Pentecost Sunday: The Gift of a New Spirit May 19, 2013 All Saints’ Episcopal Church Tybee Island, GA The Rev. Helen White
This past week I really enjoyed watching the final episode of that long-running and hilarious show, The Office. The Office was actually meant to be a satire of that awful invention: Reality TV. The show takes place in the ever exciting Scranton, PA. The characters? Not housewives of Orange County or the Kardashians, but a group of about 10, very average people working day after day in a small, somewhat miserable little office at a paper company. As one friend put it, “I watched the first couple of episodes of The Office and I could see the genius. But it was too painful to continue watching!” If you are like me, and able to push through the pain of watching something only too familiar, then the beauty of the show is that it does reflect the ordinary with such amazing humor and grace. In fact, our family quotes The Office probably more than any show because so much of it connects to the humor of real life. The finale of The Office was really, really good!
The one line that really stuck out to me was said by Pam, the romantic lead of the show. Now it is important to note that part of the success of The Office was the slow-building, heart-warming, totally believable romance between Jim and Pam. In the finale Pam comments on watching this “documentary” of her life. She says it was tough to watch because it was a reminder of how afraid she once was to take risks and how much time she spent not living the life she wanted, not embracing the love that was being offered to her from her coworker and best friend, Jim. Pam’s hope was that folks who watched her life would be motivated to act more bravely and quickly, to grab hold of what they really wanted in life, to see what is possible and available and not be so afraid to embrace it. In other words, to receive a new Spirit to embrace the life that is already being lived. To truly see the life you are actually living, the people you are actually loving, the blessings of each new day, and to embrace this reality fully, not be held back. Sounds like Pentecost to me. Thanks, Pam!
Pentecost: the day that we are given a new Spirit to live fully into the here and now. The reading from Romans says it best: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are Children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” WE ARE CHILDREN OF GOD—this is our reality show. If there were cameramen filming in the back right now, what they would capture is this: A holy space, claimed by the self-offering of Divine Love, filled with the beloved children of God. That is our present reality, and today we are given the SPIRIT to actually embrace this reality, to make it fully our own.
What holds us back? The same stuff that Pam mentions in her fake commentary of her fake documentary: FEAR. We don’t want to let go of our precious woobies, you know, our Linus blankets, no matter how grungy or dirty. We love to hold on to all our hurts and sadness and pettiness; we like to pretend that we own our lives; we have control. In fact, I think some people come to church just to get a tune-up on the car they are driving—the life they are controlling. Well, on the Birthday of the Church, I am here to tell you that this is not Jiffy Lube. We are not here to fix one little thing and send you on your way. Sorry. Let’s look at the story of the Pentecost to remember what we are doing here and now.
The disciples are gathered in one place on a very busy, Jewish festival day—the Festival of Weeks—50 days after Passover. They are in Jerusalem, the place their beloved brother, Jesus, was killed about 7 weeks earlier. A little less than two months since that traumatic experience. And yet since that time, their worlds have been turned upside down! Watching the crucifixion, grieving the death of Jesus, meeting the resurrected Jesus, scared by his transformed state but thrilled that he is alive and loving them once again and leading them into a whole new spiritual realm—heaven and earth do not feel so far apart. But now Jesus is gone again. He has ascended into heaven, and the disciples are alone once more, faced with the mundane tasks of life, waiting to figure out what this all could mean. AND SUDDENLY FROM HEAVEN THERE COMES A SOUND LIKE THE RUSH OF A VIOLENT WIND, AND IT FILLS THE ENTIRE HOUSE WHERE THEY Are SITTING. DIVIDED TONGES, AS OF FIRE, APPEAR AMONG THEM, AND A TONGUE RESTS ON EACH OF THEM. ALL OF THEM ARE FILLED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT AND BEGIN TO SPEAK IN OTHER LANGUAGES AS THE SPIRIT GIVES THEM ABILITY.
Whoa. Definitely not a normal day at the Jiffy Lube. This is full-body transformation. This is a complete inundation of new Spirit— and all those disciples can do is live fully into the moment—be taken over by the wind and fire and words that engulf the room. Sort of like the Tybee Beach Bum Parade experience?
And I love the question that is asked by those who witness the first Pentecost: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? What does this mean? So we ask that question today, what does Pentecost mean for us? It means this: through Baptism, you have been initiated into the life of the Spirit. You are no longer a slave to fear; you are a beloved Child of God. Today, Jennifer and Dean join us in this life. And as the Household of God, we inhabit holy space—through participation in the sacramental life, we immerse the events of our real life documentary in the self-offering love of Jesus Christ. Just as Dean and Jennifer will be immersed in the waters of Baptism, we continually immerse our lives in the life of Christ. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, we continually receive a new Spirit to embrace the lives we are living. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.
The Story of Our Lives: Death and Resurrection
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013 The Rev. Helen White, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Tybee Island Isaiah 65:17-25 Luke 24:1-12
Happy Easter Tybee Island! What a glorious moment in time, to gather on this holiest of mornings, by the bountiful ocean, with a vast view of the sky, just waiting for that first light to break forth in our midst—this is, indeed, a Resurrection moment! And with all of creation we say, Alleluia!
I have recently experienced a new joy in my own life—I just got a precious puppy. And all I have been talking about over the past two weeks is dogs! But I have heard a dog story that I would like to share with you on this holy morn. Though it is a dog story, it is indeed, an Easter story.
Many years ago, my friend was living in Savannah with her husband and two young sons. Somehow she ended up with a dog, named Wilson—I believe he was a stray who showed up on her doorstep. My friend had great dreams that she was going to mold Wilson into the perfect family dog. However, Wilson did not getalong well with the neighbors. He had an aggressive streak— probably from his rough raising during his puppy years. Wilson loved my friend and her sons, but he was quite mean to some neighbors. My friend admits that in retrospect she was blinded by her hopes and dreams for Wilson. She even endured some legal negotiating to defend her right to keep her pet. Finally my friend’s father found a farm for Wilson—a place he could live free and not have to conform to quite so many expectations! So my friend dutifully took Wilson out to the country, dropped him off and cried all the way home. She felt as if she were grieving the death of a loved one—and it was indeed, a Good Friday for my friend. Her dream of life with Wilson died that day. My friend let Wilson go. A few weeks later, she and her husband decided to stop by the farm and check in on the dog. As they pulled up some little girls were playing outside. My friend inquired about Wilson—the little girls said, “That dog? That dog was crazy! He ran off right away and we haven’t seen him since!” My friend
began to run through the woods, calling Wilson’s name, she looked for hours, her pant legs torn from running through the briars. This was no suburban mom dutifully looking for the family pet— this was a desperate search to find a beloved creature. After a few hours, she gave up. But as she approached the car to leave, Wilson came bounding up—covered in ticks, mangled and starving. And my friend scooped him up in her arms, got into the car with her husband, and said “I am never lettin’ this dog go.” A true resurrection moment. And things were not the same with Wilson. Because that is the nature of Resurrection—it changes you. My friend and her family moved to a different part of the neighborhood, and for whatever reason, Wilson did much better. He quit stealing newspapers and taunting neighbors. Wilson had changed but my friend also had changed. She lived into this new life with her dog, a dog that would never win any awards for congeniality, but with the proper boundaries, could get along just fine.
I don’t tell the story of Wilson the dog to compete with the story of Jesus’s resurrection. No, I tell my friend’s Easter story to demonstrate to all of us gathered that we, too, can live out the Easter story. In fact, we can make the Easter story the ongoing story of our lives. The Good News of this morning is that the Easter story is not an old story, frozen in time, 2000 years ago, only to be remembered on a designated Sunday in the spring. No, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is our story, to live into, in whatever ways our life offers. There is no doubt that we will experience the suffering of Good Friday, the suffering of crucifixion, when our own hopes and dreams die. And we can choose to ignore our suffering and mask it with alcohol and drugs or unhealthy relationships or endless consumerism or a multitude of techniques. Or, following in the Way of Jesus, we can accept the death we face, no matter how painful. And as we walk through the deaths of our lives—the death of health that comes with illness, the death of a marriage that comes divorce, the death of stability and control that comes with our acknowledgment of addiction—
we do so, knowing that we have a Savior, who is there with us in the suffering. And through the time of death, we begin to see the Easter story break forth in our own lives. We begin to realize that it is only through death that new life is born. And we begin to wait in the tomb of our despair and grief, with some glimmer of hope. We wait for that Resurrection morning to come—and it does, it does come because we have faithfully walked the way of the cross. Resurrection can come because we have died to ourselves, died to our own false dreams of perfection. Only after such deaths are we are able to become a New Creation, just as the prophet Isaiah foretold so long ago. And how can we have the courage to walk through the valley of the shadow of Death? Because we are joined by the bonds of eternal love to a risen Savior—Jesus Christ, who has conquered death and risen from that grave. And when you are made one with Jesus Christ, you share in the Easter story time and time again throughout your life. Death and Resurrection and New Life become your story, too.
As the grieving women stood at the empty tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning, searching for the meaning of what was happening before their very eyes, the word of God as proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah began to resonate in the heavens: I am about to create new heaven and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating! May we all embrace the Easter Story as our own story, giving great thanks that on this glorious day Jesus rises victorious from the dead so that we, too, may share in the way of Resurrection life. And with all of creation we say, Alleluia! Amen.
Keep on Growin’ Lent 3, Year C Luke 13:1-9 March 3, 2013 The Rev. Helen White
People love to play the blame game, including me. Have you ever been a part of a joint project? When things go well, each person claims to be the true creative genius behind the inspiring work. When things go poorly, there is no end to the blame. I am continually amazed at the blame that goes on among real, live adults. Maybe it is a sign of our anxious times, when self-preservation and even self-promotion are the idols du jour, our idols of choice. We cannot afford to take any responsibility for mistakes or poor results because we are afraid of being tossed aside, like a rotten apple– left to wither up and die.
And guess who gets lots and lots of the blame for the bad stuff that goes on in this world—our loving and awesome Creator, Yahweh, otherwise known as GOD. So, in today’s Gospel reading, something wonderful happens. Let’s not miss it. In this age of self promotion and you-snooze-you-lose mentality, let’s hear the good news God gives us through Jesus’ words: Bad things do not happen to good people because they are SINFUL. Bad things do not happen to good people because they are SINFUL. And that is really all Jesus says, at this point. So the age-old question of “Why do bad things happen to good people” is not answered in a sound bite here. But Jesus makes clear that when bad things happen to basically normal or even very good people, it is not some divine wrath being laid upon them.
Today’s Good News: Jesus is challenging the ingrained human need to blame somebody, even the Divine, for the bad stuff that goes on. And Jesus will not stand for blaming the victim. He says, “No, do you think that because these Galileans suffered at the hands of Pilate, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Ok, so next time you hear Pat Robertson blame the people of New Orleans for bringing the wrath of a Category 5 hurricane upon themselves with their bad behavior, think of this passage. And, just to distress and confuse us, this theology of divine punishment is, indeed, found throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament. BUT remember, the Bible is not a neat and tidy textbook. The Bible is messy, amazing, divinely inspired, human witness to the experience of God throughout thousands of years. So, of course, the basic human tendency to blame someone is included in the theological reflection that is the Bible. Just as violence is also attributed to God in the Bible. But as I asked last week, “How do we as Christians primarily know God?” We know God through the Word incarnate, JESUS CHRIST. Jesus is the beginning point of our epistemology, how we know God. And one of the primary ways we know Jesus is through the witness of the Scriptures. So when Scripture is confusing and contradicts itself, we look at the basic pattern of Jesus’ existence on this earth– through his life, death and resurrection he ended the cycle of violence. Jesus ended the cycle of blame. God on earth does not smite the poor and needy and wayward. God invites them to supper, lays hands on them, and ultimately, offers his life for them– so that the bondage of blame and victimhood may stop and the way of empowerment may begin. No more blaming the victim or blaming our competition– the way of compassion is very different.
And this brings us to the amazing parable we have at the end of the Gospel: ok, if God does not strike us down by lightning when we obviously miss the mark, what is the point of being good? In the parable of the fig tree we receive a wonderful image of sin and repentance that gets us away from images of divine wrath that fill our imaginations. Today Jesus teaches us that sin leads to withering away into nothingness, a dried up old fig tree. Repentance leads to bearing luscious, juicy and delicious figs—just right for Granny’s fig preserves. And this fruit will continue to spread abundant life as birds collect the seeds and grandchildren enjoy their morning toast.
The consequence of sinful behavior is ultimately death—withering up like an old, dead tree. And that is truly unsightly in our culture of self-promotion. But when you see some of the aged stars at the Oscars, the ones who have truly given of themselves as artists, they still look good, no matter how many wrinkles. The ones who built a career on shameless self promotion and silly gimmicks of self indulgence, they look awful!!!! Don’t fall prey to the idolatry of self that dominates our age—instead dig around the roots of your life, don’t be afraid to prune here and there. Seek out ways to fertilize, to nourish yourself deeply, because a withered tree eventually does get cut down.
And here is the final question for us today: is it too late for us? Are we too far gone to change our foolish ways of blaming and self-promotion? No, we are not. The parable of the fig tree has GRACE as a central message—but there is also an urgency to the message—now is the time to nurture and tend so the fruit will indeed be produced! As the Indigo Girls sing in their wonderful song, “Watershed”—“you know its’ never to late, but you don’t get any younger. Well, I better learn to starve the emptiness and feed the hunger.” The hunger is to grow, to be fruitful, to blossom and flourish—feed that hunger this Lent. Feed that hunger through prayer and meditation—our Thursday night services are a wonderful opportunity for soulful quiet. Feed that hunger through practicing hospitality to your neighbor, helping those in need—there are wonderful outreach ministries right here on Tybee. Starve the emptiness—don’t feed that voice that tells you to promote yourself or you will wither away and die. Give freely and you will blossom.
Finally, here is a story of inspiration: Bill Osborne. Bill is a wonderful new member of All Saints’. And we recognize that Bill is one of our more “mature” members. He shared with our Sermon Guild that he has been exercising regularly, and now Bill has improved his flexibility! He can do important physical acts, like climbing stairs and bending over to tie shoes, that he was struggling to do before. Even at his age, Bill has been able to grow and improve his physical condition through sustained effort. Thanks to Bill for sharing such an inspiring testimony. Like the fig tree that flourishes, may we all continue to grow, blossom, and flourish as our loving Creator intends for us.
The Mission Statement Epiphany 3, Year C January 27, 2013, Annual Meeting The Rev. Helen White All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Tybee Island
When I arrived as the new vicar in August of 2010, I encountered a vibrant congregation with a strong Mission Statement. I am a fan of Mission Statements, especially when they are “for real,” when they actually match the organization. The Mission Statement of this church is a perfect fit: “Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, there is a place here for you.” We are a faith community on a journey, both individually and corporately. We are engaged in an ongoing, living, breathing, dynamic relationship with the living God! Therefore, we can’t stay still. We are people on the move, following Jesus and being transformed by his love. We at All Saints’ believe that faith is a journey, and people can end up walking through these doors for a time, a sacred time. And when that happens, when the Holy Spirit guides a journeyer here, whether for one service or for many years, we want to honor thisevent. We, as a congregation, truly want to be ready to say, “Welcome, welcome, we are glad you are here! Let’s journey in faith, together for a while!” That is, indeed, our “Mission.”
Did you know that Jesus had a Mission Statement? He might not have been trendy enough to call it that, but the author of Luke’s gospel claimed it as such. Today’s gospel reading shares the Mission Statement of Jesus Christ. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus proclaims his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Whoa! Glad that isn’t our Mission Statement. It is a lot easier to scoot over, make room for people, and sing a welcome song than to do all that! In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is proclaiming what he is all about. And if you continue to listen to Luke, you experience Jesus as Divine Compassion Incarnate, fully engaged with those on the sidelines. If someone doesn’t fit the statusquo, Jesus is having a “moment” with that person. Luke’s Gospel is a witness to the broadness of God’s mercy, the universal reach of the Christmas Story. God did not become man to transform one group of people. God became human to reconcile Godself to the whole world. In other words, the love of God knows no bounds of geography, nationality, religion—no bounds of race, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status . . . Ok now we are hearing echoes of All Saints’ Mission Statement. “Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith” . . .it’s good to know we are in sync with Jesus . . .
But I think it is important to know what happens next in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus does his “branding” with the “marketing” of his Mission Statement. Remember Jesus is in the synagogue of his hometown when he first sets out this proclamation—that he is indeed a fulfillment of the prophetic Scripture. Well, when he sits down, people are really impressed. And they start to reflect, “Well isn’t this Joseph’s son?” in sort of an amazed way. But then Jesus makes them really mad. He begins to point out how all these great works are going to be done for folks outside the circle of the synagogue. Jesus declares that his Mission Statement applies to those consider impure, lost, other by his hometown fellows. And in verse Luke 4:28, just after our Gospel for today, it reads, “When they heard this (Jesus’ elaboration of this mission statement) they were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” What we are striving to do here at All Saints’ might make some people mad, or at least uncomfortable. Because making space for others on the journey is not always the norm for our culture. The practice of radical, holy hospitality is not always easy or efficient or popular. So I want to hold up two very contrasting images from recent news stories. These images might help us delve deeper into the hope proclaimed through our Mission Statement. One image is a negative/ a direct contrast, one is an icon of holy hospitality for us here at All Saints.
First let’s consider Lance Armstrong. He was deemed a hero for a very long time. Indeed Armstrong did some amazing stuff, some of it very helpful to other folks in need. Armstrong was a cancer survivor who went on to be an amazing world champion in the competitive cycling. He did tons of philanthropic work and served as a beacon of hope for those fighting cancer. However, a few years ago, charges of doping and the use of illegal substances began to resound. And Armstrong would crush anyone who dared to question or oppose him. Lance Armstrong’s mission statement was “Live Strong.” And he did that in ways that were both glorious and horrible. Recently, the world has lost a great amount of respect for this once sung hero—as he has finally admitted that all the charges are true, and he has been engaged in illegal activity and deception for many, many years. On his life journey, Lance Armstrong, said “whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, there is no place for you ahead of me and I will push you down so that I can stay ahead and win.”
Here is our second image: During a recent cross-country event in Navarre, Spain, a Spanish runner named Ivan Fernandez Anaya is running a close behind a Kenyan runner named Abel Mutai. Mutai is a champion who won the bronze medal in the summer Olympics. Well, suddenly Anaya has a chance to surge ahead of Mutai because Mutai stops early—he misjudges where the finish line is located. The crowd is screaming for Mutai to keep running, but as a man from Kenya, he does not understand their Spanish. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, to crush his opponent and win the race, Anaya comes up behind Mutai, and guides him across the finish line, making sure to stay in the second place position. Anaya’s coach is really mad at him. But Anaya is becoming very popular in social media because the video of this holy moment is available on Youtube. I believe we can let this image of two runners on a journey fill our imaginations as we seek to live out our All Saints’ Mission Statement.
What the world sees as a race to the top, we see as a journey of faith. Our deepest desire, as a community, is to help one another move ahead towards that finish line, even at the cost of losing our own status or place in the race.On this our Annual Meeting Sunday, we consider our church’s mission: to welcome and journey with whomever the Holy Spirit sends this way. To practice spiritual hospitality in a multitude of ways. To proclaim through worship and action the time of the Lord’s favor to those who are desperate to hear. Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, there is a place here for you. Amen.
Christmas Eve, 2012 All Saints’ Tybee Island The Rev. Helen S. White Luke 2: 1-20
We all have a birth story. Maybe you know yours. Some birth stories are sweet. (You were the most beautiful baby!) Some birth stories are painful. (I was in labor with you for 48 hours!) Some stories are funny. (Yes, your Dad almost passed out and the nurses had to leave me—the one having the baby– and tend to your father), and some are geographical. (You were born at Duke hospital so that is why you cheer for Duke!) Some birth stories even have an element of the prophetic. One of our members, Mandy Sedgwick, who organized the beautiful greening of our church, has a very prophetic birth story. Before Mandy was even conceived, her three older siblings would chant, “Mom’s gonna have a baby, and her name is gonna be Mandy!” Sounds like an angel chorus to me!
Tonight we gather here to experience a birth story shared by us all. And this birth story carries all the elements mentioned above— geography, pain, sweetness, humor and definitely the prophetic. The birth story of Jesus is very familiar to most of us. We might have memorized it through years of Sunday School and Christmas Pageants. Or maybe we know the story best through the voice of Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Whatever the experience, Jesus’ birth story is familiar– so familiar that we might even have to stifle a yawn when we hear the story retold, so late at night, after a wonderful Christmas dinner.
But, no, I don’t think you would be here, right now, if you wanted to be lulled to sleep. I don’t think you would bother to be here tonight if you didn’t have a desire to draw closer to the mystery of the divine. I think we are all here tonight because we are hungry—hungry to hear the birth story once again; hungry to discover new life, new meaning, new hope in the story of God’s great joining with humanity. So let’s listen anew to the sacred birth story before us:
In Luke’s account we have lots of geographic detail. It is clear that Mary and Joseph live in a specific time and place, as citizens of an empire that has laws they must follow. They are forced to travel close to the time of Jesus’ birth to be registered in David’s hometown. I remember when I was “great” with my second child I realized my driver’s license was about to expire, so I journeyed to the DMV to get it renewed. The world does not stop when a baby is about to be born.
There is pain in the birth story we hear tonight: Joseph and Mary are unable to find any place to stay. Like the homeless families of today, who wander the streets and sleep in cars this very night, Mary and Joseph had no place to stay and finally settle in a barn. Luke’s gospel doesn’t make a big deal of this painful reality, but the stark line has captured our hearts and minds throughout the generations of retelling: “and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.” The poverty of this setting carries pain.
The prophetic comes next in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. And this is the part of the story where we might even find humor. So far, the story of Jesus’ birth has been straightforward—not all the spiritual talk that occurred earlier in Luke’s gospel. No dramatic action has taken place in that barn other than the very basic act of human life being born. We know Mary and Joseph had lots of interesting encounters with heavenly beings and wise elders before the birth of Jesus. We could even imagine that Mary might be thinking, “Wait a minute—this doesn’t seem particularly easy or blessed—I have just given birth, in a barn, to a very needy (though beautiful) baby. Where are those angels when you really need them!” Craig Satterlee of Working Preacher writes this interesting take on Jesus’ birth story: “Luke gives no hint that Jesus is anything special: there is no angel over the stable because the angels are over in the field with the shepherds. In fact, Mary and Joseph only hear of angelic activity because the shepherds tell them.”
Mary and Joseph only hear of angelic activity because the shepherds tell them! Very interesting! I had never really noticed this aspect of Jesus’ birth story. Let’s stay with this observation for a moment. Now remember, shepherds were not given much respect in 1st century Palestine. I think a good contemporary comparison is the migrant worker in the United States today. So instead of a barn full of angels, we get a dark field full of angels. These dirty shepherds are entrusted with baby Jesus’ birth announcement! And this is actually sort of humorous but also very prophetic. In his commentary, Satterlee asks the profound question: “Could it be that we who feel responsible for giving birth to the Christ child or to Christmas or to Christmas worship will receive the good news of great joy not from angelic inspiration but from someone sent to us from out in the field?” As we listen to the birth story of Jesus, we are forced to wake from our warm sleepy stupor and recognize where the joy of Christmas is to be found. Christmas comes to us from those dirty shepherds who didn’t expect to get much pay, food, or respect, and sure didn’t expect to see a whole host of angels making them bearers of good news and great joy! IF we really are hungry, if we really long to encounter the divine, then we need to get out to those dark fields, hang out with shepherd types, or in a spiritual sense, get familiar with the dark fields of our own lives and acknowledge the inner shepherd in each of us. Because it is to the shepherds, in the field, tending their flocks by night, that Christmas is first announced. Kudos to Mary and Joseph for listening to those crazy shepherds, and not sending them away and locking that barn door.
Finally, the end of our birth story is very sweet—Mary treasures the words of the shepherd about her new baby and ponders them in her heart. She doesn’t go around, bragging to the other “soccer” moms. She recognizes the beauty of holiness that surrounds her, and she humbly opens her heart to be transformed. And the shepherds are awesome as they returned back to their fields, back to their lowly status, but continued glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. May the birth story of Jesus feed our hungry souls this Christmas Eve as we experience the good news of great joy–for unto us is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord! Amen.
I Will Bring You Home Advent 3,Year C Dec.17, 2012 All Saints’ Episcopal Church Tybee Island, GA The Rev. Helen White
As I am sure you all know, an unbelievable tragedy occurred on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. A young gunman broke into the school and in the course of a few minutes, fatally wounded 20 children and 7 adults. There is no easy explanation for his behavior. And there is no easy balm for the suffering hearts of so many parents, families and friends. Our minds and hearts ache when precious innocence collides with rampant violence. We find ourselves in utter darkness. And the darkness seems only too prevalent. Our own city is plagued by violence. We are too familiar with the loss of life as the outcome of criminal activity. Friend of All Saints, Ms. Sammie Williams, who contributes regularly to the life of our church, lost her grandson this week to gun violence. We will pray for Rashamel Howard and for the family during our Prayers of the People. We feel captive to this ongoing narrative of violence in Savannah. And we feel captive to this ongoing narrative of random, mass killings across our country. We connect with the pain of the prophets of old, as we sing,“O Come, O Come Emmanuel. And RANSOM captive Israel. O Come, O Come Emmanel, and Free your captive people.”
At times like this, we feel we are held captive by the brokenness of our world. That the story of human suffering will never end. We want to repent; we want to change our ways; we truly want there to be PEACE ON EARTH. So when we are brought to our knees, once again, by the reality of human pain that surrounds us, we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying out, you brood of vipers! And today we quickly recognize that he is speaking truth. We quickly recognize that we are doing something very wrong when violent killing is regular news. In response to our pain, we cry out with the crowds surrounding John the Baptist: What then should we do? What then should we do? “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, whoever has food must do likewise.” In other words, if you don’t care for the needy among you, things will get worse.
From our bended knees this morning, we ask with the tax collectors of old: Teacher what should we do? “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, practice ethical behavior in your profession. Seek to monitor greed, both personally and corporately.
From our bended knees this morning, we ask with the soldiers, Teacher what should we do? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” In other words, do not misuse your personal power; do justice and love mercy.
And today we hear a clear call in response to the question, “What should we do?” Deal more honestly and ethically with the issues of gun control and mental illness.
Today is commonly known as Rejoice Sunday. On this third Sunday in Advent, we light the pink candle and hear a common theme of rejoicing in our readings. During my sermon prep earlier in the week, I was worried. I was worried that the ease and comfort of our daily lives would lead us to take today’s messages of hope and rejoicing on a shallow, Christmas card level. I felt a strong need to give a compelling history lesson– to explain that the prophets of old spoke out from places of pain and suffering– to remind us they are truth tellers of the rampant injustice they saw tearing apart God’s people. I wanted you to know that persecution and suffering and
fear filled the lives of Zephaniah, Isaiah, the Apostle Paul and John the Baptizer. I wanted us to reconnect with the place of darkness from which this prophetic call to rejoice comes. I considered describing the horrible plight of so many Syrian refugees living this very day in fear and poverty, especially with the impending cold weather—and most of them children– to examine the physical realities of being held captive and living in exile in today’s world. But the events of the last few days ended my concern. The news from Newtown, CT reminds us, once again, that we too live in utter darkness. We too are people of exile who long to be freed from the captivity of random acts of violence both in this city and throughout our country.
“What then should we do?” John the Baptizer does not say, run away from the corrupt world. Instead, he offers practical advice for living in the present. But John also says, get ready. Get yourself ready for the unquenchable fire of God’s presence that will one day right all the wrongs, and separate the wheat from the chaff. Get yourselves ready, and don’t lose sight. Paul tells us from prison to rejoice always, do not worry but make our requests known to God. Pray for the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding and
guards our hearts and minds. As his country fears invasion from all sides, Zephaniah tells us that after the time of suffering and judgment there will be no more violence against innocent children. In the end God will renew us in his love and exult over us with loud singing as on a day of festival. Oppressors will be dealt with and God will gather the lame and the outcast. Shame will be turned into praise. And God will bring you home.
And God says, I will bring you home.
I will bring you home.
Today for the children and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and for the children held captive all over the world, we sing: “O Come, O come Emmanuel and Ransom Captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.” Amen.
First Sunday of Advent December 2, 2012 All Saints Episcopal Church, Tybee Island, GA The Rev. Helen White
Have you ever written a love letter? Though our first instinct is to associate a love letter with a romantic relationship, love letters can take many forms. Some love letters are written between family members, some between dear friends. Some parents and grandparents have the wonderful practice of writing love letters to children on birthdays. You might have authored a love letter or two in your school days that you hope got lost over time. Last February, Time magazine collected the “Top 10 Famous Love Letters” in honor of Valentine’s Day. My favorite was the one from Winston Churchill to his wife, Clementine. It has the authentic, British formality we would expect from the Prime Minister of Great Britain. But the letter conveys that deeply human instinct to love, shared by all, even a formidable leader from history. From Time’s Top 10 Famous Love Letters:
“British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine were married for 56 years and wrote to each other whenever they were apart. Winston wrote this letter to Clementine on Jan. 23, 1935, while she was traveling abroad: ‘My darling Clemmie, in your letter from Madras you wrote some words very dear to me, about having enriched your life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in your debt, if there can be accounts in love…What it has been to me to live all these years in your heart and companionship no phrases can convey.’”
Love letters are often inspired when we are away from our loved ones. When apart, we become more aware of how much we truly care for those we love. As we find ourselves missing a friend or parent or spouse, we channel that feeling of longing into an expression of love. Nowadays it is probably a post on facebook—how ya doin? Miss you! But there is a sense of longing conveyed through our love letters, a desire to connect with someone we carry in our heart.
Today we hear from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica. First Thessalonians is the oldest Scripture we have in the new Testament. This letter was written in 50 CE. And this letter from the Apostle Paul to one of the earliest Christian communities, is TRULY a love letter. Paul’s deep affection for the community he has left behind is unmistakable. Paul writes: How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith . . . May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” This is a definite love letter! And it beautifully demonstrates the amazing community that existed in the early church.
But what I find most fascinating, is that this love letter is given to us to read on the first Sunday of Advent. Today is New Year’s Day! Today we begin again the church year. And the word “Advent” means “To come.” The season of Advent implores us to listen, look, wait, prepare, and even to rejoice. But sometimes it is hard to connect with Advent. It feels like the “world” is celebrating Christmas without us. What is the big deal? Why don’t we just go ahead and sing all the carols and decorate the church, and just be NORMAL. I have preached a lot of Advent sermons. Some of my most instense spiritual experiences have actually taken place during the season of Advent. I am a true believer in the season of Advent. But I have never thought of it as a time to write a love letter. Today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians gives us a new insight into the gift of Advent. We can take this time to connect with the deep longing that fills us all, even the Winston Churchills among us. Advent gives us the time and space to write that love letter to the coming Christ Child, expressing our deepest hopes and fears. Through our love letter we remember to Giving thanks and marvel at the mystery of our affection and desire. A love letter is a perfect expression for spirituality of Advent. We are apart from our beloved and long to be closer. We recognize the way our lives have been transformed and we express our excitement about growing closer and closer. My prayer is that this Advent may be a time of composing love letters. Write to the coming Christ, the deepest desires of your heart, and await with joy his coming into your life and into the world. Amen.
“Standing before Pontius Pilate” on Christ the King Sunday November 25, 2012 All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Tybee Island, GA The Rev. Helen S. White
All summer and fall we have been journeying with Jesus. We have been formed in “The Way”, learning about what it means to be people of “The Way.” We’ve watched in amazement as Jesus has healed the sick and fed the hungry. We’ve responded with fear and trembling as Jesus has asked, “Who do you say that I am?” We have wondered what it means to include suffering in the way of redemption and wholeness. Now we stand trial with Jesus. As people of “the Way” we follow Jesus into the chambers of the Jewish authorities and even the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. We hear the booming voice say “ARE YOU THE KING OF THE JEWS???” and again we ask ourselves, “Who is Jesus?” Then someone asks us, “aren’t you with him, the one they arrested?” And we realize, we too, are on trial. If we say “Yes, I am a follower of the Way” then we might have to face Pilate, also.
As people of the Way, we travel in a group. And this is a great gift. We live as a community, we are the body of Christ,together. But at times in our journey, we find ourselves seemingly alone and on trial. Because this is part of the Way, too. Our “Pontius Pilates” may look different; they may sound different. In John’s Gospel, Peter is in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial. Peter is asked repeatedly if he is with Jesus, and Peter denies it three times. Our trials are painful and we often feel we have failed them.
When you seek to declare your allegiance to the Way, what trials do you face? Your Pontius Pilate make take the form of an employer, who tries to control and consume your allegiance. Pilate may take the form of a family member, who pushes you to the brink and causes you to participate in hurtful behavior that is not part of the way. Pilate may take the form of an addiction or habit, mocking you when you seek to make a change for the better. In all of these scenario’s, Pontius Pilate has you on trial, because your allegiance is elsewhere and things are in conflict. You are choosing the Way of Christ over the Way of the World, and a trial eventually becomes inevitable. As a follower of the Way, you will at some point “suffer under Pontius Pilate.” But at that point, when we stand trial, even at times on a daily basis, we know we are not alone. We have a King who has already stood trial and defeated Pontius Pilate with Truth. We have a King who is ready to grant us pardon, and freedom from the persecutions of this world. Our King has defeated Pontius Pilate with the truth that we can stake our lives upon.
We remind ourselves of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate every Sunday when we say the Nicene Creed. The past Archibishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, says of Pontius Pilate: His inclusion in the Christian creeds “binds the eternal realms to the stumbling, messy chronology of earthly time and place”. When we say the Creed, we claim the day to day trials of our own earthly lives. And we claim that as people of The Way, we journey with a King who dared to come face to face with Pontius Pilate, a cruel and ruthless ruler of this Earth. On Christ the King Sunday, we give thanks for Jesus, our crucified King, who rose from the dead and reigns eternal. And who beckons us to grace and peace . . . from the opening words of the book of Revelation: “Grace and Peace to you from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Living the True Questions of our Lives 17th Sunday after Pentecost Mark 9:30-37
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Tybee Island The Rev. Helen White
Do you like to ask questions? Or do you prefer to keep quiet and figure out answers on you own? Sometimes we are afraid to show our ignorance through our questions. Other times we are so busy asking that we forget to listen to the answer! (That’s my category.) “Live the questions” is a popular mantra that I find helpful but not an easy practice. For example, I want to know why loving, beautiful people have to endure such physical suffering. I wish the disciples had been willing to ask Jesus what exactly he was talking about when he referred to his own betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Not only were the disciples afraid to ask, they were preoccupied– preoccupied with their own petty arguments as to “who is the greatest.” Are we so preoccupied with questions like “who is the greatest?” that we ignore the true questions of our lives?
Human beings like a pecking order—it brings a sense of comfort to know “who is in charge.” But we also have a natural instinct to survive—to win this game of evolution. So when Jesus talks about suffering as a passageway to new life, to resurrection, this doesn’t make sense. But the disciples don’t want to ask, and we don’t want to ask– at least not publicly. We want to win.
This Fall there are lots of competitions out there that occupy our minds:
– we love to cheer for our favorite football teams.
– we love to cheer for our favorite candidates in this heated election season
– some of us love to cheer for our favorite churches. I recently spent a fair amount of time comparing the “numbers” of various churches in the Diocese—figuring out who is “greater” than whom! The games that preoccupy might be fairly innocent or they might be quite important when issues like justice and the survival of the Church are at stake. But they easily become idols.
Our preoccupations easily become our “golden calves.” And it is so easy to recognize the “disordered loves” of your friends and neighbors; it is easy to see what distracts them from the important questions of life! It is much harder to recognize our own distractions, our own false idols, our own preoccupations. When Jesus begins to talk about suffering as a way to new life, the disciples get very uncomfortable. They don’t ask questions because they choose instead to turn back to their comfort zone, their distractions, their petty argument as to who is the greatest—which team is gonna win.
What does Jesus mean when he talks about suffering as a pathway to resurrection life? We know from our own experience that suffering gives us true perspective. Suffering even purifies. When someone is injured or sick we suddenly remember what is truly important. When we suffer, we gain a new perspective on our lives. We appreciate the “small things” once again—breakfast with a spouse, making it to church on a Sunday morning—we appreciate the people who care for us. And we dare to ask the real questions.
My uncle died of pancreatic cancer two years ago. He was a man who loved to ask questions, and throughout his illness he did just that. He asked some hard questions, as you can imagine. And what my uncle shared from his suffering is this: “I used to think that if you have your health you have everything. Now I know that if you have love you have everything.” Suffering breaks down those preoccupations and false idols that distract us. Remember Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward?” I love the title because it illustrates this theme that is central to the Christian Faith: through our suffering, our falling, we grow closer to God.
What is your favorite golden calf? Our idols are as varied as people in this church. But as we strive to recognize the false idols of our lives, suffering clarifies our vision. We learn from today’s Gospel that we meet Christ in the suffering. Once Jesus realizes the disciples have NOT gotten the message through his words, he turns to physical demonstrations to explain who he is and what he means about the path he will follow. Jesus reaches out to a little child. Now remember, this child is not wearing a hand-smocked dress with golden curls. This is a forgotten child, a slave child. In today’s culture, this child would be the one who has spent endless days locked up in a factory making cheap goods, far from parents and loved ones. Jesus gathers this servant/child in his arms and says—here, this is where God’s love is found. This child is the greatest in the eyes of God, and I am here, in this tragic brokenness and suffering—and I want you to reach out to me. Find me here, with this child, and you will find your way through suffering and death to resurrection life.
When we meet Christ in the suffering of this world, we leave behind our petty preoccupations and we dare to ask the real questions of our lives—what do you want me to do, Jesus? How can I know you better, Jesus? Will you heal me, will you love me, Jesus? Seeking to set aside our preoccupations and living the true questions of our lives, let us pray our Collect for today:
Grant us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing way, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Christ Within Me” Sunday, September 2, 2012
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Tybee Island The Rev. Helen White
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what definle. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . . All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7
This past week my eleven year old had oral surgery. I was somewhat nervous about the procedure because of the anesthesia, and it was an unusual procedure involving a back molar deep in his mouth near the jaw. Also, I am a mom. Of course we had been to the office a couple of times for consultations, etc. I knew that in the waiting room they have a television on, very loudly, blasting the news. I am not a huge fan of TV as background noise, but I really can’t take the combination of loud television news and oral surgery. It is too much coming into my system. So, on the day of the surgery, I was dreading this situation. I thought, surely at 8 am they won’t have that stupid TV turned on? But as we arrived, it was on nice and loud, and because we are in the middle of an election season, there was a fever pitch to everything.
As I sat in my chair, fuming, these were my thoughts: This is what is wrong with America—we feed ourselves with information day and night, ignoring our bodies and inner wisdom, we don’t know how to be quiet when we need to be quiet, what about deep breathing and prayer in the face of invasive surgery? How can people let this noise seep into their minds on and on? Why not classical music or nothing? These were my thoughts which some of you might consider justified and others might consider full of myself.
I did eventually go sit in the car, because I needed to connect with what was inside of me. I needed to pray while my son was in surgery, not be distracted. As I sat in the car, I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and imagined Jesus standing in the operating room, just being present in the midst of the iv, nurses and sharp instruments, Jesus standing there, stroking my son’s head, loving him, taking care of him when I couldn’t. And as I connected with my true center, Christ within me, my tolerance of the waiting room grew. My center was calm, so the anxious streaming from the television did not have such power over me. I still would choose to turn off the noise in that situation, but instead of looking down on the staff, I saw that they were trying to offer distraction to patients in the best way they know how.
I share this experience as an effort to illustrate today’s Gospel. Once again, Jesus’ words are provocative. Taken at face value, it is easy to accept them. Episcopalians love stories where Jesus challenges the judgy religious types. Yes, we can drink beer, and we are proud of it! But trying to go deeper, I find Jesus’ words very, very challenging, even for less stuffy Christians. Here is the situation: some Pharisees and scribes join Jesus and his disciples for a meal. The Pharisees and scribes notice the disciples do not keep the religious laws concerning rituals of purity, they do not wash their hands in the proper way. So the questioning begins and Jesus responds, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” THE THINGS THAT COME OUT ARE WHAT DEFILE.
Now first of all, we know there are other Scriptures that compel us to be selective about what we take into our bodies and minds. So this is not a blanket formula Jesus is giving us. We don’t need to eat McDonald’s everyday, and we don’t need to sit around, day after day, listening to harmful gossip or hate-filled rhetoric. It does matter what we take in. But we don’t need to become self-righteous—snobby purists who feel that one processed potato chip will ruin our bodies. Because that attitude is actually a reflection of what is inside of us. If we are scared of everything foreign that comes into our lives—be it food, ideas or people—there is a good chance that we are afraid of ourselves. What is inside of us affects how we see the world. If our hearts are full of anxiety and fear, we will see danger all around us. If our hearts are full of envy and lust, we will see everyone has what we don’t get to have all around us. If our hearts are full of insecurity and self-hatred will we hate others for the gifts they share.
Once again, the book “Holy Longing” has offered some helpful wisdom to this point. The author, Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest, describes this instinct to project what is inside of us onto the world around. He tells a contemporary Buddhist parable to illustrate: “One day the Buddha, badly overweight, was sitting under a tree. A young soldier, trim and handsome, came along, looked at the Buddha, and said: ‘You look like a pig!’ The Buddha replied: ‘Well, you look like God!’ ‘Why would you say that?’ asked the rather surprised young solder. ‘Well,’ replied the Buddha, ‘we see what’s inside us. I think about God all day and when I look out that is what I see. You, obviously, must think about other things . . .’” pg 239.
Rolheiser explains that Jesus was able to see the poor and the outcast as blessed, because Jesus knew God as a God of blessing. Jesus knew God as the One who saw creation and said, “It is good!” “It is VERY good!” Jesus knew God as the One who saw him being baptized and said, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased!” Rolheiser compares Jesus’ revelation of God with our broken images. The notion of God as vengeful and random has, for the most part been (thankfully), been rejected. Most Christians today don’t believe God would send a hurricane as punishment for sin. SO I’m not spending our time patting us on the back for not seeing God that way. Our challenge is, if God isn’t busy striking people down with lightening or sending them to hell, then who is God? Rolheiser describes two replacement images, both inadequate projections of what is inside of us. For the more conservative Christians, God is the God of orthodoxy. Rolheiser writes, “He is still a God whose primary facial expression is a frown. He (and in conservative circles God is always a He) is looking at the world and seeing there a confused, morally lax, lazy and sexually promiscuous rabble. He cheers up once in a while when we pull ourselves together a bit, but his first mode of reaction to us is still displeasure” (pg. 238). How many people see God that way – don’t raise your hands!
Here is another description from Rolheiser: “Liberal circles are different . . . God tends to be the God of liberal ideology and is a very anxious, worried, hypersensitive, politically correct, workaholic, and generally whining God. This God still wears a frown and when he or she looks at the world the spontaneous reaction is not one of blessing but of disapproval at the world’s stupidity and lack of social conscience. The liberal God see a Yuppie rabble down here!” (pg. 239).
I share these insights with you from “Holy Longing,” because I KNOW THEY ARE TRUE! I know, from my own experience, it is so easy to craft God out of my own inner projections. And that is why Jesus FREES us! Jesus frees us from projecting our own inner yukiness onto God and the world around us. Through his very life, death and resurrection, Jesus embodies the one, true God, who claims us as beloved and continually gives to us, without condition, the blessing of life.
Some really in-tune folks along the way are able to live with this awareness of God as a God of blessing. And it enables them to see the world through those eyes of heavenly love. Julian of Norwich, Christian mystic from the middle ages, described God this way: “Completely relaxed and courteous, he was himself the happiness and peace of his dear friends, his beautiful face, radiating measureless love, like a marvelous symphony and it was that wonderful face shining with the beauty of God that filled that heavenly place with joy and light.” Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who lived during the 20th century found himself in a place of new vision towards his fellow humans as he moved deeper into the contemplative life. As a young monk, he was very riled up in the political fights of his day, protesting against the war in Vietnam and for Civil Rights, and all of that was very important. But as he became more silent, his love for all of humanity grew. As Merton sat at an outdoor shopping mall one day, and watched the people walking by, he saw that they were blessed, by the God of Love. He wrote, “. . . though ‘out of the world’ we monks are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world or race hatred, the world of technology , the world of mass media, big business, revolution and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet, so does everybody else belong to God . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud– It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race! And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun!”
Julian and Thomas caught the vision—they saw the world through transformed hearts, through the eyes of a God of blessing, and therefore they could not stop themselves from sharing this love with their fellow human beings—even those that got on their nerves!
In this highly charged political season, let’s all make sure that our politics and our image of God do not line up too closely. Let us participate in the spiritual practices that connect us to the God of blessing, the God who claims us as the beloved, the God who says: IT is Good, it is VERY good. And we can call on this God to be present with us in the waiting room for oral surgery, or preparing for chemotherapy. We can connect with the presence of God as we prepare to confront a difficult family member. And we can share the love of this God by caring for the widows and orphans as the reading from James calls us to do, thus practicing TRUE religion.
Today Jesus tells us, it is what inside us that matters—may we be filled with hope and joy that comes from a God of blessing and love. Amen.
Sermon Notes* The Rev. Helen White All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Tybee Island (from Sunday, August 19th and Sunday, August 26th)*Sermon notes are synopses of sermons that are preached either extemporaneously or from an outline
The Gospel reading for August 19th included this passage from John (6:53): “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
We all feel slightly uncomfortable when we hear this passage. Episcopalians have been known to complain when these words are put to music for a Fraction Anthem during the Eucharist—“that’s too graphic for my kids—not appropriate—sounds like cannibalism!” If 21st century Christians can’t stomach these direct quotes from the Bible—think how those 1st century pious Jews felt! Levitical law is quite strict when it comes to what one can eat and drink . . . sure enough Jesus loses a lot of friends the day he starts talking about consuming flesh and blood. He is really popular after feeding the 5000 but once he starts talking, people starting leaving!
In his book, “Holy Longing,” Roman Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser explains what is so offensive to those gathered around Jesus. It is not the literal idea of eating and drinking flesh and blood. No one, including Jesus, thinks that is a good idea. What is offensive is the idea of the holy becoming intermingled with the mundane, the earthy. The Greek word used for “flesh” is sarx, which refers to messy, diseased, imperfect humanity. If Jesus had talked about soma—which means idealized humanity, like a Greek statue– the symbolism might have been more “palatable” to those listening. (joke). But by using sarx, Jesus means that he is one with the brokenness of humanity. And in that brokenness is where we find the presence of the divine.
A contemporary example of such engagement with the messiness of humanity is found in the movie, “Hope Springs.” In this excellent movie, Tommy Lee Jones (Arnold) and Meryl Streep (Kay) play a beleaguered married couple who have been together for 31 years. All the fire is gone from their marriage—not one shred of affection or passion is evident. Kay decides she has had enough—she somehow manages to get them away to attend a week-long marriage therapy course. The counselor draws a powerful analogy— he says repairing a lost marriage is like rhinoplasty—the surgeon must break the nose in order to fix it. He tells Arnold and Kay they must take such dramatic action to fix their marriage—they must reach out and touch one another immediately! No matter how old or sick or tired they are. No matter how much pain and hurt and scar tissue has built up between them. They must reach out and “eat the flesh and drink the blood”—dive in and get totally involved in the messiness of their own relationship.
Here is a powerful quote from Ralheiser:
“This has many far-reaching consequences. Among other things, it exposes a major popular misconception (a viral heresy) that so negatively influences popular thought today. This misunderstanding has different expressions but it can be summarizedin a simple phrase: “I am a good Christian, a sincere, God-serving person, but I don’t need church—I can pray just as well at home.”
That can be true, if you are, precisely, a theist, but it can never be true for a Christian (or for anyone within Judaism as well). Part of the very essence of Christianity is to be together in a concrete community, with all the read human faults that are there and the tensions that this will bring us. Spirituality, for a Christian, can never be an individualistic quest, the pursuit of God outside of the community, family and church. The God of the incarnation tells us that anyone who says that he or she loves an invisible God in heaven and is unwilling to deal with a visible neighbor on earth is a liar since no one can love a God who cannot be seen if he or she cannot love a neighbor who can be seen.
Hence a Christian spirituality is always as much about dealing with each other as it is about dealing with God,” from Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser (pg. 98-99).
May we be willing to embrace the brokenness and messiness of our humanity and the people all around us—because that is where we will encounter the God made flesh, our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
Sunday, August 26 2012 13 Pentecost: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18/ John 6:56-69
Today we hear again the words of Jesus, saying, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” And the disciples respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Once again, we are faced with the question—what does Jesus mean by these words? We remember from last week that Jesus is compelling us to find his presence in the very flesh of humanity—the broken and messy flesh—not the ideal, Greek statue sort of flesh.
So today we are ready to dive in and get mixed in with humanity. But we know this requires some strength, forbearance and wisdom. Because things do get really messy when we get involved with our neighbors! And we want to be able to make good moral and ethical choices as we seek to walk in the Way of Jesus.
In our Old Testament reading we hear the voice of our coach, Joshua, on the brink of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua is like a football coach, in the locker room, before the big game—“Who’s gonna win? WE’RE GONNA WIN!!!! NOW GO OUT THERE AND WIN!!!!” But instead Joshua is saying, “CHOOSE THIS DAY WHOM YOU WILL SERVE!” And then he boldly proclaims, “BUT AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSEHOLD WE WILL SERVE THE LORD!!!!!” The Israelites don’t get up and run through the goalpost screaming cries of victory. Instead they sit back and take a moment to think about how they might respond. “Hmmm, let’s see, whom should we serve . . . well, this God did bring us out of slavery in Egypt. And this God did great signs in our sight and protected us along all the way we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed . . . Ok—WE WILL ALSO SERVE THE LORD, FOR HE IS OUR GOD.” Now, I am poking a bit of fun at the poor Israelites—you know they were
tired from years of wandering in the wilderness! But I do believe they are providing us a very good model for our own spiritual lives. In their pondering of the past, they are moved to a place of gratitude for all God has done for them. This gratitude is what inspires their singular devotion to God. They are able to uphold the first commandment—to commit—to make the choice that will guide their daily choices big and small. And I believe their pondering is a form of prayer. Personal prayer.
In order to be able to choose daily to walk in the Way of the Lord, we need to engage in personal prayer. Obviously there are many spiritual practices that we must do to help us grow in faith—attend church, partake of the sacraments, love your neighbor, care for the poor and outcast. However, today’s Scripture compels us to focus on the power of prayer—personal prayer.
The Psychologist and Philosopher of Religion, Robert Moore, says this: “If you do not pray, you will either be habitually depressed or obsessed with your own ego.” I know this is true from my own experience! I believe there are many different forms of prayer—corporate prayer, praying through our actions, cooking/art/music, etc. Anytime we do something in a mindful way, we are praying. This is part of that incarnational faith that we discussed last Sunday. But today we are focused on the importance of personal prayer, to empower us to CHOOSE whom we will serve on a daily basis.
Personal prayer is not easy. Henri Nowen writes: “[my time apart is not a time] . . . of deep prayer, nor a time in which I experience a special closeness to God; it is not a period of serious attentiveness to the divine mysteries. I wish it were! On the contrary, it is full of distractions, inner restlessness, sleepiness, confusion, and boredom. It seldom, if ever, pleases my senses. But the simple fact of being for one hour in the presence of the Lord and of showing him all that I feel, think, sense and experience, without trying to hide anything, must please him. Somehow, somewhere, I know that he loves me, even though I do not feel that love as I can feel a human embrace, even though I do not hear a voice as I hear human words of consolation, even though I don not see a smile, as I can see in a human fact. Still god speaks to me, looks at me, and embraces me there, where I am still unable to notice it.” from Gracias! A Latin American Journal
Our hope is to be so formed by personal prayer that we are ready to make good choices amidst the messiness of our humanity. We want to be able to see and know the presence of Christ in the chaos.
I would like to share a great example of someone formed so deeply by their own practice of faith that they were able to choose to serve the Lord amidst great social pressure: Karl Barth. Barth was a 20th century German theologian. As the Nazis gained power, Barth was able to recognize the evil before him. Unlike the majority of Christians in Germany, Barth and other members of the Confessing Church were able to cling to the first commandment, and recognize the hateful idolatry of the Third Reich. They spoke out against the Nazis through the Barmen’s Declaration, claiming the power of the One true God over the power of the state.
As we dive into humanity, eating the flesh and drinking the blood, we want to be ready to choose continually to serve the Lord and no other gods. We want to follow in the way of Peter, who was able to stand beside Jesus, after the others had fled out of fear and disgust. Hear the words from today’s Gospel: “After the others had left, Jesus turned to the 12 and said “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When we are faced with the messiness of being human, and the difficult choices of our lives, big and small, we want to be ready. As we watch others run away to follow other gods, we want to be so deeply grounded in prayer and gratitude, that we are ready to respond, “Lord, to whom else can we go? As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Amen.