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Trinity Sunday, Year C

John 16:(5-11)12-15 - link to NRSV text

Last year, I preached on Trinity Sunday. Here's my sermon from then, which was written with a different gospel text in mind, but I think would fit for this year as well.

It opens with an acknowledgment of the incomprehensibility of the doctrine of the Trinity. Since when did three equal one? For many years, it was hard for me to appreciate something that I knew I could never compreheand. I think now, though, that the incomprehensibility -- literally, that one cannot take it in, capture it in the hand -- is not at all beside the point. Where on earth did I get the idea that anything important ought to be something my mind could contain?

A lot of us get into a trap of thinking that we could be in relationship -- that we could initiate contact or reconciliation -- with someone if we could comprehend them first. It seems safer that way, somehow. And some of us get that way with God too. We substitute trying to figure out Jesus for following Jesus. We substitute trying to figure out God for loving God.

To me, that's one important thing that the doctrine of the Trinity says. It says that "In the beginning, God made sense and followed the rules" is one of the silliest stories the human race has ever told. The doctrine of the Trinity says that God's eternal nature is as relationship -- that God was, is, and always will be Love. And love isn't about understanding; it's about trusting, and committing, to someone who is Other, different, incomprehensible. Because when we claim to love because we think we comprehend, we are only loving what's also in us. We call that "narcissism." Love requires an other.

So the doctrine of the Trinity gives me hope for our Christian community. We are made in the image of the God who is Love. We are made in the image of Love. Love is what we were born for, and the universe arcs toward it. Love is our home, to which God is calling us. We don't need to understand. We need to listen. Indeed, when we think we understand, we stop listening.

Keep listening. Keep loving. And, as Talking Heads were wont to say back when I was in high school, "Stop Making Sense."

Thanks be to God!

May 31, 2004 in John, Trinity, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

clarification on Pentecost entry

Thanks for the comments!

I think my last blog entry was a good example of why one doesn't, in other media, publish something written in one draft at 11:30 p.m.! I'm embarrassed that some have thought that I was trying to argue for English-only Eucharists in multicultural community -- something I find appalling.

I just want to clarify: I'm totally in favor of readings in multiple languages in services, especially when they're read in languages that are spoken regularly by people in the congregation. I miss more than I can say the bilingual Eucharists I participated in while I lived in L.A. I think that language and culture go together, and we lose a great deal as a society when we discourage people from speaking (and reading) in their first languages. I'd like to see MORE readings throughout the liturgical year in first languages of parishioners, not less.

What doesn't work for me is the practice of having people do readings in languages other than English ONLY on Pentecost, and then doing the readings in languages that aren't the native tongue of anyone present, aren't regularly spoken even by the reader, and aren't understood by anyone other than the reader.  The effect is worse for me when people read in multiple languages at once, making it difficult to hear any one version of the reading. I suppose one could use such a practice as a teaching moment by pointing out in the sermon that having everything in the majority language the rest of the time makes those whose native language is different feel just as excluded as speakers of the majority language do now; I would hope that such a teaching moment would be a way of announcing that readings would be in multiple or alternating languages from then on.

It bothers me to have speakers of other languages treated as some kind of "exotic ethnic other" on Pentecost, which is to me a celebration of what just might be the first-ever (and, if we were to take the book of Acts' report as straightforward reporting, probably the most successful) example of intentional multicultural community. On the Day of Pentecost, nobody gave up their native language, and everybody understood. It strikes me as ironic to try to observe that with a liturgy in which nobody speaks their native language and nobody understands the readings.

I hope that clarifies my views -- thanks for pointing out to me the ways in which my last entry was unclear!



May 28, 2004 in Acts, Pentecost, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text
John 14:8-17 - link to NRSV text

A Pentecost liturgy pet peeve of mine: having several (or bunches) of parishioners join in on the Acts 2 reading in a variety of languages that very few people in the congregation understand. This especially bugs me when it's a bunch of ethnically homogenous parishioners reading the text in a variety of languages they learned in classrooms.

Believe me, it's not that I have a problem with multi-lingual culture, community, or liturgy. It's about the text of Acts 2, in which the miracle is that all present hear what is spoken as being in their own native language, whatever it is.

Or maybe that's the second miracle in the story. The first miracle was that all of these diaspora Christians took the time to gather together. These were people who literally didn't speak the same language. A cursory survey of what Judaism looked like in the first century also shows that these were probably people who had some very different ideas about what some might be tempted to call "orthodoxy," about how to interpret the canon and even which books should be in it. The fact that they were all devout speaks to how painful some of these cultural divisions must have been. Shouldn't they all know Hebrew if they were all Jews (proselytes were Jews too, after all)? A lot of folks would have said so. And there were quite a few people arguing that the inability of those who worship the God of the Hebrews to read the Scriptures in Hebrew was the root cause of the diversity of theology and praxis they saw as fracturing Israel, threatening its very existence.

So how was it that all of these people were gathered together? They didn't come for the great sermons, since they didn't understand the same language. Yes, they gathered to break bread together, but what drew them to do that much, when they had so little in common?

I've got to think that it was the call of the Spirit promised by Jesus that brought them there, that the Spirit's call was what gathered them to break bread together first, before they understood one another. The Spirit's call, and their response to that call before they understood it, enabled them to hear what the Spirit had to say to the gathered church at the birth of the church.

I think about that when I read John 14.

"You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you."

By the way, the "you" is plural. I hear this as a word to the church: we know the Spirit because the Spirit abides with us. God's Spirit is in the assembly of God's people. And we don't have to do something to make that happen. We keep Jesus' word to love one another as he has loved us not so that God will send the Spirit, but to honor the Spirit who is present as we gather in Jesus' name.

We gather to meet the Spirit in response to the invitation set upon our hearts by that same Spirit. We're not gathering because of our shared understandings or our common language, but because we are sisters and brothers called to the family table at the invitation of the Father. And when we learn to recognize Christ in the faces of those gathered, we too will have seen the Father.

Thanks be to God!

May 24, 2004 in Acts, Holy Spirit, John, Pentecost, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

John 17:20-26 - link to NRSV text

I think I might have wanted to preach on this passage this Sunday even if there were no such thing as a lectionary.

Jesus' prayer for the church, "that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (verse 23), seems to underscore for me something I've been thinking quite a lot about lately.

I'm doing an internship for the ordination process, working with BRIDGE, the Baltimore Regional Initiative for the Development of Genuine Equality. It's an initiative that helps people of faith come together around issues in which they have a personal stake in shared goals. For example, folks in Anne Arundel County are coming together to support a proposal for affordable housing for working families integrated into new housing developments. People support it for a wide variety of reasons -- because their son who just graduated from college can't live closer to them when housing is so expensive, or because it's harder to find teachers and firefighters for the community when they have to commute a long distance to work there, or because of the positive effects proposals like this have on local schools -- but people often come together most effectively when they can identify their personal interest in moving forward.

In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus identifies something that motivates me to stretch my capacity to love. I've found that the people who are hardest for me to love are those who in some way remind me of something about myself that I'd rather not face. I find something about myself unacceptable, so I project it onto someone else and criticize or lash out at them for being, well, a little too much like me.

When we look at someone who reminds us too much of our shadow side and we say, "I can't love someone like that," it's hard for us to understand that God can love US. On some level, no matter how effective our defenses, we know our wounds and flaws, and as long as we respond to them by lashing out at them in others, we'll only be convincing ourselves further that we don't deserve love.

But as we live into Christ's prayer that we be completely one, as we learn to acknowledge, experience, and even celebrate our identity and our connection as members of one Body, and as we learn to love others, especially the difficult others, we can experience with increasing depth and strength Christ's love for us. When we seek Christ in the face of someone we are tempted to fear or scorn, we find Christ, and we find love and grace. We know how much God loves that person, and if we love God, our love follows God's. And then it sinks in: if God can love someone like that so much, God can love someone like me.

Thanks be to God!

May 17, 2004 in Easter, John, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C

John 14:23-29 - link to NRSV text
Joel 2:21-27 - link to NRSV text

The graduating seniors from the high school youth group did indeed preach last Sunday, and indeed they did an excellent job. They preached on Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you." What impressed me most about their sermon is how open they were in talking about the barriers and struggles they (and we) encounter trying to live into that command.

They're a tough act to follow, and I'm preaching this Sunday, so I want to build on the important things -- the crucial things, the foundational things -- they said to us last week. Those things were crucial and foundational for those of us who want to follow Jesus because when Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," the word he is referring to specifically is the "new commandment" from last week's sermon, the commandment from John 13:34 to love others as Christ loves us. Last week's gospel told us that our love proclaims whose disciples we are; this week's gospel builds on that by saying that our love for others is how we experience God's love for us, and how we make where we live into God's house, God's home, the place where God's Spirit lives on earth.

Some of you have heard me talk about the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus was growing up, that was the place he was told was God's house, God's home, and he was told what made it possible for God's Spirit, God's holiness to be present there to an extent not possible any place else. Such a holy place had to be carefully guarded and protected. The conventional wisdom is that pure things are pure because they haven't come into contact with anything dirty. As soon as something dirty -- even something little -- penetrates into something that's clean, the dirtiness has spread, and the whole thing is dirty. For example, let's say I'm baking a cake for a special dinner. I've made the batter, and I pour it into the pan. Then I remember that I need to scoop out the catbox before the guests arrive, so I make my way to the bathroom where the catbox is, set down the cake pan next to the box, and start scooping the catbox. Just a little tiny piece of what I'm scooping from the catbox falls into the cake pan. Can I go ahead and bake the cake, and tell my guests that there's only one chunk from the catbox in the cake, so if they get the slice of cake with the cat-generated surprise in it, they can just pick it out, or let me know and they'll get a new slice? I don't think so; the minute the tiniest chunk from the catbox gets in the cake, the whole cake has to be thrown out. That's why not very many people would have the cake pan anywhere near the catbox. Pure things have to stay well away from dirty things to stay pure. If your hands are clean, you can't touch something dirty, or your hands will be dirty. So God's people guarded the purity of the Holy of Holies very carefully, because if the wrong sort of person, a dirty person, got in, the place wouldn't be clean. And God's house has to be clean, right? Conventional wisdom is that God's holiness, God's purity, means that God can't live in a place where impurity or sin dwell.

But you know what's coming, don't you? How much does Jesus teach conventional wisdom? St. Paul puts it well: Christ's wisdom is foolishness to the world. The world says that you make a place clean by separating out the dirt, by keeping dirt in its place, in the flower beds outside. I think some of our anxiety about dirt and what to do with it springs from our knowledge that we are dirt. We see others as dirty because they remind us of something in ourselves that we don't want to face. We have to make our boundaries between us and them, pure and impure, clear because we don't want others to think we're like those people, the ones who do those awful things. Those people are dirt; our hands are clean.

But God formed each and every one of us from the dirt; we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

This is not bad news. This is Good News. Because God's Spirit does not dwell in spotless temples of white marble, but in earthen vessels. The temple where God's Spirit dwells, the place where Christ and God the Father make their home on earth, is in the dirt. It's the Body of Christ. We don't need to get rid of the dirt to make Christ's home, to be Christ's Body, to build the temple; we need to love the dirt.

This is in no way saying that we should take God's presence among us lightly, or that we can experience the fullness God wants for us without hard work done intentionally over a lifetime. But it's not the sort of work we might think. It's not trying to get rid of what's dirty, or trying to be different from those dirty people out there. It's the work of seeking out those we're tempted to think of as dirt, whoever that is, and loving them as Christ loves us. If we want to experience God's purity, we need to go out and make some mud pies. Because as we learn to love those who stretch our ability to love, we see the face of God. As we learn to love dirty people, we can recognize that we too are people of earth, of dirt, and we experience what we can't understand with worldly wisdom: God's holiness, God's purity does not flee from dirt, but requires it, as God's purity is pure love and forgiveness.

So "do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice!" Don't let your hearts be troubled. Open the doors of God's house WIDE. Invite every creature of earth to come in and join the feast. Don't fret about whether they'll track in the dirt from outside. Don't look for ways to make people ashamed of dirt; proclaim God's word that God is in the midst of God's earthy people, and God's people shall never be put to shame.

Thanks be to God!

May 11, 2004 in Easter, Joel, John, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

John 13:31-35 - link to NRSV text

If I were preaching this Sunday, I think I might be tempted to make this one of the shortest and most repetitive sermons ever by simply stepping up to the pulpit and reciting John 13:34 three times. If I wanted to make it a little longer, perhaps I'd make it John 13:34-35:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

I'm not preaching this Sunday at St. Martin's, though; the graduating seniors from the high school youth group have that duty, and I don't doubt theirs will be a sermon that, in the words of the current youth group president, "rox my sox." I hope that as they move on to where God calls them next, they deliver a charge to the congregation like the one that Jesus gives his friends in the gospel passage they'll be preaching on. I hope they deliver it in terms as strong as Jesus'.

I think we need a strong reminder. Too often, we churchy people live as though Jesus had said something more to the effect that the world will know whose disciples we are by the bumper stickers we buy, or by our prosperity, or by the indignation with which we condemn others, or by how much we avoid controversy and increase pledging units, or worst of all, by our respectability.

Our gospel for this Sunday says none of those things. it says that the world will know whose disciples we are by our love for one another -- for each member of Christ's Body.

I have 1 Corinthians 11 and sacramental theology on my brain at the moment, and here's what I'm thinking:

Like it or not, for better or for worse, the quality of our life together declares loudly and, in some cases, more clearly than we'd like whose meal it is we celebrate when we celebrate the Eucharist.  What does your congregation celebrate when you gather?

Last Sunday, I listened to someone at St. Martin's say that she was saddened our liturgy didn't allow for an altar call.  But we have an altar call every Sunday, and every other day we celebrate the Eucharist.  The invitation to the altar is an invitation to Jesus' table, an invitation to remember with our own breaking of bread what Jesus did with his invitation to feast.

In what ways are our celebrations of the Eucharist a celebration of what Jesus did in his meals, in feasts like the feeding of the five thousand?  To what extent do we break bread with whoever is gathered, and bless whatever gifts are offered?

To what extent are we more concerned with screening, with determining whether the guests are the right sort of people and the gifts the right sort of food?

To what extent do our celebrations of the Eucharist proclaim the Good News that St. Paul proclaimed, that there are no barriers of gender, or social class, or ethnicity in Christ Jesus?  And to what extent do our celebrations of the Eucharist proclaim that "there must be factions among you," and to what extent do we make use of Jesus' table to affirm what our culture blesses and despise those who, in official or worldly terms at least, have nothing?

Every invitation to Eucharist, to the meal Jesus instituted in remembrance of him of and his ministry, is an altar call, an invitation to conversion.  And it's more than an invitation to conversion; it's an invitation to inversion.  It's an invitation to give honor to the lowly, riches to the poor, honor to those our world thinks of as shameless.  If we don't do that with our Eucharistic altar calls, it's not Jesus' meal we eat, regardless of the vestments we wear, the words we say, or the building we gather in.

I feel called to say that it's time that those of us who assemble to break bread in Jesus' name take that seriously enough that the whole world notices us for that, instead of for whom we despise and how much we affirm what any respectable American thinks is respectable.

But whether we take it seriously or not, whether we are worthy of his name or not, Jesus is present when we gather in his name.

Thanks be to God!

May 3, 2004 in Easter, Eucharist, John, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)