Thursday, May 30, 2013

Corpus Christi and the life eternal

“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Can you keep a secret? I know that’s a curious question to begin a sermon with… but my husband—and maybe me too—could get in trouble for this story. Jonathan is a Lutheran pastor, and his office is near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. A couple of years ago, he was invited for the first time to celebrate one of their midweek Noon Eucharists in a chapel. He was very excited… I’ve never gotten to celebrate the Eucharist in a cathedral, so it was a great moment for clerical matrimonial one-upsmanship. He arrived early, found the sacristy, got on his vestments, headed out to the chapel, and waited until the appointed hour. No one was there. So he started the service… reading the lessons… preaching the sermon… it being the Cathedral, some tourists wandered in and out. A few were present at the Peace and he chatted with them and invited them to stay for the Eucharist but they declined.  

And now he was faced with a difficult choice. We obviously do not say private masses in the Episcopal Church… or the Lutheran Church. The correct thing to do was to stop praying and leave. But as Jonathan put it, he was all dressed up, and a Gothic Cathedral feels medieval enough that you can do medieval things… so he continued the service, confident in being surrounded by the Communion of Saints, that in the words of tonight’s gospel, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” so he was not actually alone. 

When he broke the bread, and it came time to distribute communion, he went to the altar rail and imagined giving communion to his mother, who died over 30 years ago. What was not possible in real life, and what would not have been possible if other living persons had been present, became possible in the leisure of solitary openness to the Spirit. He gave communion to Walter Bouman, his mentor and seminary professor. To Gerald Youngquist, the pastor of his adolescence and young adulthood who formed his identity as a Lutheran. To grandparents and great grandparents he’d never met; to icons of the church in centuries past. All were around the table in the Cathedral that day. A communion with the communion of saints. 

Jesus says in the Gospel today that those who eat of this bread will live forever and have eternal life. And I think in general we emphasize that on the funeral/All Saints Day side of liturgy and less so on the Eucharistic side of liturgy. But it’s here, too. Why are we eating this bread and drinking this wine? Well, we do this for a host of reasons—but today it is particularly present for me in this idea of the food that sustains us beyond the grave and keeps us connected with all the other people who have feasted at God’s altar.  

When we die, we do not lose our place at this table. We just move to the other side of it. We do not dine here alone this evening. I pray that the communion of saints can be viscerally present with us even when we’re with others—we don’t have to say a private mass to know that Jesus has called many to the banquet table ahead of us. Who do you know—who do you miss—who will be communing with us today? A parent? A friend? A spouse? A child?

Sometime after Jonathan had this experience I told the story during a sermon at Epiphany and wondered who I might encounter at the table that day. I figured it would probably be some of the people I’d buried in my years there; or maybe family members.  

But what happened shocked me. Unbidden, when I celebrated the Eucharist at 8:30 that morning, I thought of Lot Jones, the founding rector of the Church of the Epiphany in 1833, and all the other old dead white guys who were clergy at Epiphany whose pictures hang on the wall of our office. And I felt like I could feel their hands on my shoulders, pressing down, in a line behind me. It was a sort of mystical experience—not what I’m used to, but very powerful. There they were—supporting me in my priesthood, celebrating the Eucharist with me in a very real way. It was one of the foundational experiences that really got me to consider if I was being called to stay at Epiphany as their Rector—because here were all these guys who—I’m sure—would never have even dreamed that their beloved church could be led by a woman when they were bound by time and place; but here they were, unbound by time and place, united through the sacrament, and those prejudices and particularities had fallen away so that they could stand with their hands on my shoulders.

The sacrament can cut though those prejudices and particularities. I remember being at a Roman Catholic funeral a few years ago for my Deacon’s partner. I hemmed and hawed over whether to wear a collar—because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t be able to take communion. But if I didn’t, I felt like I wouldn’t fully be supporting my deacon as his priest. So I wore it. When it came time for the invitation to communion, the Catholic priest got up and said that he knew that Joe really belonged to two churches, and that there were Episcopalians in the congregation that day, and he wanted to tell us all that we were invited to the table. I leaned over to my rector—who was wearing a tie—and said, “Did I just get invited to communion?” “Yes,” he said. “then I guess I’d better go,” I finished. Time and space and human rules fall away in the blessedness of the sacrament. A sentiment beautifully captured in Madeline L’Engle’s poem, At Communion:  

Whether I kneel or stand or sit in prayer
I am not caught in time nor held in space,
But, thrust beyond this posture, I am where
Time and eternity are face to face.
Where crossbar and upright hold the One
In agony and in all Loves embrace
The power in helplessness which was begun
When all the brilliance of the flaming sun
Contained itself in the small confines of a child
Now comes to me in this strange action done
In mystery. Break time, break space, O wild
And lovely power. Break me: thus am I dead,
Am resurrected now in wine and bread.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

From Suffering to Hope

Last summer while I was visiting my parents in California we took a trip to Sequoia National Park, one of my favorite places in the world. It’s always good to stand next to one of the largest living things on earth—the sequoia trees—and feel awe and remind yourself how small you are. It brings to mind the verses from the Psalm today, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you should seek him out? You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor.”

But in addition to their size, one of the other interesting tidbits about sequoias is that in most cases, there needs to be a forest fire for their seeds to germinate. The heat opens the seed pods and releases the seeds, and also clears out the low brush that would shade and choke sequoia saplings. No fire, no new baby sequoias. And the sequoia trees themselves are well protected from fire—their bark may be scarred, but they continue to grow, and grow; the oldest sequoia living today is something like 2500 years old.

I have been soaking in the portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we heard today. Two sentences that encapsulate so much rich theology. Justified by faith, peace with God, grace. And then the second sentence, which is particularly resonant with me this week: “…knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Suffering is only the beginning of the cycle. It’s hard when you’re in the midst of suffering to believe that anything good can come out of it. And yet, as Paul says, suffering produces endurance. And that’s where this verse gets particularly interesting to me; because I think often we might just give up at endurance. “Oh good. My suffering was not for naught. I have endured.” But if we just stop there, we miss out—because endurance produces character. Again, we might give up with that. Character sounds pretty good after you’ve been through suffering and endurance. “Look at my scars—they make me interesting. I’ve got character.” But the challenge and blessing of following Christ is that character then produces hope—perhaps not in such a linear progression but there’s hope at the end. And hope—God’s hope--does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
The fire releases the sequoia seeds and clears the ground for them to grow. And when the best thinking in forestry was to put out forest fires instead of letting them burn, the sequoias in California didn’t reproduce enough. By trying to protect them from what was perceived as suffering, they couldn’t complete their life cycle. 

 Where do we try to save ourselves suffering and prevent the passage through suffering to the other side? Because that’s part of Paul’s message today, too: without suffering, we do not get to hope. He was writing to a community that was suffering persecution and rejection, and didn’t want them to play it safe. He didn’t want them to back off from their beliefs, from their faith, from their community to make it more palatable to others so that they’d be safe. If they were forced to suffer so be it—because in that suffering a door opened that led through endurance and character to ultimate hope. Which doesn’t mean that Paul is asking the Christians in Rome to seek suffering but he is promising the possibility of redemption for that suffering, and pointing the way through the suffering to the other side. There is rarely a direct line from suffering to hope; but you can get there at the end.

What is our hope as Christians? The Gospels and Jesus don’t say a whole lot about hope. Paul does. A lot. Paul’s answer in this passage—which is pretty consistent throughout his letters—is that our hope is sharing the glory of God. Hope is union with God, eternal life, resurrection, participating in glory; hope is not giving in to the despair that comes with living the injustice and violence and grief of the world. 

 A little bit later in Romans, Paul writes: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:24-27)

We hope for things unseen. Hope is not coveting someone else’s happiness, or having ambition for someone else’s life. Hope is trusting that God’s desire for us, which we cannot see, is fulfilling and radiant. When we are suffering—or enduring—hope can very much be a thing unseen. But that’s where our faith, that God—not us—has put in our hearts comes in. We have faith that hope will come, and that hope will be enough.

Now what does all that say about the Trinity, since this is Trinity Sunday? A popular picture on Facebook this week said, “To avoid preaching heresy on Trinity Sunday, say nothing and just show pictures of cute kittens.” Tempting. There’s also a cartoon video of St. Patrick using every “bad” metaphor for the Trinity that preachers use; including a number that I’ve used here, like a shamrock, water-ice-and-steam, and even (I haven’t used this one, but I wish I had) Voltron—the 5 lions combine to make the single Voltron robot.

But…. these passages from Romans contain a lot of activity on God’s part, beginning with, “We are justified by faith.” For Martin Luther, faith is God’s work, not ours. It is God who puts faith in our hearts, God who justifies via that faith. It is then Jesus who intercedes for us and brings us to peace with God, and who give us access to God’s grace. And it is the Holy Spirit who is pouring love into our hearts. In the later Romans passage, it is the Holy spirit who is interceding on our behalf to God the Father, the Holy spirit who has those “sighs too deep for words” that cause God the Father to look into our hearts and know us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all working together in different ways for us, interacting with us and with each other, extending themselves back and forth. 

It is in the fullness of the Trinity that I find hope. God is not just up there and distant; God is not just right here by our side and in our hearts. God is dynamic and moving, passionately loving to us and to the 3 person of the Trinity. With such a loving God and, frankly, busy God, how could we not have hope?
Toward the end of Romans, Paul writes this beautiful verse as a blessing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)  Amen.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Motherhood of God

My favorite Andrew Mullins mistake was several years ago, when he was reading the blessing from the altar. It was the one that has the phrase, “and the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children,” but he paused before that last word, “children.” It was clear he couldn’t quite make out what it said on the page… and so Andrew said, “and the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her… chickens…” instead. I nearly lost it—and so did some of you. 

It’s Mother’s Day. And I want to celebrate and contemplate the Motherhood of God. We are God’s children—not God’s chickens—today and every day. The choir is singing an anthem with a text by Julian of Norwich this morning that begins like this: “As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is he our Mother.” Blessed Julian was in no way a radical feminist—she was a late 14th Century anchorite who had a series of showings, or revelations, while mortally ill. When she recovered, they were written down, and are now known as the “Revelations of Divine Love.” In them she repeatedly experienced God—especially Jesus—as a mother. “To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge — and this is God.” There is no gender issue for Julian—if God or Jesus possesses the qualities that she perceives as being maternal, then Jesus can be our mother. A mother is a role—not inherently gender specific—that resides in the qualities of love, wisdom, and knowledge. 

A mother is someone who gives birth to something. I know how painful Mother’s Day was for me when I was trying—and failing—to get pregnant; and I know that for people who have complicated relationships with their own mothers, or are grieving their loss, this can be a hard day. But I’d like to universalize motherhood a little bit—because all of us know what it’s like to give birth metaphorically to something. We all know what it’s like—I hope—to breathe life into an idea or a vocation or a project. We know that satisfaction—that nervousness—that passion and joy that imbue pouring yourself out so that something else can have a life of its own beyond yourself. We know what it is to be frustrated when the things that we have given birth to do not do what we want them to do. We know what it is to love something—or someone—and then wisely guide it, and share our knowledge with it so that it can flourish independent of us.

That’s what Jesus does for us. Jesus is the one who gives us life. Jesus is the one who encourages and chastens and nurtures and steps back and dances the dance of motherhood in guiding us towards divine perfection and relationship. Jesus give us instruction and then freedom… celebrating when we take steps forward, comforting us when we fall down, getting piqued when we err spectacularly, and always, always inviting us into further maturity with him.

No matter how old we are, or how spiritual, we are all still children of God, with much to learn. And we belong to God in as real a way as we belong to our biological parents. We have an inheritance from God—an inheritance of eternal life, but also an inheritance of the Gospel that we must uphold in the face of the hostility and cynicism and violence of the world. Even if we are not fully mature, we grow in faith so that we can, in turn, pass that inheritance on to others. It’s like we are the middle generation—Jesus mothers us, and then we, in turn, give birth to another generation of the Word out in the world.  

So the call this day is to be mothers. Whether you are young, old, male, female, whatever—Jesus has given you a spiritual Word to bring forth and nurture into the world. What will it be? Think about, pray about, search your heart about what piece of the gospel it is that you can give birth to, and raise up, and send off so that it can do its work while you look on proudly. Have a Mother’s Day.  

The motherhood of God is linked to the Ascension, which we’re observing today, because in its own way, the Ascension is that most maternal of acts: it is Jesus saying, “It’s time to get out of the nest. I’ve taught you all you need to know—you’re on your own. I’ll still be watching you, and I’ll send help. But I won’t be there every day in the same way. You’re all grown up.” In each one of the stories of the ascension we hear this morning, Jesus summarizes his teaching and what the apostles are supposed to do next, and then lets them go by ascending. In his own way, he’s affirming those three qualities of motherhood that Julian identified: love, wisdom, and knowledge. He loves them, he has wisdom that says it will be OK if he leaves, and he has imparted the knowledge that they need to be people of faith. 

And he knows he needs to leave so that they will do it. The disciples spend most of the Gospel getting the answers to Jesus’ questions wrong—even in the very moment of the Acts ascension story, they are STILL bungling the message and have to be corrected by Jesus and the angels. He is sending the Holy Spirit to help continue to guide them—and us—now that he will not be physically present, but his love continues, his wisdom lives on, and the knowledge he has passed on endures even to this day. Those apostles can then turn into mothers of the Gospel—mothers like a lot of us: imperfect, overburdened, well-meaning—who somehow, despite their personal frailties, give birth to something greater than they themselves could have imagined. Their child, if you will, is the church, and here we are, building it up, nurturing it, and trying to give it the legs to walk into the second half of the 21st Century. Let us cheer its steps, comfort it when it falls down, and both receive and pass on its wisdom, informed by what we experience and we know. So happy Mother’s Day to all of us.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lydia's Invitation

Preached on May 5, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany

My senior year in college, I was pretty convinced I wanted to be a priest, and so I took two Religious studies courses each semester at Yale. The most transformative of those was one on Early Christianity, taught by Bentley Layton, a specialist in Gnostic Gospels. I loved reading the extra-canonical texts—the Gospels of Mary and Thomas and James and hearing a different tradition of stories than the ones I had grown up on. I especially relished the images of women leaders in the early church—because in the few Sunday School classes I went to (usually I ditched Sunday School to sing in the choir) all the stories seemed to be about men. And I bought into the idea that according to the Bible, women were supposed to be subordinate to men, at least in the church—and we didn’t have any women clergy at St. Francis to break me out of that during much of my childhood. There was always a second narrative from my mother about how women in the church were just as capable as men, and that when “men” was used in the Prayer Book, it was a gender-neutral term for all people. But the Biblical stuff was hard to wrap my mind around.

But what Professor Layton also pointed out was that there are—if you look at them—phenomenal examples of women leaders in the church in the canonical scriptures. And we get perhaps the best example of those today in the reading from Acts: Lydia.

Lydia, we are told, is a God-fearer—that means she is a Gentile, not a Jew, but a Gentile who worshipped with Jews, and believed in the one God, even though she didn’t fully convert and follow the law. She has gathered with a group of mostly women outside the walls of Philippi to pray and worship, and Paul has come to that group of women to share the good news about Jesus. She is a householder, a dealer in purple cloth, and from Thyatira, although she clearly has a house outside the walls of Philippi as well. Thyatira is in Asia Minor, and Philippi is in Macedonia, so her business has taken her a long way. Lydia is a fairly upper class woman, independent, not unlike many of the people in this room right now.

And the Lord opens her heart to hear what Paul has to say.
That’s one of the things I love about Lydia—I picture her strong, confident, independent… well dressed in purple… and yet you can see in her story some kind of interesting spiritual journey. Why is this Gentile woman praying with Jews? What about her worship of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses was unsatisfying? What kind of hole did she feel she had in her heart that started to be fulfilled when she met a community that worshipped only one God, and followed some perplexing laws to govern daily life. And what kind of community did she find among this group of women who come together to pray; it sounds so very modern: “the Ladies Prayer Group will meet near the river on Thursdays at 8am.” She must have been seeking something, and then Paul arrives and she finds what she’s been looking for all along. 

The note about having her whole household baptized is a little shocking to us. God opens her heart, and then all her household—so any children, servants, extended family, or slaves—are brought along with her. My sense of independence and autonomy gets a little squeamish with that sentence… why should anyone else have to convert to Christianity just because Lydia does? We are so biased toward the individual today—and for some good reasons. But there’s also something compelling about a household being a unit—a “we” instead of a collection of “I”s. The Lord opens Lydia’s heart… and maybe through that, the hearts of the rest of her household are opened as well. What happens to one, happens to all. That’s surely a much more idealistic and romantic view of 1st Century household politics than the reality—but I think it’s good to suspend our 21st Century American notions of idealism to open ourselves to the story. From the moment Lydia believes in Jesus, she is an evangelist and a leader who knows the Gospel has enough value to make it worth sharing with the people she knows and loves.

So Lydia’s heart is opened, she receives the Gospel, is baptized, and then she opens her home. “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home,” Luke records her saying, and you also get the sense that it took some effort to get Paul and his companions to stay, with the final comment: “And she prevailed upon us.” Lydia understands that it is in the day to day fellowship of Christians that her life will be formed, and she also understands that the life of an itinerant preacher like Paul needs the support of people like her. 

Lydia is the icon of hospitality for Christians. She opens her home and it quickly gets risky—Paul is arrested, then miraculously freed from prison, and then comes back to stay with her. But she’s on her way, and whatever she was part of in building the church in Philippi, it had an effect: all the people Paul names in his letter to the Philippians are women (though Lydia herself is not one of them).   Wow. 

That’s why Lydia’s the patron of a relatively new “dinner church” in Brooklyn. St. Lydia’s is an experimental group of 20 somethings that offers radical hospitality to their congregation. As their website puts it: “Our congregation is looking for an experience of the Holy that is strong enough to lean on, deep enough to question, and challenging enough to change us.” They describe three pillars of their life together: Sharing the Meal; Telling Our Story; Working Together. 

I really like their idea of community: shared around the table, so that communion with your neighbor and communion with God is fully integrated; a community that is comfortable sharing their personal and spiritual stories with one another; and a community that expects is members to work—where everyone shares in the responsibility, even if it’s their first time there.

St. Lydia’s was founded by Pastor Emily Scott in 2008, and is thriving enough that they are adding a Monday evening meal and service to their current Sunday schedule; I’m never able to go on Sundays because of our 6pm service, but I would love to find a Monday to attend with some people from Epiphany in late May or June.

How can we be Lydias at Epiphany? How can we show incredible hospitality, and build a community that has enough convictions to bring in our friends and families to grow the church? What else can we do to open our hearts to God’s word—even if we’re strong and independent and business-saavy? She has good news for us—what can we learn?

 One of the things the Vestry will be considering at our upcoming retreat later this month is how to reach out to more people and grow this congregation. There was an interesting blog post I saw this weekend titled “We will no longer be a welcoming church” by a Lutheran pastor in Colorado. At first, I was shocked—what could this possibly mean? But upon reading it, what the pastor was doing was distinguishing between being a welcoming church and being an inviting church. As he pointed out, being a welcoming church is passive—we can have great greeters, and a fantastic coffee hour and a really easy to read bulletin—but that only works if a newcomer happens to wander in the door. He is working with his congregation—which sounds not too different from ours—on becoming an inviting church. Being an inviting church is active—and Lydia is a great role model for being an inviting church. She invites Paul into her home and doesn’t take no for an answer. I want Epiphany to be an inviting church like Lydia—where we know that the Gospel has such value that it is worth sharing, worth inviting with everyone we know.