On January 26th, 2014, Bishop Tom Shaw paid his last pastoral visit before retirement to St. Paul’s. He participated in the rededication of St. Anna’s Chapel, built in 1863. The chapel has been under renovation since 2009.
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Today’s Gospel reading from the first chapter of John introduces Jesus by name for the first time to the reader of that Gospel. Earlier in this first chapter we are told of the Word of God, in existence from before time, through whom all things came into being. Then we are told that eternal word became flesh. Now we meet him through the testimony of John, who in this version of the Gospel gives not fiery sermon to the scribes and Pharisees, but only points to Jesus and says this is the One he has come to prepare the way for. John gives no explanation or evidence. He simply says to his disciples “Behold, the Lamb of God.” And that was enough for them – two of them take John at his word and begin following Jesus. This says a lot about the power of John’s testimony in the lives of those who had been gathered around him. He says four words, and they alter their course to become Jesus’ disciples.
Andrew and the other unnamed disciple of John quicken their pace and when they catch up to Jesus he asks them “what are you looking for?” They respond “Rabbi, where are you lodging?” Jesus responds “come and see”. Clearly since they were just meeting Jesus they need to find out where he is staying so that they can be with him. And Jesus response can have that sort of literal meaning “come and see” so you can stay there too. But under the surface we can find another layer of meaning. In this question from these first disciples I hear the desire to know what the source of Jesus’ light and strength is. They want to discern and see in him what John has discerned and seen in him. So they go and they see, and they must have been impressed because next thing we know Andrew does as John had done for him. He goes and finds his brother Simon, and tells him “We have found the Messiah”
So this is a passage about testimony in community. It is highly unlikely that John’s words about Jesus would have moved Andrew and the other unnamed disciple to follow Jesus if they had not been John’s disciples – ones who had lived closely with and learned from John. And it is unlikely that Simon would have been swayed by Andrew’s testimonial if Andrew had not been his brother. This is a passage about testimonial in community. It reminds me of the beginning of our Easter Vigil liturgy where the new light that represents Christ is lit in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Then that light passed hand to hand – candle to candle until we are all basking in its glow. In that liturgical moment we are eager to share and excited to receive the light from one another. Just imagine if we were to run up to someone out on the street and thrust a lighted candle into their hand and say “the light of Christ” – the reaction likely would be very different. It is the sharing of faith and inspiration in the context of community that has the power to transform our lives.
Later in this chapter from John’s Gospel the circle of Christ’s light expands as Philip testifies to Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus. And so it went and still goes. As we remember The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend we see this truth writ large. It was Dr. King’s testimonial in community that helped the civil rights movement take off in this country. His ability to voice his faith that God’s purposes could be realized in this country for all Americans, regardless of race, was like a flame passed hand to hand – and the flame grew bright. The light of Christ touches us and burns within us and we begin to shine and share the luminous light of Christ through the testimonial of our lives.
And the longer and more deeply we wade into the light the more brightly we burn as beacons for others. That is where this all becomes very practical and every day. This week a friend and I got talking about how in our everyday lives with our families and in our work and other commitments, we need to build in blocks of time to spend in God’s presence. We know that God’s presence does not ever leave us, but we also know that if we do not have a regular discipline or structure to stop activity and plug more deeply into God’s presence, the light within begins to flicker. Again, reflecting on Dr. King we see this truth manifest in his life. In his writings he makes it clear that prayer and the support of his faith community were what kept him going forward even when he faced significant and often frightening opposition.
This has been true for faithful people for centuries and there have been some tools that the faithful have developed and passed on from hand to hand, one generation to the next to keep our connection with the One true light stoked. Any who walk the way of faith for long come to know that you cannot give water to others from an empty well, and you cannot pass the light if the flame within has been extinguished. So I want to end today by touching lightly on some of those tools that can keep us well connected to Christ, our light, and commend them again to all of us as we begin a new year:
- Prayer – Prayer is talking to God – speaking to God about where you are, what you are facing, what you need, what you want, who you love, who you struggle with, who you want God to help, giving God thanks for all the blessings you find along the way, giving God praise for the glory of all that is. Prayer can take many shapes. Prayers can be written, sung or even danced. Currently I write simple prayers down and put them in a box with “God Box” written on top – a really simple, practical way for me to turn things over to God and it works for me. What works for you?
- Holy Reading – This can include reading from the Bible, other sacred books. There are daily meditation books for just about everyone and every topic these days – these have short readings for each day of the year to give the reader spiritual sustenance – Forward Day by Day is an example of one that the Episcopal Church publishes and is available in the Narthex for the taking. And yes, many such books are available in digital versions for all manner of gadgets!
- Holy Writing – Journaling, daily letters addressed to God, writing out our feelings, recording our dreams and visions, asking ourselves an interesting or provocative question … these are all tools to get the interior conversation out in front of us where we can encounter and see it more clearly and then invite God’s presence into it. This tool helps me when I have something circling in my mind – getting it out on paper often reveals important things to me that I would not discover if I just kept thinking about it.
- Spiritual Friendship – A spiritual friend is someone you feel free to talk with about spirituality – both the beauties and the struggles. This can be someone you admire, look up to, want to be more like, who is walking ahead of you on the spiritual path and can act as a wise guide. Or a spiritual friend can be someone you feel has come into your life to be a fellow traveler – someone who you support and who supports you. Make time as often as you can to check in, puzzle things out together, pray together. We are not meant to be followers of Christ in isolation. A spiritual friendship can be one of the richest blessings of life!
- Music – It is said that the one who sings prays twice. I think that is true even if you don’t sing but you simply listen to music. And I am talking about music of all kinds. If we encounter music and let it move our souls, God can bring healing and insight. I can’t tell you the number of times I have felt God speaking to me through music – sometimes it is the lyric, sometimes the rhythm. Always it is refreshing and invigorating.
- Meditation – Meditation is sort of the other side of the conversation from prayer – It is us listening for God. Some do it best in solitude, others in groups. There are many forms of meditation for many different types and temperaments – Centering prayer and walking meditations are two that have been helpful to me. Whatever form fits us best the point is to stop thinking so that God can work with us on a deeper level. Now anyone who practices meditation will tell you that the mind does not stop thinking easily or for extended periods without a good deal of practice. But even if the stillness of mind is only momentary, the practice of bringing the mind back to stillness over and over has benefits that will show up in life outside those moments of meditation.
- Listen to your life: Throughout your day pause and think about the content of your prayers, your visions and dreams, your writings, your readings, your holy conversations, your meditation, your songs – is there a way that the flow of this day is speaking to you about your holy themes? Is there a coincidence that answers a question? Has someone just spoken words you feel are the direct response to something you raised up in prayer? When we are present in our life God speaks.
- Serve: The other tools I have mentioned can be mixed up in any order. This last one, to serve – which is another way of saying to testify to the content of your faith though your actions and words – should flow from the others. Jesus rhythm of spending time with God, and with his community of faith, and then engaging in his ministry of teaching and healing is a rhythm that is sustainable. If we try to serve only because it is the right thing to do, we will burn out. But when we serve as an expression of the gratitude for God’s grace and care of us, we reflect that light to the world. Our service then is a testimony not to our power, but to God’s power working through us.
In a sense, God is like the sun, and we are like the moon – any light others see in us is reflected light from the one true source of light. In Memory of Dr. King and in the name of Christ our light. Amen+
Swords to Plowshares: An Interfaith Conversation on Guns and Violence in Our Communities
A keynote address given by Julia MacMahon, lead organizer B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts announced today its slate of nominees for election as bishop. They are:
- The Rev. Holly Antolini, Rector, St. James’s Church, Cambridge, Mass.;
- The Rev. Ronald Culmer, Rector, St. Clare’s Church, Pleasanton, Calif.;
- The Rev. Alan Gates, Rector, St. Paul’s Church, Cleveland, Ohio;
- The Rev. Ledlie Laughlin, Rector, St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia, Penn.; and
- The Rev. Sam Rodman, Project Manager for Campaign Initiatives, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
You can find their biographies here.
Almighty God, giver of every good gift: We thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, and for the witness of your whole church in his name. We thank you for your Holy Spirit, empowering us for ministry. So guide the hearts and minds of all those who shall choose a bishop in this diocese and those who will respond to the call, that we may receive a faithful pastor who will care for your people. May our discernment transform our spirits and draw us closer to you, Almighty God. Amen.
This week as I considered these readings, much activity was swirling around me. I always tell myself that things will quiet down after Christmas, but in reality all the details of tying loose ends on the old year and beginning the fresh work of the new year all get mixed up in the cup of the month of January! Thankfully it is all good – the activity, the detail – I am blessed to do the work I do. Nonetheless there was this swirling and I was juggling many details and meetings and by Thursday I was feeling a little buffeted and slightly overwhelmed. I also had a migraine that was still lingering from the day before and I had forgotten to make my lunch before leaving the house!
It was in that mode that I strode into a very busy day. One of my Thursday meetings was our local Interfaith Clergy Association meeting at which we were to put the final plans in place for the community conversation we are hosting this coming Thursday here at 7:30 pm on the topic of guns and violence in our communities. This is our annual association offering in observance of the MLK holiday, and I had suggested the topic several months back. But as I saw that meeting coming up on my calendar Thursday morning, I wondered why on earth I had ever thought we could pull this off. In short I was feeling a bit like the bruised reed or dimly burning wick mentioned in our passage from Isaiah this morning.
It was then that I remembered words a colleague had shared with me the day before. The words came from a reflection that the brothers as the Monastery of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge send out daily to their emailing list. The closing words of that reflection said something to the effect of “Let God’s strength be made manifest in your weakness.” Just touching on those words again in my mind made the bruising ease and I felt my wick burn a little brighter.
Then there I was gathered with 8 wonderful colleagues from the congregations of faithful in the Newburyport area and there was much enthusiasm for our task at hand. And we then had a cell phone conference call with Julia MacMahon, who is the lead organizer for our diocesan anti-violence campaign known as BE PEACE. Julia is going to be our keynote speaker on Thursday evening, and she is dynamic and well spoken, focused, and clearly passionate about the work she does at BE PEACE. She and a network of over 40 volunteers from around the diocese are taking a multipronged approach to lessening violence in our communities, with special attention to the inner city communities. The 5 points of the BE PEACE program are:
- Gun Reform & Public Policy
- Jobs & Work Force Development
- School Partnerships
- Educational Opportunities
- Youth and Family Engagement
As we listened to Julia speak about what she hopes to share in her address to us this coming Thursday I could feel the energy in the room rise. By the end of our meeting I don’t think there was a dimly burning wick among us. Rather there was a sense of shared purpose and of excitement about offering this sort of opportunity to our community. Our plan is that following Julia’s keynote on Thursday we will facilitate 5 small groups each to focus on one of the 5 areas of the BE PEACE campaign. Our hope is that through those small groups we will be able to find ways for community members to move forward together, here in our own community to make inroads on the negative aspects of the gun culture we live in. If you feel even the smallest spark of interest I invite you to come. Come and find out how you can get mixed up in the holy business of making our world a safer place for all God’s children. I felt just the smallest spark of interest when I went to the Diocesan Resource Day in September and that small spark has not been quenched. I see how God has fanned it and helped it spread. And as the readings for today tell us, that is how God works – that is one of God’s main ways for bringing about justice in this world.
In a sermon on these texts which he wrote a few years back, Methodist Bishop William Willimon wrote:
“God is going to establish justice. Great! Why doesn’t God get to it? But the prophets say, ‘He comes not as a military conqueror but as a gentle gardener and a lamp lighter. A bruised reed… he will not break. A dimly burning wick he will not extinguish’
Why? I do not know. God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways. I do know this though: when we call down God’s justice on the world, we assume that it is justice for others and punishment for others. But the truth of the matter is, we, too, all of us, are bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks and God chooses not to rain down wrath on us.
But God climbs up on a cross and takes wrath upon God’s self. Because a bruised reed… he will not break, and a dimly burning wick, God will not quench.”
In the Gospel Jesus demonstrates that obedience to what we believe to be God’s call for us is really the one thing necessary to participate in God’s justice. Jesus , the Son of God, shows up at the Jordan and asks to be baptized by John. John protests that Jesus should be baptizing him, but Jesus says it has to be this way to fulfill all righteousness. The word righteousness in Matthew is short hand for human action that is in line with the purposes of God. Clearly Jesus had discerned that baptism by John was part of God’s purpose for him. Why? We don’t know – God’s ways are not our ways. But we do know that in that moment, something amazing happened and that those looking on saw Jesus in a new light and God’s strength was made manifest in his act of submission – of putting himself into the hands of his cousin to experience ritual death and rise to new life.
May it be so for us in the dawn of this new year. May we each discern the spark of what God is calling us to – how God needs us to fulfill God’s plan of righteousness and justice. And let us not worry when the going gets a bit tough – when we are buffeted, bruised – when the spark is all but extinguished. Because those it turns out are the paramount moment – if in those moments of apparent weakness we are willing- even the least bit willing to go forward – God’s power can be made manifest. Then my friends amazing things flame up to the glory of God. That is truly our birthright through our baptism and as members of Christ’s body – the beloved of God.
In his name and for his sake. Amen+
On January 19th-20th, 2014, St. Paul’s is offering a retreat for the young people of the Lower Merrimack Valley Collaborative group of parishes.
It’s going to be a great transformative time.
Participants: 6th – 10th graders, interested adults.
Times: 3pm Sunday Jan 19th – 11:30am Monday Jan 20th (Martin Luther King day). If you can’t spend the night, the Sunday program ends at 1opm.
Cost (for food, etc): $5 per person (subsidized by LMVC) Scholarships are available.
Leaders/Mentors: The Rev. Ollie Jones, the Rev. Marya DeCarlen, Lance Gomes, Gail Bishop-Davis, the Rev. Martha Hubbard
Sign up by: Sunday January 5th, if possible. Call 978/465-5351 or send e-mail to Ollie Jones email@example.com.
Bring: Toothbrush, sleeping bag, pillow, change of clothes, any medications you use,
the signed covenant and information sheet found here: http://tinyurl.com/kuysf9t
Program: We’ll have fun and get to know each other as we wonder together about the privileges we have in our lives and the privileges we don’t have.
Today I have chosen to use the collect and readings for the feast of Holy Innocents, which was Yesterday, December 28th. This feast is a very sad one, centering on the reading from Matthew’s Gospel in which Joseph is warned in a dream to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt because King Herod, feeling enraged and threatened by the One born under the star is about to search for the Christ Child to destroy him, and in the process all the children of Bethlehem age 2 or under.
I made this choice because two weeks ago I spent an hour and a half at the Children’s Memorial held at the Unitarian/Universalist Church here in town on the first anniversary of the tragic events in Newtown Connecticut. It took that hour and a half for all the names of the children killed in our country by guns in the 12 months since Newtown to be read aloud. As I sat there with those children’s names washing over me I went through a string of emotions. I felt relief that my own children were not with me that day – that they were off enjoying Christmas parties with their friends and oblivious to the painful task we were engaged in. And then I felt sadness tinged with guilt that my children were safe at those activities and yet the parents of the children whose names I was listening to had not had that same safety for their children. And as each of the 1000+ names were read, I imagined the families who were grieving their loss – which I imagined is more acutely felt as we go through this holiday season. It was a sobering experience in the midst of this festive season. So when the choice to use these lessons today came across my screen, I could not look away. And then I read a reflection on these readings that so touched my heart that I decided I needed to share it and the readings it is based on with you this morning. It is written by Laura Sumner Truax, Sr. Pastor of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago. My prayer is that her words will help us have the courage to face the truth about violence against children, in our communities, in our nation and in God’s whole world. A prayer that I hope is in line with the mission of our Prince of Peace born in this season. Here are Pastor Sumner Truax’s words written in the most recent issue of the Christian Century Magazine – she writes:
When my mother visited my church for the first time, a woman greeted her during the passing of the peace. Realizing that she was speaking to the pastor’s mother, the woman asked, “Just how many children do you have?”
“Six,” my mom responded. Then she hastily corrected herself. “Well, five who are living.” As she turned to the next person her eyes filled with tears.
Her firstborn, my oldest brother, drowned more than 50 years ago. Aside from a fading baby picture and a pair of copper-glazed baby shoes, one could know our family fairly well without ever hearing about my brother’s short life. Yet sometimes the pain is so fresh, so very real, that the most benign of questions can cause my mother to relive it at random moments—like during the passing of the peace in her daughter’s church.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning . . . Rachel refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.” It’s an eternal pain, an eternal wail.
Jesus’ life began with a father who managed to save his own son yet had to live the rest of his life knowing that scores of other infant sons had died. Mary’s deep relief for her own son’s safety had to exist alongside her grief for the suffering caused by Herod’s decree.
As families recounted the story of the massacred children in the years that followed, mothers must have wondered how Jesus bar Joseph had managed to escape. I imagine Joseph reliving his dream and the angel’s visitation and asking himself if he had missed something. When the angel said, “Take your son,” was there an expectation that Joseph would convey a warning?
Like most pastors I tremble when attempting to preach these post-Christmas texts. Some years I want to retreat from the implications that this infant genocide has for the present-day afflictions of the world. Yet wherever I turn, these texts force me to look directly into the faces of those I want to flee. I see Matthew lining up the sad wailing echoes of Moses’ life reinterpreted in the life of the Son of God, and Herod and his Rome as yet another example of the despotic regime of Pharaoh and his slave labor camp of Hebrews. Once again the groaning of the people reaches the Lord’s ears and the Lord is moved to action.
From the beginning Jesus’ birth demands that we take seriously the suffering of the world and our place in the midst of it. We must bear the double meaning of the event: the safety of the Savior, but who is held in the hands of a dad and a mom who heard the wails of the Rachels around them.
The Isaiah texts are a powerful image to pair with Rachel’s wails, but we have to look at their context. The narrow lectionary readings are a word of dogged hope that emerges as Isaiah, imagining the day of the Lord’s vengeance, sees an approaching warrior. But this is a warrior they would barely recognize. His clothes are so stained from the blood of battle that he is likened to a farmer who got into a winepress to smash his own grapes—the cotton fibers of his tunic absorbing the deep purple of the splattering juice.
There’s no mistaking this soldier for a commander who sits mounted on his horse observing the battle from afar. This one has robes soaked with blood. Is it his own blood? The blood of others? We don’t know. But we know that he was close enough to the battle to experience what the fallen around him experienced, to hear their last gasps of life and their groans of death.
As I enjoy my stuffed, post-Christmas state, I may find it hard to remember a suffering world. My children will be home, and we’ll have home-baked goodies from my congregation’s cooks. We’ll celebrate the goodness of the Lord.
But we can’t avoid the suffering. These texts were a powerful comfort for many after the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people, or in December 2012 after the murder of innocents at an elementary school. In the days after the Sandy Hook shootings a colleague put a Mr. Rogers quote on her door: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
In those horrific moments our hearts know the truth of these biblical texts: where suffering is, Jesus is. And where Jesus is, his body, the church, is found as well. The people of Christ are bandaging, comforting, healing, protecting and soothing. They are the helpers.
Isaiah realized that salvation came not through an angel or messenger, but through the Lord’s very presence. It’s with this image in his head that Isaiah clings to the “loyal love of Yahweh,” recalling again all of the goodness his people have known at the hands of the Lord. It was in the community of God’s people that the prophet saw and felt the goodness of the Lord.
Perhaps that’s why my mother found herself tearing up in an unfamiliar church with people she didn’t know. While the peace-passers were strangers to her individually, they were known to her collectively. We are a community where the eternal wail of pain can be voiced. In these sacred spaces the praises of the people become deep-throated expressions of dogged trust and hope. We wait for the coming day of salvation, when pain and joy, uncertainty and trust, woes and wonder are all absorbed in the presence of God.
May God’s presence surround us as we go out in courage and in this season of light do anything and everything we can to make our world a safe and joyous place for all God’s children.