Simplicity

the 18th day of Pentecost
Proper 23
13 October 2019

Today’s readings are:
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Click here to access these readings.
 
       I joked about this at our pet blessing last Sunday, but there really isn’t anything in my priest books that tells me how to bless animals. Actually, there’s not all that much in all my books that tells me how to bless anything, really. We’re supposed to make the sign of the cross, put our hand up or something, and often it’s best, when blessing a person, to put your hand on their shoulder or even hold their hand, but all this is really just best practices, not “how you do it.” And that’s because blessing someone is actually really just a simple matter: you pray with them. You turn with a person, or a group, or a little animal, towards God. We say to God, “Please, love this person or group, or animal with the fullness of your being.” And we believe God says, “Of course.”

        You can say the same thing about the liturgy, too. It’s very simple. I know, there’s a whole lot of stuff with our liturgy, and, like I said the other week, all this stuff is important. But even with all the bowing and chasubles and chalices, the whole thing is really very simple. We come together, we pray, we eat, then we head out. Everything else helps, and it helps immensely (again, it’s best practices), but the heart of the matter is a prayer to God. And, really, that’s enough as it is.

        Now, there’s a lot of things we can do to dress things up. The more I wave my hands at your when I’m blessing you, or the more motions I make while celebrating the Eucharist, the more it seems like I’m up to something. And something really is going on: when a priest blesses us, or when any Christian blesses someone, God is really present. God is really there in a special way. But it’s not because we wave our hands or make really heart-felt prayers. And in the bread and wine of Communion: God’s really there, really present, and that bit of wafer and sip of wine really do lift us closer to Heaven; but they do this not because I’ve got a chasuble on or because you’re kneeling. God’s there, God’s here, because God wants to be here with us. God loves us and hopes for us.

        At this point, you may say: Now, Father Tim. The other week you preached on how awesome stuff is in the liturgy and in our Christian lives. And now you’re talking about how awesome things are because they’re simple. So which is it?” Well, isn’t it both? There’s this beautiful simplicity in Communion, of coming to the rail as just us, no strings attached, even though we sin each and every day and just keep on sinning, even still we kneel or stand and say, simply, “Jesus, please come” and he does.

And that moment, that most glorious and humbling moment, is set within the liturgy that lifts that moment up, that focuses that moment, that helps us understand that it is Jesus coming to us and not something else. The liturgy helps us understand the coming of Jesus in Communion, something that is beyond words and beyond all human expectation and hope; and that moment when we meet Jesus, in turn, helps us understand all the prayers, the Scripture and the Creeds, our confession and that we truly are forgiven our sins when we confess them. The simple and the complicated, they work together, each and all together, and all so that we can take another step, however small, towards God, our Creator and our Redeemer.

Now, all of our readings this morning were on faith. And all of them remind us that, although it seems like a pretty complicated thing, faith is actually pretty simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple. I think of caring for a baby: you know, there’s not much to it. You feed them, you change their diaper, and you put them down to sleep. Pretty simple. But in that simplicity there is a depth that is often too deep for words. Because there is a love that you give to a baby, each time you feed them, lay them down to sleep, or even change their diapers. And that love means the world to them, and it is life for them.

Or think of caring for our friends or our family. What they need from us, most often, is just someone to be there with them. Yeah, sure, sometimes our families or friends get into some wacky problems that are complication upon complication upon complication, but what they need, most often, is simple, honest love: a friend to sit by them in the turmoil, a presence of love in all the confusion and anxiety, a word or even just a patient silence that does not demand, that does not press, that does not muck up the problem even more than it already is mucked up. They need just love: simple, honest love. Then, sure you can get down to fixing the problem or working out solutions or whatever. But all of that is founded on that simple love that we give by just being next to them and, well, loving them.

Faith can often be a tough thing. In the face of great adversity, in the face of darkness and sorrow and grief, and in the face of real and true loss, it can be hard to hold onto faith. Our faith can feel like sand slipping through our fingers, and doubt can loom large and ugly on the horizon of our grief. And when we hear “God is with you”, it can be easy to turn around and say, “yeah, sure, where?” But when we sit down and quiet our hearts, when we put to rest our worry and anxiety, when we open our eyes we see that there is a life in this world, a life that isn’t just a thing or a force or an energy but a living presence. In times of fear, it is a tenacious courage that walks beside us; in anxiety, it is a calm presence sitting very still and inviting us to peace; in hatred, it is a word in our ear that all is loved, even that, or especially that, which is lost, forgotten, and alone.

There is no simple way to define faith. There is no simple way to grow in faith. Nor should there be. A robust faith is often found at the end of a lot of heartache, a lot of grief, and a lot of darkness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, we discover the reality of faith, the reality that God is with us, Emmanuel, that Jesus Christ loves us and died for us and rose for us, so that we could know what true life was really like, that this faith is what holds us and gets us through the heartache and grief and darkness. And each step forward brings us closer to Him: the one who Created us, the one who Redeemed us, the one who Sanctifies us, and the one who Loves us with the fullness of Being itself. And even now this Voice is calling you to turn to that Life.

A heart like a microwaved pizza

the 13th Day after Pentecost
Baptism!
September 8th, 2019

The readings for this day were
Ezekiel 36:24-28
Canticle 9, the First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6)
Romans 8:14-17
Mark 10:13-16

        The worst thing you can do with a piece of pizza is put it in the microwave.  And I’m serious.  If you want to put anchovies on it, that’s cool, go wild.  In Japan, I found that some people like to put mayo and corn on their pizza.  And I was like, really, but, you know, it wasn’t all that bad.  It was still a pizza.  But if you’ve got some left-over pizza from the night before, and you need to warm it up, don’t put it into the microwave.  Like all bread-based food, when you put pizza in the microwave, it comes out all tough and chewy and hard.  It’s inedible.  Sure, it’s still got the cheese and the sauce and all, but you just can’t eat it.  It’s not pizza anymore.

        And I say all this because, in a way, the prophet Ezekiel is talking about microwaved pizza.  Because it seems to me that, if we updated Ezekiel’s language to be more modern, we’d get something like this: “[God says] A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body a heart like a microwaved pizza, and I will give to you a fresh heart, like a pizza straight from the oven, eaten on the streets of New York City.”  Not a tough, plasticky, yucky heart, but a soft, pleasant, delicious heart that fills your whole body with light and joy.  Here, Ezekiel’s writing about how God lives with us in our lives and what God’s presence does to us, how it affects us, moves us, breaks open all those hard parts so that we can live lives of freedom and grace.

        Because we know what Ezekiel’s talking about, don’t we?  Whether we call them hearts of stone or hearts of micro-waved pizza, we’ve experienced that, haven’t we?  I know I have.  I remember, back in middle school, seeing a good friend of mine get bullied.  And all I did was watch, then turn away.  And why?  Why didn’t I do something to help my friend?  I was scared of getting involved, really.  I didn’t want to step in because, I thought, that was his business.  And, hey, my friend was a little annoying, so maybe he even deserved being bullied.  I knew it was wrong, but these thoughts took over, and I did nothing.  Nor was it just when I was young, but ever since, I’ve turned my back, walked away, ignored a call.  It’s something that happens, I think, to all humans, that we ignore those who are calling out for real and honest help.

        But his is all more than just being a good citizen.  I’m not just saying that we should all be neighborly and then everything’s gonna be alright (though being neighborly is a pretty good place to start).  This is about God; this is about life and letting the life of God grow within us and, through us, out into the world.  Because, just as much as we know what it means to have a micro-waved pizza heart, I think we also know, each one of us knows, what it’s like when our heart is freshly baked, straight from the oven.  Have you ever given a gift, not because you’ll get one in return, or it’s just what you do, but because you loved someone so deeply, so fully, so completely, that you just felt the need to give?  Have you ever stayed at the bed of a sick person, and stayed all through the night, even though you could do nothing, but just so that that person wouldn’t wake up lonely?  When we give with this kind of heart, when we live with this kind of heart, we don’t think about what we’ll get in return.  No, we give to the point where we become love, where we become life, and that’s because, the more we live this way, the more we are Jesus Christ, who was, and is, and forever shall be the fullness of life for evermore.

        Now, in a few minutes, we’re going to baptize little Cooper, but this softening of heart, this un-microwaving of the heart, this isn’t what’s going to happen to him when I pour water over his head.  It’s not like poor Cooper has some microwaved piece of heart in his chest and we all have to get him baptized so that *snap* he’ll have a heart of flesh and life again.  That’s actually a lot like microwaving, and we know what that does to the heart. 

        But something does happen in Baptism.  It’s not the sudden, boom, changing of a heart; it’s the planting of a seed.  In Baptism, God plants a seed inside our hearts.  It’s a Jesus-seed that will grow into a Jesus-plant (I usually think of it as a Jesus-tree, but if you’re more the Jesus-bush or Jesus-flower kinda person, that’s cool, too).  And as Cooper grows, he’ll meet all sorts of adversity.  He’ll get discouraged, he’ll get frustrated, he’ll doubt.  Maybe he won’t make star player on the team the first year out, or he won’t get the job he wants straight out of college.  Maybe, God-forbid, a deeper tragedy will strike.  Life, we all know, is full of disappointments and griefs, and unless we’re careful, these disappointments and these griefs harden our hearts.  But that Jesus-tree, it breaks up that stone heart not from the outside but from within.  It pushes against those hard bits, that doubt and discouragement, it pushes against them so that they soften.  It keeps the heart from turning in on itself in hatred or despair but opens that heart in freedom. 

        And here’s where you come in.  Baptism in Christ means the planting of a seed, a turning of the person to God.  And, like all seeds, that Jesus-seed needs to be nurtured.  It needs to be watered, given fresh sunlight, even manured every once in a while (I’ll let you parents figure out what I mean by manuring the heart).  This is all done by God, of course, but we, as the Church, will also take part in God’s work.  And that’s why, right before the baptism, we’ll all stand up and make promises for little Cooper, who one day won’t just be little Cooper, but Cooper, a man in his own right.  But until then, it’s our job, as family, godparents, other friends and acquaintances – as the Church itself, it’s our job to nurture that Jesus-seed within him. 

        And so, just as Cooper’s Jesus-seed is being planted by the waters of Baptism, so too will we be looking to our own Jesus-tree in ourselves.  This morning, we’re checking in on it, seeing how it’s doing, maybe pruning a branch here or putting in new soil there.  We will, yet again, renounce evil and all the forces of wickedness that enslave us.  We’re turn again to the goodness in Jesus Christ and promise, yet again, to follow him, and to keep on standing up each and every time we fall.  And we’ll make the promise to one another that we’ll help tend and nurture each other’s Jesus-trees.  And then, at last, we’ll look out into the world and promise to be the gardeners of God’s seed, those seeds that he planted in the hearts of every single person, every place, and every thing, when he sent his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to bring life and love into this dark world.

        Baptisms are a new beginning.  They’re a new beginning for Cooper, who has just started taking steps into this world; they’re a new beginning for us, who so often in our wayward lives need new beginnings; and they’re a new beginning for the Church, which is two-thousand years old but still forever young, forever reborn, in these waters that reach to the depth of Creation and back.

God is Life

South Coast Convocation Beach Eucharist
August 17th, 2019

The readings for this service are:
Job 12:7-12
Psalm 98
Philippians 4:4-7
Matthew 19:13-15

       We heard a lot about God’s hands this morning, didn’t we? In the Old Testament, we heard how all life, every living thing, is in God’s hands. In the Psalms, we heard how God’s right hand has worked salvation. And in a little bit, we’ll pray together the Prayers of the People, where we will give thanks that God fashioned us and this beautiful place with his life-giving hand. This all reminds me of a song we used to sing as kids: “He’s got the whole world, in his hands.” Do you know that one? As a kid, I imagined this big set of hands, cupped around, and a bunch of people, or even the Earth itself, just sitting there in God’s open palms.

       Now, hands signify something really important in the Bible and for us Christians; they signify the life-giving presence of God. Think about the Bible, where people are always reaching out and touching Jesus with their hands; and when they do, they’re healed. Or that Jesus, and the disciples with him, lay their hands – physically touch – the sick and the injured, the lonely and the destitute, folks no one wanted to be near, much less touch. Some of these people are suddenly healed, miraculously, though others are shown, rather simply, that they are not alone in their pain, that someone cares for them and loves them. For some, that’s healing enough.

And our practices at church continue this focus on hands. At the passing of the peace, we shake hands or hug one another, all in the name of Christ, welcoming them into our hearts and our lives. Or in the sacraments: In Baptism the pouring of water and the anointing on the forehead with oils, or Reconciliation, where at that most beautiful moment, when we are reminded that we are loved by the God of all things, the priest puts his or her hand on the head. Or in the Eucharist, the simple and vast depths of the Eucharist, where a small wedge of wafer or bread, the very Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, is placed in an outstretched hand. And all this, all these moments, signify something: a presence, a life, a depth within the world that is far beyond ourselves.

       And God, and our church, and our Christian lives extend out beyond the four walls of our worship space, don’t they? I think also of the hands that I have seen in my own life, as well. I think of the hands of my father, who was a woodworker. His hands are like anyone’s hands who works with wood all day: they’re nicked and scratched, they have deep callouses and are scarred, but they’re also deft, able, skillful, and sure. Or I think of my daughter’s hands and my own when we go out to play in the sand. After just a few minutes of building castles and burying each other in the sand, our hands are grubby and dirty, and they most certainly have to be washed before we can eat lunch – but even so, they are full of the life and joy of digging about in the earth. And I think of the hands of Jesus, which I have seen in paintings and statues and in my own heart (and surely you have, too): the hands of Jesus, our God and our Savior, human hands but holy hands as well, as they were lifted to heal and as they were laid on the cross and nailed to its hard wood.

       And all these images – hands in healing, hands full of dirt and grime, hands giving bread, hands bleeding at the palms – these images all point to one thing: not just of some vague presence but the presence of Life and it’s advent into this world. Now, our own hands, our fallen, human hands, can bring other things, too. Sure, we can bring life into the world, we can be God’s hands, but we can also work death, destruction, and pain as well. But God’s hands are different. God’s hands are life. In God’s hands is life, not sitting on the top but deep down inside them, like a bit of salt baked into a cake to enhance all that flavor; or, if you’ve spent some time in the South, you’ll know sweet tea, where the sugar isn’t just added in later but brewed into the tea itself to make it, oh so delicious. And all these are just more small, partial images, because that goodness and hope and life of God’s hands are deep down at God’s core, who he is; because God is Life. God is Love.

       And all this love, all this life, it’s not away on some mountain top. It’s not locked away in secret somewhere so that only smart and adventurous people can find it. It’s not something that only our great spiritual ancestors can find because they were just more special than we are. It’s right here. As St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice!” And why? Because the Lord is near to you, or, as in the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord is very near to you. This Life, this Hope, this Goodness, and this Love, they are here for us, because God is here among us. Whether we’re under the church roof or out here on the side of the beach, whether you’re in a hospital room or on the other side of the door, waiting in anxiety, God is with you.

       But sometimes, truth be told, it’s hard to remember all this. We live in a troubled world. Each day, it seems, we are met with new tragedies, news that awakens our anxiety or anger or even our hatred. And it seems that we have just two choices: to push it all away and hide from it or else enter into it and risk becoming that pain and anger ourselves. But whether we go out or stick home, whatever we do, we Christians don’t begin there. We don’t begin in pain or anger or despair, but in Life. We begin in Hope, even if (or especially if) there doesn’t seem to be any. We begin in community, in listening to one another, in the seeking out of all people, regardless of who they are and how different their cultures or thoughts or politics are from our own. We begin in Love because God began in Love. God created the world, we believe, not because he was bored and needed something to do, or that God was incomplete and so needs a world; no, we believe that God created the universe, this world, and all the creatures in it, for Love. And that Love is the foundation of all things, from the grains of sand out there on the beach to the planets and stars out there in their courses.

       And we, too. We have been created anew by that Love. It is a Love that we have long yearned for, long hoped for, and that Love found us and is bringing us home. And our work now, we pilgrims on a journey to our true Home, is to shower the world with that Love. To open our hearts when it’s easy and when it’s tough, to listen to those we agree with and those we think are fools, to seek God in all people, no matter who they are. For Love was at the beginning, Love is now, and Love forever shall be the beating heart of Creation and the center of all our lives.

 

God’s Abundant Love

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 12
July 28th, 2019

The readings for this week are:
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

Click here to access these readings.

I’ve never really been a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, but there’s one scene from Oliver Twist that I know decently well. You might call the scene, “I want some more.” In this scene, we find Oliver, a young boy who was orphaned as a younger boy, in a workhouse. He and his fellows are treated poorly and barely fed – just three bowls of oatmeal a day. The boys know they have to do something, and so they draw straws, and thus elect Oliver, to ask the master for more food. The film versions of this scene are what I know, and in them, this small, innocent-looking boy, dressed in rags, walks up to the master, who’s usually large, well-fed, and wearing fine clothes. And Oliver asks, very simply, “Please sir, I want some more” and offers his empty bowl. And the master’s response is, “WHAT!? MORE!?” and Oliver is punished. That idea that these workhouse boys should get more food, and the very audacity of even asking for more, is simply beyond belief for these people. The word “more” just doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary; that is, at least for anyone but themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if this scene is a bit similar to how we approach God with our own intercessions. Sometimes, I think we have an image of God – an unconscious image, but still an image – that God’s this old man with too much to do and who’s certainly too busy to answer any of our small requests. God is the ruler of Heaven and Earth, after all, and he’s got too much work to bother about us small and insignificant people down in the dust. I know that, when I really need something, my prayers fall almost into begging. “You know God, I’m sorry, I know this is selfish, I know it’s a lot, and I’m sorry that I’m not thinking too much of other people right now, but, look, I’m sorry, but would you be so kind as to just maybe, for a little bit, maybe even just a few minutes so I can catch a breath, be with me, you know, just for a little?” Have you ever prayed one of those prayers before?

Well, Abraham, in our Old Testament reading this morning, he prays differently. Here’s Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Old Testament (and in our day as well) that are bywords for corruption and evil. And God is going to check up on them, to see whether or not they’re really guilty of what is said of them. And when Abraham hears this, that God’s going to look into all these rumors of sin, he’s worried. He’s worried that this will set God off, that God will see all that sin and evil and will destroy the cities right out. And so what does he do? He prays. He prays, “Please God, are you going to destroy the good along with the bad? Surely there are at least fifty people in the whole city who are good folks. So if you find even fifty people in all the bad, don’t destroy them all, okay?” And God says, “Okay, sure.”

Now, this is a good prayer, but Abraham goes further: “What about forty-five? What if you find forty-five good folks down there? Will you destroy the whole city?” And God says, “No, I won’t.” And Abraham goes further: “What about forty? Or thirty? Or twenty? And – oh, don’t be angry with me God, please don’t be angry with me, who is dust and ashes – but what about ten?” And God says, “Sure, for the sake of ten, if I can find ten people who are good, I won’t destroy it.”

Now, in the end, God’s not able to find many more but a single family that is good, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are in fact destroyed; but look at Abraham’s prayer. His prayer is this: more God, please, more. He brings his empty bowl before a master that is stronger and mightier than he is, who he knows through experience to be stronger and mightier than he is, and who maybe is angrier and more resentful and quicker to use that might and that strength, and yet even so, he lifts that empty bowl towards that God and he asks, “Please God, I want some more.” And God doesn’t say, as the master says to Oliver Twist, “WHAT!? MORE?!” God says, “Yes!” And to Abraham’s eyes, this must have seemed a miracle.

And, in a way, it is a miracle. God is a God of abundance, and such abundance is not often found in this world. God’s love isn’t like a zero-sum game, so that he’s only got just so much love to dole out to his children. God’s love isn’t like a pizza pie, so that if Sally over there takes two slices, then the rest of us won’t have enough to go around. God’s love is endless. God’s love is powerful and deep and fathomless and, well, endless. God’s love doesn’t stop. So when we pray, God, please love me more, give me more love, send out your Holy Spirit, God will meet us there. God will be with us. We might need to be led through some trouble before we can see that love, or experience it, or be healed by it, but that love is present, that love is full, and God is at the ready to give it to us.

And all this is true, but we have to pause and step back for a moment. Sometimes prayers aren’t answered. Sometimes we pray, as Jesus prayed in the garden, that a certain cup may be taken away from us. Sometimes our beloved dies. Sometimes our illness isn’t miraculously healed. Sometimes people don’t make it home. We live in a world where death will come, eventually, for all of us, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us. God is still present with us in the grief. God is still here, right now, in all of our troubles and in all of our sins and in all of our worry and anxiety – God’s here, with love in his hands, hands stretched out for us to take into ourselves. And that’s because that what God brings to us, that love that God brings, is more powerful than death, deeper than sin, and the miracles of miracles because it is pure and joyful Life.

So, yes, we have to pray knowing that our prayers may not be answered. And yes, we must pray knowing that all our desires are not good desires. But, even so, we are called on to pray, and to pray fervently, for all life and love and goodness, and for that life and love and goodness to be poured out onto the world in its fullness. Don’t be scared to go to your Father in Heaven and pray with a full and open heart that he opens his beating heart of love to you and to the world more fully. Because our God isn’t like the master in Oliver’s workhouse. Our God is like the grandparent who buys the grandchild another ice cream cone even though the parent said, “No, you’ve had enough.” Our God is like the ground, which, when you put a seed in it and give it some water, grows whole gardens and forests of life. Our God is like the apple tree behind our house here in Coquille, that has so many apples on it that they weigh the branches down to the ground. Our God is like a feast for Hobbits that can eat all day and even then still be hungry. Our God is like our dogs and cats and other pets, who keep on loving us and loving us and loving us no matter how tired or exhausted or worried we are. Our God is like all this and more, because God is a God of abundance, and that abundance is of Love and Life and things like Love and Life never, ever end.

So pray. Pray with a full and open heart. Sing out your praise, weep your worries, let your hopes and dreams be carried out into the world by the Holy Spirit. But whatever you do, pray it and pray it without fear. For in God is all life and all love. And in God all of our prayers may find their true home.

God is Very Near You

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10
July 14th, 2019

Today’s readings are:
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Click here to access these readings.

            Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning reminds me of how you find good pizza in New Jersey. It’s true. Often, when you’re looking for the best food you go to the best (and that means fanciest) restaurant, right? If you want great Italian food in general, there are a lot of places in New Jersey with cloth napkins and waiters with black bow ties and where you’ll pay, at least, $20 for a plate of spaghetti. Or, when you want a good steak, you’re not going to go to a fast food restaurant and pick something off the menu; you’re going to go to a nice place on a special day like your anniversary. And you’ll get a good cut of beef.

            But if you want a good pizza, you don’t need to go far. I think the best pizza in the world is out of a place called Joe’s Pizzarea in Flemington, New Jersey. It’s a little shop in a strip mall tucked away behind a supermarket where I worked as a kid. And they have the best pizza in the world (and the best cheese-steaks). Helene, though, disagrees. She likes a place in the strip mall in her town, in Middletown NJ, also near a supermarket and of the same, tiny size. These are the guys who, when they heard that Helene’s dad had died, gave us five or six free pizzas because “Lou was such an awesome guy.” You don’t need to go into New York City to find good pizza, and you don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant. These local shops know it best.

            Our reading in Deuteronomy is saying just this same sorta thing, though here we’re not talking about pizza but about God’s love. We desire God’s love. We long for it and hope for it like a man from New Jersey desires some good pizza, or a woman from the shore longs for good seafood, or someone from the great plains dreams of long, waving fields of grass, or when you’re out on a business trip and all you want to do is sleep in your own bed. And when we are out in the world, and we wonder how to act, and we say to ourselves: should I speak up? Should I keep my mouth shut? Should I take the job? Should I move to be near my grandkids? And we lift our eyes up to God and we say: “God, what should I do? Please, give me your commandments. Send me your love, your love that I long for every day and every night.”

            And what we hear in Deuteronomy this morning is, hey, you don’t have to go to New York City to find a good piece of pizza. When you want to hear a word from God, you don’t have to go up to heaven so you can listen in on the talk of angels and God Almighty. You don’t have to go across the sea to learn from a guru on a mountaintop. For the Word is very near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe. And what this means is that we have God’s word, God’s answer to our questions and our longings and our hopes, right here. And not just here in at St. James, but that God is speaking to us, individually, in each of our hearts and in each of our prayers. So be with God in our questions. Talk to God about our hopes and dreams. Long for God in thought, word, and deed, and you shall find him beside you.

Well, that’s all very nice, but, at the end of the day, is it true? Is it true that all we need to do is listen to ourselves – listen to the thoughts of our hearts and God’s own personal word to us in prayer – and with that alone, we’ll find God? Well, in a way, no, it’s not. Or, at least, it’s not the only way to find God. There’s also the church – little ‘c’ church that’s here at St. James in Coquille, little ‘c’ church again in our diocesan life, and little ‘c’ church again in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Communion worldwide. It’s also the big “C” Church, the universal Church that stretches across time and space. We are part of a community that lives in everywhere from Oregon to New Zealand to the northern tip of Scotland; a community that has thrived for two thousand years; and in which we’re still the Church whether we call ourselves Episcopalians, Baptists, or Catholics. And as Christians, we are called on to take part in that community. We’re called on to study the wisdom of Church tradition, to be in communion with other Christians whose practices and theologies look pretty wacky to us, but even so they’re still worshipping the same God and living and believing in the power of the Spirit (and at the end of the day, little more really matters). Part of our life in Christ is that, while we listen to the call of God to us in our own lives, our own loves, and our own hopes, while we continue to develop that personal relationship with have with God through Jesus Christ, we also open our ears to the Church (big ‘c’ or little ‘c’). For we alone are not enough.

But when we hear, and when we ourselves say, that God is very near us, we don’t mean that he’s only with us, or that he’s with us and certainly not with those guys over there. When we say that God is very near us, what we’re saying is that we can stop looking around all over the place for God and, instead, simply start loving. Don’t go to some far away country or search out some higher form of prayer – those things are good in themselves, of course, and we can learn a lot about God in other countries or from deeper forms of prayer. But God isn’t just at the end of the journey, waiting there and checking his watch because, you know, we’re really taking our time and we’re pretty late coming home. God is at the end of the journey, surely, but he’s also with us at the beginning of the journey and all throughout. God is very near us. And that nearness, and realizing that nearness and living into that nearness, that’s the point of all this. That’s the point of being a Christian. And yes, of course, realizing this nearness will lead us to do good things in the world around us and it will help us grow into more virtuous, God-loving people. But the point of living the Christian life isn’t just to do some good things and be virtuous for our own sake. It is to grow in Christ, to be open ever more fully to the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing through all of Creation. The point is to be near God, to be very near to God, and to invite and bring others into that life.

And this living, this living near to God, it does something to us. It builds us into people who are like Jesus Christ. In theological language, it makes us Sons and Daughters in the image of Jesus, the first Son of God Almighty. Like him, we will become truly human. And living such a life, we will then, like Jesus before us, go out into the world to continue his good work, be it at the county fair, at the food bank, at the barber shop downtown on Mondays, or in our normal, day-to-day interactions with the people of this world. But it all starts from living a life with God. It all begins, lives, and ends, with God.