Monthly Archives: May 2010

Holy Wind, Holy Chaos

O Come Holy Spirit. Come as the fire, and burn. Come as the wind, and cleanse. Convict, convert and consecrate us, until we are wholly yours. Amen.

If there is a star of today’s show—in all of our readings, our songs, and our music—it is most definitely the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dressed up in tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit infusing our baptismal life, the Holy Spirit moving through this place.

As Jesus is raised from the dead, restoring humanity to the divine life for which we are created, so human community is converted by the Pentecost experience. Remember the story of the tower of Babel? That ancient myth explains why we humans speak so many different languages. Here, on the other side of the cross, God heals that particular linguistic rift, by showing what happens when people gather, not in the name of their own striving for power, but in the name of the Spirit.

We meet the Spirit in a most dramatic way in today’s reading from Acts—the cacophony of strange languages, all understood, and the rushing wind. We meet the spirit in the tongues of fire resting on each person. The imagery of fire, which we live out in our flame colors, is the power of God working in our hearts and in the way we are the church in the world.

The Acts story is an important one for us here at St. David’s, because it reminds us that God makes Godself present in chaos. These weeks—the past few weeks, and the next few weeks—our building and grounds have been and will be a veritable bee-hive of spirit-filled activity. For the last two weeks we hosted a class offered by Gaia University, where students from around the country gather to learn about transforming themselves and the whole world through a Spirit of global and local sustainability, of justice, and peace.

Next week the Village Building Convergence will converge upon St. David’s like a mighty wind of God’s holy chaos. The Village Building Convergence, or VBC, offers ten days of workshops and evening extravaganzas. This really is a Pentecost event—if you stop in on any evening between May 28 and June 5, you may think you’re hearing people speak another language. Pretend you are the prophet Joel, witnessing to young people seeing visions, and old people dreaming dreams. What are those dreams? What are those visions? That’s where the Spirit lives.

What if the descent of the Holy Spirit helps us to see all that we do—in this building and in our own weekday lives—as church? What if the descent of the Spirit helps us to welcome the chaos of all kinds of people doing holy work in ways we could never imagine? What if holy chaos is simply the kingdom of God in the making?

It is this chaos-bringing, kingdom-building Spirit that allows us to do those “greater works” which Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel.  The Spirit is present in our Gospel as the promised Advocate. This word, advocate, appears in other versions of scripture as counselor, or comforter, or helper. I like comforter the best, from the King James Bible. Not because the comforter is supposed to cheer us up by making us cozy and comfortable, but because the earlier and perhaps truer use of the word comfort is strengthen. To be strong with. This is what the Holy Spirit does.

The power that descends upon us on this side of the resurrection is the power that creates and sustains community. The Spirit did not arrive on Pentecost and leave again the next day. The Spirit is here. How else could the church have survived and thrived these last 2000-plus years???

One of the ways that the Spirit works in us and through us is that in our baptismal covenant, in our prayers, and in our weekly celebrations, we are present with and for one another, in the Name of Jesus.

And this is one of the reasons we come to church. Occasionally someone asks me: why should I come to church? I believe in God, I say my prayers. I’ve got other things to do on Sunday morning. Why do I have to come to church? When we say, in the service of baptism, that we will do all in our power to support a person in his or her life in Christ, part of what is in our power to do is to show up, week after week and continue living into our own baptismal vows, our baptismal promises that we reaffirm every year at Pentecost.  When we say we will support someone in his or her life in Christ, as we do every time someone is baptized, we are saying that we will support them on their journey, and seek ways to minister alongside them.

Supporting one another in our life in Christ means listening for the different voices and the different languages in which we speak of God and in which we hear God. Supporting one another in our life in Christ means being strong with each other and strong for each other. The fire and rushing wind of the first Pentecost happened in community, was in fact the catalyst for community. It is in our worship, and in our ministry together that the sparks of the Holy Spirit ignite.

Theologian and teacher Richard Norris wrote that “the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is simply the other side of Jesus’ Resurrection.” The other side of the resurrection. The power of Easter that we have been celebrating these past fifty days is not just the power of God to raise Jesus from the dead, but also the power of God to transform us, through Christ, into disciples building the kingdom.  We are no longer hearing stories of individual encounters with the risen Christ. With the descent of the Spirit, we are the bearers of the risen Christ, the bearers of the good news that God is continually transforming the world into the kingdom.

As we go forth from this place, let us clothe ourselves in Christ, welcome God’s holy chaos, and listen for the language of the Holy Spirit.

O Come Holy Spirit. Come as the fire, and burn. Come as the wind, and cleanse. Convict, convert and consecrate us, until we are wholly yours. Amen.

Dom Paul Benoit, O.S.B.

There is no organ composer more perfect for this jazzy Pentecost Sunday than Dom Paul Benoit, O.S.B. (1893-1979). He took music lessons as a child but was essentially self trained until he was ordained in 1925 and the abbey allowed him to study organ at the Cathedral of Versailles, where he encountered the music of Bach and Vierne. In 1933 he was appointed the organist for the abbey and began composing serious organ works since outside scores were not available to him. His music is both musically interesting – elements of jazz, the influence of modern classical composers, and tight counterpoint – and liturgical in his unique treatment of Gregorian chant melodies and modes (compared side by side in this video). His music was ultimately published with encouragement from close friends, but the liner notes from a recording of his works laments that “his published scores do not even represent half of his production.”

Stand up and walk: John 5:1-9

Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.

When I was at Divinity School in the 1980s, I participated in a year-long unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, where I served as a student chaplain, visited the sick, and met regularly with a group of fellow students and our supervisor who was a Methodist pastor trained in medical ethics. There were a lot of memorable moments that year, and one of them was my supervisor’s retelling of this story that we just heard in today’s gospel. He described a certain type of hospital patient for whose attitude there just seems to be no help. He wasn’t being terribly pastoral about it.

But it’s not hard to get the impression that some of the paralytic’s problems may have been of his own making. Did he ever ask anyone to put him into the pool? Did he ever cry “foul” on the people who got in front of him? Most of us know that there is a place in every healing process for self-determination. What is even more important to note is that what we might call the “victim mentality” of the man by the pool has no influence whatsoever whether or not Jesus heals him.

Not only that, but there are lots of other people in this story—as there are all around us—in need of healing, whom we might even say are more worthy of healing. Jesus singles out this guy to make a point.

All healing stories in scripture are about God’s grace. This story drives that grace home. The guy by the pool represents what some might call the “undeserving poor,” “those people” who won’t do anything for themselves, and who blame the system for their problems, while continuing to count on the assistance of that same system.

Yesterday some of us went to the Mother’s Day Tea at St. John the Evangelist. This yearly event is a benefit for Rahab’s Sisters, a ministry for sex workers on 82nd Avenue. These sex workers are not glamorous call girls like you may have seen in the movies; they are the most broken, marginalized people you can imagine. Most of them show even less interest in helping themselves or getting off the streets than the guy by the Sheep Gate in today’s gospel. Stories like today’s gospel teach us that Jesus especially loves these women.

It turns out that the kind of assistance our paralytic thinks he needs isn’t what he needs. Jesus doesn’t put him into the magic pool or clear a path for him to get there. He simply says “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.” He doesn’t even say “your faith has made you well,” which is a good thing, since we don’t actually see any evidence of the guy’s faith. Even whining, complaining, helpless people whom no one wants to help get the same blessings of God’s grace as those with exemplary faith, determination, and humility.

This story is often compared to a story in the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark, when another paralytic is carried by his friends through a hole in the roof of a crowded house. Jesus heals that man because of the faith of his friends. Sometimes scripture presents stories of people healed because of their deep faith, sometimes because of the faith of their friends or their parents, and sometimes—as in today’s gospel—people are healed in spite of their own perception that they can never be healed.

Transformation happens for all sorts of reasons, in all sorts of ways.

A year ago, you and I began an adventure of transformation. St. David’s was in danger of becoming not unlike the paralytic by the pool. There was a longing to be healed, but we had few inner or outer resources to take up our mat and walk. But with the amazing vision and dedication of everyone here, the visionary generosity of some of our diocesan leaders, and the enthusiasm of our friends and building partners, we were able to begin a new chapter.

I have been reminiscing all week about my first service here a year ago. Mostly, I remember the coffee hour. We didn’t have access to the parish hall and those of you who were here planned a wonderful reception in the back of the church with the fine china and silver coffee and tea service. Bill Crane was here—wonderful to see you as always, Bill!—and he said: “the secret to good church is never to make announcements during the worship service and never to serve coffee in paper or Styrofoam cups.” We’ve done our very best on both counts.

The other day I looked up the sermon I preached on my first Sunday—since most of you weren’t here that day, I was tempted to just preach it again J. What I will say again is that I talked about how we were beginning an adventure.  (Coincidentally, the theme of yesterday’s Rahab’s Sisters benefit tea was “Life is an adventure—see where it takes you.”)

This time last year I looked up the definition of adventure in the dictionary, and found it  I defined it as “a wild and exciting undertaking of uncertain outcome.”

I think that’s still kind of where we’re living these days at St. David’s. Hopefully you’re all enjoying the adventure as much as I am. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge we’re not all going to think it’s exciting all of the time. And more to the point, deep down many of us don’t really love undertakings that have an “uncertain outcome.”

Being on an adventure is where we are when we live as grateful recipients of grace. We have been told to pick up our mats and walk. So where will we walk? What will we do with that grace?

We don’t hear many stories in scripture about what happens after people have been transformed by God’s grace. What I mean is that sometimes I wish the gospel included stories like this: The paralytic picked up his mat, had some conversations about Jesus, and went on to become the founder of the church in some neglected Ancient Near Eastern country, making 2700 converts and building a hospital and a couple of schools. We don’t get stories like that in scripture. What we do get is the rising tide of an ever-growing number of witnesses to transformation, an ever-growing community of disciples seeking to unveil the kingdom of God for others in the way that Jesus did it for them, or for people they knew. It is up to use to live our stories of transformation.

As we continue on our adventure, our wild and exciting undertaking of uncertain outcome, where will we walk? How will we unveil the kingdom of God?

The Good Doctor

Often called the “Good Doctor,” Robert Lowry was a cheerful man with a big beard and a quick mind. He pastored Baptist churches in the Eastern U.S. during the mid-1800s. One friend said, “Very few men had greater ability in painting pictures from imagination. He could thrill an audience with is vivid descriptions, inspiring them with the same thoughts that inspired him.”

But he is best remembered for his hymns. Even in childhood he had composed tunes, and as he became acquainted with leaders in America hymnology – many of them based in New York – he realized he could reach more people through his songs than through his sermons.

The doctor’s best known hymn is Shall We Gather at the River? Though often used at baptisms, it’s actually a song about heaven. It came to Lowry on a mid-summer’s day in New York, when, in the sweltering heat, he began musing about the cool, crystal river that flowers through the city of God as described in Revelation 22.

One afternoon in July, 1864, when I was pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, the weather was oppressively hot, and I was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion. I felt almost incapable of bodily exertion, and my imagination began to take itself wings. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness. The imagery of the apocalypse took the form of a tableau. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river, and the gathering of the saints. My soul seemed to take new life from that celestial outlook. I began to wonder why the hymn writers had said so much about the “river of death” and so little about the “pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb.” As I mused, the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christians inquiry, “Shall we gather?” Then they broke out in a chorus, “Yes, we’ll gather.” On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn.

from Then Sings My Soul by Robert J. Morgan

God’s Picnic

The circumcised believers criticized Peter, saying “Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?

There’s something about a picnic, especially if you’ve got just the right combination of good weather, good food, and great people….Often we eat things we wouldn’t normally eat sitting indoors at a table.  If it’s a potluck picnic, we get to try our friends’ picnic favorites. And at a picnic, we might even suspend some of our uniquely American fussiness about hygiene. We’re good at getting together to share food here at this church, indoors or outdoors, and so it’s most appropriate that our reading from Acts tells a story that I call “God’s picnic.”

Eating—what one ate and with whom—was the single biggest preoccupation of the early church, the church we read about in the Book of Acts and in all of Paul’s letters. Were the very earliest Christians, who were also faithful Jews, allowed to eat with anyone who had not been circumcised? Were Gentiles even allowed to be Christians? And if they were, could they still eat food that had been sacrificed to idols according to the customs of their neighbors? And how could they have table fellowship with Jewish Christians who had such strict dietary laws?

Peter, who represents the faithful Jewish tradition, is consumed with all these questions, so much so that his anxieties about what to eat and with whom work their way into his dreams. He has a vision of a large sheet—what I imagine as a big picnic blanket—coming down, holding all sorts of animals, some of which are allowed by Jewish dietary laws, and some of which are not. Peter first defends himself as the good Jew: nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth, he pleads. But the voice from heaven trumps Peter’s self-defense: What God has made clean, you must not call profane. In other words, the rules have changed, and Peter must expand his understanding of who is included in the big tent we call the Church.

Peter represents the Jerusalem church; new converts from the Gentile world represent the Antioch church. When we talk about Jerusalem versus Antioch, we are talking about all the divisions with which Peter and his cohort struggled: the division between circumcised and uncircumcised, between Jew and Greek, between foods considered clean or unclean, between the first generation of disciples and the second.

When we talk about these tensions in the early church between Jerusalem and Antioch, we are also talking about every tension in the church, in every generation. Old guard vs. new seekers. People who think the church needs to take are of its own vs. people who think the church needs always to be looking outward. People who like traditional organ music and people who like praise music. People who like to worship outdoors versus people who like to worship indoors. Folgers versus Stumptown. Wafers versus bread. Rite One or Rite Two or no rite at all. The list goes on and on, right?

God’s picnic is the picnic that stretches us and inspires us, the picnic that includes representatives from both sides of whatever we’re fighting about.

The Jerusalem church would not have survived if Peter had not realized that God’s plan for salvation was much, much bigger than what he ate and with whom he ate. The Jewish dietary laws, which you can read all about in the book of Leviticus, were developed for a whole host of reasons—suffice it to say here that they provided a framework, a template, for the people of Israel to strengthen themselves as a people, to distinguish them from the other tribes around them, to say, we follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered us from slavery in Egypt. With the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that same God is saying, yes, all those things are still true, you are still my people, and I am much bigger than one people. I have come to bring peace to all the nations. In the words of the author of Revelation: See, I am making all things new.

Without the acceptance by the Jerusalem church of the church of Antioch—that is, the new communities of the Gentiles—you and I would not be here today.

Like the people of Israel, throughout history, Christians have been called to expand their idea of what it means to be followers of Jesus, and what it means to be church. Since the first century, the Holy Spirit has been pushing us outward from Jerusalem like ripples in a lake. God always calls us forward, never backward.

This forward movement is a stretch for many of us. Yet this stretching is part of what it means to be faithful. Whether or not we are able to do this can be the difference between life and death, for our own spirits and for our church—St. David’s, the Episcopal Church, and all of what is called “mainline Christianity” throughout Europe and North America. Luckily for those of us who, like Peter, sometimes have trouble expanding our boundaries, whenever we draw a circle around the Good News, the Holy Spirit comes along and breaks the circle open.

This breaking open of all of our traditional circles, all of our own our expectations, is what the Gospel is all about. When Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you,” he invited his disciples to stretch themselves in love, to love the outcast, the exile, the sinner, the Other. It is that stretching that births the kingdom of God. It is that stretching that brings us closer to the promises in our reading from Revelation: God will wipe away every tear, death will be no more, mourning and crying will be no more…See, I am making all things new. These promises are inextricably linked to how we treat one another in our day-to-day lives, and they are signs of the transformation of the world through Jesus Christ. We embody the Kingdom of God when we eat with strangers, when we stretch ourselves and reach across whatever cultural chasm we perceive, in order to connect with a stranger around our common humanity. That is the best kind of picnic.

And so we end where we began, with food. When we gather at this table, we get a taste of God’s picnic. When we gather at this table we gather with all the people all around the world who break bread together in the name of Jesus: young, old, circumcised, uncircumcised, gay, straight, transgendered, conservative, progressive, drinkers of good coffee and bad. When we go forth from this table in the name of Christ, let us go forth to invite all of them—foreigners, widows, orphans, outcasts, and strangers—to God’s picnic.