Monday, May 27, 2013

Spirit and Relationship: sermons for Pentecost and Trinity

Trinity  May 26, 2013
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

The book of Proverbs, the scholars tell us, is divided into two kinds of writing. It is a series of lectures, interspersed with a series of interludes.

The lectures are what you expect to come from the kind of Wisdom Literature entitled “Proverbs.” They are the kinds of sayings a parent would give to a child: advice about how to live, how to prosper, how to be a good person. Practical. Time-honored.

In the interludes, however, we see a different kind of Wisdom. This is the Wisdom of the big picture. This Wisdom was around when God created the world; indeed, this Wisdom played in front of God while God created everything. Yes, that word is right there in the text. The Hebrew term which in our lesson today reads “like a master worker” could also be translated as “like a little child.”

Think of how this ambiguity allows both ideas to be true at the same time. To think of Wisdom as the “master worker” shows us "Wisdom as God’s helpmeet in creation, a craftsperson who assists God in the formation of the world."[1]

On the other hand, to think of Wisdom as a playing child, “reflects the delight that God takes in Wisdom, and that Wisdom takes in humanity.”[2] Among the people I think are wise are the Biblical scholars who can dig into a word, and find so much meaning there. Listen to this:

The ambiguity of the translation … allows both understandings to operate together, depicting Wisdom as the formative power of God’s delight. … Wisdom “is a beneficent, right-ordering power in whom God delights and by whom God creates; her constant effort is to lure human beings into life.”[3] Wisdom is the creative power of God that is embedded in the world; each created thing, and the creation as a whole, speaks of the Wisdom of God at its foundation.[4]

This dual understanding of Wisdom in Proverbs really tells us something about the nature of God, something humans are always trying to figure out. God in the Hebrew Bible is very active. God wants us to live a certain way, to behave, yes, but also to prosper, to delight, to have fun, to create. If we are made in the image of God, that also must mean we reflect HOW God is, and in Proverbs, God delights in the work of creation. Indeed, the work of creation is play, it is beauty, it is joyful. And if the nature of God is Wisdom, then this Wisdom of God is played out in the public square, in social and economic activity. It is not just about a “religious” activity. It is about life: how you live AND how you make a living. Who you are AND how you relate to the people around you. How you put bread on the table and a roof over your head AND how you make that bread and that roof into the beautiful things which would delight God.

You are right, also, if you hear echoes from the Prologue of the Gospel of John in how Wisdom describes
herself. The Wisdom of Proverbs becomes the Word of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was in God.” As the early Christians were wrestling with what their experience of God meant to them, they reached back, of course, into their own tradition for images and explanations, and here was Wisdom, right there at creation, co-present, co-eternal, and very active, drawing all of humanity and of the whole created world into a loving relationship with God. It is that very dynamic relationship right at the heart of God, at the beginning of creation, that is the Trinity: God in three persons, delighting, playing, creating, loving, and pulling us along into that dance of joy and delight.

With such an awareness of God, and of what God wants for us, how can we help but be grateful? To want to give back? To fall all over ourselves to share in this delightful abundance? We have many ways to do this.

Did not our hearts stop last week when we heard about the tornado in Oklahoma? I know that every week, every day, every minute, there are people around the world crying out for help in the midst of pain and disaster – and yes, we can help any and all of these deserving brothers and sisters. But there are times when we stop, and focus our prayers and concerns in one terrible place. Today, if you are moved and able, we can send our own prayers and donations to the people rebuilding their lives and their communities torn apart
by tornados. We will send all our offerings today, that are not part of our pledges to St. David’s, to Episcopal Relief and Development, who will put them where they are most needed.

And next week is our ingathering for the United Thank Offering. It is the Blue Box into which all our prayers and thanksgivings go. The money collected in those Blue Boxes makes a difference in the lives of thousands of people each year, through the Episcopal Church here in the US and overseas.

Wisdom draws us out of ourselves, out of our private reveries into the crossroads of life, to the gates of community, to the highways and byways. Wisdom calls us to take everything we have, from the Celebration of the Arts to the change in our pockets and give it in service to God’s world. You know that God delights in our generosity. God does a dance every time we give something away.

[1] Elizabeth Webb, ”What is the connection between wisdom and joy?
[2] Ibid.
[3] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996).. 88.
[4] Webb, Op. Cit.

Pentecost        May 19, 2013

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104
Romans 8:14-17
John 14: 8-17, 24-25

Pentecost. It’s 50 days: fifty days since Easter. Pentecost is also a Jewish feast, commemorating the 50 days it took the Israelites to get from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where they heard the law – when Moses gave them the 10 Commandments. In the Acts of the Apostles, all the disciples were in one place to celebrate this Jewish feast of the giving of the law, to give thanks for the great freedom and blessing it brought them. They were not expecting this to be the “birthday of the church.” They were not expecting tongues of fire, a proliferation of languages, a mighty wind or ecstatic revelation. They were there to celebrate the giving of the law.

Now there is a story about the giving of the law – another version of this oft-told story of the Ten Commandments (without Charlton Heston). The rabbis say “that at Sinai all Israel heard the Ten Commandments, because the voice of God was divided into seven voices, and then went into seventy tongues so that all heard the law in their own language.”[i] Could this Pentecost of the Spirit, experienced by people who knew Jesus, be then an extension of that multi-tongued Sinai? Is this Pentecost a new life-giving law, a new way by which God establishes a new relationship with us? Is this a Sinai exploded beyond all expectations? A shattering of those old stone tablets in a great whoosh of fire and wind, each of us with a direct experience of God – in our own, intimate language, the language with which our mothers spoke to us in our cradles – and yet also a communal experience of God, each of us understanding God in exactly the same way?

With Pentecost, we go into warp speed – like on Star Trek, or in Star Wars, when Han Solo finally gets that old Millennium Falcon up and running and the galaxies streak by us like so many beams of light. St. Paul understood that Pentecostal Spirit – “all who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” No matter how we got here, we’re all here now, we’re all different but we are all together, each of us indispensable to this new life-giving, Spirit-filled law that has blown in from the desert.

This story from the Acts of the Apostles is about the world as we know it blowing apart in an ecstatic, joyful, creative way. Things catch on fire because this new thing is coming into being. This Pentecost is a chaos of hope.

The world, however, seems all chaos and little hope: it’s tornado season again, with whole communities being blown apart. The latest reports on global warming reveal CO2 levels something like 400x higher than what in our lifetimes was normal. Bombs explode on streets we have walked down. Even the IRS is caught up in a scandal. How much more can we stand? Where are the tongues of fire that can show us out of this mess?

In such times, we need to hear the Pentecost story more than ever, as a reminder of what IS possible in a world gone mad. On Mt. Sinai, the law gave direction to a people lost in the desert, wandering and aimless. The law gave them a purpose, a relationship with God, a set of rules about how to behave with each other. The powerful message of this Pentecost story is that not only does God have the last word, but God is The Word – and a Word that each of us can understand. We can make a mess of things, but God’s fiery and ferocious wind can wipe it all away:

Though humans crucify, God resurrects. Though humans divide and dominate, God communicates. God has the last word, and the word is wild. It changes everything. It rebuilds broken community. It breaks boundaries and enlarges the house. It makes possible understanding where before there was not understanding.[ii]

Our Pentecost prayer is “Veni Sancte Spiritus” -- “Come, Holy Spirit.” Guide us. Show us the way. Give us a clue about this chaotic, fractured, embittered world. Enlighten our blessings. Show us what to do, for life in this world is no longer as clear-cut as it was up there on Mt. Sinai. Give us the new vision we need to face the problems of today, to dream the dreams of the world as you would have it be.

[i] Carl A. Volz, from Word and World (Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, 1990)
[ii] Nancy Sawyer, “Blogging Toward Sunday,” The Christian Century (

Monday, May 13, 2013

God at the intersection of art and justice

The Celebration of the Arts at St. David's is a remarkable event. For 43 years this parish church has turned itself inside out to welcome local artists and art appreciators. God's mission has a church, Bishop Ian Douglas often reminds us. The piece of God's mission that this church takes on is to identify the divine in the creative process, to connect art and justice, to be a place where the stories of the people of this community can be told in music, poetry, painting and sculpture. Two sermons here, from the 6th and 7th Sundays of Easter, that reflect on that piece of God's mission.

Easter 7 C; May 12, 2013
Acts 1:4-11; Psalm 47; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21; John 17:20-26

This Lion and this Dragon are replicas from the parish church in a small town in Essex, England. When Conrad Noel went to Thaxted, in the early 20th century, he went there to develop what he called the Catholic Crusade: a movement to make the church into the embodiment of the kingdom of God on earth – to be the herald, the vanguard, to make this earth as beautiful as heaven – with music, with art, with color, with dancing, with processions which gathered up all bystanders in joyful party.

And that party, for Noel, always began in church, with the sacraments, with

… the common meal, the bread and wine joyously shared among [the] people… The Lord thus chose the human things of everyday life, [Noel wrote,] the useful bread and genial wine, to be the perpetual vehicles of his presence among us till his Kingdom should come on earth as in heaven.[i]

So apt, then for this second Sunday of the Celebration of the Arts. Noel would endorse such a Celebration as we have here: the church turned inside out to show the works of people’s hands and hearts and voices. The beauty we see and hear reflects the beauty of God – God, Noel wrote, who was

… the maker of the sense of wonder, justice, love and worship; of the sense of color which delights in the flowers, pictures, sunrises and gay fabrics … of the sense of smell which rejoices in roses and frankincense; of the sense of hearing which responds to poetry and music.

All of this beauty, Noel would say, starts in the church, in this place of community and communion, of bread and wine and fellowship. The church is the community of the ascended Lord, this Lion who rules the earth, this Jesus who shares our human nature, now taken with him into heaven.

Yet if all this beauty stopped here, if we hoarded it only for ourselves, it would be corrupt and perverted. It is like that tempting and beautiful leviathan, that serpent, that dragon. Noel points out that for God, beauty is always connected to justice. Not only are there sufficient material goods to go around – indeed, the benefits of God’s commonwealth are for all of God’s people – but with that living wage goes a living beauty, and embodies a living hope: that the imperfections of the world, where want, greed, death and destruction threaten God’s creation, will be transformed, and the dream of God fulfilled.

We commemorate the Ascension of Our Lord every year, but every year it means something new. Some established order we thought was there forever is changed, gone, displaced – what we that was impermeable is now, we see, transformed into something new. At the Friday night performance, someone asked the new artistic director of the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company what had happened to that community group since it lost its performance space, and what had called him to work to revive it. “The Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company was formed in 1982,” he said, “And it’s no longer 1982.” This company which was founded to give a voice and a stage to African American playwrights
and performers found itself in a world where the best and the brightest of those playwrights and performers could achieve great heights on any stage. But there are still stories needing to be told – not the same stories that were told in 1982, and not necessarily stories that will “sell” in the way that commercial theater has to “sell” in order to stay in business. These are stories that are worth far more than that, Ryan Johnson-Travis told us on Friday night. These are the stories of our community today, a multi-cultural community, a community where people embody gender and sexuality in different ways, a whole community, not only of the “south side” or “the 16th ward” but of the suburbs and the University and the immigrant north side. These are stories of hope, of a new reality, of the dragon of despair and alluring nostalgia trampled under foot.

We’ve done a lot of new things with the Celebration of the Arts this year, and there are more new things to come. Just as the Robeson company discovered it was no longer 1982, we can readily see that it is no longer 1970. Forty-three years is a glorious run, but “what we’ve always done” can get in the way of seeing what is going on around us now, can get in the way of hearing new voices, new stories, new music – can prevent us from welcoming the new people who embody the dream of God today.

Every Ascensiontide, we are given a choice. As the disciples watch Jesus ascend into heaven, no doubt mouths agape and eyes incredulous, two men in white robes ask them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” That’s our choice: do we stand there forever, feet rooted, necks craned, lost in the glorious and beautiful past of the days Jesus was with us? Or do we become Apostles, walking out into this new world, this wild and different and multi-cultural and multi-lingual and complicated and beautiful world, with our useful bread and genial wine, and share with everyone what God has dreamed this world could be?

[i] Conrad Noel, from archival papers, quoted by Kenneth Leech in “Some Light from the Noel Archives.” Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade: A Critical Evaluation, ed. by Kenneth Leech (London: The Jubilee Group, 1993)

Easter 6C          May 5, 2013
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10,22-22:5
John 14:23-29

Even here, in this suburban garden of prayer, we sit by a river. It is a small river, yes – the fountain in the Memorial Garden – but it is the river to us. The river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God, surrounded by trees and blossoms and fruit.

In our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we see Paul and his friends in a strange city, and as they look for a place to pray, they come to the side of the river, to the springs of the water of life. It could be any river, in any city or town – and there they find a place of prayer.

A synagogue, for faithful Jews, is a gathering of ten men – ten Jewish men. A Minyan. But look: the place that Paul and his friends find is a place where women gather for prayer – all kinds of women. “All kinds of women” were certainly not the people with whom Paul and his friends would have gathered for prayer in their former lives.

But this is, of course, not their former lives at all. These are the early days of their transformed lives, when the reality of what Jesus risen from the dead is just beginning to be understood. The roof has been blown off the synagogue. All bets are off. The invitations have gone out far and wide, and people, all kinds of people, women, even, are believing that even they are welcome to sit and pray and worship God by the river of the water of life.

Sharon Bottle Souva's
wall quilt in the
Celebration of the arts
We read about Lydia because she is an exemplary Christian: she is the person of faith we should aspire to emulate. She is open to God. She listens to the preaching and teaching of the Good News, and it makes sense to her. She knows it will make her life better. As soon as she opens her heart, she also opens her home. From faith flows hospitality. From the awareness of the abundance of God’s gifts and God’s grace comes this primal response: “Come to my house. Stay at my home. Eat at my table. Let me give to you some of the good things that God has given me.”

Lydia also must have very good taste. She is a dealer in fabrics, rich, beautiful, expensive fabrics. The fabrics of which Kings make their garments. Lydia is a woman of the world, an independent entrepreneur, no doubt an artist in her own right, a woman who recognizes good goods when she sees them. Lydia would be delighted to come to the Celebration of the Arts. Lydia’s favorite 20th century novel would be The Color Purple, and her favorite character would be Shug Avery, the woman who says, “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.” The color purple that is the color of God’s glory. The color purple that is there for everyone to see. The color purple which comes from the plants which grow by the side of the river of the water of life. The color purple, bright as crystal, that flows from the throne of God.

Almost better than any other poet in the English language, George Herbert expresses the human desire to worship and delight in the beauty of God. God’s beauty is all around us, in the people we love and who love us, in art, in music, in language. We see God’s beauty when dismal neighborhoods are transformed into livable communities. We see God’s beauty when the hungry are fed and the desperate are cared for and when the prisoners are set free. We see God’s beauty when the sick person is made whole and when the abundance of God’s riches are spread among all who need them.

George Herbert was, more or less, a high church Anglican in the century when there was some tension between those who thought the Church of English should maintain some of its historic connections with medieval Catholicism, and those who thought the church should be pure, stripped bare of artifice and pretension and privilege. Herbert died in 1630, and in 1640 the Puritans won the English Civil War. The high churchmen, aristocratic or not, were thrown out, and the plain Word of God reigned.

But I think it is a mistake to think Puritan Calvinists were dry as dust. The great reformer John Calvin rooted his theology, much as George Herbert did, in the glory of God, and in the joyful duty of each believer to bask in that glory and beauty. But yes, the Puritan reformers were concerned with lots of things – political things, powerful things – and George Herbert, as we see in these poems we are singing and listening to today, gave up power and politics to sit in a garden like this, to listen to river of the water of life, and to write down all he heard and saw and smelled and tasted. The beauty of God filled his heart. The music of God filled his ears.

God has given all of us all of these things. The roof has blown open and all bets are off. It is time to take all that we have, and give it all away.