I'm not preaching this week, but I wanted to get this out in the newsletter and since it ended up sounding sermonish, I thought I'd add it here.
As we try to take in yet one more senseless act of anger, hate and fear, I find myself wondering about the place of the Church and if maybe we are not as clear about the gospel message as we might be. Because I have always been interested in people who don’t participate in a faith community, I wonder often what those who are not part of a church think this Christianity we represent is about. I imagine them thinking we are gathered around unbelievable stories and the hope of getting into heaven after we die. I imagine them learning about Christianity from the culture battles waged and reported in the news and worry that they think Christianity has to do with setting ourselves up as judges of those around us. I wonder sometimes if many of those who only see Christianity from the outside end up saying, as Gandhi was reported to have said, that they might want to be a Christian if they didn’t know so many of them. I worry that others imagine that we are all focused on our own salvation, our own righteousness, our own misguided agendas.
I am pretty sure I could get a clipboard, go into the city and ask people what they think Christianity is about and not many would say, “Oh, Christians, they are those people who gather in communities so they can learn to better love everyone who crosses their path. They are the people who are trying to change the world by changing themselves.” I’m pretty sure that is what we are really doing in our little congregations, at least I hope so. I’m just not sure that message is getting out. In a world where people point at others saying they are not as good as we are, Jesus says that might be true, they may be better at loving than you are. Let me tell you a story about a Samaritan who found this guy in a ditch. In a world where we so easily point out others’ failings, Jesus talks about taking the plank out of our own eye so we can see to take the splinter out of someone else’s eye. In a world where we cling to old anger, Jesus says, let go. Forgive. Just quit holding onto that stuff that makes life so hard for everyone. Bringing in the kingdom, says Jesus, is not about telling others what they have to do to get there, but about becoming honest about our own lives and participating in our own transformation. Of course there are times for righteous anger. Jesus went there too. Of course there are times to call others on their bad behavior. Jesus never shied away from that either. But we cannot separate our criticism of the world around us from our examination of our own lives. If we want to change the world, we have to be about changing ourselves. Jesus was very clear on that. And maybe that message can be some comfort as we read the headlines this week.
Part of the shock and sadness we feel in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings has to do with the feeling of helplessness. In the face of destructive forces we can’t understand or even imagine how to contain, we are left asking what we, or anyone, can possibly do to change what is happening around us. The answer is breaking through loud and clear, if we are attuned to hear and see it. The news images and sounds of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those who practice no religion gathered in prayer and song and mutual support send the true message about all of our religions. The real power of our faith isn’t in a pointing finger or a book of laws. It is in humility, love, forgiveness, community, and hope. And we could all get better at all of those things. And that is where we are not helpless, because we can all get better at all of those things. Even in these troubled times, we can make a difference. We change the world by changing ourselves. JB
You are not alone. That is our message. That is the good news.
The incarnation says, you are not alone.
The resurrection says, you are not alone.
The birth of Jesus is a cosmic message saying the great loving power in the universe has not forgotten us. We are not alone.
The risen Christ who became known among the little band who gathered to remember Jesus still can be found among us and the message is the same. We are not alone.
Now that introduction may not give you a heads up as to where I am going in todays’s sermon. I didn’t set out to preach about this boiled down version of the gospel message, you are not alone, but it kind of arose naturally out of the topic I did come to talk about today, and it seems such an important part of the message I thought I should begin there. You are not alone. We are not alone.
What I did sign up to preach about this morning was giving, stewardship, returning a portion of what we have been given by God to fund the ministry and mission of St. Aidan’s.
Yes, my friends, you have come to church this Sunday hoping for some good news and stumbled upon the annual stewardship sermon. I suppose that is another reason I wanted to start with that business about us not being alone, because it is, I think, the good news at the heart of the gospel and the good news lived out in the lives of the people of this congregation. Most of us are here because we have discovered that in this place, we are not alone. And this community and its work is funded by the money we all pledge to keep the lights on, the grass cut, to pay the staff, and buy insurance and supplies. Everything we do is funded by what we give.
It is my job today to encourage you to think of your pledge as an opportunity to give thanks to God by returning a portion of what you have received. There. I’ve said it. The message-from-this-station part of the sermon. If this were an NPR campaign, we would be reminded that we all know what we receive and why we want to support this good cause. It is that part of the commercial that made me want to talk about us not being alone.
Each year when it is time for the fall campaign, I think about all the reasons why people might say they give. I try to imagine what different families and individuals might say they get out of belonging to this parish. Every year I know I will be saying we give in response to what we have received, but that what-we-have-received can be very personal, and it won’t be the same for all of us. I worry sometimes at this time of year that I will fall into preacher-talk and go on about the “good news” or the “gifts of God” without ever connecting those grand sounding ideas to real lives. I end up wondering some years if there is any way to talk about the good news that draws us together and that we are charged with carrying into the world that everyone here might recognize. I end up wondering some years if I have just fallen into an old Paul Stookey comedy routine.
You remember Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Well when Pater, Paul, and Mary played in concert, Paul often did a little stand up comedy routine as a part of the evening. He did a piece one time about how the airlines kept promising something they never actually delivered, though they thought they had. He said, you get on the plane, get all buckled in and the pilot comes on the intercom and says, “we’d like to thank you for flying American.” Paul says, that sounds good, yes, that would be nice, ok, go ahead. Thank me. He says, they never do.
Some years at stewardship time, I end the day wondering if I indicated I wanted to talk about the good news without ever actually doing it. Which is why I wanted to say, right from the beginning and often today, “you are not alone.” I think that may be a way of talking about the good news that we would all recognize.
If my job today is to help you connect giving with what you have received, then my message is that you are not alone. As I think of the people in this community, about moments in your lives, about our time together, about our worship and outreach, about pastoral care, teaching, book groups, prayer groups, study groups, I see people who have found support for their lives in this community. I talk to people here all the time who have discovered they are not alone in their hunger for meaning, for depth and connection to something larger and grander than their every day experience. I see us living the not alone message in the work and fellowship that bring us together in the choir, tree sales, Octoberfest, in the hypothermia shelter, and altar guild and so much more. I see us living the not alone message when we provide comfort, meals, presence for those going through hard or challenging times. And of course, I see us living the not alone message in our worship, where we celebrate community not only with those around us but with God who is in our midst. In the very traditional Christian language of reconciliation and forgiveness, the answer is always that we are not alone. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. That was Jesus’ message and he urged us to continue that message by gathering in communities like this one, by living the message and spreading the word that no one is alone. I can not imagine trying to live in the world today without a group of friends who share the hope that there is more, that the God of love is present in our lives in ways that are uncovered in our shared life, in our not being alone.
I hope you received a pledge card and information this week and a letter from our senior warden Kimberly Martin. If you put on your we-are-not-alone glasses and read her letter you will hear about her having found a haven in this place, you will hear about her finding resources and support among the people of St. Aidan’s. I hope you go out today thinking of all the ways you are not alone because of your belonging in this community. I hope you will think of all the people around us who need to hear that simple message, who need to experience it, and find strength in it. And then I hope you will make a pledge for the coming year, in thanksgiving for the God who comes among us in so many ways to deliver the good news that we are not alone.
Many years ago, in the process leading up to seminary, I was required by my bishop to spend a few days in a tiny hermitage at the diocesan retreat center. The hermitage was near a little house cared for by Father Stevens, an Episcopal monk who, after decades of ministry in Liberia, had returned to the states to live a quiet life as a spiritual advisor and host to those who came looking for a little quiet in their lives. Signs around the property encouraging silence, and sightings of Father Stevens’ with his long white hair, beard, and robes set the place apart as being a little off the beaten track. The house had a chapel and meditation rooms open to anyone who needed them. For those of us who were interested in that sort of thing the place stood out as a little spiritual island in the middle of a demanding world. Not a bad place to visit. It never occurred to me to wonder what those unfamiliar with the concept of contemplation and silence might think of that set away place with its story-book looking monk. I got a glimpse of another take on religious life one afternoon while sitting outside my little hermitage.
The diocese had built two nice little cabins that sat on a ridge overlooking a meadow with wild flowers and a little path worn down the middle. The retreat center included 200 acres of property, fenced, but easily visited by kids from the local neighborhood. I was sitting on a log, looking at that meadow, just watching the clouds and feeling the breeze, very happy to be alive when I heard them coming through the woods. I heard them before I saw them. Four boys, 9 or 10, talking, enjoying the adventure of having come in under the fence to what must have been a magical kind of place. Of course adventures need to include a little danger, and I was soon surprised to learn that I had a role in their outing. I was sitting rock still on my log and they were a good ways off when I heard one of them shout in a frightened voice, “hey look. There’s one now. Run!” It took me a minute to realize they were talking about me. I found it very entertaining to be so frightening simply by sitting on a log. I began to imagine the stories they must have heard and told and amplified about the old guy in the white robe with the long beard and what kinds of things must go on in such a place. Very scary stuff. Religion can be like that.
I was told many years ago by the rector of the first parish I served that I would never get many people interested in “that contemplative stuff.” I wondered if he was right. I had always been leery of people who took their religion too seriously. I still am sometimes. Truth is, I had not been happy when my bishop made me take that time at the hermitage. I didn’t want to go hang out with that old monk. I didn’t want him messing around in the fragile beginnings of my spiritual wonderings. But by the time I was taken by those kids for a frightening “religious” guy, I had come to appreciate the quiet, the birds, the simplicity of just rocking and watching the woods and fields, even my simple meals and the lack of a phone and screens and news.
I probably would have told you before that weekend that religious life was about having to follow Jesus in ways that meant giving up all kinds of things and becoming some sort of a zealot. But by the time the kids ran away that afternoon I had figured out that my weekend was about simply being, being present to myself and with myself in a restorative way. I wasn’t thinking about religion or monks, I was listening to my own breathing, to the wind, to the grass being blown around, to the birds. When the kids shouted “run” I was enjoying being fully present in that fine moment, as I’m sure they were too. Go figure. So much we had in common that we would never share.
I have been reminded this week of all the people who approach the church, who approach and live at the edges of the faith community. I have long been interested in those folks who I imagine must need something they hope the church can supply, but are put off by some of our ways, our talk, our strangeness.
I hear Jesus saying this morning that if they aren’t against us they’re with us.
That is a hard enough message to convey to the insiders, Jesus’ followers, who must have thought they should be suspicious of others who hadn’t had their particular set of experiences.
I wonder if those others who were healing and doing good things outside Jesus group, the ones his disciples pointed out, I wonder if they ever heard that they were already included among Jesus’ friends. I hope so.
Many in the faith community, and here I’m speaking not only of Christians, but Jews, Muslims, Hindu, people of all kinds of faith….are looking at our era, our place in history and seeing a new movement in the direction and nature of faith. Christians have been talking for some time about a new reformation, that after five hundred years another major shift is coming in how we understand what we are about as Christians. One writer, known for his work in interfaith dialogue says we are at the beginning of a new axial age in our understanding of faith, one marked by the possibility of a deeper encounter between world religions, one where we begin to discover the creative core at the center of others whose lives and ways we have not known. One writer sees a move from the age of belief to the age of the spirit, a move from defining ourselves by doctrine to coming to see ourselves as participating in the “something more” that all religions try to approach. Another writer searching for common ground among religions and found that the concept of the trinity runs deep, not only in Christianity but in any faith where God, Creation and Humanity are the field of discussion.
I welcome this new axial age or this new reformation. I hope we are moving to a time when we in religion focus not on our differences, but on what we hold in common. That is where the real work is and has always been……hard truths, risky sharing, tentative approaches to sacred halls where the promise of living from our “soul depths” is held out. I hope we are moving to a time when we can learn from the depths of those strange others whose faith we may encounter for the first time. I hope we are moving to a time when we can truly say that those who aren’t against us are with us. I hope we are moving to a time when we can be a little less proud of our own way and discover surprising gifts discovered in some new-to-us expression of what it means to live in the presence of “the great other.” All that sounds good to me. But I want more.
I hope too that we can find a way to tell those who do not believe themselves to belong in the world of faith and religious longing that they too are needed, wanted….that they not only have a place among us but that they bring gifts that we, from our limited perspective might not recognize. Only when we begin to risk sharing our humanity, something of what is at our own core can we begin to trust ourselves to the care and friendship of those strange others. Religion can be scary yes, but maybe the best kept secret, the one that if we can expose it might help us welcome those who hang around the edges of the tradition, is that religion is scary for all of us, even those of us who consider ourselves insiders. Religion is always about taking in the unfamiliar, about moving beyond our comfort zone, and maybe that’s what those “other people over there” have to teach us. If they can risk coming among us to share and seek nourishment for their “souls,” then maybe we can too. Maybe we can all learn that those strangers over there are not only not against us, but are indeed for us. I hope that is where we are headed. Amen
St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, Alexandria, Virginia
Any number of possibilities present themselves as ways to go about preaching Ian’s service this afternoon. Calling Ian Roberts a multi-faceted human being would be an understatement. Probably the easiest way to proceed would be to simply have as us all look at the picture on the cover of the bulletin. Take a look.
From here we all could wander off into memories of Ian’s welcoming expression, his approach to the world, to the greeting we expect from his smiling face. Ian was husband, friend, parent, counselor…we all have stories.
Or I could talk about all the things Ian shared with those around him. About his desire to invite others into higher purpose, to give, to make the world a better place. A few years ago when he took over the CROP walk to alleviate hunger, he was a force to be reckoned with. I still see him in his yellow CROP Walk tee shirt.
What stands out for me today though, is the most recent experience of being with Ian in his final days and watching a side of him I had known but not experienced to the extent that I did in Scotland a few weeks ago. I had on our recent trip the great joy of experiencing Ian closer to his home setting—geography I had heard him talk about for years. Mary and I had gone to Scotland for the first time two years ago, and in the run-up to that trip it seemed like Ian was in my office every week with a map, or a book, or a new list of parks, mountains, and lochs we had to see. We ended up making a detour at one point to see what Ian swore was a dinosaur’s footprint on a beach on the isle of sky.
Ian was persuasive.
With that understanding of his love of the country and it’s marvels, I sat with him on the ferry as we made our way from Oban to Mull. He was totally captured by what he was seeing out the window. He was fully alive. Then I watched him on the bus as we crossed Mull. I was near the back and he in the front. I watched him pointing and commenting and laughing and delighting in seeing others experience what had always brought him so much joy. In his last days Ian was as alive and happy as I had ever seen him.
He appreciated the beauty of the world, of his homeland in a way that suggested he was seeing more than just mountains and streams and beaches. His face and his expressions and his reaction to the beauty around him conveyed a truth offered in the fourth century by Gregory of Nyssa who said the beauty we see fills us and draws us further toward the beauty yet to be seen.
In Ian’s descriptions of what he loved and was fascinated with one always had the feeling that he was seeing more, and trying to share that something more….that he’d already had a glimpse of what lay beyond and wanted others to catch that vision too.
As I was thinking this week about Ian and about what I would say today, I ran across these words, written by Walter Pater in his conclusion to a book of poems by William Morris. Pater says:
The service of philosophy, of speculative culture towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some new form grows perfect in land or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood or passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end…How should we pass most swiftly from point to point and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.
Ian showed us all what it looks like to live a successful life.
And here’s the thing. With Ian, that fascination, that observation wasn’t reserved for just the beautiful, but for, and maybe especially for, hidden beauty—the beauty in the mundane, the mystery and glory in what is easily overlooked. He looked for that hidden wonder in each of us and in everyone he met and we knew it. One of the books of photographs he published and shared with friends was titled, “Hidden in Plain Sight” because that is where he looked for the amazing, the worthwhile, the more than worthwhile.
When Ian fell ill and was taken to the hospital in Oban, Kathy went with him and the rest of us made the short crossing to Iona. Kathy stayed in touch by phone and email, and at some point she mentioned Ian’s propensity for searching among the neglected and unnoticed for what was truly remarkable. We all recognized what Kathy was talking about and that way of Ian’s became a part of our week. Though he never made it across that last mile of water to the island, Ian was with us the whole time. More than once at the end of the day’s hiking and wandering in the beauty of nature someone would report having spent the day looking at the world “the way Ian does,” searching out what might be missed because of its humble setting or seeming insignificance in the presence of so much beauty. On that tiny island, as prayers were offered for Ian at every service in the abbey and as the story spread, our little band became known as “Ian’s group.” His presence and influence were palpable for people who had never met him. We would expect nothing less from Ian Roberts. Ian himself is still hidden in plain sight on Iona. Even in death, Ian was shaping and guiding and creating community.
My understanding of church and salvation has to do with being made whole in the community that gathers around the Jesus stories. It is about becoming aware of that “something more” which we all intuit and of which we are all a part. We learn from each other and are shaped by each other’s stories, by sharing the experience of living, its joys and its challenges. We learn, grow, and discover in community in ways we never could on our own. Community is where we become what we might become, and hopefully, in the process, discover that part of the divine life that is ours to reveal through our living and acting to others in the community. Ian found his calling.
Jesus was always encouraging those around him to go farther, ‘think about what lies behind your tradition’s words, throw a wider net when you imagine community, include those you didn’t think belonged, expand your thinking…….your awareness of others and their lives. Expand your belief in your own worth….develop a fascination for everything around you until this life becomes the kingdom of the divine and you begin to worry less about your own life and begin to long for that “something more” you have always hoped for.
I believe Ian’s gift, his bit of the divine revelation, had to do with that part of what Jesus tried to communicate. Ian who was “roused and startled to life” very early on, never stopped inviting others into that grander way of being in the world. He did that with and for and to every one of us. That is why we are here today. We give thanks to God this afternoon for the gift of Ian Roberts. And, we give thanks to Ian for the God we know a little better because of Ian’s call to look for the best things “hidden in plain sight. “
I have always liked the story about Adam and Eve and God that we just heard. I particularly love God’s line here, “who told you you were naked?” That line seems to just sum up the human situation so well. It is a loving response to an affliction we have all known, one that can stick and be hard to shake off. It is a kind response, it is concerned for the frightened couple who have discovered the power and potency of shame. “Naked!” “Who told you you were naked?”
Shame can be toxic. I’ve known people who spent their whole lives recovering from shame that was instilled in them as children. For those people, recovering a sense of their worth and goodness can be a major part of their life’s spiritual work. Fortunately, we are learning not to shame children as easily as some of our parents did. We tend to treat our kids better in this enlightened age. Kids yes, dogs….not so much.
If you have or have ever had a dog, you probably know something about the power of shame. They must be born with it, I don’t know where it comes from, but dogs seem to recognize that voice, the “what have you done” voice. When I think of the dogs that have been a part of my life, I can hear myself, I can hear that voice; “Charlie!” “Ike!” “We don’t eat such things when we are on a walk!” “Ralph!” “Bad dog!” I don’t think it’s even the words….just the tone. You could probably read a dog the phone book in the right voice and watch that tail go down between those legs before Rover slinks off to some hidden corner. I wouldn’t think of shaming a child. Not too explicitly. But the dog…….I am guilty of using shame on the dog. I admit it……I’m ashamed……well ok……tail between the legs.
As I read this story of god coming back into the garden and finding Adam and Eve hiding, it seems obvious that the fall—which I take to be a highly metaphorical piece of poetry—was not a fall from relationship with God, but a fall into shame. The very first result of doing what they knew better than to do was that the humans became aware of themselves and their assumed unfitness for fellowship. Isn’t that what shame is. It is the voice inside us that tells us we are not worthy. It is that voice that whispers to us that it would be better for us if others didn’t know the truth about us, if others didn’t see us as we really are. Shame separates us from those around us, and in this story it separates those humans, who are so like god, so aware of god and their place in creation as friends and companions for god, it separates them from the one who created them to share a life of mutuality and plenty and love.
We were hiding, says Adam, because of this thing we discovered.We encountered something about ourselves that troubled us and so we assumed we should hide that part of ourselves from you.
When I think of my least favorite politicians, and when I am feeling really angry at what they have done, I fantasize about telling them what I think of what they are doing, and I will admit that sometimes those fantasies involve shaming…. pretty much the same voice I would use on the dog….Mr. Congressman………. In those moments I imagine shame as a weapon used to inflict pain. Shame is too often used to control and shape the lives of those whose ideas or behavior makes us uncomfortable.
But in my best moments, even those crazy leaders get better from me. In my best moments I wish they could expand their vision—which is what Jesus tried to get people to do—to in some way take in what is important to the people about whom I am concerned.
My first instinct, to shame them for being so clueless is exactly the wrong way to bring about any sort of creative engagement. Since shame, if it is felt, wants to hide and reduce its exposure to and interaction with those around it, shaming each other over our differences can not bring about the desired cooperation. Everything becomes more difficult when shame enters the picture. It’s hard to forgive people who are hiding what they have done. It is hard to be forgiven if we fear the pain of revealing our truth more than we fear living in hiding.
I am a theologically and socially liberal Episcopalian, which means that I have spent most of my life saying there isn’t any devil. I can give you all kinds of sound, supported theological reasons for that position, but if I were going to tell a story about a foe of all that is good and all that we hope for in love and community, I couldn’t tell a more chilling story than this one about the snake who leaves this poor, silly, hapless couple mired in shame. I can’t imagine a more devastating blow to the dream of god than the sowing of shame in this beautiful garden the creator, the dreamer of love imagined. Imagined for us…..
Paul whose letters are the earliest Christian writings we have, said that Jesus life and ministry responded to that earliest story of shame and alienation. Theologians and preachers tend to think of Jesus balancing and redeeming Adam’s fall in grand cosmic ways, Adam sinned…..Jesus paid the price…..that sort of thing. But in today’s gospel we get a more practical version of Jesus responding to the universal problem of shame.
First, we learn that Jesus grew up in a house where shame was known. You may have grown up in such a home. Most of us did. A home where in one form or another the message was clearly posted. Let this be your guide through life: “what will the neighbors think?” We know that Jesus had some of this in his early life because of the story we heard this morning. Jesus is hanging out in the neighborhood, talking in ways that make the neighbors think he’s crazy, healing people, drawing a crowd, not worrying about what people think, making his mama nervous, right out in front of everyone. His family goes out to restrain him. It’s like he stepped into the story to show us how to get past the shame that had bound us for so long…..so long……
He tells those who are concerned about the anxiety of his mother and brothers, that his real family consists of those who get him, just as he is.
Again and again in the gospel story, Jesus is Jesus with little regard for what others will think or what being himself might cost him in the regard of others. Shame, over time, when used as a system of control, robs us of our authenticity. Jesus doesn’t just tell us there’s a better way, he shows us. He gathers corn on the sabbath, he heals on the sabbath, he talks to women, he helps foreigners, he says what’s on his mind, he speaks in riddles that leave people wondering what he is talking about, he eats and sleeps and travels with tax gatherers and sinners, he rides into town like a king, only on a donkey, and in the end—and this is where the circle to that garden story is completed—he ends up nailed to a cross………naked. All of this he did to show us that we don’t have to hide, that nothing we could do can break the relationship begun in that story so long ago…. Jesus with his whole life utters what we must assume was God’s next line in that first story.
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.