Like a Dove

Sermon for Sunday, January 13, 2019 || Epiphany 1C || Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:21-22

I don’t normally do traditional three-point sermons, but one’s coming at you right now. Are you ready? Something caught my eye in today’s Gospel reading that I’ve never noticed before. Luke tells us: “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.” All four accounts of the Gospel mention the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, but Luke is the only one to go so far as to say “in bodily form” like a dove. Could it be that an actual, physical dove flew down from the sky as Jesus was coming up out of the waters of Baptism and alighted on his outstretched hand? Could it be that Jesus’ followers interpreted the descent of this dove as an encounter with the Holy Spirit? I think this is very possible. I’ve known too many people who have lost loved ones, only to have their own hearts uplifted by the odd actions of birds that I’m convinced the Holy Spirit has a special avian connection. Indeed, the dove is the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit. There it is at the top of that window.

Continue reading “Like a Dove”

The “Now-Then” Problem

Sermon for Sunday, September 23, 2018 || Proper 20B || Proverbs 31:10-31

Today’s reading from the Old Testament highlights an important issue of biblical interpretation. We might call it the “Now-Then” problem. The Now-Then problem crops up any time we read a passage of the Bible that sounds antiquated to modern ears. While many parts of Bible hold a timeless quality, there are passages that modern readers easily dismiss because those passages seem stuck in their historical context. Take today’s first reading for instance:

A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
Continue reading “The “Now-Then” Problem”

What the Spirit is Saying

Sermon for Sunday, May 20, 2018 || Pentecost B || John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Since before my time at St. Mark’s, the readers of our biblical lessons have concluded their readings with this line: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Before coming to St. Mark’s I had never heard this response to the lessons, and I fell in love with it immediately. At my previous churches, the more traditional line was always used: “The Word of the Lord.” Let me hastily say the traditional response is just fine in its own right, but there’s something about what we say at the end of our readings that really gets my blood pumping.

A few weeks ago at our Episcopal 101 class, they asked me why we say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” This was a new formulation for them just as it was for me back in 2014 when I came to St. Mark’s. And their question got me thinking. Why do we say this? What are we proclaiming about God and God’s Holy Spirit by ending our readings with such a bold statement? “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.” Continue reading “What the Spirit is Saying”

My Soul is Troubled

Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2018 || Lent 5B || John 12:20-33

Imagine with me the thoughts of Jesus that might have been swirling around in his head during the day of the Gospel passage I just read.

It finally happened. Word of our little movement has reached past the confines of our stomping grounds, past Jerusalem, past Galilee. Philip and Andrew brought some people from Greece to see me. From Greece! Imagine that. I did not set out to become a household name; my name is so common that you’d have to ask which Jesus someone was talking about. But our mission, our movement – that is less common. To be honest, I thought the movement had died last year after so many left me. They were looking for more miraculous signs, sure; but still, I pushed too hard. You’ll never know how it feels to have so much power at your fingertips, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could compel people to stay if I so desired.

But above all else, I want people to be free, not to trade one empire for another. I yearn for everyone to choose the light, to walk in the light, for that is where Truth lives. And the truth will make you free.1 Continue reading “My Soul is Troubled”

Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity

Sermon for Sunday, June 11, 2017 || Trinity Sunday, Year A

If you look to the back of the church, you’ll notice we have a window missing right now. The good folks at Cathedral Stained Glass in New London are currently restoring our Trinity window, which has deteriorated over the years to the point where it could have shattered during a blustery storm. Today is not the most opportune Sunday of the church year to be lacking the Trinity window. Today is, after all, Trinity Sunday, and in years past I’ve enjoyed directing your attention to the window at the beginning of my sermons on this particular day. I can’t do that today. Instead, I can only direct your attention to the lack of the Trinity window.

But such a lack of the window stirs up some new thoughts; specifically the following question: Who would we be without the mystery and revelation of God as Trinity of Persons and Unity of Being? This question jumps to mind because, in recent years, many faithful Christians have wondered if we really need the encumbrance of the Trinitarian notion of God. Isn’t it just unnecessary baggage weighing down an already weighty topic, they argue. With fewer and fewer people finding God in the Christian church in the United States, wouldn’t it make sense to streamline our beliefs a little bit, make them easier to apprehend? Continue reading “Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity”

So I Send You

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them. Continue reading “So I Send You”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)

Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2016 || Pentecost C || Acts 2:1-21

OntheHolySpiritI can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started describing God’s presence while writing a sermon and then realized that I accidentally quoted Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movie. It has happened at least a dozen times. So today, instead of accidentally quoting him, I’m just going to quote the dialogue delivered by the legendary Alec Guinness in 1977. He says this about the mysterious energy field that gives the Jedi their power: “The Force…surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Continue reading “On the Holy Spirit (With Help From Obi-Wan Kenobi)”

Lake Logan

lakeloganNo sermon from me this week, since I was at a conference called CREDO in North Carolina. Instead, here’s something I wrote during a silent Saturday morning, when I was able to get quiet enough to write poetry.

If a tree were unable to sway
It would break
At the first puff of air
Strong enough to ruffle its branches.
So it is with me.
The wind whips and howls here
In this valley between two mountains,
All sound and fury, signifying everything.
The water in the narrow lake ripples,
Then whitecaps leap and curl,
And the trees bend.
How is it possible?
How can they grow straight and tall,
Spindled columns connecting earth and sky,
And yet sway when the wind blows?
I watch them now – evergreens mostly,
With branches high up their trunks –
And a hypnotic peace breathes itself into me.

I notice a finch –
Or some other tiny bird
(I don’t know the difference) –
Land halfway up the bare trunk
Of the largest tree in front of me.
This one’s not an evergreen,
And the first promises of new growth
Are visible at the tips of its branches.
The finch (do they have finches in North Carolina?)
Starts climbing the trunk.
It doesn’t fly up, but hops little hops skyward –
Twenty or thirty feet, a few inches at a time.
Why doesn’t it fly?
Perhaps the wind is too strong,
Would blow the tiny bird off course
If it let go the trunk.
I wonder what its course is.
Where is it going
That a climb up the trunk would suffice?
Whenever I walk in the wind,
I imagine being lighter than I am,
Imagine floating off to God knows where.
God knows where:
Where the finch is traveling,
Where I am traveling.

Seeing the finch reminds me:
I heard tell that a bald eagle patrols Lake Logan,
And suddenly my only desire is to see him,
See him glide through the valley,
Not fighting the wind, nor hiding from it,
But soaring on it.
I stare out past the swaying trees,
Hoping my desire might resonate
Along one of the strings of creation
(The eternal music that God began
With the opening consonance of light)
And twinge the soul of the eagle
To take flight and give me something truly memorable
To treasure in my heart.
But this desire is selfish – I know –
And selfishness does not resonate,
But plays a discordant note,
A quarter-tone flat
And expects the rest of the orchestra
To re-tune their instruments accordingly.

Instead of the eagle,
I am blessed to witness a pair of geese
Skim the surface of the lake
And land atop the water
Sending ripples ahead of them,
Announcing their arrival.
If I had not been looking for the eagle
I would not have noticed the geese,
And they, too, are a gift.
I thank God that my selfish desire
Did not blind me to the gift of the geese,
The ripples catching the mid-morning light,
The water returning to relative calm,
Moved now only by the wind.

Another gust pummels the trees,
And they bend dutifully,
And again I marvel at their swaying.
How is it possible?
The answer comes to me on the wind,
Breathes into me,
Nestles in my heart:
The treasure I receive
Rather than the one I desired.
“You see only part of the tree,” says the wind.
Yes, of course, I had forgotten.
The tree began in the dark earth,
Playing its nascent notes,
A piccolo trill,
A rat-a-tat of the snare.
And then it began to grow –
Both up and down.
The roots reach deeper and deeper;
Stretch through the soil;
Brush the bedrock;
Hold fast.
The trunk above sways in the gale
And does not break,
But moves where the wind directs.
Oh God, I pray,
Make it so with me.

After sharing this with a few people at the conference, I was informed that the tiny bird I saw was in all likelihood a Carolina Wren. But I wanted to preserve the authenticity of my wonderings (this is a stream-of-consciousness poem after all), and I personally know exactly zero about birds.

The Blueprint

Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2015 || Trinity Sunday B

theblueprintHave you ever looked closely at the round window high up the wall in the back of the church? Go ahead – turn around and give it a good look. I love this window. I love the vibrant colors. I love that when the sun is shining through it, an afterimage gets imprinted on my eyes, so I see it when I close them. If you’ve never given the window much thought, I don’t blame you. The words on it are in Latin, after all. But let’s keep looking. The window presents a diagram of the Holy Trinity. “Deus” – God – is encircled in the center. Three smaller circles float around it: Patri, Filius, Spiritus Sancti – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the smaller circles is connected to the others with the words “non est” (is not), and each smaller circle is connected to the large central one with the word “est” (is). The diagram is telling us that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other but they are all One God. How does this work? Wisely, the window doesn’t tell us. The window just illustrates the reality, a theological blueprint in stained glass.

Likewise, I’m going to take my cue from the window and stay silent on the “How does this work?” question. Too many sermons over the years have tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity by talking about apples or flames. What those sermons didn’t understand is that you can’t explain a mystery without destroying the very quality that makes it mysterious. When Sherlock Holmes figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub over discovering the body, the mystery is solved. No more mystery. This Whodunnit? type mystery is the kind we’re used to: Gibbs and the NCIS team solve their mysteries within the length of the 45-minute episode. The light-hearted mystery novels my mother loves to read always wrap up the intrigue by the end of the story.

But here’s the difference between these small, ordinary mysteries we watch or read and the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. The small mysteries have answers to them, like the poisonous snake. But the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the answer – the fundamental answer that rests at the very core of existence. Here’s what I mean.

Before creation came into being, there was God. There was only God. Then God spoke, “Let there be light,” and creation erupted in a rush of dust and energy and far flung fire. And suddenly, there was something known as “not God.” Suddenly, there was an “other” for God to love. And yet, we believe that God’s essence is love, which means that God must have loved before there was a creation to love. Confusing, right? It is confusing until we realize there’s only one possible answer for whom God loved before there was anything else. God loved God. This may sound narcissistic or vain, but it’s not. Narcissism and vanity are distortions of love, but God’s love is perfect and unsullied. God loves God with such perfection that there is still only One God, even though a loving relationship exists.

That’s the keyword: relationship. To try to come close to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we employ relational words: Father and Son, Parent and Child. We speak of the Holy Spirit as being the love that flows between them. This perfect relationship existed before creation, and thus serves as God’s blueprint for creation. Have you ever noticed that if you drill right down to the core of any subject whatsoever, you end up at relationship? At the most fundamental level, life, the universe, and everything are based on the relationships between things. Elemental particles vibrate next to other elemental particles, weaving the fabric of creation. Atoms repel and attract each other. Ecosystems thrive as complex series of relationships. Celestial bodies dance the precarious waltz of gravitational balance. Not to mention, the most important things in the lives of us humans on this fragile earth is our relationships with one another.

All of this grows from that blueprint God used from God’s own self – the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. In the act of creating something that was not God, God knew creation wouldn’t be perfect. And yet, God made it anyway. The reason the Holy Trinity remains a mystery is that our relationships – indeed, all relationships in creation – are not perfect, and thus we cannot fathom perfection.

But while we aren’t perfect, the idea of perfection lingers within us, an echo of our Creator’s own perfect love. We feel this echo as a longing for connection, for relationship with God and with each other. God loves us perfectly, even though we have the capacity to return a mere sliver of that love. But that sliver is more than enough to activate our ability to engage in loving relationships here and now. When we nurture such loving relationships in our lives, we come as close as our imperfection allows to the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity.

Indeed, the Holy Trinity transcends our imperfection, draws us in, and strengthens our earthly relationships. The echo of God’s perfect love grows louder, more insistent, as we give ourselves over to be born again from above, to be remade closer to the blueprint than we were before. The blueprint calls for less domination and more mutuality, less prejudice and more generosity, less pride and more humility. The blueprint calls for less defending and more welcoming, less grasping and more embracing, less tearing down and more lifting up. And above all, the blueprint calls for love to spill forth in the forms of justice-seeking, mercy-granting, grace-sharing, hope-planting, and joy-singing.

And so you go home and do the dishes even though it was your brother’s turn. Or you tell your wife “thank you” for her poise in the middle of chaos and for putting up with you all these years. Or you introduce yourself to that bedraggled person you always seem to run into on your morning jog and ask if he needs assistance. Or you look those who are oppressed in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for not showing up sooner,” and then turn to stand with them.

Each of these is an expression of the blueprint of the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. And each of these will be done imperfectly. And yet, the mystery of the Holy Trinity rests at the core of all existence, of all we do and all we are. And so our imperfection is even now being redeemed by the perfect love of God, which somehow manages to fit all of itself into our mere slivers of love.

If in your life, the Holy Trinity has seemed no more than an abstraction, as clear as the Latin writing on the window back there, then I invite you to take a step back and look again. Reassign every single urge you have ever had to seek justice, to grant mercy, to share grace, to plant hope, to sing joy, and to love. Reassign all of them to the perfect love of the Trinity flowing, however imperfectly, through you. Notice now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit catching you up in the ever-spinning dance of perfect love, and be thankful.

* The diagram of the Holy Trinity is the window on the back wall of St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT.