing is, the Holy Spirit did not quite come like that.  The Holy Spirit did not ask which language the disciples wished to speak.  Quite simply, the Holy Spirit came and gave them a language that enabled them to talk to people from other places. 


          You might prefer to speak in French.  But imagine if this entire congregation were suddenly given the ability to speak in Spanish.  Perhaps Spanish is a language that you learned at one time, but never really achieved fluency.  But now you have that fluency, and so does everyone else. 


          It's fun at first, of course.  It's delightful.  It might even give you the giggles.  But at some point, the intention of the gift will become apparent.  You weren't given this gift because God thought it would be fun.  You have been given this gift because God wants you to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to serve…well…those who speak Spanish. 


          And then the full impact of what has just happened would slowly begin to dawn on all of us.  All of us speaking Spanish would mean that all of us could have a very powerful ministry to the Hispanic people in Shenandoah County. 

          We could worship with them, if we spoke their language.  We could buy The Book of Common Prayer in Spanish, and El Hymnario, the Hymnal 1982 in Spanish, and we could have quite a ministry here—and all because the Holy Spirit came to us in the exact same way that the Spirit came at Pentecost.  Now…do you still want it to happen?


          It feels a little threatening, doesn't it?  And I would imagine that it was just as frightening for the disciples, because language isn't just language.  Language is also culture, and place, and history.  When people learn to speak in other languages, their whole outlook on humanity is broadened.  If you started talking with someone in a new language, the experience would force you to see your life as part of their life.  And that's just exactly what the Holy Spirit was trying to accomplish.


          The Spirit was trying to disperse the message of Christ throughout the world, and at the same time, show that Jesus was relevant to every culture and every person.  The disciples could no longer comfortably inhabit their homeland, or go back to the work they had been doing.  The Spirit's gift of other languages, by it's very nature, dispersed them into the world.  It propelled them to other people in other cultures.


          Do you really want that to happen to you today?  Well.  Maybe not.  And there might be a twinge of embarrassment in answering that question so honestly.  It would be all well and good for the Holy Spirit to come and make us happy; but empower us for ministry to actual, real people?  Propel us into other people's cultures and histories?   That's more than most Christians look for.  And there is a twinge of guilt in admitting to that.


          So you see why we stand at some distance from Pentecost?  It confronts our complacency.  It reveals our unwillingness to be sent into a life that we have not known.  


          But, you know, even though we might imagine all of this happening as a bad thing, my guess is that if it really were to happen, we would actually like it.  Because the Holy Spirit doesn't zap people like some sort of holy defibrillator.[*]  I think the Holy Spirit's work is to bring us to a greater openness to the places God has already been leading us.


          Yes, Pentecost was a game changer, but who's to say that the disciples weren't ready to go?  I much prefer to think that—on the Day of Pentecost—the disciples were gathered together and said, "You know what?  I wish we could do what Jesus told us to do, and go to everyone in all the world.  I wish that we could just get through this language barrier, and we could go to Parthians, and Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontius and Asia,  Pamphylia, the parts of Lybia belonging to Cyrene.  I wish we could speak those other languages.  You know, we really could do a lot of good if we did."


          And I would like to believe that God heard those conversations as prayers, and said, "Here you go."  And the Holy Spirit came down upon them, and now they could do it.  Now they could do what Christ had said, "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel." 


          That is, I don't think God took the Twelve and forced them out.  I think God had been working through Christ to make them want to live these new lives with new languages, new people and places.  I think they wanted it first, and then the Spirit empowered them to do it.


          And I think that still to this day wherever you find Christians who want—deeply want—to share the good news of Christ with the world, you will find the Holy Spirit making the connections, making the way for a new batch of apostles to be sent.


          So perhaps we could change our prayers a little bit.  Maybe instead of praying for the Holy Spirit to come, maybe we should start by praying that we would want to go. 






Please consider making a donation to those institutions that spread the Gospel throughout the world.


Virginia Theological Seminary


The Episcopal Relief and Development Fund


[*] At the 9:15 and 11:15, I amended this comment to say that sometimes the Holy Spirit does--for lack of a better term--"zap" people.  I was attempting to make a point that the Holy Spirit is just as active in quieter ways, but it came across, even to me, as limiting God.  And we have a word for that in the Church.  We call it heresy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fog on the mountain

It seems to me that there are a lot of people who feel themselves at the edge of something and are questioning both what the edge is, and what the next thing will be.  It's in the air.  It's in the tinge in the voices I listen to.  Sometimes people know that that's what's going on with them, and sometimes they don't.  Sometimes there is just a general feeling of anxiety from the lack of ability (or desire) to discern what the presenting symptoms are, and what they might mean.
Big transitions are somehow easier to think about.  You can list the reasons for changing jobs, or moving, but some needed "big" changes are quite small.  You wake up feeling a little blue, and you know something needs to change.  But what?  You look off in the distance at the mountains (if you're lucky enough to live in the Shenandoah Valley) and there is a light grey just around the dark blues of the mountain and the sky.  Little wisps of fog play among the trees, and looking at the greyer parts you know... rain is coming.  Time to go inside. 
Something is coming.  I don't know what.  And that's the question in the air.  Another threat?  Another oil spill?  Another illness?  Another, what?  Apprehension.  Time to go inside.  Time to go into the little oratory in our hearts and say a prayer or two.  Time to smell the incense, and see the sanctuary lamp, the prayer desk, the Missal stand, the votive candles flickering under the icons. 
Time to look at the holy men and women in the stained glass windows.  Who is that saint?  I don't know.  She's wearing simple clothes, head bowed in prayer.  I wonder if she ever stared off at the mountain in a moment's reverie and noticed the wisps of fog and knew that rain was coming.  I wonder if she questioned her questioning.  I wonder if she was anything like me.  I'm sure she was...but was she?
There is the window depicting Jesus.  It's an odd window.  It could be John the Baptizer.  It could be Jesus.  It could be Paul.  It could be me, if I had a beard and a bathrobe.  I wonder if Jesus fussed with the Psalms.  I wonder if he wandered through his prayers, and fell silent and questioned his questions.  Did Jesus ever stare off at the mountains?  Did he know that rain was coming and went inside and didn't know what to do.   I wonder if Jesus was anything like me.  I'm sure he was...but was he?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Easter 7C. 16 May 2010.


          Today I would like to preach on the last few verses of our lesson from the Revelation to St. John.  But in order to focus in on those verses, I'm going to read the whole lesson. 


          Jesus said, "See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."  Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.  "It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." 


          Now, these are the verses I want to focus on:


          "The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.



          These are the last verses of the Revelation to John.  The last verses, really, of the Bible.  I will tell you without reservation that I love the Revelation to John—especially these final words.  They are words of comfort, strength, hope, and love. 


          I don't know what your relationship might be to this text.  My relationship with it did not start in the church.  It started in my private devotional life as a teenager.  Somewhere along the line I heard a preacher say, "Read the back of the book.  We win."  And though I no longer understand the Revelation as a book about winning or losing, I have come to love the richness of the language, and what it says about God's desire for us.


          In these last words we hear Jesus say again and again, "I am."  "I am coming."  "It is I, Jesus."  "I am the root and descendent of David."  "Surely, I am coming."  It would be easy to miss the power of that repetition, but remember that "I am" is the name for God.  Moses asked God, "whom shall I say has sent me to you."  And God says, "I am who I am that is my name." 


          When Jesus is arrested he asks them "Whom do you seek?"  And the soldiers say, "Jesus of Nazareth."  And Jesus responds, "I am he."  And remember, they fall to the ground at the name of God.  When Jesus was raised from the dead, he asked Mary Magdalene, "Whom do you seek?"  And the answer is right in front of her, "I am alive."  So at the very end of the Bible there is this repetition, "I am coming."



          But of all the power and beauty of the words of Jesus in this lesson, the words that really haunt me are not the words of Christ.  The quotation marks are not original to the Greek, but it is clear that the words I am about to read are from John.  Listen carefully.


          "The Spirit and the Bride say, `Come.'

          And let everyone who hears say, `Come.'

          And let everyone who is thirsty come.

          Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift."


          What do you make of those words?  The Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  The Bride has been established in the Revelation to John and in other places as the Bride of Christ, which is a poetical understanding of the Church.  The metaphor might be most familiar to Episcopalians from the hymn, "The church's one foundation." 


          "The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord / She is his new creation by water and the Word / From heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride /  With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died."


          The metaphor of the Church as a bride is based on the Jewish custom of betrothal.  A marriage would be arranged by the parents, and the couple would be engaged, but live apart.  It was the father of the groom who decided when the son could go to claim his bride as a wife.  I am guessing that this was the father's decision because the father wanted to be sure that his son was mature enough to lead a new household. 


          So this is a metaphor that has carried over.   The Church is the bride, and we are waiting for the Father to release the Son to come and take us into our new relationship of eternal married bliss.  It's a very tender metaphor.


          So the Holy Spirit and the Church/the Bride say, "Come."  To whom are they speaking?  Well, that's a good question.  To Jesus?  To people who are not yet part of the Church?  Perhaps to both.


          John writes, "And let everyone who hears say, `Come.'  Well, that's interesting.  Everyone who hears.  Is that "everyone" everyone who has ever heard anything about Jesus—even if they've never really understood it, or been part of the Church?  I don't know.  Let everyone who hears say, `Come.'  Is that a prayer to Jesus to come again—even if that "everyone" does not know what they are asking.  Again, I don't know.


          But then this moves into something a bit more profound, "And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes to take the water of life as a gift."  Notice that the previous lines have been John urging groups of people to pray for the return of Jesus.  "The Spirit and the Bride say, `Come.'  And let everyone who hears say, `Come.'


          But then when he gets to those who are thirsty, he doesn't put words in their mouths.  They're mouths are too dry to pray.  He writes instead that those who are thirsty should come, and if they wish to drink from the water of life as a gift, they should come.  Come to what?


          It seems like John is urging the Church, the Holy Spirit, and really everyone to pray for the return of Christ, but then in a sudden reversal, he drops that theme, and begins to offer water to the thirsty.  Come and drink from the water of life, as a gift.  No money.  Just come and drink.


          Maybe the words from Isaiah 55 are in the back of his mind, (Page 598 of the pew Bibles)  "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"  verse 3  "Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.  I will make an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David."


          I wonder if John was reminding us of these words, because he has just given us the words of Christ, "I am the root and descendent of David."  In other words, "Remember the covenant, remember that I am.  I am the I am who is with you, and I am the I am who is coming to you.  You must also come to me.  You who are thirsty, come and drink.  No money, no problem."


          I think John is trying to get us right down to the fundamental yearning that we all have.  He uses the metaphor of thirst, possibly to remind us of the Isaiah lesson, but I wonder if the Holy Spirit would put an even deeper meaning there. 


          There are a precious few Christians who truly, eagerly await the return of Jesus.  If you read the entirety of the Revelation to John, the words of comfort are not as big as the words of warning, and the mind-blowing descriptions of what John believes will happen. 


          I have seen advertisements for preachers who claim to know everything there is to know about the Revelation to John, and for an entrance fee at Suchandsuch Church, they will give you the PowerPoint presentation that will "unlock the code."  These things are often marketed as helping faithful Christians get ready.  Don't go.  I mean no disrespect, but I think they are doing a disservice to the Christian faith.


          The Revelation to John does not end with a bang or a whimper.  It ends with an invitation to come and drink. 


          Come.  Come where?  Where?  Neither the Revelation to John, nor the Book of Isaiah tell us.  Come to church?  I don't know.  I have drunk the water of life in church.  There have been people and sermons and Sacraments and seasons that have been water of life—but not always. 


          Come to the poor and the lonely?  The needy?  Well… yes, I have drunk the water of life beside them.  Quite often, it is the thirsty people who know where the water is.  But not always.  Sometimes they're just thirsty.




          Come to the store, and buy something.  Retail therapy.  Do you ever get the "buy me"s?  A couple dollars burning in your pocket.  Maybe something neat-o from a catalogue.  Maybe get a really good cup of coffee or a Big Gulp from 7/11.  You know, nothing major.  Just a coupla bucks. 


          Put all your pennies and nickels together and go to Taco Bell.  I remember when I was in college, one of my buddies figured out that if you had $50.00 you could order one of everything on the menu at Taco Bell.  It's really only when you're 22 that you even think about doing something like that!


          Buy me something.  I want it; there it is.  It looks nice.  It tasted good.  I was thirsty and well… (Pause.)  And there's Isaiah, standing in the corner, shaking his head:


          "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your money for that which does not satisfy?"  "Let everyone who is thirsty come.  Come to the waters; and you who have no money come buy and eat."


          Where?  How do you get to this water of life?  I know what it feels like to drink from it.  It feels like being part of God.  It feels like walking under the trees on a quiet day, and the sunlight plays on your neck and you feel like one big lung just drinking in the air.  It feels like a little girl giggling at a funny face.  It feels like "now" is more important than "then," or "when we get there."  I know what it tastes like.  It tastes like a glass of water after mowing the lawn.  It tastes like large sweet strawberries or peaches. 


          See, it's not that Isaiah or John have a physical place to direct us.  They are speaking of a thirst that aches much more than in the mouth or the stomach.  It is a thirst for God.  A thirst for all that is good and noble and true.  A thirst for meaning and significance.  A thirst for a fresh start, alive and growing, sprouting and springing forth—true and wonderful.


          Everything about these last words is about coming to a place where there is real sustenance, and satisfaction, and welcome.  Of course the question arises,  "Where is this place?"  And when you begin to exclude the imperfect answers, you arrive at the only one possible.  The place is God. 


          And God says to us, "I am your place.  Come to me, and eat and drink."






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Easter 6C. 9 May 2010.





          Our gospel lesson this morning is from the section in John's Gospel known as the farewell discourses.  If you like John's Gospel, then you probably love the farewell discourses.  They are packed with beautiful metaphors, words of assurance, words of comfort.  Reading them is like strolling through a garden of flowers in full bloom, but without any sneezing!


          The farewell discourses come in the middle of John's Gospel, which is an interesting placement.  As you know, the gospels were written long after Jesus ascended into heaven.  It is possible that Jesus gave these "farewell discourses" after his crucifixion and resurrection, but they come in John's gospel before those events.  What I am saying is that Jesus could have said these things before or after his crucifixion and they would still be tender, and they would still be true.


          It is appropriate to read the lesson we read today.  The Great Fifty Days of Easter are coming to a close.  We are making our way to Pentecost, the celebration of the day the Holy Spirit's power came upon the disciples.  So it is useful to reflect on what Jesus said about his leaving and the Holy Spirit's coming. 



          He describes what will happen in the divine economy of God: the Spirit will be sent by the Father in the Son's name, and the Spirit's job will be to remind the disciples of Jesus' words, and teach them.  That is still our basic theology of the Holy Spirit—that when we gather together in the Lord's name and break open the bread and Holy Scripture, God's Spirit comes to remind us and teach us.


          But woven in to this assurance of the Spirit comes these amazing words, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid."


          And when I read through this lesson, or if I'm reading John 14 in the Bible, these are the words that leap off the page.  They grab me, because on one hand I feel like I understand them, and on the other hand, I don't understand them at all.  Maybe you have felt the same way.  It's like when someone tells you something nice, and you feel like they mean something much deeper. You put each word on the scale and somehow they weigh more when they're together than when they're apart.


          "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives."


          Jesus says he leaves us peace—just a generic "peace," but then he qualifies it: my peace I give.  And then one further qualification, "I do not give as the world gives."  Some translations might render it, "Not as the world gives, give I unto you."


          It begs two questions.  What is the peace that is uniquely Jesus's peace?  And second—now follow me here—if we accept the implicit premise that the world does give us peace, then how is Jesus' unique peace different from the world's?


          I suppose in order to get right down to it, you have to define what you mean when you say "the world."  "The world" comes up a lot in the Gospels.  "God so loved `the world.'  "If `the world' hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you," says Jesus. 


          "The world" is kind of catch all term for that which is outside the Kingdom of God, and in that sense, it is a helpful kind of shorthand.  We use it when we say something is "worldly." Does anyone say "worldly" anymore to mean "not good?"  That's how I grew up understanding "worldly."  When I was a boy, worldly was Hollywood, and glitz and Washington and New York City, and people who had never cut the grass.  See, my Shenandoah Valley/Anabaptist background is showing here, but if someone or something was "worldly" that was a bad thing.  


          But the problem is that it's so open to interpretation.  Even if you feel like you understand it, what is worldly for you might not be worldly for someone else.  And again, if there is a peace that the world offers, what is that peace? 



          I sat in my office thinking about it.  To me, "the world" has become a little more common.  Sometime ago, I realized that "the world" doesn't really wear horns and a pitchfork—it's just kind of…  Well…  again, we might disagree on this, but I see it as common currency.  The world is totally generic.  It has nothing personal about it.  And I started to think about "the world" in those terms, and how impersonal "peace" is given to us…and I came up with a little list.   What surprised me was how many of these items are about not being at home—they are expressions of assurance for when you are traveling.  Maybe there is something to that…


          The Confirmation number.  "Are you ready for your confirmation number, Mr. MacPhail…it's…you have a pen?'s 12AVB 039HOUIW999999."  Write it down…it's the closest thing to "Peace be with you," they can give.


          The Wake-up Call.  You ask for the wake up call, and you get a machine calling you up at the time you want. 


          The Receipt.  This is a big one.  How else can you prove you bought that thing?  It's how you get reimbursed; it's how you get to deduct something.  A little piece of paper that tells you everything you need to know …it's traceable, it tells you who helped you, which cash register you visited, what the date and time of the sale was, what you got, what you paid, what the tax was.     And if you go to a restaurant, Cindy will even sign her name at the bottom with a big heart and a smiley face right next to the place where you add the tip!  "Here's your receipt;" it almost sounds like "Peace be with you."


          And then you have the even less personal "peace."  The hand sanitizers at the hospital, or at the restaurant.  Not going to wash your hands…fine…squirt this in your hands, you're good to go…Peace be with you.


          Brand new bottle of Tylenol.  Foil top, cotton, childproof cap.  Peace be with you; no one else has had any of these puppies!  They're all yours.


          Tags in the clothes, tissue paper in the shoes, blister packaging, bubble cartons.  Peace be with you…no one else has worn, touched, or eaten these things.  They are completely and utterly yours. 


          To my mind, that's what the world's "peace" means.  It's a "here you go," "this is yours," "this is a fair shake."  And honestly that's what most of us really want is a fair shake.  Most of us are very happy with "what comes;" we would be upset if it was less, but usually the standard thing is good enough.


          Some time ago I was flipping through a church supply catalog and came across an advertisement for a new product.  They look like those little plastic milk creamers you get for your coffee, except they were grape juice.  And on top of the plastic seal, they put a communion host, and another plastic seal.  And they idea is that this is for home communions.



          Now, I'm not kidding you.  You peal back the top layer to get your bread, "The Body of Christ," and then you peal back the second layer to have your sip of grape juice.  I couldn't believe it.  I still can't believe it.  I understand that most Protestant churches do not have our theology of the Eucharist, and I have a genuine respect for those traditions, but COME ON.  It's a common meal!  It is not a confirmation number.


          "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.  I do not give you as the world gives." 


          So what is this unique peace that Jesus gives?  I thought about it a lot, and I wonder if it's the peace that Jesus has in his relationship to the Father.   That is, that it's not an emotion that is unique, it's a peace that comes from knowing and being known by God.  It's a relational peace.


          We know what that's like on another level.  We know what it's like to have peace with say, our family, or a close friend or friends.  You don't have to worry so much about whether or not you're okay with them. 


          But the peace Jesus talks about that is his peace…well…that's a little different.  The peace of those close friends, or family is a very strong peace, but even those rubber bands can snap, if you're not careful. 


          The most precious commodity is love.  Authentic love.  It is the love we get little glimpses of in our closest relationships, but if we could really drink from the well of it, we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves.


          The fundamental question of every human being is: am I truly loved for who I am?  Regardless of what I believe.  Regardless of what I've done, good or bad.  Regardless…  Love, agape, remember?  It'll drive you to the hospital and pay your bills—love that is willing to suffer for us.


          We know this kind of love, because it's the love that exists between the Father and the Son.  It cannot change.  Your closest friendships, even your family relationships—they can be compromised.  But the relationship of the Father to the Son, Jesus…that cannot ever be shaken.  Jesus said, "The Father and I are one." 


          Since that relationship can never be shaken, there is a unique peace between the Father and the Son.  When Jesus says, "my peace I give to you," he is giving us that peace. 


          This is what John speaks of in the Prologue to his gospel: "…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."


          Through the waters of Baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, you and I have been made children of God.  It's a relationship that cannot be shaken.  You and I are just as much sons and daughters of God as Jesus is.  Jesus taught us that when he rose from the dead and said to Mary—you remember—"I am ascending to my Father, and your Father; to my God and your God."


          Isaac Watts paraphrased Psalm 23.  We sing it as Hymn 664.  And though it's about Psalm 23, the meaning of the words echoes into what I am talking about.  Watts wrote:


"The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; oh, may thy house be mine abode and all my work be praise.  There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home."


Peace be with you.  Christ's peace.





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Easter 5C. 2 May 2010.



          Everyone has certain criteria for friendship.  You could probably name a handful of attributes that are an absolute must when it comes to whom you shall take into your inner circle.  Many of us are fairly competent with computers—in fact, a respectable number of us are on Facebook, which has somewhat diluted the meaning of the word "friend."  I have "friends" on Facebook that I do not know very well—and I'm not going to get to know them much better on Facebook.


          It used to be—I don't know if this was ever a widespread understanding—but I seem to remember having some differentiation between the word "friend" and "acquaintance."  A friend was someone you know very well—someone you care deeply about.  But an acquaintance was someone you simply knew.  I know a man—actually he is a friend—he knows some very famous people.  And I asked him one time if he was friends with a very prominent politician and he said, "I don't know if he would say we were friends, but he would return my phone call."


          It's far far place we have come to since we were kids and it was very clear.  You were either friends or enemies.  Friends sat together at lunch.  Friends played together on the playground.  Friends picked each other when it came time to choose teams for kickball.  Enemies say mean things.  Enemies don't sit with you.  Enemies call you names. 


          At some point, I suppose, maybe in that fuzzy time at the end of high school.  The lines get a little blurry.  I will never forget… This is a personal story, but it makes the point.  I was in high school, maybe junior or senior year, and one of the prettiest girls in our class sat down beside me on the bus.  We were in touring choir, traveling all over.  Somehow we just happened to be seated together.


          Now, I was not a popular kid, but she was.  We had been in the same school for four or five years, growing up together, but we never talked.  I didn't have a crush on her, but I thought she was very pretty and very smart.  Quiet, but very smart in class.   Well, when you get to be a junior or a senior and you can see that life stretches beyond the here and now—somehow the lines between cool and uncool start to get a little blurry, and people who don't usually talk, talk.  And you begin to find out that some of the ideas you have had about people aren't really true.


          I talked with this girl.  She talked with me.  We came to find out that she respected my artistic abilities, and I respected her scientific abilities.  And those sharp childhood friend/enemy divisions began to crumble.  We did not become close friends, but I'm sure she would have returned a phone call. 


          Somewhere along the line you come to understand that you can't just be friends with people on the basis of whether or not they like peanut butter.  You have to deepen your ability to appreciate others and then assess how close you wish them to be to you.


          And of course, people being people, some move in and out.  Some friends move away and you don't really keep in touch—maybe a Christmas card—and others you are more than willing to run up the phone bill to hold on to.  It's part of the mystery of uniqueness—some folks just fit.  You don't have to explain yourself to them—they "get" you, and you "get" them. 


          I would love to know how well the disciples "got" Jesus.  Do you know what I mean?  I think Jesus understood them probably much better than they understood him.  If you read Mark's gospel, the disciples are depicted as completely incompetent.  John's gospel is a bit more charitable.


          Our lesson for today (John 13:31-35) comes from John.  The scene is the Last Supper just after Judas has gone out, so Jesus is alone with his most faithful disciples.  He says, "Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews [in authority] so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.'


          He calls them "Little children" (Greek: teknia) which is the most tender way for a teacher to talk with students.  Jesus is not patronizing them, he is indicating his affection for them. 


          He says, "You will look for me."  He doesn't give the full thought there, did you notice that?  The full thought would be, "You will look for me, but I will not be there."  He doesn't say that.  He says, "You will look for me, and as I said to others, so now I say to you, `Where I am going you cannot come.'" 

          There is a little heartbreak in those words.  You will look for me, but you cannot go where I am going.  I must go alone.  You cannot come with me. 


          Well, then what are they supposed to do?  They are friends with Jesus.  Jesus has brought them together.  He is the reason why these eleven men are assembled together at this time and in this place.  And now he is saying,  "Where I am going, you cannot come."


          So that's it?  At this point, the disciples don't know what is coming next.  This is the last meeting.  It's high school graduation.  "Have a good life."  "We'll keep in touch…"  "Now, you take care of yourself, do you hear me?"  Without Jesus, what's the point of being together?  That's the question that hangs in the air, along with the bigger one—where is he going? 


          But anticipating that the disciples may be tempted to pull apart, he then tells them, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


Well, okay.  We have talked before about the love Jesus is speaking of.  He's using that word agape again.  He's not using the word philoo, which would return a phone call or have lunch together.  He's using that word agape, which is big, tenacious, overwhelming, eternal.  If you were in serious trouble… 


          If you fell into deep water, Agape would jump in to save you.  Agape would pull you out of the water, and take you to the hospital—and while you were in the hospital, Agape would get your dry cleaning, water your plants, and paint your back porch. 


          Now, this is the kind of love that you would expect to find in people who have been friends for years and years and years.  We don't know how long Jesus and disciples were together, but they did not go back to childhood. 


          And let's just remember for a moment what happened in the text.  Judas has just gone out.  The betrayer has left to betray.  And here Jesus is telling the faithful, Agape.  Jesus could have said to them, "You will be known by the complete opposite of what Judas has just left to do." 


          This is a defining moment for the disciples, you see?  They are going to have carry on the mission that Jesus has literally embodied, and Jesus pulls back the curtain to reveal the secret of how it works.  Agape. 


          Well, what were you expecting?  Did you think the Kingdom of God runs on less?  I know people who think the Church can run on history.  "This church was built in 1805 and has the tallest steeple in the county."  Well, that's nice, but…  Unless you're a museum, you can't run on that.




          Do you think the kingdom of God runs on theology?  Could someone please explain to me why the hypostatic union of Christ's divine and human natures is central to the doctrine of the Incarnation?  My guess is that some of you could tell me, but the Kingdom of God does not run on that.  In fact, the Church was in existence for almost five hundred years before we tried to work out those questions.


          Money.  (Now I really need to be careful!)  I know a church that tried to run on money.  And they did very very well.  Until someone took it all.  And it's kind of amazing what happened.  There was no money.  And bills started to come due.  And this little, tiny church that had been running on money, and the people who pulled the purse strings when they saw something they didn't like….  The money was gone, but a handful of faithful people looked into their pockets, and lo and behold, they found agape.  


          If you try to run a church, or a mission, or anything related to Jesus Christ on anything other than agape, then you can just forget about it.


          Now sometimes people mistake this kind of love for warm fuzzies.  And I know of churches that have tried to substitute agape for cotton candy, and it seems okay for a little while, but it doesn't work for long.  Because there aren't many warm fuzzies at the foot of the Cross.  But there is plenty of agape there. 


          Warm fuzzies don't sit beside sick beds, or cut the grass, or make dinners for people just home from the hospital.  Only agape does.

          I doubt very seriously if the disciples knew how deep this love was until the Cross.  I am sure they had some understanding when he said, "Just as I have loved you," because he showed them in the life he lived.  But the Cross is so much more.  It is like the exclamation point at the end of the sentence.  The Cross is how the disciples were to be kept together and how they would be known.


          And to this day, in any given church, this is the real question that hangs in the air:  Is this church run on agape?  Is love here… real love…love that would go all the way to the Cross."  


          Now, I would say yes.  And maybe you would say yes.  But there may be some of you who don't really know what you think.  So, I'll tell you what.  Let's do what the disciples did.  Let's share some bread and wine, and think about it.





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.