Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Indwelling Unity

Before he died on the cross, Jesus prayed for you and for me. Just that’s enough to make you stop in your tracks. My grandmother prayed for me – especially during my college years! - and even though she died some time ago, her prayers continue to reverberate in my heart. Knowing that Jesus prayed for me and for you – for all the believers that would come to believe – knowing that Jesus prayed for us before he died – that rocks! And his prayer continues to reverberate in the life of the church. It guides the life of the church. Jesus prayed for the Indwelling Christ to sustain us and guide us. He prayed that we would know unity – with each other, with people who are very different from us, with God.

Now it’s easy for us to confuse unity with uniformity. But they are not the same thing. Unity doesn’t mean voting the same way, or having the same opinions. It does not even mean that we all like each other – although not actively disliking each other certainly helps. The unity that Jesus prayed for, and that the Holy Spirit gives, does not depend upon agreement.

The unity Jesus prayed for is a gift from God into which we are born. Because the baptismal waters – whether they are the actual waters of baptism in a church – or the waters of baptism through crisis - either way, these are our spiritual birth waters. Baptism begins a life time journey that begins in that big word – Change. It is a journey in which we pass out of the world’s ways that are centered in self-gain and self-protection, into a new life in Christ that is centered and grounded in the security of God’s creative and eternal love. Our unity is born in the unfathomable grace of God and it is nurtured through our attentiveness to God’s still, small voice.

But where do we actually experience unity? Here’s three stories of unity that I’ve seen recently:

First story takes place right here in this Diocese. We are a living experiment in unity that does not depend upon uniformity. Just ten miles away at Mission House in Seaside is a thriving Latino congregation, San Pablo Apostol, that does not look, in any way, like Good Shepherd – from the overflowing numbers of children, to the language spoken, to the issues in which people are engaged – and yet we gather around the same Table and the same Bishop. We began to build visible bridges of unity when Juana, an officer and long time member of San Pablo Apostol, catered the Good Shepherd Vestry retreat dinner with the most delicious chicken mole, and it is my hope that some of the children of San Pablo Apostol will join us for our Vacation Bible School.

Second story takes place right here through Bishop Mary. Through her and with her, we share humor, affection, worship and service with a conservative African Bishop and Diocese in Western Tangyanika and a high Catholic leaning English Bishop and Diocese in Gloucester, England. In these deepening relationships, we know the unity of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, rather than a more superficial uniformity of theological interpretation.

The third story is not a wow! kind of story – but an everyday, right under our noses, kind of story – it’s the Meals that Heal for those undergoing illness or emergencies, the I-Help Dinners for the homeless, the Prayer Shawls, the Women for Women project in Afghanistan, and a hundred other examples that take place right in our own lives – these are all testimony to the Indwelling Spirit of Christ that creates natural bonds of unity that simply flow out of our hearts. It is a unity that ceases to appear remarkable but it is second nature – or really, what becomes first nature – as we live into Christ.

But we have also, all of us, experienced disunity – in our own lives and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. Disunity is a kind of prison in which we are locked away from warmth and love and each other and God. What locks us into the prisons of disunity? And what unlocks us – frees us - into unity?

Three stories from the gospels point us towards the freedom of the unity which Jesus so deeply desired for us, the unity that arises from the Indwelling of His Spirit in us.

First story. Jesus was surrounded by people eager to hear him, eager to touch him. A gaggle of children arrived, their faces and clothes dirty from a hard day of play. They zeroed in on Jesus immediately, with that instantaneous knowing that kids have about who’s safe. So they jumped up and down, tugged on his robes, hugged him, and he hugged them back, tousled their hair, stopped what he was doing to play with them. But the disciples were more than annoyed. Jesus was important. Their relationship with him was precious. And so they shooed Jesus’ young friends away. They worked so hard to understand Jesus and to protect their relationship with him, and they completely misunderstood and locked themselves away from laughter and joy.

Sometimes, we do the same thing ourselves. When we think that we’ve got the real message and that others don’t, we misunderstand Jesus. When we think we need to protect God from how others relate to the Divine, we lock ourselves into the prison of alienation and disunity.

What unlocks us into unity? Jesus pointed the disciples to the openness and wisdom of a child’s heart. “Unless you become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he told them. Children don’t try to make everyone think alike and act alike – they just know they need a third baseman! They know the unity that arises out of the wonderful astonishment of simply playing together.

Second story. Jesus and the disciples were headed towards Jerusalem. The disciples lagged behind Jesus, arguing. Later, Jesus asked them about it. Turned out they’d been arguing about who would sit at his right and left hand in the coming kingdom. They were locked into the prison of power – arguing about who was the greatest, who was the most important.

It’s an argument as old as Cain and Abel. It’s an argument we know. It happens between people, between races, between nations, between religions. Who’s closest to God? Who’s got the power to make things happen their way? Whenever we are under the illusion that our safety and our identity depend upon having power over others, we are locked into the prisons of false power. But Jesus showed the way to freedom.

Jesus unlocked the prison doors of the disciples’ arguing by getting down on his knees with a servant’s towel and washing their crusty feet. He didn’t argue. He didn’t try to make them different. He stepped out of the way, and did something different. He attended to their need.

Paying attention to others is a way to freedom. A way to unity. When we cease to compete for control and cease to insist upon our own way, we open the way for Love. Love, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, is patient and kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is slow to take offense and it is always ready to excuse. It hopes. It hopes and endures. We find unity on our knees, in loving service to one another.

Third story. Jesus was arrested, tortured and killed. The disciples scattered to the four winds, terrified that the same thing would happen to them, blind with grief and fury, ashamed at their lack of courage and loyalty. The disciples were spiritually crucified on the cross of fear, fury, and shame just as surely as Jesus was physically crucified on the wooden cross. And just as Jesus’ body was buried in the tomb cut into rock, so the disciples’ spirits were buried in the prison of disunity within themselves, disunity from each other, and disunity with God.

Certainly, you must know from your own life that fear and shame and fury can bury you alive. I do.

But the Wisdom - the Christ, that existed from before the beginning; the Wisdom – the Christ, by which all things have their being; this Wisdom – this Word – this Christ - cannot be silenced. And so beyond the torture, beyond the cross, beyond the grave, beyond the betrayals and the shame and the fear and the fury, God resurrected Jesus. And Jesus found the disciples again, one by one, out where they had scattered, and gathered them together and breathed freedom and forgiveness and eternal life into them. He promised the Holy Spirit to live within them, to inspire them, to guide them, and to bring unity.

And that’s what happened. The Spirit came upon the disciples as they prayed together. And when the Spirit descended on them – they exploded out into the streets with the great good news of God’s Love – a Love that no power on heaven or on earth can end. Unity in the Spirit was experienced as unity in a common mission to spread the good newsThe church was born.

How do we experience unity? In the same ways that Jesus showed the disciples – through wondering and playful imagination; through paying attention to the needs of others and serving them; through joining in mission to tell about the good news of God’s eternal and abiding love.

Play. Service. Mission.

Or as the poet Mary Oliver so succinctly put it: “Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Celtic Work Blessing

Holy Trinity bless the work that you do.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.

May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work.

May your work not be wearisome, but release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement. 

May you be present in what you do.

May dawn find you awake and alert and approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled. 

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected. 

And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you in each moment of your days, and among you always. Amen.

a traditional blessing found at care2.com and adapted

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Easter 5C

The Guinness Book of World Records lists the shortest sermon ever preached. The Rev. John Albrecht, an Episcopal priest from Michigan, stepped into his pulpit, paused, made eye contact with the entire congregation, said, “Love!” and sat down. It was reported that certain members of Albrecht’s church said it was the best sermon they ever heard him preach.

Hopefully my lack of such extreme brevity will be made up for in being slightly more comprehensive. For while the call to love is simple, simply loving is not.

Learning to love takes insight, commitment, courage, and daring. In The Road Less Traveled, Dr. Scott Peck says simply that it is work. It doesn’t come easy, because it means laying yourself out for someone else. In a very real way, love is our salvation because it is the way we leave off spinning around ourselves as the focus of our known universe, and begin to live with God at the center.

Perhaps this is why Love is the cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching. The message of the gospel today is short and sweet. Jesus had almost no time left with his disciples before he would be arrested and put to death. While they were eating their last meal together, he tried once more to make them understand. “I have only one thing to sum it all up so listen carefully.” He had said it in many ways and words before, but now at the end Jesus underlines it, puts in italics, announces it in Bold clear letters, “You are my followers if you love one another.”

According to the Apostle Paul, Love is the greatest gift out of all the special gifts that the Holy Spirit has for us. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul gave us the best advice possible. “Make Love your aim,” he said. Reach for that and the rest will fall into place.

And yet we toss the word “love” about in casual conversation as if it had no spiritual significance whatsoever. It’s certainly overused. I just LOVE those shoes! Don’t you just LOVE the way she sings!

As rich and expressive as the English language is, the ancient Greeks were better equipped than we are to talk about love. We have only one word. They had three.

Anybody remember what they are?

There’s Eros. It means to us much the same thing that it meant to the Greeks – love rooted in desire and passion. The Bible affirms God’s creation of human sexuality, and Eros, in its best form, is the human body celebrating the wonder of God’s creative power. Eros is a scintillating and powerful kind of love that grabs hold of us and makes life sparkle. The flashing flames of Eros can begin to lift us up out of ourselves, so that we notice that there are other beings in the world. It make us want to brush our teeth and comb our hair and take dancing lessons and get involved. But ultimately, eros is a self-serving, self-seeking kind of love. It might get us up in the morning, but it won’t take us through to the end of the day.

The second Greek word for love is filios. You might recognize the word from remembering our East Coast friends in Philadelphia – the “City of Brotherly Love.” Filial love is the kind of love that binds brother to brother, sister to sister, friend to friend. Maybe you are lucky enough to still know your best friend from 5th grade or from college. The truth is that while many relationships begin with attraction based in eros, filial love must take root for love to last a lifetime. Filial love grows, over a lifetime, into a sheltering tree that sustains families and friends.

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day. A celebration of filial love. Filial love is why parents work long hours to provide for their children. It is why they will stay up until all hours of the morning, waiting for the sound of the car tires in the driveway and their teenager’s footsteps coming up the steps – the same person they’ve already spent hours up at night with as an infant.

Filial love is truly where we begin to learn to lay ourselves out for another. To go beyond what we think we are capable of. To go beyond what is reasonable. Filial love is where we begin to learn something of what Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading today. Filial love is where we begin to learn about letting go. About opening our hands and not clinging. About dying, even in the littlest ways. In giving more than we get.

The truth is, Love and Justice go together. But loving is not a just experience. If we expect to get back what we give, that is a business not a love relationship. Love is basically unjust. Not only can we never even come close to evening things out with God – we can’t really ever come even with our parents, our teachers, and really, truth be told, even our spouses.

Here’s Billy Collin’s wisdom on the basic inequality of filial love.

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
- Billy Collins

Filial love – love between parent and child, between siblings, between friends – this is how we begin to understand God. But filial love still has an edge of self-interest in it. I am bound to my child partly because I see something of me in her. I am bound to my brother partly because we share the same blood. I am bound to my friend partly because friendship makes my life sweeter.

The third Greek word for love – agape – is love that is purely unconditional. There is no self-interest involved. It is the love that God gives – complete and without any conditions. God, our great Lover, makes the sun to shine on all of us, good and bad, and causes the rain to fall regardless of our conduct.

It is very difficult to really and truly receive this kind of love. A love that we cannot do anything to earn. A love that we cannot do anything to ruin. A love that knows absolutely every quirk, every flaw, every defect, every dream and hope and desire – absolutely everything about us and LOVES US. Passionately. Without end. Without condition.

God loves you and me. Whether we know it or not. Whether we accept it or not. Whether we ever truly relax into the utter blissfulness of it or not. But, if you have ever let your guard down enough so that the God who is Love has come pouring into your soul – you know why St. Paul was blinded; why people have been known to fall down laughing, why another name for Christian is “fool” for Christ. It doesn’t sound very Episcopalian does it? In fact, it really doesn’t sound very middle class American at all. But there it is. The better reason possible to kick your shoes off and say Amen!

It is foolishness. The most profound treasure in creation – God’s love and the peace that flows from that love – is available for everyone, free for the receiving.

We know about agape love because Jesus lived it and Paul described it in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians. It is patient and kind, not jealous, conceited, proud, ill-mannered, selfish or irritable. It does not hold a grudge. It rejoices in the truth. It is a love that never gives up. It is not a grasping kind of love – but a love that desires the very best for the other – the kind of love that gives way for the other to grow and change and become fully who God intended for them to be. Children who receive this kind of love are blessed. Partners who give and receive this kind of love are blessed.

When Agape love gets ignited in your soul, it is not limited to your family and friendship circle. It looks outward towards the needs of creation and the world. It compels you to put your time and talents and resources towards making the world a better place. This love invites you to grow up in Christ. It invites you to commit yourself to a Christian community that rejoices with others and that works for the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth.

Because we are loved unconditionally by God, because we are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for us to grow in love and peace with God and with one another. It is possible for us to reach out beyond ourselves in concern and service to the world. It is possible to do the thing that Jesus commands: "Love one another as I have loved you."