Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sermon for Trinity Sunday Prov 8:1-4,22-31 & John 16:12-15 “Dancing with Wisdom”

On any given day, if you go up to Union Station in Washington, DC, you’ll see a preacher with a microphone, a portable amplifier and a car battery. He stands outside the train station – I don’t know why he picked that place, but it works for him – and he preaches. He’s talking mostly about how sinful the world is, and how we need to repent, because Jesus is coming. He makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and they try to avoid him, or else stick their fingers in their ears as they walk past, because, man, this fellow is LOUD.

We don’t always want to hear the message that God sends to us through uncomfortable people, do we? Prophets, preachers, messiahs…most of us don’t want to hear that loud and discomfiting message, and I suspect that’s why God sends us the loud ones to do that kind of communication.

In contrast, imagine you are in Istanbul, standing before the great cathedral called Hagia Sophia. Enormous, beautiful, it looks as if it has been there forever, and it almost has – it was built in 360. It speaks of the power and majesty of the church of God. When you hear its name, “Holy Sofia,” you might think it is named after a Saint. Saint Sophia. But it is something entirely different. Not a saint, but an attribute of God. Sophia is the Greek word for the wisdom of God. This is not a tribute to a saint, but a recognition of Divine Wisdom. And wisdom in this case is big and imposing and something you can’t ignore as you’re standing in the street in Istanbul.

That helps us with our reading from Proverbs this morning. Hagia Sophia, the wisdom of God…it sounds like a woman. That’s no mistake. In the Old Testament, wisdom – the thing we all want, the thing we expect to get from God, a very good thing indeed – is a particular character. And Wisdom is –SURPRISE! – a woman. In the ancient world, “Lady Wisdom” is an attribute of God, one of God’s characteristics, but she is often spoken of as if she were a separate being.

And this “Lady Wisdom” in the reading, well, she’s as assertive and omnipresent as that street preacher in front of the train station. She’s as hard to miss as the gigantic cathedral in Istanbul. “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads.” This Lady is everywhere, and she is telling her story out loud, and insistently, to anyone who can hear, and probably some people who don’t. The wisdom of God, that divine wisdom whom we call “she,” tells the story: she has been part of this story since the beginning of time, almost as long as God has been around, which is forever. She was created first, before the light and stars, before the birds and fish and animals and Adam and Eve. Lady Wisdom, God’s created wisdom, always part of the story.

And this Lady Wisdom doesn’t act much like the sort of wisdom we expect from the Scriptures. She is not staid and serious. She is, in a word, playful. Look at that line “Then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” We read that, and we think a master carpenter and his assistant, doing holy work. But when you take a closer look at the Hebrew, it’s actually a very different picture. It could just as validly be translated “Then I was beside him, like someone learning the craft, and I was daily his delight, dancing and frolicking before him always.” A very different picture, yes? Wisdom growing into herself, learning the craft of being an attribute of God, dancing with God, making God laugh.” An eight-year-old girl perhaps, a little clumsy, making a lot of noise as she plays with God, making God snort with laughter at her antics. I think of my daughter as an 8 year old with lots of opinions about how she saw the world, dancing around the kitchen as I cooked, telling me the way things ought to be. Or Wisdom might be an 80 year old woman, no longer needing to prove to anyone exactly how proper she is, jabbing us in the ribs as she tells a joke that proves what is really important and what is not. I think of my 88 year old mother in the year that she died, saying exactly what was on her mind, with no filter for politeness’ sake, not much caring if she made us us uncomfortable, because she had something to tell us that was important.

This is Lady Wisdom, ever-present, not always very well-behaved. Lady Wisdom is sometimes loud, never shy, and that’s not the way we usually think of the way that God is.

But there is a delight to seeing an aspect of God in a new way…it opens us up to the possibility of understanding God differently. That is, in fact, a good thing, because God is so much bigger and more complex than we could ever understand that if we get fresh glimmers of the light of who he is, that’s a gift. Sometimes I think of God as a jigsaw puzzle. Most of the pieces are turned over. I try to figure out the puzzle, what goes where, I have a vague sense of the outline, and some sections are assembled, and I see some of the other color groupings of pieces, but I don’t have the whole picture, nor will I ever have the whole picture in this life. Every now and again, I figure out another section as I turn over the puzzle pieces, but I still don’t have the whole picture.

And today, on this Trinity Sunday, we are faced with the challenge once again of figuring out who God is, what God is, how this thing called the Trinity works. Good luck with that.

Some have thought that the Trinity is God playing different roles, doing different jobs at different times, depending on the need. But Scripture clearly says that they coexist, so it can’t be that. Some think that this is three facets of one personality, as if God was some sort of creature with multiple personality disorder. But the Scripture says “three persons” not “three personalities,” so it can’t be that. Some think that God the Father is the chief and the other two persons, the Son and the Holy Spirit, are subordinate. But that’s not what the creeds of the church tell us – they are co-equal and unique, so it can’t be that.

We’re not the first to wrestle with the question of the Trinity.

St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great doctors of the early church, lived in the late 4th and early fifth century. He thought he would write a book about the Trinity, about that relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, how God could be three persons in one God, how they were different yet the same. That book, De Trinitate, almost 800 pages long, ends up being rather like the jigsaw puzzle…he senses pieces of how it fits together, but never quite gets the whole picture. He tries to use an analogy: think of the three aspects of love: beloved, loving, love. Three different aspects of love: the object of love, the process of love, the fact of love. That sort of gets us there…but only sort of. How do the three persons of the Trinity exist simultaneously as one God and as three persons?

We cannot completely understand this – I have come to the belief that this is one of the questions I’ll ask God when I present myself in heaven – but perhaps we can get some clues. And Lady Wisdom, dancing through Proverbs, might help us get there.

We have a pretty clear understanding of God the Father – he is the creator of all the universe, all powerful, all knowing, all present. We also seem to understand that Jesus is God’s Son, although he, being God, has been here since the beginning as well. We know that Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father to save us from our sins, and that he was given a fully human nature as well as a fully divine one. Jesus himself talks about how he was sent so that we human beings might know the father in heaven. That much, we can start to comprehend.

The part that seems to stop us in our tracks, though, is the Holy Spirit. The dove coming down in little tongues of flames on the head of each of the disciples as we heard last week in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles about Pentecost? The Spirit who is sent down to remain with us forever? What is this Spirit, this third person of the Trinity?

New Age enthusiasts might think of the Holy Spirit as some sort of cosmic energy force, but that seems too unfocused.

No, Lady Wisdom is the clue. Wisdom is that ever present sense of the order of the universe that God created. That playful one who invites us to dance with God, with the wholeness of God, both the one who creates, the one who saves, the one who enlightens and sustains us. In fact, the Eastern Church talks of the “perichoresis” of the Holy Trinity, a word that means intertwining and dancing around together. Imagine a square dance with the dancers weaving in an among each other, the relationships handing off, bowing, embracing….this is the way the Eastern Church sees the Trinity, and it’s a beautiful way to recognize the individuality of the persons of God and their interrelationship.

The three persons of the Trinity complement each other and give us the fullest possible experience of God. The Trinity invites us into that dance that the three persons enjoy with each other, and Lady Wisdom, who might also be called Holy Spirit, teases us and invites us to join in the dance. We may not know all the steps, and we may not see everything that is happening as we dance, but we can feel the love of the three persons in one God as we enter into the frolic.

The dance will make us dizzy, but it will make us as joyful and frolicsome as six-year-olds doing the Electric Slide. That, in the end, may be our truest understanding of the Trinity – the emotions, the intimacy, the energy, the joy. That may be all we really need to know.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Theological Engineering Exam, Courtesy of Tim B

5 Questions, 60 Minutes.

You may use a calculator, the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and the Book of Mormon. The speed of light is c. Show all work. For all problems, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D.

No praying during the exam....

1. (20 pts.) Bob and Joe are standing on a street corner. God loves each an equal amount L_0. Bob then accelerates to .9c. In Joe's rest frame, how much does God now love Bob?

2. Sven, a Catholic, is in a state of grace. He then has sex with sheep S.
a. (8 pts.) What is Sven's atonement coefficient following the act if the sheep was not willing?
b. (12 pts.) What if the sheep, while not technically being willing, could not be said to mind either?

3. (20 pts.) Let the eternal, all abiding love of the Holy Spirit be the xy plane. Let Sue's soul be at (0,0,5) at t = 0 sec., traveling at 5 m/s in the direction of the positive z axis.
Everything is in Cartesian coordinates bespeaking subscription to a perfectly rational enlightenment attitude towards the Universe.
At what time t will Sue be saved? (Hint: Assume a point soul.)

4. (20 pts.) Assume the Rapture occurs at time t.
Cornelia, a saved human weighing 90 kg, in a state of grace, has her head in the closing jaws of an alligator at time t.
What mass of meat will remain to the alligator at time t + 10 sec.?

5. Stan is a frictionless, massless Mormon in a rest state.
His sin level for his faith is currently 11 McBeals.
He eats .3 kg of pork, and enjoys it very much.
Assume that the Jews are right about, well, pretty much everything.
a. (10 pts.) What is Stan's sin level now?
b. (10 pts.) Stan is one of them Salt Lake City Mormons. He ain't so damn smug now, is he?

Extra Credit (10 pts): 25 grams of wafers and 20 ml of cheap wine undergo transubstantiation and become the flesh and blood of our Lord. How many Joules of heat are released by the transformation?

Hand in exam when done, and may God have mercy on your work

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sermon for Pentecost, May 23, 2010 Acts 2:1-21 “Lost and Found”

At 9 o’clock this evening, a number of people I know will sit down and finally figure out what it all means. The story is coming to an end…or is it?

The television show “Lost” is coming to an end, with a final episode appropriately enough called “The End.”

I’m not a true “Lost” fanatic, although I’ve watched it occasionally. I do have some friends who are, who get lost in the plots and subplots, the shifts in time, the various roles played by the different characters. If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who are not, I’ll try to give you a brief synopsis of what this show is about.

A plane crashes on a seemingly deserted tropical island. The survivors of the crash are a mixed bunch: a doctor, a fugitive, the child of an industrialist, a construction worker, a lottery winner, a former Iraqi soldier. The 71 survivors discover that their little world is more complex than they first thought. There are others on the island, there is a mysterious malevolent force, there are constant questions of who is in charge, what they should do, who is good and who is bad, and if they will ever be saved.

Some characters bear the names of philosophers like Locke, Hume, Bentham, Bakunin and Rousseau. Others bear the names of famous scientists, like Hawking and Faraday. The storyline reflects that as it touches on a number of the “big questions” – what is our purpose in life, are human beings essentially good or evil, is there something other than us in the universe, and perhaps most importantly, how do we respond to disorienting change?

Over the six seasons of the show, the plot twists and turns have become ever more complex, the time shifts more radical, and the end point more obscure. So those who have followed it faithfully are hoping that this final episode tonight will make it all clear, that suddenly the crash and its aftermath will all make sense.

The producers of the show couldn’t have picked a more perfect Sunday for this final chapter.

It is, after all, Pentecost.

And what is the story of Pentecost? It is the story of the aftermath of disorienting change.

The disciples of Christ have survived a horrific and seismic shift in their world: Their beloved teacher and Lord, Jesus, has been killed. Just as they are struggling with their grief and confusion, Jesus reappears, risen from the dead, comforting them, praying with them, giving them final instructions before he departs from them for good, to be with his heavenly father. Those who had thought that Jesus would be a secular king and save them from Roman oppression have been sorely disappointed. The story doesn’t play out that way. His kingdom is not an earthly one. His promise is of something much different, much harder to understand…an eternal and heavenly kingdom that seems beyond our comprehension.

The shifts between the living Jesus to the dead one, and then to the risen Christ, and then the ascended Christ in heaven…it’s too hard for the disciples to wrap their heads around. So Jesus gives them a gift. He sends them the Holy Spirit, to help them to understand, to give them the skills they need to carry on the work. The disciples had felt like they were lost, but the Holy Spirit has helped them find their way, their mission, to lead more people to an understanding of the teachings of Christ.

In case they don’t get the message, the Holy Spirit gives them a visual aid: she comes down in tongues of fire, little flames of knowledge and strength above each disciples’ head. And then there is the auditory aid: they start speaking, in their own Aramaic, because that is the language of their native Galilee. But those from other places hear it as if the disciples were speaking in their own native language. They say, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." The gift of understanding, that great transformation, comes from God, and affects not only the disciples, but also those who hear those disciples. In the midst of disorienting change, the Spirit comes to bring some measure of understanding and the strength to continue the journey.

In a sense, these survivors in their small world are given the roadmap for finding their way through the disorienting change, and they are given the tools to lead others on that journey. That is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

But the world is distrustful of those gifts. What happens when the disciples receive this gift of speaking in a way that all can hear? Some disbelievers say that they are simply drunk and babbling…they’ve had too much of the new wine. Peter, unable to contain himself, snaps at them: it’s 9 in the morning. Of course they’re not drunk. It’s something else, something from God, just as the prophet Joel said:

`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. ‘

As an aside, for those who think that women can’t preach, look to those words from the prophet Joel!

No, these strange and wonderful gifts that God sends through the Holy Spirit have the power to bring us through times of disorienting change. No longer lost, but found.

I’ve been talking a lot about change over these past few weeks, and we have begun an adult education series on the subject. We at Epiphany have survived many changes in recent years, large and small. Some have felt seismic, big changes, such as loss of someone we loved, departure of old friends from this parish family. Some have been the little changes that sometimes feel like thorns in our sides – taking out the Doxology from the worship service, changes in the bulletin. All change can be disorienting, can’t it? But my hope is that we can use this time of change to be something other than mere disorientation.

If we look at what has happened and what is to come not as change, but as transformation, then we move it to the realm of the spiritual, and we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. It becomes something other than a shift in situation, it becomes a chance for the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and fill us with what we need to do things differently, to be different. It becomes the necessary evolution of our understanding of God, and our relationship with God, that informs how we live our lives. It is both wonderful and a little bit frightening.

In a recent episode of “Lost,” one of the characters, Jacob, passes on the responsibility for the survivors to another one, a reluctant one. Jack is understandably nervous about this new role and says, “How long am I supposed to do this?” Jacob replies, “As long as you can.”

That’s the thing about the gift of understanding, and of transformation in the midst of disorienting change. It is a responsibility. But a certain grace comes with it as well.
God knows our limitations.

God asks us to open ourselves to the transformation and the responsibility that goes with it.

But God also gives us help, and even relief, if that is what we need.

So on this day of Pentecost, when we wear our red clothing to remind us of the flames of the Holy Spirit descending on the heads of the disciples, we remember how they were transformed in unimaginable ways, and took on new responsibilities.

We hope that we, too, will be transformed.

Not changed, but transformed.

Not lost, but found.

Not alone, never alone, for the Spirit is with us always, and the flame always burns.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Yes, I've been busy...

...the move and starting the new gig and everything. Bad blogger, I know.

The various and sundry tasks involved with getting settled in the house have fallen disproportionately on me since PH is still wrapping up his practice in Your Nation's Capital. no, I'm not aggravated at him - this was our deal, and I'm fine with that. It's just that it sometimes feels like being pecked to death by ducks. This morning it was the following:
  • arranging for someone to retrieve a zillion empty boxes (thank you, Craigslist, for making it possible to recycle all those boxes rather than taking them to the landfill) to be used in her move.
  • having the insurance inspector come to eyeball the house and see if the insurance company can charge us even more money to insure an older house.
  • getting the city to pick up the brush that PH and his buddy cleared out of the back yard this weekend - what wonderful plants we found after the ugly stuff was taken out!
  • trying to find a replacement part for the dishwasher so it can actually be mounted to the cabinets instead of jiggling freely (don't know whether the contractor or the former homeowner was to blame for that one, which is also related to the improperly mounted microwave, but it doesn't much matter at this point, does it?)
  • searching for the gift card that PH got for his birthday, so we can use it for something useful at the Home Despot.
  • unpacking more boxes and planning the hanging of the pictures in the living room and foyer. Many pictures and antique maps and such of all different sizes - wow. Like planning storming the beach in Normandy.
  • arranging for the plumber to come and complete the installation of our new tankless water heater. Thanks be to God, the city inspector (one of the items on last week's list) approved the new gas line without blinking. Pete, thanks for the nice work.
Yes, I'll take some cheese with that whine. We've got a lovely house, and we can afford to do the odds and ends we need to do to bring it up to snuff. Life is good.

But in the meantime, I'm also trying to untangle some administrative odds'n'ends before my first Vestry meeting tomorrow night (not that I'm nervous or anything). The secretary is reasonably helpful, the parishioners are dear, but there aren't enough hours in the days, and it's hard to know what to tackle first.

These are all good problems to have, though, so I'll just get me a bowl of ice cream and stop complaining now.

Continue what you were doing....

Yes, I know I'm outing myself with the picture above, but I don't say anything quite so radical that the world can't know from whence it came.

Monday, May 03, 2010

First Sermon at the New Place, Rev 21:1-6

The New Jerusalem. A holy city come down from heaven.

That’s what we hear from the Book of the Revelation to John.

I will bet you a good steak dinner that when John’s friends and relations heard that passage that we just heard, somebody said, “New Jerusalem? What’s wrong with the old Jerusalem? It was perfectly fine most of the time, and my Grandmother came from the Old Jerusalem! Why do we need a new one? What’s with all the changes around here?”

And there were other folks nodding their heads, saying “We don’t need a new Jerusalem. We’d much rather have the old one.”

That’s what happens when the world around us swirls with change. We want the swirling to stop, we hate the dizzy feeling it gives us. We want the familiar, the comforting, the good old ways…even when we know that the good old ways weren’t always so good.

Change is an uncomfortable thing…

PH and I moved down to Richmond from Alexandria this past week. Moving is always hard work, even when it’s for an exciting new adventure in one’s life, and we took turns feeling stressed and disoriented by it. Going back and forth on the phone with Comcast to get the cable set up, dealing with buying a washer and dryer for the new place, figuring out how to get our two geriatric cats down here without too much stress on them and on us, all of it made for a hectic week. And yes, we did paint a bedroom or two in the midst of all this, and I wrote this sermon. Change is an uncomfortable thing.

But our worries about the move seem pale in comparison to those folks who first heard the message of the Book of Revelation.

Scholars tell us that this book, the last one in the New Testament, was written somewhere between the year 68 and the year 95. It was not a good time to be a follower of Christ…the emperor Domitian was busy imprisoning, banishing, or martyring Christians. John was using language in this book that was prophetic, to be sure, but in the eyes of the Romans, it was also political. Romans heard this idea of a new Jerusalem about the same way some people today would hear the phrase “new world order…” something that was talking about a new Jerusalem that would replace the world as it existed then. No surprise then, that John was probably exiled to Patmos, where he later died. They saw him as a political instigator.

In that world, at that time, life was not good. In point of fact, Jews and Christians had already lost the old Jerusalem…the great temple had been destroyed and the Jews, and Jewish Christ-followers along with them, had been banished from the city. The small number of Jews and Christians who remained were persecuted. And even those who went to different places, to Greece, to Syria, suffered persecution from the Roman authorities.

So perhaps the idea of a new Jerusalem wasn’t entirely an unwelcome change…perhaps there were possibilities in this new Jerusalem. After all, what was John describing? A Jerusalem so wonderful that it was heaven come to earth. God dwelling right alongside God’s people. That sounds pretty promising, doesn’t it?

Sometimes change is not so uncomfortable, when we see that the new thing may bring great joy.

Even so, while we’re in the midst of it, change takes us out of our comfort zones into something very different.

It feels for all the world like one of those merry-go-rounds in the playground. Not the great big ones with the music playing and the wooden horses we ride on, but the big disks about ten feet in diameter, with poles to hang onto…you get them started by hanging one foot off and pushing, pushing, pushing, until it is spinning at a crazy pace and you’re hanging on for dear life. If you’re looking out from the edge or the center, you see the world zipping by, and before long you’ve got that queasy feeling in your stomach.

Now here’s the trick about those merry-go-rounds: if you look in to the center as you’re spinning, rather than out at the world whirling past, you don’t get sick. Focus on the center, and what happens around you doesn’t affect you anywhere near as much.

It’s not just about merry go rounds, though. It works the same way for us in the midst of change…if we focus on what is important, then the spinning, whirring wheel of change doesn’t make us anywhere near as disoriented.

One of the great change agents of the last century, Mahatma Gandhi, said , “ I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power…is God. And since nothing else I see merely through [my] senses can or will persist, He alone is.” He is talking about that kind of focus on what is really important, the center of our existence, which makes the wheel of change tolerable. We are looking inward to the center, not outward to the world whizzing by.

What is that center?

The Book of Revelation and Mahatma Gandhi agree on this:

The center is God dwelling among us, being with us in all things.

God wiping away every tear from our eyes, even in the midst of making all things new.

God at the center, helping us in the midst of change, comforting us when it feels too strange and new.

That’s particularly good news for us here at the Church by the Lakeside, where it probably feels like there has been nothing BUT change over the past couple of years. Different priests, different ways of doing things, worries about who would eventually be called to be your permanent priest, wondering about where God has been in this time of change.

God has been right here. Dwelling among you. Wiping tears from your eyes, smiling as you smile, nodding graciously as you worship, as you remain faithful to our covenant with the One who has given us life.

God has been right here, helping you to be patient. God has been other places, too, like my former parish, where I have served in a variety of ways for the past 2 ½ years, preparing me to be here with you. God was helping me to be patient as I wondered where I was meant to be.

For this parish, the past couple of years have been a ride on the merry-go-round. Lots of changes and lots of questions and lots of wishes that things would just settle down.

In one sense, my arrival marks a time of settling down. But being Christians means we do not necessarily settle, because God is always calling us to do and be something new.

We have dreams for this place, for welcoming others into this parish family, for finding fresh ways to serve God even as we honor the things we’ve been doing faithfully for a long time. But dreams sometimes mean moving out of the comfortable ways of the old Jerusalem to the surprising and different ways of the new Jerusalem. That’s what the apostle Peter was dreaming about in our reading from Acts earlier this morning…a religion that would bring together Jews and Gentiles without barriers or preferences, a radical concept in that time and place. That was their surprising and different new Jerusalem.

We do not fully know what our new Jerusalem will look like. I can tell you that it will start with prayer and thoughtful discussion of where God is leading us in this time and this place. I can also tell you that our work to discern that new Jerusalem will be open. It will be the work of the whole parish, not just me, and not just the Vestry. We will map our path to that new Jerusalem by focusing on the center, on the God who dwells among us and guides us, and wherever it leads us, God will be with us. Consider me your tour guide, who knows some of the key information you will need….but we will all be walking on the path together, and it will be good.

So we step onto that path, and prepare for change.

Not change simply for change’s sake, but transformation. Transformation into the new Jerusalem. If we allow God to transform us, and if we keep him at the center of what is to come, we will not get dizzy and disoriented. We will know better than ever before where we are going, and it will not frighten us, it will strengthen us.

So let us walk together, toward a future with a new Jerusalem. We are not alone. God dwells among us, this day and every day.