Monday, May 21, 2018

Give Us Faith's Imagination

Yesterday as Christians celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, I sat with my wife in the pews of All Saints Church in Worcester. It was a wonderful celebration which included great music and a terrific sermon preached by my friend, the Rev. Ned Prevost.

The recessional hymn was Gracious Spirit, give your servants. The text is written by an Episcopal priest named Carl Daw. It has been said that the one who sings prays twice. If that's true, then we should pay more attention to hymn texts, which are poems really. In the third verse of Daw's "double prayer" the congregation asked God to "give us faith's imagination, hope's renewing, love's delight."

Faith, hope, and love. These three, St. Paul said. These three that form and shape congregations, guided by the Spirit. But what stayed with me after the dismissal was the way the poet connects faith with imagination. Give us faith's imagination. What might that look like?

I've preached many times over the years on faith, perhaps most consistently when preaching on Thomas, as I did not too long ago. (See here.) I tried to say there (and at other times) that faith is not primarily a noun about what we say we believe, but a verb focused on trust. So I won't say much more about that here.

What struck me in Daw's hymn, however (which I'm sure I've sung before, but somehow glided over these two words) is that trust leads us, with God's help, to imagination. This word comes from the Latin word, imago, which means image. Imaginari means, "to picture oneself." Imagination is about the ability to be creative or resourceful. It's that second meaning that strikes a chord with me.

Wisdom, in the Old Testament sense, is not a heady philosophical idealism. It's about resourcefulness. In Proverbs, the sage counsels learning from the ant. This is not Plato's cave! It's about learning how the world works and navigating our way through a sometimes unsteady and confusing world. Imagination as creative resourcefulness doesn't take our heads into the clouds, in other words, but takes us body/mind/soul into the world and all of it's challenges.

Give us faith's imagination. With God's help, we can imagine the world as otherwise. We can imagine justice and compassion. We can imagine our work as instruments of God's peace and as agents of reconciliation. We refuse to stand idly by, and instead find ways to act, however imperfectly, by taking a step toward love of God and neighbor. Faith's imagination allows us to be creative and resourceful in picturing ourselves as making a difference, if not halfway around the world, then at least in the neighborhood: to the neighbor sitting next to us on an airplane, or driving too slowly in front of us, or trying to find forty-seven cents in her purse when we thought this would be a quick errand for milk...

Give us faith's imagination. I love the Church. Anyone who knows me or has heard me preach or has read this blog before knows this. I actually have a fairly high tolerance for the Church's imperfections. But perhaps what gets under my skin more than anything besides clergy misconduct is how anxiety shuts down our imaginations. In our anxiety we chase the next "fix." We think we can operate congregations, and manipulate them, as if they were clocks. Clergy are more susceptible to this than lay people but lay people are not immune to this danger.

We need faith's imagination, not to grow the Church but to form disciples who can take faith's imagination with them into the world - and into our homes - so that the world might have life, and have it more abundantly.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Come, Holy Spirit

The readings for the Feast of Pentecost can be found here. I've got the day off and will be in the pews. But here is what I'd say if I was preaching today. Come, Holy Spirit. 

Today is all about the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. 

Today's reading from Acts speaks of the Spirit as like the rush of a violent wind. We know how powerful the wind can be. And while the Spirit may sometimes feel like a cool summer breeze, that is not how it’s described in the second chapter of Acts. The Spirit stirs things up and pushes people out of their comfort zones and whirls about like a tornado. I know we like to think of the Holy Spirit as “Comforter” and that is one of Her Biblical names. But before Comfort there is often discomfort – at least in my life. We need to move if there is to be change; in our personal and corporate lives. And sometimes we don't want that kind of movement. And so the Holy Spirit comes, like the rush of a violent wind, bringing discomfort that leads to new possibilities.

Then there is a kind of United Nations’ experience to consider, of many different languages being spoken. We need the Holy Spirit to do this work in our nation and our world right now. Yesterday our Presiding Bishop reminded the Prince and Princess of Sussex and the world about the power of love. We need that power now. 

The Spirit brings understanding by breaking down walls that divide. This is a word of very good news in a world that seems bent on reinforcing walls rather than constructing bridges. It also points toward our mission, not just for Christians but for the work we share with people of good will and among whom the Spirit also blows. We need Holy Spirit power in Gaza and on the Korean peninsula and on the border with Mexico. Imagine what reconciliation might look like there. Imagine how love might take hold. Not sentimentality. Not cheap grace. But the kind of love that begins with listening hearts, a gift of the Holy Spirit that allows each to speak and be heard sharing his or her dreams and visions as the Spirit beckons to the dawn of a new day and new possibilities.Imagine the many different “tribes” where there is conflict in our time and you have a sense of what that first reading is about. 

The Psalmist speaks in a more existential way: our very breath is of God. In the midst of this great song of creation, the poet says that the difference between life and death is that breath: when it’s there we are alive and when it’s taken away, we die. The Hebrew word is ruah. It is the difference between life and death; our breathing. And so as Anna Nalick puts it, “cradle your head in your hands [and] breathe—just breathe.” If you want to find God then you don’t have to look far; look within. Learn from the Buddhists who also remind us to just breathe, in and out. That same Spirit of the living God, says the Psalmist, is at work in the creation as a whole, not just in each creature. The Spirit is unleashed and springtime comes and the face of the earth is renewed. The Spirit hovers over all things to make them new again. 

St. Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading that it is the Spirit who is there to help us in our weakness. When we can’t pray (or feel we can’t pray) and are out of words and maybe even without hope, when our sighs are too deep for words: the Spirit is there. The Spirit is interceding for us, to use the big theological word. The Spirit intervenes to act on our behalf, calling us back to the God who has created us in love as Abba, and redeemed us in love through Jesus.

Finally, in John’s Gospel, the imagery used comes from the legal profession. The Spirit is our Advocate, Jesus says. The Advocate leads us into the truth. Notice that Jesus is clear: while he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life we always see the Truth through a glass darkly, and the journey is a kind of never-ending story. God is not finished yet: not with us, not with the Church, not with creation. Those who claim to possess the truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth (and by implication suggest that those who disagree therefore have no truth) miss this point. We are not moral relativists. But we are humble about how much truth we humans can grasp or even see. We therefore admit that we need each other to see more clearly and follow more nearly and love more dearly. At best we keep moving in the right direction, guided by the Spirit, and we do that not in isolation but within the community where we are both loved and challenged.

What I notice here is that while there are no doubt connections between these four readings—these different ways of speaking of the Spirit—there are not all identical. One of the most important lessons we can learn in reading the Bible is to see and to celebrate that it represents a community of voices—that the “word of the Lord” is not one-dimensional but pluralistic and multicultural. It’s like a chorus singing four-part harmony: they are all singing about the Spirit but they aren’t all singing the same notes. They aren't singing in unison. 

That reality is liberating and beautiful to many and definitely to me. It’s why I believe in congregations. I don't know what "organized religion" even means!. But I know I can't go it alone. I know the Holy Spirit's best work isn't limited to quiet walks in the woods or on the beach. Nor do I wish to be surrounded by like-minded people who all think like I do! Lord, have mercy! 

The Holy Spirit guides us toward the hard work of building community. At some level, this is very scary. There is a part of most of us, I suspect, that wants to know the “right answer.” Or to trust our own truths over those of others. If it is the truth we seek, the truth that sets us free – the truth that is Jesus – then we absolutely need each other. While some days that may feel a little bit (or a lot) disconcerting, it is the way of the Spirit.

Community is messy. As I said, the faith communities I’ve been a part of really haven’t been all that organized and sometimes they've been a bit more chaotic than I like. But I've learned that the only way any of it makes any sense to me whatsoever is to say that somehow the Spirit is at work in the midst of all that mess and still ordering and creating from all of the chaos, just as God did in the beginning. And also (and maybe just as often) stirring the pot when things get too settled and comfortable. That's the part I sometimes resist. But my experience of the Spirit is that She never rests and as soon as I think I've got it figured out She goes to work again, keeping life interesting, keeping us and the Church and the world ever new. Keeping us alive, and giving us breath, and moving us toward a new creation. 

I have a little framed card in my office which was given to me by the head of the preschool that my oldest son, Graham attended when I was the Associate Rector of Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. It pretty much sums up my philosophy of parenting. Graham will turn 28 years old this fall and his younger brother, James, will be 24 next month. So I've had this little print for more than 24 years now, and tried (with God's help) to live it. It still holds true, and I reflected on it this past week at James’ graduation from a Masters Program at Cal-Berkeley. It goes like this:
There are two things parents can give their children—roots and wings.
I wonder if this isn’t true about the Church’s calling as well. It could be almost a kind of mission statement for congregations, where we teach our children the stories of the faith and ground them in a tradition that goes back not only to the communities we heard about today in Jerusalem and in Rome, but further back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; back to the very beginnings of God calling a pilgrim people. The Church is a place with very deep roots. I like thinking of roots more than stones. Temples are sometimes destroyed in the Bible. Stones are sometimes rolled away. We want a solid foundation,but that’s not at the heart of Biblical faith, as I understand it. What we do get are roots, however, roots that go deep and sustain us with living water even in times of drought.

But the Holy Spirit—sometimes imagined as a dove—reminds us that discipleship is also about learning to fly. Following Jesus is about learning to trust God enough to let us soar like eagles, knowing and trusting the wind to blow us where it will. To blow us where we need to go. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today I am at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sutton, MA. The readings for this day can be found here.

Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. To say this another way, as you know, Easter is not one day, but a fifty-day season. And so once again we have been making our way from the empty tomb to the Feast of Pentecost, your new shared patronal feast day.

I used to know this couple that were dating: Andrew and John (the Baptizer, not the Evangelist!) Then they started getting serious. And then they got married. While I’ve been in this building many times before, this is my very first Sunday morning visit to the Church of the Holy Spirit. It’s good to be here!

Anyway, as I was saying, Easter is a story that unfolds over seven weeks. I’ve been in various places throughout this Easter season, but in all of them, alongside those gospel resurrection appearances, we’ve been hearing these vignettes from the Acts of Apostles, including today’s reading. Together they tell the tale of a first-century, Spirit-led, congregation that we might call St. Swithin’s-in-the-Fields. Or perhaps we might call it the Church of the Holy Spirit, Jerusalem. The unfolding narrative in Acts invites us to ponder the experiences of that early Christian community, a story that one New Testament scholar (Griffith-Jones) has designated succinctly as The Mission. I want to backtrack a bit and try to connect these episodes together before tackling today’s reading from the tenth chapter of Acts.

One of the most amazing things I hope you noticed a few weeks ago is how Peter is a changed man. Recall how just seven weeks ago when we read the Passion, Peter was a broken man paralyzed by his fears: “I do not know the man,” he said. Three times. The haunting sound of a crowing rooster brought the chilling reminder of the gap between Peter’s stated desire to follow Jesus and his inability to live that faith. Perhaps some of us have had our own reminders of what that’s like. But when we get to Acts, Peter is literally a new man. What is the difference? The Holy Spirit has breathed new life into Peter. The Spirit of the living God has melted him and molded him and filled him and now can use him to do the work that God has given him to do. (Acts 4:8)

Acts is all about transformation. Earlier in this Easter season, we also heard about how the Holy Spirit transformed the community’s relationship with money. The community had a radical stewardship program: the request was not a tithe of one’s wealth, but all of it.  They faced and overcame the temptation to make money their false god by letting go. And in so doing, they let God do with them infinitely more than they could ask or imagine. And so we heard how they were “of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (Acts 4:32)

In Chapter 10 we come to one of the strangest and most important chapters in all of Scripture. Again the Spirit of the Living God is at work, not only transforming individual people’s lives but working through the community. First this man named Cornelius has a very strange dream. And then Peter has an equally strange dream. In each case the dream prepares them to imagine (and then do) something new. Gentiles and Jews didn’t eat together. Not only because one group kept kosher and avoided things like clam chowder and shrimp cocktail and pork chops, but because the religious rituals that undergirded those practices had a larger purpose than what was put on the table. These practices were meant to keep people separate; not to bring them together. Gentiles and Jews inhabited different worlds.

But both Cornelius and Peter have these strange dreams and then they trust the Spirit enough to act on those dreams. They come together to have lunch. And in that shared meal, there is once again transformation. On Easter Sunday we heard Peter eloquently expressing what he learned that day at table with Cornelius, as he connects that experience with the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Do you remember? Peter says:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:34-43)

That text immediately precedes the one we heard today, to which we can now return:

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

So what do you think happens next? Cornelius has been baptized. They’ve followed the guidance of the Spirit in doing so. Now they can live happily ever after, right?

If you answered yes to my rhetorical question then perhaps you’ve not yet spent a lot of time in the Church. Good for you! We need your optimism and positive outlook. As for me, next month I’ll mark thirty years of ordained life and the last five in diocesan ministry so I’m a little bit more jaded, even if always hopeful. The truth is that the Church is made up of people. Even guided by the Holy Spirit, people sometimes resist change, especially the deep change that transforms us from the inside out and reorients our outlook on the world. Peter has risked trusting the Spirit enough to go to lunch with Cornelius. When it seems clear that the Spirit confirms that hunch as a good thing, he baptizes those who have received that very same Holy Spirit that breaks down walls that divide people. All of this seems good.

Yet if you have been around the Church for a while now, you may already sense what is coming after the warm glow of that Baptismal party wears off. Word gets back to Jerusalem. People start whispering in the parking lot. Peter is summoned home and he’s told that he’s got some explaining to do. The ripples of Cornelius’ Baptism shake the very foundations of the community and as we will be told in the fifteenth chapter, “there was no small amount of dissension among them.” Those words of course speak volumes. If I were following the lead of Eugene Peterson who wrote The Message and doing a paraphrase of Acts, I’d say simply that “all hell broke out.” The problem is that Church people crave doing things decently and in good order and sometimes even making sure that things are done “the way they’ve always been done” and Peter has definitely done something bold and new.

So they gather for General Convention. (I mean, of course, they gather for the Jerusalem Council. But in a real sense, they are not all that different.) Which is to say, the community comes together to hear the stories and to try to listen to one another by asking for the guidance of that same Spirit. (See Acts 15.) They gather to fight it out but at least to try to do that as fairly as they can, with God’s help. And as I read Acts, they don’t come to a clear resolution on this question. But they do come to a sense of reconciliation. Those two are not the same. In other words, at the end of the Jerusalem Council, not everyone is ready to sit down and eat clam chowder with Cornelius and his friends. For some it still goes against everything they believe. The issue will continue to unfold in the early Church and be a source of conflict for some time. We hear about it especially in Paul’s Letters. Here is a tip when reading Paul: whenever you hear Paul talking about circumcision, this is the very same issue he is addressing.  Both circumcision and keeping kosher are related to the big theological question: how “Jewish” does a Gentile need to become to accept Jesus as the Christ?

As I read Acts, they didn’t resolve the question because the question wasn’t yet resolvable. What they did do is continue to trust the Spirit of the Living God to melt them and mold them and fill them and use them. What they did do is continue to gather together and to pray and to break bread. What they did do is continue to focus on the mission to tell the story of God’s love for the world. They refused to be consumed by the conflict by refocusing their energies on the shared mission. This story is our story, too, of course, and I hope it doesn’t take a great leap of faith or insight to see that. It’s our story as the Body of Christ and as the Anglican Communion and as The Episcopal Church, which will in fact gather this summer for General Convention. It’s our story in this diocese and it’s the story of Andrew and John, two who have become one in order to do more together than they ever could apart.  
That same Holy Spirit that led the Mission in Acts and breathed new life into frightened disciples hiding out behind closed doors has been guiding and will continue to guide you – as individuals but also as the new thing God is doing through you. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is called “Comforter.” But that’s deceptive, in my experience, because comfort is not always the most obvious initial result. Sometimes the Spirit pushes us out of our comfort zones! When the Spirit shows up at Pentecost, She does so as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire. Those are images of power and transformation. In Acts the Spirit gives Cornelius and Peter the dreams that lead to action, and action that leads to something new, and also to conflict. Yet conflict does not destroy the community. Instead it brings new clarity about the mission. It suggests to me that conflict is simply a part of the deal in Christian community, and that the Spirit is at work in the midst of it all.

We are guided by that very same Spirit of that very same living God to this day, melting and molding and filling and using us for the sake of God’s mission. We should not expect the Church to be a placid place, but a cauldron of possibilities. Dreams and visions lead to new possibilities. Jesus said that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. This parish is evidence that this same Spirit continues to shape our life together in the risen Christ, even now and to the end of the ages. Sometimes even by leading us out of our comfort zones. Thanks be to God!