Friday, June 12, 2009

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2009

Here Am I, Send Me

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday.
We celebrate the binding together of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Some might prefer Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Whatever language rings true for us,
The message is the same:
this three in one and one in three,
dances together, inseparable.
Priest and writer Herbert O’Driscoll
calls it “the reality, power and ceaseless working”
of God in the world.

Today in our diocese we also celebrate Seminarian Sunday.
The Bishop has asked that our loose plate offering today
Go to a fund that will help our seminarians
with the expenses of their studies.
A good cause.
And one that fits quite nicely with our readings this morning.

All the scripture readings today
remind us of God’s continuing work in the world.
In Isaiah we have a powerful and beautiful vision
of what it is to be called by God.
In Paul’s letter we are told that if we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit
we will be freed from our self-centeredness
And discover what it is to really live.
In John’s Gospel we meet Nicodemus—
an intellectual,
a man with many questions—
and a man with deep spiritual hunger.
Jesus is not afraid of questions—
especially from those who are struggling
to find their way in the dark.

It is easy to think that God only uses some of us.
Only some are called to the priesthood.
Only some are intellectuals struggling with theology.
Only some are worthy of God’s call.
God only wants and needs some of us.

Wrong. So wrong.
God needs all of us.

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
And I said, “Here I am, send me!”

Here I am. Send me.

Those are the words God longs to hear us say.

I want to tell you a true story that I read in the magazine Christianity Today:

Marion Mill was born in a fairy tale royal palace in Hungary.
Her first spoon was sold gold. Truly. Solid gold.

Her parents sent her to school in Vienna
Where she became an actress.
There she met and fell in love
with a young medical student named Otto.

Otto and Marion married and moved to Hollywood, California.
Otto began to dabble in movies.

He became so interested in movies
that he gave up his medical practice.
Otto went on to become a very famous movie director.
Otto Preminger.

Marion's beauty, her wit, and her irresistible charm
brought her everything. All her heart’s desires.
In Europe, New York and
Hollywood she became a famous international hostess.

But there was a problem.
Marion could not handle the fast life of Hollywood.
Her life became a storm of alcohol, drugs and numerous affairs.
Her life and her lifestyle sank into complete chaos,
even by Hollywood standards.
Otto Preminger finally divorced Marion.
She had several other unsuccessful marriages.
She tried to take her own life three times—unsuccessfully.
Finally she moved back to Vienna.

There at a party she met another doctor,
a doctor named Albert Schweitzer,
the well-known medical doctor,
musician, philosopher, theologian
and missionary.

Schweitzer was home on leave from his hospital
in Lambarene, Africa.

Marion was so fascinated by Schweitzer,
that she asked him if she could talk to him alone,
and he said yes.

For almost six months, every week,
she met with Dr. Albert Schweitzer.
At the end of that time he was going to go back to Africa,
and Marion begged him to let her go with him.

Schweitzer surprised everyone by agreeing.
Marion, the young princess, who was born in a palace,
Marion who had royally messed up a marriage
and a life of fame and privilege,
went to live in a little village
in Lambarene, Africa.

She spent much of the rest of her life
emptying bed pans
and tearing up sheets to make bandages
caring for on those
who were the poorest and most unprivileged.
She also raised money to support Schweitzer’s work in Africa.

Marion Mill Preminger grew up a spoiled, self-centered little girl
and became an equally spoiled self-centered woman.

But just as Nicodemus went in the night to Jesus
to try to understand what it means to be “born again,”
to have a life in God.
So Marion Preminger went to Albert Schweitzer,
to try to understand
what it was that gives life meaning.

She wrote her autobiography.
I love the title of it---All I Want is Everything.

When she died, Time Magazine quoted from her autobiography these words:

"Albert Schweitzer says there are two kinds of people.
There are the helpers, and the non-helpers.
I thank God He allowed me to become a helper,
and in helping, I found

Helpers and non-helpers.
We choose.

God has a standing invitation open to all of us— to each one of us—
to come and be a part of God’s work in the world.

We make many excuses—
I’m too old, I’m too young,
I’m too poor, I’m too busy,
I’m too sick, I’m too unappreciated…
many, many excuses.

But excuses are just another way
of saying that we choose to be a non-helper.
We choose to say NO to God’s invitation.

We choose.

We all cannot go to Africa as a missionary.
Or even as a missionary’s helper.
But all it takes is one brief glance around us in the world
to find something we can do.
If not in the wide world,
in our community or in our church or in our school,
in our workplace or in our own family.

We can make a difference—
IF we are willing.
IF we are willing to say YES,
and join in the immense, diverse and amazing work of God.

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
Here I am.
Send me.

Send me.
Send me.

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost 2009

Everywhere we look

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost.
I think you might have had a slight clue
that this was not your ordinary Sunday.
Red streamers fly outside the church.
Brightly colored balloons decorate the inside of the church.
Today is a party—a celebration.
The birth day of the Church.

Doves and red streamers followed the choir in the procession.
Our music—WOW!
Our wonderful music has a distinct liveliness to it this morning.

There is fire—red candles—ablaze in the windows.
The final day for our Paschal Candle.
The Holy Spirit burns brightly and steadily,
shining light into all the dark places.

There is this new painting by Penelope Carscaddon
with its vivid colors.
You can see the flames of fire, the spirit descending
upon three figures
and even though we see only the backs of their heads
adorned in their bright and colorful turbans--
it is easy to imagine their faces—
transfixed, transformed, joyful.

Or maybe those three figures in the painting
are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit--
and they have just ignited this marvelous celebration
and are just watching it all happen, unfold.

That is the magnificent thing about art—
it invites our imaginations,
Art kindles its own fire within us.

Look up! There is a wild assortment of wildness flying over head today—
Bats and doves and wild geese and a red bird—
all symbols of the Spirit.
And there is wind (cue ceiling fans) rushing through.

And you! Look at all of you!
You are a beautiful sea of red today.
You are wearing doves upon your shoulder.

Everywhere we look today—this Feast Day of Pentecost—
there are signs and symbols of the Holy Spirit.
Today we can visibly “see” the Spirit.
We are surrounded by an abundance of reminders.
The Holy Spirit is everywhere,
all the time,
in every place.

Today it is so easy to see the Spirit.
But this is not always true.
Sometimes we struggle to see the Spirit.
To see God acting in the world,
in our lives.

Tom and I watched an interesting film this week called “Frozen River.”
It is worth renting on DVD—but be aware,
It is not a happy, snappy feel-good sort of film.

The film takes place in the days before Christmas
in a snowy town
on the border between New York State and Quebec, Canada.
There is Mohawk reservation on both sides of the border.

This film is the story of two women, two families—one white, one Mohawk.
They seemingly have nothing in common.

But they are both faced with desperate circumstances.
Their lives are barely held together as they try to survive
on minimum wage as single mothers.

Lila Littlewolf is the Mohawk mother. Her husband is dead.
Lila works—sometimes-- at the bingo parlor on the reservation.

Ray Eddy, the white mother, works at the Yankee Dollar Store
but even though she has faithfully worked there for two years
She can’t get full time hours much less benefits.

Ray Eddy’s husband is a compulsive gambler.
He has wiped out their bank account and left on a bus for Atlantic City.
When Ray Eddy tries to reassure her oldest son that “your father is a good man”—
The son looks at her and bluntly says,
“Mom. He robbed us. He took all our money.
He left us a week before Christmas.”
Left with nothing.

Both women live in trailers that are barely livable housing.
Their lives are cold—inside and out.
Their realities are harsh.
Where is the Holy Spirit in their lives?

You see there is temptation.
The lure of fast money--
if you are willing to make the treacherous drive
across the frozen St. Lawrence River---
not on a bridge or a road
but driving on the frozen river itself--
across the border from New York into Quebec---
and smuggle in illegal immigrants
in the trunk of your car.
Who would ever consider such a treacherous journey?
Who would ever take such a risk?
People who are desperate to support their families.

Ray Eddy has a car with a big trunk
and Lila knows the smuggling contacts.

But as they transverse the frozen river a thawing begins to happen.
Not just of the St. Lawrence--
but of the frozen river of their own lives.
The love they have for their children begins to bind them together—
in ways even they cannot see at first.
Even though these women have made some terrible choices,
the Spirit works to bring healing out of hurt,
good out of bad,
joy out of tragedy.
Rent the film.

Our lives, too, are often like frozen rivers.
We fear vulnerability.
We fear trusting one another.
We fear trusting God.
We surround our lives and our souls
with a nice thick layer of ice so no one can come in.

Not even God.
Or so we think.

But things happen in life.
Grace happens.
The Holy Spirit has a way of finding even the hairline crack in our ice.
Love—God’s true fire--begins to melt the ice.
From the outside and from the inside.
The ice is changed to water, living water.

Today—the Feast of Pentecost—reminds us
that the Holy Spirit is everywhere.

Our children and youth have created these wild flying things to remind us.
Sometimes the Spirit arrives like a dove.
The dove that descended upon Jesus at his baptism.
The dove reminds us that we are God’s beloved,
That God could have chosen otherwise,
That others may tell us God chooses otherwise,
But the truth is this:
God is love and that we are deeply loved by God.
Every single one of us.

Now the wild goose is a Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit.
Most of us have at least a little experience with wild geese—
They come flapping and honking and land upon your pond,
In your life,
That is the Holy Spirit, noisily arriving,
right when you never expected.
A wild goose takes over.

A friend in Scotland told me that an American once commented to him
That the image of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose
would not work in America.
When he asked why,
She explained that people sometimes shoot at wild geese,
That wild geese are considered by many as a pest.

Ah! But that’s perfect he exclaimed.
(Not the shooting part—the pest part!)
The Holy Spirit is a pest, too!
The Spirit will indeed pester you
until you can’t eat or sleep or do anything but pay attention.
That little pest—the Spirit-- has a big way of getting your attention.

Then there’s the bat.
Bats were used as symbols of the Holy Spirit by certain medieval painters.
The bat swoops in and that swoop—especially in the dark of night—
is often the flight pattern of the Spirit.
Just when we think there is no hope,
just when we think we will be left in darkness forever---woosh!
The Holy Spirit—in perhaps just a small quick swoop—
changes everything.

Then there is the red bird, the cardinal.
Such an ordinary bird.
Many of us see it every day sitting on a tree branch, pecking in the grass.
The Spirit works in our lives in ordinary everyday ways,too.
Tiny little ways that are right before our eyes every single day.

Remember these symbols.
Remember that the Spirit is a-blaze in your life.
Remember that the Spirit is alive with color and meaning in our world.

When we leave and go home today
We will leave most of these symbols behind.

We may not have a dove with red streamers tied to our car bumper.
We may not find our house filled with red balloons.
We may go to work on Monday and find that our co-workers
Are not wearing bright, colorful turbans.
We may not hear “We are marching in the light of God”
when we turn on the car radio.

But it doesn’t matter what the eyes see or what the ears hear.
If we look and listen with our hearts
We will discover the deeper truth.
We will find the Spirit is alive and well
and at work in the world and in our own lives.

Sometimes we miss that.
We miss it because the Spirit acts in God’s time,
not ours.
The Spirit works in God’s ways,
not ours.

We don’t much like that
because we can’t control it.
We can’t schedule an appointment with the Holy Spirit
in our Blackberry or iPhone
or even on our wall calendar.
3 to 3:45—Holy Spirit
Nope. That is not the way it works.

But it’s not because the Holy Spirit refuses to keep an appointment—
it’s because the Spirit is always present.
No appointment necessary.
Walk-ins welcome

God is everywhere.
Always present.
Always moving to thaw the frozen river.

One more thing—
Today at the end of the service
for this Feast day of Pentecost—
when I say to you
Alleluia! Alleluia! Let us give thanks for the power of the Spirit!
It is fine to respond,
in your usual way,
Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Alleluia!

But then--for this Feast Day—
as you head over to the Parish Hall for our festive lunch--
it is fine to honk loudly like a wild goose
or to swoop like a bat
or chirp like a cardinal
or even coo like a dove.
Whatever it takes,
whatever it takes to remember—
to remember
the power of the Holy Spirit!

Sermon for Year B Easter 7

Matthias is Us

We stand in an in-between time today.
It has been weeks since Mary Magdalene and the other disciples
discovered the empty tomb.
Jesus has been crucified, suffered death and resurrected.
And now Jesus is gone.
Ascended into heaven scripture tells us.
Seated at the right hand of the Father we say in the creed.

However we read it
the fact is
Jesus no longer is of this world.
He has promised to send help and comfort—and advocate.
We will hear that story next weekend with Pentecost.

But for now---the disciples are on their own.
They are no longer hiding behind locked doors.
They are speaking and acting and sharing the good news.

But the event we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles today
Is not really a public event.
Peter is speaking to a small crowd of believers—about 120 we are told.
That is almost double the size of our congregation here at St. John’s.

Peter wants to bring healing.
The betrayal by their friend Judas
and his suicide that followed
rests heavy on their hearts—
and on their ministry.

So Peter who always likes to fix things
Wants to “replace” Judas so to speak,
To fill his “slot”,
To restore make the circle of leaders to twelve people.

Perhaps because Jesus chose 12 leaders—
it is a way to honor his memory.
Perhaps because the number 12 reminds the apostles of their linkage
to the 12 tribes of Israel,
to their history, their roots as a chosen people of God.
Perhaps is simply a way to have a fresh start—
to begin again and go forward.

Two men are proposed for the one position.
There is Joseph called Barsabbas
(not to be confused with the criminal Barrabbas)—
So they tell us it is Barsabbas who was also known as Justus.
And then there is Matthias.

They have a very simple election procedure.
They pray and then they cast lots, essentially throw a dice to choose.

The lot falls on Matthias
And he joins the circle of apostles as the new 12th member.

We know nothing about either of these two men, Justus and Matthias,
who were proposed, nominated.

Even Matthias, who was selected, is a mystery to us today.
After these verses in Acts,
There is not one other word about Matthias in scripture.
Not one word, not one deed, nothing.
Matthias the one selected is as unknown as Justus who was not selected.

What we do know is that the other apostles set up some criteria
for whom could be proposed.

Both of these people—Justus and Matthias---
have been with the group from its earliest days—
from the baptism of John until the day of Jesus’ ascension.
Both of these people were witnesses to the resurrection.
Both of these people have been through the joy of knowing Jesus personally
and the horror of his trial and death.
And then joy again when Jesus was resurrected and came back among them.

We can infer that both Justus and Matthias were faithful people,
steadfast, willing to stick around
through the good, the bad and the ugly.
We can infer that they are both people of hope.

Matthias is chosen to complete the circle of 12.
But after that Matthias remains somewhat invisible.
We don’t know what he did, what he said, how he lived or how he died.
We just know he was a faithful man.
The other 11 apostles would say he was a faithful man chosen by God.

I have been thinking about Matthias all this week.
I have been away on a retreat with a small group of friends
that I have known for almost 10 years.
We began our seminary studies together in the year 2000.
We became part of a study group
which evolved into a prayer group.
We met at least once a week for our three years in seminary.
We talk once a month on a conference call
and we go away on retreat together once a year.
We love one another
And we hold one another accountable in our spiritual lives
and in our priesthood.

On the retreat we pray, we worship, we do Bible study,
we share our spiritual journeys—
our personal journeys
and our priestly journeys.

We are a diverse group in age and geography
and we serve God in a variety of ways—
as parish priests, as missioners,
as staff of the National Episcopal Church,
as supply clergy.
I think we are good people
and we are doing good work in the church. At least we are trying.
None of us are famous.
There is—at least not yet—no Desmond Tutu or Kathryn Jefferts-Schori
or Julian of Norwich or St. John among us.
We are all very ordinary people.

Faithful—in love with God and in love with Jesus
and very much in love with the people we serve among and with—
but unlikely to be remembered in the written history of the church.
We are Matthiases.

I don’t want to discount anyone’s possibility of religious fame,
but most of you, most of us,
can resonate deeply with Justus and Matthias.

When Jesus prays to God in John’s gospel today
he gives thanks for those God gave to him to love and to serve—
They were yours and you gave them to me
and they have kept your word.

We live in a world that is often obsessed with fame and success and stardom.
But what we hear in the gospel
is thanksgiving for those faithful witnesses
that we bump into every day—
thanksgiving for those that go out into the world day after day
and do their best, try their hardest to keep God’s word--
to live a faithful and holy life—
not just within the walls of their parish,
but within the walls of the world.

On the table here at the chancel step
is our parish register.
Every person who is baptized, confirmed, transfers their membership,
is married, or buried
here at St. John’s--
their names are written in the parish register.
I like that.
I certainly didn’t invent the Parish Register
—keeping this register is part of the canon laws
of the Episcopal church—
but I really like it.
This books holds the faithful cloud of witnesses
that have worshipped here, served here, struggled here,
prayed here,
and done all the tasks that you and I do now—
the preaching, the teaching, the cleaning,
the mowing, the cooking, the singing,
the worrying over and hoping for the future,
the loving one another--

All the faithful Matthiases of St. John’s in Haw Creek,
here in the city of Asheville,
their names are here.

Many of us might look at this book of names and recognize very few.
Many of us might look through the parish register
and be flooded with memories of the saints of God—
those we love but see no longer.

I like that our name is written in the register of a church.
It may be our one and only bookmarked place in the history of God’s people
but it is a very fine one.
Our names are written down
to indicate that we tried our best—right here in this world—
to be a faithful witness of God’s love.

God knows us each by name.
Each one of us matters to God.
No matter how long it takes us to figure that out.
Whether we have been carried in these doors as an infant
or whether we found our way here as a seasoned adult.

God has been waiting.
God has been calling us by name
since we were formed in the womb.

God does not call us to be famous or successful or wealthy.
Sometimes that does happen in the course of one’s life.
Sometimes it does not.
Our achievements in the world
are not what God looks upon.
God looks upon our hearts.

God sent Jesus into the world
to show us what love looks like in human form.
Just in case we might need a visual aid…

For all our many imperfections,
we are still God’s holy people.
We are loved
We are called to love others.

We are invited to join the great cloud of witnesses
whose names are not only written in this parish register
But more importantly and most profoundly
Those names—our names—
are written on the very heart of God.