Sunday, June 26, 2011

2 Pentecost

Corpus Christi Sunday
June 26, 2011

Matthew 10.40-42

+ This past Wednesday evening, at our Wednesday night Mass, we commemorated, very quietly anyway, the eve of the feast of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christ is of course Latin for the Body of Christ and it is a feast in which we celebrate the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion. And today is traditionally Corpus Christi Sunday. Of course the Episcopal Church doesn’t officially recognize this day, though Anglicans elsewhere do, as do Roman Catholics everywhere.

Traditionally on Corpus Christi, in Roman and High Church Anglo-Catholic parishes, the Host is placed in a monstrance—which is a tall, very ornate stand, with a little glass circular container in its center, in which the Host goes. The monstrance, with the Host in it, is then processed. It can processed through the church, or around the outside of the church or on the street outside the church.

You have often heard me mention the Episcopal church of St. Mary the Virgin—so called “Smoky Mary’s” because of all the incense they use—on Time’s Square in Manhattan. They process Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament right through Times Square on the feast of Corpus Christi amidst clouds and clouds of incense and bewildered onlookers.

We, however, did not nor will we do any of that, here at St. Stephen’s. Now considering that, on Wednesday, we had Thom Marubbio, Joanne Droppers, Gin Templeton and Betty Spur in the congregation, there seemed to be little chance of us actually processing Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament around the church. I don’t know who of them would have held baldachin (which is the fancy canopy that is carried by four acolytes) Though I’m sure we could’ve out on a good show for the college kids who live across the street on the corner. And I could’ve imagine maybe one or two of our Wednesday night congregants just sort of disappearing right before the procession started. I won’t say who…

Actually, such displays may be a bit too much, even for me… Still, I never shy away from my very solid belief that the Eucharist is the center of our lives as Christians. Even Lutherans believe that!

And with that in mind, it is good for us to be reminded about how and why the Eucharist is central to our lives. And it IS central to our spiritual lives and ministries here at St. Stephen’s. On our website you’ll find this wonderful kind of Mission Statement:

St. Stephen’s is a community called by Christ through the Holy Spirit

+ to live a life of common worship centered around grateful thanksgiving to God in the weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist

+ to be faithful stewards of the gifts and resources entrusted to us

+ to be bearers of God’s healing and reconciling love.

As ambassadors for Christ, we are dedicated to share the Good News of God in Christ through the Sacraments, Liturgy, , Word, Music and by attending to the needs of all people in the name of Jesus.

I really like that mission statement. I think it really says it all, as far as I’m concerned. To a large extend all of this—being bearers of God’s healing and reconciling love, being faithful stewards—all of it stems from our celebration of the Eucharist. Because everything we do is simply a reflection of that.

What do we do when we come to this table? We are feed. And what we are called to do after we have been fed? We are called then to feed others.

What does it mean that we have the Eucharist as the center of our ministries here at St. Stephen’s? It means that, for us to do ministry, for us to actually go out and do the work we have been called to do, we need to be fed.

We need to be fed physically, but we need to be fed spiritually too. If we are famished, we do not feel motivated to work. If we are empty and having nothing to sustain us, our lacking will show in our ministry. The fact is, God wants us to be fed. God wants us to be sustained. And I’m not just saying us, gathered here today. I am saying God wants ALL of us to be fed and sustained. Every last one of us. And, in the Eucharist, we experience true nourishment. It is a reminder to us that what we do when we come at this altar is not just for ourselves. It is not some quaint private archaic devotion we do here. It is a radical experience of God And it is the “shot in the arm,” so to speak, for us to turn around and share this love and nourishment we receive here with others. We, who leave here, carrying Christ within us, are then to share this Presence of Christ with others through our actions and our words.

There is a reason the bread of the Eucharist is called a Host. The bread truly does become the Host to Christ, who is present. I love that idea of the bread being the host of Christ. But what I love even more is that we, in turn, become hosts ourselves. But we too are host to Christ when we take Holy Communion. And being host, we are all called to be host to those around us.

In our Gospel reading for today we find Jesus saying to us,

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

In the Eucharist we find this incredible welcome. And nourished by the Eucharist, changed by the experience with God and with each other in this Eucharist, we are able to extend this welcome to all those we meet as well. The Eucharist empowers us and charges and, yes, challenges us to be hosts, to welcome everyone we meet as though they are Christ. It empowers us to give even a cup of cold water to the “little ones”—the least ones—in our midst. In the Eucharist we experience a hospitality like none we have never known before. It is a truly powerful experience. And you can tell it is a powerful experience because, some churches, for example, deny people from participating in the Eucharist simply because they don’t believe a certain way about it. Such thinking baffles my mind.

What we experience in the Eucharist is radical hospitality—the same kind of hospitality we practice here at St. Stephen’s again and again. At the Eucharist, each of us is welcomed for who we are. No one should be turned away from this altar and this meal. At this Eucharist, we are accepted for who we are. And, at this Eucharist, we are loved fully and completely just for who we are. And knowing this and experiencing this, we then can turn around and welcome others, accept others and fully and completely love others because we too have experienced all of this in this incredible meal.

I am amazed when I hear stories of people who have been turned away from Holy Communion. I get downright angry when I hear of people being denied the Eucharist because of something they did—whatever it might be. That is not what the Eucharist is about.

The Eucharist is a foretaste of what awaits us. The Eucharist is a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is truly like—where all people are welcomed and received. The Eucharist is a peek into what awaits all of us. It is the ideal place.

As you often hear me say about the Kingdom of God—“It’s party and everyone’s invited.” We don’t have to go, but the invitation is always open. That is what Eucharist is. Our job as the hosts is to make sure that everyone knows they’re invited. Our job is to make that everyone knows they are welcomed and loved and accepted at that party. And we do it by who we are and what we are.

So, as you come forward this morning, come forward knowing that what we experience here is truly an amazing and radical experience with the Kingdom Jesus proclaims again and again. As you come forward this morning to this altar to receive Jesus’ Body and to drink his Blood, do so knowing that this radical welcoming of Jesus is also an invitation for you to welcome others just as radically.

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me,” Jesus says. “And whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Those are not just words spoken to us. They are spoken also to all those we encounter in our lives. As Brother Curtis Almquist of the Episcopal Society of St. John the Evangelist shared once in a sermon:

“We meet Jesus in our baptism [and, I would, add, in the Eucharist] where, we believe, Jesus comes to live in our hearts, to make his home in us, to abide with us. But this is also true for others. They, too, are a dwelling place for Jesus. We, individually and corporately, embody Jesus. Yes, Jesus lives in me, but Jesus also lives in you.”

Jesus lives in each of us. He is living his radical and amazing life and love through us. So, let us each be the host of that loving presence to those around us. And, with Jesus present in us, let us his speak his welcoming words of invitation to all those we encounter. All are invited. All are welcome. No one will be turned away.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


June 19, 2011

Matthew 28.16-20

+ Most of you know that I am a pretty compassionate priest. I really do feel sorry for people and try to soothe people’s pains—at least as much as I am able to do. But one thing I have very little pity for is whiny preachers. And, let me tell you, I have never heard preacher’s whine more than they do when they have to preach on this Sunday—Trinity Sunday.

Last night on Facebook, I heard many of my clergy friends lamenting the fact that they were still struggling over their Trinity Sunday sermons.

“Boo hoo,” these preachers whine. “I have to preach on an obscure theological doctrine that has almost no scriptural basis.”

Boo hoo indeed!

I actually LOVE to preach about the Trinity. Now, I don’t claim to know anything more about the Trinity than any other preacher. I am no more profound than anyone else on trying to describe what the Trinity is or how it works. But I also don’t find it to be such a stumbling block. Yes, I know the word “Trinity” never appears in scripture. But I do enjoy exploring the different aspects of how the Trinity is made known to us. And…I very unashamedly believe that God does manifest God’s self in Trinitarian terms.

But that doesn’t mean I am not confused but it some times. And doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally doubt it all sometimes.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find that some worshipped Jesus when they saw him resurrected. And we find that “some doubted.” I think that is a normal reaction for those people, who were still struggling to understand who Jesus was, especially this resurrected Jesus. And the fact that we too doubt things like the Trinity is normal as well.It IS difficult to wrap our minds around such a thing. It’s complicated and it’s complex. And, speaking for myself, sometimes the more I think about it, the more complicated it seems to get. Especially when we try to think in the so-called correct (or orthodox) way about it all.

But the doubts, the complications and intricacies of the concept of the Trinity are all part of belief. Belief is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be something we struggle with and carry around with us. And doubt isn’t always a bad thing. We all doubt at times. Without doubt we would be nothing but mindless robots.

Still, I do find some headstrong Episcopalians among us. Of course, I am not headstrong in any way shape or form. I am very humble and complacent kind of guy. (I don’t know why you don’t believe that!!!!) I occasionally will encounter one of these headstrong Episcopalians, especially when it comes to the Creed.

“I have issues with the Creed,” I hear people say every so often. “I don’t believe some of it.”

I usually shrug when I hear that. Like those whiny preachers, I really sort of nod and smile politely. I certainly understand when people have issues with certain aspects of the Creed. Depending on the day, or the phase I am in in my life, I sometimes struggle with some aspects of the Creed myself.

But…the fact remains: it not my own personal Creed. If it were, it might be somewhat different. The Creed we stand up and profess every Sunday—a Creed that lays out belief in the Trinity very clearly—is not the private, personal creed of any one of us. It is OUR Creed. It is our collective Creed. It what WE believe, not necessarily what I personally believe. And while I may doubt and struggle with belief personally, together, we do find strength and purpose in professing a creed we, together, believe in. Sometimes that collective faith upholds us when we doubt or downright disbelieve.

Still, there are moments when the Trinity does confuse me and I am filled with doubts. I am one of those people who occasionally just wants something simple in my faith life. I just want to believe in God—the mystery of God, the fact that God is God and any complexity about God is more than I can fathom. I sometimes don’t want to solve the mystery of God. I don’t want God defined for me. I sometimes don’t want theology. I sometimes just want spirituality. I sometimes just want God.

But, as a Christian, I can’t get around the Trinity. And so I struggle on, just like the rest of us.

One of the best things that has helped me in my faith in God as Trinity is the famous icon of the Trinity, written (that’s the proper way to say an icon is painted or drawn) by the great Russian iconographer, Andrei Rubelev. You will see a version of Rublev’s icon on the cover of your bulletin this morning. I have placed a modernized, even clearer version of the icon on the votive stand in the narthex. After Mass today, I encourage you to go and take a look at it and see how truly beautiful it is. Many scholars consider Rublev's Trinity the most perfect of all Russian icons and perhaps the most perfect of all the icons ever painted.

One description of the icon goes like this: “Rublev's Trinity icon is considered to be void of any noticeable energy of earthly life, of corporeality of forms and external manifestations of love, equally absent from it is that cold soaring of the spirit, so remote from humans.

“The image determines the subtle struck balance between soul and spirit, the corporeal and the imponderable, endless and immortal sojourn in the heavens. When speaking of Rublev's work, different authors describe the Trinity's Angels as quiet, gentle, anxious, sorrowful, and the mood permeating the icon as detached, meditative, contemplative, intimate.”

The subject of this icon is the story in Genesis about the visit by three Angels to the Prophet Abraham and his wife Sarah. According to some theological interpretations, these three Angels represent the three Persons of the Trinity.

In the icon we can see that all the three Angels shown as equals to each other. In a sense, this icon is able to show in a very clear and straightforward way what all our weighty, intellectual theologies don’t. What I especially love about the image is that, in showing the three angels seated around the table, you’ll notice that there is one space at the table left open. That is the space for us. In a sense, we are, in this icon, being invited to the table with the Trinity. We are being invited to join into the work of the Trinity. And I think that is why this icon is so important to me.

Yes, I have my doubts. Yes, my rational, intellectual mind prevents me to understand fully what this Trinity could possibly be and, as a result, doubts creep in. But the icon does what nothing else can. It simply allows me to come to the table and BE with God as Trinity. It allows me to sit there with them and be one with them.
Last week, on the Feast of Pentecost, I shared some thoughts from Scot McKnight from his wonderful book One.Life, which I have read lately. Well, McKnight actually has a few thing to say about the Trinity as well in One.Life, that I’d like to share.

McKnight writes: “There are very few ideas that move me so deeply they create silence, and this may be because I think I’ve landed on one of the deep secrets of life. The one silencing idea is the Trinity, the Christian belief that God is One and Three, Three and One, at the same time, always and forever. My soul goes silent when I meander in thought to pre-creation, when all that existed was this Three-in-One God, and I ask this question: Before it all begin, before the stars and sun and sky and earth, before what Genesis 1 calls the…’formless void,” what was God doing?’”

The answer, according to McKnight is found in one Greek word, perichoresis, (which derive from the Greek words Peri or “Around” or “chorein” which means “contain).

McKnight defines perichoresis as the “interpenetrating and mutual indwelling of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Don’t worry if you don’t quite get it.

He goes on: “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit were in an endless dance of endless love and surging joy and delightful play as they enjoyed the depth of their love for One Another. They were doing this forever and are doing this now and will do this for eternity. At the core of life, in God’s own life, is this throbbing joy of mutual indwelling.”

I am really taken with this concept of perichrosis, especially with it being a kind of dance. And what I like most about this is the fact that we are being invited to be a part of this dance as well. We are being invited into this dance, much as we are being invited to sit at that table in Rublev’s icon. We are invited to join in this dance that has gone on form before time and will go on long after time has ceased.

This dance of the Trinity is what we do here. This table that we sit at is this table here—this altar. This dance we do with the Trinity is the ministries we are all called to do. We don’t need to rationalize everything out about our faith in God. We don’t need to sit around and make it a personal issue. It’s not all about me. Or you. Or any one of us.

No matter how much we might doubt the Trinity, the Trinity still exists. It still goes on, in its eternal dance. And no matter how much we might doubt in our rational minds, we are still being called to the dance. No matter how much we might doubt, we are still being called to sit down at the table.

So, let us do just that. Let us sit down at that table. Let us bring our doubts and uncertainties with us. And let us leave them there. Let us let God be God. And let us go out form this table to do the work each of us has been called to do.

Jesus today, in our Gospel reading, commands us to go and make disciples of all the nations. By doing so, we are joining in that dance of the Trinity. And by doing so, we know, despite our doubts, despite our uncertainties, that the Trinity will be with us always, even to the end of the age.


Sunday, June 12, 2011


June 12, 2011

Acts 2.1-21

+ It has become a Pentecost Day tradition for me to tell this story. Yes, I know you’ve heard it before, so don’t think too quickly that I am recycling an old sermon just because this story sounds familiar. I just love to tell the story.

Several years ago, in a Bible study, we were discussing the Holy Spirit. Now, as we all know, the Holy Spirit is not something most of us think about very often. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and ephemeral. Well, in this discussion, someone point-blank asked: “So, what is the Holy Spirit?”

The priest who was heading the discussion thought for a moment and then said, in all seriousness, “Well, when you think of the Holy Spirit, just think of Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

I was telling this story to my friend, Justin Schwartz this past week and also mentioned (and this is a complete aside mind you) that I once considered getting a tattoo. And one of the subjects I considered was Casper the Friendly Ghost. As a little boy, I loved Casper. The problem with me getting Casper as a tattoo was that with my Irish-pale skin, no one would be able to actually see Casper. He would just sort of look like a white scar against my white skin.

Anyway, I do have an issue with seeing the Holy Spirit as “something like Casper the Friendly Ghost.” And I don’t think I have shared with you before my vehement response to this priest and her analogy of Casper in describing the Holy Spirit.

Nothing that we read about in our reading from Acts today conveys an image of the Spirit looking anything like Casper. The Spirit that we find in today’s reading is not some nice sweet little ghost floating around and looking gentle and cute. The Spirit we encounter is truly a firestorm. The Spirit comes blasting in and flip-flops everything. Nothing is ever quite the same again in the lives of those followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room—or, we can say, in our own lives as Christians either.

And THAT is how the Spirit works.

I have been reading a wonderful book recently by Scot McKnight called One.Life. McKnight talks quite a bit about Pentecost and the Spirit of Christ that came upon those people. For McKnight, that event in the life of the Church and in our lives as followers of Jesus was one of the most radical events to happen. It was not some personal religious experience. It was not some individual spiritual experience that made everyone feel all warm and cuddly. What happened in that room was a swift kick. It was a kick from God to God’s people. The Spirit’s outpouring on t hose people was the motivation for them to get up and get out and do what they were called to do.

Now, we’ve all heard of this phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” that we are introduced to in the book of Acts. I find it amazing that in the more Pentecostal churches these speaking in tongues is viewed as a special gift that is almost always done INSIDE the church.

I remember seeing it for the first time in my Aunt Shirley’s First Assemblies of God Church. People would get up and speak in some strange language that no one understood and people would rejoice in it, but no one really seemed to know what was being said. It was celebrated because it was seen as a special gift from God granted to certain people.

But, what we find in the Book of Acts, when the gift of tongues comes upon those followers of Jesus, is not quite what the people in the Assemblies were doing. What happens to the first followers of Jesus is actually quite practical. It was more than some mystical, secret language of the Spirit. It was, instead, a sign from the Spirit. It was sign that what happened at the Tower of Babel, when the nations were confused by multiple languages, has been reversed. Now, empowered by the Spirit, the followers of Jesus were compelled to go out and preach this Kingdom of God to all people and that different languages would no longer be a barrier to them. The Spirit’s movement in their lives meant that all the barriers were knocked down. The Wind of that Spirit came in and destroyed every barrier in ministering and serving others.

For us, it’s similar. Maybe our barriers are not languages in the ministries each of us are called to do here and outside these walls. But the ministries we have been empowered by the Spirit of Christ to do in our lives truly should be breaking barriers as well. We are all called to ministries that break down barriers. Our ministries to proclaim by word and example the radical love of God and the Kingdom of God in our midst will break down barriers.

As McKnight writes in One.Life:

“…when Pentecost happens, the Spirit of God…
transforms human abilities
and Transcends human inabilities
so Transformed people can participate
In God’s Kingdom
In the here and now.”

In other words, no longer are we confined by inabilities. No longer are we held prisoner by what we are not able to do. Because the Spirit again and again breaks down those barriers—whatever they may be—and compels us to serve whenever and where we are.

McKnight also gives a wonderful description of what exactly this Kingdom or Reign of God is like. He writes:

“[The Kingdom is] Life lived with others, regardless of who they are
Life shaped by the teachings of Jesus through his apostles
Life experience by eating with one another.
Life swarmed by prayer.
Life carried away in awe of what God was [and I would add, IS] doing
Life shared economically and materially
Life welcomed by outsiders
Life expanded.
Life unleashed.”

This Spirit that we are celebrating today on this Pentecost Day is truly that Life unleashed. The Spirit is life at its best, life at its greatest potential. This Spirit is motivating all of us, like those first followers, as well. It is motivating us to get up and to move outside these walls and to proclaim justice and mercy and peace to those around us.

When the Spirit moves in our lives, we are not only recognize the injustices going on around us, but we are also motivated to stand up and to proclaim them wrong. When the Spirit moves in our lives, we not only are able to see the sufferings of those who are marginalized and oppressed and driven down, but we are empowered to get up and help them and strive to create a better place.

This is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to do ministry. This is what it means to live a life in which the Spirit moves and compels and drives us forward. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

McKnight in his book answers that all-important question of “What is a Christian?” with this wonderfully insightful answer:

“A Christian is one who follows Jesus by devoting his or her life to the kingdom of God, fired by Jesus’ own imagination, to a life of loving God and loving others, and to a society shaped by justice, especially for those who have been marginalized, to peace, and to a life devoted to acquiring wisdom in the context of a local church. This life can only be discovered by being empowered by God’s Spirit.”

This is what the Spirit does. It empowers us. When we think we are weak and hobbled by life, the Spirit comes in and gives us strength. When we think we are good enough to do ministry, to proclaim by example or word that love of God that we have been shown and can show others, the Spirit comes in and corrects. When we think we are too old or too young or not enough or too smart or limited by a lack of financial resources or physical limitations or mental illness or grief, the Spirit comes in and fills us once again with life.

The Spirit unleashes life within us so, through us, life can be unleashed. That is what ministry is. And it is incredible.

So, let us receive the Holy Spirit. Let that Spirit’s incredible, overwhelming life be unleashed through us. Let us, as McKnight tells us, devote our lives to the Kingdom of God…to a life of loving God and loving others, and to a society shaped by justice for all people, no matter who they are.

The Spirit knows no limits. Empowered by this same incredible, firestorm of a Spirit, neither do we. So, let us break down those limits in our lives and let us live a full and completely unleashed life to its very fullest. Only when we do that, will we truly be living a life in that Spirit of life.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Jesus Christ the Apple Tree"

I am all kinds of embarrassed: On Friday night my UCC friend, Justin Schwartz mentioned a hymn he played at his church called "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree."

I frowned when he said it and so I had him repeat the hymn title.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree? I had never heard it before.

"It's beautiful!" Justin said.

Well, sure enough, I checked it out the next day and discovered one of the most hauntingly beautiful hymns I have ever heard. But more than just a lovely hymn, the words are striking. Each one drives deeply home.

Even more interesting to me is that, as wonderfully British as it may sound, it was actually sung in the hill country of the American south. In that context, it almost sounds like a Sacred Harp Song.

Whatever the case, it is an incredible hymn:

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the applle tree

His beauty doth all things excel
By faith I know but ne'er can tell
His beauty doth all things excel
By faith I know but ne'er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought
And pleasure dearly I have bought
For happiness I long have sought
And pleasure dearly I have bought
I missed of all but now I see
'Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I'm weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest a while
I'm weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest a while
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit does make my soul to thrive
It keeps my dying faith alive
This fruit does make my soul to thrive
It keeps my dying faith alive
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Elizabeth Poston (October 24, 1905 - March 18, 1987)

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