Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Soul of Mary

Mary Windows, Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis

I think this may be the only Gospel reading that comes around on a Sunday that, if I were a betting man, I would wager a pretty big proportion of this congregation has memorized in its entirety. 

There’s no need to feel bad about it if you don’t, by the way; it’s just that by virtue of being in choir and singing some of the countless pieces of music its been set to, or by praying the Liturgy of the Hours or the Daily Office, whether for a lifetime or stints of a few weeks here and there, repeated encounters with these words of Mary, the blessed Mother of Jesus, have caused these verses to be written in our minds, if not on our hearts. For many centuries in the western church, monks, nuns, priests, and ordinary faithful like us, have greeted the sunset with Mary’s inspirational and aspirational invocation of God most high: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.”

This passage is also known as the Magnificat, after the Latin for “magnify.” In it, Mary, pregnant with Jesus, speaks of herself not only as rejoicing in the Lord, but magnifying the Lord. Making something that isn’t readily visible, visible.

Even though we make a big deal out of Mary here, what with our statue and stained glass window devoted to her and all, devotion to Mary is, in fact, optional. Scripture doesn’t say a great deal about her. But from the earliest days of the church Mary has loomed large in the Christian imagination. A vast and beautiful tradition has arisen in her honor. It’s easy enough to see why. 

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ is our savior. We know that he through whom we were loved into being will not let us fall in the end. But by choosing to follow Jesus, and the way of the cross, in baptism, we have chosen a difficult road, and we need companions on the way. That company includes one another – those in this church traveling the same path – the great cloud of witnesses in heaven and on earth, and the risen Jesus himself, most especially in the sacrament of his body and blood.

That company also includes Mary, his mother, who in some very literal ways has made Jesus visible to us. It was Mary who bore God the Son safely into his earthly life, responding affirmatively to the angel Gabriel’s call. From her womb she bestowed him with flesh and blood. With her hands she wrapped him in swaddling clothes. At the wedding in Cana, Mary noticed the wine was running out and prompted her son’s first miracle. At the place of the skull she watched him die; at the foot of the cross she held his corpse with the same tenderness with which she cradled him as an infant, away in a manger all those years before.

On the cross we see a God who gives everything for us, who endured death in order to create a safe passage for us on the other side of that door. In Mary, we see the joyful expectation, and the trusting endurance of sorrow, of swords that pierce the soul, that characterize the life of a disciple walking up to that doorstep. And we see the fulfillment of what it is to be Mary, full of grace – one who has so generously received the gifts of God’s love and mercy that she can’t help but emanate that grace as well. 

Mary has been commemorated with so many sculptures and stained glass windows, so many settings of the Magnificat and Ave Maria, rosaries, grave markers, garden statues, grocery store candles, refrigerator magnets – so much merch – that it can obscure that the heart of Mary, which in our prayers in a few moments we will describe as “immaculate,” is more than anything ordinary, like yours, like mine. Mary’s worthiness to bear Jesus came not from being somehow special or unusually holy, but from being faithful.

That is both comforting, and challenging. There’s comfort in knowing that any one of us could be worthy to be chosen by God to be a vessel used to pour God’s grace into the world. Challenge in that being a vessel used to pour God’s grace into the world may well be our call. That it is not just for Mary’s soul, but for ours, too, to magnify the Lord.

I won't call out this person by name, but there is an All Saints parishioner who, most years if not every year, makes a gift of flowers in honor of St. Constance and her Companions, the Martyrs of Memphis, near their feast day. That commemoration falls on September 9, so if past is prologue, we’ll see flowers for them in just a few weeks.

Constance’s name, and the other Martyrs of Memphis, showed up in the bulletin annually a few times before I took notice and thought to look them up. Without any other knowledge, I assumed they were early church martyrs, North African desert mothers martyred in Memphis, Egypt.

But in fact they were martyred in Memphis, Tennessee, less than a century and a half ago. Constance and her sisters were Episcopal nuns, who had come to Memphis in 1873 to found a girls school. By 1878, an epidemic of yellow fever hit the city. Rather than flee as many others did, Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Francis stayed to treat the sick. 5,000 people died, including them. Constance died on September 9, 1878, with the rest following her within a month.

It’s a moving story, all the more resonant here because of our church’s intimate experience of AIDS. And it’s no surprise that the patron of Constance’s sisterhood was none other than St. Mary. I daresay the souls of Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Francis magnified the Lord, showing the power of God to turn hearts to love and mercy, to take risks, and to turn hands to tender service of the sick and fearful.

Now Mary herself was not called to martyrdom, and at one time I might have segued out of this story by saying something along the lines of, “we may not be called to such heroics.” But COVID has killed a million people in this country and isn’t done with us yet; metaphorical violence plagues our airways and actual violence plagues our streets, schools, and other places we’re told are supposed to be safe. So who knows what might be demanded of us? We would do well to prepare our souls to make God visible each day in ways small and large, whatever may come.

And to do that, we could do a lot worse than to follow Mary. And there’s no shortage of ways to do that, as we can see just from the objects and windows in this church.

Following Mary’s example can mean looking like an elegant renaissance lady, being single and pregnant on a street corner, reading quietly until interrupted by an angel, being part of a family on the run, cradling a dead son, and being Queen of Heaven, flanked by angels.

Magnifying the Lord, the soul of Mary brings what is blurry into focus, makes the far away close, makes the unseeable seen. Mary’s soul is a pair of glasses turning indistinct text into story; it is a telescope that coaxes distant galaxies our of darkness. 

Magnifying the Lord, Mary’s soul is a lens atop a lighthouse blazing beams of light into the night sky above the roar of waves, warning sailors and wayfarers away from rocks, guiding us into harbor, so we can walk safely on solid ground.

Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray that our souls, like yours, may magnify the Lord, now, and until the hour of our death.


The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, transferred

August 14, 2022

The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis

Readings: Is. 61:10-11; Ps. 34; Gal. 4:4-7; Lk. 1:46-55

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Better Part

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill?

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel today contains the familiar story of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, while Martha rattles around the house, distracted by her many tasks. Countless words have been preached on this text, weighing the tension between the relative merits of single-minded focus in the presence of our Lord and the demands of the many tasks that do indeed need to get done.

It’s common to cast Mary as the spiritual one, while Martha is practical. In some churches people embrace their inner Marthas by joining St. Martha’s guilds, which depending on the congregation, focus on tasks as varied as needlework or providing meals after funerals.

I won’t be the first preacher or the last to point out that the dichotomy between Mary and Martha is a false one. We all have our many tasks to attend to: getting bills paid, helping kids with homework, maintaining some semblance of order in our homes. And we are all blessed with at least some moments to spend time with and be strengthened by Jesus Christ, our savior, redeemer, and friend. The trick is to know which kind of moment you’re in at any given time, and respond accordingly.

Last weekend’s moment was the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the peak Martha event that this denomination has to offer. Held every three years, the General Convention is the mechanism by which the whole church makes decisions together. This year, over four days in Baltimore, around a thousand bishops, deacons, priests, and laypeople gathered to consider some 419 pieces of legislative business. 

These included polite but ultimately inconsequential things, such as resolution A169, which expressed “deepest thanks to the City of Baltimore,” but which one must assume went altogether unnoticed by Baltimore's citizenry.

The convention’s business also included the introduction of initiatives to, and, critically, the provision of resources for, The Episcopal Church to confront its past and present when it comes to its intrinsic linkages with colonialism, its complicity in white supremacist systems, and its blemished record on racial justice and equity. We as a church will be looking at everything from examining the church’s history supporting indigenous boarding schools that separated Native American children from their families and cultures, to the implicit assumptions undergirding the language of our liturgies, to establishing the Episcopal Coalition for Racial Equity and Justice as a voluntary association of…dioceses, parishes, organizations, and individuals dedicated to the work of becoming the Beloved Community,” an effort I anticipate All Saints will want to be part of.

These efforts come not from a desire to wallow in guilt. This is not about beating ourselves up. This is about believing Jesus when he teaches us, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

They come from a conviction that a church that hides from the truth yields to shame.

But a church that tells the whole truth, that acknowledges and repents of its sins, and commits to righting the wrongs it has done, truly follows Jesus Christ "out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life." (BCP 1979, p. 368)

This work is not a distraction from the Christian message. It is an embodiment of it. And there is some urgency to the task.

A few weeks ago, during my lunch hour, I was over in the parish hall working on something or other to do with church finances, when the doorbell rang. I answered, and at the back door were four or five children, and a pair of young adults. They were from a summer day camp happening nearby. The kids were on a mission – a photo scavenger hunt – and one of the items on their list was to take a photo of “unusual light.” One of the camp counselors had the idea to ask if they could come inside the church, reasoning that sunlight streaming through stained glass would probably fit the bill.

I’m delighted to tell you that when we came into the nave, the kids were in awe.

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen!” a little girl exclaimed.

One of the boys, probably the oldest of the group, I’d guess maybe 10 years old, immediately demanded a tour. He wanted to see everything. So we trooped up to the organ loft, then out to the Michael Chapel garden, where they were able to cross “a peaceful place” off the scavenger hunt checklist, and into the sacristy, where the kids peered through the skylight and determined it constituted “an interesting view of the sky.” Check.

At last they snapped a few photos of the windows in the Mary and Michael chapels and prepared to leave.

“I’d love to visit here on a Sunday,” the boy said to me.

“And we’d love to have you visit,” I said.

“Would I be welcome here?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“No, would I be welcome,” he repeated, as if I wasn’t understanding him, “Are people welcome here who have skin like mine?”

He gestured to his face, to his brown skin, and my heart sank.

“Yes, of course,” I said again, directing his attention again to the windows, to St. Michael the Archangel and the Blessed Mother sharing skin like his.

I’d like to think my answer was convincing, and that he walked away knowing that the beauty of this place belongs to him every bit as much as it belongs to you sitting here this morning.

But what’s the persuasive power of a glimpse of stained glass compared to the crushing weight of the experiences this boy has had to make him think this question necessary of a church, let alone our church? That’s a Holy Spirit sort of question that I don’t have a proper answer to.

The experience of seeing this boy bowled over by beauty, and yet already understanding himself as under threat because of who he is and what he looks like, wondering if we judge him worthy to be here was heartbreaking.

It will not have escaped your attention that our state and our country are going through some stuff right now. The fundamental dignity and right to self-determination of a lot of people, a lot of us, is under threat. Many of us fear for ourselves, our friends, the future our children and grandchildren will inherit.

As citizens we have our responsibility to engage in the political process, but we only have so much control over the “thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers” (Col. 1:16) that govern what happens out there 

Out there, the Adversary prowls like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8, para.), sowing works of discord, division, devaluing the belovedness of every human being, It is not wrong for us and for those who seek us out, maybe you visiting for the first time this morning, to be worried, afraid.

But worry and fear are not where we're going to stay. The world needs us to commit with even greater vigor to living up to who we say we are in here. So that everyone who passes beneath the little plastic sign reading, “Everyone is welcome,” or past the one in which is carved in stone, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” find us to be clear and true not only about who we are, but who God is.

Jesus Christ came that we "might have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10). As much as our world might be a factory of despair right now, anyone who comes in here needs to know – you need to know - that God would not have our spirits wilt while our hearts are still beating.

You are made in God’s image, so for you is the gift of God’s beauty. For you is the gift of God’s love For you is the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. For you. For all of you.

And for you, against "the changes and chances of this mortal life" (BCP 1979, p. 133), against all of your distracting tasks, is a place to choose the better part, which will not be taken from you (Lk 10:42, para.): to rest alongside Mary at the feet of Jesus, and draw strength from "every word that falls from the mouth of God." (Matt. 4:4) 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - July 17, 2022

Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis

Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Forgiveness of Sins

"Campfire" by Elena Penkova, distributed under a CC BY-NC license.

Third Sunday of Easter - May 1, 2022

Readings: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19; Psalm 30

Preached at The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis

I believe in the forgiveness of sins.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I wonder if Peter was happy to see Jesus after the resurrection. Not in the sense that he would’ve preferred Jesus had just stayed in the tomb - of course not - but you know the feeling, the knot in your stomach, when you come face to face for the first time with someone you’ve failed or wronged in some way - maybe been found out for talking behind someone’s back, or caught in a lie, or you didn’t do the thing you said you would - that feeling.

That feeling. How Peter must have been feeling that.

At least when Jesus was dead, Peter knew what to do with himself, more or less.

As awful as Jesus’s death on the cross and the events leading up to it were, once it was all over, Peter and the other disciples, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Blessed Mother, Joseph of Arimathea, started to do the things their culture assigned them to do. Until suddenly they couldn’t, because a miracle had happened. Jesus wasn’t dead, and there was nothing in their life experience, no Jewish or Roman customs they could draw on to tell them what to do.

There was no first century Emily Post to give Peter words for the occasion when the friend he thought was dead showed up alive in a locked room, displayed his wounds, and breathed the spirit into him.

Especially when not so many days prior, he had failed Jesus so completely: asleep while Jesus sweat blood praying in the garden, denying knowledge of him while he stood trial.

How could he even look Jesus in the eye? How could a coward such as Peter possibly still be the rock on which the church would be built?

So Peter, ashamed, went back to doing what he knew how to do, all that time ago on the shores of Galilee, before Jesus recruited him to fish for people. He went fishing, for fish.

And even that he couldn’t do right, spending all night in a boat with six others without a single fish to show for it.

And that’s when Jesus shows up to make them breakfast. The other resurrection encounters recorded in John have a dreamlike, almost ghostly, quality. But this one feels very rooted in this world, evoking for me memories of backpacking trips and Boy Scout camp.  Sitting around a charcoal fire on the lakeshore, Jesus serves them a meal of fish and bread, the same menu as the feeding of the 5,000, except today there are only eight of them.

John doesn’t record what they talked about, but he scarcely needs to. There’s something about breaking bread together. There’s something about gathering around a campfire. It’s a natural, human-scaled, setting for reconciliation.

The exchange that follows breakfast - the healing of the breach between Peter and Jesus, where Jesus gives Peter the chance to replace his nighttime denials with a declaration of love and loyalty in triplicate at daybreak, demonstrates that the import of the miracle of Easter goes far beyond the restoration of breath to a corpse. We celebrate this great season for fifty days no only because Jesus gets to live, but because we get to live, too.

What happens in this moment, the repetition of, “Lord, you know I love you,” and, “Feed my sheep,” is not an erasure of Peter’s failings. Those are and will forever be part of Peter’s story. God tried erasure once, in the great flood in Genesis, and then swore never to do it again.

Rather, just as Christ’s resurrection body bears the scars of the cross, as evidence of the power of life to overcome even the most grievous of wounds: through the forgiveness of Christ Peter’s failures flower into the foundation of this church and every other church that ever has been or ever will be built. Forgiveness in Christ is no mere sentiment, no, “Apology accepted,” but a force of divine nature.

Forgiveness in Christ transforms Peter’s

Cowardice into courage,

Embarrassment into encouragement,

Pain into peace,

   forgiveness in Christ turns his

Heartache into healing,

   and changes him from

Anxious into apostle, from

Sinner into shepherd;

brings him into the fullness of who he is, Peter, Cephas, the rock upon whom Christ has indeed built his church.

Christ’s forgiveness is not an undoing of sin but a refashioning of the sinner into who we were created to be at the beginning: beloved creatures made in the image of our creator.

And if the forgiveness of Christ can restore Peter from betrayal into full stature as a beloved child of God; if the forgiveness of Christ can bring Paul to his knees on the road to Damascus, and turn him from the persecution of the church to proclaiming that “faith, hope, and love abide” - what will his forgiveness do for you, for me, if we dare to let it into the tender places in our hearts where we carry our shame for our sins against God and our neighbor? If Christ has in some way become a stranger to us, we are no stranger to him; he waits only to hear, “Lord, you know I love you.”

Dawn broke one morning on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus said to Peter and the others, “Come, have breakfast.” And in the repair of the breach between redeemer and redeemed, sin and shame were robbed of their power.

Likewise in Easter, the culmination of the story of our salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we who gather here this morning to be shaped in our faith in “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” affirm “this…true saying, worthy of all [people] to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim 1:15, 1979 BCP para.) To save us.

In our incarnate and risen Lord, “the dawn from on high  [has broken] upon us, to shine on [us] who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Song of Zechariah, 1979 BCP, para.)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Death Threats

Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Evansville, IN on the third Sunday in Lent (March 20, 2022)

“Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galilieans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” In the name of the one holy and living God. Amen.

I don’t know if you noticed, but it seems to me that this morning’s readings contain a bunch of death threats. And that makes me, for one, a little uncomfortable.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul lingers on the death of thousands of Israelites at God’s hand, as punishment for disobedience, and for rejecting God’s providence in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, sustaining them in the wilderness with manna and water from the rock. He uses these examples as a warning to the Corinthians to be steadfast in their faith in Christ, or else.

Jesus describes the deaths of a group of Galileans at the hands of a bloodthirsty tyrant, and eighteen people crushed in a building collapse, concluding with a similar threat: “unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”

So what are we going to do with these death threats, friends? They’re hard to square with the suffering servant so deeply acquainted with our sorrows. How on earth are they proclamations of good news?

A few weeks ago at the start of this season, Ash Wednesday, many of us were here, or at another church, or on a streetcorner somewhere, receiving ashes on our foreheads, delivered with the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The fact that we are going to die may not be good news, exactly. Indeed it isn’t news at all. But that reminder might cause us to look at what Jesus is saying here a little differently.

When he says, “unless you repent, you’ll perish just as they did,” he isn’t saying that if you repent you won’t die. He’s saying you won’t die “as they did.” But he also doesn’t seem to be saying that repentance is the ticket to a painless death, old and full of days. For he raises the point that those killed at the hand of Pilate or when the Tower of Siloam came crashing down, did not deserve their fate. They were sinners no worse than anyone else. Just as rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike, so can tragedy befall both, without apparent reason.

That’s a lesson that applies as much today as it ever did. Surely the people of Mariupol do not deserve the terror that besieges their city, and yet there it is. Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, wars, mass shootings, car crashes, COVID, and cancer – any one of these or countless somethings else, or maybe even a peaceful death, await us and all those we love, one day. And Jesus tells us that righteousness, sinlessness, will not save us.

So what exactly is the point of repentance?

This Ash Wednesday, I worshiped at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, and their Dean, Gray Lesesne, preached a sermon I’ve been thinking about ever since. “Every Ash Wednesday,” he said, “A priest and I text messages back and forth in the morning, and I got my traditional text from her [today]…‘Blessed Ash Wednesday… remember you’re going to die!😀’” But he went on to say, “There’s one more phrase I would add…‘Remember you’re going to live. You’re going to live from this day forward as a beloved child of God.’”

When Jesus tells us, “repent or perish as they did,” I think that’s what he’s talking about. If he’s not saying we get to, you know, not die, then what he is saying is that repentance is the path to a different kind of life from the moment we reorient our life toward what God wants for us, until the hour of our death.

As a vocabulary term, repentance isn’t winning any popularity contests. An analysis done by Google Books shows it to be used roughly 80% less frequently today than it was 200 years ago. My guess is that it has a fire-and-brimstone association that just doesn’t win friends and influence people the way maybe it used to.

Setting aside its reputation, and looking at its actual meaning, repent is a verb with a twofold action. The first is to express contrition for past wrongdoing or sin. If its meaning stopped there it could just be a synonym for regret or a cousin of shame. But the second action is to commit to a better way, possibly under one’s own power, but more likely to flourish, our faith teaches, if we acknowledge our need for, and seek, God’s help.

Because if we ask faithfully, if we allow our souls to cling to the Lord, the right hand of God who is also faithful  will hold us fast and will help us to live lives characterized by love, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, and freedom from the lie that money, might, and empire have any claim on or power over our selves and souls.

It was the longing for that kind of life for God’s beloved people, that led God one night to a bush in the Egyptian desert, filling it with holy fire and catching Moses’ eye, yet leaving its branches unsinged. And the reason: “The Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.’” When Israel sought God’s help, God did not stay distant. With a pillar of cloud and flame and a parted sea, God delivered Israel into freedom, and with manna, and water from a rock split open, sustained them in the desert for 40 years.

God desires the same good for us, if we would only look for it. Paul describes the journey through the Red Sea as the “baptism of Moses;” a precursor to our baptism in Jesus Christ. As the Israelites had manna and water in the desert, the spiritual food of bread and wine sustains our souls in our earthly journey.

God is not elsewhere, but is here right now, ready to reignite your heart with an awakening fire that will illuminate the glorious path of life God has prepared for you and for me, that is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Repent of all that keeps you from that life, and return to the Lord, that you may not pass into the next life without living this one first.

Readings: Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The Commissioning of Thea Bibbs

Sermon on the occasion of the commissioning of Thea Bibbs as verger at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Evansville, IN

February 7, 2022

Readings: Exodus 35:4-29, Psalm 84, Ephesians 4:1-6, 11-13, Mark 14:12-16

The sparrow has found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, mother of us all. Amen.

Toward the back of the Book of Common Prayer is our Catechism, a Q&A summary of the basics of Christianity as practiced in The Episcopal Church. In the section on prayer, it defines what we’re about in corporate worship - just what it is we’re doing - on Sundays, and tonight. When we gather for worship, and now I’m quoting, “We unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s word,to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.”

That’s an accurate, albeit somewhat dry, almost clinical, description of an experience that can, on a good day, take our breath away.

One such experience for me was at the Church of the Advent in Boston a few years back, while I was still in secular employment. I was on a business trip and happened to be in town on the Feast of the Ascension. The Ascension is one of the church’s celebrations that I used to get a little grumpy about. It felt to me like a clunky bit of divine stagecraft to get Jesus out of the picture after the resurrection - a way of explaining away why he doesn’t seem to be around any more.

My perspective changed at Advent that evening. The service began with a solemn procession, the altar party and choir making slow circles around the nave, incense billowing like San Francisco fog, while we sang an ingenious pairing of hymns: Charles Wesley’s “Hail the day that sees him rise,” followed immediately by Isaac Watts’ “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” without even a second of silence between them.

Those are hymns 214 and 544 in the Hymnal 1982 if you want to read them later - or better yet, sing them - which I recommend. The first hymn recounts the details of the Ascension itself, interspersed with 16 alleluias across its four verses. The second celebrates Jesus as the ruler of the world “from shore to shore”, throughout all time and space.

And suddenly a bunch of puzzle pieces clicked together in my spirit, as the phrase “he ascended into Heaven,” transformed from just so many words in the Nicene Creed into an understanding that the Ascension is the means by which God the Son moved from the confines of a moment in history into the wider cosmos, where through the Eucharist he becomes the companion not just of the disciples but of a hundred generations past and all those to come, until “moons shall wax and wane no more,” and we all meet him face to face.

We’ve got another three and a half months until the Feast of the Ascension, so I’m a little off topic right now. But I tell you this story of how I learned to love the doctrine of the Ascension not to persuade you to do likewise, but to consider how it happened.

It would have been impossible for anyone involved in that evening’s liturgy to engineer or expect my particular response to it. But careful planning and execution of the service, everything from hymn selection and bulletin preparation, to having someone to control the pace of the procession created the conditions and space for at least one person in the building that night to have a transcendent experience of worship.

The story we heard in this evening’s gospel reading appears not just in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke as well. One place it does not appear is our Sunday lectionary - not even on Palm Sunday. So at least in our denomination I’d wager this is a text few have given a second thought.

On the surface it seems like a few sentences of setup, an essential but slight story about making some dinner reservations. To the extent there’s any obvious meaning we’re to take away from these preparations for the Passover, it’s that Jesus’s foreknowledge of the people the two disciples would encounter as they went into town is one more piece of evidence of Jesus’s divine nature.

But tonight as we prepare to commission Thea Bibbs as verger in this place, let’s allow our attention linger on these two unnamed individuals - one who guided the disciples through the crowded streets of Jerusalem while carrying a heavy jar of water, and one who brought them up some stairs to that first table where Jesus’s followers would hear, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” The same words we’ll hear again in just a little while.

I won’t deny that it’s fun to think about the history of a verger’s mace and imagine Thea wielding it to fend off livestock and unruly worshipers, as her predecessors did in the cathedrals of medieval England. It’s also a welcome state of affairs that the job of verger no longer requires such activity, at least not routinely.

Today, what being a verger looks like is largely leading processions and pointing people to where they’re supposed to stand. Though I’ll tell you that Thea began her work as verger for this evening’s service long before she vested, let alone before any of you arrived. Earlier today I overheard her in the office, making preparations to ensure the entries to the church were free of ice, so that we can all worship not only in good order, but in safety, too.

More important than the externals, the things we see, is the meaning of the verger’s work. If she executes her ministry well, a verger is an unobtrusive part of a church’s scenery. Her ministry is to plan, keep track of details, and remember who needs to be where when, so that we don’t have to, and we can feel at home in the liturgy.

Like the man with the water jar and the owner of the house with the upper room, we might not remember or even notice how she minimizes distractions and creates room for us to see the divine presence in our worship as we make our way down the aisle to encounter our Lord in the Eucharist.

By commissioning Thea tonight, we can’t engineer a particular experience for any of you. I can’t guarantee that one of you will go home this evening, your heart having leapt at some new theological insight. But in this space two or three are gathered, which means the living Christ is also among us.

Thea is called to the ministry of a verger. She’ll use her mace not to clear livestock, but to guide our steps and our hearts always to the altar, where we like the sparrow can shelter in God’s boundless love, and find our everlasting home.

In the name of the one holy and living God. Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Squeamish About Jesus

Image: Steve Baxter
Click for audio

“When…his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult – who can accept it?’ But Jesus…said to them, ‘Does this offend you?...Do you also wish to go away?’”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was raised in a vaguely Quaker, but essentially non-religious household. The Eucharist wasn’t a part of my family’s life. Not only were we infrequent attenders at the Raleigh Fr
iends Meeting, but even if we had been, Quakers don’t do sacraments, at least not in the way we think of them. 

So when I first heard about communion when I was probably eight or nine, and the concept that Christians, and particularly Catholics, were consuming the body and blood of this Jesus Christ fellow, I was pretty grossed out.

I have company in my squeamishness. 

Among the various difficulties the early Christians faced, trying to practice their faith in the hostile Roman Empire, was the accusation that they were cannibals.

The accusation had its roots, of course, in the practice of the Eucharist, in which Christians asserted that once consecrated on the altar, bread and wine truly became the body and blood of Christ.

It isn’t altogether clear whether Christianity’s detractors believed that  the words of institution were actually effective at turning ordinary food and drink into actual human flesh, but really, the efficacy of the prayers wasn’t the point. What mattered was that Christians intended to eat Christ’s flesh and blood, whether or not they in fact managed to do it.

Objections to this body and blood stuff didn’t come to an end when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Written in the mid-1500s, The Thirty-Nine Articles, a foundational document of the Church of England that defined Anglican teaching in opposition to both the Roman Catholic church, as well as certain strains of Protestantism that challenged the social order and the supremacy of the state, asserts that transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic teaching that the bread and wine are truly changed in the Eucharist, “is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”

In 2014, the Association of Raelian Scientists published an ethically dubious study wherein they surreptitiously acquired consecrated hosts from a few different Catholic churches and tested them to see if they contained human DNA. Never mind that the Catholic church doesn’t actually teach this, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t.

This outcome, however, the authors assert, proves the falsehood of Catholic teaching – and is evidence for their point of view, namely that extraterrestrials created all life on earth, and that humanity will be saved when the United Nations gives UFOs special diplomatic status and some brave country builds a UFO embassy that must include a landing pad for a flying saucer, a conference room capable of seating no fewer than 21 people, and a swimming pool. But I digress.

What today’s Gospel shows us is that it wasn’t just ancient and contemporary detractors of Christianity or Elizabethan reformers who get squeamish about what Jesus says about his body and blood. It’s his disciples, too. Is what he says about the connection between eating his flesh and eternal life true? Do they even want it to be?

Not all of them, clearly. John tells us that “many of [them] turned back and no longer went about with him.”

And as for the twelve, Peter swallows hard and says, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That answer has a sort of, “We don’t know what this means, but we trust you, Jesus” vibe, which come to think of it isn’t a half-bad attitude to have. 

Now before I go any further, I should say a word about what The Episcopal Church officially teaches about all this. Our catechism says that the Eucharist is the sacrament in which “Christ is made present, and in which he unites us to his one offering of himself,” and that “by faith” we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. So something serious is going on, and we believe that Jesus is somehow really involved and present, but we don’t try to put too much definition around what is essentially a mystery. Or as my friend Holli succinctly puts it, Episcopalians don’t believe in transubstantiation, but they don’t not believe in it, either.

The few paragraphs we read this morning more or less wrap up the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. If you read the whole thing you’ll find it to be an extended discourse on bread. And in this time when we’re still only receiving the bread when we take communion, we might as well focus on it.

The chapter starts with an account of the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd. The next day members of that crowd follow Jesus across the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus observes that they have followed him because they were hungry people who had eaten their fill the previous day. He advises them not to follow him for the perishable bread that grows stale and molds, but instead to seek the living bread, the bread that endures eternally. Eat the living bread, he tells them, and they will never hunger or thirst again.

And when they ask how to do this, Jesus tells them that he himself is that living bread that has come down from heaven, which leads us to this climactic moment, where Jesus finally says that to inherit eternal life, his followers must feed on his flesh and blood.

And it’s at that point the disciples are like, “Whoa there, Jesus, you’ve gone too far! This is a hard teaching – who can accept it?”

Hearing Jesus in the moment, his followers don’t yet have the context of the Last Supper, let alone the accumulation of millennia of tradition and theological contemplation. It’s no wonder they’re confused, or that some give up and walk away.

A challenge of being a human trying to have a relationship with God, or, I suppose, a challenge of being an omnipotent, infinite, and incomprehensible God in love with your finite and mortal creation, is that it is so hard for us to understand one another. God uses objects and symbols we can comprehend to tell us who God is. Things like bread and wine.

Jesus uses the miracle of multiplying a young boy’s five loaves to feed the crowd by the seashore to communicate something about himself. He, the eternal Son through whom all things were made, is the very source of their mortal life. And then he asks us them – and us – to take a leap of faith, to follow him not to satisfy the hunger of their perishable bodies, but to find in him living bread to satisfy the yearnings of their imperishable spirits to be eternally united with their creator.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Jesus say, “have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” This teaching resists reason, but to those who can accept it, it rewards participation. Within the challenge of this claim is Jesus’s great promise to us. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul asks us to “put on the full armor of God,” as protection against all the evil powers of the world that seek to divide us from God and one another. Some commentaries note discomfort with the militaristic tone of this passage, with its shields and swords and bucklers, but I think in these days of violence and rage, whether at Kabul airport or a local schoolboard meeting, and as the pandemic continues to rage, we can appreciate the value of a good defense.

In the sacrament we receive today, Jesus promises to be truly present with us, as protection and shield against all assaults of the enemy, and to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Preached at St. David's Episcopal Church - Bean Blossom, IN on August 22, 2021 

Readings: 1 Kings 8:1-6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Ps. 84; Eph. 6:10-20; Jn. 6: 56-69

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Strategies of Hope

My unreasonably large Christmas tree: a strategy of hope.

Audio version

O Lord, arise, help us; and deliver us for thy name’s sake.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I see many familiar faces here, and I think most of you know me, but for those who don’t, my name is Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism. It’s my privilege to be with you again for your Consecration Weekend celebration this Consecration Sunday eve. Thank you to the whole Consecration Sunday team, and especially Kelly Nickson, for the invitation, and for your leadership.

Earlier this year, early enough that it was in the “before time,” I was flipping through the Book of Common Prayer, as one does sometimes, and came across a devotion I had never seen before.

It’s called “The Supplication,” and it’s tacked onto the end of the Great Litany, on page 154, if you have a prayer book at hand.

The instructions at the beginning of the service describe it as especially appropriate for "times of war, or national anxiety, or of disaster."

I began incorporating it in my personal prayer life as a way of praying for the country, for an end to its toxic politics that have divided and continue to divide our nation, our communities, even sometimes our families.

It wasn’t long before the prayer became a lot more relevant than I could ever have imagined.

 Here’s all you need to know about the Supplication. It is what it says it is: a straight up cry for help. It says we are in an awful mess, acknowledges that it might be of our own making, that we can’t get out of it under our own power, and pleads for the powerful God who delivered Israel from Egypt and Shadrach from the furnace to deliver us, too.

O Lord, arise, HELP US; and deliver us for thy name’s sake.

Here we are in Advent, this quiet season of expectation. Now you all know Episcopalians sometimes get funny about Advent. We'll say it’s about contemplation, or preparation, or waiting, or that it’s a bit penitential – sort of a Lent Jr., the time of year John the Baptist calls people a brood of vipers and says other impolite things that make us uncomfortable.

But whatever Advent is, it is definitely NOT CHRISTMAS.

I’m going to tell you a secret, though. This year, the weekend before Thanksgiving, we bought the biggest Christmas tree we could fit in our house. It’s 9 feet tall and we’ve had to put rocks in the tree stand to keep it from falling over. My husband strung it with 1,400 lights.

In her magnificent book, Advent: the Once and Future Coming of Jesus ChristFleming Rutledge writes about how Christians need to have “strategies of hope” to proclaim Christ in a suffering world.

Having an unreasonably large Christmas tree is one of my strategies for not allowing my faith in the power and promise of Jesus Christ to arise, to help us, to be overcome by the gloom and grief of this fearful winter.

Surely you have your own strategies of hope – I hope you do. Feel free to share them with one another in the chat.

This gathering, this Consecration Sunday-eve Saturday Night Live, is another strategy of hope.

Literally no one knows how to do a pledge campaign during a pandemic, and this year a lot of churches just aren’t putting that much energy into it. But you, St. Timothy’s, have determined that neither pandemic nor recession will deter you from this essential task of discipleship: of growing in generosity as you grow in your faith.

I call this an essential task not just because of the need to pay salaries and the Zoom subscription and maintain the building you will one day return to, though these are indeed good things. No, this annual ritual of communally renewing your financial commitment to the work God is doing among the people of St. Timothy’s is an opportunity to examine your lives and your hearts and put some things right.

You see, one of the reasons people get squirrely about money is that it is one objective way of measuring the choices we have before us and the choices we have made. Money influences the home you live in and the car you drive.

Look at your financial life and you’ll probably see some things you’re proud of and grateful for: the way you care for your children or an elderly family member, your education, the mortgage that allows you to be in a home you love, giving to a cause you care passionately for.

But you might also find things you’re less proud of, a trail of transactions linked to some vice or addiction, the burden of debt from a past emergency, or frivolous purchases you now regret.

Your finances aren’t the story of your life, but they’re a story of your life. What story do they tell about your faith? Where does God rank when you look at your bank statement?

The biblical standard for giving is 10% of your income. That’s simultaneously kind of a lot but also kind of not. Certainly it’s big enough, though, that if you’re tithing, you’ll notice. And there’s a reason for that.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, your money leads your heart, not the other way around. Giving is a strategy of hope.

"A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'"

Generous giving is a way to pave that highway, by giving away some of our choices, and handing them over to God. Giving is an invitation to God to smooth out the rough places in your heart and your life.

Tomorrow you will make your commitments together, even if distantly. Some of you will come to the drive-in pilgrimage. Some of you will receive visitors. And some of you will use mail or email to make your commitment.

I invite you to pray about what commitment you will make tonight. Generosity is rarely a cause for regret. Even if you’re not ready to give 10% today, think about what percentage of your income you’re giving today, and consider whether you can grow a step in gratitude, faith, and hope.

And hope indeed is coming. 2020 will end in a few weeks. This pandemic will one day end, even though we don’t know the day.

Consider too, that the first babies conceived in lockdown are now being born. New life amid the devastation of this year.

And soon we will celebrate the birth of another baby, the one who has saved us and is saving us still, and who we believe will come again. We do not know when that day will come either, but it will come.

Christ will arise. Christ will help us. Christ will deliver us safely home.

Sermon preached at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, Indianapolis (via Zoom) - December 5, 2020.

Readings: Is. 40:1-11; Ps. 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Pet. 3:8-15a; Mk. 1:1-8