Behold How Good

Sermon for Sunday, April 12, 2015 || Easter 2B; Psalm 133

BeholdHowGoodEcce Quam Bonum! I first heard these three Latin words in the fall of the year 2000 when I was a senior in high school. I stepped out of the car and stared in awe at the soaring Gothic architecture of the buildings arranged around the quad of a little college tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. Ecce Quam Bonum! As a prospective student, those words were words of welcome to me: “Behold how good!” they proclaimed. These are the opening words of our psalm today, Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Walking towards the beautiful sandstone chapel on that visit, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to experience living together in unity at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennesee. The next fall I matriculated, and the four years I spent at Sewanee were years of friendship, formation, discernment of call, and lots and lots of singing.

Even though I didn’t know how to sing at the time, I still loved to do it, so I joined the University Choir my first month of college. That choir became my family for four years. The intensity of being in the choir at Sewanee matched that of playing a varsity sport. We did everything together. Several times a week, I got to sing with that special community. It was a gift to be able to add my voice to that group. The fellowship of the choir at Sewanee made real for me those three Latin words: Ecce Quam Bonum, Behold how good!

The words of Psalm 133, which we sang a few minutes ago speak of the desire for joyful, harmonious fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Three other readings join this psalm, and each speaks about community and fellowship. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a happily-ever-after picture of the apostles and their companions, in which the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). In the First Letter of John, the writer says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). In the Gospel, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples as a group, grants them peace, and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas is not with the disciples at the time, so as a group they seek him out and tell him the good news. A week later, when Thomas has returned to their fellowship, Jesus once again appears, and Thomas believes.

In just a few minutes we are baptizing two eight-month-old babies (two wonderful, beautiful babies, if I say so myself), and I can’t think of better lessons to accompany such a joyous occasion. The sacrament of Baptism celebrates the inward movement of God in a person’s life by outwardly welcoming that person into God’s family the Church. We baptize infants because we believe God is moving in all people, regardless of their ability to recognize or verbalize such movement. We baptize infants so that their earliest memories will be ones of being loved and cherished by a community of faith.

The “outward sign of inward grace” definition of a sacrament is tried and true, but it is also well worn, so let’s expand our understanding of what’s going on in baptism with a less academic and more musical metaphor.

The music of God plays in each one of our hearts. You’ve heard the expression, “tugging on my heartstrings” to describe something that evokes compassion and sympathy. Well, God tuned those heartstrings to resonate with God’s music; that is, God’s desires, yearnings, hopes, and dreams for God’s creation. That’s why we feel a tug on our hearts when we see someone in need – because God is directing us to notice and help that person.

Within our hearts, sometimes the music of God is soft, a half-whispered lullaby, barely discernible over the din of the world. Sometimes the notes crescendo to a deafening fortissimo that knocks us, weeping, to our knees. Most often, the music sounds as the percussive TUB-thp of our hearts — a rhythm that, if you listen closely, beats in time with the rest of the performing forces of creation. I’m not a theoretical physicist, but what I’m describing might be considered a poetic version of some of the more modern theories of how the universe works – it’s all about vibration, right? That’s really all music is – collections of well-defined vibrations. We identify the source of that vibration – that resonance – as God.

Each one of us has the music of God resounding within, but the choir is incomplete until we have found each other, until we have joined together in fellowship as the chorus of God, so to speak. In Greek, this fellowship is called koinonia, but I’ve always thought that “fellowship” is a rather limp translation. For the sake of our metaphor, let’s translate koinonia as “harmony,” which lands much closer to the descriptive intent of the Greek word. Musical harmony is the collection of notes that add structure, color, tone, depth, and meaning to the main tune. This tune, called the “melody” is the music of God within us. The combination of our own unique passions and hardships; our successes and failures; our gifts and shortcomings; our hopes, our dreams, and our joys creates the harmony of the music of God.

In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome another soprano, alto, tenor, or bass into the choir. We await eagerly the subtle changes in timbre that these new lives will bring. Together, we sing the koinonia, the harmony, of the music of God to a world so accustomed only to noise and clatter. The sound of our anthems resonate with the movement of God in this world. This is the sacrament of Holy Baptism: new sound, new harmony, new resonance in the chorus of the music of God.

One of my favorite songs is called “One Voice,” by the band The Wailin’ Jennys. With each verse, another voice is added to the mix. By the third verse, each member of the band is weaving her voice with the other two. They sing:

This is the sound of voices three
Singing together in harmony
Surrendering to the mystery
This is the sound of voices three
 
This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us

So Ecce Quam Bonum! Behold how good it is when we all sing together in harmony and surrender to the mystery of God’s movement in our lives. Behold how good it is when we welcome new life into God’s family and embrace the new life the resurrection brings. Behold how good it is when we invite others to join us as we add our harmonies to the melody of the music of God.

Affirmation and Celebration

Sermon for Sunday, November 2, 2014 || All Saints Year A

affirmationandcelebrationThe feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today, is about family, namely the family of God. Each saint has a special day commemorating his or her life of devotion and service, but on this day we celebrate all of them. We celebrate them collectively: not as a group of individuals who walked the way of discipleship alone, but as the glistening threads of God’s tapestry woven together to tell the story of God’s presence in creation since the time of Jesus. However, this tapestry is vast, so much bigger than the threads of particular saints could fashion, and so God weaves other threads into the warp and weft in order to complete the story. I have a thread. You have a thread. And Reggie, the beautiful six-month old collection of smiles and joy we’ll be baptizing in a few minutes, has a thread. The tapestry God continues to weave is the story of God’s family from the dawn of time. It is the story of the people of Israel. It is the story of the Gospel. And it is our story because we are all members of God’s great family. Today, we celebrate God weaving us together with all the saints into the story of this great family. And today, we celebrate bringing another person into that story, into this great family, when we baptize Reggie.

So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.

Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Reggie saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Reggie being born in the image and likeness of God, he is already a member of God’s family. He is already part of God’s household. He already has a thread in God’s tapestry. Thus, his baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being he already possesses. Today we will celebrate his membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.

Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.

When we baptize Reggie, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.

If Reggie has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has he done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.

The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.

So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?

Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the font behind me. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Reggie’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.

When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, that we all have threads woven into God’s tapestry. And we will celebrate that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.

Digital Disciple Chapter 4: Empty Minds and Disposable Bodies

Here’s the fourth in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little quiz about this video. In a few days, we’ll pick a random winner from those who participate. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and a mystery T-shirt, since the one Adam wore in the video is a one of a kind that his then fiancee made him for Christmas because she is awesome.

Sensuous

Episcopalians are often accused of being too brainy, too intellectual. We think too much. We get caught up in the space between our ears and forget about that throbbing muscle in our chests. These accusers are correct up to a point: we do not check our brains at the door. Jesus asks us to love the Lord with all our mind, as well as our heart and strength. But our intellectual engagement with faith is only half the story.

You see, worship in the Episcopal Church is quite sensuous. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about the Harlequin romance definition of the word. Our worship is sensuous in that we employ all our senses to encounter the presence of God. We hear the Word of God read and proclaimed. We see the stained glass and changing seasonal color palates. We smell the incense puffing from the thurible.* We taste the bread and wine. We touch one another in the handshake or embrace of the peace of the Lord.

To engage all of our senses, we use things in our worship. We use candles, books, and bowls. We use bread, wine, and water. These things are all incredibly – laughably – ordinary. Nothing about a loaf of bread is inherently special. Hand me a loaf of bread, and I might feed the birds or save it and make French toast tomorrow morning. (Actually, if you know me, the most likely scenario is that I’ll eat the loaf right then and there.)

breadaisleSo, how does the loaf of bread, which was one of a hundred bar coded loaves at the grocery store, transform from a laughably ordinary carbohydrate delivery system to a holy vessel of Christ’s presence? The bread moves from its ordinary location on the shelf in the store to its new, strange location on a linen-draped table in a church. The bread behaves quite normally, sitting there waiting to be eaten.

But the table and the action done to the bread and the people watching the action are not normal. The table is abnormal because it has several tablecloths covering it, some ornate, some plain. The action is abnormal – whoever talks about a loaf of bread before they start slicing it? And the watching is abnormal – unless you’re in the studio audience for Iron Chef, who joins dozens of others in watching someone prepare a meal?

So the bread is laughably ordinary. But the situation is not. The juxtaposition between the normal loaf of bread and the strange way it is being treated invest the ordinary with new meaning. This new meaning turns the bread into a symbol. Now, before we go any further, I want to dispel from your mind any notion of the phrases “it’s only a symbol” or  “it’s merely symbolic.” Symbols are woefully misunderstood things in American culture – like soccer and irony. A symbol is an object that points beyond itself to a deeper truth. Too often, “sign” and “symbol” are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. A stop sign lets you know you are supposed to brake at an intersection, but that’s all it tells you. The red octagon doesn’t compel you to ruminate on why you should stop. But a symbol – the cross, for instance – stirs within us all of the historical and theological and emotional resonances of the truth to which it points.

Okay, so the bread is a symbol. It connotes the bounty of harvest, the fruits of the earth, the goodness of creation, the nourishment of our bodies. And when we put it on that table, and a priest (in the presence of God’s people) asks God to indwell that bread with the Spirit of Christ, the bread becomes a special sort of symbol called sacrament.

God moves within us, spurring us to love, praise, act, pray, serve. Outward connections with our inward spiritual lives are called sacraments. These special symbols take the ordinary things we’ve been discussing – bread, water, even our own actions and personhoods – and set them ablaze with physical and emotive evidence of the presence of God.

When we participate in the sacraments, we ourselves become sacramental symbols of God’s movement. Our service to God points to the deeper truth of God’s creation of and love for the world. Worship nourishes us for our role as bearers of God’s image, as vessels of the light of Christ. We enter church as normal, ordinary people, like the loaves of bread on the grocery store shelves. We leave church transformed by our sharing in the presence of Christ with one another. Over time – months, years, lifetimes – the transformation helps us to realize that what we mistook as “normal” was really quite miraculous and extraordinary.

All of the normal, everyday things we use in church gather new meaning when we employ them to worship God. The candle becomes the light of Christ. The bowl becomes the vessel for the waters of baptism. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Likewise, we – as sacramental beings – discover new meaning for our lives when we come together to worship the Lord.

Footnotes

*The metal censer on the chain that you swing to disperse the perfumed smoke; sort of like a liturgical yo-yo.