Wednesday, May 30, 2018

We Bind Unto Ourselves

St. Patrick's Breastplate being sung at the Matriculation ceremony at General Seminary.  The song starts at 0:44. 

Each fall at General Seminary there is a ceremony in the chapel called Matriculation.  Even though it takes place close to a month after students have already started classes, it’s considered the moment when you officially become part of the seminary community.  There is an Evensong liturgy, the dean asks if you will subscribe to the duties and character benefiting the ministries of the church, and you sign your name in a book that goes back to the seminary’s founding in 1817.  As each new student comes forward to sign that book the organist breaks out into St. Patrick’s Breastplate, that great prayer of the 4th century Irish bishop, which most Episcopal parishes were singing last weekend for Trinity Sunday.  St. Patrick’s Breastplate is long, maybe the longest song in our whole hymnal, and at Matriculation it would often get stretched out to 20 minutes to cover all of those students coming up to sign.  Still, it was at that ceremony in the fall of 2009, when I signed that same book while surrounded by my classmates and my mother, who was making her first ever trip to New York City, that I first fell in love with that song, which was played at both of my ordinations and will be played at my wedding this Saturday.

What is it about that song that gets me every time I hear it?  It’s not so much the music—because, let’s face it, it’s kind of a tough song to sing—but it’s the words of Patrick's prayer.  I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity.  I bind unto myself the virtues of the starlit heaven.  I bind unto myself the power of the great love of cherubim.  I bind unto myself the power of God to hold and lead.  Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.  Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.  That is a powerful, powerful prayer.  It is the prayer of someone who longs for one thing:  relationship with the living God, by which he may be bound together with God through the wonder of creation, the redemption of that creation by Christ, and the grace of the Creator Spirit to sanctify and sustain.  The reason I fell in love with St. Patrick’s Breastplate was because that’s what I wanted, what I still want, to bind unto myself the strong name of God in Trinity, to be in relationship with God, just as God is in relationship with Godself.

That is the beauty of the Trinity, of a God existing in relationship with Godself, and very truly, we see it everywhere we look.  The German astronomer Johannes Kepler looked at the very solar system and saw the Trinity—comparing the sun to God the Father, the planets to the God the Son, and the stars and space between them to the Holy Spirit.  In our daily lives we see it in the relationship between the flowers, the wind that carry the flowers’ seeds, and the soil that bears those seeds and gives the flowers new birth.  We even see it on a subatomic level, in the relationship between protons, neutrons, and electrons.  The very building blocks of all life in the universe is this three-way relationship!  Gregory of Nazianzus called it perichoresis, a divine dance between the three persons of the Trinity.  But it’s really just God existing the way God always does: in relationship.  The prayer of St. Patrick that we pray when we sing that song is our own desire to be in that kind of relationship, not only with God but with each other.

William P. Young was not a scholar or theologian when he wrote the novel The Shack; in fact, he was just a ordinary person who had been through some excruciating times.  His own relationships had been beaten up pretty badly, but he wrote his book as a gift to his family, as a means of trying to explain who God was in his life through the story of a man who spends a weekend in a shack with the three persons of the Trinity. (It's a story every seminary should require its students to read!)  The crux of his own personal theology can be summed up in a scene in the book (and later film) in which the protagonist Mack is standing with God the Father—portrayed as a curvy black woman—and they are watching God the Son—Jesus—and the Holy Spirit—a young Asian woman—interact in the back yard.  Mack notes how they help each other, move with each other, almost dance with each other, asking or expecting nothing in return from the other.  “Is that what you meant for us?” he asks God. God smiles and says, "Yes!" That was the plan, that humanity would be in relationship with each other in the same way that God is.

(Left to Right) Jesus, Mack, God, and the Holy Spirit from the film version of The Shack.

Thist is what we bind unto ourselves, my brothers and sisters.  We bind unto ourselves the very possibility that we might love one another as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another.  We bind unto ourselves the hope that such a love can change the world.  On Saturday, June 2 my fiancee  Kristen and I will stand before God, our families, our friends, and many of you, and we will bind unto each other the promises that we will make to love and support one another, to dance with one another, and to let our relationship with each other find its meaning and purpose in the relationship of God, so that our relationship may be a reminder of that, a beacon of hope to a world that has forgotten love.

Kristen and me before a round of Star Wars Trivia at our local brewery.  (Note the Trinity shirt!)

You see, that is the power of love.  The love that you have with your partner, with your family, or with your friends is merely a reflection of God’s love for Godself and for God’s world.  Imagine what it would be like if we all could look at each other and see the relationship between Godeself in one another.  That is the kind of love that is as strong as death, the kind that can never be destroyed, the kind that can, in fact, change the world if we let it.  This, brothers and sisters, is the love unto which we all bind ourselves.

The bulletin for our Trinity Sunday celebration at Good Shepherd this past weekend featured this picture on the cover:

You can see the three persons, but you may also notice that there are four sides to the table and one spot that is empty.  That’s your spot!  Because the Trinity is not some theological rubix cube for us to solve.  It is a relationship in which we are invited to participate with God and with each other because, simply put, God loves us.  When I sang St. Patrick’s Breastplate at General Seminary in the fall of 2009 I knew that fact in a way that I never had before.  Today I hope you know that.  I hope your own relationships are strengthened by the One who is the very embodiment of relationship.  May you bind unto yourself that strong name of Trinity, that strong love of God, the power to hold and lead you.  May you seek relationship with one another, dancing with one another and creating a world where love truly is the way.  This is what Kristen and I will pledge ourselves to on Saturday. This is the relationship I pray we will all pledge ourselves to as partners with God in this divine dance of the Three in One and One in Three.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Light the Fire

"When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles 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 other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
--Acts 2: 1-4 

A little more than three years ago I came down to Asheboro, North Carolina to meet with the search committee from The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.  It was a pretty good meeting, considering that I'm here now, but to be honest, I still had a few more interviews with other churches to go, and Good Shepherd still needed time  to discern if I was the right person to call as their 15th rector.  So as I got ready to leave, the last thing I said to the search committee was, “We will all trust in the Spirit.  She rarely makes a mistake.”  I, for one, do not believe that she did.

A 12th century Bavarian fresco depicting the Trinity.  Note that the Holy Spirit is seen here as a woman.

Folks often wonder why I use the feminine pronoun to describe the Holy Spirit.  There’re theological reasons behind it, namely that Hebrew—the language Jesus read—and Aramaic—the language he spoke—use feminine words to describe the Holy Spirit, and if we go back to the writings of the Jewish Testament—namely the Wisdom books like the Psalms and Proverbs—we see spirit, breath, and wisdom, all feminine words, used to describe God.  But on a personal level using the feminine reminds me that God encompasses all genders, for God is pure love, and agape, the Greek word used by Jesus to describe the love that God embodies, the love that we are called to practice as followers of Jesus, is a feminine word.  So, yeah, I will always defend using ‘she’ when talking about the Holy Spirit.  

It is the Spirit that makes it possible for us to live out agape love. The Spirit inspires us with that love that we may go into the world and share it.  Such was the case on the Jewish festival of Pentecost long ago. Picture the scene:  the 12 apostles—it was 11, but now Matthias is counted among them—are huddled together in that upper room, utterly confused, filled with anticipatory anxiety of what is going to happen next now that Jesus has gone into heaven.  He said he would send an advocate, but what kind of advocate?  How will they know who this person is when she—or he—arrives?  We can feel the tension and we can understand because we have all been there.  We’ve all been in mourning for the losses we have experienced, afraid of what is coming next. And then…WOOSH!!  Like a mighty wind she blows through. This is the same holy breath that breathed on the waters of chaos and said, “Be still,” now blowing on them, but this time not bidding stillness, no, but filling them with agape love, which sets their hearts ablaze.  This is who drives those frightened 12 into the streets to tell everyone—regardless of where they were coming from or even what language they were speaking—of the life-giving, wonder-working, all-powerful love of Jesus Christ.  With the Spirit’s power igniting the hearts of all those gathered, the Church is born.  

An icon depicting the Day of Pentecost 

By now most of y’all have seen Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s homily at the Royal Wedding this past weekend.  I wondered if there might even be some folks who showed up to church on Sunday because they saw that homily and wanted to know more about this Episcopal Church thing that that preacher is connected with.  Bishop Curry’s message was simple and clear, yet it was powerful:  Imagine our world when love is the way, he said, no child would go to bed hungry, poverty would become history, and the world would be as a sanctuary.  We would treat one another as children of God, lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more, borrowing from that great African American spiritual.  All Episcopal clergy should be grateful to our Presiding Bishop for leading the charge and inspiring us to preach with such abandon last weekend, even if our messages were not quite up to his standard.  Nevertheless, the significance of his message cannot be overstated.  Here was a black American evangelical preaching in a chapel that survived the Norman conquest and two World Wars, surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of royalty, recalling slavery and the power of love to sustain and heal.  It was exactly what the whole world needed to see and hear on such an occasion.  You can watch the entire homily in the video at the bottom of this blog post.

We needed to be reminded of the power of love, and that, brothers and sisters, is exactly what Pentecost, the great feast we celebrated on Sunday, is about.  On this day the God of love lit a fire in the hearts of those men and women gathered in the streets of Jerusalem.  Do we dare let it happen again?  Do we dare let God’s fire burn in our hearts, so that we may, as Dr. King said, discover the redemptive power of love?  Like most churches, Good Shepherd wore red for Pentecost; after all, it is the color of the Holy Spirit and fire.  We also wear red on the feasts of the martyrs, those who died for their faith, but we do so less for the red of their blood spilled and more for the red of the passion with which they lived their lives of faith.  Our Pentecostal prayer for our parishes, our communities, and this whole great big world that Jesus loves so much is that we will be filled with that same passion and fire to go into the streets and to love with abandon.  Hal David and Burt Bacharach were right—what the world needs now is love, sweet love, for it is the only thing that there’s just too little of.  When we look at a world that is filled with so much violence, so much hatred, so many divisions of us and them, haves and have-nots, what we need now, more than ever, is the passionate and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. 

That’s the love that our Lord poured out on the cross, the love that the Advocate rained down upon the Jerusalem streets, the love that we pray may be poured out on us once more.  Bishop Curry paraphrased the 20th century Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in that same wedding homily, but the full quote goes like this:  

“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”  

That fire lit up the world at creation and burned in the prophets who spoke of God’s justice rolling down like a waterfall upon the all people. That fire burst out of Jesus of Nazareth from every fiber of his being, and now, on yet another Pentecost, we pray that we too may harness that energy of love and once again discover the fire of God’s passion, mercy, and dream of shalom.  That’s what the Jesus Movement is all about, and what the Episcopal branch of that Movement is all about.  That’s what Bishop Curry preached on, and that’s why Esquire magazine (yes, Esquire!) was quoted as saying:  

"We really did not expect to get inspired by a Royal Wedding, but there you are; now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to join the Episcopal Church!”  

One headline echoing those sentiments called Bishop Curry's message about love "radical." It ain’t radical if it’s true!  What was preached on Saturday, is the power of of the love of God to break through into this world, inspiring and propelling us to be agents of that love to the broken and vulnerable, the wealthy and the powerful, and everyone in-between.

Pentecost marks the anniversary of the start of my ministry as rector of Good Shepherd.  I said to our folks on my first Pentecost with them that I did not know where the Spirit would lead us, and while I still don't know for sure, I do know that if we trust her we will get where God wants us to be.  That, I believe is true for all of us, no matter where we find ourselves in life.  If we trust the Holy Spirit and let love always be our guide, then whether we find ourselves in church buildings or out in that great big world, we will do the redemptive work that inches us ever closer to the Kingdom.  For if love is our guide, and if love is the fire that burns within us, then we cannot help but know that we are, all of us, children of God.  When we know it for ourselves, then we can know it for our brothers and sisters, and we can share it with them, and together we can set this world ablaze with God’s love and transform this old world into the new one that Jesus so often spoke of.  

Another Pentecost selfie with the fine folks of Good Shepherd, Asheboro

My prayer for all of us is that we will let the Spirit’s fire burn in us, empowering us for the work of ministry, the work of light and forgiveness in a dark and unforgiving world.  May you be filled with that fire, brothers and sisters, may love burn in you this day, and may you listen to and trust the Spirit.  She NEVER makes a mistake!

Here is the full homily from The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop & Primate of the Episcopal Church, at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex

Thursday, May 10, 2018

He Choo-Choo-Chooses You!!

'Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”'
--John 15: 9-17

When I hear or read this passage  I can't help but think of one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons. In it Lisa offers a valentine to her classmate Ralph.  The card shows a crazy looking train with the tag line "I choo-choo-choose you!"  Well, that's Jesus folks, the one who will always choo-choo-choose us, even in the times when we don't choo-choo-choose him.

Pretty sure Jesus would have given out this Valentine.

Here in his Farewell Discourse, his last teaching to his disciples before his arrest and crucifxion, Jesus tells them that while they did not choose him, he chose them. He even goes so far as to call them friends. Think about that for a second. Plenty like Moses, David, and Joshua had been referred to as servants of God, but friends?!  That's pushing it. Still, that's the level of intimacy that Jesus offers his disciples. It is a friendship grounded on a commandment, a mandate--the very mandate we got on Maundy Thursday--to love one another.

Years ago when I was playing baseball in high school I had a coach tell the guys on my team, "You don't have to like each other, but you do have to love each other."  At first that didn't make any sense to us, but we came to figure out that, while we may not always get along or agree with each other, we did have to respect each other. We did have to know that we were in this thing together, and that we could count on each other when the chips were down. That's what it meant for our team, our community, to love one another.

This past weekend seven of our awesome youth from Good Shepherd came together to build community and abide in love at our spring lock-in. We played games like moonball, where we had to work together to keep a ball in the air as long as possible. We tried new methods and had to communicate with each other, but we managed to do it 30 times--a North Carolina record! We had a scavenger hunt around the church where we learned more of the fancy church names we use for stuff--like corporal and purificator--and in doing so grew in our identity as Episcopalians.  We learned more about each other through ice breaker games. And we worshipped together at a midnight mass in the chapel, where we heard this gospel.  At that worship our kids heard Jesus call them friends and heard him say to them, "I chose you."  I asked our kids what this gospel meant to them. These were some of their responses:

"I think Jesus is telling us that he wants to relate to us as an equal, that he comes to us like everyone else, not holding his power over us."

Another response:  "It's a two way street. Jesus does his work to befriend us, and we have to do the same thing."

And:  "Friendship with Jesus isn't something that's unattainable."

Our kids get it, y'all!

They get that what Jesus calls us into is friendship, not servanthood. It's not a relationship where we have to fear Jesus, but one in which we can lean on him, trusting that he is always there. What's more, he calls every single one of us into that kind of relationship for the purpose of not only being his friend, but holding and supporting one another in friendship as well. That means loving one another  even when we don't like one another. As we each build beloved community in our respective churches and towns we may not always agree, but we must always remember that we are in this thing together. It's true for our kids as they build their community together, and it's true for each of us as we discern who it is God is calling us to be in our communities of faith.

What I said to our kids last Friday night at that midnight mass, I say to you now:  remember that Jesus choo-choo-chooses you! Yes, there are times when we don't choose Jesus. It was true for the disciples, and it's true for all of us. We neglect others. We choose not to pray. We pass judgments based on the way someone looks or the decisions their made with their lives.  We mess up in every conceivable way.  Yet he still chooses us. He still chooses you. And he will.  Time and time again Jesus will choose you. Here's the best part:  there's nothing you can do to convince him otherwise. You can't earn it!  That's what grace is. You literally can't mess this friendship up!  We need only to believe it and to abide, as a branch abides in the root vine. When we abide in his love, when we realize that it is something that is freely given to us, then we are spurred into action to show his abiding love to a hurting world. When we realize Jesus has chosen us then we choose to be his hands and feet and heart to our community--in our churches, in our towns and cities, and in our world. When we realizeJesus has chosen broken, mistake-prone folks like us to be his friends, then we choose to number among our friends the poor, the outcast, and every kind of broken person the world would tell us to reject. But in order to do so we must first remember who we are:  friends of Jesus.

I wonder:  what does it mean to you to hear Jesus call you his friend?  What does it mean knowing that he choo-choo-chooses you?  For me it means knowing that no matter how many mistakes I make, he is always there, calling me to do nothing more than to abide in him and his love. It means freedom from the tyranny of what Martin Luther called the terrified conscience, wondering whether or not I am saved, because I know he has chosen me and will continue to do so again and again. And because I know, it means I am able to show his kind of love, the kind one cannot earn, the kind that's always available, to every person I meet. That what it means for me.  What about you?

As some of you know my all time favorite saint is Dame Julian of Norwich, whose feast day was Tuesday of this week. In a vision she once saw something the size of a hazelnut in the palm of God's hand and heard a voice saying to her, "This is everything I have made. And I made it all for love."  In a time of plague, war, and death, Dame Julian knew what it meant to be a friend of Jesus, what it meant to abide in his love, what it meant to know Jesus had chosen her. This is how, in spite of her hardships, she was able to hear Jesus say to her, "All manner of things will be well."  I was blessed to see how our kids knew that last Friday night, as they prayed, worshiped, and built community together--all for the love of Jesus and one another.  That love will stay with them, as the one who calls them friends will never leave them. And he will never leave you. He will always choo-choo-choose you. He will always love you, so that you can love one another, so that you can remember we are all in this thing together.  After all, that's what friends are for.

Dame Julian and the hazelnut.