Saturday, May 16, 2015

Because He Ascended, So Too May We Ascend

The Feast of the Ascension
The readings can be found here

“St. Philip’s was built when people thought that the more stairs you had to climb, the close you’d get to God”.  We looked up from the sidewalk surrounding the old stone church, to the red doors cheerfully situated at the top of 20 some odd stone steps.  It was a warm autumn day, and I was getting a tour of one of the churches I would be serving as a youth outreach worker--the church which hosted the offices for the four yoked congregations we served.  

To get into the sanctuary at St. Philip’s you had three choices--all of which involved multiple stairs.  There was the aforementioned entrance on Denison Avenue, 20 steps up; then the entrance on West 33rd, maybe 6 steps; and then, if you came in through the parish offices, a long, dimly lit hallway, steps down to a gym, and a narrow flight up to the sanctuary.  

It was hard to get into St. Philip’s.  Up was the only way in. And, while the original architects may have imagined the place to be akin to that heavenly city on a hill, a beacon , visible to the whole neighborhood--the reality was that St. Philip’s felt more like a fortified building, imposing and slightly forbidding.  The sidewalk like a moat, and the steps the closed drawbridge--people walked past, but they rarely walked in.  

And, it was as I considered the appointed texts for the Feast of the Ascension, that I remembered St. Philip’s and the stone steps that posed a barrier to the remnants of the church’s aging congregation.  St Philip's, where the more stairs you had to climb the closer you were to God.  St. Philip’s, where so few could climb those steps that no one could get close to God...

And, one by one, people stopped trying to get in.  

And, the church closed.

This week has been a week of reckoning for the Church.  The Pew Research Center’s Study on Religion in America found a 7.8% decrease in the number of people who identify themselves as Christians.  And, more specific to our denomination, the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, charged with the task of submitting an accurate picture of “the Episcopal Church” has just published their findings.  

And, those findings aren’t exactly surprising, given national trends amongst ALL denominations.  In the Episcopal church, average Sunday attendance now averages 61 people;  the Episcopal church, nationally, loses about 16,000 members a year as deaths outpace births; the average age of ordained clergy is now 48.  
It causes me to wonder, how many stairs have we asked people to climb to get closer to God?  Assuming, of course, that it is our particular staircase that leads to the vaulted heights of the heavens...


and, so we look up, for that doorway through the clouds, for some sort of terrestrial terra firma--as if by standing still and craning our necks we might find ourselves gazing upwards at the wounded feet of the ascended Christ.  

As if the answer is held by our view of the sky.  And, the angels inquire, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?"

So, if the answer is not up, where is it?  

From the portion of the letter to the Ephesians appointed for today, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”

The eyes of the heart.  It is with our hearts, that we can find that for which we seek.  These last few weeks have found us exploring the promise of God to abide with us, to be in our midst, to be with us in all we are and all we do.  And, so it is with and within and without...that we find ourselves in encounter with the divine love which transcends all barriers--even tall stone steps.

There are no stairs to climb to ascend to the right hand of God.

Because, if we are the body of Christ we are the body of Christ ascended.  If he has ascended, then so too have we ascended.  And, it is the journey of the heart to ascend to that place where we are with God.  Our liturgy takes us on that journey of the heart every week...

Lift up your hearts, we lift them up to the Lord.  

This is the Sursum Corda...the lifting up of the hearts.  And, in our recital of this ancient dialogue each week, we state our yearning for that place we have been.  Ascended.  There is a Syriac Orthodox version of the Sursum, the Eucharistic Prayer of St. James, that invites us to see this ascension of self more clearly, 

(The celebrant, placing his left hand on the altar, turns toward the people and blesses them, saying:) The love of God the Father +, the grace of the Only-begotten Son + and the fellowship and descent of the Holy Spirit + be with you all, my brethren, forever.

People: Amen. And with your spirit.

(The celebrant, extending and elevating his hands, says aloud:) Upward, where Christ sits on the right hand of God the Father, let our thoughts, minds and hearts be at this hour.

People: They are with the LORD God.

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the LORD in awe.

People: It is meet and right.

It is good, and it is holy, and we are here--here where we are invited to focus our thoughts, minds and hearts on the invitation of the God with whom we eternally abide.

Now, back to the supposedly bad news proffered by the parochial reports and Pew Study...

But, this time read through the lens of abundance, 

These reports tells us that people are being thoughtful and intentional about religion; it tells us that our church is full of people who really want to be here, not out of obligation or expectation, but out of a place of intentionality and engagement.  These numbers put us into a context more akin to that of the early Church--Jesus didn’t ascend so that we may ascend to power, but so that our hearts could ascend to God.  

As the Rev. Alissa Newton in the Diocese of Olympia writes, “We were born as a counter-cultural community of visionary rebels seeking God through community, acts of compassion, and radical hospitality. Perhaps the Spirit is calling us back to our roots.”

In short, a smaller church is a healthier and more authentic church.  We are called: to love, not to count; to witness, not to report; to use the power from on high as a means of transformation in the world.  

The Spirit, the power from on high, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

You will be my witnesses, in Minnesota, in St. Paul, in the Old Rondo Neighborhood, on Grand Avenue...witnesses to the journey of the heart. Witnesses to what has already happened but not yet been fulfilled.  In the words of St. Augustine...

“Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: “If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.” For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies...We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.

Sermon for the Lord's Ascension

Salvador Dali, "Ascension"

Links used in the preparation of this sermon:

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Where True Love Is

A Sermon for Easter 6B, 2015
Readings can be found here

This is the last Sunday before we observe the Ascension of Christ and, if we observe the lessons appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, today’s Gospel can be heard as some of the last words the resurrected Jesus speak to his friends before ascending into heaven.  

This fascinates me, because the Gospel appointed for today is the Gospel of John 15:9-17--which is located approximately 5 chapters BEFORE the resurrection occurs in the Gospel of John. So, why does the lectionary offer us this passage during the season of Easter?  

In order to discuss the choice of this Gospel for this Sunday, I need to back up a bit to the Revised Common Lectionary.  The RCL was compiled in collaboration with an assortment of liturgically based denominations--including the Episcopal church--and was created based on an assortment of Protestant lectionaries, all of which originated from the three year cycle created in 1969 by the Roman Catholic Church.  The idea is that, over the course of a three year cycle, congregations would be able to hear the voices of the various authors of scripture with a greater sense of continuity and  integrity.  So, no picking and choosing on the part of the clergy or congregation--but, rather, scripture appointed in order to meet the need for congregations to be exposed to the breadth of scripture.  

Each year in the three year cycle focuses on a different Gospel--Matthew, year A; Mark, year B; Luke, year C.  These are the synoptic Gospels and they share a great deal of material with each other.  

You’ll note, however, that a three year cycle excludes a Gospel.  The Gospel of John, with its distinct language and theology, is interspersed in all three years and dominates the season of Easter.

But, why, why do we hear so much of John in this particular season?  John was the last of the canonical Gospels to be composed and emerged within the context of the early church.  It’s goals, or spin, is different than that of the other Gospels because of the author’s context as a believer in the midst of an emergent community.  Unlike the other three Gospels, the author of John wasn’t concerned with presenting a chronological account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Rather, the goal, as stated by the author was that “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."  This Gospel is grounded, most deeply, in the fledgling theology of a community living long after the resurrection and ascension.  And, thus, it’s intriguing to me to consider the entirety of the Gospel as taking place after the resurrection.  

And, if we think of John’s context as writing in the midst of an “after the resurrection community”, the emphasis on living in relationship with each other, within the context of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus,  makes a great deal of sense.  This is a Gospel written for a community trying to figure out what it is to be a community in Christ.  

Some of the major themes of the Gospel of John, themes we hear in this passage, include "abiding" in God's love, the commandment of love, and laying down one's life for friends. 

And, as I hear these themes, I imagine the early Christian community out of which they emerged--I imagine the people nodding in agreement with that line or this.  I imagine a hand reached out for another, a cheek turned for a kiss, an embrace, and the covenant of love which bound them.  

Covenant of love...when we speak of love and covenants we tend to think rather entirely of the covenant of have and to hold, in sickness and in health...this is my solemn vow.  But, what would it be like to enter into friendship with similar commitment?  How would that transform the nature of friendship in an age of “friending”?  What would a solemn vow of friendship look like?

St. Aelred of Rievaulx
, a Cistercian abbott from the 12th century wrote extensively about the centrality of friendship to our lives of faith.  Inspired by the Gospel of John, Aelred felt that “He who abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him”.  But, in a society that uses the word friend in such a casual fashion, what distinguishes the kind of friendship which John posits?  

Aelred describes the spiritual friendship that draws us mutually into deeper relationship to God as “spiritual friendship” and finds in this form of spiritual friendship a relationship that is mutually beneficial and in which neither party seeks to use the other to their own advantage.  For Aelred, spiritual friendship is non-exploitative, and draws in the outsider--as servants become friends. 

And, as servants become friends, we can see something of the radical nature of this form of johannine inspired friendship.  Aelred, in his exposition on the Gospel of John notes that if the relationship is not between equals, then the stronger or wiser of the friend will seek to diminish himself/herself before the other. (Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.65-66,70 p.47) Friends relinquish power over and above the other in order to be a friend to others. What a radical notion. Imagine, giving up privilege to be a friend...

And, imagine the theological ramifications of this all...God gave up privilege in order to be our friend. Dying to self, so that we might live.  

He gathered at table with his friends...radical friendship.

What a challenge and inspiration this Gospel must have offered to the johannine community! Today, we have not only heard the Gospel of John, but another text which echoes its theological emphasis on abiding in love.  The first letter of John, while it was unlikely to have been written by the same author as the Gospel of John (scholars point out the major differences in the Greek), emerged out of the same community as the Gospel of John.  And, in my sermon last Sunday I challenged us with the verse, 

“those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

What has been seen cannot be unseen.  Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen.  A neighbor whom they have seen.  A human being whom they have seen.

If we do not love the other, the other precious and beloved children of the God we profess, than how can we profess to love God?”

How can we profess to love God?  This week, I will invoke the phrase “what has been seen cannot be unseen” but this time in a different context.  

“You did not choose me but I chose you.”

God has seen us and cannot unsee us. Who has been seen, cannot be unseen.  The God who has been seen cannot be unseen.  The love that has been seen cannot be unseen.  The creator has chosen creation.  The lover of souls has chosen our souls.  Abiding in each of us, divine love.  

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes, “Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.  Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it.  Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.  If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.  Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all embracing love.”  

Once you see love, you can’t unsee it.  Once we see love we will begin to understand it more deeply and see love made manifest in all places.  

The point of everything, the center of the circle, the reason for it made manifest.

“I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

This is my solemn vow. 

Aelred also happens to be the patron saint of the organization "Integrity
which has worked for the inclusion of GLBT Christians within the Episcopal Church for over 40 years.  

Helpful links

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Abide With Me

Abide With Me

Propers (readings from the Revised Common Lectionary) can be found here

This sermon is about Baltimore.  This sermon is about Nepal.  This sermon is about love.  This sermon is about fear.  This sermon is about shame.  This sermon is about justice.  This sermon is about what you need it to be about, because this sermon is about us.  

And, this sermon is about us, because the scripture is about us.  This is our story, set in another context but applicable to our own.    

The setting of the scriptures, the cultural landscape in which early followers of the way lived was based on an economy of honor and shame.  One’s actions, one’s deeds, one’s relations, one’s economic dealings--success was measured by the measure of honor a person brought to the family and community.  To be shamed, was to shame your lineage.  And, in the religion of the Israelites, shame and religious observance were deeply intertwined.  

Bodily integrity, the circumstances of one’s birth, the actions of your ancestors...all factored into the ability to worship in the temple.  Insiders and outsiders to temple life--all determined by honor and shame.  

So, to worship a God--to lift up on high a man--who had suffered the physical, spiritual and psychological mortification of the cross--was to elevate to the divine the very baseness of humanity.  Stripped, taunted, denigrated.  Can anything good come of Galilee?  His people suspect, his disciples denying.  To witness his death, is to witness his shame.  But not just his shame, but our shame in a world in which our brokenness becomes a means of breaking.

And, so, in the Acts of the Apostles...we hear of honor and shame.  The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been known as a God fearer--one who longed for the God of Israel but one who would, by virtue of birth and the religious and social implications of his castration, be denied the opportunity to worship within the temple or be counted as one of the people--Deuteronomy 23:1 leaves little room for interpretation when it lays out this law.  And, beyond the physical mutilation that would have prevented his participation in temple worship, the Ethiopian Eunuch is a court official in a foreign court.  And, not just any official, but the treasurer in charge of tax collectors--a group despised for the exploitative systems which they were perceived to represent and enforce.  

And, so, as I read the scriptures this week...I can imagine the power of the scriptures to this man’s ears.  For in this quoted passage from Isaiah, in which the prophet speaks of a messiah, it is said that,

“In his humiliation justice was denied him” 

What does it mean when cultures and community, powers and politics, churches and temples, employ humiliation as a tool for oppression?  

When the humiliated is not just shamed, but dehumanized?  When the taunting, and the laughing are used as tools for destruction?  When our collective brokenness is born by those with the least power and the least privilege?

What does it mean to live in a world in which humiliation is just one piece of the weaponry we employ against the other?  

Trolling, public shaming on the internet, baiting and attacking.  We are, sadly, no stranger to the power of humiliating our enemies.   

So, what does it mean to profess the Christian faith within this context?  To claim for ourselves, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?  

In the here and the now, in the year 2015, in the United States, in Minnesota, here in St. Paul at the corner of Portland and Milton--what does it mean to live as a Christian?

To worship the one, stripped, taunted, pierced and gasping.  The one forsaken.

The one who becomes the one lifted on high.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way.  The humiliated are supposed to quietly leave for the outskirts of town.  The shamed to become ashamed of their very selves.  The dead to remain dead!  

Once the shaming has taken place, it would be only polite for the shamed to quietly slip away.  Why should we be forced to see their destruction?  We declare our innocence--my privilege a product of my obedience, my wealth an extension of my labor, my safety of my prudence, my health--why that’s due to clean living!

The only one to blame is blame yourself and we’ll blame you.  And in our blaming we seek to absolve ourselves.  

It is honor and shame isn’t it?  

So, we look away, but in the aversion of our eyes we are confronted again.  Our faith demands that we look upon the humiliation and the justice denied.  WE, we must listen when the crucified God is manifested in our midst.  Our God has cried out from the cross, yet has elevated us as the body manifest in the world.  

We must look upon our own shame.  Sit, with our own brokenness.  And out of the ashes of our own self annihilation we emerge into the light of the love which has been proffered for all.  

And, it is into the truth of our own brokenness that the author of the first letter of John speaks.  

“those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

What has been seen cannot be unseen.  Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen.  A neighbor whom they have seen.  A human being whom they have seen.

If we do not love the other, the other precious and beloved children of the God we profess, than how can we profess to love God? 

If we dehumanize.

If we kill.

If we are complicit with structures and systems that exploit and destroy any of God’s beloved children.   

Than, how can we profess to love God.  

God, indwelling and abiding, living and breathing.

God, still speaking to the world’s shame.  

God, inviting us to love and be loved. 

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”

And, so we abide.  And, when the broken who carry the shame of the world inquire, as the Ethiopian Eunuch did of Philip so long ago,

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The answer is, “nothing”, nothing can prevent anyone who loves God, who follows Jesus who participates in the fellowship of the follower from being baptized.  Nothing can prevent the love of God being made manifest even and ESPECIALLY in the midst of our shame.  

God is made visible in our own forsaking and forsakeness.  We make God visible by showing up in those places of brokenness, by birthing love into the world, by word and action.  By truth and witness.  By a love that recognizes our interconnectedness as a broken and redeemed people. is what the metaphor of the grapevine implies.  And, when Catherine of Siena, a saint of the church and mystic, speaks of the grapevine she writes

“You, then, are my workers.  You have come from me, the supreme eternal gardener, and I have engrafted you onto the vine by making myself one with you.
  Keep in mind that each of you has your own vineyard.  But everyone is joined to the neighbors’ vineyards without any dividing lines.  They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbors.” Catherine of Siena 1347-1380 Dialogue, the Vines That are Tended by the Divine Gardener

Engrafted to our neighbors.  Our neighbors shame is our own.  Our neighbor’s healing is our own.  Our neighbor’s justice is our own.  Our neighbor’s love is our own.  

Let there be justice.  Let there be peace.  Let there be love.  

The justice is about us.  The peace is about us.  The love is about us.

This God is about us.