The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

July 7, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

For thus says the Lord:
I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bones shall flourish like the grass;

There is a certain way you can hold a child in your arms. A certain way you shift
your weight from one foot to the other, a certain angle at which you can position your hip. You might sway slowly side to side or bounce if the child needs settling.

This can feel like the most natural thing to do, to pick up a child and rest them on the
little perch your body so easily creates, you don’t have to think about it really, your body knows instinctively what to do.

There is a certain way a child can just collapse into your body, a certain way their
weight can just sink, so utterly, into your chest when they lean back. There is a certain way their feet dangle, a way they can squirm until they find just the right spot.

Holding a child on your hip or the crook of your arm or your on your lap, to give love
and comfort, to receive love and comfort in return, is as basic a human need as to sleep and eat.

And there is a certain moment, sometimes, a moment when you are holding a child
and you and the child are in sync, your limbs relaxed, your breath matching theirs…and in that moment there is peace, such deep and inexorable peace.

Peace…. like a river, to quote the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading from the Old
Testament, a river full to almost overflowing, meandering slowly past the bank. And while our translation of this verse renders the phrase ‘prosperity like a river’, the word in the Hebrew is shalom, peace. This word in Hebrew is not, according to one commentator, a peace that is simply the absence of malice…it is the peace that is the wholeness that comes only through proper relationship with God.

And the people the Old Testament writer was writing for are a people desperately in
need of peace. A people driven from their home, from Jerusalem, in 587 BCE when the
Babylonians invaded and destroyed their city. A people who spent decades, generations, in exile and now, when this text was written, are returning to their home, a home they might not recognize, a home changed and ravaged by years of foreign occupation. But like a child returning to their mother, they are returning to their God who will be there to comfort them and offer them peace.

In today’s Gospel Jesus also speaks of peace. In this commissioning of the 70 to go
out as lambs amidst wolves, Jesus tells these disciples to carry nothing with them, to greet those they encounter with the words “Peace to this house.” They are offering no simple peace however, but like the Hebrew shalom, this is a peace which is about wholeness and relationship with God.

We have lost that sense of the word peace I think. The German theologian Dorothee
Sölle, in her book “The Window of Vulnerability” writes that this Biblical concept of peace has, in this current world order, been absorbed by and become synonymous with security., that we now look to a person with guns and ammunition to provide us with peace.

This kind of thinking leads to walls and tanks and guns. This kind of thinking sees
those fleeing the violent insecurity of a home they once knew and crossing the border of another as a threat. This kind of thinking, which prioritizes security over wholeness and love, separates families and locks up children in cold, crowded dirty cells instead of picking them up, rocking them gently.

But the kind of peace we find in Christ, the kind of peace he talks about in today’s
Gospel, is found in letting go of those things the world tells us lead to security – armies and guns and walls and money and things and achievements- and instead opening our arms wide and embracing those in need of comfort, feeding those who are hungry, holding the hands of the sick and the dying.

Jesus calls us to a kingdom peace, a peace which asks us, each and every one of us, to
leave the security of our comfortable places (our homes, our cars, and yes even our pews) and venture into the world carrying nothing but the Best News Ever that in Christ God entered the world. And in and with and through Christ we too can participate in bringing peace to a broken world.

Taking part in the kingdom peace that Jesus is talking about today also asks us not
only to offer hospitality to those who come through our red doors, but to accept the
hospitality of others in the world, to stay with them a while, to share the stories of our faith and the way the kingdom of God has come near us.

And that is scary, my friends. It scares me. It can feel just as Jesus described, as if we
are lambs being sent out into the midst of wolves. But in the upside kingdom of peace that Jesus proclaims, the lamb carries the blessing of God with them and that kingdom comes near everyone, all we encounter, even the wolves of the world. That does not mean that we will always feel secure, we will always feel safe, but we will have the blessing of the peace of Christ with us.

One of the things I was most looking forward to upon being ordained to the
priesthood was offering God’s blessing at the end of the Eucharist and it is still just about my favorite ‘priestly’ thing to do. And the words that are often offered at the moment are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians which offers the peace of God, which passes all understanding to the community of believers to which he was writing and to us.

And while I love and am deeply grateful for the privilege to offer God’s blessing, I
think that we all should leave here blessing one another, blessing everyone we meet,
reminding the world that the kingdom of God has come near.

So I wonder if, this week, you can offer a blessing to someone or something. It can be
small. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World suggests starting with a stick you might encounter as you walk down the sidewalk. Take a moment, recognize that you did not make this stick, imagine the stick’s story (did a bird once sit on it? did a flower bloom at its edges just a little while ago?), wonder at the miracle of this piece of wood that once was an artery of a tree, and she suggests you can say (whisper perhaps) a blessing:

“ “Bless you, stick, for being you.”

“Blessed are you, o stick, for turning dirt and sun into wood.”

“Blessed are you, Lord God, for using this stick to stop me in my tracks.”

And then maybe, after some practice, you might try a bird, a cat, a friend, the man you
encounter sleeping on the sidewalk…offering the blessing of Christ’s peace, which is really just a recognition of the belovedness of all creation, to the world.

And in these blessings we offer one another, in the relationships we build, in the comfort we give and receive, the comfort like a mother might offer her child, picking her up, adjusting her on the side of her body, swaying side to side….that is the comfort that overflows from God.

That is peace that shall make our hearts rejoice and our bones flourish like grass.

That is the certain way that God holds us all.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 30, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

 

Picture yourself standing on top of a diving board.

You have stood on top of this diving board lots of times before today. You know the stairs that spiral up its hard column. The history of the divers who came before you is written on its treads in wet footprints. You know the railing which bends around the stair’s exterior, its paint flecked off by years of sun and by scores of chlorinated hands. And you know the very top. The flat place where the stairs end, a plain roughened with rubber paint and no-slip strips, calling you out to the edge where the railing ends and where nothing starts.

There is no actual board on this diving board. Just two slabs of concrete jutting out of the tower, a giant “F” at the end of the pool. Maybe it’s more of a diving platform. But, board or not, a diving board – the diving board – is what you and your friends call it.

You have stood on top of this diving board lots of times. What you have never done is jump off of it.

Previous visits to its summit have gotten you as far as the precipice. There, your friends watched as you stood dead still, your hand digging a hole in the railing, your gut turning with equal parts bravado and terror. There you were. Leaning out over the edge, measuring the drop, looking down at the water as though you were staring at it through a pair of binoculars turned backwards. It was impossibly, lethally far away.

Your friends would start to yell then. “Come on!” and “Jump!” Calling out your name, shouting questions. The lifeguard would glance up at you, an expression of impatience flashing in her eyes, her hand starting to reach for her megaphone. Even in the summer sun, the wind was cold.

And then there was the walk back down the stairs. Your embarrassed footprints the only ones facing backwards.

This is the history that you hold with you on top of the diving board.

You wouldn’t be up there today except for this kid. His hair is wild and there is something in his eyes that you can’t name. The two of you horsed around in the shallow end for a while, whipping volleyballs at each other’s heads, but then he was out, heading for the diving board. “Follow me,” he said. And you did.

Down the length of the pool, walking not running past the lifeguard, and then up those stairs. The kid moves fast, frenetic almost, climbing hard, past the lower tine of the “F,” up towards the summit. His words ricochet back down at you, fast and cryptic. You think you hear him say, “foxes have holes and birds have nests…”

And then you are at the top, three or four steps behind the kid. Nothing around you but the railing and the summer sky. Infinity.

The kid stops, sets his face to the board’s end. To glory and terror. He starts into his run.

“Wait,” you say. “I have to call my Dad.”

“Forget your Dad,” he shouts. “Let your Dad call himself.”

And then, he is across the platform and off the precipice. He hangs there for a moment, suspended motionless in the air, high above the water. Wile E. Coyote. But there is no look of confusion on the kid’s face, no little sign in his hand. There are just his eyes. He turns his head and those eyes meet yours. “Follow me.” And then gravity is back and he is gone, down, into the water.

In that instant, a switch is thrown. You know that the wall that has held you back from the precipice, that has pushed you back down the spiral stairs all those other times, is gone. That you could follow him. You could just step off the end of the end of the board and into something new.

Follow me.

“What,” you whisper, “you mean now?”

We spend a lot of time praying for change. For difficult colleagues or classmates or neighbours or fellow parishioners to disappear, for love to walk into our lives, for babies to be born, for the airplane flight or the movie or school to end, for the church to get its act together, for the new government to take office. For a chance. For the opportunity to follow Jesus. And then that change comes, Jesus walks into town, the new sheriff, the spurs on his sandals clinking on the dry and dusty road. And suddenly we’re not so sure. I mean, yes, Jesus, this is what I want. I want to follow you. But I didn’t think you were coming today. 

The Son of God is a lot of things: healer, prophet, priest, preacher, symbol. But maybe most of all he is a teacher. Jesus is always teaching in one way or another. Today his teaching method is one that only the really great teachers can pull off: he is being righteously, intemperately impatient. He is giving us that rare and difficult gift of listening to our list of reasons why we can’t take a risk, and calling BS.

The hard thing is this: our reasons actually seem pretty good. Jesus, I’ve got a family, I’ve got a job, I’ve got responsibilities, I’ve got to finish plowing the field. I’ve got to bury my father. But Jesus is having none of it.

Let the dead bury their own dead. This makes a cas e for being the harshest thing that Jesus says to anyone in any of the Gospels. It is harsher than anything he says to Pilate. It rivals the time when he likens the Canaanite woman to a dog. It is hard to think of a modern paraphrase for Jesus’ statement that doesn’t involve using profanity.

I think Jesus is speaking like this because he knows that this young man doesn’t actually have a corpse waiting for him at home – that burying his father is something that is going to happen years or even decades in the future. That it is the young man’s reason for infinitely postponing his calling. For moving it into that box on his desk called “someday” which Jesus knows most often turns into “never.”

I’m pretty sure that Jesus knows all of this because I’ve actually had this conversation. I’ve been that young man, finding reasons to stay home where it’s safe. And I have had the gift of a mentor who has spoken to me harshly, who has told me to give my head a shake. Who has given me an unwelcome and entirely necessary push into the unknown and away from that dull tragedy which is the life unlived. I hated that teacher for speaking to me like that. I resented his words. And I’m grateful for them now. Maybe you’ve had one of those te achers, too.

The Israeli physicist, Moshe Feldenkrais, said that the world is full of people desperate for change, but on one condition: they don’t want anything to be different.

Feldenkrais named something fundamentally human with that line. Things can’t go on like this – in the economy, in the environment, maybe even in our lives. But, like the smoker thinking about quitting, we know that now isn’t the right time for change. Just a little while longer. I’ll change next week: it’s in my calendar. But not today. Never today.

We shiver as the wind cuts into us at the top of the diving board, stopping our ears to the questions shouted up at us by the kids on the pool deck below. They are the hard questions of childhood. They are the hard questions of life:

Who do you think you are?

What are you afraid of?

We know that if we step off that boa d, something will shatter. Jumping is an ending, a kind of death. We will be changed. It is the ending of our certainty and of our fear. These things will be replaced with… what? We don’t know. A greater fear, one that we won’t be able to manage? A belly flop, like that kid we heard about one time, who hit the water sideways. He walked funny for a year. Or something else, something that we will find in the rush of the wind and in the immense mystery of water, coming at us fast.

Picture yourself standing on top of a diving board. You have stood on top of that diving board lots of times before today. But you have never jumped off of it.

The kid with the wild hair slowly swims away from where he landed, clearing the way for you. From where you are, way up above, it almost looks like he’s walking on the water.

He turns and looks at you with those eyes. Over the din of the pool, over all the shouting, you can just make out his words.

Follow me.

The Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

June 23, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:18-27
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

What is your name? I imagine, as I start here with you good people, I will be asking
that a lot. It is such a simple question, but it can reveal so much.

My name is Jeanne. I am named after my mother. And my grandmother before her.
And her grandmother before her. My name, Jeanne, is a name given to some 8 or 9
women in my family…all but two of them I never met.

Although my name is not quite the same. You see, my mom and grandmother were
Jean spelled in the traditional English way J-E-A-N. But my father was a French
major who spoke the language fluently and beautifully and when I was born he agreed
to carry on this tradition of naming the first born girl Jean but insisted on the proper
French spelling, J-E-A-N-N-E.

When I was a kid I was called Jeannie, as in I Dream Of. I hated my name, most of
the Jeans I met were decades older and my name had the awful distinction of being a
perfect rhyme with the word ‘machine’ which resulted in an endless string of
nicknames of Jeanne, Jeanne the fill-in-the-blank machine.

Our names tell stories, our names might be the only single word that can come close
to capturing who we are…where we came from…who loved us. Were you named after
a favorite uncle, a grandmother or a character in a parent’s beloved novel? Did you
abandon a childhood nickname (Joey, Cathy….um, Marty) once you were old enough
to make your will known? Our names are markers of our identity.

In today’s Gospel the very first thing Jesus does, when this man possessed by
demons, shackled and imprisoned in the tombs by his community, breaks free and
runs naked up to Jesus and shouts “What have you to do with me Jesus, Son of the
Most High?”, the very first thing Jesus does is ask his name.

I wonder how long it had been since someone had asked this man his name. Long
enough, it seems, that having been isolated and alone with only the voices in his head,
he does not remember his own name. Instead the demons which occupy him have
become who he is. “Legion” he replies.

It is no accident that the man responds with a term which invokes the Roman
occupation. This is a man not only tormented by the demons of his own mind, but
shunned and oppressed by the powers and principalities of the world around him: the
Roman empire, the community that keeps him shackled and alone.

Perhaps the name Legion is an amalgamation of all the names the powers in the world
gave him, the names the world still gives to people like him, to identify who and what
he is:

Homeless
Addict
Mentally Ill
Criminal

But Jesus asks his name even though the man has been in the depths for so long that
he can no longer remember it, Jesus asks his name and tries to connect with the
human being, with the child of God beneath all those demonic categories.

And Jesus heals him. Jesus sends all those demons away. He frees the man’s body and
he frees his soul and he is restored to who is truly is.

And what is fascinating about the Gospel story is that the people of the community in
which this man has suffered and been imprisoned, these people whom you think
would be delighted to be free of this frightened and frightening man in their midst,
react to the man’s healing with fear as the Gospel writer tells us:

“Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to
Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of
Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had
seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been
healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked
Jesus to leave them;”

They see this man clean and clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus and rather than rejoice
they are afraid. They do not invite Jesus to stay so that they also might be healed, they
ask him to leave.

Why? Well maybe because the world profits from keeping the systems and the social
and economic hierarchies as they are. Maybe because the devil you know is better
than the devil you don’t. Maybe because change, any change, even one that heals and
makes whole means uncertainty and loss and that is frightening.

Being known, truly known by God, can be frightening. It means giving up the ways
we name ourselves and the ways the world names us and instead claiming an identity
as a disciple of an itinerant rabbi who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, who
preached a Gospel of love and acceptance so threatening to the powers that be that
he was crucified for it. As St. Paul describes it, in this familiar and beloved passage
from Galatians, we are clothed in Christ, in Christ we are ‘no longer Jew or Greek,
slave or free, male and female’. I think, like the man possessed in today’s Gospel, Paul
is pointing us to the powerful truth that in Christ all the ways the world tries to name
us and limit us, all the ways we try to name and limit ourselves, are not the truth of
who and whose we are.

I once heard Jesus whispering my name here. In this place. In this very sanctuary,
through this very text.

I heard it on a day I was not meant to be in church. It was 9 years ago. I was supposed
to be on a plane with my family going on the trip of a lifetime to Iceland which we
had planned for the better part of a year. But instead I was here.

And I was not happy about it. My husband had gotten sick, really sick, and we had
canceled the trip. And as sometimes happens with me, my worry morphed into anger.
But instead of stewing at home I came here, to this place.

I sat in that pew, the one three from the back, with two of my squirmy kids and I was
trying to figure out what to do next. I had finished catechumenate with Mother Esme
and some of the folks in this very room and I felt stirred up and unsettled and was
hoping that the vistas and hot springs and fish I would find in Iceland would clear it
all up for me…I would have some vision on a fjord of what God was going to want
me to do next with my life.

But instead I found myself here. Resentful and frustrated that my plans had changed,
but here. And the Gospel was this very one, this very one, and the homilist was a
guest, a former Greek Orthodox priest named Paul. And I sat and he preached about
Jesus asking the name of the possessed man and connected it to the work he did with
those experiencing homelessness I felt Jesus calling my name. I emailed Paul the next
week and started showing up at the non-profit he worked for and if it were not for
that Sunday in this place and not for this Gospel I would not be standing here, gifted
with the opportunity to serve and worship with you good people. (Isn’t that weird and
wonderful and amazing?)

When we are baptized, when we come together around this table, God calls to us each
by name. We have an opportunity, each week, like the man in the Gospel story, to
have those demons that would rob us of our identity as beloved children of God cast
out by Christ. At the table, at the font, in this place we can be restored to wholeness
and new life. And, like the man in today’s Gospel, we are then commissioned by
Christ to go into the world and share the Very Best News Ever and offer the same
healing to a world that yearns desperately to be reborn.

And so, my friends, the next time someone asks your name, remember your name is
Beloved.

Trinity Sunday/African Mass by the Rev. Dick Toll

June 16, 2019

Lessons:

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

Psalm 8

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is the only Sunday of the year that is set aside for a theological concept.  It is a Sunday to speak to the mystery of God and attempt to explain the unexplainable…to try to speak to the profound mystery that cannot be explained but because we are human beings we enjoy the mystery and want to define God.  Thus, the Trinity.  God is known in three ways.

First of all God is Creator-Father.  The one who has set in motion everything we know within the created order, the world as we know it, Creator of all things, creatures who have lived and died, humanity, space, and time.  We speak of God as a Creator and as human beings we delve into the mystery of God as we learn about creation through science and our God given brains to discover what is already there.  Profound, mysterious, here we are.

Second, is the person of Jesus who came to us as one of us in our humanity as the reflection of the living God to share with us that that is the fullness of our humanity?  He lived and died as one of us.  His reflection of God and the mystery of God is a moment in time that is a transition of our story with God.  We cannot escape His presence in the world.  Millions and millions of people have been a part of his life, death and resurrection over the centuries and today we find the uniqueness of his person in the Eucharist.

And then finally, we experience the mystery of God in the life of the Spirit.  Last week we moved through Pentecost and have once again discovered the way that God moves within us and creation.  We are surrounded in our individual and community lives by the Spirit of God offering light to the world that often lives in darkness.  We know darkness.  We know light.  We know that the darkness if overcome by light and it is in this knowledge that we are led into relating to God as Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Or maybe expressed as Creator, Redeemer and Friend.

Thousands upon thousands of books have explored the subject of the Trinity so I trust that you will read as many of these as possible to further your knowledge.

But, the truth is that each of us as individuals carries the Trinity within us.  And, we are walking, talking, expressions of the Trinity of God as we live and move and have our being.

One way to look at the Trinity is a three legged stool with the seat representing everything within creation, including us, as individuals.  When I was in seminary the theologian by the name of Paul Tillach described the meaning of God “as the ground of all being”….everything below us, around us and above us is the ground of our being.  In Christianity, we discover ourselves through knowledge of our relationship with our neighbor, ourselves and our God.

I am going to switch to a story now and ask you to reflect on what I have just said.  Elaine and I had another opportunity to go to London, England, and feed two cats last month and house sit.  This could become an interesting habit.  The people we cat set for are friends of our daughter.  So, we hope she has many friends in other far away places.  We went to a play in London that had just arrived in Piccadilly Square.  The name of the play is “Come From Away”.  I had never heard of it before, but it is wonderful.  It is a story about 9/11.

Where were you on 9/11?  I was sitting in a restaurant in Milwaukie having just finished my 7:00 o’clock Tuesday morning service and was ordering my breakfast.  The darkness that can invade our lives was happening that day and as the day unfolded we experienced that darkness.  And as a helicopter crashed this week in New York, it was a reminder of the tragedy and fear that sweep through New York and our country on 9/11.

But the story of 9/11 was not just in New York City.  Planes that were in the air throughout the world were diverted to other landing places because no one knew what was happening.

Do you know about the Island of Newfoundland off the East Coast of Canada?  In 2001 on 9/11 the town of Gander in Newfoundland, a town of 10,000 people was suddenly asked to house, feed and comfort 7,000 passengers of 38 planes that were diverted during 9/11.  Thirty-eight planes with 7,000 people became a part of the Gander community for 5 days until their planes were allowed to fly to their destinations. 

The play is filled with individual stories of how the town responded generously to the tragedy that was unfolding in New York City and the way the people of Gander pulled together to welcome total strangers into their homes.  The local radio station would update the needs three times a day and the play itself shows how humanity can do and does respond to the need of others.  There is one person that takes care of the responsibility of caring for 19 dogs and cats aboard the planes and even 2 monkeys.

Relationships come into being.  People fall in love.  Stories of the past are shared.  A Rabbi hears the story of a Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust.  The call for toilet paper fills up a classroom at the school and the radio announcer has to say, “enough is enough”.  The room at the school has no more room for toilet paper.

As the worst was happening in New York City, the 7,000 people saw the best of humanity.  Many of the passengers could not speak English, many religions were represented including Muslim…how to accommodate the many and various needs, dietary, medical, relatives in other countries?  One passenger could not reach her son who was a firefighter in New York.  She later found out that he died during the collapse of the Towers.

A number of children from the Make a Wish Foundation were on their way to Disney World for their birthday.  A 16-year-old girl put together a birthday party for them, which included 350 people with balloons, clowns and cakes.

In general, the people of Gander reacted to the strangers as they would their neighbors: opening up their homes, their hearts, offering food, phone time, showers or just a hug.  So the play is about the 5 days with 7,000 strangers suddenly arriving in a town of 10,000 people.  And, what we find is that in the midst of the darkness there is a light that is lit that shines brightly as people share and care.

And, I would submit to you that the understanding of God as we know God was being acted out in the midst of a community that accepted their place within Creation, shared their space with diverse people.  To remind ourselves of the reading from Romans that we heard earlier, I will read it again.  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

The God of History was acting through the lives of many and this story in Gander, Newfoundland is just one example of how God moves within creation bringing light out of darkness, healing out of suffering as we offer ourselves to each other and to God.

 

The Day of Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 9, 2019 Pentecost

Lessons:

Genesis 11:1-9

Acts 2:1-21

John 14:8-17, (25-27)

Psalm 104:25-35, 37

How shall we tell the story of the people who build the tower with its peak in the heavens?

Today, I’d like to wonder with you about understanding this story as a folk tale or, if you prefer, as a parable. Folk tales have morals, sometimes they even end with the storyteller saying, And the moral of the story is…

And the moral of the story is… Don’t touch other people’s porridge or Don’t talk to strange wolves, no matter how charming they may be. And parables have questions, questions that, somehow, always prove to be just a little bigger than our answers. The folk tale or the parable about the tower built up into the heavens: it ends with a moral or with a question to which the encounter that we call Pentecost then responds.

The folk tale goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a city. And in it there was a rich man. The man figured out how to make money when he was young and across his life he used that money to create still more money. He needed nothing, he wanted nothing. When he would sit down for a meal he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would look at the food on his plate and say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.

In his factories, the man’s many employees toiled away making iPhones and Instant Pots, and in his hotels, his many other employees toiled away, going the extra mile for truly excellent customer service. The man would look at everything that belonged to him, and everyone who belonged to him, and he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would hold his Instant Pot and he would say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.

It was a really nice Instant Pot.

But something was troubling the man. Even though people kept bringing him meals and kept on making him stuff and kept on cleaning his hotels, he had the strangest idea that no one liked him very much.

How could that be possible?

The idea that he was less than immensely popular, that the smiles on his employees’ faces when they met him were forced and false, that the people whom he called his friends would remain at his parties exactly as long as his money lasted and no longer, was an idea that began to keep him awake at night.

And so the man read several books, he watched several TV shows, he retained several very expensive consultants. And he started to notice that a great many people who seemed to be happy and who seemed to have friends said something that went like this:

I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And I love my neighbour as myself.

Not all of the people used exactly those words. But the man had the sense that they meant the same thing.

Now, the rich man found the idea of God strange. Because in stories that he heard, it was God who had made everyone and everything. And the man knew that no one had made him. He was a self-made man. This problem notwithstanding, he wanted to meet God. And so he told all of his employees in his factories to stop building and all of his employees in his hotels to stop cleaning and all of them to get out their shovels and their hammers.

I, he told them, am going to build a tower.

So start digging and hammering.

And so his employees began. And day after day, as the rich man watched, the tower got higher and higher until at last it reached up into heaven itself. On that day the rich man ordered all of his employees out of the building and he ascended to the top in his private elevator and there he stood in his private, heavenly penthouse. He looked around and he said: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.

And then he added:

Well, God, I am here in heaven. Appear to me now.

But God did not appear. And so the man tried again.

This is the tallest and the best tower in the world. So, God, appear to me now.

But God did not appear. And the man became impatient.

God, he said, Don’t you know who I am? Appear to me now!

But God did not appear. The man was alone in what was supposed to be heaven. He opened his window and looked down upon the people, many of whom were his employees. Across the height of the tower the sound of their laughter and their joy and their words floated up to him.

And the rich man had the oddest impression that the people down below were speaking a language that he could not understand.

Chapter Two.

Years passed and the rich man lived in the tower alone. He grew old. Until one day his doctor came to him and said, You don’t have long. Soon you will die.

And the rich man said, I would rather not. How much will it cost not to die?

His doctor cleared his throat nervously. And the rich man said to him in a hoarse, small voice: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything. I will not die.

But even the rich man knew that this was not true.

And so one day, early in the morning, the rich man left the tower. Out he went onto the streets where the people spoke a language that he could not understand. He wandered the streets until he was lost, until even the tower that reached into heaven was out of sight.

A passerby saw the old man, lost and alone. And so she approached the old man to ask if he needed help. But the old man could not understand the words that the passerby said. And the passerby could not understand when the rich and old man replied, when he said:

I am looking for God. And I am so, so lost. I cannot search any more on my own.

And there the two of them might have stood, both wanting to understand, neither being able to.

Except that in that moment something like fire appeared among them. And everyone began to talk at once and the man could understood all of it, all of it. He heard everyone’s joy, everyone’s sadness, everyone’s grief, everyone’s hope.

The passerby said to him: This is the moral at the end of the story. This is the question at the end of the parable.

For the first time in years, maybe for the first time since he was a child, the man giggled. He giggled until he wept and his tears fell down his cheeks and mixed in with the holy flames.

Sixth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 26, 2019

Lessons:

Acts 16:9-15

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

John 14:23-29

Psalm 67

A couple of years back, the author Douglas Abrams traveled to India to record a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The resulting text is called The Book of Joy, and it is an account not just of the week that these two extraordinary people spent together but of their whole lives. They are, both of them now old men, and in The Book of Joy they talk of their lifelong search for meaning and service and love, their encounter with what Tutu would call God and what the Dalai Lama might call by another name. The conversation recorded in the book took place over a week at the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And it is full of remarkable and inspiring moments.

The moment that I am thinking about this morning is when the two of them talk about hardship, about suffering, about unfairness. The Dalai Lama has endured years of exile – as a young person he had had to flee his native Tibet in the middle of the night. Like Jesus and so many other refugees before him, he went to another country to escape the violence of empire. But interwoven with this story of injustice, here is the joy from the book’s title. Even as the Dalai Lama talks of fear and unfairness, delight and laughter are never far away – he and Tutu together are this picture of holy mischief. After the Dalai Lama talks for a while, Tutu stops him and says:

You would expect the Dalai Lama to say that he is joyous in spite of adversity. But somehow he is saying that he is joyous because of adversity.

Tutu talks then about Mandela, about his 27 years in prison and the indignities and the hardships that he endured, but how he was able to emerge from prison somehow transformed. He left prison a kinder, more compassionate, more fully human person than when he went in. And so Abrams asks Tutu, How did he do it? How was he able to see his suffering as ennobling rather than rather than embittering. And Tutu corrects him:

He didn’t see it.

It happened.

The two of them, these two masters late in their lives, are talking about mystery. And like a lot of mysteries, maybe like all mysteries, this one is laden with paradox. Because on the one hand, what they are discussing is rudimentary, almost a formula or a logical progression: they seem to be saying that suffering is necessary, good for us, that it is what makes us fully human. At one point Tutu says that we can almost be thankful for the Chinese invasion of Tibet, because without it the world would likely have been deprived of the Dalai Lama as we know him now.

Except that it’s not simple at all. We all know folks who have not been ennobled or in any way improved by suffering (maybe we’ve all been those folks). We all know folks who, quite to the contrary, have been almost ruined by it. Their cruelty and hostility has been magnified. It is overwhelmingly likely that a child abuser was themselves abused as a child.

And besides, who wants to say thanks for suffering or for unfairness? Who wants to say thanks for the invasion of Tibet or a car accident or for still another school or place of worship getting shot up? One of our family friends suffers from bipolar disorder – what another generation called manic depression – and he is beyond clear that we are not to talk as though there were “something good” about his mental illness, that we are not to talk about a life in which he swings from this fecund but out of control energy and then to thoughts of suicide as though it were a cloud with a silver lining. He is adamant that there is no silver lining, only cloud.

Similarly, among the many alcoholics whom I know and love, I don’t know that I have ever met one who says that there were some pretty good things about rock bottom, about that moment when they realised that booze was running and ruining their lives, that maybe even they understood that they could either stop drinking or die.

And yet.

(And maybe the very definition of paradox is that we have to reach for the words “and yet” when we speak of it.) And yet so many of my friends who have seen suffering and unfairness have been, somehow, set free by it. To hit rock bottom and come back, to encounter a staggering grief and come back, to suffer injustice and come back: that stuff changes you. You are who you are because of that experience. We are who we are because of our experiences of trauma, of grief, of loss.

Sometimes these are the experiences which, while they could embitter us, instead transform us. Instead, they invite us into compassion, into possibility, into holiness and love.

Today, Jesus talks with his friends about peace. And maybe they are confused to hear him do so. After all, these are folks who are poor, some of them dirt poor, who are eking out a subsistence living as fishers and day labourers. They are folks who live under occupation, who endure the constant fear of the state’s violence. And they are living centuries before contemporary medicine. All of that together means that their lives can end brutally and abruptly at any time. To top it all off, Jesus has told them early and often that the state is about to lynch him.

More than one of them gathered in that upper room may be tempted to say:

Peace?

Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?

And at some level, they would be right to do so. If what we mean by peace is a more or less stable middle-class existence, the kind of life that many of us in this room lead, then peace for Jesus and his friends is an absurdity, an impossibility.

But maybe the peace of God is something other than that. Perhaps this is what the hymn is trying to get at when it says that The peace of God, it is no peace. Much as Christian hope is something harder and better than optimism – the resurrection doesn’t say that there is no death, it says that death is real and awful and that God is bigger than death. Much as joy is something harder and better than happiness – if you have ever been up in the middle of the night caring for a baby or for an older person whom you love and whose health is failing, you probably didn’t know much happiness in that moment, but you may have known joy. So is the Peace of God something harder and better than stability.

There is a reason that, come the end of the service, the blessing says:

The Peace of God which…

What does it do?

Which passes all understanding.

God’s peace passes all understanding. God’s peace isn’t easy. But it is good. It is in that peace that we may find that we are following Jesus.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 19, 2019

Lessons:

Acts 11:1-18

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Psalm 148

 

For the past several weeks, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – has told us stories of resurrection. Beginning today, it returns us to the time before Jesus’ death: to the upper room, to the Last Supper, to what scholars call Jesus’ farewell discourse, in which he tells his disciples what his work means, what his life means, what is coming next. With this return to the time before the great change, it is as though the lectionary, just like the disciples some 2000 years before, is looking back into its memory and saying, Now that we have seen the cross, now that we have seen the empty tomb, what do Jesus’ words and actions mean? How are they different in light of what we have experienced?

Jesus’ words today are prefaced by a brief and vital detail, by words that, if this were a play about the last supper, we would call a stage direction:

When Judas had gone out…

And drawing on the work of a scholar by the name of Frederick Niedner, I want to suggest that this preamble, this information about the departure of Judas, is our key to understanding what Jesus says next. In particular, these words are the key to understanding Jesus’ new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

When Judas had gone out, Jesus said to them, Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

The Gospels tell us that, as Judas walks out the door, Jesus knows what Judas is about to do. He knows that Judas is going to betray him. Maybe his other friends, the other disciples, guess what is going on as well. And so a possible a way of reading Jesus’ subsequent commandment is to say, You need to love one another. Don’t be like that guy, Judas, who is totally failing at the whole loving thing.

And maybe that’s right. There is a long and well-attested reading of the Bible in which Judas is the villain of this tale, the cautionary example, the guy whom we are permitted to loathe. I had a colleague in the theatre biz who toured for a while with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. And he said that, come the moment when Judas hanged himself, there were audiences who cheered.

But there is actually nothing in the Bible that insists on that reading, that insists on Judas as the icon of contemptible evil and, therefore, as the one whom we may safely hate. Indeed, there are scholars who make the case that Judas is really not so different than Peter or the other disciples. Come the moment of the cross, come the moment when empire’s violence descends on them, 100% of the disciples fail Jesus. (Well, actually, that’s not true. 100% of the male disciples fail Jesus, running away, preferring their own safety over fidelity to their Lord. The women stay with Jesus to the very end.)

What if hating Judas gets Jesus’ words totally backwards? What if Jesus, as Judas walks out the door to betray him, is saying to his disciples: I know you want to hate Judas right now. I can understand that. But I’m giving you a new commandment, you need to love one another – including Judas – as I have loved you.

Maybe that sounds like a stretch. If it does, stay with me. Because I’d like to us to notice Jesus’ new commandment. What he says to his disciples, what he says to us, is a change, a variation upon, an expansion or magnification upon the golden rule. The new commandment is not Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nor is it Love your neighbours as you love yourself..

Now, those are a good commandments. It is good to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Except.

Except what if the way that you want to be treated isn’t the way that another wants to be treated? If I love spicy food – and forgive me if this is a silly example – and my neighbour can’t so much as look at a jalapeno without starting to weep, then treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated by preparing a flaming hot dish would actually be kind of mean. There’s lots more examples, and lots more serious examples, of ways in which treating my neighbour the way that I want to be treated would neither be loving nor kind.

But what about loving others as you love yourself? That might be a better commandment. Any time that we are talking about love, we are talking about God. As our Presiding Bishop rightly never tires of saying, the Way of Jesus is the Way of Love. But as several of my friends and acquaintances were saying recently in a surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced conversation on Facebook, what if you are in a season of your life when you don’t especially love yourself? Are you morally required, required by Jesus even, to share your hurt with the world, maybe even to have contempt for neighbour as you have contempt for yourself? Clearly, there are people in the world who are doing that very thing – who are projecting their misery and anger outwards. We have all been those people at one time or another. We don’t need to look further than the news to see more of them.

And maybe it is because of these problems that Jesus, on the night before his betrayal, gives us this new commandment. Jesus says:

Love one another, not as you love yourselves, but as I have loved you.

We are to love one another as Jesus loves us.

As Judas walks out the door, that raises a few questions. The first one goes something like this:

Whom does Jesus hate? Whom does Jesus exclude? Of whom, as he hangs dying on the cross, does Jesus say, Father, do not forgive them?

The second question goes like this: When Judas goes out into the darkness, do any of his friends follow him, do any of them search for him? Does anyone miss their friend? What about later, after Judas brings the soldiers to Gethsemane? Does anyone look for him them, try to reach him with God’s love, a love that extends even into his shame, his anger, what Niedner calls his rapidly deepening hell?

And what about the Judases in our own lives? The people who have betrayed us, who have hurt us profoundly? Dare we go looking for them? Dare we trust the difficult, beautiful  news that the love of God extends to them as well? And – maybe this is still harder – what about the times when we are Judas to another, when what we have doneor left undone has left another feeling profoundly betrayed? Will we allow the possibility that they will follow us into the darkness?

Dare we accept this new commandment? Dare we abandon the comfort of having a villain who is outside of our love? Dare we to say yes to being part of the staggering love of Jesus?

Third Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 5, 2019

Lessons:

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

Psalm 30

The encounter or the experience that we call conversion is about seeing and being seen. It is about being named.

First, seeing and being seen.

My vision fell off a cliff around the time that I turned 12. This is not a metaphor. In what felt like just a handful of days, but I suppose what must’ve actually been a handful of months, I went from being able to see at distance pretty well to blackboards turning green and vague and even stop signs morphing into red clouds on sticks.

I remember the day that I put on my new set of glasses. And, well, it was revelatory. I had never noticed or, I guess, I had forgotten how much texture there was on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, how there were veins in the leaves of the trees, how our cat was something other than a diffuse blob that moved around the house, periodically meowing.

Conversion is like that. Meeting Jesus is like that. In conversion we understand something, at least in part. But there is more than a new set of glasses going on, more than clarity when we meet Jesus. Because in conversion we realise that the clarity is mutual, that it is reciprocal. To turn around Paul’s language a little, in conversion we know and are known.

Now, I don’t mean that, in conversion, God sees us for the first time. God has always seen you and me. As Jeremiah proclaims, God has known you since before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Rather, I mean that in an encounter with Jesus, we understand, we know that we are seen by God.

This experience of being seen is powerful, it is transformative. If you have had a great teacher in your life – and if you have enjoyed any kind of success, any kind of happiness, I predict that you have had several great teachers – then you will know what it is to be seen. What is amazing about a great teacher is that, in order to free you up for the profound wonder that is learning, they don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are. A lesser teacher wants and maybe needs you to be just like them. They know how they learn and they want you to fit within their model. A great teacher, by contrast, wants and needs you to be utterly, freely yourself.

Jesus sees you as you are and wants you to learn and thrive and grow as you are.

Second, being named.

Sometimes when we encounter the holy, we get a new name. Some of us come out of the sacrament of marriage with a new last name, all of us come out of the sacrament of baptism with the new name Christian. And there are other sacraments, ones not named in the prayer book, where we get new names too. For some of you there was a day when you received the name Mom or Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, Uncle or Aunt, Brother or Sister, or Friend. Hearing that name applied to you was maybe a little startling and a little beautiful all at the same time.

If we live long enough, we will receive other names, too. These names are harder. But maybe, maybe they are not less holy. To stand in a hospital corridor, for instance, is sometimes to be handed new and unwelcome names, names such as Next of Kin or Survivor or Widow or Orphan or the Bereaved.

In joy and in grief alike, we receive these new names. These names are outward and visible signs of our encounters with God.

In a way, it’s weird that the lectionary has paired this reading from Acts alongside this reading from John, that it has paired Saul along with Peter. After all, Peter is one of the very first of the disciples, he has followed Jesus from the very beginning, he was there long before the crowds, when absolutely everyone listening to Jesus’ words didn’t even add up to a dozen people. And Saul, well, when this story starts he is an ethnic cleanser, a supporter of the death squads. He is, Acts tells us, breathing threats and murder against the disciples.

But at another level, the pairing of these two people and these two stories makes total sense. Because Saul and Peter are both folks whose lives have been damaged by violence, whose lives have been shaped and distorted by the hatred of mobs. They are both folks, as a consequence, to whom Jesus comes – as Richard Rohr says, Jesus always goes towards the pain. They are both people who see Jesus and know that Jesus has seen them, they are both people who get new names after meeting God. Saul becomes Paul, and Peter (remember way, way back at the start of the story when his name is Simon), gets this new name, Peter, which means the Rock.

And they are both people who, in the stories that we hear today, are converted.

Clearly, the story from Acts is the conversion of Saul. And I’d like to make the case that the story from John is also a conversion story, that it is something like the second conversion of Peter.

Okay. I’ve just shared a whole lot of ideas in a row. Let’s see if we can unpack them a little bit. And let’s start with violence.

It is, I would venture, obvious how Saul has been distorted by mob violence: he is someone who is participating in and celebrating the Ancient Near East’s answer to lynching. And while, clearly, Peter has done no such thing, he does remain someone whose very understanding of himself has been shaped and shaken by the violence of a crowd. Because Peter at the last supper, remember, is the guy who says that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to death, that he will never deny Jesus. And he is the guy who, when confronted with the horror of the crowd’s violence, with the horror of the cross, denies Jesus three times.

So both of these men come into these respective tales having been profoundly diminished by violence, having had their understanding of themselves and of the world bent by violence. It’s fascinating to notice, by the way, that Peter starts this story naked. His very body is a metaphor, it is an outward and visible sign of how everything has been stripped away from him in the crucifixion.

Both Saul and Peter begin with this inability to see. Saul abruptly becomes blind. And Peter, like the rest of the disciples in the boat, can’t quite figure who it is on the shore in the early morning light who is calling out to them. As Paul Nuechterlein, whose work really shaped this sermon, says, the words, “Who are you?” are on the tips of all of the disciples’ tongues. But somehow nobody on the lake that morning dares to spit out that question, because – and how enigmatic or paradoxical is this? – they all know that it is Jesus.

Saul actually does ask the question, “Who are you?” And Jesus replies, fascinatingly, wondrously, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Not, I am Jesus, and you are persecuting my disciples, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Here, from the risen and ascended Lord, is an echo of the Beatitudes: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me.

Saul, now groping about in darkness in the middle of the day, is lucky enough to meet some people who are kinder than he is, and he is led further into Damascus. He finds his way into a room where, lost, he devotes himself to prayer. And this disciple, Ananias, comes to him. Ananias who is afraid of Saul with good reason, but who trusts Jesus more than he fears Saul, and who goes and lays hands upon Saul – Brother Saul, he even calls him. He says, Jesus has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit.

And something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes. And after he gets his strength back, he begins to proclaim everywhere that Jesus is the Son of God.

Peter meanwhile swims to the shore. (I love the weird detail that he puts on clothes to jump into the water – that’s the opposite of what most of us do. I love the even weirder detail that the net that he and his buddies haul in the incredibly specific number of 153 fish.)

And there, for the second time in not very long, he stands around a charcoal fire.

Remember that Peter is standing around a fire in the cold of the night when he denies Jesus. In the resurrection, in this moment of conversion, that scene is inverted or reversed. Jesus, wondrously, gives to Peter the chance to reverse his actions. Much as there were three denials, Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to say, I love you.

The scene is amazing enough in translation, in English. It is a picture of resurrection, of forgiveness, so beautiful that it might just put you on your knees. But it is even more amazing in Greek. Because in John’s original language, there is a fascinating discrepancy in Jesus’ words and in Peter’s. The Greek has multiple words for Love, and so what Jesus asks Peter is Do you agape me? And Peter responds, Yes Lord, I philio you. And then a second time, Peter, do you agape me? To which Peter says, Yes, I philio you.

What happens the third time? Does Peter finally get it, does he finally use the right word? That’s what we might expect. But it’s not what happens. Jesus says:

Peter, Do you philio me? In other words, he sees Peter right where he is, he uses his language, he names him right where he is, he joins him right where he is.

This is what happens in conversion. For Saul, for Peter. For you and me. This is the moment, however fleeting, when we see Jesus and we know that he has always seen us, when we are given new a name, a name like Disciple, like Christian, like Beloved Child of God.