Monday, May 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Church!!

"When the Day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
--Acts 2: 1-4

This past Sunday Christians celebrated the birthday of the Church.  Tradition holds on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon the eleven apostles, driving them out into the streets of Jerusalem, where they met pilgrims gathered from all over the region for the Jewish high holiday. (Pentecost is known in Hebrew as Shavout and is a commemoration of God giving the 10 Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai; it is still observed today.)  When the pilgrims heard the apostles proclaiming God's deeds of power in their own language, it is said that a large number of folks became believers in Jesus.  And thus, the Church was born.

An icon of the Day of Pentecost by Phiddipus showing the descent of the Holy Spirit.  The figure on the bottom is Kosmos, an allegorical figure representing the world.

When I think of the Day of Pentecost I think of those 11 apostles huddled in that upper room, where they had a meal with Jesus just a few weeks before.  How frightened they must have been?  How uncertain the future must have seemed now that Jesus was gone AGAIN?  And yet, when the Spirit descended upon them they did not just sit there.  They got up and went out into the streets and set the world on fire with God's love.  Still, the pilgrims gathered there must have been ridiculously confused.  Imagine hearing all of these different languages in the air--Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic--and yet, somehow, in the middle of this cacophony of tongues they hear their own, as though God were personally speaking to each of them.  I suspect it must have been not only a cacophony of tongues but also emotion:  confusion, fear, excitement, wonder, even anger (some of those gathered accused the apostles of being drunk).  Simply put:  this day was not one to be easily understood, and that's because on this day God was giving birth to something new, and whenever God gives birth to something new it is seldom easily understood.  

The Day of Pentecost is also a traditional starting day for new ministers in congregations.  It is a day of newness, of celebration, and hope for the future.  And so this past Sunday I marked the beginning of a new journey with the faithful folks of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, NC as their new rector.  This congregation has been standing in God's cacophony of emotion for over a year and a half, feeling all the feels.  As is the case with every church in transition there has been sadness, anger, excitement, and fear.  But I have been there too, as I have felt sadness over closing a chapter in my life, anger toward those who I perceived to have wronged me in the past, excitement over dreaming dreams with this new congregation, and even fear over what may happen if those dreams don't come true.  Still, that is what this day is about.  Pentecost encourages us to stand in the midst of newness, of tremendous change, because the act of living is an embracement of change.  God knows this.  And as God's Spirit drove the apostles into an uncertain future, that same Spirit drives us--not just the folks at Good Shepherd, but all of us who may be experiencing transitions in our own lives.  

Before this day the last great transition in my life was my ordination to the priesthood almost two years ago.  It was a day that I was building toward for seven years, and when it finally came I could only think, "Now what?"  Now what?  That's not an uncommon thing for us to think when a long-desired day for which we have been preparing finally arrives.  I am sure plenty of folks in the congregation this past Sunday where thinking something like that:  "We've done the work and have our new rector, now what?"  Perhaps those of you going through great transitions right now are asking the same thing.  Well, now we do what those apostles and pilgrims did.  We listen.  We listen for the Spirit to move us, to empower us, and to put us to work, not simply sitting here and wallowing in our fears of the unknown, but getting up and going out into the streets and setting the world on fire with God's love.

You may have seen a Facebook post I made this past week, which I think is appropriate for this holy day.  I was walking down one of the main streets of Asheboro in my collar, going into shops and meeting new folks.  Just before I went into the comic book shop to buy a new copy of Watchmen, I was approached by two ladies, one of whom asked if I were a preacher.  When I said yes she asked if I prayed for people.  And when I said yes again she motioned to her friend who was in great pain in her mouth because she had had several teeth pulled.  I asked her name, laid hands on her, and we had prayer right there in the middle of the sidewalk on a Tuesday afternoon in Asheboro.  You don't have to be a priest to do that!  You simply need to let the Spirit's power move you to go out in to the world and do something new.  Don't be afraid of it.  

May this Pentecost Week be a celebration for the whole Church, a time of rejoicing for all that God has done, is doing, and will do in the future.  And may it be a time for you to reflect back on all of your transitions and be empowered by the Spirit to do something new with your life.  Wherever you are and whatever uncertain future you may be facing, know that you do not do it alone, for we are all One Body in Christ Jesus, and just as those apostles and pilgrims did not face their uncertain future alone, neither do we.  We have each other, and we have the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and guide.  And in the middle of it all is the One who has been, who is, and who will always be.  And to Him be the glory.  Happy Birthday, Church!

The folks of Good Shepherd, Asheboro as we celebrated the Day of Pentecost and the start of our new journey together.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Being Friends with Jesus

**This post is from a sermon I preached at my home parish--All Saints, Norton, VA--on Sunday, May 10, 2015 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)**

All Saints Episcopal Church, Norton, VA (where I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained a deacon)

"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."
--John 15: 15
For the first 12 or so years of my life I had a best friend named Broderick, who was my dog.  Some of you may even remember Broderick; in fact, he sometimes would come to church with us, go to the nursing home service in Wise and offer pastoral care, and Dad even had him included in the media guide for the basketball team at UVA-Wise.  He was my Ole Buddy--that was what I called him--and we were inseparable.  Broderick followed me everywhere, as though Mom and Dad had given him orders to make sure I was ok.  He was literally my older brother.  And the day he died in 1995 is still vivid in my mind; his funeral--held in our front yard at Flat Gap--was the first Episcopal burial I attended.  I have never had a friend quite like him, and even now at 31 there are days when I miss him.
With my sister Ashley and best friend/older brother Broderick sometime in 1984 or 1985.  
So I wonder:  who was your childhood best friend?  Or who is your best friend now?  What are the qualities that define that relationship?  Honesty?  Support?  The ability to just be yourselves when you're around each other?
In our gospel today Jesus, continuing his Farewell Discourse to the 12 apostles, says something that he does not say in any of the synoptic gospels--only here in the Fourth.  After washing their feet and sharing a meal, with them gathered around him expecting him to open up the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, he calls them his friends.  His friends!  These men who have been following him for the better part of three years, who have called him 'rabbi', 'master', and 'Lord' he calls friends.  The Greek word used here is filos and also translates to 'dear ones' or 'beloved.'  So these ordinary, flawed, broken human beings are the beloved ones of the Son of God.  Matthew:  tax collector and despised one, a friend of Jesus.  Thomas:  the denier, a friend of Jesus.  Nathaniel:  who made fun of Jesus' hometown, a friend of Jesus.  Simon Peter:  the Rock, who stumbles and falls and disappoints his teacher so many times, a friend of Jesus.  And Judas:  the betrayer, a friend of Jesus.  And would dare say that this passage is for us today, as well.  We, flawed and broken individuals, are friends of Jesus.
This may seem a bit presumptuous on our part, to dare think of ourselves as friends with God.  But there is precedence for this in Holy Scripture.  Isaiah 41: 8 refers to Abraham as God's friend, and in Wisdom 7: 27 Solomon says that wisdom herself makes people the friends of God.  But doesn't this claim still seem a bit bold on our part?
Well, that's what makes Jesus so radical, and it's why we need him.  For too long in human history deities had always been far, far removed from humanity.  Think of the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology.  They sat atop their thrones on Mt. Olympus and only interacted with humanity when it suited their whims.  We were little more than tools or puppets to them.  The God that Jesus called Father, the God of Abraham, was different from these deities.  This God showed genuine compassion, promising a nation to Abraham and Sarah and later rescuing that nation from bondage.  This God seemed to actually care about humanity.  However, even this God was far away for Jesus' contemporaries, dwelling in the Holy of Holies, the innermost section of the temple in Jerusalem, where no one, save the high priest, could enter--and even then only once a year. 
But Jesus comes along and changes the narrative.  In Jesus, the living embodiment of God, we have an image of God.  In Jesus God has a face, and it smiles.  God has a mouth and taste buds, and they partake in meals.  God has hands, and they do work and pull up those who are beaten down.  God has emotions, and they run the gamete from anger to sadness and everywhere in-between.  In Jesus, God is just like us.  Suddenly, now, in Jesus, God is not so far away.  God has deemed not to be separated from humanity, and no longer need we gaze longingly to a God so far removed from us.  Jesus dwells in our presence, which makes us worthy to dwell in the presence of God.  He himself is not a distant stranger but a friend, a friend with whom we can be honest, a friend in whom we can find support, and a friend who loves us just the way we are and who invites us to just be ourselves with him.  And those of us who have been washed by the baptismal waters and have met Jesus in the sacred meal of bread and wine know these sacraments to be the marks of such friendship. 
So what does it mean to be friends with Jesus?  It means to abide in joy, love, and relationship, three things that we were made for.  To be a friend of Jesus is to abide in joy, in good news.  It is something to celebrate.  Sadly, we often hear Jesus' own friends twist this and make friendship with Jesus into a burden to mourn, rather than a joy to celebrate, as though we were still servants.  To be a friend of Jesus is to abide in love, the kind he showed.  Love one another as I have loved you.  This is not the kind of love that the world knows, which is a reciprocal love that often asks something in return.  But Jesus shows us how to love unconditionally, to love those who doubt us, those that make fun of us, those that disappoint us, and even those that betray us.  To be a friend of Jesus is to abide in relationship.  We are in relationship with Jesus simply by being in relationship with each other, for we are the body of Christ.  If you look into the face of the one sitting next to you, you will see the very face of Jesus.  So we need not wonder what the Kingdom of God will look like, we have the capacity, through our love for one another and for Jesus, to bring about the Kingdom here and now.  We are not observers, but participants, beloved partners with Jesus in this redemptive work.  That's what it means to be friends with Jesus. 
So it really isn't such a bold claim, is it?  God's love for you made manifest in Jesus is greater than any of you can imagine, greater than friendship you have had or ever will have.  It's greater even than the love I had for Broderick or he for me.  It is an everlasting love that we cannot earn and cannot lose.  That is the power of the grace of God and the power of the friendship into which Jesus is calling you and me.  So, brothers and sisters, go into this week knowing that you are friends with Jesus, and that he calls you into lives of joy, love, and relationship with him and with one another.  And lest us join with our friend, our teacher, and our Lord, to see his face in all we meet and put our love for him into action out in the world, so that we may partner with him to bring about the Kingdom here and now. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Don't Forget to Say, 'I Love You!'

*This entry is derived from my final Sunday sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington, KY (5/3/15)*

"Jesus said to his disciples, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.""
--John 15: 1-8

  Abide in me.  That's what he said.  Here in the 15th chapter of the Fourth Gospel, in what is often called the Jesus' Farewell Discourse, he tells those closest to him to abide in him.  It's a beautiful phrase, isn't it?  But what does it mean?  Maybe it's meant to be some form of mysticism, that Jesus' spirit literally abides in his followers and their spirits abide in him.  Surely John's community would have been familiar with Jewish mysticism.  But what about for us now?  What does it mean for us when Jesus tells us to abide in him?

Jesus says that hose who abide in him bear much fruit.  But what kind of fruit exactly?  In our modern, quantitative world, bearing fruit generally means showing signs of success.  There are the fruits of your job:  bigger check, nicer house, better pension plan.  There are the fruits of your schools:  higher grades, larger scholarship, the path that leads to the job with the bigger check, nicer house, and better pension plan.  It seems we have to prove our self-worth, and churches do this too.  It's not hard for churches to fall into the trap of thinking that we have to show how good we are at being Christians by increasing in number year after year.  If by "bear fruit," Jesus meant to make as many Epsicopalians as possible, well then we did a pretty good job on April 26 when over 40 people were confirmed, received, and reaffirmed in this cathedral.  It was a wonderful, joy-filled moment, but I suspect Jesus meant something a little deeper when he talked about abiding in him and bearing fruit.  I suspect he meant something that cannot be quantified.

Being a Christian does mean a life of activity.  We show our love for Jesus and our commitment to him as our Lord by our actions in and out of this place.  We are enabled by the power of Christ in us to do amazing things and bear much fruit.  For three years I have had the pleasure of serving alongside you, walking with you through your faith journey, and I can tell you that you have borne much fruit.  But I'm not thinking of the quantifiable kind.  I'm thinking of a trip to England, where a new, young chaplain joined up with the choir on their tour.  Not only had he only been on the job for four days, he hadn't even been ordained yet!  Still, the choir gave him the nickname Joe Clergy, and they welcomed him as one of their own in a time when he was nervous and worried about starting a new job.  I'm thinking of a little black dog who, upon arriving here, ran around like she owned the place.  And yet you welcomed her and loved her, even when she had a few accidents in certain rooms of the cathedral, and you allowed her to offer pastoral care to you in ways that I and the other clergy could never do.  I'm thinking of a group of young adults, who have gathered over food and fellowship these last three years.  And while their numbers have increased, that's really just an afterthought.  What they have really increased in has been their love of God and their love for one another, deepening their faith, asking questions, and growing together.  I'm thinking of a small but dedicated group of college students at a little chapel down the street at UK, who have met each week and with whom you have shared their journey through meals and your presence.  I'm thinking of Holy Conversations around the sensitive issue of marriage equality and the decision this community made to affirm the love between two of its most cherished members.  And I'm thinking of so many more examples, but if I listed them all here, we'd never get out done!

Do you know why you have been able to bear so much fruit?  It's because of love.  You see, love can't be quantified.  It can't be explained empirically.  You can't measure it.  There's no end-of-the-quarter report that you put together about it.  And yet love is the most powerful force in the entire universe, because it is the only force capable of transcending time and space.  The epistler tells us why this is so:  because love is of God.  And it is by this--by love--that we know we abide in God.  And when we know we abide in God, we can take bold steps forward, no matter how fearful they may be, because perfect love--the love God has shown to us in Jesus, the kind of love that you have for one another--that kind of love casts our all fear.  I've seen you overcome great fears through the power of the love of Christ that abides in you, and I know that whatever fearful moments may lie ahead of you, you will overcome them also through the power of Christ's love.

It sounds pretty simple.  But we Christians have a habit of turning the simple into the difficult.  We shout that we are filled with God's love as we throw a bible at someone.  We preach our own brand of love but reject someone who doesn't meet our standards--kind of like what the religious authorities did to Jesus.  Or we speak of how much we love our meek and mild Lord, while we flaunt our extravagance at those who have nothing.  Maybe it's because of our own fear that we forget that to love God is to love one another and vice versa.  How often we forget.  I know I forget.  Way more than I should. 

But there is a way that we can avoid forgetting.  There is a solution for us, one that will draw us back to Christ's love and case aside our own fears.  Say, 'I love you.'  Say it a lot.  Say it like it's going out of style.  Say it to someone as you pass the Peace.  Say it to someone who might be sitting in YOUR pew.  Say it to your family, your friends, your co-workers (yes, even the one that you can't stand).  Say it to the stranger on the street.  Who knows, they might be Jesus!  Say it like you mean it.  Say it like you believe the words from the First Letter of John, that those who abide in love abide in God.  Say those words as often as possible, and you will bear some pretty amazing fruit.  And it won't be the kind you can quantify.

Christ Church Cathedral, I love you.  From the bottom of my very soul, I love you!  I've told you more than once that you made me a priest.  But more than that, you made me a better Christian, and a better person.  You showed me extraordinary ways to love one another, and you have carried that love with you out into the world.  You are the branches that have stretched far beyond these walls, sowing seeds of love in this city, this diocese, and beyond.  Keep it up!  And don't forget to say, 'I love you.'

It wouldn't be a Father Joe sermon without some obscure comic book or 1980s toy reference.  And so I say to you what He-Man said at the end of the 1980s live action Masters of the Universe movie:  good journey.  Good journey, brothers and sisters.  I am blessed beyond words to have been a part of your journey thus far.  But the future will be even brighter, as you continue to abide in the love of Christ. 

Together met, together bound, we'll go our different ways.  And as God's people in the world, we'll live and speak God's praise.