Here is what I had to say on Sunday. We had fifteen people gather after the 9:30 service to talk about ways we could make a difference in the current climate of fear and division, and 25 people after the 5:30 service. I am liking Pelagius more and more.....
After five days in Edinburgh, we finally arrived with our good friends John and Mackie Rice at Iona, where we wandered, sat, talked to some of the one hundred or so locals, and began dreaming of leading a pilgrimage of folks from St. Aidan's and the Center for Spiritual Deepening. We were told by a wise friend that if we came to this magical place we would return more than once and I hope that is true.
We arrived by ferry after a harrowing (for this driver) 40 mile trip across the isle of Mull on a single track road. That drive added to the joy of walking up the ramp into the little village after the short crossing from Mull.
The church that dominates the sky line in the village is a twelfth century Benedictine chapel built where Columba's abbey was situated in the sixth century. Not much remains of the original structures. A small stone chapel near the church is believed to be Columba's burial place. Worship is led at least twice a day in the chapel by members of the Iona Community, an ecumenical religious community that does a lot of work with the poor and struggling in Glasgow and that leads retreats on Iona for people from all over the world. On Tuesday evening as we set out for the 9 pm service, it seemed like half the village was making its way to the chapel in a silent, growing procession that led us into the church where we were met by candles and gentle music, much like 5:30 at St. Aidan's.
One of the remaining structures from those earliest pilgrims to Iona is the base of a hermit's cell, which is a thirty minute walk from the village. For Mary and me, it was a thirty minute walk to the hermit's cell and a two hour walk back. You can expect a sermon about the dangers of thinking you can find a short cut in strange country, the benefits of getting lost in the bogs on Iona and the adventures of climbing barbed wire fences.
Much of Iona looks like this. The end of the island you see is about two miles from the high vantage point where this picture was taken. The whole island is three miles long and a mile and a half wide.
Only the few residents who live in the island are allowed to have cars but traffic jams can still be a problem.
This is the oldest high cross on the island. It stands beside the abbey chapel and is 1200 years old. It was erected less than two hundred years after Aidan set out from Iona to do his missionary work in northern England.
Iona is indeed a "thin" place whose scenery and pace can gentle a pilgrim into graced moments of gratitude. Columba and Aidan came to Iona to find themselves by trusting their lives into God's care. This holy island still attracts many who come for those same reasons. I look forward to returning and learning to draw on the gifts that pilgrims have always found on Iona: silence, surrender, belonging, call, challenge, community, grounding.........the list will grow, I am sure. I am, for now, a grateful pilgrim--grateful for this place and grateful for my community that allows it's priest to wander off in search of renewal. I'll see you in a few weeks.
Maybe you’re here to hunt easter eggs. I’m glad you’re here because I’m sure not going to go looking for all those eggs. Hunting for easter eggs is a fine reason to be here today.
Maybe you’re here for the hymns and the flowers and the buzz of the big easter crowd. More good reasons to be here in this room this morning.
Maybe you’re here as a gift to someone who loves you, someone who said, “Oh please come, please let’s go together.” I can’t imagine a better reason to be here today.
Maybe you’re here because the Jesus story has caught you in some new way, or has been a part of your journey as long as you can remember.
Maybe you’ve come to recall and reconnect and be touched once again by the celebration of this most festive day, with its mystery and it’s uncanny ability to show us something new, no matter how many Easters we have known.
Or maybe you are here because, where else would you be? This is what I do. I wouldn’t miss this day.
These are all fine reasons for showing up today.
What I hope you are hearing is that we all have our reasons for being here today and that is not just ok, it is an important message of the resurrection, especially in Luke’s telling, the version we just heard. There are all kinds of ways to respond to this day, to be present in it, and only when we see that and recognize that our little piece of the puzzle fits and belongs with all the others do we begin realize the enormity of the message of the risen Christ. Christ comes to life and is present with us in as many ways as there are people in this room. That seems to be an important part of the good news we celebrate this morning. Think about the story we heard.
The scene opens with the women running to the tomb. Dutiful, pragmatic, they are where they need to be to take care of the business at hand. Many of us live such faithful lives.
They show up because someone must, and because even the events of the last few days don’t change the fact that they are Jesus’ friends, with responsibilities and continuing obligations to that relationship. They come out simply to do what needs to be done and are surprised to learn that their relationship with their friend and teacher is not ending, but just beginning. Sometimes just showing up can change everything.
Then they run back to the disciples and try to explain what has happened and their story is met with skepticism. Impossible, they say. These women were distraught, confused, unable to accept the reality of their friend’s death. Their story was is an idle tale. And yet from that very group, good old impulsive Peter just can’t stand it. As is so often the case with Peter, he is up and out the door before he knows what his feet are doing. He is skeptical like the others but he always leads with his heart and he is propelled by a glimmer of hope, somewhere deep within that maybe he hasn’t seen the last of Jesus. He runs to the tomb and ends up returning with the certainty that something new has taken place, something he can’t begin to understand. Somehow he knows that his journey with Jesus is not ended, but changed. I imagine that walk home…..so much to ponder….a future that lies in the unfamiliar..…
And what about those skeptics he left behind. The tradition tells us they all found ways to approach the mystery of the risen Christ. James ended up leading the church in Jerusalem. What happened between his rejecting what sounded like a crazy story and becoming a leader in the movement? It is good that we don’t have all the details of that transition. It is enough to know that he made that inner journey, and since we don’t know exactly how it happened, we are free to imagine ourselves into that open part of the story. Most of us know something about the tension between wanting to be open to something new and good and wanting to protect ourselves from being drawn into something a little too crazy. James and the others must have lived in that tension for some time.
I think of John, the beloved disciple. I think of the poetry attributed to him in the gospel that bears his name. I wonder if his approach to the resurrection began with a search for words that might begin to convey something of the unspeakable.
I think about Nathaniel who was surprised in the beginning when Jesus said he had seen him before they ever met. I wonder if maybe Jesus sought him out and doubled his surprise at how Jesus could be present with him, even when he wasn’t aware of that presence.
There are as many way to experience the resurrection today as there are people in this room, and more. I haven’t always believed that.
Like most of us, probably, I began this faith journey thinking there must be some right and proper way to understand all these stories, the church’s teachings, the faith in which I was raised.
I remember times of wishing I could believe what I was sure all these others around me must believe easily. I remember wondering what they would think of me if they knew what I really could and could not believe. One of the blessings of getting older, I’m finding, is a loss of the need for certainty….an understanding that what we know is very rarely the end of what we will know and that our lives are open in new ways in new seasons. Paul said about faith once, “we see through a glass darkly,” but the church doesn’t always lead with that bit of humility.
It is so easy to look up one day and decide that the way we have understood Christ doesn’t work any more, doesn’t fit where we are and what we have learned on our journey. Too often, when that happens, we turn away and think the story is ended. That may be the one truth Jesus’ friends shared in common, the belief that the story was over.
The Easter message that replaced that fear of loss was not a single, common message, but one that became real for each of them in different ways and in response to who there were and what they could take in. They each began to experience the risen Christ in ways that had to do with their gifts and their hopes and their particular place in the larger story. The message of Easter is that Christ is always new, alway coming to life in some new way to meet us in the here and now.
What seems obvious to me today is that over time, and in our life together with this mystery, and in stories like the one we heard this morning, Christ rises in new ways in new times throughout our lives. Just when we think he is gone, here he is again with some new connection, some new call, new hope, new next steps. What binds us together and calls us to celebrate today is the promise that we share in the risen life of Christ…..not in the particularities of that life, but in the promise that the one who was raised to new life invites us to new lives we have not yet imagined. Not just once, or twice, but over and over again.
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Many years ago, Mary and I had the good fortune of stumbling into a quirky little restaurant in Paris where there was one seating for dinner, everyone sat at old desks, and the owner/chef told stories and jokes and sang songs after dinner.That night we were the only non French speakers among the twenty or thirty diners, so the owner drafted another patron to translate for us, and just to make us comfortable in the setting, he began by speaking to Mary and me and said he had a joke that non English speakers wouldn’t get.Why was six afraid of seven, he asked.Because seven eight nine.Doesn’t work in French, he wanted to let us know we were welcome.It was a fun evening.
Well, if you saw the advertisement for this sermon in the newsletter—and I think this is the first time I have ever advertised the theme of sermon—then you know that I plan to speak today to men about their lives and about the kinds of soul work that we have to do just because we happen to be men. But before I go there, I want to speak first about something I learned in seminary about feminist theology. It had to do with a familiar story in the gospel. Some people come to Jesus and ask him a question about marriage. They set up a problem saying that if a man dies and his wife is supposed to become the wife of his brother, and if that brother dies and the wife is passed on to the next brother, and it happens again and she becomes the wife of yet another brother, whose wife they ask, will she be when they all get to heaven? Jesus answers that in heaven marriage doesn’t work as it does in this life, things are different in heaven. For most of the almost two thousand years that story has been told, it has been used as a springboard to talk about heaven, or maybe spiritual reality as opposed to human reality. Men have told the story, preached about the story and explained its meaning. Then in our time, as women began a new effort to free themselves from the scripted roles under which they had lived for so long, they began to look at the stories with hew eyes. For women, Jesus answer in the story of the wife of many brothers was clear. Jesus was saying heaven is a place where women don’t have to put up with that stuff.
Women, having set about the business of moving out of a centuries old cultural mold approach a familiar story with a new lens, one through which the meaning of the story shifts in a startling and at the same time obvious way. We are left saying, of course, how could I have not seen that. That’s what happened to me last week as I read the familiar story of the prodigal son. I’ll get to that story in a few minutes, first I want to tell you about the lens I brought to that reading.
In the past year I have been doing some reading and asking questions about the lives of men. I began wondering about the spiritual lives of men in relation to my work as a pastor. I often see more women in church than men and I wonder what the church has to offer men in these times and how the church’s message is heard by men. I did some reading about such questions several years ago and found that there is a big discussion going on around what men are and are not finding in church. One writer noted that men used to come to church to learn the rules, but our message has shifted. Now, instead of rules and laws and how to behave we offer a loving relationship with a thirty year old middle eastern man who is still somehow portrayed often with blonde hair, blue eyes and a come hither look and we are surprised that men don’t seem that interested.
I read of several programs being suggested, all having to do with encouraging guys to “man-up for Jesus.” My favorite line about manning up for Jesus I really can’t repeat here, but I am pretty sure that whatever you imagine because I just said that you could find if you went looking. I discovered soon that if I wanted to look into what men’s spiritual work might be about, I was going to have to look beyond the conversations among church folks which always seem to end up being about how to get more people into church. Those conversations are about the church’s issues, not men’s issues.
So I kept looking and soon found a more serious line of discussion about the lives of men that led me to the writings of James Hollis. Hollis may be the leading writer and teacher in America on the work of Carl Jung. I went to hear him speak a few months ago about the inner work of men and was intrigued. In his books and I find a wisdom that resonates and descriptions of the challenges faced by men get nods from other men when I describe them. Hollis lists eight of these, I want to flag two.
First, and this where the work of moving beyond a culturally written script comes in, Hollis says that the worth of men is measured by how well we perform to some external standard of production. Down through history, men have gone out to work and provide and make money, and though women these days are often as much the breadwinners in their families as men are, we all know how long it takes for deep cultural expectations to change. Even when the old scripts don’t work, we keep running into them because they are so deeply ingrained in our lives. Women know this. In a year when we could elect the first woman president, women are still having to fight for equal pay. Old scripts don’t fade easily.
Finding our worth somewhere outside ourselves sets up a whole other line of challenges. If our worth is defined by how well we perform at our jobs, then it will be important to project the image that we are doing well at those tasks. And, if we have to look successful in the roles that establish our worth then we will be unwilling to share our own questions about how well we are doing in that environment with the men around us. Another of the challenges Hollis describes has to do with men not sharing our doubts, fears and struggles with other men. And, in addition to secrets and silence resulting from having to look good on our worldly roles, just having to fit ourselves into those roles often means we have to deny something of ourselves in the process. Who doesn’t sometimes dream of a whole other kind of life, the cabin in the woods, trekking, a very different kind of work. It is worth asking where those dreams come from. Part of our spiritual work as men is to stay in touch with our own uniques souls, even as we live and work in a world that expects us to fit in.
The second challenge I want to cite, though Hollis calls these secrets and I think that better describes this one, is that men want a better relationship with their fathers. This one is actually related to the last one. Anthropologists studying primitive cultures find that it is often the grandfathers who are responsible for teaching boys about becoming men. Fathers are often too busy hunting and providing and trying to make their way in the world of responsibility. It is true for our culture as well. Connections between fathers and sons can be difficult and we can find ourselves late into adulthood wanting to connect in some real way with our fathers. Many a man whose father has long since died takes an interest in family history, a father’s home town, stories about the wars their fathers fought, journeys they made. More than a few of us have reconciled with fathers long after they were gone because we found ourselves with what Hollis calls a “father hunger.” My father had been gone for many years when I discovered Wendell Berry’s Port William novels about a fictional small town in rural Kentucky. I devoured those books because in time and setting they seemed to capture the boyhood situation of my father’s life. Many of us still long for stronger relationships with our fathers.
Now of course, none of these things is true for all men, at least not in the same way, but they all seem to be on track. And naming them helps point us toward our own souls where our questions, fears and longings can help us find our way. Hollis’ list caught me where I live, and I might not have begun this talk so soon if I hadn’t had these thing in mind when I read the gospel for this morning.
Let’s take a look at it once more through the lenses of believing our worth lies with some outside evaluator and the desire to reconnect with our fathers. That’s what was on my mind this week when I read the story of the Prodigal Son.
I’ll start with the older brother because he is the one who is most crippled by the idea that his worth, his value, must be earned. He is undone by the idea that his father could love his little brother after what he did. The older brother is angry, but he is also fearful, and we find he has been hesitant to speak up about what he needs. He just assumed toeing the line was the only path to acceptance. His father tells him he could always have had whatever he wanted just by asking. It is so easy to think the systems we work in define us. Again, there is something to be said for standing up for our own souls.
And with that in mind the younger brother I now see as the hero of this story. He looked at the life that had been written for him and he made a break for the door. He didn’t do it well, and it didn’t end up like he intended, but it sounds like he tried to honor an inner call that was at odds with the culture that would define him. Sometimes the work of preserving our soul can get messy.
And then there is that business about wanting to connect with fathers. In this story the younger son’s relationship with his father is transformed, not by becoming the son his father wanted, but by the discovery—by the father and his young son—that their connection was deeper. The description of the homecoming reveals a longing for each other, a desire to hold each other and claim each other quite apart from anything they may or may not do to deserve that moment.
The story of the prodigal son is, for me, today, a story about men, and expectations, and about exploding the idea that our worth is somehow tied to how good we are. It is a story about love and acceptance, the kinds of things men often long for and cannot name and therefor must find in the clumsy living of our lives. It is a story about grace that somehow, in a place we don’t often talk about, we all really want the same things and have more in common than we know. We want to belong and be loved just because we are…….no other reason.
I realize it is a bit of a stretch to talk about these things. We’re not used to putting these ideas out there…..I’m not used to putting these ideas out there. But I do feel called to live a different kind of life. I think we probably all do. And I am glad today for this story of some guys discovering the possibility of being accepted, claimed and valued not just in spite of, but because of their ability to live a little beyond what those around them might expect. Amen
This isn't a sermon, but a reflection on a conversation, one that led me, as most conversations do these days, toward the idea of journey.
I found myself in another of those interesting, Wednesday morning conversations today as I ate breakfast with fellow clergy from churches in the Route One area. We’ve been meeting for grits and oatmeal and such on Wednesday mornings for ten or fifteen years now, and you’d think we would have settled all the questions of faith in that time but that, of course, is not the case-another indication that this faith of ours must indeed be an ongoing, ever unfolding business. Maybe that is why I keep coming back to the theme of journey.
Usually, the best I can say is that we are making our way toward something better in the company of that great host we remembered this past Sunday when we celebrated All Saints Day. I used to be more aware of the dogma in which the Church operates, sometimes arguing for and sometimes against ideas and beliefs long held in our tradition. These days I am coming to prefer silence and meditation to theological argument, so I was not sure how to respond when one of our group this morning brought up the subject of eschatology. Eschatology has to do with the end times, as in the books of Daniel and Revelation, and it has to do with when, whether, and how Jesus might be returning some day. Eschatology is a subject that many clergy, including yours truly, don’t spend much time with because the subject has inspired a lot of, Oh, what can I call it?……well, craziness over the years.
The cartoons with the bearded guy on the street corner bearing a sign saying “the end is near” are a product of eschatology. People wondering if Jesus would show up at midnight on December 31st, 1999, those who gathered on mountain tops to pray and welcome him back. They too were responding to eschatology. Every so often, people are sure they have come up with some kind of mathematical code hidden in scripture that explains the exact day when Jesus will return. Those are some of the ideas that come to mind when I hear people talking about eschatology, or the end times so I mostly ignore the subject. I am glad though that my friend brought up what is still an important part of the Church’s life, giving us all a chance to look beyond some of that old baggage. I am glad because I need to be reminded sometimes about the parts of the tradition I conveniently shuffle to the edges of my mind’s desk. I am glad too because eschatology has an important place in the theme of journey that we are currently using to explore this faith of ours at St. Aidan’s.
Part of journeying involves having a sense of where we might be headed and eschatology might help with that. Yes, I know we have talked about being called into the unknown by God who doesn’t reveal what lies ahead. We have said we have to set out seeing only what we are leaving behind, trusting God to lead us to a new and better place. We don’t get the details, only the promise that God will accompany us and lead us well. It is that intentional lack of details provided by God that makes me think trying to wrap our minds around what happens at the end of history is not particularly helpful. But the part about being called to a place that God will show us, and journeying there in the company of God will, if we let it, move us toward awe, and maybe silent reflection, and great hope. Eschatology has a lot to do with what we think the whole point of this faith endeavor might be.
Just try to imagine. What kind of a place would God show us? What must lie in that direction? If the way involves trusting again and again, sometimes against all our instincts, which is what all the scriptural stories of call and journey suggest, how might we and our world be changed along that way? Imagine. I have to believe that’s where all this eschatology stuff started, with imagination. I don’t claim to know anything about the end times, and I sure won’t try to tell you that the biblical images of the fulfillment of all things have anything to do with what will be. I will tell you that we have received our tradition from humans like ourselves, people who intuitively dreamed of something better, people who for thousands of years have associated the desire for life more deeply rooted in justice and love with what Verna Dozier calls the “dream of God.” I’m thinking of people like St. Paul and St. Peter and great King David whose journeys were sometimes one step forward and two back, people whose lives were often changed through struggle and having to face hard truths about themselves, people who in the end are remembered for taking steps in the company of their divine companion toward a future described by that divine companion as “the land that I will show you.” I find that part of our story compelling.
Every day, we all set out on journeys of some kind, little journeys, big journeys, journeys set within journeys. Every day we rise and begin to make our way. I can think of no better compass for our journeying than trying to imagine the dream of God for this day, for our lifetime and for the grand scheme of the cosmos. Imagine.
The witness of the Church through history is not to some point on a calendar out in the future, but to the hope revealed in its members. Our hope is that we and all creation are being created ever more fully and drawn ever more deeply into the dream of God which we intuit to include love, justice, peace, mercy, fulfillment, the list goes on. And when our movement toward the vision seems glacial, maybe it is only because God will not leave behind recalcitrant wanderers and distracted stragglers. That too is a part of the vision….at least as I imagine it. You see how this works?
Before you head out on your next journey, I invite you to sit with or take a walk with or somehow spend time pondering the “dream of God.” What comes to mind for you around that timeless image and where will it lead you?
Welcome to these pages of sermons and theological musings. I hope this format will encourage us to continue the conversations started as sermons and in classes at St. Aidan's. The work of discerning what God is saying to us must always be carried out in community, and in our time, community often consists of the group gathered at the screen to discuss ideas, hopes, dreams and mysteries. Welcome and thanks for being here.
And a note about why there are so few sermons posted.
A couple of years ago I pretty much stopped preaching from a manuscript so presenting a written version has become more difficult. I will try to provide sermons from time to time but I encourage you to come and hear them at St. Aidan's when you can.