Joe Sroka: Sermon from August 4, 2016

What is the most memorable story you have ever heard?
A favorite book of mine is The Lord of the Rings. Many of you may recall that fellowship of hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, and men seeking to destroy the One Ring in Mordor. And with the Olympic games upon us, the Catholic Worker where I live recently watched Cool Runnings on movie night. It is the story, albeit the Disney version of a true story, of former Jamaican track athletes teaming up to compete in the four-man bobsled. They began in a country without snow, ice, or even winter as poor, black Jamaicans and qualified in a sport dominated by countries with winters and better- funded, white athletes. Both of these stories have a group of people on a journey. Throughout their journeys, they are changed and become something they could not have been on their own.

Another kind of story that was important to me for some time was that of triathlon. It had a community of training partners, learning from each other’s strengths and aware of each other’s weaknesses. And it had a terrific chase. Rarely does a triathlete excel at all three disciplines—swimming, cycling, and running—on race day. There was always motivation to get better.

We also have other stories. Stories of life, careers, and relationships. Even our current political elections have become a dramatic narrative where each side appears to itself to be on the side of justice while it combats evil.

Although these stories shape our lives in some way or another, and some may for the better, these stories ultimately fall short. Should these stories influence us as much as they do? As the Church, we are participating in the story. It is a story first and foremost about God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God chooses us, not of need, but out of his divine desire for genuine relationship. Today, the Psalmist tells us: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! / Happy the people he has chosen to be his own!” Today’s collect reminds us that “that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live.” This is the story of generations of Israel and the Church being sought out by God, culminating in God himself coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Holy Eucharist that we celebrate today calls us to continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection. The Eucharist is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present today, and the Eucharist is the way in which Jesus unites us to his one offering of himself. Now, that is some story. In fact, it is the story.

Today’s lessons show us that we know our story—our relationship with God—is founded on faith and gift, and we know what faith and gift are through the Eucharist.

The story of Abraham and the Lord was based on faith and gift. “The word of the Lord came to Abram.” The presence of God, revealed in his Word, is a gift to Abraham. It comes to him. It seeks him out. And this Word still speaks to us today. In response to this Word read aloud in the liturgy, we respond “Thanks be to God” acknowledging the gift.

The Lord says to Abraham, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abraham pleads for the gift. “O Lord God, what will you give me?” And again “You have given me no offspring.” Abraham does not ask for riches as a greedy person. He does not ask for long life as one who fears death. Rather, he asks for an heir worthy of his relationship with the Lord. Abraham desires the gift of offspring who will inherit the faith. He wants descendants who will inherit the story.

Then the Lord takes Abraham outside. And where else could one see the stars but outside? By taking him outside we see Abraham following the Lord. He steps, not only literally outdoors, but, through faith, he steps outside himself, now able to see and hear the Lord. “And he believed the Lord.” Abraham’s faith and the Lord’s gift shape the story.

The Letter to the Hebrews further clarifies the relationship between faith and gift in our story. In fact, it presses an important point that faith and gift are ultimately about God, not us. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the Lord and set out for a place, not knowing where he was going. By faith, Abraham and Sarah conceived Isaac although he was too old and she was barren. This was possible because they “considered him faithful who had promised.” Our faith depends on the faithful one. It is God’s faith toward us that makes our faith possible. Therefore, with this faith, God is not ashamed to be called our God.

How, then, do we live faithfully to this story? How do we put our faith into action so to speak? It seems like one thing to claim Abraham as part of our story, but how do we claim the challenging words of the Gospel too? We are shaken by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.

“Sell your possessions and give alms.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Although these words appear frightening and we may feel helpless, let us return to the story. Let us turn to the stories of the Church. ‘Sell your possessions and give alms’ is just a necessary part of the Lord’s story—a part that we have witnessed throughout. By faith, Abraham left what he had and set out. By faith, the first disciples left their boats and followed Jesus. And this Wednesday we celebrate the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon who was martyred in 258. After the death of the pope, the prefect of Rome demanded the treasures of the church. St. Lawrence quickly distributed as much Church property as he could to the poor. When ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, exclaiming that these were the true treasures of the Church! “Do not be afraid, little flock” for our story already embodies Jesus’ words. Abraham, the disciples, the saints—by faith received the gift and in turn gave of themselves.

When we gather every Sunday for Eucharist, we are reminded of this faith and gift. Through faith, we receive Christ’s gift. The preparation and posture for the Eucharist cannot be missed in today’s gospel.

Jesus says “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” The priest is most obviously dressed for action. And we did light a couple of candles. But we too are ready for action. This is in fact the liturgy. As we heard at the beginning, the liturgy is the work of the people and it is what it is because each of us contributes to it.

Jesus also says “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him.” As the Lord brought Abraham outside, we too anticipate meeting him as we sing praises, read his Word and open the Gospel, and confess our sins. The Lord comes down from the heavenly banquet to meet us, right here. The Eucharist is a big deal. It is the most important story that we tell.

Jesus goes on “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” And this is where the story climaxes. Having dipped our hand in the waters of baptism and making the sign of the cross over ourselves, we are alert. Then, we offer our gifts at the altar. Gifts of financial treasures, gifts of food resources, but we also return to Christ the gift he gave us – our selves, our souls and bodies. Only through Christ’s gift do we know how or what to give. And only by faith can we “Behold what we are. May we become what we receive.” Amen.

Sam Laurent: Sermon from July 10, 2016

People of the Advocate, my sisters and brothers, we are, on average, roughly 90% chimpanzee and 10% honeybee. At least in terms of evolution. Those are estimates. You may be a slightly different mixture of the two, on any given day. But roughly speaking, mostly chimp. A little bit bee.*

That is to say, according to recent moral psychological research, human nature is a lot like that of the chimpanzee, which is formed by interaction and competition with members of its own group. So human competition for resources, for power, for all of the ways in which we might think that we “win” in society, is a dominant force in shaping human nature. Over the generations, much of our inherited psychological make-up has been determined by this social selection; we are descended from those who managed to thrive in society, at least enough to pass their genes on.

This does not feel like Good News. The part of us which is like the chimp is the part that is ambitious, perhaps ruthless, and competitive. It is prideful and insecure, but it’s not necessarily bad. Like the chimp our competition amongst ourselves has, over time, made us more effective in our world, which is generally good. But it also is a side of us that scares us. Unchecked, it might lead us to rob someone else and discard them, as happened in the beginning of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But the Good News, or at least the beginning of it, is that we are 10% honeybee. Though we are formed in large part by individual competition, we are also social animals. We have learned, like honeybees, that we can do better when we pool our resources and look out for each other. We might even be willing to do something for someone without it meaning they’ll do something for us, because we think of ourselves as part of a group, as a hive, if you will.

Evolutionary theory tells us that our chimp side and honeybee side both serve us well, but differently. Within a group, the ambitious and competitive individuals tend to win out, so the chimp side is selected. You’d think this would result in us being entirely chimp, but when we look at selection among groups instead of within them, we find that groups that are more altruistic, that take better care of one another, will win out. So being nice isn’t for suckers. It has real evolutionary value. We know this intuitively. It’s why we promote healthy work environments. They work better. The better care we take of one another, the better we all end up doing. So among individuals, the chimp gets selected, but among groups, you need some honeybees around to win out. Not entirely Good News, but a little better, no?

Bearing this in mind, look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer speaking with Jesus knows that the law commands him to love his neighbor as himself, but he wants to know who the neighbor is. He wanted a definition, and he got a parable.

The first person to come upon the man who had been robbed and beaten is a priest, a good member of polite society, and he crosses the street to avoid the man. The second is a Levite, a member of one of the tribe of Israel closely associated with the temple. A man well placed among God’s chosen. He too crosses over to avoid the man who has been left for dead. Who knows what their thought process was. Maybe they feared being set upon by the same robbers and incurring personal harm themselves. Maybe they didn’t recognize the man and so assumed he wasn’t part of their group, their hive. Whatever the case, they deemed it advantageous to avoid the situation.

Along comes the Samaritan. Samaritans are decidedly not part of the Jerusalem squad. Rather than worshipping at the temple, they take a mountain as their primary holy site. So in terms of adhering to the law and temple worship, those ways in which the temple Jews marked themselves as part of a group, he’s an outsider. The Samaritan stops, helps the man and pays for his shelter. He gives of his own resources to help him. We never find out if the robbery victim was a Jew or a member of some other group. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter to Jesus.

In telling the story, Jesus is appealing to our honeybee side, but he’s doing it in a way that calls on us to question how we define our group, our community, our tribe, our nation, our hive. And that’s the really Good News. The honeybee side sounds good, but it all depends on how we define our hive. Tribalism, nationalism, sectarianism, racism… these are attempts to delineate a hive, to designate some people as our precious neighbors, and others as outsiders whose lives and welfare matter less. And Jesus constantly challenges that instinct.

The parable of the Good Samaritan appeals to our consciousness, to that part of us that can make choices and examine assumptions, because we are not simply bundles of chimp and honeybee instincts powerless to control ourselves. We are bundles of chimp and honeybee instincts with some free will attached. And in lifting up the Samaritan as the one who truly loved his neighbor, Jesus gives us the tool to define our group in a radical way. Everybody is always in. It matters that the hero is a Samaritan, because he’s the one Jesus implies will receive eternal life. He’s not part of the dominant group, is not, in our terms, white. And he is as fully loved by God as anyone else in the story. This represents a minor scandal in the context of the Gospel. Jesus is knocking down a social construct that, left intact, dehumanizes people and somehow makes their violent death tolerable.

Martin Luther King preached on this parable the night before he was shot. This parable is about a kind of mercy that seems risky to our inner chimp and our inner honeybee. Mercy to the “other.” Mercy across social norms. Everyone is worthy of it, and everyone can extend it to someone else. In a land riven by religious and racial divisions, equality before God is particularly revealed in this story precisely because it assumes not only that a Samaritan life matters, but that it earns eternal life. I don’t think I need to preach the rest of this sermon about #blacklivesmatter for you to get the point.

So I beg your forgiveness as I veer away from the political here, not out of apathy for the tragic loss of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Brent Thompson, and Lorne Ahrens to dehumanizing violence this week, but out of a need for a spiritual grounding to my outrage. Outrage alone will never lead to mercy. My energy to name and confront dehumanization in the world, somewhat counterintuitively, has to be rooted in a patient hope and joy, or else I slide into the dehumanizing spiral myself. There is a beautiful layer to this parable, a sacred space within it, and that’s where I find the energy to contenance the horrors of the world.

I feel the chimp-like individual drive within myself, and also the honeybee’s desire to ensure the success of my community, but today’s Gospel story cracks those mental structures open and calls me to honor people simply because they are people. This is not super-complicated theology, but rather one of those truths that never loses its cutting edge, and I believe this is the call and the power of the sacred. By displaying power in compassion, or as Paul said, “power made perfect in weakness,” Jesus shows us that risky mercy is the ultimate power. It brings eternal life. Other powers in this world can cause death, but mercy transcends it, and, in the twist that unfortunately never stops sounding radical, everyone deserves mercy.

Here then, is where my energy comes from. It’s very simple. If everyone deserves mercy by virtue of being a person, then I do and you do too. To sit with that truth—you do not need to perform any particular identity to be worthy of ultimate love—is to accept grace. Sitting with that grace, we open our being up wider, from our narrow chimpy self-interest to our helpful- but-faulty honeybee notions of our group, to this grace of being worthy of God’s love simply because we exist. And my awareness of that grace, when I center in it, strips away a lot of the noise and anxiety of the world, quiets my inner chimp and honeybee, and connects me with that joy that energizes me. As an aside, this point of realizing that my ultimate value comes in my creatureliness and not in my social position is also where I can most honestly confront my white privilege.

For me, this recognition of grace is the foundational moment of faith. All the other stuff, like baptism or communion or diocesan conventions, comes way, way later. It is shamelessly kind of selfish, but insecurity will also not lead to mercy. When the work of sharing mercy is connected with the grace of accepting it, we are giving from an abundance. So, even as this parable calls you to relational work, it also opens up a space where you can truly relax in your own skin, because the operating principle, the engine that drives it, is that the grace of God’s mercy overflows every wall this world tries to build. Welcome to church. This is where we start. This is where the energy comes from.

So, mostly chimp, a little bit honeybee, but always also beloved creatures of God. Mercy calls us to participate in a community that paradoxically breaks its own boundaries, that remembers that our “hives” are our ideas, not God’s. That makes this room at this moment a pretty remarkable space, a community that tries to point beyond itself because we exult in the spiritual truth that every single person, here and elsewhere, is loved by God and is worthy of our compassion. Everything comes from there. You are loved simply because you’re here, and that’s all you have to be. That’s all anyone has to be.

Amen.

*The chimpanzee/honeybee metaphor appears in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. All other insights into evolutionary theory in this sermon are owed to Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others by David Sloan Wilson.

The Vicar’s Three-Point Sermon on the Resurrection

A sermons offered by The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar, for Year C – Easter II, April 3, 2016, @TheAdvocate

 

 

Last Sunday, Easter Day, we had an unusual sermon time here at the Advocate.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is what we celebrate especially on Easter Day and through the season of Easter, I said.

Then quickly made three points about that resurrection:
1) it beyond our understanding. It’s a mystery, not logical.
2) the meaning of it knows no bounds. The exploration of it is endless
3) Believing it, living it, will surely take us outside our comfort zone.

And so we danced. No more words, no more reasoning, no more illustration. Just dancing.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is risen. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc.

But just because the resurrection is beyond our understanding, knows no bounds,and takes us outside our comfort zone, doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it, reflect on it, ask ourselves questions about it, see if there is indeed something we think and believe about it.

In fact, we should do these things.
We mention it at least twice every Sunday, after all.
Not just in the season of Easter.
It comes up in the Creed

He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven….

and in the Eucharistic Prayers:

Christ has died
Christ is Risen
Christ will come again.

or

Dying he destroyed our Death
Rising her restored our life…

So let’s think about it.

I offer 3 categories….

First, there is the event of the resurrection of Jesus in a particular time and a particular place.

Second, there is resurrection of Jesus as the prototype for all the other resurrections that run through the history and experience of Christians and the church.

And third, there is the resurrection of Jesus as the Way that leads to eternal life.

You no doubt would offer others, but for today, let’s look at these three.

First, the event of the resurrection of Jesus in a particular time and a particular place.

Do you believe it really happened?

This is one of those questions that non-believers often ask believers. It is also a question that believers ask of each other a good bit. Right before or after the question: Do you really believe in the virgin birth?

Did Jesus really die and then come back to life in some kind of altered form and appear to his disciples? Did he greet them in the garden, come through locked doors to them, talk to them on the road, cook fish for them by the sea?

I confess that I don’t lose much sleep on this myself.

But when asked, I say, Sure! I mean, I really don’t know how or what. Even if we had video of the day,
it could have been photo-shopped! But I believe. And not just because “the Bible tells me so”, or because it is in the Creed. Though that helps.
Something sure happened to get those early disciples turned around and turned on. They went from hiding out in fear to proclaiming loud and clear. “this Jesus who was crucified, rose… He rose and he appeared among us.”

Why would they make it up? They certainly had nothing to gain from such a tale. And they certainly had a LOT to lose. By proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus and telling the story of what they saw and heard, and even physically experienced, they did not get money or power or popularity. In fact, most of them were gruesomely killed because of it. (though I guess they did get more that 2000 years of notoriety…)

Besides …. if we believe in God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, why couldn’t God make the resurrection happen? Why not?

So, sure, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, some how, some way, in a particular time and place.

You?

Second, there is the resurrection of Jesus as the prototype for all the other resurrections that run through the history and experience of Christians and the church. There is a resurrection pattern to how God relates to human beings and to the world. This is both a matter of belief as well as a mindset. A very helpful, and I believe, truthful mindset.

Out of darkness, God gives light,
out of sorrow, joy.
out of despair, hope.
out of death, life.

“Those who have gone through the desolate valley will find it a pool of springs” says the psalmist.

This is not just a Pollyanna, optimistic view of the world. It is not just about butterflies and rainbows after the storm either. It does not mean that God makes us happy all the time, or that everyone will be cured of cancer.

Rather, belief in the resurrection leads us to see and know that God is at work in the world and in our lives in order that we may have life and have it abundantly. In order that we may flourish.

Death, literal or metaphorical death, is not the end. And sometimes
often
death is a necessary part of discovering life, life we would not otherwise know.

Those who have eyes to see, let them see:

In the frailty of one person, others discover a capacity to love and care, and they witness profound courage.
In the despair of a failure, someone discovers a gift or a skill that they didn’t know they had and they hone it.
An unjust death promotes a movement for justice.

Out of darkness, light,
out of sorrow, joy.
out of despair, hope.
out of death, life.

It is the way of God and of God’s work in the world. The resurrection of Jesus in a particular time and a particular place is only the beginning.

Third, there is the resurrection Jesus as the Way that leads to eternal life. We hear this in our baptismal rite:

We thank you Father for the water of Baptism
in it we are buried with Christ in his death
by it we share in his resurrection…

Somehow, we don’t know how exactly, in the resurrection of Jesus death is conquered once for all. The devil loses. We need no longer to fear death. We can in fact laugh at it. (though I confess I haven’t come close to that yet myself…)

This, frankly, requires another  leap of faith.
Oh, there are stories told of the visions and dreams of those left behind. But nothing convincing enough to start a movement that rocks the world. Nothing that we see or experience in our daily life and work… directly.

I cannot say how or when I made this leap of faith myself. But I know that my faith was formed in life and liturgy. It may have had to do with that Betty Pulkingham song that I found myself singing in lots of church gatherings in my 20s and 30s…

I am the resurrection,
I am the life,
they who believe in me,
even if they die
they shall live for ever.
and I will raise them up….

(That’s in the Bible, by the way).

Or maybe it was the Christ our Passover (Pascha Nostrum) that we sing and exclaim here at the Advocate in Eastertide – I chanted it a lot in church throughout my 20s and 30s.
Formative years…

Alleluia.? Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;? therefore let us keep the feast,
Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,? but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.
Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;? death no longer has dominion over him…..
For since by a man came death, ?by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die,? so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.

But I think it was mostly the funerals.
Have you ever been to a funeral in an Episcopal Church? It is powerful. The body, the casket, the box of ashes, is carried into the church. There are the mortal remains of the person you knew the person you loved, the person who challenged you, entertained you, inspired you, maybe even bored you or irritated you. The person you watched slowly shrivel and die. or the person who was snatched up in death way too fast, way too unexpectedly.

The Paschal candle is lit. There is silence.

Then… Footsteps of the clergy and acolytes and pallbearers perhaps, process down the aisle. And the priest proclaims the words of the Gospel of John:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord;
whosoever believeth in me, though he were dead,
yet shall he live;
and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed,
yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold,
and not as a stranger.? ?

As a member of the congregation, you stand there, listen there, watch there, feel there.

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord;
whosoever believeth in me, though he were dead,
yet shall he live;?

Your faith is formed.
Death still happens, but it is not the end.
Death does not triumph.
Somehow instead, Jesus, by his death and resurrection has triumphed over death.
The world indeed, is not as it seems.

Christians, it is said, are an Easter people. We live in the light of the resurrection. Whether we believe slam dunk, or still harbor doubts or skepticism about any or all of these three aspects of that resurrection on occasion or at all times, we are a resurrection people.

There is something more….

So wherever we stand as individuals, on the spectrum of life and faith and doubt, we stand collectively in this season of Easter as Church. We stand collectively and we dance and we sing,

Christ is risen from the dead
trampling down death by death
and upon those in the tomb
bestowing life.                                                           

Alleluia!

The Good Friday Sermon

Good Friday, March 25, 2016, Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill, By Kenneth R. Bullock

At the cross her vigil keeping,
Mary stood in sorrow, weeping,
When her Son was crucified.

Although all the gospels speak of the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee watching as Jesus was crucified, only John explicitly states that Jesus’ mother stood at the foot of the cross, together with Mary, the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is hard to imagine what it was like for Mary as her son was executed as a threat to the powers that be. Thirty-odd years earlier the angel Gabriel had appeared to her to announce that she would bear a son, whom she was to name Jesus. Today is not only Good Friday, when we contemplate Jesus’ death on the cross. It happens that it would also be the Feast of the Annunciation, if the Prayer Book were not explicit about stating that Feasts falling during Holy Week or Easter Week are to be transferred to the following week. Still, it is worth contemplating that these two events happen to fall on the same day this year.

But today we turn our attention, not to Mary encountering an angel with an announcement that would radically change her life, but to the cross, where Mary, the grieving mother, stands, watching her beloved Son suffer and die.

While she waited in her anguish,
Seeing Christ in torment languish,
Bitter sorrow pierced her heart.

We are used to seeing crosses in many forms. The cross is at the heart of the Christian gospel. Whenever we move in procession, a cross of carved wood leads us. Today I am wearing a silver cross, sand-cast by a Navaho silversmith in Santa Fe. When we see the cross in these beautiful forms, it is easy to forget that it was a brutal, rough, instrument of execution, of state-sponsored terror. But that was the cross at which Mary stood vigil.

With what pain and desolation,
With what noble resignation,
Mary watched her dying Son.

But what is the meaning of the cross for Christians? Did Jesus die because humanity’s sins are so great that God’s justice requires the death penalty, and he died as a substitute for us, to atone for our sins? Or did he die to free us from injustice endemic in human civilization, and from death’s stranglehold on human life? From the Middle Ages on, from the time of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, Western Christianity has all too often emphasized the suffering of Christ on the cross as a substitution to pay the debt for our sins. Eastern Christianity, in continuity with a tradition from the first millennium of the Christian era, emphasizes the victory of the Cross, in which God, through the death of Jesus, invades hell, breaking into the realm of Death itself, freeing humans from captivity to death.

For early Christians there was no separation between Christ’s passion and resurrection. The earliest liturgies did not separate them. A single, three-day event proclaimed Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection, culminating in the Easter vigil and Eucharist. If you look carefully, you will notice that our own Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday liturgies begin without an opening acclamation, and conclude without a dismissal. It is all part of one story, to be continued.

In Jesus’ day the Romans used crucifixion as a punishment for, and a deterrent to, rebellion. It was a cruel, brutal form of punishment. In the century in which Jesus lived there were many thousands of people crucified around Jerusalem alone. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus tells of torture and crucifixion in the year 70 C. E., during the siege of Jerusalem that destroyed the temple and dispersed the people:

“The majority were citizens of the poorer class … five hundred or sometimes more being captured daily. … so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.”i

John Dominic Crossan notes it was not the fact that the victim suffered, that was significant, but the complete annihilation of the person, as the body was consumed by carrion birds, wild beasts, and roving packs of dogs.

John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion is a theological statement, not a factual reporting of events. For John, Jesus was not a victim of forces beyond his control. On that Friday afternoon two worlds met in conflict; the world of Caesar, represented by Pilate, the Roman governor; and the world of the one whose kingdom is not of this world, Jesus. Jesus was not the only one in first-century Judea to whom the titles son of god, Lord, redeemer, and even savior of the world were applied. They were also titles by which Octavius, Caesar Augustus, was known, titles that continued to be very much a part of Roman imperial theology under the successors of Caesar Augustus. In ways that we find difficult to imagine, there was a very real clash of empires, between the Roman imperial world whose motto was “peace through victory” and the kingdom of the God of Jesus, whose vision was “peace through nonviolent justice.”

From the beginning of John’s narrative, Jesus is in charge. He orchestrates his own arrest. John’s poetic language, filled with allusions, suggests many levels of meaning. Like the parables Jesus told, these elements of John’s story do not tell us outright what the message is, but tease us into drawing our own conclusions about Jesus and his Passion. In John’s narrative, Jesus and his disciples cross the Kidron ravine, retracing the steps of David a thousand years earlier. In a garden there a whole cohort of Roman soldiers (some 600 men) follows him, along with the chief priest’s guards. Jesus asks whom they seek. They say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” When Jesus replies, “I am he,” they all fall to the ground. The English obscures the allusion. The Greek words, ??? ????, may be literally translated as “I am,” the very name of God revealed to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus. Questioned before the high priest secretly, then arraigned before Pilate, Jesus is articulate and ironic in reply, and we who read John’s account may perceive meanings in what he says that completely escaped Pilate or the Jewish leaders. One might ask, who is really on trial here, Jesus or Pilate? Condemned, Jesus is led to Golgotha, carrying his own cross, strong and unbroken. There he is crucified. A notice above Jesus’ head reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Despite the protests of the chief priests, Pilate refuses to change what he has written. Unwittingly, Pilate, who during Jesus’ trial cynically asks “What is truth?” tells the truth about Jesus.

At the foot of the cross stand Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved. He commends them to each other’s care. They are now family. Jesus gives himself for us that we may be given to one another in God’s new community.

Who, that sorrow contemplating
On that passion meditating,
Would not share the Virgin’s grief.

In fulfillment of scripture, Jesus says, “I thirst.” After receiving the sour wine he says, “It is finished,” and gives over the spirit – in John’s Greek, not “his spirit.” It is not a cry of anguish, but “mission accomplished.” Jesus, in his final act, gives over the spirit – to the church, represented by the new family standing before him. The movement Jesus began would continue, given over to the new community of God he had established.

The soldiers divide his clothing, and gamble for his tunic, which was seamless, like that of the high priest. The soldiers, coming to break the legs of the crucified so they would not remain on the cross over Passover, find Jesus dead. Like the Passover lamb, not a bone of him was broken. He dies on the day of preparation for the Passover, as Passover lambs were being butchered. Water and blood flow from Jesus’ side, pierced by a soldier’s spear, signifying baptism and Eucharist to the early church fathers.

John’s telling of Jesus’ passion is not a story of human tragedy and heroism. Nor is Jesus a victim of events he could not control. It is the Temple authorities and Pilate who appear disorganized and powerless. No one takes Jesus’ life from him. He offers it up, to reveal the saving glory of God. He is the king, whose throne is the cross.

Although John’s account differs from the other gospels, it is not accurate to say that one is right and the others are not. Each is like a parable, proclaiming, in their different ways, that Jesus is Lord, and the lords of this world, whether feudal, or industrial and economic, or political and imperial, are not, and do not have the final say. Nor is it accurate to say that to represent the cross as a rough-hewn object made of heavy timbers is right, while to make it into a gold and jeweled necklace, or as a mark made with holy oil signed on the forehead is wrong. To portray the cross with a realistic, tortured, naked human form suffering on it is no more “right” than to portray the cross with a triumphant Christus Rex figure robed in richly colored vestments and a golden crown, or to portray it with no human form at all on it. Each represents a different way of seeing this powerful symbol.

Two perspectives in today’s readings are best seen together. One perspective, in John’s gospel, is Christ as the king who comes from God, who takes the initiative in identifying completely with sinful humans, to invade hell and rescue us from death. It is a movement by God’s initiative, toward humanity. The cross is the culmination of the divine self-emptying that was described in the ancient hymn that Paul quoted in his letter to the Philippians:

“… though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

The other perspective, in the reading from Hebrews, represents a movement in the opposite direction, from humanity toward God, in Christ’s priestly offering to God:

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” [Hebrews 10:19-22]

Because of Christ’s cross we are able to approach God’s presence. Our own search for God can never by itself find God. The good news of the cross is that God has come to find us, and in Christ God has freed us, so that in Christ we find our hearts’ desire and our true identity. In Christ’s cross we are reconciled with God, with one another, and with ourselves. We are made part of that new reality that Jesus preached, the kingdom of God. By our baptism we share in Christ’s passion, not only in the sense of what he suffered, but in his larger passion for God and God’s dream for a renewed heaven and earth that brought him to the cross.

Tonight we stand with Mary at the foot of the cross. The cross may stir many emotions in us, as we contemplate what it means for each of us to share Christ’s passion. In this moment the focus is on sorrow and grief, with Jesus’ blessed mother:

At the cross, your sorrow sharing,
All your grief and torment bearing,
Let me stand and mourn with you.

But the story does not end here. Jesus’ story does not end on the cross. Nor does our liturgy of the Triduum, the three holy days. It merely pauses, while we look ahead to what it means to share, in the coming days, weeks and months, the passion Jesus has for God’s new heaven and new earth, and to be a part of the Jesus movement on the way toward that new heaven and new earth. And so, like our liturgy of Good Friday, it is now “to be continued . . .”

i Josephus, War 5.447-451, quoted in John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper San Francisco, 1995), p. 126.

Outrage and Expectation in Advent: A David Wantland Sermon

A sermon offered by David Wantland, Postulant for Holy Orders, at the Advocate on Advent I, November 30, 2015.

Joan Chittister says that Advent is about learning to wait, learning to look for God in the places that we have ignored, learning to attune our eyes away from business toward holiness. It is an appropriate injunction when our default is to let Christmas, well, whisk us straight through Advent into Epiphany. The shopping, the holiday gatherings, the end of year donations, blah, blah blah, you’ve heard it all before. I do not want to discount the value of slowing down, taking time to practice waiting, to pause and to look. It’s important. It’s also terribly insincere. It’s insincere because this kind of waiting only captures one aspect of advent: waiting for a sweet baby to be born. But what of the other part, the waiting for Christ to return?

Acknowledging that we will be looking, watching, waiting, our gospel today names some potential objects of our gaze: signs in the sun, moon, and the stars, distress among nations, the roaring of the sea and the waves. In the two millennia since Jesus’ ascension, haven’t we had enough of signs in the sky, of distress among nations, of fear and foreboding? Whether today’s gospel text was foreboding the Second Coming or simply the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD (a point, apparently well-contested by New Testament scholars), the fact is that we are still waiting. And the signs and signals just keep coming. New murders, newly released video reminding us that lynching remains a practice of white supremacy in this country; people frantically gobbling up information, craning to make sense of large-scale violence in nations around the world; the literal roaring of the seas in places that have not previously known it– I think we get it. We’ve had the signs and, as Jesus in Luke’s gospel impels us to, we have stood up with raised heads, awaiting our redemption to draw near.

And yet here we are, another advent, a new church year. We are still waiting.

Advent is exhausting, exhausting because we are at once called into a season of joyful anticipation of Jesus’ first coming and a season to mourn that he has not come again. Frankly, I don’t know how to do both at once. Give me Easter, give me Lent, but not at the same time.

It is no coincidence, then, that our lectionary gives us the account of a prophet who found himself tugged between joyful anticipation and mourning. Our text from Jeremiah drops us in the middle of a fraught situation. Moved by God to announce the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s been working hard to get people’s attention: He’s been walking around the city with an ox yolk on his neck to foretell their impending slavery. Most recently, he’s gone into Solomon’s Temple, which the Israelites believed God would never abandon, promising that God would make it like the temple at Shiloh-i.e. destroy it. Unsurprisingly, King Zedekiah gets angry and imprisons him in the palace. Not to be pacified, Jeremiah then tells King Zedekiah that the LORD is going to allow Babylon to come into Judah, destroy the city, and lead the people of Judah, along with its king, back to Babylon in chains. The offence of this claim ignites a plot to kill Jeremiah. Without the king’s blessing, the plotters settle on throwing him in an empty water tank, where an Ethiopian eunuch– perhaps one who had equally known the poor treatment of the king’s people– retrieves him.

Just before he is thrown in the water tank, Jeremiah does something really obtuse: despite all that he has said concerning God’s plans for Judah, despite the fact that the Babylonian army has encircled the city in which he lives, he goes out and buys a plot of land, proclaiming the word of the LORD that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah finds himself, I think, in an adventine disposition. On the one hand, he has the relative confidence of hearing the word of the LORD. Analogous to our trust in the first coming of Christ, Jeremiah at least has something in the past to justify his behavior. On the other hand, he lives at the brink of dissolution. He has committed years of his life living an alternative narrative in the face of religious and political leaders proclaiming their own invincibility. All that labor has been relatively fruitless. He has seen the gathering storm, the soldiers approaching, knowing that Judah has much to endure before “Jerusalem will live in safety.” Even though his own mouth foretold this coming doom, I wonder if Jeremiah didn’t still doubt God. “Is this the only way to redress Judah?”

Amidst the existential anxiety and fear, God still gives Judah a word of hope, a word of anticipation: In this place of which you say, “it is a waste”…there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing… “Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his fidelity endures forever!”

What an absurd hope: to stand at the door of destruction and still imagine the voice of mirth and gladness in that place. And yet hope he does.

If for no other reason, Jeremiah gives us hope because we live on the other side of his vision. We know of the story of God’s people in captivity, of their return to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the Temple. We know that God remained and remains faithful to Israel, accompanying them through many subsequent captivities. And we know God’s provision for Israel primarily because we have come to receive it through one Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

Of course, this knowledge does not somehow mitigate the current state of waiting. But it does allow an unlikely adventine virtue: outrage.

Yes, outrage. The virtue of saying to the One who can do something about the coming of that long-expected Kingdom, “where the hell are you?” The practice of shedding the pious posture of middle class religiosity and adding our voices to the lives of those who are dying, who are finding their worlds completely destroyed by violence, their livelihoods by changing climate, so as to say, “we actually believe you can and will do something about this mess. Yes, we believe we’re a part of it, but you’re the one bringing the Kingdom. So get on with it!”

Amidst our incomprehensible hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, amidst the cultivation of patience, there is definitely a place to speak to God in outrage. It is a statement of belief as ardent as the Creed we proclaim each Sunday. Outrage is expectation, not hopelessness. As such, it is a fitting advent hope.

To that end, I invite you into two liturgical practices this season. They’re easy and they require no more out of you than showing up like you have done today.

First, while we learn from practices of patience, I invite you to sing “O Come O Come Immanuel” as a hymn of impatience and urgency, in which we affirm that it would not simply be convenient for Christ to come, but that we need him to. Allow that hymn, which we will sing as a gradual each Sunday, to be for you a cry of outrage, remembering that there are literal captives in need of ransom, refugees for whom exile is not metaphor, and those who desperately want closed the paths of misery, because they and their families currently walk it.

Perhaps, I have done nothing more than draw you into my own exhaustion with advent–and it’s only day one. But just as outrage is possible because it affirms the belief in God’s willingness and ability to come at last, so our exhaustion is only tenable because we come together, here in this place, to find sustenance together at the table of our Lord. So my second invitation to liturgical practice is this: dwell on the “sustainer.” In various seasons here at the Advocate, the liturgy calls God “sustainer.” Yet, Advent is a particularly good season to call God “sustainer” if we consider “sustainer” from the perspective of those just struggling to avoid getting shot at, struggling to keep their family together on the boat, struggling to dig through the rubble, those who understand that to be sustained is to be kept alive. As you are able, let that word shout out to you and let it draw you to the table, for your own sake, and for the chance to encounter the One to whom your outrage is directed. May we come not for solace only but for strength, not for pardon only, but for renewal. May this Advent, as we hang in the exhausting balance between joyful hope and desperate hope, draw us to the Table, not because we are there obliged, because we there glimpse the Coming of the Lord whom we await. Amen

 

 

Hope and Risk — A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon for Advent II

Sermon offered by The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick, Transitional Deacon at the Advocate, Advent II, 2015

Do you know the work of the Episcopal novelist Madeleine L’Engle? She’s most famous for her book A Wrinkle in Time, but many of her other works are just as good. She has one book about the connections between faith and the arts called Walking on Water that I cannot commend to you highly enough.

In one of her books, The Irrational Season, she is discussing the discernment a couple must do to enter into the commitment of the covenant of marriage, and she writes this: “Ultimately there comes a time when a decision must be made. Ultimately two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take.” And then she says, “It is indeed a fearful gamble.”

The decision to risk love is to plumb the depths of our longing and to test our tolerance for risk. It is to hope deeply that this other person might care for and about us the way we need and want; it is to hope that, no matter our past, this other person might behold in us something beautiful and see in us a future. To love is to hope, and if we’re not willing to hope, then there’s no way we can love.

And to love is to risk. It is to give of ourselves regardless of our past, regardless of our histories and our hurts, beyond our histories and our hurts. In fact, it is to open ourselves up to hurt, to make ourselves vulnerable to another person. Where there’s no risk and no vulnerability, there can be no trust. And where’s there’s no trust, there can be no love. So, if we’re not willing to risk, then there’s no way we can love. 

According to Madeleine L’Engle, love puts before us these two questions: How much are we willing to hope for, and how much or ourselves are we willing to risk that our hope would be fulfilled? These are not new questions, and these are not just the questions of couples discerning love or commitment or marriage. These questions belong to the whole human family and are renewed in every generation.

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To me, these are also the questions that come when Scripture says “and the word of the Lord came.” Often times, when we hear that scriptural phrase the word of the Lord came to Isaiah or Jeremiah orJonah, we tend to believe that it comes with a lot of periods and exclamation marks. That it comes as a declaration; that it comes with a certain finality, as if an angel drops something the size of a phone book and says, “there.” But, this Advent, I would invite us to think that, when the word of the Lord comes, it comes with question marks. That the word of the Lord comes and begins a dynamic dialogue that echoes with Madeleine L’Engle’s questions. 

So, in the third chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, when we read that the word of the Lord comes to John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, what if we hear that as: 

John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, how much are you willing to hope for? And how much of yourself are you willing to risk to make it so?

John, are you willing to hope that this is the time when God will come to God’s people? When the Dream of God will draw near in flesh and blood? That earth will be filled with heaven? John, are you willing to hope that this is the season when the promise of the past will be made good, when the vision of the prophets and hopes of the people will be realized, when the promise of the future will be made sure? Are you willing to hope it? How did we pray it last week? Are you willing, John, to believe that “now in the time of this mortal life … Jesus Christ [will come] to visit us in great humility”? 

How much do you hope for, John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth? And John, how much are you willing to risk to take to make it so? Because if this is going to happen, then this may require more of you than you are ready, than you are prepared, than you believe you are capable of giving to make it so, so how much are you, John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, willing to risk?

Did you notice at the beginning of our reading we heard these words?

When, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

On the one hand, this is just St Luke’s way of dating this little encounter between John and the word of the Lord. On the other hand, though, it is also a reminder that, when those seven people seemed to hold all the power in the world, the word of the Lord came to a lone guy in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey and wearing animal skins, asking what he hoped for and if he was willing to risk to make it so, asking if he was willing to announce the time when the power structure that kept those seven in place was being turned upside down. See, when John quotes Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” we can hear that as “the voice of a person crying in the wilderness” or we can hear that as “the voice of ONE crying in the wilderness.” 

John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, how much risk are you willing to take for the hope that you have? John, son of Zechariah, are you willing to risk yourself to ready the world for the Advent of God? Are you willing to risk judgment and confusion — are you willing to risk your life itself — that the word might come in your midst?

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Advocates, in the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama, in the third year of the governorship of Pat McCrory, in the first month of the presiding episcopate of Michael Curry, Advocates, in Advent, the word of God now comes to us and asks us the same two questions. What do you hope for and how much risk will you take to make it so?

Last week, David Wantland challenged us to cultivate an Advent discipline of outrage, and I think he is spot on. But, this week, I want to note that outrage is born of hope — frustrated hope, disappointed hope, to be sure — but hope nonetheless. You don’t get outraged about things you don’t want to be different. Outrage is born of longing. 

See, this is part of the perniciousness of cynicism, that wearing down of the soul until it hopes and longs for nothing, lest it be disappointed again. 

For us to tap our outrage is for us to touch our hope, to renew our longing for what only God in Jesus Christ will do.

So, what do you hope? 

Do you hope that this is the season when the peaks of prejudice and the high hills of hatred will be leveled into love? Do you hope that those who know too well the valleys of oppression and poverty and heartbreak and despair might be raised up to level ground? Do you hope that the rough places of relationships might be smoothed by reconciliation? Are you willing to hope that the crook and the crooked might be straightened by justice and inspired to integrity? Do you hope that this is the season when the weapons that haunt our streets and wage our wars will be turned into harmless farm tools? 

And if you hope it, then what of yourself are you willing to risk to make it so? What of yourself are you willing to give over to God so that you might be a part of this new thing coming into our midst? You will need the courage of the teenage mother who is carrying the infant God for the sake of the world. You will need the resolve of the wilderness walker who comes to prepare the way.

There comes a time when a decision must be made, when we, Advent people that we are, must ask ourselves how much we hope for and how much risk we are willing to take. 

It is a fearful gamble to hope and to risk.

It is a fearful gamble called love. It is a fearful gamble called faith.

Servants, Sacrifice and Creation: A Vicar’s sermon

A sermon on October 18, 2015 (Year B – Proper 24 ) by The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

In the Name of the creating, restoring and transforming God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   AMEN

I’ve been waiting.
Waiting for a Sunday in this season of Creation, the unofficial mini-season within the mega-season called Ordinary Time,
I’ve been waiting for a Sunday when the readings align, connecting the Christian Gospel with the cosmos, the way of Jesus with the creation and care of this fragile earth, our island home.

And today is the day.
Oh it may not seem obvious at first.
But it’s there.

In the Gospel Jesus teaches us, as he so often does, to be servants.
Servants of God and servants of/to one another.
Not in an “I’m the master you are the servant” kind of way, but in an
“I’m a servant, so if you follow me, you will be a servant, too.” kind of way.

Jesus says:
“…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

And so we sing on Maundy Thursday:
“Won’t you let me be your servant
let me be as Christ to you….”

I don’t know what comes to your mind when you consider this image of servant.
Foot-washing, perhaps.
Or maybe giving up something you like in order to do something you think you are supposed to do.
I don’t know –
Give up dinner at a fancy restaurant in order to give more money to those who are hungry.
Or maybe when you think of being a servant á la Jesus,
you think of martyrdom,
willing to give up you very life for another, or others.

It is tempting to think that Christian servanthood is all of this and more.
In which case, we might as well add to the list,
to be a servant of God is to take care of God’s Creation, the environment.

But I want to stop the litany there.
And say that Christian servanthood is actually not about making the world a better place,
or making yourself a better person.
It isn’t about martyring yourself –
(though Christian servanthood can indeed lead to martyrdom.)

No, Christian servanthood is not about these things.
Rather, Christian servanthood is, as today’s Gospel reveals,
Christian servanthood is about drinking the cup that Jesus drinks.
It is about being baptized with the baptism with which Jesus was baptized.
It is about offering ourselves in sacrifice, yes.
But not sacrificing ourselves to other human beings
or to a political ideal,
or even to a religion.

Rather, Christian servanthood is about offering ourselves in sacrifice to God,
about giving ourselves to God, in Christ.

Sometimes, here at the Church of the Advocate,
and indeed sometimes in every church,
we can get so caught up in the music,
or the beauty or even the playfulness of the liturgy,
or our own need for communion with one another and with God,
that we can lose track of the reality
that a big chunk of what is going on in the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy is actually
sacrifice and formation,
sacrifice and formation for servanthood.
And it is not just Jesus who is being offered as a sacrifice – in bread and in wine.
But it is you and me.

We pray for it, you know.

In the old Eucharistic prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, we prayed:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…”
or
“…. we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies…”

Elsewhere we pray “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.”
Or, in another Eucharistic prayer:
“Grant that all who share in this bread and cup may become one body and one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ.”

We may lose sight of it, but in truth we come here, week by week, to sacrifice ourselves to God, to join with Christ in his sacrifice.
That’s what the whole offertory thing is about, you know.
We give of our labors, symbolized in the bread and the wine,
“from God’s creation,” yes,
and also the “work of human hands”.
We give of our lives,
symbolized by our offertory procession,
our souls our bodies, our minds,
the cash, the food, put in the basket.

When we drop that dollar or that box of pasta in the basket,
we are, in effect, getting into the basket with it.
We are being lifted up at the altar along with the bread and the wine.

Even what we call this particular piece of furniture says something about what we believe is happening here.
Notice that we call it an altar, not a communion table.
A communion table is something that the faithful gather around in order to hear the story of the last supper and to realize themselves as a communion of faithful people.
An altar is something that the faithful gather around as well.
But then we are offered up, lifted up,
right along with Jesus,
we are lifted up, given to God and blessed,
given to God and blessed and transformed by God.
Then sent back into the world.

We are about sacrifice here.
Sacrificing our selves, our labor, our lives, to God,
being united to Christ in his sacrifice,
drinking the cup that he drinks.

And the result isn’t a choice, a decision, of how to behave:
“Today, I am going to be a sacrificial, suffering servant, because Jesus was, and that is what I am called to be.”
Rather, our sacrifice stems from a choice to allow ourselves to be formed and transformed.
Formed and transformed by the community,
Formed and transformed by the sacrament,
Formed and transformed by God.

It’s like putting the emphasis on a different syllable
and discovering we’ve been mispronouncing the word all our lives.

Remember that liturgy both expresses what we believe and who we are,
and shapes what we believe, what we become.
It is through this sacrifice, made week after week,
ideally augmented by some stillness and contemplation through the week,
that we are formed, that we are transformed,
to be the people of God in the world.

Over time, you know, we become like the people we spend time with,
the people we admire.
We pick up a phrase, a mannerism, a style.
We don’t choose to do it, it just happens.
Well the same thing happens in a cosmic dimension here,
if we let it.

It is through this sacrifice, made week after week,
that we are, in some strange way,
united to Christ,
united to God
united to one another|
united to all of God’s creation even.

Through it, in it, by it,
suddenly, or not-so-suddenly,
we find that our work for justice,
our willingness to go the extra mile for a neighbor in need,
our willingness to provide food to the poor,
to visit the sick and those in prison,
to be mindful of our energy consumption,
our willingness, our desire, our passion even,
to do any of these things,
is not borne of political ideology
nor of guilt,
nor of duty,
nor of a desire for self-improvement.
But rather it is borne of God.
It emerges from the oneness that we realize with God in Christ.

So that when we hear the
poetic waxing in the book of Job,
it isn’t something separate from the rest of what we do and who we are.
When we join our voice to the voice of the Psalmist,
it isn’t just a pretty song.
When Pope Francis comes forth with an encyclical about the environment,
and we hear the way in which that encyclical integrally connects our care of the environment to our care for the poor,
it isn’t something coming out of so-called left field,
the pope getting involved in secular politics.
It is, rather, a seamless part of the whole fabric of our lives and faith.

So it is that we can join our prayer to his, saying,
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty. ….

Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty!


O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.….

Do you see the connection?
The Gospel calls us to be servants of God.
That servanthood is borne, not of our choice to do good or be good,
but of our willingness to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice,
a willingness to be formed and transformed into the likeness of Christ,
at one with the God,
at one with one another
at one with the world in which we live.
creatures, waters, air and all.

Let all God’s people say.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Trains and Church — a sermon by the vicar

On Trains and Faith
Blue Grass Mass
September 13, 2015
@TheAdvocate

 

As you roll across the trestle
Spanning Jordan’s swelling tide
You will reach the Union Depot
Into which your train will ride

In the Name of the creating, redeeming and transforming God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is something about trains and train tracks the stirs both psyche and soul.
Something iconic,
something mythic.
Somehow trains seem to inspire stories, songs,
hearts, minds, and souls,
young and old alike.

It’s been said that the perfect country and western song needs to include one of five subjects:
mama, trucks, prison, getting drunk,
or trains.

“Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans”
comes to mind.
Or even The Little Engine That Could
“I think I can , I think I can.”

What is it about trains….?
It has something to do with strength and size,
something to do with the sound.
More than anything, I think,
it has something to do with a journey,
a track,
a distance.

It is different from a car or a truck or a plane.
A car journey is self contained and self propelled.
Trucks are just too plentiful.
In a plane, you can’t really see where you’ve been or where you are going.

But a train….
A train rumbles along a track,
a track that seems to extend endlessly in one direction,
then in another.
You hear it first, then it creeps into view,
well, at least if there is a crossing nearby it creeps.
Out in wide open spaces, a train surges.

But when it comes near to a crossing or a town
the whistle blows.
And the sound of the whistle carries across miles.

We hear it like the call of a pileated woodpecker.
It’s exotic, but strangely familiar, too.
Hear that lonesome whistle blow….

If we are in town we see the gate go down and we start to count the cars despite ourselves,
If it’s only four cars, we are a little disappointed.
More than 20 and we might start to feel a bit impatient.
Still, there is something about those cars,
each distinct,
varying in shape and size and age,
varying a bit in what it carries,
in how it was designed,
in the graffiti on its side.
But all the cars connected together,
Moving together down the track.

Freight trains feel somehow more mythic than passenger trains.
Boxcars.
Boxcars carrying cargo and,
in song and story
carrying people who have hitched a ride.

I love the fact that we have a train track running right along side the Advocate Chapel here.
The train doesn’t run on Sundays,
but it runs Monday to Friday.
It’s only cargo is coal,
coal to the university.
Even so, it stirs the imagination and the soul.
When it passes by,
whatever we are doing,
we stop.
And the inner child emerges in any who are here.
We watch it lumber by
we hear it creek and moan,
we feel the ground vibrate just a bit.
And a part of us rides with it,
if even for a moment.

I think that’s part of the mystique.
The train is us,
or life,
or something.
It isn’t clean and shiny and new.
It is rough, hard-working,
scarred.
It is each of us,
on our journey
passing through life:

As you roll across the trestle
Spanning Jordan’s swelling tide
You will reach the Union Depot
Into which your train will ride.

It is each of us,
But it is more than us.
It is big and strong and exciting.
in your face sometimes
and sometimes distant, far away,

It is,
I will venture here to say,
it is like Church.
train comingMaybe it’s because we have a train track running right along side the Advocate Chapel here.
Maybe it’s because the Chapel itself came here from somewhere else.

But visually it is as though the Chapel itself
were another boxcar on the train.
Moved here over country roads,
planted on blocks of brick,
this chapel is set,
But still it rides the rails.
Still it rumbles and it moves.
And by God’s grace,
God’s yearning,
this boxcar that is chapel is transformed by those of us it carries,
As those of us it carries
Are transformed by God’s grace.

Or so we hope

This boxcar that is chapel
has its whistle,
or at least a bell,
Calling out its presence,
bidding people to take note, take heed,
to get on board.

But the cargo in this boxcar
is not just each and every one of us who gathers here.
It is all who went before.
All who’ve ridden the rails of faith and doubt
Of love and loss
Of sorrow and of joy.
And more.

It is the Church –
known and unknown,
tradition and innovation,
infant and elder
metaphorical and actual,
set and moving,
this boxcar of a chapel has a cargo indeed.

But the car ain’t full.
there’s room for more.
And who then, shall it be?

Jesus, through the prophetic voice of Bruce Springsteen calls:
Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rollin’ down this track
Well, you don’t know where you’re goin’ now
But you know you won’t be back
Well, darlin’ if you’re weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry
Yeah, and we’ll leave the rest

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

Well, I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Oh meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This train…
Carries saints and sinners
This train…
Carries losers and winners
This train…
Carries whores and gamblers
This train…
Carries lost souls.

I said this train…
carries broken-hearted
this train
thieves and sweet souls departed
this train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This train…                                                                                                           
Faith will be rewarded

This train…?you don’t need no ticket
This train….
just get on board
on board this train…..
people get ready
this train
you just get on board
this train
And just thank the Lord.
people get ready.
people get ready.
come on this train….

It is good that we are here.

Amen.

 

 

Why Are We Here? Sermon for the anniversary of the Advocate

September 20, 2015
Lisa Fischbeck @TheAdvocate

 Why Are We Here?

The Advocate was launched on September 21, 2003 not only because it was the Feast of St. Matthew, but because the Feast of St. Matthew that year marked 250 years of Anglican/Episcopal ministry in Orange County, North Carolina.

St. Matthews Church in Hillsborough was formed by an act of the Colonial Legislature in 1753. St Matthew’s started the Chapel of the Cross a hundred or so years later in order to provide Episcopal ministry and presence at the largely Presbyterian University of North Carolina. Roughly a hundred years after that the Chapel of the Cross spawned Church of the Holy Family in 1952, in order to provide a church for all the young families coming this way after World War II and the expansion of UNC.

All three of those churches gave birth to the Advocate in 2003.

One of the first questions that had to be answered before and even after that launch was “Why another church?” What can this new church do that isn’t already being done, or that can’t be done another way? What can this new church be that justifies the human and economic resources it will take for this mission to flourish? Or, as one Diocesan official asked, “Why can’t you just be a congregation within the congregation of The Chapel of the Cross?”

Reasonable questions, reasonably asked of every church at its beginning, or even for years to come.

——————–

All churches exist so that people, will discover the Way of God made known in Jesus the Christ: Loving and being loved, forgiving and being forgiven, transforming and being transformed.

Ideally, all churches regularly consider anew how they are to respond to the people around them, how to encourage those in their midst, to seek God and a deeper knowledge and love of God.

The particular setting for a new church, though, the time and place in which it begins, in which it exists, usually helps to determine just how that particular church is to do these things.

For the Advocate, the particular setting was a region growing in both numbers and diversity, with no end to that growth in site.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a University town with a population of less than 60,000 people and more than 50 churches. In 2000, there were two established and thriving Episcopal Churches in Chapel Hill, with a third less than 10 miles north in the County Seat of Hillsborough.

Yet at the turn of the new millennium, there was also a confluence of circumstances that caused the Episcopalians of Orange County to start yet another church.

First, the three established Episcopal congregations in the County were all flourishing, yet limited. By the start of the 21st century St. Matthew’s church in Hillsborough was limited by the size of its historic church building and had just started to have three services each Sunday to accommodate its growth. The Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill had grown to a membership of more than 1500, with a strong sacred music program and extensive opportunities for Christian formation. They were holding four services each Sunday. Church of the Holy Family, also with extensive Christian education and a congregation of more than 600, was in the process of building a new nave.

But even that new space could not accommodate the growth it was experiencing. All three of these churches were healthy and thriving. All had strong, capable, established rectors and lay leadership.

At the same time, a movement was stirring in the Episcopal Church nationally for the creation, or “planting”, of new churches in just such areas of growth.

Then along came a new bishop to the Diocese of North Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, a man passionate about the Gospel, justice, social change, and “following Jesus for real”; a man passionate about inviting all people to live into the Dream of God and to make that dream known.

The Episcopalians of Orange County got inspired. The three established churches in Orange County, as well as the Diocese, determined to go in together and give birth to a new mission.

This says something significant about our beginnings: The Advocate was born out of health and vitality, not schism and anger. We were born with the strong support of our sponsoring congregations and the Diocese.

And we were launched to extend the Anglican/Episcopal mission and witness in this part of North Carolina.

The Advocate was launched with a clear denominational identity. We were launched to be a mission of the Episcopal Church, which is historically part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. This means that the Advocate is part of a tradition of rich and thoughtful liturgy, theology, and spirituality – a liturgy, theology and spirituality that is distinct from the prevailing Christian theology and spirituality of our surrounding region.

At the same time, the Advocate was also launched to be a church for those who might not be drawn to a more established church setting. We symbolized this for the first ten years by holding our principal liturgy at 5 PM. We also developed a liturgy that is less formal without being less thoughtful and intentional. We welcome questions and doubts, and look for ways to encourage conversations.

There is a certain tension inherent in being rooted in a very established branch of the Christian church, while being created for those not drawn to established church!

This was challenging enough when we were a new and worshiping in rented space. It is getting even more challenging now that we look, from the outside, like a more established church!

Nonetheless, we were launched to be an Episcopal Mission for those not drawn to established church, and called to do so in a particular place: Orange County North Carolina in the United States of America.

Orange County is in a region called the New South – a region exploding with innovation, education, and technology, with immigrants, newcomers, suburban sprawl, a region with a history of racial tensions, and a socio-economic divide. We are in a University town, a relatively liberal pocket of the New South, which means that Bible Belt Protestant Christianity that dominates the Old South is not the dominant spiritual force in the community around us. Being in a progressive affluent University town also yields some particular issues of justice – affordable housing, care for chronically mentally ill adults, an achievement gap in the schools.

And we were launched in a particular time – the start of the 21st century, and therefore called to be mindful of how 21st century culture, practice and values are different from the culture, practice and values of our 18th, 19th, and 20th century colleagues.

We were launched in September 2003, two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – attacks which raised us all to a new level of awareness of the complexities and realities of diverse powers and cultures and religious passions in the world and to a new level of awareness of our place in the thick of it all.

September 2003, was also three years after the pre-dominantly white, southern Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina elected a black man to be our bishop. Michael B. Curry, who came of age in the south during the Civil Rights era, was shaped by it and preaches from it.

September 2003, was one month after the Episcopal Church voted in its General Convention to approve of the consecration of an openly gay and partnered man to be a Bishop of the Church.

These events, each part of our season of incubation, inform who we are. Add to it the five years we spent worshipping in a synagogue. And it becomes clear that the Advocate is called to find new ways to relate to those of other faiths and identities in this world in which we live, to honor and to model what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “The Dignity of Difference”.

We are called to be an open and inclusive church, bearing witness to the radical hospitality of God, to the assurance that in the Promised Land to which we are being led, all God’s children have a full and equal place at the table.

As a 21st century church, in addition to having a global awareness of church, religion and society, we also understand “outreach” to be based on relationships; we are environmentally conscious at every level of our life and ministry; and we are relatively internet savvy.

There is a certain liberation that comes from “starting a church from scratch”. Unconstrained by local or parochial customs and practices that may have lost their practicality, the Advocate has been free to consider the ancient practices of the Church afresh, and to apply them in our own time and place.

And because we were launched specifically to consider new ways of being church,  it can be said that the Advocate was created to always be new,  to always be listening to what God is calling us to do and be as new people and ideas come into the community year by year.

Things have changed at the Advocate in the past 12 years. Especially in the last 2, since we have been perched on the bricks here by the train tracks! But in the years since 2003, things have changed in the Episcopal Church at large as well.

New prayers, new liturgies, new music, new settings for worship, greater inclusion and global awareness in all these things.

Like the God we worship, neither the Episcopal Church nor the Advocate, at our best, are static, but are rather dynamic. Change, change, change!

But while, as a mission launched in a university town in Orange County North Carolina at the start of the 21st century, we are called to be alert to the changes around us, and to those who might not be drawn to a more established church for whatever the reason. And while we are ever on the look-out for new ways of being an Episcopal church, we need always to be mindful of why church at all: to seek God and a deeper knowledge and love of God, to be at peace with one another, and to do so by being transformed and conformed into the Way of Christ.

This is at the heart of why we do what we do. This is why we are here.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus, forevermore.

Amen.

 

 

Once I Was a Gentile, Now I am Not — A Justine Post Sermon

The following sermon was offered by Justine Post at the Advocate, Sunday, July 19, 2015, Year B, Proper XI

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How quick we are to forget that we are still Gentiles. How quickly we have forgotten that we were once not God’s chosen people. We’ve gotten so accustomed to receiving a faith that has been passed down to us through liturgies, families, the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible… that we have lost a certain kind of orientation- that of the Ephesians. That of outsiders who have been adopted, grafted into the story of God. We don’t remember what its like, to be a people who have not exactly inherited but been given this story as their own. We were once strangers.

This sort of theme isn’t new to us- at different times we’ve felt estranged from God. We can easily recall the words from the famous hymn: I once was lost, but now am found… was blind but now I see. This kind of estrangement is similar but a bit different. We don’t usually sing, “I once was a Gentile and now I’m not….was uncircumcised but now it doesn’t matter.” But nevertheless this is true.

I remember the first time I understood God’s story as an outsider, and it wasn’t through my home Episcopal Church. I first learned that I belonged to a group who was outside the story of God- aliens from the commonwealth of Israel- embarrassingly but truthfully enough through a cartoon. Many or most of you might not get this reference, but at least my parents will…they know how much TV I used to watch. One show was called The Rugrats- a cartoon that portrayed the life of talking babies. The main protagonist’s family was Jewish- and although I didn’t know really what that all meant at the time, they did a special episode on Passover. All the babies played special characters- Moses, Pharaoh, the Israelites, etc. And they must have aired that episode a lot during my childhood…because I remember watching it a lot. I learned more about the story of Moses and his people from this cartoon than I did in church! I knew this story meant something to my faith, but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint it. More than anything I remember having a reverence for that story and the Jewish faith- I knew that in a way that story wasn’t mine. It was that families; it was their people.

Of course in church I did learn that that story mattered to us Christians too. Because we’ve been grafted into this faith, that story matters to us now. But for so long I hadn’t given much thought to being an outsider anymore that I never once considered being a Gentile. So the second time I encountered our alien-ness it was embarrassingly enough not until my second year of seminary, in my theology class. Willie Jennings- a professor/theologian who focuses on the racial formation of the world, colonialism, and how Christianity intersects within- was lecturing to us about the arrival of the first Catholic orders in the New World. In attempting to convert native tribes to Christianity, it didn’t go so well. Not everywhere but with many tribes they used force, sometimes violence, and paid no particular attention to the tribes’ history, beliefs, or rights. In some places violent battles broke out, and many lost their lives.

When I heard that it all struck me as very messy and upsetting. How? How could they have performed all of this violence in the name of God? Jennings’ reply: “They forgot. They forgot that they were Gentiles!” They lost the orientation of stranger, of one who has been humbly adopted into the story of God. Without this orientation, they assumed an entitled disposition. They never considered themselves as ones in need of hospitality. They never considered the bond between land and native people. They understood themselves never as aliens apart from God but as always having been inheritors of the faith. In their minds they were chosen by God, not adopted. This proved to be a dangerous and at times a violent exegesis. Without what Jennings calls a “gentile existence,” anything is permissible. There is no need for the welcoming hand of the other; belonging occurs wherever you go. Everyone’s entitled and assumes they’re in the right. And what’s most troubling: when we forget our former strange-ness, the walls of hostility as mentioned in Ephesians appear to have remained standing. Without a gentile existence, this sense of entitlement leads us away from the Prince of Peace. And it leads us away from unity.

A gentile existence, Jennings suggests, is Ruth-like. As in, “you will be my people and your God will be my God.” This is the disposition, the angle, the orientation we should take in the Christian life. We were once dependent on the radical hospitality of the God of Israel. We were once apart from God’s story. We have graciously been adopted into this faith, and we now have the opportunity to claim the God of Israel- indeed the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- as our God.

We do need to be like Ruth. And if you happen to find yourself feeling proud and entitled as an Episcopalian, maybe you need to attend a confirmation class with Lisa. I remember my first one where she started the class by saying, “The history of the Anglican Church… or Henry XIII just wanted a divorce.” Nothing like those “humble beginnings” to remind us that we truly are brought into God’s story by Grace alone. Through Christ we have somehow been beautifully written into Israel’s history. We are uplifted and taken into a new place. It should humble us. It reminds me of Anne Lamott’s words: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace- only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

We are no longer outsiders, but rather we have now found ourselves in the midst of Christ’s redeeming work. But that doesn’t mean we can forget that we were once outsiders. We’re not outsiders anymore, but we can’t forget that we were. That means we are not center to this story, but rather God is. Isn’t that why we come to church anyways? It reminds us that we aren’t the center, but God is. Our confession, the peace, the table, and even the way we sit remind us that we didn’t really choose to be in this story, but that God graciously brought us in. This place- church- reminds us that in Christ there is true peace, for there is no longer Jew nor Gentile. We are all one.

But what about this wall of hostility? This letter to the Ephesians declares that through the cross, Christ has broken it down. The world does not believe this message- the world has convinced its inhabitants that walls of hostility still exist and they serve a purpose. Sometimes these walls seem to exist, and seem profoundly big: humanity has continued to build them up- walls that exist between races and socioeconomic status, physical and legislative walls that literally keep thousands of men and women separated from society and locked up, walls that appear from years of broken or unattended relationships. I could go on… the walls can feel big and violent. But these “walls” are an affront to God, because through Christ these walls don’t even exist. It looks like the walls exist, but they really don’t exist. It’s confusing I know. But when we the church read a text that proclaims: “Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” we must proclaim that as a reality in the face of hostility in this world. This word to the Ephesians is past tense- not even past tense, past participle! Through the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, both groups have been reconciled. The hard work has been done. These walls continue to appear perhaps because we still don’t know how to live into this new unified humanity.

This new humanity in the place of two. It’s not just new like a new coffee mug or a new shirt. This kind of new is a different Greek word. Kainos is qualitatively different. New as in completely unseen, unheard of, un-invented. Nothing like we’ve seen before. This newness looks like a lot like the Gospel text for today. Even though Jesus and his disciples are tired from their journey and have not had any time to rest, this large group of people- Jews, Gentiles, people from all over- are following him around. Jesus does not deny them but has compassion upon them. Compassion that leads to healing and wholeness that only he can complete. All of the sick who touched his cloak were healed. Here Jesus is offering that radical hospitality that we are so in need of. He brought a newness to all who came to him. This is the chaos of people that has been grafted into one body through Christ. For some reason this story reminds me of what I hear when people are receiving Eucharist: while Jesus is making his way into our lives, some are singing, many are praying, multiple utterances of “body of Christ,” “cup of salvation,” and “amen,” over and over. Every noise during the distribution reminds me that Jesus truly did welcome all. And here we all are, grasping for his cloak.

So we remember It happens every week here: the Eucharist is here telling us- don’t forget! Don’t forget that you were once outside but have been welcomed in. Don’t forget that you are now a part of God’s people. Don’t forget that through the cross of Christ the walls of hostility have been broken down. And we’re allowed to proclaim that! Not just by word but by action. We must live in a way wherein the Spirit breaks into our lives and assures us that yes the walls don’t really exist.

I’m not here to tell you something new. I know through your varied ministries and work throughout this community you all are out living in this newness, pushing back against these non-existent walls. We must continue to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. Remember our former other-ness as we seek unity with those who are un-like us. Remember that God is God and we are not. Continue to trust in the church and it’s sacraments that are given to us. When we pray we should really mean it. When we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit I believe it can lead us into strange friendships, reconciling conversations, and works of justice.

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” We are a family, joined not by our own blood but through the blood of Christ. Acting in this way requires a boldness prompted by the Holy Spirit. So we bid Holy Spirit come. Amen.