Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 2013 John 14:8-17 (25-27), Acts 2:1-21 “Here’s Your Sign”

A few years back, a delightful comedian named Bill Engvall did a recurring routine based on the premise that stupid people should have to wear warning signs that simply state "I'm stupid." Each time someone said something dumb, someone would reply with a sarcastic comment ending with the phrase “here’s your sign.” Here’s your sign that you are not very bright. For example, Engvall told of a trucker who got his truck stuck under an overpass, and the responding policeman asked "Hey, you get your truck stuck?" The trucker answered, "No sir, I was delivering that overpass and I ran out of gas. Here's your sign." It got to the point that whenever Engvall told a story like this, when he got to the snarky response, there would be a two second beat, and then the whole audience would chime in with the tagline – “Here’s your sign.”

Signs are important to us, and not just to suss out who’s bright and who’s not.

We like to have clear and unambiguous signs to tell us what is going on, whether we’re driving in a strange city or trying to figure out who is the power player in a business meeting. We feel ill at ease if we are in a different place or situation than we have known before – some guidance helps reduce our anxiety. That’s the reason why books like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” are such bestsellers!

In the midst of frightening, disorienting moments, we want someone to say, “Here’s your sign!”

Well, imagine you’re the disciple Philip. Jesus has died, risen again, and has come back and visited for a while. Nothing has prepared you for this strange situation, so you are trying to figure out how to make sense of it all. So you ask Jesus to provide you with a sign. “Show us the Father.” I don’t know if Philip is simply trying to see if Jesus is really who he says he is – as if there were anyone else who could do what Jesus had done by reappearing to the disciples after death and resurrection – or if he is still trying to wrestle with the notion that Creator God sent his Son to earth. In any case, he is looking for a sign, something that will help him figure this thing out. And here’s the point where Jesus could say, “Here’s your sign,” because Jesus knows this is the dumbest thing Philip could ask for to figure things out, but instead, Jesus is a bit kinder than Bill Engvall.

Listen to what he says: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” In other words, I am the sign you are looking for, both in my words and in my actions. I am the Father, the Father is me. Here’s your sign.

We don’t know how Philip responded to Jesus’ words in this exchange, because Jesus keeps on talking and talking, trying to get out all the things he has to tell them before he ascends to heaven. It takes all the way to the middle of the next chapter in John’s gospel for the disciples to get a word in edgewise, and then they simply say, “Yes, we understand now.” Somewhere in the midst of all those words, they get the sign they need.

And then Jesus ascends to heaven, and they are left alone. They gather in a room together to try and figure out what happens next. It is a profoundly disorienting and difficult time for them. It was all so much easier when Jesus was there, able to explain things, but now they are on their own, it seems. They need a sign, even more than Philip did. Something, anything, that might help alleviate the fear that they are unable to do what they are supposed to do, maybe even the fear that they don’t really know what to do. So we have this group of sweaty, stressed out disciples in the room. Perhaps they’ve argued about what to do next. Perhaps some of them think they should just go back to their everyday lives. Perhaps there’s a little jockeying for power going on.

But whatever is going through their minds, something very strange happens. A great wind rushes through the room. Little bits of flame – tongues of fire – appear over each of their heads, as if some energy force was sprouting there, or entering there. And suddenly they have been changed in some way.  When they speak, they can speak in a whole panoply of different languages. Not just Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek or even a little Latin, the most likely languages for these disciples to speak. No, they are speaking languages that they could not have possibly known before this very moment, when that great wind swept into the room and into them.

Other people hear the commotion and come to see what is going on. It’s Jerusalem, a hub of the Eastern and Western world, so there are people from all over, each of whom speaks his or her own language.

And it is the oddest thing. Each of those people, speaking each of those languages, understand what the disciples are saying.

Here’s your sign.

Well, what is it a sign of? Jesus has ascended to heaven. They are now on their own. The wind, that rushing wind, has filled them with something, an ability, a charism – that Greek work for gift – to share the word, not only to those who speak like them, but to everyone, in any language.

If the disciples had had any doubt about what they were supposed to do next, this final gift from the One who loves us all takes away any doubt. They are now fully equipped to go and share the story of what happened to them, when they met Jesus of Nazareth. They are now able to tell everyone everywhere the good news – that we are beloved by our Creator, who sent his only Son Jesus to teach us about how great that love is. Here’s their sign.

Some people say that this day, Pentecost, marks the birthday of the church. And if it is a birthday, there must be candles, right? Imagine the disciples, in that room, feeling the whoosh of that rushing wind, and then the dancing tongues of flame atop their heads, warming their hearts but not burning them. In that moment , they have become the candles, the birthday candles. They have become, as Jesus said, a light to the world.

But the real miracle of Pentecost is that gifts like those that were bestowed on the disciples in the room are also are bestowed on us. Some of us may speak different languages, that gift mentioned in the story, but some of us have been given other gifts: listening hearts, a gentle touch, fierce advocacy, an ability to share Christ’s story with simplicity and grace…

Those gifts dance on our heads with greater beauty than the little dance that Harrison and I attempted this morning – neither of us have a career in dance, I’m afraid. But our collective gifts as members of the Body of Christ, will help us to welcome others into the story that Jesus told those disciples, that Jesus has told struggling people throughout the centuries, that Jesus keeps on telling those who need to hear his voice today, through us and our words and works and prayers.

Pentecost is not a one-day thing. It isn’t just that one day over 2000 years ago. It isn’t just the one day a year we remember that first Pentecost. No, it is every day. Every day, we are given the gifts we need from God to do what God requires of us. We are the candles. We are now the light of the world.

And all that’s left to ask is this: how are you going to shine? Here’s your sign. Here’s your shine. Go from here today aflame, on fire, ready to light up the world.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2013 (Easter VI) John 17:20-26 “Love is Stronger than Death”

The image burned itself into my consciousness when I saw it earlier this week. A man and woman locked in an intense embrace. His face turned toward the camera, a single dark red tear trailing down his cheek. Her body arched, an elegant swan-like neck extended and her face blocked from view, and yet the power of that arching neck carried down the length of her body as she pressed against her partner. Her red sari, with the gold embroidered edge, rippling in folds around her. Both of them the color of the dove-gray dust, encased in shrouds of debris. They had died together, in each other’s arms,  in the collapse of the building in which they worked in Bangladesh.

Love is stronger than death.
Another image, equally unforgettable. An ancient icon, painted in Russia almost a millennium ago. The body of Jesus is being lowered from the cross. His mother embraces his upper body, which folds in on itself in its lifelessness. The tenderness in her cradling gesture is unmistakable as the men struggle to remove him from the instrument of his death.

Love is stronger than death.

It seems to make no sense…love is marked by touch and talk and feeling and interacting with our beloved. We embrace, we cry, we laugh together, we push our beloved away in anger, we cradle our child, we smell our beloved’s perfume, our baby’s sweet warm baby-powder scent. That’s love. It’s an emotion that is embodied, it’s part of our very bodies. And death is the end of our bodies, isn’t it?

But love is stronger than death.

And that is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John today.

He says “I love all of these whom you have given to my charge. I love them, and because of that, they have come to know your divine love. And I will love them all, always.”


Love is stronger than death.

Jesus’ human body died. We heard that story of the Good Friday that was not good, the day when Jesus was crucified and died.  But after three days in the place of the dead, he rose again, and we heard that story of resurrection on Easter Sunday. And, in recent weeks, these days of the Easter Season have been the story of Jesus’ return after the resurrection for his final instructions to his disciples to continue the work he began. This past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, when Jesus left for the final time, going to be with his heavenly father. We would not see him again on earth until the last days, the second coming.

End of story, right? Sure seems that way. Jesus was here among us. He died. He rose again. He came back for a little while. He ascended into heaven. Gone. The story ended.

But love is stronger than death.

If it were not so, would we not be unmoved by the photograph of the man and woman locked in a final embrace amidst the debris in Bangladesh? If it were not so, would we not share Mary’s heartbreak as she embraced the poor broken and lifeless body of her son?

Love is stronger than death. Jesus’ love for us was so great that he died to redeem us from our sins. His love was so great that he came back, just to make sure that the disciples were still on task. His love was so great that, even when he ascended to heaven, he said, “I love you. I’ll be back later.”

Love is stronger than death.

I cannot begin to list the stories I’ve been told by parishioners who have lost a dear one and who feel their presence, even to the point of believing they have seen the beloved one. My father died when I was 17. Two years later, during a time of turmoil, I was walking down the street and saw him walking ahead of me. I was utterly convinced it was my father and just seeing him calmed my heart.

Whether it was my father or someone who looked and walked like my father was irrelevant. At a time when I needed to sense his protection and love, I felt his presence.

Neuroscientists would have a scientific explanation for this experience. I’d say something a little different, not disagreeing with them, but viewing it through my own lens.

Love is stronger than death.

When I needed him, my father was there. Perhaps it was an idealized view in my own mind, a neurological or psychological phenomenon, because I missed him and needed him. It didn’t matter. The love I felt from him and for him in the moment transcended the fact that he had been dead and buried for two years. Love is stronger than death, and it supports us in ways beyond number.

Jesus’ love for us, a love beyond our imagining, saves us, heals us, encourages us, comforts us. He promises the continuation of that love until the end of time. He says “surely I am coming soon!” And in the time when we feel most lost, most in need, we sense his love, the constancy of it, the presence of it.

We are approaching the end of the retelling of the story of Jesus’ history and his work on earth. Our bishop reminded us at this week’s clergy conference that next week, Pentecost, is the close of Jesus’ story. Then, something shifts in our work in church between Pentecost and Advent…it is now time for our story, our response to what God did. It becomes a time of doing, after all that God has done.

We can only do that, the praying, the discerning, the working, because of the love that Jesus showed us and taught us. And if the love ended when Jesus ascended to heaven, we’d be lost.

But it didn’t end.

It doesn’t end.

Love is stronger than death, and we, the people of Jesus, are marked forever as  ones who received that love. Thus marked, we are the ones who are intended to share that love. Not a transitory love, not a mere embrace. A forever kind of love. A love that is stronger than death.

Love God. Love your family. Love your neighbors. Love your enemies. Love those whom you don’t understand. Love those whom you don’t know. Love them all with a love stronger than death. Love them with a love that is eternal life. Love them with Jesus’ love.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday Five: Random Questions

A great series of admittedly random questions for today's Friday Five from revkjarla:

1.  If you could hear what someone is thinking for a day, who would you choose, and why?
I am torn between President Obama (can you imagine how many times a day he thinks "what an idiotic thing that guy just said?") and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, enthroned just last month (can you imagine how many times a day he thinks "why did I say yes, O Lord?")

2.  If you were trapped in a tv show for a month, which show would you choose, and why?
I cannot imagine anything more unpleasant than being trapped in a network tv show, but I can imagine being with Tony Bourdain and traveling around for "No Reservations." Second choice? Anything on PBS with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the most fun science geek on the planet.

3.  If you could do any job in the world for a day, what would it be?
Perhaps being the archivist for Julia Child's papers...what recipes and memories are hidden therein? Frankly, though, I truly love the job I have right now in a way that I haven't loved any job before. 

4.  What are you loving right now?
The nifty new media center my husband built for our living room - we had all the equipment sitting on a useless window seat before, and there were cables snaking around everywhere. Now everything is tucked neatly away, and that corner of the living room looks nice and fresh. I also love my FitBit, which keeps me motivated to walk as much as possible.

5.  Use these words in a sentence:    bless, cheeseburger, chihauha, skipping, Georgia.

In Georgia, they bless the cheeseburgers (although not with as much fervor as the chili dogs at the Varsity); but here in Richmond, only the chihuahuas are skipping after eating them.

You can play, too - just respond with a link to your blog if you've played. 

Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Things We Do.

It's delicate work, this work we do. People bring us their most difficult problems and trust us with them. They come to us when they are broken. They expect that we will have wise words that will help heal. They rarely wonder if we have broken parts. They usually do not know when we are tired, or sick of hearing of others' pain because we are trying to manage our own.  

The day the veterinarian called three minutes before I was to lead the noontime service to tell me my beloved old cat had died while they were prepping her for surgery. The time I was waiting for results of a medical test. The call from a troubled soul immediately after the one when I heard  my daughter was hospitalized.

And yet we do this work because we are called to it and because we love it and because it is a privilege.

Eight of the longest hours of my life sitting at the bedside of a dying woman, cradling the woman's weeping mother, as the life literally drained out of her daughter. The shocked look on the face of two young parents as they looked at the new baby, sleeping oblivious to the panicked words of the mother. The single tear of joy wending down the face of an exquisitely beautiful bride as she whispered her vows to the man who adores her.

Every clergywoman I know balances the demands of the work with the privilege of the work. It exhausts us and exalts  us.

I am trying to learn how to keep balance between the incredibly difficult work and the necessary time alone or with my husband to recharge my batteries. People's needs don't fit neatly into a schedule, though, and it is not possible for me to say I cannot go to a dying person's bedside because it is my day off. 

There are no easy answers to this, but it is something that will be part of my work.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2013 Acts 16:9-15 “New Rivers”

It’s an interesting fact in the story of Paul going to Macedonia that the key person in the tale is not the fellow who appears in Paul’s dream. It is Lydia who both receives Jesus’ word and the gift of baptism from Paul, and who then becomes an ardent advocate for Christ and supporter of Paul’s ministry.

Who is this woman? She is a gentile, but one who is attracted to the Jewish religion. She goes to the river to prayer, presumably with other women, since even Gentiles regarded separation of the sexes as appropriate. She has not yet made the full commitment to conversion to Judaism.

She is a businesswoman who is successful enough to own  her own home. She deals in cloth, specifically purple cloth. That kind of cloth is reserved for the use of the upper classes, so she regularly has contact with people of power and wealth. She is, in fact, the first person converted by Paul in Europe, since she lives in Philippi, in Greece.

So Paul lands in Philippi and meanders down to the river, a usual place of prayer, and there are a group of women, including Lydia. He speaks to the women and Lydia is particularly taken with the message.

So intrigued is she that, after Paul baptizes her in the river, she insists that Paul and his traveling companion stay at her home.

What a woman! And when it comes to the church Paul founds at Philippi, Lydia is not the only woman of note. Paul refers to Euodia and Synteche, other women who were key to the mission work that he started in that place.

For some, that may be a surprise, because we may have heard folks quoting Paul saying “women should be quiet in church” (I Cor 14:34) or that “women should submit themselves to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22).

Those words are often used when someone does not want women to have a leadership role in the church or in the home…but if that is what Paul says to the churches in Corinth and Ephesus, what is he doing lauding the work of Lydia, Euodia and Synteche in Philippi? Or the fact that he cites a woman named Chloe as a key leader in the church in Corinth even as he says women should be quiet?

Seems a little confusing, doesn’t it?

But perhaps not.

Paul is a missionary. He goes to different places, with different cultural mores, and sets up churches and then moves on. He has to find the best people to carry on his work, and he has to deal with the way people are used to doing things, including respecting the social structures that are prevalent. Missionaries know you can only change things so much from the standard culture in a place, and Paul is nothing if not a smart missionary.

So he responds to the people and the place where he goes. He reads the context, as social scientists might say, and he works within that context.

And when they write to him with questions or problems, he answers them as a pastor who knows that one size doesn’t fit all. What works in Corinth might not work in Galatia. What works in Ephesus might not make any sense at all in Philippi.

So of course he welcomes the fervent support of a rich woman like Lydia in Philippi. She is powerful and influential, which will lend some protection to this messianic movement. She is smart and committed. Who wouldn’t encourage her to lead, just as he lauds the work of Euodia and Synteche?

We don’t know why he seems to be so intent on keeping women in their place in Corinth or Ephesus. Some of it may be that culturally, in those places where women were traditionally viewed in second-class roles, it made more sense to guide the church to a place that was more congruent with the way things worked there. Maybe there was one particular woman who aggravated him – Paul does seem to get aggravated with people on a regular basis.

But again, I emphasize that Paul is nothing if he is not a smart missionary and a wise pastor. He reads the context and responds to it.

And it this point, I imagine you’re thinking “what in heaven’s name does this have to do with us? We’re past the point of keeping women quiet, and we certainly have female leadership in the church and in the secular world.”

Well, it ties to who we are, where we are, and what God has in mind for us.

 We have been in conversation about what kind of church we want to be, what kind of church God wants us to be, and how we make that happen. The implication of that statement is that we are changing in some way.

That’s not a surprise. The world has changed, and our neighborhood has changed around us. The time when church activities were the only social activity most evenings, when everyone belonged to a church and every teen belonged to a youth group and every family centered their life around the parish is past. Now children and their parents juggle sports schedules, SAT prep classes, music lessons, dance classes, and part-time work as well as church activities. Now adults fight to make time for their spiritual lives even as their bosses insist on overtime, as they try to find time to work out to stay healthy, as they struggle to find at least one day a week when the whole family will sit down for a dinner together. Even singles don’t escape the pressures to do lots of things that make church activities just one more competing force.

So what does it mean to be in conversation about what kind of church we want to be? The hard answer is that it means that the things that worked in the past will not work now. We have got to get creative, and we have got to be smart, just like Paul.

This is our context. We are standing at the edge of a different river than our parents did. 

How are we going to see the Lydias, the Euodias, the Syntoches, all those who are hungry for something that they know is missing from their lives? How are we going to welcome those who might seem unlikely newcomers, as women may have been unlikely in Paul’s day?

We pray. We listen. We try new things. We think hard about what welcome truly means. 
We get a little more humble and look for the gifts newcomers have, rather than thinking we are the ones who have something to give them.

I am grateful for Harrison’s great work in helping us start the conversation. It will be an ongoing one, and it will necessarily evolve as we learn and discern more.

But if we learn nothing from Paul’s experience in Philippi, we must learn that those who might be the moving forces behind new growth in our parish might be the most unlikely ones, the Lydias, the Chloes, the Junias…

…unlikely missionaries. Unlikely gifts to us, even more than we are gifts to them.

So welcome them and listen to them. This is a new world we live in, and while we honor the beauty and comfort of our traditions, we must – WE MUST – be prepared to partner those traditions with the new things. Like the river where Lydia was baptized, like the river described in the passage from the Book of Revelation, we are white-water rafting down a new river of life. What and see what God has in mind for us now!