Thursday, March 29, 2012

April Newsletter

The electronic version of The Word From Two Saints for April 2012 is now available and can be viewed by clicking the links below...
If you signed up to receive the parish newsletter electronically, remember that you will not receive a paper copy by mail; so please take a few moments to read the online version.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

You Look for Truth Deep Within Me

Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Psalm 51

Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.

            Last week I spoke about this truth that sets us free, so very important in John’s Gospel.  We saw from this Gospel something perhaps startling, that the truth that sets us free is not a proposition, but a story, and that this story was not only the story of God or the story of Jesus.  The story that sets us free is also our own story.

            There have been some interesting conversations since then.  Some of them that have either been reported to me or that I have had myself amount to this:  the suspicion or even the outright denial that you have a story, at least one that can or should be told.

            Of course, all of you know that just is not true.  If you have been alive, you have a story.  You know that.  I suspect the problem is twofold:  On the one hand, you are not sure at all that your story is worth telling.  It is not very exciting. It is just too ordinary.  On the other hand, you are afraid to tell your story because you are afraid it will be judged to be lacking, boring even.  Besides, you really do not know how to tell your story, especially if you are to tell it as a story of God.

            Here’s the most important thing to know in order to push back against all this sense of inadequacy and fear.  That important thing is that you cannot think about your story, your life, as you think other human beings might look at it.  God does not think like that.  Remember Isaiah 55, Canticle 10 in the Prayer Book:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.

            God does not think like we do, which means that what we might consider to be an ordinary, boring story is full of glory to God.  God, in fact, specializes in making ordinary things extraordinary.  Water, bread, wine, oil.  The ordinary seems to be, in fact, God’s preferred way of communicating with us.

            “But even God cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” you might protest.  Really?  Let’s look at Psalm 51.

            Psalm 51 is a story written as a poem.  The writer is deeply troubled and sure of his or her unworthiness.  Look at the nouns in the first six verses:  offenses, wickedness, sin, transgressions, sin, sin, evil, judgment, wicked, sinner.  This person is pretty convinced of his unworthiness.  In verse 9 he calls it for how it feels:  brokenness.  Brokenness so deep, it has set into his bones.  Brokenness he deserves, so he attributes it to God.

            Tradition has ascribed this psalm to David, composed as a reaction to the terrible story of his falling for another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and his conspiring to have her husband killed in order to have her for himself.  But then the prophet Nathan brings David up short and he realizes the terrible depths to which he has gone to satisfy himself.

            But David has a long relationship with God and he knows something about God:  God has promised David that he will never let him go.  Now David has pushed that promise to its limit and he knows it.  But in the midst of his confession, he asks God to act, with the kind of assurance that he will. So alongside those nouns of sin and judgment are an opposite set of words:  mercy, compassion, wash, cleanse, purge, wash, clean.

            And what I think is the decisive line in the psalm:

For behold, you look for truth deep within me…

            “Behold” in the Bible is a kind of code word, a special marker, that says “Pay attention!  Something significant is being said!”  What that significant thing here is that God also does not think like us in judging us on surface matters or even on things that seem to speak of a damaged personality.  God will go as deep into me as he needs to go in order to find the truth.

            God’s primary job in relating to me is not to judge me for what I have done, but to seek within me what he has made.  You see, if God is our creator, then God knows the truth about each one of us.  He made that truth. It is his truth, his image stamped on ours.  And I think God never, ever gives up in seeking that truth, that image, out, and desperately wants us to do that seeking with him.

            Now what does that have to do with our story?

            Simply this.  If each and every one of us is made in the image of God, then deep within each one of us, ordinary as we may be, is something extraordinary.  To talk about the Life of the Spirit is to talk about the lifelong journey to find that extraordinary thing.  We are, each one of us, seekers after the glory within.  And our story, whatever that story is, is the seeking after—or, sometimes, the running away from—the glory within.

            Most of the time, any story we tell about our lives can relay only a glimpse we had of that glory in ourselves, or in another.  What we have to do is get better at noticing those glimpses.  And all that we have to do is notice, and if we tell about them all that we have to do is tell, with the preface, perhaps, that this is a story for me about the glory of God.

            Here’s an example.

            Having some delicious strawberries at the organ concert Friday evening, made me think of picking strawberries with my great-grandmother Pearl, which was an early summer ritual.  She would always say as we entered the patch, “Now you can eat one. Save the rest for later.”

            I tended to eat one for every six to eight I picked.  And I was very good at not getting caught.  But one day, of course, I did get caught, and Gram was very stern with me.  Then she turned to get back to picking, but suddenly stopped and turned around with a great big one in her hand. She winked and said, “Have this, but no more!”

            I’m convinced God adores silk purses made from sow’s ears.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Treyvon Rest in Peace; America Wake Up

I put these words on our front sign board at Church last evening.  I didn't know what else to do and I felt I had to do something.

Every once and awhile something happens (usually tragic) that grabs the attention and emotion of most if not all of our society.  We express outrage, as we should, and sometimes good results happen: a law is changed, people become more careful, and maybe a little less prejudiced.  But little systemic happens, and we fall back into our normal complacency until the next crisis.

This is cynical, but I don't expect much more than that to happen with the case of Treyvon Martin.  What is it about this country that we have such difficulty having conversation about race?  That is, of course, a rhetorical question, like it or not.  The mistrust and fear is palpable. And white privilege is so firmly ensconced that its denial requires no effort at all.

Then there is the issue of guns.  I grew up with guns used for hunting.  I have no problem with that.  But our gun obsession is much more than that.  Guns are a symbol of our national paranoia that someone is always out to threaten us.  And incidents like the one with Treyvon are going to happen as a matter of course so long as this paranoia is fed.  And "Stand Your Ground" gun laws?  Evil.  That may be harsh, but I do not know what else to call them.

We are caught in a vicious cycle of violence and threat and fear and hatred in this country.  When are we going to wake up and notice?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Truth is a Story to Tell

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 4th Sunday in Lent (March 18, 2012):  John 3:14-21

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.

          We have opened each Service during Lent with the prayer: “Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.”

          That is a prayer in the language of John’s Gospel.  Jesus promises us in chapter 16 (v. 13) of John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit, whom he calls “the Spirit of truth,” will “guide you into all the truth.”  In chapter 8 (vv. 31-32) Jesus had said,

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

          These words are near and dear to our tradition of Christianity; indeed, they are the words that appear on the seal of the Anglican Communion:  “The truth will make you free.”

          This word “truth” is very important in John’s Gospel.  In fact, the words “truth” or “true” are only used once in Matthew’s Gospel, twice in Mark, three times in Luke, but 45 times in John.

          So what does Jesus mean by “truth” in John’s Gospel?  You may recall this is the very question Pilate asks Jesus as Jesus stands before him on Good Friday.  Jesus tells Pilate (18:37),

For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

          Pilate answers dismissively, “What is truth?”  In some ways, the entirety of John’s Gospel is the beginning of an answer to that question.  I say “the beginning of” remembering that Jesus says in this Gospel that the truth will continue to be revealed by the Spirit of truth.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.

          There is a clue in this morning’s Gospel reading as to what Jesus means by the “truth.” He says

But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

          That’s as close as you can come to making “truth” a verb.  It is an odd expression, “to do what is true,” “to do the truth.”

          This is incredibly powerful and important!  If you have not listened to anything else I have said over the last eight years, please listen to these three short sentences:

The truth that we have to tell, the Good News of Jesus, is not a set of propositions.  The truth is a story.  The Good News is not a proposition, it is a story.
          And that story is not just the story about Jesus of Nazareth.  That story is the story of God that takes in all stories, including yours and mine.

          Yes, that means, that your story is part of the truth that sets free. Another way of saying that is that you cannot be set free outside of your own story.

          Proof that we do actually believe this is me standing before you.

          Who have been the storytellers in the Episcopal Church over the last thirty years?  Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (not exclusively, of course, but predominantly).  A man named Louie Crew, the founder of Integrity, began it in 1973.  He told his story to the church and encouraged others to do so.

          Almost 25 years later, as the President of Integrity, I was still going around the country encouraging people to tell their stories, and to tell them with the conviction that they were stories of the Holy Spirit at work among us. They were stories of faith. They were stories of the truth that sets free.

          I have been in the thick of the debate in our Church about the place of LGBT people for more than twenty years and the answer to a constant conundrum has just occurred to me.  I have heard more times than I can count, something like, “Show me where the Bible says homosexuality can be blessed by God.”  Or the complaint, “You have not done the theology.”

          I have had lots of ways to come back to those concerns, but I wish I had said what came to me this week, “Our story is ‘the theology.’  We have been doing what Jesus said to do:  bring your story (your “deeds”) into the open (into “the light”) so it can be seen whether or not you “do what is true.”

          And that is the basis on which our Church has decided through its processes of public discernment and democratic decision-making that I, poor sinner though I am, am worthy to stand before.

          Of course, LGBT folks were not the first to do this.  Women did this in their quest for equality in ordination and other matters of the church.  African-Americans have a long and rich history of storytelling, and through that history know that storytelling is serious business. It is a matter of survival.

          It is.  I have become convinced that it is for the church as well.  For the Christian Church. For the Episcopal Church. For the Church of St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene.

          I believe that 10-12 years from now when I am ready to retire, whether or not I will leave a church that is thriving or one that is figuring out how to close up shop, will depend on if we—all of us—have developed the practice of telling our story, our story which is also the story of what the Holy Spirit is up to among us.

          Hear carefully what I am saying.  We want this to be an attractive place, a place that will draw people to worship here.  But if that is the only card we have to play, our death is inevitable.

          What we must do to have a chance at a long future is to hone our individual and collective ability to find out what God is up to in our lives, in the lives of our families, neighbors, friends and all the other people with whom we cross paths.  We must build relationships with people—even the most unlikely people—that include an openness to spiritual curiosity that can lead to greater spiritual engagement on all our parts.

          We must learn to tell our stories as stories about how the Holy Spirit leads us into truth that sets us free.

          A last word:  nobody is going to do this for us.  Yes, I would love for the Episcopal Church as a whole to come up with some brilliant way of making itself better known, or come up with some magic program that if we follow six steps we will turn everything around.  Same with our diocese. 

          But ultimately folks, it depends on us.  All politics is local.  This parish will thrive and the Episcopal Church will thrive, when you and I stop sitting on our butts waiting for people to show up and see how wonderful we are and, instead, take our wonder to the streets, where we will meet the God who is up to things out there.  And we will build relationships and some of those relationships will include a joint encounter of the spiritual, and that joint encounter will deepen and result in the desire for spiritual community. That is how we will re-build this church.

          Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.  Help us, Holy Spirit, see and hear the truth in our stories. Inspire us, Holy Spirit to be and do what is true.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Two Saints Spring Music Festival

Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids

Free Concerts on Fridays at 12:15-12:45 p.m. at historic St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, downtown Rochester, wheel-chair accessible.  546-7730

Box lunches made with all-natural, local ingredients will be available for a suggested donation of $7 each. 

All proceeds and a free-will offering directly benefit the Right-On School, a six-week summer day camp program serving inner-city Rochester children.

Calendar Listings

Friday, April 13
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Katie Hagen and Cheryl Frank, violas
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Friday, April 20
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Anne Laver, organ
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Friday, April 27
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Eastman Cello Choir
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Friday, May 4
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Eastman Horn Quartet
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Friday, May 11
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Laura Osgood, soprano; Keith Brown, bass
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Friday, May 18
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Reginald Mobley, countertenor; Henry Lebedinsky, piano
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Friday, May 25
12:15 p.m.
Two Saints Spring Music Festival: Supporting Local Talent, Local Food, Local Kids
Bruce Frank, organ
St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Church, 17 South Fitzhugh Street, Rochester

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Holy Spirit and Anger

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22

            It may be shocking to see Jesus angry in this scene in the Temple: angry and acting with force.  Don’t we usually use words like gently, meek, and mild for Jesus?
            Yes, we do, but we also very firmly use the word “human” for him as well.  And, if Jesus was fully human than he had to have experienced every human emotion, including anger.
             So let’s talk about anger.  We are talking about living the Life of the Spirit during this Season of Lent. Can anger play any part in the Life of the Spirit?  Apparently the answer is “yes,” because here we have Jesus doing it.  But how can this be so?
             Let’s deal with some misconceptions right up front.  First and foremost, anger as an emotional response is not an automatically bad thing.  It is not, of course, automatically a good thing either.  As a feeling it is morally neutral.
            This means that anger is not automatically sinful.  I think we church folk often seem to think that it is, and give one another the impression that the only correct response to anger is suppression.
            In truth, nothing could be worse.  More than psychology, it is simple common sense that if you suppress anger it will fester, and it will get uglier and uglier and uglier. It will grow like a cancer and it may very well consume you or someone else.
            Unfortunately some of us were taught to feel guilty or even ashamed when we got angry. Lord, have mercy, anger and guilt make a particularly nasty cocktail that can mess people up something fierce.
            What about the anger of God?  God is frequently angry in the Bible, and occasionally it is not a pretty sight.  Break those commandments and you are going to piss God off.
            It’s tempting to trump all that with the First Letter of John. “God is love.”  But do we really want a God who is incapable of anger?  OK, I see your point, you might be saying, so long as it’s not directed at me.
            We have to admit that the anger of God, and the violence of God, is a stubborn question that cannot be easily explained away, although many certainly try to do so.  But how could it be otherwise?  Do we really expect God to be any less complicated than we are?  How many of us understand the complexity of human emotions, our own or others?  Is there anyone?
            What matters, of course, is not whether we are ever angry, but what we do with it when we are.
            First of all, as I have already said, we do not suppress it, pretend it isn’t there, or be dishonest about it.  Denying anger in a relationship has got to be in the top five reasons why relationships shipwreck.  I know, it is a natural inclination to avoid dealing with the problem, but if you make that choice you are going to pay for it.  Trust me, as one who has paid out a mountain of hurt.
            Honesty, as they rightly say, is the best policy.  I know, however, how difficult that is in this throw-away society.  It feels like honesty is only going to get me rejection, or labeled one of those “angry women,” “angry blacks” or “angry gays.”
            One of the answers to this dilemma is for us to stop giving anger so much power.  If someone is angry at me, it is only anger.  It’s not pleasant, but neither is going to the dentist. Some things in life just have to be done because we are better for it when we do them even if they involve momentary unpleasantness.
            Is my spouse angry with me (of course, I have never personally experienced this)?  OK, we can deal with that, can’t we?  What are marriage vows for, after all? What did we think “for better, for worse” meant?  And we have at our disposal all the tools to get on the other side of anger, the chief among them being the process of reconciliation.  We know how to say, “I’m sorry,” and we know how to say, “I forgive you.”
            It’s the same dynamic with God. Is God ever angry with me?  How could he not be?  I am a wildly imperfect person.  If you haven’t noticed, so are you.  We are all a freaking mess! Of course God is angry with us!  To paraphrase Groucho Marx, would we want a God who would be happy with our messed-up behavior?
            But it’s only anger!  It does not negate the words that have been spoken, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”  God’s anger may be real and we may need seriously to deal with it, but it is never going to trump God’s love.  That, my friends, is the gospel Jesus taught and lived out right through his death.
            But, of course, we need to do a bit more with our anger if we are going to see our way through this with all our relationships and body parts intact.  I can’t, of course, shoot you between the eyes and say, “It was only anger!”
            So in order to be able to be honest about my anger, what do I have to do?  Two skills that are among the most important we can learn to exercise, so important that they themselves can be called “spiritual practices.”  These two things are detachment and offering, and they usually have to both be done and in that order.
            The problem with anger is that when I get angry I tend to feel like I need to be in control and that what is at stake is every ounce of my integrity, and I quickly appoint myself as my own personal savior and sometimes the savior of someone else, or the whole damn world.
            Detachment does not mean that I convince myself not to care anymore or lose my resolve for something (whatever has made me angry) to be different.  Detachment means my ego letting go.  Detachment means letting go of my need to be in control.  It is so, so, so hard to do when we are angry and feeling threatened but we absolutely have to do it.
            If we can let go, detach, relax our grip even just a bit, then we might be able to turn our hand over and slowly open the fingers and do the other spiritual practice:  offer.  Give it to God.
            Now that is not just another way to suppress it.  It is rarely ever true that God just “takes it away,” makes it disappear so that I can say, “Wow! I don’t even remember what I was angry about!”  I think it does happen that way sometimes, but not all the time, and not even most of the time. I think that is not how God tends to work with us.  God does not want to take away the struggle.  God does want to walk with us through it.
            This is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  The Holy Spirit’s job description is to be our companion in the struggle of life, and as our companion, to be an agent of transformation.
            And that is what happens if we can let go, and accept God’s companionship in whatever is sticking in our craw.  The spiritual energy that has amassed around that thing can be transformed from anger into passion into compassion.
            It was not anger that overturned those tables in the Temple.  Oh, I have no doubt that is where it started, but it was compassion that overturned those tables.  Jesus was so moved by the sight of God’s people having to buy pure animals because their own were not acceptable to make their sacrifice to God, and he was so angered by the religious authorities making money off of the exchange of coin, that he had to do something.  And notice what he did. He drove out the animals who were to be sold for sacrifice (that’s what the whip of cords was for) and he overturned the moneychangers’ tables.  But it is not said that he harmed a single human being.  He disturbed them, but he did not do violence to them.
            It’s an example of what we can do with our anger, in this case our anger at injustice.  It is so easy in such a situation to let our anger get the best of us  so that we do not care who gets hurt and our actions have far more to do with making us feel better than actually solving the injustice about which we are angry.
            That doesn’t mean we don’t act. It means we get our ego as far out of the equation as possible, let the Holy Spirit be our companion and guide, and let compassion dictate what we must do.
            How it changes my conflict with another human being, if my anger with them is accompanied by my compassion for them!  Arguments then change from being about my winning or losing to being about us being transformed by the Holy Spirit to be in an ever greater state of love.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Job Circle First Meeting

Job Circle--a mutual-support group for those in the parish who are seeking work--will hold its first meeting on Monday, March 19, 9:30-10:30 AM, in the 2nd floor conference room at Two Saints. 

Please click here to indicate you are planning to attend. Contact John Clinton Bradley for more info.