Monday, June 27, 2011

Proper 8A. 26 June 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select 2nd Sunday after Pentecost.



          I am sure you have had the experience of hearing or reading something that you thought was interesting, and then being frustrated when you can't remember where you heard it.  Well, I remember hearing someone on television talking about God, and they were using the story from Genesis that we read today—about God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—and the person said, "Why in the world would anyone want to know this God?" 


          Now, as I said, my recollection is spotty.  He might have said, "Why would anyone love this God?"  Or "want to have this God."  But the point still gets made.  If God would actually ask someone to sacrifice his or her child…  Or, let me put it another way…  If this were a human being asking this what would make you want to even know them? 


          And these sentiments are not new.  I remember when I was about 18 years old I was talking to a man who had lost his son.  This man described himself as a mystic—someone who was very spiritual, but he said he wasn't really a Christian anymore because he couldn't wrap his mind around the idea of God asking someone to sacrifice their own son—or of God allowing his only son, Jesus, to be crucified.




          Nothing could convince him that there could exist a being—any being, whether human or divine—who would willingly endure such pain.  And I would hasten to say that that man's experience, and theological convictions, deserve our respect, because you and I cannot know what it's like unless we have experienced that kind of loss ourselves.  I pray it never happens.  Again, the point is made: why would anyone want to know this God?  Or love this God? 


          But the problem with lifting this story out as some kind of proof that God is harsh or cruel is that it misses the overarching context of the story of Abraham—which is a story that, for us, shines a light on the story of Jesus.  And for Jews is about the radical faithfulness of Abraham.


          Now, you remember Abraham right?  He started off as Abram.  Abram was from a place called Ur in what is now Iraq.  Abram heard the voice of God saying, "Get up, and go from your family to the land that I will show you."  And Abram got up and took his wife Sarai, and his brother's son Lot, and all his possessions, and they left for the land of Canaan.  And when they got to the land of Canaan, the Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land."  (If you'd like to follow along, turn to Genesis 12.)


          Now, I'm going to fast-forward a little bit, because there was a famine in the land of Canaan, and Abram and his wife and Lot had to go to Egypt to find food, but when they returned, the Lord came to Abram again.  And Genesis 15 records this famous dialogue between Abram and God.

          When I was a boy, around age 13 or 14 I used to read this part of Genesis, and I imagined Abram out in the desert at night, listening and talking with God, and it would raise the hair on my neck just thinking about it.  I was going to paraphrase this story, but it's more powerful to just read it from the Bible.  (Again, if you'd like to follow along, pg. 10 of the Pew Bible.)        


          God said, (15:1) "`Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.' 2But Abram said, 'O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'3And Abram said, 'You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.' 4But the word of the Lord came to him, 'This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.' 5He brought him outside and said, 'Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 Then he said to him, 'I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.' 8But he said, 'O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?' 9He said to him, 'Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.' 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13Then the Lord said to Abram, 'Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.' 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day theLord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.' 

          All right, now…  Do you hear what is at the heart of this covenant that God makes with Abraham?  Land, yes, and offspring.  Descendants.  Children.  Children's children.  In Genesis 17, God changes Abram's name to Abraham which means Father of Nations.  Sarai, becomes Sarah—linguistically her name change means very little, but the understanding is that God's blessing is upon her.

          But now remember, Abram was 75 years old when God first spoke to him, and there were a couple years in Egypt.  In Genesis 17 we learn that Abram is 99, and God is telling him that he's going to have descendents from his own body, and with his own wife Sarah—who is not exactly a spring-chick. 


          I'm going to fast-forward again to Genesis 18—one of most mystical encounters of the Old Testament.   God comes to Abraham in the visit of three strange men.  Christians like to read the Holy Trinity into this story, since the men are never given names, and this is a divine encounter.  The three men tell Abraham that Sarah will have a child.  And when Sarah hears this, she laughs.  And the men tell her that because she laughed, the child shall be named Isaac—which means "Laughter." 

          There are some interesting parallels here between the story of the Annunciation to Mary, and the visit of the three men.  For instance, in Mary's story Gabriel says, "Nothing will be impossible with God."  In the story of Abraham and Sarah, God says, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?"  In both cases we're talking about a child born unexpectedly, and that it will happen as a sign from God. 

          But let's get back to the text for today.  You see, if you read this story as part of the larger story of Abraham it becomes even more dramatic.  The covenant is based on land and descendents through Isaac—the child of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham had a child with his wife's servant, Haggar, named Ishmael.  But the covenant is understood to be passed down through Isaac.  If Isaac dies, the covenant cannot be upheld.

          So the dramatic tension in the story is between God and God.  God has made a covenant, and then by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God seems to be invalidating the covenant.  The conflict we feel within Abraham is on several fronts.  On the primal level: the tension of a father losing a son to death.  That tension is supremely heightened by the fact that Abraham will be the one killing him. 

          But the overlay of this being God's request makes it an incalculably anxious situation.  It brings all sorts of questions:  Why would God do this?  Why would God think that this is a good thing?  How could God do this to a human being—put him in this kind of predicament?  And that then raises all these questions about why we would ever love a God who would do this.

          If you take the entire sweep of the Abrahamic story and look at it as a whole, the entire story hinges on faith and faithfulness.  Abraham's faith.  And God's faithfulness to him. 

          Remember that Abraham does not have any tradition or scripture to look back on for information about God.  He is flying by the seat of his pants, and the impressions of his heart about what God wants of him.  Abraham has heard the voice of God in his mind; he has met him in the visit of the three men; he has walked faithfully and courageously with God who he believes is the Creator of heaven and earth. 

          And here he is asked to do something that completely contradicts everything he knows and believes.  In fact, he asked to do something that would invalidate all that he has heard God say about descendents, children, children's children and land. 

          God says, "Take your son, your only son, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." (Gen. 22)  So God is asking Abraham to walk with his boy out into the wilderness, while knowing what he has to do, and not able to tell his son.  He will need to kill his son, and then make a fire, and burn him.  You and I cannot imagine what passed through his mind and heart. 

          We cannot imagine the tears in his eyes, or the conflict in his soul.  I would imagine that most of us, upon hearing God say something like this, would check ourselves into the hospital psych ward.  We would never believe that God would call us to do this.  And if we had absolutely, incontrovertible evidence that God had asked us to do this, we would probably say, "Forget it, God.  I think I'll give Buddhism a try." 

          It is a test in what is a series of tests.  And each time, Abraham is faithful to God and God is faithful to Abraham.  But now we come to a point where every hint of absurdity and playfulness is gone.  There is no laughter on Sarah's lips.  In sacrificing Isaac, who is named for Sarah's laughter, all laughter will die. 

          Abraham has nothing to look forward to.  His son will die, by his own hands, and with Isaac's death, the covenant will die. 

          Or will it?  Perhaps not.  We don't know.  Abraham does not know.  All he knows is that the same voice that has given him a son is now asking to have him back.  And so he gathers his things, assembles his men, saddles his donkey, kisses his wife on the cheek, and takes his son.  "Daddy, where are we going?"

          The story is told with such drama.  They come to mountain.  Abraham tells his men to stay at the base, and he walks up the mountain with Isaac with wood for the sacrifice.  Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is.  And you can almost see right down through the centuries into Abraham eyes as he "draws his breath in pain" to say, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."  Notice that you can read that two ways, "God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son," or "God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering.  My son."

          Abraham built an altar there.  I would imagine Isaac helped.  Can you imagine it?  Can you feel the tension in the air?  And then Abraham begins to bind his son.   "Daddy, what are you doing?"  Abraham took out his knife and raised it above his head, and at the last instant an angel calls to him from heaven, "Abraham, Abraham…Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, you only son, from me."  Abraham looked up, and there was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, and they killed it and offered it as a sacrifice.  (Pause.)

          Do you know where they were?  Do you know where God had led them?  God had led them to the Land of Moriah, and in time, the Land of Moriah became a city, named Jerusalem.  And because this story was told and remembered, when they wanted to build a temple, guess where they decided to build it…

          By tradition, the Temple Mount is the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac.  It's a story of faithfulness, you see.  The story of God's unfailing faithfulness.  God would not allow a man to place his son on the altar and sacrifice him—even though it seemed he would. 

          God knew the kind of pain that that would cause, because, you see, even then, God knew a thing or two about offering a son, an only son, out of faithfulness. 


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, June 20, 2011

Trinity Sunday A. 19 June 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select Trinity Sunday.


          As many of you know, I am serving on the Nominating Committee for our next Bishop Suffragan.  Much of our work is confidential, so I can’t really talk about it, but part of our work has involved crafting questions for potential nominees to answer in written form—so that we may have a sense of their thoughts on an array of subjects.  At one point, it was noted that we did not yet have a direct question about Jesus.


          So as we set about the task of crafting a question that would draw out the person’s reflections on Jesus, a very thought-provoking comment was made that we (Episcopalians) are not merely followers of Jesus, but of the Holy Trinity.  Now, I was stunned by the astuteness of this comment because, a.) it was absolutely correct, and b.) it didn’t come from one of the clergy on the committee! 


          And in the conversation that followed—and I probably took more time talking than anyone else—what emerged was still a direct question about Jesus, but we acknowledged that to speak of Jesus is never to exclude the reality of the Blessed Trinity. 


          Now today is Trinity Sunday.  This is the only Sunday of the Christian year when we celebrate a doctrine of the Faith—but frankly, it’s the only doctrine that really deserves it, because this is the central claim the Church has about who God is.  We believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.            In every normative Sunday liturgy, whether Morning Prayer or the Holy Eucharist, that claim is made, full-throated, in the language of The Book of Common Prayer.  You cannot escape it.  The Collect of each Sunday is made to God in the name of the Son who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. 


          Every Sunday we recite the Creeds of the Church, either Nicene or Apostles’—both of which spell out our core faith that God is Father, Son, and Spirit.  So along with the proclamation of the Gospel—that Jesus died and was raised, and that his death and resurrection reconcile us, and open the way of everlasting life—there is this even more central proclamation: that God is an eternal relationship of three in one and one in three.  This has been our faith since it was articulated by the Cappadocian Fathers and affirmed by the Council of Constantinople in 381.


          There was a movement in the Church some years ago to try to take the genders out of it and make the Holy Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  Thankfully that stuff has mostly, mostly, gone away, and I’m very happy about that, because it doesn’t work.  To say Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer is to say that God has separate roles and functions—it’s to say that the Father is not the Redeemer, the Spirit is not the Creator, and the Son is not the Sustainer.  NO!  All three are ONE.  All three as ONE create, redeem and sustain.  (I’m telling you, don’t get me started on this, because I get worked up.)



          My trump card, whenever I’m around the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer folks—and please understand, I would never become truly rude or hostile about this, but I’m very passionate about it.  My trump card is the language of Jesus, who referred to God as Father, and himself as the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit.  In fact, it is from Jesus’ own words that the Church developed our theology of the Holy Trinity.  And that theology, grounded in the Bible, is what continues to inform what little understanding of God we have.


          It is the greatest irony, to my mind, that our understanding of the Trinity remains so obscure, even while the language we use to talk about it is very simple.  God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Father is not the Son or Spirit, nor are the Son or Spirit the others, but though not the others, still together are One God. 


          Simple language, but we cannot fully grasp all that those words mean, because well…we are talking about God!  How exquisitely wonderful that even in the simplest terms we cannot fully describe God!  That just tickles me to no end.  It doesn’t diminish my faith at all—quite the contrary, my faith is significantly deepened by the fact that there is so much I don’t know!


          St. John of Damascus and Cyril of Alexandria gave us the concept of Περιχώρησις, which is to speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit as mutually indwelling in one another, yet without confusion.  The best and simplest description of Περιχώρησις I know is that of a holy dance—three persons who function in perfect unity with each other—like dance partners—yet each of them remains who they are.  I love that. 


          I love the thought that God is a holy and eternal dance, because, you see, the mystery of Christ is that, by our relationship with Jesus, we join hands with him, which then mystically joins our hands with the Father and Spirit in this eternal and holy dance.


          If I were to take your hands and pull you out of your pew…think for a moment about that.  These are not just my hands.  My hands have been given to me by mother and father, going all the way back through their fathers and mothers, all the way to Adam and Eve.  As I touch your hands, which also, go back to Adam and Eve, we are expressing something amazing—a coming together of God’s creation, which has been expanding and reproducing since the dawn of time.  When you shake hands with someone, or touch someone, in any way, you are returning God’s creation to unity. 


          I think that is why violence is so abhorrent to Christianity, and really, to all of the world’s religions.  I think it’s something we all know down deep inside us, that violence, at its absolute core, is an act of aggression against the creation BY the creation. 


          It is always heart-rending to hear about violence, and it’s even worse to hear of violence coming from devout people.  Because we think that devout people are able to consistently value the creation—but of course, we are all human beings.  There has been violence against creation by creation since Cain and Abel. 


          If you follow this line of thinking, it does raise some questions, of course.  What about natural disasters?  What about animals who have to kill other animals to eat?  Are these acts of violence against creation by creation?   Well…yes.


          Isaiah 11 speaks of the time when the Kingdom of God is fully revealed—when the Messiah is given complete sovereignty, and brings about the end of all violence.  (Pew Bible, pg. 558)


The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.  The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Is. 11.6-9)


          The Church has always considered these words proleptically.  Prolepsis is a great word, and worth knowing by every Christian.  It comes from the Greek, Προλάμβανιεν, pro- meaning “before,” and lambanien meaning “to take.”  So together, to before-take, or to have something before it has truly happened.  In seminary we used to say “already and not yet.”




          The idea is that time is collapsed.  What is yet to be, is, in some sense, already, because of our belief in it.  For instance, when you prepare yourself to entertain guests—buying food, cleaning the house, setting the table—all of those actions imply that what has yet to happen is already happening.  The guests are on their way, but in our anticipation of them, they are already here. 


          This is very much a part of how we tell time in the Church.  It’s how Holy Scripture—ancient, ancient words—can be read as if they were written yesterday—because they were written always to be read in anticipation of God breaking into our lives NOW.  Prolepsis. 


          See, now you’ve got two very “churchy” Greek words to throw around,  Περιχώρησις (the mutual indwelling of the Blessed Trinity) and Προλεπσις (already and not yet—or you could just call it “anticipation on steroids.”)


          So getting back the “the lion laying down with the lamb”—we understand this proleptically.   That the same peaceful kingdom that has yet to be fully realized is already here by our anticipation of it.  By our own vision of what is to come, we enact the future hope right here and now.  We call the future into our present existence.  And we do that by acting as if then is now.




          So when we touch, shake hands, we are creations affirming creation.  I think that’s why people experience such holiness in caring for others, or in caring for animals, or even in gardening.  Because we are created beings affirming our common ancestry that goes all the way back to when the Father, Son, and Spirit said, “Let there be light.”  Do you see?


          But now, think of this:  When you receive the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus, the Lord is taking your hands, and pulling you—body and spirit—into the divine life that CREATED you when “you” really began at the dawn of time.


          Perhaps I should slow down and say that again.  When you and I receive the Body and Blood, Jesus—by extension—is taking you.  And pulling you –your soul and body—into the divine life of God that CREATED you.  You were created when your parents’, parents’, parents’, etc. were created.  We are all descendents of ancestors stretching all the way back to when God said, “Let us make human kind in our image.” (Gen 1:26)


          God took the dust of the earth and formed us.  That is why, I think, when Jesus touched people, they were healed.  Let me spell it out: the power coming through Jesus was the Creating power coming to the creation to Redeem and Sustain.   It was an act of περιχώρησις—a moment when the power of God’s unity as Father, Son, and Spirit was revealed, doing what God does: creating, redeeming, sustaining.



          So that is why we celebrate Trinity Sunday.  Because this doctrine is not just a doctrine—it is a fundamental claim the Church makes based on how we have experienced God, Father, Son, and Spirit, in the past, present, and future.  And it is why, even in the middle of Lent, when all the Alleluias have been banished from our lips, we continue to cry out, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as God was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.”


I would like offer a short prayer that I have written.


Let us pray.



OLY Spirit, Holy Son, Holy Father, we do not understand you fully.  But from what we have learned through the Son and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we believe in you.  We believe that you love us.  We believe that you wish to give us wholeness now, and eternally.  Help us to relate better to you, embracing the mystery that is you.  Help us to be faithful to the ministry that you do in us, for us, and through us, which is always creating, always redeeming, and always sustaining.  And please know that we love you, too.  Very much.  Amen.



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, June 13, 2011

The Day of Pentecost A. 12 May 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select The Day of Pentecost.


          I must admit to you that I am a little intimidated to talk about the Holy Spirit.  Not because I believe that the Holy Spirit wishes to intimidate me, or push me away.  In fact, just the opposite.  When I enter the church— sometimes in the utter darkness of the night, or late in the afternoon before going home just to say one or two prayers, the Holy Spirit sometimes seems so very present that I am reminded of the theologian Karl Rahner’s description of the Holy Spirit as “palpable holiness.”  I am sure you know what I mean.  There are places and times and liturgies…  There are conversations and hymns and moments when the air seems to be charged with electricity, and it seems that somehow God is in the air, palpably.  Palpable holiness.  Such a wonderful expression.


          It’s a feeling that comes to me occasionally while I am preaching a sermon.  It’s a sensation of a pressure on the top of my head, and a kind of thickness to the air around me.  Sometimes I feel it while I am working on sermon, or visiting one of you in your home, or at the hospital.  Quite often I feel this palpable holiness when I bring Communion.  I never feel like I deserve to feel the feeling.  And I never think that it’s something I can possess.  It’s very much like it is described in the Bible—it’s a wind.  Something you feel, but cannot see or harness.



          And that’s why I have a little trouble talking about the Holy Spirit, because I have great respect for it.  It is why I often find myself praying those blessed words of King David, “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”  I would never wish to offend the Holy Spirit by saying something untrue or unkind or misleading about it.  I wouldn’t want to say that the Holy Spirit could be fully understood or used in some sort of casual way.


          It reminds me of the story I heard some time ago about the man who walked up to God and said, "God, we've decided that we no longer need you. We're to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just go on and get lost."  God listened to the man and God said, "Very well, how about this, let's say we have a man-making contest, but,” God said, "we're going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam."  The man said, "Sure, no problem" and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt. And God said, "No, no, no. You have to get your own dirt!"


          You see, to claim you have the Holy Spirit is to claim that you somehow possess the power of God to create, and heal, and do the work of God—and ironically we do, but not on our own.  My understanding, and what I believe the Church teaches though tradition and scripture—is that the Holy Spirit is a collaborator, a paraclete.  Paraclete comes from the Greek παράκλητος, which means advocate, comforter, helper, encourager.  The Holy Spirit comes as it chooses, and is made known to us, or not, as it chooses.  



          Yet the Holy Spirit does come among us to help as a collaborator, and I can tell you very sincerely that all authentic ministry is totally dependent on it.  I am totally dependent on it.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for every meaningful thing that God has allowed me to say, or do.  My most earnest prayers are for the Holy Spirit’s anointing and presence with me and within this church. 


          I have a prayer that I pray while driving to church in the morning.  I’ve prayed it so consistently that I am usually saying the same words at the same point in the drive each time.


          But many’s the time that I have, though my own pride, attempted the work of the priesthood without spending meaningful time in prayer, seeking the guidance and collaboration of the Holy Spirit, and every time I discover the utter poverty of my own thoughts.  There have been times when I have sat at my desk pushing paper clips from one side to the other, not even able to spell the name of God because I had allowed my prayer time to dwindle down.


          I had a professor in seminary who is a former monk and he used to tell us, always, to pray before doing our homework or writing any papers.  He said even the monks—who spend hours in prayer every day—still pray directly about an issue before studying it, because… And I will never forget him saying this, “Who do we think we are if we think we can study or write about God without asking him for help?!”


          It’s not that the act of praying equals the Holy Spirit’s blessing.  It doesn’t.  I am talking about engaging in the things of God—seeking after God; seeking to know; seeking to find God in the grit and grace of life.  “We believe that we may come to understand,” as St. Anselm of Canterbury so elegantly said.  Fides quaerens intellectum.


          Sometimes it is the difference between talking and listening.  We’re so good about talking—telling God what we want.  “Heal this person; give me that thing; make this right.”  But so little time is spent bravely listening for what God might have to say.  Yet being open to God’s voice as it comes through the impressions of our hearts, or even the words of our friends and family, can bring about a depth of relationship that is impossible to overstate.


          I am talking about nothing less than what Jeremy Taylor—one of our great Anglican theologians—called, “a habitual conversation” with God.  That our lives are—or ought to be—spent in a kind of habitual conversation of prayer and attentiveness.  It is through these disciplines that our lives can remain rooted and grounded in the Holy Spirit.  (Pause.)


          The times when the Holy Spirit has seemed most present to me have been in silence.  That is why monasteries and retreat centers are so intentionally quiet.  There is something about being around other Christians and not talking that forms a bond deeper than conversation can. 



          When I had just graduated from college, my mother took me on a silent retreat.  We spent one week, talking only in private sessions with the retreat leader, and in our evening group sessions, and at the Eucharists.  We ate our meals together, but not talking.  And there was such freedom to that week.  Freedom to be with people without having to make all the little surface chit-chat that is really just noise.  I can still see those people in my mind.  There were nuns, and lay men, and women—my mother and I.


          I don’t believe I have ever slept better than I did at that retreat center.  The first couple days were an adjustment to not talking, but after awhile it seemed that that Holy Spirit was sitting beside us, or wafting down the hallway. 


          For many Christians, the Holy Spirit is known more as catalyst of praise.  There is a strong tradition, especially in the Protestant side of the Church, where people experience God through exuberance, sometimes with dancing.  And that tradition is rooted in the Bible, going back all the way to King David’s joyful dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem, and in the joyful Psalms of Ascent, like Psalm 150:  


 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, 
   praise him with the harp and lyre, 
 praise him with timbrel and dancing, 
   praise him with the strings and pipe, 
 praise him with the clash of cymbals, 
   praise him with resounding cymbals.

 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.



          The Bible does not speak with one voice about the Holy Spirit, and I think it would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit is unique to the Church.  The Hebrew people understood the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, to be moving upon the face of the waters at the beginning of creation, and indeed is one with the Creator.  They might not speak of the Holy Spirit as we do—as a person of the One Holy Trinity—but they recognize the feeling of God’s presence among them. 


          It seems to me that the Day of Pentecost is not so much about the Holy Spirit coming, as if absent from the world, but coming anew upon the Apostles and empowering them for the spread of the Gospel. 


          The description in the Book of Acts is that the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in foreign languages so that there would be no language barrier to hinder them from carrying the Gospel to the surrounding countries.  And implicit in this coming of the Spirit is the understanding that the Gospel was not to be confined to the Hebrew people, but that Christ was the universal Savior—the Savior of the World—and that all people should hear about him.


          So this gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost dramatically expanded the scope of the Apostles’ ministry, and frankly it continues to do so—pushing ever deeper into the hearts of those who are already devout, and knocking at the door of those who have not yet heard.



          But the ministry of the Holy Spirit can never be confined or limited.  It is always on the move.  Psalm 104 sings to God, “You send forth your Spirit…and so you renew the face of the earth.”  Renewal, or redemption seems to be at the core of the Holy Spirit’s work.


          We believe that it was the Holy Spirit that found Jesus in the tomb and raised him to new life.  When we are baptized, we believe that the Holy Spirit is similarly finding us in the water’s depths, and pulling us out of the tomb of our sins into eternal life. 


          At the end of the Solemn Collects on Good Friday, and also at every ordination—whether for Bishop, Priest or Deacon—the prayer is offered which reads, “…let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made...”


          This is the work of the Holy Spirit—constantly renewing and refreshing.           Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink…Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”


          If you are in need of renewal and refreshment, the Holy Spirit welcomes you, and wants to be with you as a paraclete—a comforter, healer, advocate, companion.  If you are in need, ask for the Holy Spirit.  Listen for him, learn from him, be refreshed by the simple act of trusting that God is there for you, and is moved with tenderness towards you.


          If there is illness in your body, ask for healing.  If there is discouragement, or despair, ask for hope.  If there is loneliness and fear, ask for love.  As a loving father gives good things to his children, so does our Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  So let us pray:



ome, Holy Spirit.  Come into this parish and into our hearts, renewing us, and strengthening us for the ministries to which you call us.  Be powerfully and palpably present with us, especially in our struggles.  Deepen our joy; heal our brokenness; restore us to new life; and lead us ever deeper into the presence and love of the Father, who with you and the Son are alive and reign for ever and ever.  Amen.







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, June 6, 2011

Ascensiontide sermon

For the audio version, click here and select 7th Sunday of Easter.


Region XIV Ascension Day Holy Eucharist.  2 June 2011.

And the Sunday within the Octave of Ascension,

 Easter 7A.  5 June 2011.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail



          I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the Ascension of Jesus is not observed with great devotion in the Diocese of Virginia.  Or really in the greater Episcopal Church.  Anglo-Catholics are surely observing it, but my guess is that most of the faithful live in a kind of denial about the Ascension. 


          The Resurrection is the story that gets told.  Jesus rises from the dead, and the church observes that glorious event, but then seems almost to ignore the Ascension—as if the Ascension were more unlikely and fantastic than the Resurrection. 


          There is an awkwardness there.  Why?  Is it because it’s so cosmic?  Is it because we have trouble imagining it?  Or believing that our imagination could ever touch what truly happened?  Maybe we don’t really believe it happened in our heart of hearts.  I don’t know.  I believe it.


          I do know that to speak authentically about it is awkward around Episcopalians, just like talking about the Parousia, the Return of Jesus.  I love our church, but sometimes I think we’re a little too-cool-for-school, a little too jaded to embrace our creedal faith. 



          I remember hearing that at my mother-in-law’s church, they had an adult study on the Nicene Creed, and everyone was asked if they actually believed each of the articles.  And they went around the room discussing it.  The only thing everyone actually believed was that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. 


          Well, this is an interesting exercise.  Maybe at our next Regional Council we could bring some big plastic trash bags and go through the Faith and decide what we want to keep and what we want to throw away.  Let’s go ahead and keep the Baptism of Jesus, but the Virgin birth…well…I don’t know.  May I see a show of hands?  I’m telling you…people do that in the Episcopal Church.  Why?


          Maybe it’s because we don’t see the relevance?  The Resurrection, great!  Wonderful.  God bringing us back to life, too!  Great!  Wonderful.  Us ascending into heaven…well, now wait a minute…  Somehow that just seems crazy. 


          I wonder if the problem is that it’s hard to celebrate that Jesus has gone away.  It’s easier to celebrate all of the other life-events.  The baby is born in the bleak, mid-winter.  We gather together in the stable amidst the sawdust and the strangely wonderful smell of animals.  There is the baby.  A new family, but more than that.  Wonderful. 


          He grows up, has his Baptism.  And then the call of the disciples, and the teachings and parables.  It’s wonderful.  It’s hard to watch the events leading up to and including his death, but he’s still here. 

          And then he is raised, and the church goes wild.  But we have yet to say good bye.  Maybe it would be easier not to say goodbye?


          It’s hard to say goodbye.  The conversation reaches a point when thing start to dwindle down.  The clock ticks later in the evening.  The dinner guests have to go.  The husband points at his watch, and looks meaningfully at his wife.  And the excuses start to be made, “It’s an early morning tomorrow.”  “This has been wonderful; it’s a shame we couldn’t stay longer.”  “You must come to see us.”  “We must do this again.” 


          And then they move out to the car, slowly, the host family following behind.  “Nice car?”  “You think so?”  “Yes, I wish I had one like this.”  “It’s not bad.  Pretty good mileage.” 


          “That’s a lovely skirt.”  “This thing?”  “Yes.”  “Target.”  “No.”  “Really…it’s just their basic thing.”  “Well, maybe they’ll have my size.”


          It’s hard to say good bye.  Its awkward.  It’s so much better to let the grown ups do it, while we pretend we’re children back in the house asleep.  We fell asleep listening to the grownups talk about the world and politics and local news and recipes.  We fell asleep knowing that the guests would go home.  We said our goodbyes earlier in the evening, wearing our jammies and licking our lips from the toothpaste.


          It’s hard to say goodbye.  Is that why it’s hard to celebrate the Ascension?


          On May 29th we read from John 14.  There is one verse that attached itself to my soul from John 14 a couple weeks ago.  I have read John 14 many times and never really noticed it.  Let me read part of that lesson from last Sunday:  Pew Bible 877

          Jesus said to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

          John gives us these very tender words from Jesus.  And like all of John’s Gospel, they are pregnant with meaning.  They contain some of the church’s first theology about how the Father, Son and Spirit are related to each other, and how, in Jesus, they relate to us.  “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” 


          In John there is so much I in you, you in me, you in them, we in them, us and we being one with me and you--all being one together.  To try to tease out the various shades of meaning behind each word could take a long time.  It seems to me that John is trying to say poetically that the Father, Son, and Spirit are inseparable, and that Jesus has extended that inseparability to us. 


          But the verse that really got to me was this verse 18, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”  On the surface of it, the meaning is quite simple:  I won’t go away forever, I will be coming back to you.


          But that’s not quite how he said it.  He said, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  If you were reading this in the King James Version, it would say, “I will not leave you comfortless.”  Terrible translation.  I love the King James Version, but they really messed this one up.  The word is ορφανούς.  Orphans. 


          There is an ache in that word choice.  It indicates Jesus’ understanding of how we would feel after he ascended into heaven.  But may also indicate the level of devotion and dependence the disciples had—such that Jesus’ departure would be considered equivalent to the death of a parent.  Jesus has moved beyond friend, and even Lord—I dare say.  It’s a relationship of such profound intimacy that for it to end, brings to mind the child crying out for the arms and breast of a mother, or the firm, but reassuring caress of a daddy.


          In the recent tornadoes that have ripped through the heartland of this country, we have heard stories of such profound sadness.  I have been trying to forget some of them.  One of them was about three boys around the age of five, who were found dead in the closet of their mostly demolished house.  It was tragic enough to hear of their deaths, but what pulled my heart was hearing that they were found holding each other.  My son, Peter, is five.  And when I close my eyes I can see three Peters holding each other and screaming. 



          “I will not leave you.”  Okay.  But I will not leave you orphaned.  I don’t know if it touches you like it does me, but the pathos of these words sinks deeply into my soul, because there are times when what I like to call “the aching distance” between us and God seems so powerful. 


          I don’t spend a lot of time moaning about the big blue sky of God’s expectations, and the cold dusty reality of our failures.  You don’t hear me preach every Sunday, but if you did, you wouldn’t hear much from me about how we fail to live up the Gospel.  I don’t think that kind of talk is helpful, and I don’t think it pleases God.  I think of that as a cheap excuse for preaching.


          It’s the lowest hanging fruit on the homiletical tree—to point to the grand vision of Jesus and then berate the gathered faithful for our inability to be and do everything we should. 


          When I look around at people in church…when I look around at you, I see a group of people who love God and are doing the best you can.  Or maybe you aren’t doing the best you can, but you’re here.  You are engaging in the things of God.


          Let’s just strip away all the trappings that we use to pretend that we are just fine thankyouverymuch, and recognize that we are all very much in need of someone who cares for us very deeply.  We know him because we have experienced him by the power of his Spirit in the reading and proclamation of Holy Scripture—in the giving and receiving of broken bread and wine outpoured.  And let us open our hearts to this mystery of Jesus being both richly present, and achingly absent at the same time.


          Bishop Christopher Wordsworth wrote that wonderful hymn, “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.”


          It’s a beautiful vision of Christ in kingly glory, ascending to heaven.  And we watch that in the oratory of our minds—the words painting images and moments that thrill us with God’s majesty. 


          But after the glow of those holy thoughts has come to an end, there are the dishes to be washed, and the dog to be walked, and the laundry to be folded, and the inescapable truth that he is not here in the way that he was 2000 years ago.


          Most of the time we can live with that absence—perhaps we might even welcome it.  But then we get together and pray and listen and break bread and share, and the absence at the table is felt. 


          He will not leave us orphaned, though.  It may feel like that from time to time, God knows.  But we have not been left orphaned.  He is coming to us.  No one knows the day or hour. 

          Many will come and say, “Look here he is.”  Do not go after them.  But he is coming—I don’t know how or when, or even if everything in the book about it is right, but I do know this…he is coming.


          I ask you to open your hearts as wide as you can.  Open your hearts to embrace the mystery of Jesus: taken, blessed, broken, and given.  Born, dead, alive, ascended.  Here and absent.  With us and gone from us. 


          We are not left as orphans, though it may truly feel that way from time to time.  We are loved so much.  We are loved so much.  And he is coming.






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.