Friday, December 25, 2009

See What Wonderful Things Come of It

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene with St. Stephen's Church: Luke 2:1-20

I remember vividly when my sister had her first baby—my first nephew. I mentioned it briefly a few weeks ago but now I want to go into a little more detail.

There was a great deal of excitement and anticipation in the air. This was the first of the next generation on my mother’s side of the family. There were a dozen or so pretty keyed-up people in the waiting room.

It was a long, hard labor. After ten hours or so I was allowed to see my sister. I walked in the door and stopped short. She looked awful. I had a terrible flash back to a few years before when I had visited my dying grandmother for the last time. I was struck how giving birth could take one so close to death.

After eight or so more hours of trying, the baby was finally delivered by Cesarean section, to which my sister had reluctantly but enthusiastically succumbed. The new baby came down from the operating room to the nursery looking like c-section babies do, quite perfect, and he was howling at the top of his lungs, announcing for all the world to hear that he was alive.

Before I left the hospital, my mother and I went into the recovery room to see my sister. She was still very much out of it, looking worse than she had when I had seen her before. I must have looked worried because the nurse said to me, “She’ll be just fine.”

But I was wondering again about how such new life had come out of so much pain and a walk just this side of death.

We all come into the world with a loud cry. No doubt Jesus did as well. The verse of “Away in a Manger” that speculates that Jesus didn’t cry is just nonsense.

The actual birth of Jesus is not a part of the story we just heard. Did Mary have to do it alone, with only Joseph as her helper? Was he really no help at all as most men would have been in those days (and for the next 1970 or so years)? Did someone come from the Inn, perhaps the innkeeper’s wife, to encourage Mary through her pain and with her and Joseph and the animals of the shed hear the first cry of the newborn baby? How close to that line of death did Mary have to walk to bring her baby into the world?

These questions can be a point at which the birth of Jesus can get beyond a sweet story about which much sweet music has been written to meet our own lives and the world in which we live.

Yes, we all enter the world with a loud cry, and like my nephew Robbie, and Jesus born in a Bethlehem cowshed, and you and I, that cry echoes through our lives. Life gets better, but it also gets worse. The cry never stops altogether, and often we leave this world in the same way we entered it, with a loud cry. Jesus did.

That’s the reality that bumps up against the sweetness of this night. This world that Jesus entered, and in which we live, is a mixed bag. Life gets better, but it also gets worse.

So what’s the point? Eventually we all ask that question. Why was I born? Why am I me? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of life?

Most often we ask these questions when we are up against something about life that we cannot control. That’s a corollary to the statement “Life gets better but it also gets worse:” “There are a lot of thing about life you can choose, and a lot of things you can’t.”

And we know from the rest of the story of Jesus that he had moments like this too, moments he wondered “Why?” and cried out. The man in the Garden of Gethsemane facing his own death is not so far from the babe in the manger crying out his first breaths outside the safety and warmth of his mother’s womb.

The gospel writer Luke tells his story about Jesus’ birth so that the “Why?” can be answered. Why this birth? For what purpose? And, of course, he tells the beginning of Jesus’ story knowing full well how it ends. His answer to the “Why?” of Jesus’ birth is also an answer to the death of Jesus.

The answer comes most explicitly in the message of the angels to the shepherds. What is the purpose of this birth? “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Glory for God. Peace for the earth. That is the purpose of his birth. And they are not two separate purposes. The rest of Jesus’ story will bear that out. God’s glory is peace among the people of the earth. Peace among us is God’s glory.

The Greek word we translate as “glory” (doxa) also means “honor” or even “reputation.” God’s honor is peace among us. God has a stake in our peace, in our salvation.

How so? And what is this peace of which the angels sing?

The answer to that can be found in the rest of what the angels sing, which has always given translators and interpreters a very difficult time. The translation we heard this evening is “On earth peace among those whom God favors.” Other translations say “among people of goodwill” or “among those with whom God is pleased.”

All those translations seem to leave open the possibility that God might choose not to give peace at least to some people, either those with whom God is not happy or those who are not of goodwill.

The Greek words, however, don’t really contain that sense of peace being conditional. And a conditional peace also doesn’t match the angel’s earlier saying, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” No conditional expression there.

The Greek word used in this difficult phrase is eudokias, among whose possible translations is “delights.” Peace on earth among those in whom God delights.[1]

This is the message of the birth at its very core. God delights in you, O people of the earth. The angels dancing in the heavens before the shepherds are just an extension of God’s dance of delight over the creation.

Peace is knowing and living within this delight of God for us. The purpose of our life is to bring delight to God. And how do we do that? Just by being, and especially by faith that this delight is true no matter the circumstances of our life. It is an objective, unconditional delight, so much so that Jesus, God incarnate, the one who fully reveals to us what God is like, was born and died with our same loud cry.

Can we this night catch a glimpse of the angels dancing around us, singing of the glory of God and the delight of God in us? Can we believe the power of this delight to bring us both gratitude in joyful times and hopefulness in our dark ones?

How can those things about which we justifiably cry out—even death—ever be anything but a temporary state of affairs, if God himself dances over us in delight? If God so delighted in human life that he choose to enter it himself? God will not let us go. God’s honor is at stake here and God’s attachment to us is not objective in the least. God is positively head-over-heels in love with you and me.

Can we believe it? And can it make a difference day by day in our life?

There is a scene from the movie Little Women in which one of the daughters has a “crying out” moment. She has been desperately seeking a man to ask her to marry him, but to no avail. She is troubled that she will never lead an “ordinary” life.

Her mother responds, “My daughter, you have such extraordinary gifts. How can you expect to ever lead an ordinary life? Go, embrace your liberty and see what wonderful things come of it.”

That’s a mother ahead of her time.

It is also the God of Jesus Christ.

Tonight we have been reminded that we have been given an extraordinary gift. It is not the babe in the manger, although we would be much less likely to know this gift without him. We have been given the extraordinary gift of God’s delight in us.

Embrace that gift tonight and don’t let it go. Leave with it taken within yourself in this Eucharist and see what wonderful things come of it.

Just don’t let it go. God delights in us, my sisters and brother. We are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. Happy Christmas!

[1] The translation of the Revised English Bible.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

Baruch 4:36--5:9
v. 6 For they went out from out on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

[Note: If your Bible does not have an Apocrypha (usually printed btween the Old & New Testaments), you won't be able to find Baruch. You can find the text on-line at].

Baruch is writing to those left behind in Jerusalem during the exile to Babylon. Not everyone had been taken. A small number of mostly poor farmers had been left to scratch out a living in the decimated city and countryside. Baruch is encouraging them that their countrymen and women are returning. "Look east," he keeps saying.

I love the image in the verse above, "carried in glory." I think of the story we will hear tonight. All the characters are "carried in glory," and in circumstances where glory is not a word that would normally be used: a stable, a sheep pasture.

But the message of Christmas is that glory has been born among us, and we are this glory's adopted brothers and sisters. Christms morning John will tell us in his Gospel: "to all who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God."

To be carried in glory means, I think, to be fully alive in our own dignity. May that be your greatest Christmas gift this year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Can you hear Mary singing?

A Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Canon Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough on Sunday, December 20, 2009 at St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York

51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Earlier this month, I had the strange experience of living the same day, twice. And of losing another day altogether. I travelled to Australia for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, crossing the international date line as I did so. Going over you lose a day. Coming back, you arrive before you left! Closest thing to time travel this side of science fiction movies! I can’t help but think of time travel when I hear Mary’s beautiful Magnificat. You will notice that in this poetic song that she sings upon arrival at her cousin Elizabeth’s home, she speaks of what God has already done in the world, of the reversals that God has already accomplished. God has scattered the proud, God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, God has lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry with good things. All these prophetic statements that she declares in her song are in the past tense, as if they have already occurred. And yet, in the context of Luke’s narrative, they haven’t, exactly, happened yet. She has only just gotten pregnant with the holy child. He is not yet born. Neither is his cousin John, who will be the voice crying out in the wilderness announcing his coming. And, in fact, as we look around our world today, we might wonder about that past tense in Mary’s song. Two thousand some years later, it still doesn’t appear to have happened yet. But Mary speaks as if it has happened. As one commentator on this passage puts it, Mary is remembering forward, that is, she is remembering the future.

Our apocalyptic Advent themes continue this week, even as our celebration of Christmas looms just days away. End times and beginnings, comings and goings, old giving way to new, the already but not yet of redemption, the grand cycles of time and space with a cosmic flourish are the images and themes of Advent. Mary and Elizabeth, a young, poor, unwed teenager and an old, barren woman, the wife of a temple priest, take on significant prophetic roles in this story of the inbreaking of the divine into human history. That in itself is apocalyptic – women prophets. Women? In the early first century, in the patriarchal culture of the Roman Empire and first century Judaism? Right there we’ve got the divine reversal. God has reached down into human history and is doing wondrous things through an old barren woman and a poor unwed mother. And even shepherds, very low folks on the social totem pole, are heralds of this amazing story, witnesses to the inbreaking of God into human history. Luke pulls out all the stops in this first chapter of his gospel, setting the stage for his narrative in which women will be active players, Jesus will bring a prophetic message of social justice into the world and God’s saving grace and compassion will be spread beyond the small Jewish community into which Jesus was born and out to the entire world, scooping up all those people who have lived on the bottom of the social order.

Mary’s Magnificat is one of my very favorite passages in the New Testament. As a child I sang it as a canticle at Evensong and sometimes, Morning Prayer, absorbing Mary’s song into my psyche even as I lived in a church that was not, at that time, honoring the gifts of its women in their fullness. The young teenage girl who longed to be a priest in a world that wouldn’t ordain women, now knows the fulfillment of that yearning and that call. The hope that the Magnificat embodies resonates for many of those who still live as oppressed, poor, humble, lowly members of the human family, even in our modern day. The mind bending, time traveling remembering the future of the Magnificat is what drives modern day prophets and disciples to make that past tense of Mary’s syntax a present reality. The divine reversal of which she sings happens in our midst when those who love God accept God’s call like Mary did, and the promise of a redeemed future, becomes the reality of the broken present.

“God has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” When President Obama appeared on 60 minutes last week and lambasted the Wall Street “fat cats” whose greed and mismanagement of other people’s money brought down our entire economy and that of the global community, I could hear Mary singing, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” When President Obama expressed his intention to have what I would call a “come to Jesus” meeting with those “fat cats” I could hear Mary singing.

When I was in Melbourne at the Parliament of the World Religions, I had the privilege of worshipping, praying, talking, reflecting, singing with people of myriad religious traditions. They have different sacred stories than do we, but they sing songs very resonant with Mary’s song. Despite centuries of discord and conflict, fueled by the abuse and misuse of religion and religious texts, thousands of us came together to show the world our commitment to the God we all worship and to our belief that God calls us to live in harmony and understanding one with another, exercising compassion and mercy even when we disagree on important issues and indeed, celebrating our differences as part of God’s divine plan for this world. We talked about addressing global warming, achieving the Millennium Development Goals, empowering women, working to eradicate global poverty, working for peace and justice in many troubled places throughout the world, trying to hear each other’s stories and appreciate each others songs. And we could hear Mary singing as we told stories of on the ground, grass roots work for justice, peace, human rights and freedom all over the world.

When I screened the film “Traces of the Trade” and saw the tears on the faces of blacks and whites alike, as we all grieved our human history of racism and oppression, and yearned for reconciliation, I could hear Mary singing. When I heard the story of Uncle Bob Randall, a member of one of Australia’s indigenous tribes, who is a member of what they call the Stolen Generation, those who were taken from their tribes as young children and raised by Christian missionaries, who stripped them of their culture, their religion, their land, and their families, I wept. But I also heard Mary singing, as Uncle Bob chuckled and told us how when he first heard the stories of Jesus in the Christian testament, he wondered why the missionaries who told him the stories didn’t actually do what Jesus taught! He was the most eloquent bearer of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I’ve heard in a long time, and he is not even a Christian! But he’s heard Mary’s song.

When President Obama received his Nobel prize, I could hear Mary singing. Who would have thought a mere fifty years ago that a Barack Obama would be President of the United States and recipient of the Nobel prize? When I heard of the many groups of people of faith throughout the world who are coming together across divided religious lines to work for peace, to address extreme poverty, to empower women – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Bahai’s, indigenous peoples, Sikh, Jain and many versions of Christian, I could hear Mary singing.

If you just look at the newspaper or listen to CNN or Fox News or even NPR, you might not hear Mary singing. For some reason, our media don’t seem to want to talk about the prophetic witness of so many people of faith around the world, people of reknown, like the Dalai Lama, and ordinary people of faith who climb over the fences of fear and ignorance and move forward to learn to love their neighbor, even when the neighbor is of a different race, sex, ethnicity, religion or social class. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus and Christians – all over the world people of faith are building bridges so that the future that Mary remembers in the Magnificat becomes at least for a short while, a present reality, not just a future hope.

When former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian freedom fighters sit together at a dialogue table and build playgrounds for children in the occupied West Bank I can hear Mary singing. When Arabs and Jews in the West Bank intentionally live together in a village called Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam, committing to raising their children together in the same village, attending the same schools, learning Hebrew and Arabic, I can hear Mary singing. When Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian farmer on a hillside hear Bethlehem opens his family farm to international visitors and invites the Jewish settlers who are trying to take his land to sit down and talk, I can hear Mary singing. When Israeli rabbis risk their lives to help Palestinian farmers harvest their crops, I can hear Mary singing. When brave Democratic New York senators speak eloquently in favor of marriage equality, notwithstanding threats to boot them out of office and even in the wake of the defeat of that legislation, I can hear Mary singing. At the end of the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention, as hundreds of GLBT priests joined Bishop Gene Robinson at the altar, a sight that would have been unthinkable just twenty five years ago, I could hear Mary singing.

Mary’s Magnificat is eloquent poetry and beautiful song. It is also sacred text for we who call ourselves Christians. To live the Magnificat is to sing justice into being, to vision the future right into the present, even if we can only manage to do it very locally, in small and quiet ways, in our own neighborhood, congregation, school or workplace. Our Advent texts remind us that God lives outside the constraints of our timebound world, and the promise and hope of which Mary sings is a present reality when we live as if it is, when we commit our own hearts and souls and the stewardship of our lives to singing Mary’s song.

In just a few days, we will celebrate Christmas. We always do a lot of singing on Christmas. As we live these last days of Advent and move to the songs of Christmas, listen hard, be awake, be alert, be watchful. Can you hear Mary singing?

Wednesday in Advent 4

Luke 1:39-56
v. 41b-42 And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

From the very beginning of the church's life, these words have been extremely important and used in a devotion to Mary that has never waned.

Devotion to Mary was deep in English culture prior to the Reformation, so it is no wonder that the English Reformation did not completely do away with it. Nevertheless Anglicanism has always had a deep suspicion of excessive devotion, the treating of Mary as if she were on equal par with her son.

But these words from Luke's Gospel can still be vitally important for us, and many Anglicans (myself included) pray the "Hail Mary" or "Angelus" as a regular part of our devotional life (the words from Elizabeth above are central to this prayer).

Mary is one of us, called to bear God to the world. Her vocation is our vocation, for we too are called to be pregnant with God and deliver God to the world. The birth we are about to celebrate was not a one-time, isolated act in a small Palestinian town two millenia ago. It is an act that has been and is being repeated in the lives of countless Christians, including you and me. To whom are you called to deliver God these days?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday in Advent 4

Luke 1:26-38
vv. 37-38 "For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

"For nothing will be impossible with God" is one of those dangerous little bits of Bible text. It sounds so good! We want to believe it just as it is said, a little "proof text." See, God can do anything.

But like all bits of the Bible it has a context which gives it meaning. One of those contexts for this saying is that first Elizabeth, earlier in the story, and then Mary have to say yes. God is "powerless" without their acquiescence. "For nothing will be impossible with God" depends on "let it be with me according to your word."

This tells us a couple things. The first is that God works through us. God rarely chooses to work around us. Such is God's commitment to us. The second is, the whole of our life is a constant saying "yes" or "no" to God. Sometimes when we say no it is because we do not yet have enough information. It is not yet clear to us what God is asking. That's OK as long as we are committed to the path of finding out. It would be nice if God sent us an angel to make it clear but that seems to be a very rare occurrence. For us, we just have to pay attention, look for signs, continue to feed ourselves with word and sacrament. God's desire will come to us. Our opportunity to say "let it be with me according to your word" will come.

Monday, December 21, 2009

St. Thomas' Day

John 20:24-29
v. 29 Jesus said to him [Thomas], "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

That would be us. And our countless ancestors for some 2,000 years. All those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

St. Thomas' Day is an intrusion in the waning days of Advent. Here we are trying to get ready for Christmas and we are aked to contemplate an Easter story. And is it wise to think of doubt at this time of year? The uncomfortable juxtaposition has caused some churches to move this feast to July 3, about as far away from Christmas as you can get. We've kept it here.

But I think St. Thomas does have something to do with Christmas. What Thomas asked for was an incarnation. If he was to believe in the resurrection he needed to see it in the flesh.

Christian faith--even Easter faith--depends on the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in Jesus Christ. Of course, we don't get to see that. Jesus is gone from us. But he is still enfleshed, and not just in heaven. He is enfleshed in us, his brothers and sisters, who have received the Holy Spirit and so are called his Body. In one sense, every baptism is a little Christmas as well as a little Easter.

We are given one another "in the flesh" to bring about the miracle of faith. If I can see God born in you than I can believe God born in me.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saturday in Advent 3

Zechariah 8:9-17
vv. 16-17 These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.

Here is a different "summary of the law" than we are used to, a little more elaborated, particularly on the "love your neighbor as yourself" side. In today's passage, God has just said what good he proposes to do to "the remnant." Then, he says, these are the things that you are to do.

It's a good list, one for which most of us can easily sign up. Doing the things on it, however, are quite a different matter. If we used this list as a tool for self-reflection before going to Confession, we would all have plenty to confess. In fact, that might be a good exercise before Christmas (you don't have to call and make an appointment for Confession but it would be perfectly fine if you did!).

How easy it is to get caught up in the world of unjust and unpeaceful judgments, of false promises and unhelpful, if not evil, schemes. God is pretty clear what he thinks about these things: I hate them. What about us?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday in Advent 3

Zechariah 7:8--8:8
v. 8:3 Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midstof Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain.

For the exiles returned home to a destroyed and desolate Jerusalem these were words of great hope. They had not been abandoned for ever. There would be a new Temple (where else would God "dwell?"), and this place ("the mountain") would once again be set apart for a special, divine purpose.

Christmas is the annual celebrative reminder that God dwells in our midst, once in real physical form, but now in mystery (not physical but no less real). No longer is God understood to dwell in a particular place, among a particular people. God dwells in each human heart and all ground is sacred ground.

Over the year, since the last Christmas, it has perhaps been easy to gradually lose touch with these spiritual realities. Now, at year's end and at Christmastime, is our opportunity to reclaim them. Reclaim the God who dwells in you, whoever you may be. Reclaim the God who makes your ground sacred, wherever that ground may be.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thursday in Advent 3

Zechariah 4:1-14
v. 6 He said to me, "This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts."

Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah, charged by both the prophet Haggai and the prophet Zechariah with rebuilding the Temple. Here, in the midst of one of Zechariah's vivid visions comes a clear word to him, and so it comes to us as well.

At least some small measure of "power and might" (i.e., control) is what all of us are trained to attempt to gain in and over our lives, and if over a few other lives all the better. This is at least partially how we define success and it is, again at least partially, the fuel for our self-esteem. The prophets, including Jesus, all witness to us that this attempt at control is doomed, it is futile. It is doomed because God cannot be controlled, nor can life itself. It is doomed because we human beings are flawed and our flaws catch up with us sooner or later.

What would it mean to live alternatively by the spirit? It is not a life without ambition. God does not simply want puppets for his children. It means to completely offer one's ambitions, desires, talents, and flaws to God and seek to be God's partner in building your life in the midst of others building their lives. It means to live a life of Eucharist--Thanksgiving.

We have a chance next week to offer our life--for the first time or simply "again"--to the Christ child. Let's take it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday in Advent 3

Zechariah 2:1-13
v. 10-11a Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join to the Lord on that day; and I will dwell in your midst.

Upon the return from exile, as a part of the rebuilding of their society, the Jews appear to have had a lively debate about their relationship to the nations around them. Zechariah and (Second) Isaiah spoke passionately about "the nations" being brought to God. Their vision was of a universalized Judaism. Haggai, Ezra, and Nehemiah argued for strict barriers to re-establish Israel's unique relation with God. The latter won the day. The sentiment of Zechariah and Isaiah would have to wait for Jesus and his followers to be articulated again and enacted.

Open or shut? Every society must wrestle with the question, and every individual as well. Will I live my life as closed off from others who are different from me as possible, or will I live an open life, willingly, and even proactively, engaging those who are different from me?

The Church has one of its bottom lines here. We must do the latter. Our sacramental practices demand it. "Baptism catches us up into solidarities not of our own choosing," says Archbishop Rowan Williams. And the Eucharist draws us around a Table as equals with all sorts and conditions of people.

Of course, the Church has not always acted this way. The Church has acted as a closed society. In doing so, however, it was not following its Lord.

Who do you need to open yourself to in order to have a more meaningful Christmas?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday in Advent 3

Zechariah 1:7-17
v. 14 So the angel who talked with me said to me, Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.

This week we read from the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah and Haggai were contemporaries, both prophesying during the restoration period as the exiles were returning from Babylon and Jerusalem and Judah being rebuilt. The specific dates for Zechariah are 520-518 B.C.E. This was a time of great ferment. Great questions hung in the air: what priorities in rebuilding? how to rule Judah? what was the peoples relationship to God after the experience of abandonment in Babylon?

Zechariah tells the people that God is "very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion." Not infrequently in the Bible, jealousy is attributed to God, a very curious thing because we normally think of jealousy as a negative thing. Yet here it is clearly a sign of God's steadfast love for his people, his overwhelming commitment to them so that even after the extreme punishment of the exile, he cannot let them go. He will work for their well-being.

Advent is a time of turning back, re-turning to God in preparation for the celebration of Jesus' birth. One of the dynamics of this returning should be the knowledge that we are returning to a jealous God, jealous for our attention and love, the one who wants to be with us, our Emmanuel.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday in Advent 2

Haggai 1:1-15
v. 14 And the Lord stirred up the spirit...of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.

Haggai was a prophet from the time after the exile, when the Persians had allowed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem from Babylon. The prophet calls this people"the remnant." They had arrived back in Judah to find the city of Jerusalem and the surrounding land desolate. Their first leaders had inspired them to begin the rebuilding of the Temple but after the foundations were laid the work ceased. Haggai's task as a prophet is to exhort the people to re-build the Temple, so that it can be the center of the peace and prosperity (shalom) it is inended to be.

In our passage today, Haggai makes the case that it is wrong for the houses of the people to be inhabitable while God's house is not. He suggests that the continued struggle in their homeland to which they have returned is directly related to this situation. The people and their leaders respond quickly and positively. But it is said in verse 14 that it was the Lord who stirred up the spirit.

I think it is often the case that we wait for our own motivation for acting, which often must come after a good case is made about what's in it for us. We ought to cultivate a greater openness to the Spirit of God to be at work in us, "stirring us up." If this is the case, I think we will often find ourselves doing the right thing without much regard for "what's in it for us."

In the world around us this is the supreme "what's in it for us" time of year. Perhaps one of the works of Advent is to open oursleves in this time to what God is stirring up in us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thursday in Advent 2

Amos 9:1-10
v. 8 The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth--except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord.

A characteristic of the prophets of Israel is that no matter how thoroughly they condemn the people, God's mercy always leaves an out. I will destroy it--except that I will not.

One of the things we celebrate at Christmas is the permanent, "once for all," out we have been given in Jesus. This came about through his taking on human flesh, living our human life, and dying our human death. We must never forget how costly this was (and is) to God. All the wrath spoken of by the prophets built up by the accumulation of human sin had to be set aside, and not one time but for ever. God had to choose not to be an angry God. When we are rightfully angry, it is hard to let go of it, especially when the one we are angry at shows no sign of turning. Yet God's doing this precise thing is what we celebrate at Christmas. God chose peace over anger: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to God's people on earth."

Amos has not been an easy read, but he has put before us the centrality of justice, especially economic justice, especially in a time of prosperity. That alone makes him an important voice for us today.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday in Advent 2

Amos 8:1-14
v. 11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

We all have dry spells in our spiritual life: personal famines one might call them to use this image from Amos. They can be anything from annoying to frightening. It can be a terrible thing to feel cut off from God. One of the consolations during times like these is that others in your faith community remain connected, and so faith continues. Sometimes I need others to have faith for me, and thank God they can.

Amos raises the specter, however, of an entire community cut off from God. Now that would be truly frightening. Is this one of God's ultimate punishments?

Perhaps. But Amos tells the tale of how this is in many repects the logical consequence of Israel's behavior. He says (vv. 4-5):

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?"

They cannot wait for the sabbath to be over to carry on their unjust practices. This signals to God that they don't want to hear his words. The word of God no longer sustains them, only making themselves richer (no matter at who's expense) sustains them. In essence Amos is saying on behalf of God, "Fine. Have it your way."

One of the messages of Christmas is that God communicates to us in the flesh. How can we better put ourselves in a position to hear this communication? What is getting in the way of hearing it? Is something else sustaining us other than this communication?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tuesday in Advent 2

Amos 7:10-17
v. 14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'"

The religious establishment has had enough and, with the political establishment's blessing, arranges a showdown with Amos. He is disturbing the peace and threatening the prosperity. "Go back to Judah where you belong," is his basic message.

Amos' reply is almost funny. "I am no prophet." Amos is not a professional. If he is a prophet, he is an amateur prophet. He is just doing what God told him to do.

There is a sense in which we are all called to be amateur prophets. Advent is the season for the renewal of this calling. We are all called to "speak the word of the Lord" to the world. Not all of us are called to do so on the street corner or in the pulpit, but all of us are called to apply the word of the Lord to our little world so that all our decisions are made with it foremost in mind.

Sometimes "Amaziah" may wonder who you think you are. Like Amos you can respond I am just who I am. But I am called, I know that from my baptism. I am called.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Monday in Advent 2

Amos 7:1-9
v. 7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.

There is not much good news in this passage. The verdict is that Israel (also called Jacob and Isaac in the passage) will be destroyed. Their crimes against justice have simply been too much, are too systemic. That is what the plumb line is about. The plumb line was used to ascertain true vertical for a structure. Israel's was so far out of true that it could not be recovered from. There is deep sadness in the text, especially for anyone who reads and knows what is to come. Israel will indeed be destroyed by the Assyrians and, unlike the exile in Babylon of the southern kingdom sometime in the years ahead, they will never be heard from again. They will for ever become "the lost tribes of Israel."

In the passage Amos has three visions. After the first two he pleads with God to relent and God says, "It shall not be." But after the third he doesn't even try to plead. He seems to know it would be useless.

The good news for us is that we have one who pleads for us, Jesus, and he will always be heard. And he constantly is our plumb line, the standard by which we measure what is true and, in fact, the way in which true is made right again.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday in Advent 1

Amos 5:18-27
v. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

This verse is one of the quintessential "justice verses" of the Hebrew Scriptures, all of which make clear that the God of Israel is primarily committed to justice. He wants this justice even more than he wants our worship, which he has condemned in the previous three verses, beginning with, "I hate, I despise your festivals..."

We who love our worship and are in many ways very proud of it need to take pause here. It is obviously not worship by itself which is important to God, but worship that comes out of something and leads to something. And that something is justice.

What exactly is this justice of which God speaks through his prophet Amos? It is what it has always been, the ethical behavior outlined in the 10 Commandments and what we call "the Summary of the Law" (you shall love the Lord your God...and your neighbor as yourself). We express it also in our Baptismal Covenant primarily in the last two questions: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? With God's help we do these things and justice rolls down like waters.

Justice is a twenty four-seven activity. It is a matter of my relationships at home, the decisions I make in establishing and running my household, the way I conduct myself in the work place or where I volunteer, how I vote and otherwise participate in the political process, how I treat the ones Jesus called "the least of these who are members of my family." The demand of justice is always present, but, then, so is God's help.

Friday, December 4, 2009

It is about Courage

Amos 5:1-17
v. 7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

The prophet Amos continues to warn Israel about the nature of its sins in our reading this morning. Again the key words are justice and righteousness. Israel's prosperity is built on the backs of the poor. A society has been created with haves and have nots, which is an affront to God. It is not the creation as God intended it.

I suppose there are many ways we can turn "justice to wormwood," and I have no doubt that we do it all the time. None of us is innocent in this regard and Advent is a time to examine ourselves, find ways we are doing this or participating in it, repent, and seek a new way of being.

There certainly was a fine example of turning justice to wormwood in the paper this morning (the Democrat & Chronicle). Denise-Marie Santiago reported on a conversation she had with Senator Jim Alesi on his vote against equal marriage. A YouTube video showed him voting with his head in his hands. He explained that the vote was purely about politics. "I live in a political world...It's not about courage."

Amos would disagree and be supported by every other Old Testament prophet, and Jesus himself. It is about courage. It's always about courage. No wonder our political system is in the state it is in when this is the defining purpose statement. It is, of course, naive to think it could never be about politics, and not all manifestations of politics are bad. But politics without courage equals wormwood. And for some of us the wormwood tastes pretty bitter this week.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thursday in Advent 1

Amos 4:6-13
Refrain: Yet you did not return to me, says the Lord.

In these verses the prophet reminds the people of all the signs they have received that should have woken them up, given them a clue to what was going on, and caused them to turn back to God. As you read them you can sense the real sorrow in God's heart as the refrain is repeated again and again: yet you did not return to me.

We usually associate repentance with Lent, but it is also an Advent theme. What is the difference? I suggest it is this. The repentance of Lent is of a more personal nature, related to that question from Baptism, "Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?" The repentance of Advent is more corporate in nature, related to the question from Baptism, "Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?"

Our self-examination during Advent needs to be how we participate in social injustice, social evil. That may mean taking it upon ourselves to learn more about a particular issue. It may also mean taking on in prayer a social injustice with the kind of fervor we usually reserve to individuals, particularly those who are close to us.

We often think of repentance as the end of a process of change, when really it is about the beginning of that process. Only when I repent of my participation in a social injustice can I then begin to change how I participate in society. Not surprising for us Episcopalians, repentance is a process, not a magic moment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wednesday in Advent 1

Amos 3:12--4:5
v. 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy...

I've missed the first few days of Advent and I can't guarantee this reflection will happen every day, but here it is for what it is.

In Year 2 of the Daily Lectionary during the first three weeks of Advent we get to read from three of the "minor" prophets: Amos, Haggai, and Zechariah. Amos is first. Amos ministered in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. in the Northern Kingdom--Israel (although he was a native of the Southern Kingdom--Judah). These were prosperous days for both kingdoms under the reigns of Jeroboam II (Israel) and Uzziah (Judah).

Amos has come to announce God's judgment on the practices that this prosperity is built upon, namely the abuse of the poor by the rich. The verse cited above can be taken as a summary of this indictment.

Thoughts about Advent often lead to thoughts about the second coming, which often lead to thoughts about Judgment Day, which often lead to anxiety about not measuring up on a personal level. From Amos' perspective (and the vast majority of prophetic writing in the Old Testament) this is not the issue. The issue is justice. The Day of Judgment is the Day of Justice, when everything will be set right according to God's vision.

Not much of the prophets would be left if you cut out all the bits about justice. It was one of their overriding themes. It makes it hard to read for us who have so much. Yet read we must, for the sake of our souls, but, more importantly, for the sake of our world and those in our world who, mostly through accident of birth, have ended up among the world's poor. In the days of Amos, Israel's days were numbered. The powerful Assyrians were on their way to destroy the northern kingdom. In our day, it appears we still have time to act. May Amos inspire us to do so.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why We Call Him King

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, November 22, 2009, te Last Sunday after Pentecost: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says to Pilate, putting his followers in a never-ending dilemma from that moment until the present day. If we are followers of Jesus, we are citizens of this “kingdom not from this world,” which means that, at best, we hold lightly to our affiliation with the kingdoms of this world.

The early Christians knew this well and it found them at nearly constant odds with the Roman Empire. Not that the Christians were taking up arms against the Empire. They absolutely were not. But the Romans knew their loyalties seem to be aimed in a different direction, symbolized by their calling Jesus of Nazareth kyrios, “Lord,” and not Caesar.

By the time of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christians were growing weary of persecution, and when Constantine jumped at the chance to co-opt them, they jumped back and church and state became bedfellows for the first time. It has largely remained thus ever since.

Most of us grew up in the church assuming that the church supported the state, that one of the jobs of the church was to help make good citizens. This was especially true in the white church. The black church had a different enough history that caused them to be suspicious of the state.

It was the 1960’s when this dynamic began to change. The black church naturally spoke out against ongoing systemic segregation. The white church hesitated, with gradually some clergy and then some national bodies taking up the cause of civil rights. The rank and file largely opposed this and eventually many voted with their feet. Those were the days when places like old St. Luke’s shrunk dramatically.

Whole denominations were changed by this shift. In the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, the Episcopal Church was known as “the Republican Party at prayer.” Within twenty years no one would think of calling us that. But we have paid a price in much smaller numbers.

All of this history had to do with the question about just who is king and to just what kingdom do Christians belong?

On the one hand, the answers are clear. Jesus is our king, and we belong to the kingdom of God. But what does that mean in a practical sense? There are things that it does not mean as well as things that it means.

It does not mean that we are not citizens of our country. Of course we are. We can be grateful, loyal citizens of the United States. A symbol of this in the Episcopal Church is that Independence Day is a feast day on the church’s calendar.

It does mean, however, that we wear our earthly (for want of a better word to call it) citizenship lightly. We are never afraid to be critical of our country when the values we hold as believers are challenged. As it is sometimes said, we are unafraid to speak truth to power (which means, of course, that it will sometimes be spoken to us). We certainly never give in to extremist patriotism that feeds off anger and hatred and misinformation, and there’s a bunch of that going around today.

Belonging to the Kingdom of God does not mean that we are not members of a particular ethnic or cultural group. We can’t deny that in ourselves, and we shouldn’t. It’s part of our God-given createdness.

But belonging to the Kingdom of God does mean that we have a larger vision of all peoples gathered around a throne. It is the vision of Daniel we heard this morning:

To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.

This vision echoes through others of the prophets and is carried into the Book of Revelation. To quote from chapter 5, using some of the same language as chapter one that we just heard:

By your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God.

That is our vision: all people as equal servants of God, equally gifted to offer what we call “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

One more thing about this “kingdom not of this world” that we are called to live in. It is a non-violent kingdom. Notice how Jesus goes on when responding to Pilate.

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.

Jesus’ followers, he points out, are not fighting back. That is not what he taught them. There was a little temptation to do so in the garden, with the flash of the sword, which Jesus rebukes. It is not his way. His way is the way of sacrificial love. He will become the king of which Pilate speaks only by offering his life as an innocent victim.

This is not the kind of king and kingdom we want. We want a king who will fight for us and inspire us to fight as well. We want a king who will react to our anxieties and do whatever it takes to keep us on top. We want a king who will prop up and feed our myths about ourselves and our country (or even our religion).

That is not the kind of king we get. We get a king on a cross, about as big a paradox as you can get. But we believe the power released from that paradox was enough to save the world, truly save it, which is why we do call him “king.”

Fellow citizens of the kingdom of God, blessings in navigating the tricky waters between your citizenship of Jesus’ not of this world kingdom and your citizenship in this earthly kingdom we call the United States of America.

One piece of advice: know where your loyalties lie ahead of time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Rome Thing: What to Think?

Ever since I got the news yesterday about the Roman Catholic Church setting up a process to receive Anglicans and allow them to maintain their communities and traditions (with some notable restrictions) I've wondered just what to think about it. My emotions have bounced around from mad as hell to completely indifferent. I friend of mine, Sam Candler, the Dean of the Cathedral in Atlanta blogged about it yesterday and I found it helpful. I'm not sure I can say that I'm "happy" about the whole thing now, but I'm not going to waste my time being mad. Here it is:

"I welcome the news of Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to make provision for the conversion of certain Anglican Christians to the Roman Catholic Church. In the past ten years, I have noticed many of my disenchanted Episcopal and Anglican friends drifting toward Roman Catholic structures. They have been arguing for more ecclesiastical order and authority. It has long been my prediction that our current Anglican controversies will be cleared up, finally, with a choice between distinctly Anglican and distinctly Roman ecclesiologies. Much of our current controversy, having been precipitated by sexuality issues (ordination of women and homosexuality), is more accurately about authority, uniformity, and legal order.The Roman Catholic tradition, certainly a long and esteemed tradition, is very good on these very issues: authority, uniformity, and legal order. The Anglican tradition (in my opinion having begun in the fourth century A.D., and thus almost as old as the Roman tradition) is very good on other matters. In particular, the Anglican tradition of Christianity is very good at allowing local authority and jurisdiction to exist in partnership with wider authority and jurisdiction. Many disenchanted Anglicans and Episcopalians have actually been arguing in the last ten years for more centralized and universal jurisdiction, when the Anglican tradition of Christianity has always resisted such universal and centralized jurisdiction. Thus, it is gratifying that the best centralized and universal jurisdiction in the world-the Roman Catholic Church-has been able to make provisions to welcome such disenchanted Anglicans. I note, too, the gracious words in the joint statement of the Archbishop of Winchester and the Archbishop of Canterbury. There is good relationship between these two branches of Christendom, the Roman and the Anglican. Fruitful ecumenical conversations have certainly enabled the Vatican to allow go forward with these provisions, and I salute all those who have been involved. I believe there is room in the kingdom of God for various ecclesiastical styles, and I pray that God will direct us all to a place where we can more freely preach the gospel and work toward the kingdom of God."

In the end, I don't think many will go. The restrictions are just too much. But God bless those who do go--hopefully they'll find what they wanted.


Monday, October 5, 2009

Interfaith gathering tackles city issue

Stephanie Veale
Staff writer, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

The key to solving some of Rochester's most pernicious problems lies in increased collaboration across faith, racial and geographical boundaries, Episcopal Bishop Prince Singh said Sunday at an interfaith service downtown.

The service was part of the city's ongoing 175th anniversary celebration. Singh, who is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, addressed a crowd of about 50 at the Episcopal Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on South Fitzhugh Street. Scriptures from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian traditions and a Buddhist prayer were read aloud.

Participants also prayed together for the city's leaders, firefighters, police officers, young people and others.

Rochesterians from different parishes and faiths must cooperate to "dream the city," said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, rector at St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene.

"There can be no place for negative energy in the remaking of the city," Hopkins said. "In the end, it is not enough to dream justice. You have to work at it."

Singh said faith communities need to cooperate in tackling poverty, racism, violence and deficiencies in the education system. More frequent meetings would help accomplish this.

"We need to do more than just pray," Singh said.

Yvonne and Chris Cleveland of Gates were among those who attended the service. Chris Cleveland is a member of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene; he and his wife used to live in the city in the Goodman Street/Park Avenue area.

Solving city problems is not just up to city residents, Chris Cleveland said. The whole metro area is interconnected, and "the city is the heart of that region," he said. "There needs to be more working together."

Additional Facts If you go

What: "One City, Many Faiths, One Hope," a faith-based conference.
When: Oct. 14.
Where: Hyatt Regency Rochester, 125 E. Main St.
Cost: $25 per person. Registration required.
For more: Call 311 in the city or (585) 428-5990 outside the city, or go to


Monday, August 3, 2009

EfM Slide Show & Registration Package

Here is the slide show from John Clinton Bradley's Education for Ministry presentation on Sunday...

And here is a PDF of the registration package...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Postcard From Anaheim


Michael and I arrive safely in Anaheim on Friday and have been running almost nonstop ever since!

The highlight of SATURDAY was setting up the Nerve Center. This photo, taken by Susan Russell [Integrity's president and my boss], shows Michael Bell [Integrity's General Convention project manager whom I supervise], Michael Hopkins, and me.

The highlight of SUNDAY was a mass and orientation for the 28 Integrity volunteers. We have a wonderfully diverse team this time--including youngsters; persons of color; and transgender, bisexual, and straight persons.

The highlight of MONDAY was a reception & briefing for bishops and deputies--attended by 130 people.

Exhaustion is always a major danger during General Convention. But Michael and I got to take long naps Monday afternoon as a small payment on our large sleep deficit.

Here are several ways you can track Integrity’s work General Convention in Anaheim...

You can follow my personal activity at...

The Episcopal Church has set up a couple of official General Convention channels...

The Diocese of Rochester will also be reporting at...

Heaven's blessing,

John Clinton Bradley

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Church on the Other Side

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Mark 4:35-41

Let us go across to the other side.

As we have been reading along in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Capernaum, on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. It appears to have been his home base. Mark makes several references to his “home” being there.

Suddenly this morning Jesus wants to move on. “Let us go across to the other side.” His disciples probably would have raised their eyebrows. “The other side” was Gentile territory, the region of the Decapolis. It would have been highly unusual for the Jews who lived on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee to venture across to the western side.

This journey is the first sign in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus’ message is meant to be universal, not for Jews alone. Why else go there?

The going is rough, a storm is encountered and the boat is swamped. Even the fishermen among the disciples are frightened. Jesus is non-plussed. The disciples are beside themselves.

Do you not care that we are perishing?

Then comes the awesome moment when Jesus shouts, “Peace! Be still!” and nature obeys him.

When they arrive at the other side it is the territory of the Gerasenes. There were tombs near where they landed and “immediately,” Mark says, they are accosted by a man who is stark raving mad, who lived among the tombs, unable to be restrained.

Jesus orders the unclean spirit to come out of the man in the same way he ordered the sea to be still. The demon knows who Jesus is, calls him “Son of the Most High God.” “What is your name?” Jesus asks. “My name is Legion; for we are many,” comes the reply.

Legion begs to be cast into a nearby herd of swine. (You know for certain you are in Gentile territory here if there is a herd of swine). Jesus does just that and the herd rushes into the sea and is drowned. The townspeople are terrified by all this and beg Jesus to go away.

Meanwhile the tormented man is now in his right mind. He begs to go with Jesus, but Jesus sends him on his way to tell others of his good fortune and we are told that is what he does, much to the amazement of all.

Jesus then returned back across the sea to Capernaum.

This story is deep with symbolism and meanings. Among these, I think, they are a metaphor for the Church’s calling. We are called to “cross to the other side” into unfamiliar territory. We are, in fact, called to be “the Church on the other side.”

As the story tells us, this is not an easy calling. The storms along the way are mighty and hostile forces may greet us once we come ashore. We, too, may be asked to leave as if we don’t belong there.

I think this is an especially apt metaphor for where the Episcopal Church, including this parish, finds itself these days. We have become “the Church on the other side,” much to the horror of some of our own people, not to mention other Christians.

“The other side” these days means inclusive of gay and lesbian people. But we have been here before. We have crossed to the other side before and met with different players.

We crossed to the other side when we ordained an African American man named Absalom Jones, the first denomination in the still new United States to do so. We then lost our nerve and didn’t let him or his people vote in Convention for many years, but the side had been crossed and there was no turning back.

We crossed to the other side again later in the nineteenth century when we ordained a deaf man as a priest, Henry Winter Syle. For many it was an outrageous act to ordain someone who was “imperfect” of body. Again, we were the first denomination to do this.

And we crossed to the other side in the 20th century when we began to ordain women, although it cannot be said that we were anywhere near the first to do that among our Christian brothers and sisters. But we were first in the Anglican Communion, and then pushed further to the other side in ordaining the first woman to be a Bishop, Barbara Harris.

A lot of our own people chose not to cross this other side with us. The Church lost hundreds of thousands of people over women’s ordination and the concurrent change in The Book of Common Prayer.

Now we have gone again and crossed to the other side. This Diocese was a pioneer in the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the 1970’s and 1980’s, although it has only been recently that a significant number of gay and lesbian clergy have served in the Diocese. And, of course, we all know of the ordination of Gene Robinson as a Bishop, which rocked the Anglican world in such a way that we will never be the same.

This being the Church on the other side is a part of our heritage. It is tradition with us, costly though it has been. And there is still more ways to go. What is the next “other side?” I hope and pray it is the other side of those among us who are poor. That will shake this upper and middle class church to its very foundations.

I know some of you are sick and tired of the Church talking about sexuality. Believe me, no more sick and tired than I am. But this is among our callings in these days. If some want to identify and dismiss us as “the gay church,” then so be it. There are worse things that we could be called. For our part we should keep on doing the things that we are doing, fighting for equality for lesbian and gay people, yes, but also serving those who live in poverty and raising up children to be good people, with a great ability to tolerate and celebrate difference as a gift from God.

I also know some of you have to talk about this with friends and acquaintances, even members of your own families. How can you have him as your priest? Isn’t it embarrassing to be seen as “the gay church?”

I suggest you tell them that even Jesus crossed to the other side to include the un-includable. And we believe we are called to be the Church on the other side, doing the same thing in our own day. It makes for a messy life, but it makes us depend on Jesus all the more, because only he can say to us “Peace! Be still!” and we know some measure of calm.

As for me I’m proud to be a member of the Church on the other side and I hope we will continue to cross that sea again and again until all of God’s children are included among the followers of Jesus. That will be a great day, the day of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” Let us keep on inviting others to cross over with us, so we can all sing as Martin wanted us to sing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!” That’s the song they sing on the other side.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The New Way of Being

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 17:22-24, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34 (Proper 6B)

We have just heard two short parables that Jesus tells us are about the Kingdom of God. It was a favorite metaphor of his—a political metaphor used to describe a spiritual reality. St. Paul, from whom we also just heard, does not use this metaphor. He speaks this morning instead of a “new creation.”

I want to suggest to you that these two metaphors are basically synonymous and can be used interchangeably: the Kingdom of God and the New Creation. And it is Paul’s metaphor that may ring truer for us in our day, that we can work with more easily.

More than fifty years ago, the great 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich asserted that the New Creation, or “the New Being,” as he put it, was the central message and purpose of Christianity.[1]

Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who for this reason, and just for this reason, is called the Christ. For the Christ, the Messiah, the selected and anointed one is He who brings the new state of things.[2]

What is this New Creation, this New Way of Being?

First of all we must say that in our existence it exists alongside what could be called the Old Creation, the Old Way of Being. The Old Way of Being is characterized by division, anxiety, fear, violence, greed, any of the myriad ways we separate ourselves from God and one another, and, indeed, separate ourselves from ourselves.

We are asked to be a part of the New Creation in the midst of the Old Creation. We know all too well this old way of being in our own lives. What Christianity asks of us is that we also participate in the New Creation inaugurated by Jesus.

In this regard the New Creation is like the Kingdom of God in the parables of Jesus this morning. It is like the mysterious and hidden seed that sprouts into growth and bears great fruit. Or it is like the sprig of which the prophet Ezekiel speaks this morning that God plants on a high mountain and it grows to be a great tree.

The New Way of Being in our world can be mysterious and hidden, and we must sometimes wait patiently for its growth, but we can do so in trust that grow it will.

But again, just what is this New Creation?

An important word we can use to describe this new reality is “transformation.” Where the New Creation is, is where transformation has occurred. The transformation is not something that we do, but that God does. Our job is not to create transformation but uncover it—to see transformation where it has already occurred.

Our job, in short, is to recognize and participate in what God has already done. And by participating we are participating in God’s ongoing work of transformation. God can use us in God’s work of transformation if we allow ourselves to be used.

Some examples of what I am talking about.

First, personal. The New Creation exists in my life every time I am able to say, “I am a child of God.” I am God’s beloved and with me God is well pleased. That is what I am in this new order of things. I am not who the world says that I am, whatever label that is. Nor am I who I often say I am in my anxiety and fear.

When I can say, “I am a child of God,” no matter what the circumstance of my life, there is the New Creation.

Second, relational. Paul speaks about this aspect this morning.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…

When we are living this new way of being we are able to see through the labels and judgments we make on other people. We are able to see children of God, again, no matter what the circumstance.

This is not an easy thing all the time. Sometimes, frequently, people do not act like children of God. They live in the Old Creation and act out of it. We are given eyes to see, however, through that. We are able to see with God’s eyes. Here is a child of God even if she isn’t acting like a child of God, so the way I relate to others is affected. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, I seek and serve Christ in all people, and respect everyone’s dignity.

To do that is transformational. It transforms the Old Creation into the New Creation.

Third, corporate. I want to apply this to our life as a parish. What difference does it make to look at ourselves as a New Creation? It means we see ourselves as a community of faith rather than as a collection of individuals. As a community of faith we have a calling. God wants us to do something, has a purpose for us.

Among other things this means that even when the circumstances of our life are difficult—when we, for instance, struggle financially or fail to grow as we would like, we remain a hopeful people. We continue to act out of abundance, not scarcity. We continue to expect that God is calling us to do God’s work, and we continue to do it.

We are entering a time when it will be our opportunity yet again to act out of this New Creation. This week it is likely that both our Vestry and that of St. Stephen’s will renew the covenant for cooperative ministry that we first entered into two years ago.

In a joint conversation, the Vestries clearly felt that the covenant has been a positive thing. There are challenges, but no deal breakers. We have begun to build a relationship with one another and some trust has begun to form.

It is time, we recognize, to move deeper, to go more deeply into what the original purpose of the covenant was, to support and expand ministry on the West Side of the city of Rochester.

Now when we say that we can have two reactions: Old Creation or New Creation. The Old Creation says things like, “We are already doing all that we can. We don’t have the resources to do more.” It also says, “I’m not sure I want them playing in my sandbox.”

The New Creation says, “We can’t do any more than we are doing alone, but we can do more together. God is calling us and God will enable us.” God will provide for what God wants to be done.

And God is calling us. A ministry of some sort to the children of St. Stephen’s neighborhood is being handed to us. Children in that neighborhood are showing up to church all on their own, without their parents. They’re even stopping by during the week whenever they see that somebody is there. Something is happening.

That in itself is a New Creation way of thinking: “something is happening.” God is doing something and we need to respond.

And we are beginning to. A team of people is being put together to do some dreaming about what might be possible, including to look at what others are doing elsewhere. If you want to be part of that dreaming, let me know. Dreaming is always a New Creation activity.

The challenge our faith always puts before us, be it on a personal, relational or corporate level, is the challenge to live in the New Creation. And it is a challenge. The Old Creation is everywhere, working in subtle and not so subtle ways to hold us back and hold us down. It is a struggle to be constantly throwing it off, but that is just what we are called to do.

We are called, as Paul says, to see no one and nothing any longer from a human point of view. We are called to see with eyes that transform the old into the new.

[1] “The New Being” in The New Being (Scribners, 1955), pp. 15-24.
[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Stand By Me God

Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Who or what is the Holy Spirit?

Jesus’ word for the Spirit was parakletos, “the Paraclete.” It literally means “one who stands alongside of.” Over the centuries, Bible translators have used a variety of different words to try to translate parakletos: “Comforter,” “Counselor,” and, what we heard this morning, “Advocate.”

They’re all good words, but I like to say something like “The Stand By Me God.” The gift of Jesus is the Stand By Me God, the One who never leaves my side or yours, or ours together. We are never abandoned. Never alone.

This Stand By Me God, Jesus says, is “the Spirit of truth” who will guide us “into all the truth.” That’s important! The Stand By Me God is the true God. It is not as we have feared. God is not the “my way or the highway” God, behave yourselves or suffer the consequences, the angry, judgmental God of our fears. That is not the true God, the God who is revealed by Jesus. Jesus reveals the God of Solidarity with us, Emmanuel, God with us, God for us. This is the truth.

Which means, as Jesus says, the world is wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. He seems to speak in riddles here, but what he means is, I think, quite simple.

The popular conception is that sin is hated by God and righteousness is loved by God, because God is, above all, a God of judgment. Sinners go to hell, the righteous go to heaven in God’s great act of judgment.

Wrong, Jesus says. This is wrong about sin, Jesus says, “because they do not believe in me.” All along Jesus has been teaching not that God hates sinners, but that God loves them. Jesus is the embodiment of a God who cannot be separated from humankind, even by its own sin. If you can conceive of God and I being one, Jesus is saying, than you can conceive of God and sinners being one.

Which is not to say that Jesus was a sinner, but it is to say that Jesus was fully human, and in him humanity was fully united to God, and if Jesus unites humanity to God, then he unites sinful humanity to God, because there isn’t any other kind.

Jesus told a story (John 8:1-11) about a woman who was caught in adultery, a very bad thing, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Her punishment under the Law was death by stoning, and when Jesus came upon her a crowd was getting ready to do just that. Being a noted teacher, they asked him for his judgment in the case, assuming that he would agree with the Law. Instead he said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all went away and the woman was spared be the Stand By Me God.

The world is wrong about righteousness, Jesus says, “because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer.” Huh? What does he mean by that?

He means, I think, that because he is being eternally united to God, righteousness is now about relationship with him, not about your or my ability to be good. Does Jesus want us to be good? Of course he does. Is being good a qualification for being in relationship with Jesus? No, it is not.

A Pharisee named Nicodemus once came to Jesus under the cover of darkness (John 3:1-17). He was strangely drawn to him even though most of his friends were at best suspicious and at worst outright rejecting of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus sensed his fear and gave him a challenge: “you must be born from above.” Which is to say you must have a different way of relating to the world, the way of the Spirit, which blows where it wills. You must relate to the world through Jesus, who has come, he says, not to condemn the world but to save it.

And the world is wrong about judgment, Jesus says, “because the ruler of this world has [already] been condemned.” Judgment has already happened. Satan, the Accuser of humankind, has already fallen as Jesus has been lifted up and drawn all people to himself as humankind’s Advocate. Greater love has no one than this, Jesus says, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And he, we are told, calls us friends. We are no longer the accused, we are the advocated for by the Stand By Me God.

This is all hugely good news. How sad it is that the world still, by and large, does not know it, certainly does not understand it. This largely lies on our shoulders. We have not testified to the truth! We have not sufficiently accepted the Stand By Me God, to allow the truth of this good news to form our words and deeds.

The church—you and I—continue to allow the world to be wrong about God, because we keep getting it wrong ourselves. We keep believing that God is primarily a God of angry judgment, the great Accuser in the sky. And if we believe that then certainly the world around us isn’t going to argue with us.

Our challenge is to believe the truth, to live into the truth, that our God is the Stand By Me God. The “ruler of this world” is already condemned and both sin and righteousness alike are drowned in the overwhelming flood of God’s love.

The truth is that God loves us. Period. Full stop. No ifs, and, ors, buts or maybes. No fine print. God is head over heals, puppy dog, drooling idiot, ga-ga in love with us. That is the message. There is no other. Any other message is a lie, and we ought not to be afraid to call it a lie whenever we hear it.

God loves you, Jesus says. Lift up that love and the world will be drawn to it. Proclaim the Stand By Me God so that the world will be proved wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Proclaim the Stand By Me God so that the world will know the truth and the truth will set it free.

Let us be loved people today. Let us be free people today. Let us give thanks for and lift up the Stand By Me God.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Congratulations EfM Graduates!

Five members of the parish received their Education for Ministry diplomas this morning after four years of diligent study.

Left to right: Allan Cuseo, Merle Welsh, Chris Cleveland, John Clinton Bradley [mentor], Bob Seidel, and Sharon Montoya.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 7th Sunday of Easter: John 17:6-19

I was at a meeting this week where someone described herself as “spiritual but not into organized religion.” A lot of people characterize themselves like that these days. It’s probably the fastest growing “religious affiliation” in the country—none.

So what does it mean to “believe” in organized religion? And why do we do it?

The first thing I want to say is the first thing I always want to say to someone who introduces herself in that way. “I’m an Episcopalian, a member of one of the most disorganized religions on the planet.”

The second thing I want to say is something like, “I sympathize.” I get mistrust of organized religion. I get frustration with an institution that has at times been—and remains—massively hypocritical, dysfunctional and even destructive. There are plenty of perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of a body that has seemed too many times to be more concerned with maintaining its own power than following Jesus. I have my own love/hate relationship with the church.

Jesus prays for his followers this morning that “they may be one, as we are one.” It is too often not our unity that the world around us sees, but our division. This has certainly been true for us Episcopalians and Anglicans over the last generation. It is not much of a positive witness to the world for us to be constantly at one another’s throats. I have been a member of the Episcopal Church for 28 years and have not known a church at peace with itself in that time.

So why am I still a member of it? Why have I devoted my life to it? Why do I still commend membership in it with all my heart?

It is because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. I believe in the church as a laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God.

I find this call—this way of life—to be wonderfully summarized in the African concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Bantu word that is rich in meaning. The Zulu people of South Africa say umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu which means, “A person is a person through other persons.” That is Ubuntu.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this about Ubuntu:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

This is not the philosophy on which most of us in the West are raised, particularly in this country. Our ideal tends to be the “rugged individual.” We are the name we make for ourselves. We are defined by our accomplishments, what we do.

In the philosophy of Ubuntu—and I think this was very much Jesus’ own philosophy—we are defined by our relationships. We are who we are in relationship with. This is primarily God. So we are God’s beloved, and we are God’s beloved not because of something we have done to deserve it. We are God’s beloved because that is the relationship God has chosen to have with us.

We are called for all our other relationships to work in this same way, to reflect the relationship we have with God. So this Easter season we have been hearing John say in his letters things like, “You cannot say you love God and hate a brother or a sister.” My acceptance of other people is based on my acceptance by God.

Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, has chosen “Ubuntu” to be the theme of this summer’s General Convention. It is a challenging theme given that our governing body has been known mostly by its fractiousness over the past thirty years or so.

She is trying to remind us that more than anything else we need each other and must be committed to one another’s well being. That is very difficult when you’re in the middle of a fight where real principles held dear are involved. It is a challenge for me personally both to fight for my full inclusion in the church and to allow for generous space for those who disagree with me. What does winning look like? It cannot look like someone else’s exclusion as the basis for my inclusion. Somehow we’ve got to move forward with everybody’s dignity and integrity intact. That is very, very difficult.

But not impossible if for no other reason than, as the Gospel reading this morning reminds us, Jesus is praying for us, and his primary prayer is that we might remain one.

Last year at Pentecost, the great feast of the Spirit that we will celebrate next week, I wrote a kind of prayer poem for the Hip Hop Mass. There are copies of it on the back table. It goes like this

The Spirit of God on the streets of God

We are all together in this life
Everyone deserves to live

The Spirit of God makes us one
All people are one human family

We are persons through other persons
Who we are is who we are with

Each got the back of each
Caring, generosity is our creed

The Spirit of God on the Streets of God

The ideal of Ubuntu—what Jesus meant by unity—is why I believe in organized religion. Let it be our guiding light rather than our divisions. Let us proclaim in word and deed, we are one.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Being Loved First

Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2009: John 15:9-17

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

I think these words are something like the lynchpin of the spiritual life. To believe that we are each one of us chosen, accepted, by God is at the very heart of our faith. Yet the whole of our life’s spiritual work is to strive to be in that place and to act out of it.

They are really astounding words that Jesus speaks to us today.

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

What does it mean to be God’s friend? Dare we believe that God wants to be our friend? Dare we believe that God loves us so much that he actually likes us? Dare we believe that God chooses us as we are?

The work of our spiritual life is to be able to say “yes” to these questions and to live our lives as if this were the greatest truth about us: that we are God’s friends, God’s beloved. This is our true identity.

But this is not very easy. If this is the work of our spiritual life, it is hard work. Most of us fail constantly to live into this identity, to claim this truth of our existence: I am chosen by God; I am God’s beloved.

“Who am I?” is one of the great questions of our life. All through our lives we try to answer that question, consciously or unconsciously.

We have some typical ways we answer that question. Probably the most typical is to say that “I am what I do.” This may involve our work life, our role in our family, our volunteering or any of the choices we make in what we do from day to day. There is something real about this, because there is—or ought to be—real dignity in the work we do.

The problem is that there are always ups and downs. When I am doing good things and can see at least little successes in what I do, it is easy to feel good about myself. But I fall short sometimes, even fail, and then my self-esteem takes a hit, I can even fall into despair about myself because my “doing” doesn’t seem to be very productive.

Another way we can answer the question of our identity is to say that “I am what others think about me.” And of course what others think about me is very powerful. It is easy to feel very good about myself when others are saying nice things about me. But when they don’t it is just as easy to feel terrible. When something negative gets said it can be devastating and, again, our self-esteem can take a big hit.

Another popular way of answering the question of “Who am I?” is to say that “I am what I have.” All advertising has as its goal to make me believe that owning the thing being advertised will make me a better person, a happier person. We get suckered into this almost every day.

The problem is that possessions hardly ever meet our expectations and they themselves are fleeting. They require enormous amounts of energy just to hold on to and we have a tendency to need more and more in order to be satisfied.

All these ways of answering the fundamental question of our identity work well when they work, but they do not work all the time. And sometimes when they do not work the consequences to our sense of self can be devastating. The ups and downs can be exhausting and disillusioning. The end result is that our self-esteem is nearly constantly under attack.

It ends up that most of our life our energy is just trying to keep our head above water, surviving. This is far short of what Jesus promises, that we should share in his joy and that joy should be complete. Life cannot give us that complete joy, no matter how hard we try.

What was Jesus’ joy? It was, I believe, that he knew who he was, in the deepest part of himself. And he knew this deepest part of himself was not who the world said he was.

Jesus was faced with the same temptations as we are in trying to determine the true source of our identity. Think of his temptations in the desert. The devil asked him to show what he could do, “Turn these stones into bread.” Then, “Jump from the Temple and let the angels catch you. People will speak well of you then.” And then, “Let me give you all the possessions of the world. You will be powerful beyond your dreams.”

But Jesus said, “All this is a lie.” This is not who I am. I am not what I do. I am not how people speak of me. I am not what I own or what power I have over others.

I have already been told who I am. The Spirit came down on me and said, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

And he didn’t need anything more. He was able to live his life and live through his death with those words being enough. You are my beloved.

We, my friends, have the same opportunity to live in the same way. Because what is said of Jesus is also said of us. It is the language of our baptism.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

You are God’s beloved daughter; you are God’s beloved son. That is the truth about you, the truth that can never change.

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

The one who chooses us before we have chosen him is the voice of what 20th century spiritual guide Henri Nouwen calls the voice of our “first love.”

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And I have loved you first. And Nouwen writes

And the great struggle is to claim that first love. You were loved before your father and your mother and your brother and your sister and your teachers loved you….The people who love us don’t always love us well….The people who care for us also wound us. And you might know from your experience that the people who are closest to you, like your father, mother, children, brother, teachers, churches, are also the ones who might hurt you most. And how to live that? How to live the naked truth that in this world love and wounds are never separated? We can only live it when we always reclaim that first love.

Therefore we can forgive those who love us poorly, and we can recognize in the love we do receive a hint or glimpse of the first love as real. Could you hold on to that? Every time that you have a temptation to become bitter or jealous, to lash out, to feel rejected, can you go back and say, “No, I am the beloved daughter of God”? And even though I am rejected, that rejection should become for me a way to reclaim the truth. It should be like a pruning that helps me to claim more fully and deeply the truth of my belovedness. And if I can hold on to that and live in the world, then I can be free to love other people without expecting them to give me all that my heart desires.

Because God has created you and me with a heart that only God’s love can satisfy. And every other love will be partial, will be real, but limited, will be painful. And if we are willing to let the pain prune us, to give us a deeper sense of our belovedness, then we can be as free as Jesus and walk on this world and proclaim God’s love first, wherever we go.

[1] Henri Nouwen, “Being the Beloved,” in Henri Nouwen: Writings Selected with an Inttroduction by Robert A Jonas (Orbis, 1998), pp. 27-28. This entire sermon is based upon this sermon of Nouwen’s preached in 1992 on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power.