Jesus and the Saints

All Saints’ Sunday
3 November 2019

Today’s readings are:
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Click here to access these readings.

            Today is not All Saints’ Day. Yes, today’s liturgical color is white, and, this morning, during out prayers, we’ll be reading the names of those who have gone before us, but today isn’t All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day in on November 1st, so Friday, the day after Halloween. But there are certain, few days in our calendar that are so important that we can move them around. And on those years when All Saints’ Day doesn’t fall on a Sunday, then voop, we can move it. It’s called a “movable feast.”

            Now, this is all to say that this particular feast day is pretty important. The day has roots far back into Christian history. During the early church, Christians kept the anniversaries of martyrs who had died for their faith. And for a while, this was just fine: they remembered the apostles, those who had helped spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, and perhaps a few local saints who had seemed, even in this life, so close to God. But then came some hard times, and Christians were pretty harshly persecuted. Many were put to death. Some of their names were remembered, but many, many weren’t. And so there was a need in the early Church to remember these martyrs, to remember those whose names were known and those who were unknown. The date of this feast bounced around for a while, but eventually, here in the Western Church, it fell to November 1st. And we Anglicans keep this day, to remember.

            Now, when we talk about saints in the Anglican Communion, we talk about all of those who have died in Christ, be they those whose faith is well-known or those whose faith is known to God alone. Normally in our culture, the word “saint” refers to those big names: St. Paul and St. Mary, Jesus’ mother, to the apostles and the authors of the gospels, and then to those big, important figures throughout history who made Christ so very real and present to those around them, people like St. Francis or St. Benedict. Churches are named after these folks, as we see with our own St. James. Saints, in this use of the word, are larger than life. They’re people who we might aspire to or look up to. They’re guides on the Path to God.

            And that’s fine. It’s good to have guides, because the Christian life isn’t always a cake-walk. But the Biblical use of the word ‘saint’, and the way Anglicans generally use it, is to refer to just plain Christians. “All ya’ll”, as my friends in the south say. When St. Paul writes to the saints in Corinth or in Rome, he’s not writing to just John over there or Phoebe in the back, but no one else ‘cause you’re all not good enough to be called saints. No, he’s talking to all of them, to each and every one who is a follower of Christ, to those who have given themselves up to the God’s Love and Grace and Hope for us in Jesus Christ.

            And all this says something very important about Christianity. For it’s easy to look at the saints and think that they’re somehow better than use, or deeper into God’s love, than anyone else. Saints who have stared ravaging lions in the eye and not been shaken, who have been rich and given up everything they own, even their shirt of their own back, and walked away, people who have struggled through hatred and anger and resentment just to in the hope of God – these people can seem like they’re not just people, but giants, and we might ask in our weakness, “Who am I in the face of such dedication and faith in the Lord?”

            But that’s not where God begins. That’s not what God sees when he looks at us. God starts in love. God’s love isn’t an achievement that we can win, as if we were running a race, and the saints aren’t Olympic athletes who we have to beat in order to get into Heaven. The saints are more like a dinner bell, rung out on the front porch, calling everyone home to dinner, and it’s a feast! The saints are like the sound and smell of the ocean before you come in sight of it. The saints are the cold days of autumn that, no matter how grim or dark, remind us that soon it will be Christmas again, and that once again lights will shine out in the darkness.

            And on this day in the church calendar, we don’t remember just those saints who seem larger than life, but those saints who we have known in our own lives. We remember those on our prayer list that we’ll read in just a few minutes, those loved ones who have entered into the true and final glory of God. It’s often difficult to think of these people, no matter how much we loved them, as saints. We’ve lived with them, we’ve seen their joys and their graces, but also their failings. We’ve often fought with them, argued with them, or gone to sleep frustrated with them. But they are saints nevertheless, for it is not our failings but Jesus’ love that speaks to our salvation.

            And it is this, this love of Jesus Christ, that is more than any of us. It is a love that can move mountains, that can heal a heart broken and beset with sin, that can calm the storms of grief and despair just as he calmed the storms out on the sea. And those saints who are out there, ringing their bells as loudly as they can, calling us all home to dinner, they’re calling us to a feast that will never end, with dishes full of Joy and Love and Salvation. This Love of Jesus, this Love of God Almighty, is Life Eternal. It is more than any of us, and it is handed to us freely by Jesus himself.

            And so when we turn to these names in a few minutes, we turn to those who have entered into True Joy. And that doesn’t mean, of course, that there won’t be some grief. Losing someone is never easy, and gulf that separates us from the dead can seem so wide that nothing could hope to cross it. But that is why we come together as a Church to remember them – not just as they were here in this life but as they are now in the fullness and glory of God’s Life. And know that they are now praying for you, that the Love of God comes to rest fully in your heart, so that in all the life you live, from this day until the day you too pass into that same Glory, that you walk the way of Jesus, speak the way of love, and live the life that can cross any chasm and the light that can pierce any darkness.

 

God, Creation, and the Animals

Blessing of the Animals
Genesis 1:24-31
Psalm 148:7-14
Matthew 11:25-30

        I have a lot of books about ministry, and none of them tell me how to bless a animal.  None of them.  I’ve got the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve got the Lutheran book of worship, I’ve got commentaries on the Book of Common Prayer, and (I kid you not) commentaries on the commentaries of the Book of Common Prayer.  There are notes about how to bless water, about how to bless a baptismal font, how to bless people who are sick or dying, and all sorts of other things.  But none of it tells me how to bless an animal, much less a picture of one.  Maybe Pastor Gary’s got something up his sleeve, but I got nothing.

        But you know what, that’s fine.  I mean, I like all the ceremony and liturgy and words and all, but when it comes to pets and to Creation, I think simplest is often best.  Because that’s how Creation is in our lives, anyway.  There’s a sort of immediacy to the way animals and nature, isn’t it?  There’s a closeness, an intimacy, of the way a dog greets us when we come home, or how a cat sits on our lap (or our book) in the evening.  There’s an immediacy of the weather, of the gusting of the wind, of the smell of the ocean, of the coolness beneath a tree’s shadow on a summer day.  The blessings of God through nature come to us in this close, intimate way, and this closeness speaks volumes without ever uttering a word.

        I think St. Francis, whose feast day we remembered on Friday, knew this.  There’s a story about how, one day, in the middle of his home city, he stripped off all his clothes and handed them back to his father, saying that his Father in heaven had provided him with everything he really needed.  And while I really enjoy clothes and frown a bit on public nudity, I think I know what St. Francis meant.  There’s something healing about nature.  There’s something healing about snuggling with a dog, or the companionship of a horse, or the sunshine, or the rain.  And with all this stuff we fill our lives with, all this stuff we have to make our lives easier or more convenient or a bit more comfy, we forget all that.  We forget that God is there providing for us each and every day, each and every moment.  St. Francis who reminds us of this, which is one of the reasons we remember him.  And it’s our pets, other animals, and nature herself that remind us of this, too. 

        Now don’t get me wrong.  Nature isn’t always warm and cuddly.  I just moved from Tennessee where it was like a billion degrees from January 1st to Christmas (not really).  Dogs don’t just cuddle; they also bite.  The same wind that can gently ruffle the soul can also blow houses down.  And that’s why, as we enjoy and love Creation, we have to remember and pray for those who are in the path of it: those who are affected by everything from earthquakes to heat waves.  Sailors know this: the ocean isn’t just a nice thing you get to look at when you’re in the mood for some good brooding: it’s something that can give life, and something that can take it away.

        And that’s why we come to bless it.  For when we bless something, one of the things we do is look at it square in the face for what it is, not what we want it or demand it to be. For Creation isn’t ours. God gave it to us like a library book, and if we bring that library book back to the library with pages ripped out and coffee spilled on it, we’re gonna be in trouble. God gave us stewardship of Creation like a parent gives their teenager the keys to the car, and woe to you if the next time I see this car it’s in a ditch. Whether we are in efforts to conserve Creation, using its resources for the betterment of society, or just sitting down next to our dog after a long day’s work: we are to see that Creation is God’s, just like our bodies, our souls, and all of our love, hope, and joy that we have ever known.

        So, after some prayers and some singing, Gary and I are going to bless these animals. And tomorrow, I hope you’ll bless them, and continue to bless them, each and every day of your life.

The Trinity

Trinity Sunday
16 June 2019

The readings for this day are:

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

Click here to access these readings.

       Let’s start this morning with a field trip in the BCP.  Could you grab your red Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 307, please.  It’s right at the bottom of the page, marked with a nice big heading “The Baptism.”  Now, this section is right smack dab in the middle of the liturgy for Baptism.  This is where the actual baptism happens.  The part in italics (called the rubrics) tell us that each candidate is presented by name, then each person is immersed or has water poured over them.  And while they are in the water, these words are spoken: [person’s name], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

       Now, why do we do this?  Why do we, when we bring people into the Church through the Sacrament of Baptism, do so in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?  Why not just “in the name of God”?  Why use God’s name at all?  Well, the easy answer is that Jesus told us to do this.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  But as we do this, and do it faithfully and joyfully, we may also ask: why?  Why do we baptize in the name of the Trinity and not in some other way?

       We Christians believe that the true nature of God is found in the idea of the Trinity.  God is One, but God is also Three.  And God’s how we might be when we’re in different groups, so, even though there’s just one of us, we act differently with our families, our friends, and out in public.  And it’s not as if God is a set of three identical triplets, each that looks very much alike but, at the end of the day, are really just different people.  No, God is One and God is Three.

And if this makes your brain hurt trying to imagine how God can be both One and Three at the same time, don’t worry.  The Trinity is a very complicated, often confusing part of our faith, and many good, intelligent people have spent their whole careers trying to find different ways to explain something so beautiful.  That said, the Trinity isn’t something big and complicated like, say, the motions of the planets or the tectonic plates, that if we think about them for a long time, we’ll be able to fully understand them.  But when we look at our lives, and when we look at what is revealed to us in Scripture, when we listen with our hearts and minds and souls, we begin not just to understand that Trinity but to live it, breathe it, and walk in it.

Our readings this morning are part of this revelation.  Now, historically, the concept of the Trinity – the idea of it – was not thought up until the fourth century.  Christians in the fourth century were very much concerned with the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father.  And one of the things produced from fourth century discussions is the Nicene Creed, which can be very technical at times with its language about “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.”  But all of these discussions weren’t just vague philosophizing and people making up theories off the top of their heads.  No, these early Christians were drawing the understanding of the Trinity from how God had revealed himself in Scriptures – in what we call the Old and New Testaments – and in the life of Jesus Christ.

We see some of this revelation in our readings today.  We see it in our reading from Proverbs, where the Wisdom of God stands like a master worker at the founding of the world.  And this Wisdom isn’t just being wise but seems to be a person, a being, for God delights in him, and Wisdom rejoices in God and the world that was created, and humanity with it.  And in Romans, St. Paul describes God’s life as being love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, bringing to us a peace – even in suffering – through Jesus Christ.  St. Paul doesn’t tease it all out for us, or separate all the components of God like a little kid at school lunch who takes apart each piece of his sandwich; but instead he says that the life of the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are intricately intertwined.  For the language lovers of you, God is not just about nouns but about prepositions for St. Paul.  God’s about ‘through’ and ‘in’ and ‘with’ and ‘inside’, about poured into and living with and given through, so that God is revealed to be not just some bearded guy on a throne with people at his feet but a being of living, breathed life and who pulls us into that life so that we may be healed and sanctified into that relationship.

And there is, of course, Jesus himself: his words and his deeds and his very being.  Time and time again Jesus speaks, acts, or directly identifies himself with God the Father, and the Spirit together with them.  Jesus, and God, and the Holy Spirit are, in some way, revealed to be in an intricate relationship with one another.  And it was this relationship that the fourth century councils, through reading and contemplation and prayer, came together to write the creeds.

But we don’t believe only because the Bible and the Creeds tell us to do so.  The Bible and the Creeds are an authority in our lives as Christians, surely, but they themselves live and breathe in the context of our faith here in the present.  For we see, even in our own individual lives, that the God of the Bible and the God of the Creeds is still alive today, grounding us, healing us, and breathing new life into us.  We experience God the Son, God in Jesus Christ, in those times when we find healing and goodness in the most turbulent of times.  When we turn from our own darkness, when we turn from hatred or disdain or sorrow, when we are caught in that darkness and hatred and disdain and feel a steady hand turning our hearts towards light and life and goodness; that it is the life of Jesus Christ born within us doing this work. 

And in this healing, in this turning from despair and darkness, we are not only led back to a sort of status quo but are lifted higher into light.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who won’t let us remain in complacency, but will show us a deeper life, a fuller life, a more hopeful and giving life that is ever the promise of God.  And this life is founded on something strong, something sure, something that will never move, something that is not a “thing” but is the Creator and Guider of all Creation, a being of truth that will never stop loving us; and this being we call God the Father.  And all this work of God, the work of Jesus and of the Spirit and of the Father, all of this is to bring Creation into a fullness where there is no grief or despair, no hatred or resentment, but goodness and love for all eternity.  

We as Christians have dedicated our lives to this Trinity.  In Baptism, whether we were baptized as a child or led into the faith by others, in Baptism, we were all brought into the Church; in the Eucharist we meet Jesus and are healed with his hands of love; in the Sacraments we are nurtured into the Life that was born and is growing within us; and in our mission, our good work as the Church, we bring that Life out into the world that is so deep in hurt and sorrow.  For that Life that we have seen in Scripture, and that the Church has proclaimed for the past two thousand years, is here now in this present day, in this very room, in your very hearts, speaking to the Life that is in the hearts of those sitting around you as well.  For the life of the Church is a Trinitarian life that seeks to heal, to love, and to ground things in the source of all goodness and love, which is God, our creator, our savior, and our light in this world.

The Language of Our Salvation

Pentecost

The readings for today are:
Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-27

Click here to access these readings.

        If you’ve ever spent time in a foreign country, you know that something funny happens with your language.  It happened to me while I was in Japan.  And it was this: suddenly, with any warning (it seemed), I was utterly and completely illiterate.  Signs – they meant nothing to me.  Menus at restaurants, safety information that comes in furniture, my receipts, even my teaching contract; I couldn’t read a thing.  Nor could I understand anything that was said, either.  I sat in teacher’s meetings and only understood a few names.  Every week I bought food at the grocery store and only understood a “please” or “thank you.”  My students, who had about as much skill with English as I had with Japanese, tried in vain to tell me about their studies, or baseball, or themselves, or to ask about the U.S.  And I could understand, or say, a little bit.  Here I was, in a country that I had studied and loved for many years, and I couldn’t interact with it beyond, “Isn’t it sunny today.”

        Now, I always knew that I’d be basically illiterate in Japan.  I knew that my language skills (especially in speaking and listening) were pretty poor.  I know that I’d have a hard time.  But I didn’t expect it to be so frustrating.  I’m a reader by nature.  I like talking to people.  I wanted to talk to people.  I met people my own age, older folks who had lived through WWII, Buddhist monks who had such different beliefs than my own, and even fellow Christians who were about as excited to speak to me as I was to speak to them – and yet, there was that barrier between us.  There was that barrier of language – a barrier that so often connects people together but here it was like the Tower of Babel, and language kept us apart.

        And in all this frustration, there were little havens of calm and grace.  One of these times I was up in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.  I was on vacation with a bunch of friends, and they went off skiing.  And since I’m horrible at skiing, I wandered around on my own for a bit.  Then, on the train back to Sapporo, this young Japanese guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, are you American?  Do you speak English?”  You see, this guy loved English, just about as much probably as I loved Japanese.  And he had just gotten back from studying in Australia, where he spoke this language he loved day in and day out.  And, really, he was kinda lonely for it.  He wanted to hear it again from a native, and to speak it himself. 

        We were immediately friends.  We told each other about our families, where we grew up, our dreams and excitements and hopes, everything.  In the seat in front of us was another guy, a young man from Korea who was travelling alone, and when he heard us talking and laughing, he turned around and joined in.  His English wasn’t as good as the other guy’s, but he kept on with the story-telling as best as he could.  It was great.  And, for a while, I was home.  Yeah, sure, I was fourteen time zones, 6,237 miles (I checked this) from where I was born.  I was on a train, in a country where I was completely illiterate, talking to people who I had only met just that day, but I was home.  In my language, I was home.

        Pentecost is about being home.  Well, Pentecost is about a lot of things, but one of the big things it’s about is being home.  But it’s not just about being home but about hearing home.  Because on the day of Pentecost, we remember a miracle.  And it’s not just the miracle of the tongues of fire above everyone’s head, as I have pictured on the front of your bulletins.  It’s the miracle that, suddenly, the disciples were preaching the Gospel, they were speaking of the devotion and love and hope of God, not just in one language, but in every language.  But not as if the Holy Spirit were some sort of spiritual Google Translate, where you put in the Gospel and it churns out some wacky translation that makes little sense to a native speaker.  No, the miracle here is that the lonely Parthian over there, far from home that he can taste it in his dreams, suddenly hears the tongue he grew up with; or the Egyptian hears the exact accent of Egyptian of his beloved wet-nurse.  These people hear the Gospel, the Gospel of salvation and love and hope, not in a foreign language that they barely know, or a second language they’re struggling to make sense of; but their own language, their mother tongue, the language they were raised in and in which they were taught who they were, the language they thought in, dreamed in, argued in, and hoped in.  It was in this language, so close to their hearts, that they heard the Gospel.

        And this is a miracle, I think, that we often miss: that God saw fit to say, not “Come over here, I’ve got something to tell you” but “I will come to you.”  Now, there are many things in Christianity to which we need to align ourselves.  We are to die to sin and be risen (not “raise ourselves” but “be risen”) by God into new life.  We are to remake our lives, by the Holy Spirit, according to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.  We are to practice the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and charity.  And all of these things are not in ourselves but in God.  Just as we say in the Baptismal Covenant, we must turn, each and every day, from the powers of evil and to the goodness of the Lord.

        So are we called to live a life to Christ, but the language of this call, and it’s voice, speaks to our heart of hearts.  In the story here in Acts, on the day of Pentecost, this took the form of an actual language, but it’s much bigger than that.  God created each of us not as carbon copies of one another but as distinct individuals.  And God, in raising us up to be his own daughters and sons in the image of Jesus Christ, God does not erase who we are.  We aren’t like those old floppy disks full of corrupt information that God needs to reformat and start again.  We aren’t even like a weedy garden that God has to spend time with in the dirt, yanking out the bad and sticking in new, prettier plants.  We are God’s children, his beloved, and those good things that we love, those things we hope for and yearn for, all those things that we go to in love, these are the things through which God calls us and hopes for us as well.  There’s quite a bit of death before the resurrection, surely, and that death can sometimes feel like being nailed up on a cross, but at the end of the day what God is aiming for is not the death, not the pain and sorrow of loss, but the resurrection, the golden light of the new dawn on all of our Easter day.  And God gave us these things that we love – be they our gardens or our children and grand-children, works of great literature or whatever college football team you root for – God gave us these gifts in love to pull us up towards himself.  Just as the people on Pentecost heard the Gospel in their own tongues, erasing the destruction of Babel, so too do we hear the Gospel in the love language of our own soul, which God made.

        Today is Pentecost, and it’s the start of the season of Pentecost.  We call it Ordinary time, but it’s anything but ordinary.  For the past half-year, ever since Christmas, we’ve been hearing about and thinking about Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection, and about the life that he brought to us in Salvation.  But now, now in Ordinary time, we listen to God’s call to us on Pentecost to help bring that light out into the world.  And what does that look like?  Well, we’ve got six months of Ordinary time to talk about it and discuss it.  But at its core, it’s the same work of Pentecost: for just as God met us where we are, and called us through our joys and sorrows and hopes, so are we called to be present in the lives of others, to speak to them the Good News of Jesus Christ in a language they understand.  In our world, putting ourselves – our own needs and our own path – aside to sit and listen to another, then to preaching a Gospel of mercy, forgiveness, and love; that’s a rare thing in our world.  But it’s the work of the Spirit.  It’s the life of Jesus Christ that we’ve just heard about and walked through ourselves these past six months.  And it is a call from God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sanctifier, to love, to love, and to never stop loving.

 

The Feast of St. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex

Stained glass of King Alfred the Great in Winchester Cathedral

St. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex
Wisdom 6:1-3, 9-12, 24-25
Psalm 21:1-7
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
Luke 6:43-49

Click here to access these readings.

Today is the feast day of St. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.  And when you hear this, you might ask, “Who?” or “King of where?”  Alfred was born in what is now Great Britain in 849 A.D.  He was the son of the ruling king of Wessex, one of the small kingdoms that eventually became England. Alfred had three older brothers, and so it was unlikely that he would ever be king, except that he lived when the Vikings were invading the island.  Alfred’s father died while defending the kingdom, and Alfred’s three brothers both ruled and were killed as well. While Alfred was king, the country was overrun and he survived, for a time, living in the forests with a small group of retainers.  Alfred earned the title “the Great” by raising his ragged country-men and fighting back, but also in what he did afterwards.  Alfred drew scholars from all across the land to reestablish learning and religion in his kingdom.  He translated or helped to translate great works of knowledge, such as Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

In all, Alfred seems like a pretty great medieval king but perhaps a little odd for a saint.  Although he helped revive Christian learning in England and translated some pretty important works into English, he was still, on the whole, a secular man.  Alfred was known as being an extremely devout Christian and very knowledgable about Christian history and tradition, but, again, he was a king, and his main function in life was the defense and right rule of his people.  And even though he sought to protect his people and to establish peaceful relations with his enemies (even so much as standing as godfather to a Viking king), he was, even still, a secular king.  Why was Alfred made a saint?

This question leads us back to one I wrote about a week or so ago: what is a saint?  Normally, we might think of saints as extremely holy people who did nothing but sit around and pray all the time, but in reality, saints were often very active people.  They were holy and deeply good, but they did not shy away from life, especially a life of pain, suffering, and sacrifice for those around them. This goodness and saintliness can occur in any walk of life, both because God is present in any walk of life and because we humans, no matter where we are, always need God.  And from his deep love of humanity, God sends men and women into some of the darkest places on earth so that we can remember God’s love and the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ.  These women and men are saints in God’s eyes first, and we discern their sainthood (as opposed to the other way around; we actually never “made” Alfred a saint, nor do they “become” saints on their own strength of will).  

Alfred was a man who was born at a time of crisis, and he was called to a task that was perhaps too much for any person.  And, as a king, Alfred fulfilled his duty: he fought for his people, he worked for peace where he could, and he sought to nurture people when swords were at last put away.  But he did not just do his duty.  Alfred did not simply fight a good fight.  Alfred went above and beyond what the world called him to do and listened to a higher calling.  This higher calling was through his vocation as a king, not against it, but even still it was higher than any might have expected.  It was a call from God not only to protect but also to heal, not only to fight a war but to be concerned with what happens afterwards, not only to give out laws and decrees for the betterment of the people but also to practice what he preached.  His work in a time of warfare reminds us in our own day to listen to what God is calling us to do through our work, our family, and our lives in our community.  God is ever with us and calling us to a life more spiritually rich and more greatly founded upon Christ.