Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Letting the Trinity define us" -- Trinty Sunday

Preached by the Rev. Canon Dan Smith at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 30, 2010
Good morning, it is nice to back with you again. The Cathedral is of course the community in which Evelyn and I normally worship, but it is a special opportunity to help lead worship this day. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Trinity. It is an unusual type of feast day in that instead of celebrating an event, say like Pentecost last week, or a great Saint like Peter or even an Absalom Jones celebration we are today celebrating a doctrine or a teaching of the church. I will tell you that this fact puts the preacher on somewhat shakey ground. There is much to get wrong we you try to talk about a doctrine.

A little homework might be in order as I begin sharing my thoughts with you today. The word Trinity is not found in the New Testament. The concept though is certainly implied in many places of the both the gospels and the letters that make up the majority of the Christian Scriptures. Two of our lessons today at least implicitly speak of the Trinity, the lesson from Romans 5 and the gospel lesson from the 16th chapter of John. We can find other examples, perhaps the most well known of which is in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel where we are called to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. One of the early church fathers is credited with first using the term Trinity around the year 150. There was almost immediate debate about whether the teaching really described the essence of God. Factions following various teachers or schools of thought emerged. Arguments in the church are not new in the 21st century. The Council of Nicea was called to once and for all end debate and settle on a doctrine to understand God. It decided on the Trinity and declared Arianism to be heresy. There are stories of physical violence erupting at the council and we think Diocesan Convention or General Convention can get emotional. The council while it gave us a creed we will say in a few minutes did not end the debate. It has continued through the centuries. Bishop James Pike once preached a sermon in this cathedral calling for the doctrine of the Trinity to be discarded.

All that said the doctrine of the Trinity is the position that the vast majority of those who call themselves Christian hold today. And yet even then we often try to fix up the Trinity to better suit our sensibilities. For instance we take the Old Testament lesson for today and decide that the Spirit is “She.” Not that I mind that idea, but it shows that we still are trying to clean up our understanding of God or worse that we are trying to make God in the image we would like. The Trinity is a way of understanding God, but it will always fall a short, because we can never fully understand the mystery that is God.

Rather than working at defining God I think we ought to pause this day and see how the Trinity might define us and our mission and ministry in our community. To do so I want us to look at a mission that is often associated with each person of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. Please note that I said A mission, this is not meant as an exhaustive list, it is meant to get us thinking.

A mission often associated with God the Father is creation. I love the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created…” What would it be like if we let this mission of God help define the mission of this cathedral? What might we do? I know that we are not going to create any new ground and we are not going to create life, but what about really engaging in the creation that is. I don’t think there can be any doubt that the climate is changing. I have read recently that some changes are such that there is no going back no matter what we or nature do.

How might we re-engage at theology of creation? Flower festival this year was a first step, the energy audit of this building was perhaps a second. I am not talking about just going green, but what might people of faith have to say out of that faith about our planet. How might we share our faith in God through a deeper understanding of creation and our responsibility to that creation? Part of the reason I ask this is that I have actually heard Christians say that using up the planet is alright because that will mean the end of the world and the coming of Jesus. Let me say that is just stupid. It is also scary. It also begs the question about how to approach Rev. 21 where a new Jerusalem comes down to the world as opposed to all of us going somewhere else. Again I am interested not in just going green, but how we might really engage a theology of creation, of our planet.

We often associate redemption or salvation with the second person of the Trinity, Jesus who we call Lord. Now I know that Jesus has won for us salvation by his death and resurrection. I can’t save anyone in that kind of way. St. Paul though talks about all of us being engaged in the ministry of reconciliation. It is a ministry of reconciling all people with God. That is a formable task when you realize that only about 21% of the population is in church this morning. Just watch the news and see the violence in our own city. Look around and see the literally thousands of people who are trying to find meaning and purpose. How will we reach them with the Good News of Jesus? I heard a really remarkable sermon last week on Pentecost. The preacher said that if Pentecost is the birth of the church then it is also the birth of complete and full inclusivity, because everyone heard the good news of Jesus in their own language. The preacher went on to say that if we are to engage people we have to speak their language. Not something that is as simple as it sounds. The language of facebook, twitter, texting, the language of generations, the language of the lofts in downtown, the language of the clubs on Washington Street, the language of any of the sub cultures that exist in a city as diverse as St. Louis. If we are going to take seriously the mission that the second person of the Trinity sends us on then it not a question of if we learn the language it is figuring out the Rosetta Stone for the languages we need to learn. It is about going out from this place not waiting for people to come here. That is a cultural shift for the Episcopal Church, but it is the only way to go about the mission of reconciliation. What language are you willing to learn?

There are many missions that we could choose from with the Holy Spirit, but I want us to think about the one mentioned in today’s gospel. There Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. I sometimes watch the Downtown Guides on their bikes. They really know the city, they are good at stopping folks that just look a little lost, I know because they have stopped me a time or two. What if we became Downtown Guides for Christ? Could we be a guide into truth, the truth of the gospel, the truth of God’s love, the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ, the truth of all people being equal in the sight of God and on and on. That is a mission that we ought to be able to sink our teeth into. Notice in the gospel today that the guide does not speak on his own. The guide speaks on what the guide hears. To be effective guides we must be effective disciples, steeped in prayer, students of the scriptures, faithful in community and worship. You don’t guide from behind your desk or closed up in a room somewhere. You guide by being with, present to the people you are guiding. It is about being out in our neighborhoods, our offices, our schools.

So I come back to a question: Can we let go of trying to completely understand the Trinity or trying to fix it up to better suit us and let the Trinity help us to understand ourselves. Can we see the mission of the Trinity as the mission for Christ Church Cathedral, for the Diocese of Missouri and the church?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"The Universal Language of Pentecost"

Preached by the Ven. Robert Franken at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 23, 2010

In a certain place in the winter months, the ducks collected in great numbers. When any one approached them, they would rise and fly away, making a whistling-noise. One morning two hunters went down to the river to kill some ducks. They had each obtained one, when a dispute arose over the question whether the whistling-noise was made with the bill or with the wings when they rose to fly. Neither could convince the other, and the words became bitter. Finally they agreed to take it to the chief, and let him settle the dispute.

The chief heard the story, and looked at the ducks. Both of them were dead and could not make any noise. Therefore he called a council to listen to the dispute; people came from all around to deliberate. They spoke one language and had only one chief.

The ducks were brought in, and the chief explained the question. The people said, "We do not wish to be unjust, we will go to the river and hear for ourselves. These ducks can do us no good." So they went down to the river and frightened the ducks that flew over their heads. Part of the Indians said the noise was made with the bills; part said it was made with the wings. They could not agree. Therefore the ducks were made to fly once more. The people began to quarrel violently, and separated in an ugly mood.

All during the winter the feeling grew, until in spring the mutual hatred drove part of the Indians south to hunt for new homes. This was the first division of the people into tribes. They selected a chief from their own division, and called themselves by another name.

Finding new objects, and having to give such objects names, brought new words into their former language; and thus after many years the language was changed. Each split in the tribe made a new division and brought a new chief. Each migration brought different words and meanings. Thus the tribes slowly scattered; and thus the dialects, and even new languages, were formed.

Language is at the core of Pentecost for the Christian Church and yet the story that I have just told is an ancient myth from a Native American tribe. Similar myths can be found in the historic tales of India, Mesoamerica, ancient Greece, Australia, the Andaman Islands, and many other cultures. Many of these myths are also tied to a story of a flood, just as today’s reading from Genesis immediately follows the story of Noah, his family and the great Flood.

In the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, as well as in the Native American legend, it is about the arrogance of the human race.

The Old Testament stories of God’s people as they populate the earth – are important stories in sharing our separation from God back to our earliest days. These sometimes-mythical stories are accepted as a history which serves to explain the worldview of a people, and are embedded with important truths. These ancient stories tell of our struggle to follow God - but also how often we fail and instead are overcome by our need to fulfill SELF instead.

Many years ago as I was mentoring a group in a program called Education for Ministry from the University of the South, we started each year of the 3-year program with every participant sharing his or her faith journey. One day, as I was listening to yet another of these stories I suddenly understood that our stories are the same as the stories of the Old Testament people, and of each other.

Today we celebrate Pentecost – another story of God and language. Often, in our sort of arrogant way, we think about Pentecost, with our red balloons and stories of tongues of fire as a uniquely Christian celebration – and yet…

The Jewish feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew Shavuot, was the Feast of Weeks, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, which arose as the celebration of the end of the spring grain harvest, which began formally at Passover 50 days earlier. This was one of the feast days first commanded by God to the Israelites and recorded in Exodus 34. From early rabbinic times, the festival served to commemorate the giving of the law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. God’s attempt to bring order to a people wandering in the wilderness who so often seemed to go astray… sound familiar?

On the other hand for the Christian church, Pentecost also falls 50 days from the Passover but is tied to that Passover day when Jesus was crucified. As we heard in this morning’s reading from Acts, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire accompanied by the sound of a rush of wind, and gave them the power of speaking in such a way that people of different languages could understand them. The Christian feast of Pentecost is our annual commemoration of this event, and it is solemnly observed as the birthday of the church, and the feast of the Holy Spirit.

We celebrate Pentecost as the polar opposite of the Genesis event at the Tower of Babel – a time when God transcends the diversity of our language by giving us the Spirit as a living presence to be our translator, advocate, and mediator.

Earlier this week Nancy and I were sitting in a busy and vibrantly noisy restaurant in Brussels, Belgium. As I listened to the myriad of conversations around us, unable to eavesdrop because of the multiple different languages being spoken in the room – I had a glimpse of what it must have been like on that day at the Tower of Babel after the language had been confused or at the Disciple’s Pentecost moments before the Spirit came.

It would be wrong of us to think of Pentecost as a single moment in history – it would be equally wrong to think that the story of the Christ child – birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension – wipes out the need for the rest of the stories.

Instead our story of language starts at the Tower - along with people of many other faiths – it continues as God tries to provide a lighted path through the Law of Moses (which we also managed to misuse) – then comes in the gift of love through the Christ child – and finally followed by the Spirit of God at Pentecost.

Today is not the end of the stories but rather an important marker along the way – if we don’t misuse it and if we don’t let our arrogance of Self get in the way. We are called through the power of the Spirit given at Pentecost to speak in the universal language. This is a language not of words but rather a language of action. It is that language that Jesus used when feeding the 5000 or washing the feet of his disciple’s moments before his arrest. It is the language of love and of service.

Listen again to the words from this mornings Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. … If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

And from the book of 1st John come these very powerful, challenging, and often uncomfortable words:

For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: Those who love God must love their brother and sisters also.

Love everyone and serve their needs – not only those I feel comfortable with or those of certain economic status, those of certain political persuasion, a certain color, sexual orientation, or religion. We need to love the homeless, mentally ill, criminals. I am called to love every human being I touch, and most especially those I try to avoid. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan. It is not about words but about actions – it is easy to talk about justice or dignity for all people, it is much, much harder to live it.

How often I struggle to live out this love of neighbor…. to live out this love of self … how often I struggle then with my love of God.

How about you? Do you struggle?

Instead of building a tower, an empire, a fortune, a long life – you and I should strive instead to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves?

For it is only then that the story of language will have come full circle from the Tower – the story of God’s language will be complete in us – and we can become part of the Pentecost event.

Amen

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Lost, Jesus and Jackson Kemper"

Some thoughts from Mike...

I am an unapologetic lover of Lost. And last night, I tuned in with millions around the world to watch the series finale.

I say “unapologetic” because, particularly among my Episcopal clergy colleagues, I frequently feel like I need to apologize for loving Lost – the same way I often felt I needed to apologize for loving the amazing second telling of Battlestar Galactica.

I can’t tell you how many times people – particularly Episcopal clergy – have told me with an air of superiority that they don’t watch LOST. They’ll watch The Tudors or Vicar of Dibley … but they call Lost things like “warmed over pseudo-theology.”

Well, sneer if you must … but your sneering is killing the church. Because whether you think the theology of Lost is warmed-over, pseudo-, both or neither, there is one truth that cannot be argued:

Over the past six years, Lost has sparked more discussion and debate about theological topics than the Episcopal Church has.

And it ain’t even close.

Last night, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the show opened with two Lost cast members and the host discussing purgatory, redemption and heaven. Lost's entire run has created literally a global conversation about good and evil, sin and redemption, the identity and nature and existence of God … and even caused more than a few people to crack open some books and read some philosophy of John Locke and Jeremy Bentham.

Lost was compelling not because it gave people theological doctrine, but because it was a compelling story with incredibly human characters that people made parts of their lives. And through those characters, Lost invited us to engage larger questions of meaning in our lives.

And if we as leaders of the church sneer at that, we are not only forgetting our own history, we are sentencing ourselves to a future that is even bleaker than public libraries … because at least many public libraries are looking for how to remain relevant in a post-ink-on-paper world.

If we sneer at Lost, we forget that Jesus did the exact same thing that J.J. Abrams has done. When Jesus really needed to invite people into a reality that transcended literalism, he told a story. We forget that our scriptures are great drama and comedy with amazing characters … and that it is the characters and the narrative that invite us into a relationship with and deeper understanding of the divine.

If we sneer at Lost because it is bourgeois or because it is told on the bourgeois media of television and the internet, then we recommit the sins of the pre-Reformation church, which thought that engaging scripture was only for the highly educated literate, and that the common people either couldn’t be trusted with the conversation or weren’t important enough to spare the effort.

In a happy coincidence, today we celebrate the feast of Jackson Kemper, Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church – the founder of my very own Diocese of Missouri. The whole job description of Missionary Bishop was founded on the idea of carrying the Gospel to new frontiers … translating it into new languages … bringing it to the people where they lived instead of expecting them to travel to where we already were.

Jackson Kemper was a person of deep courage. Not just for traveling to faraway places under dangerous conditions but because he spent time with people – poor farmers, First Peoples – that many moneyed, educated, East Coast Episcopalians thought weren’t worth the church’s time and money. He heard the wagging tongues of the Pharisees many times saying “I can’t believe he’s eating with THOSE people!”

But Jackson Kemper knew better. He knew that the label of bourgeois was not to be feared but was a frontier to be engaged. He knew the physics of the Gospel is exothermic and indiscriminate – it is always releasing light and heat outward, touching all in its path. When we try to make the Gospel reaction endothermic and specific, we kill it.

I wonder where the spirit of Jackson Kemper has gone in the Episcopal Church? Even though Christianity has spread to the ends of the geographical earth, there is no shortage of new frontiers.

I had a priest friend argued to me rightly once that the Episcopal Church should have a missionary bishop for cyberspace … because that was where more and more people – particularly members of emerging generations -- were identifying as their home. What a great idea!

So, where else are people living? Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins realized that people were still devouring page-turning serial fiction … so they wrote the Left Behind series. Criticize the theology (please!) but don’t criticize them for having a winning strategy -- or for learning from our history.

Maybe instead of criticizing and sneering, we Episcopalians should ask how we can do it better. How can we recapture the spirit of Jackson Kemper? How can we engage this new world in theological conversations that invite and tranform and draw us deeper into the heart of God.

Another priest friend of mine said this to me last week of the mission of the Church:

“Identity politics is over. All we’ve got is each other. Our vocation is to ask questions for which there are no answers and to sit in them.”

For the past decade, the House of Bishops and many other Episcopal leaders have been using the work of Ron Heifetz from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who talks about leadership in terms of holding the boundaries of a container where conversation and conversion can happen. About resisting the urge to find technical "fix-it" solutions to adaptive challenges, where we barely know the question much less the answer.

That’s exactly what Lost has done and what the Episcopal Church has proven incredibly unwilling to try. We have robustly embraced the issue advocacy of identity politics. We will tell you how you should vote or believe on any number of political and social issues … and have a ridiculously unwieldy triennial governance model based on the proposition that people really care about our pronouncements … but we have not scratched the surface of inviting people into theological discourse. Of telling the kind of stories that Jesus -- and Lost -- told that draw people into a search for deep meaning that can be converting and transforming.

Maybe if the Church were doing this, Lost wouldn’t have been such a phenomenon. Maybe people wouldn’t need to turn to Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Hurley … or Oprah and Dr. Phil for that matter … because the Church was the one meeting them where they live and telling compelling stories with multidimensional characters and engaging them in the wonderful conversation of “What does it all mean?”

I once heard a New Zealand church planter named Andrew Jones say, “The church spends so much of it’s time asking God to bless what it’s doing, instead of looking around at what God is doing and saying, ‘How can we bless this?’”

For all our talk of the Emerging Church, maybe we need to consider that Lost is part of what is emerging.

Maybe instead of sneering at Lost while we ask God to bless our church as we pour millions of dollars into lawsuits to hold onto buildings better suited for ministry in 1956 then today … and millions more into dying congregations whose missionary EKG has been flatter than the Great Plains for decades. Maybe instead of feeling superior that “We don’t get our theology on Tuesday nights on ABC” we need to consider that maybe God is at work in Lost and other things like it and say “How can we be a part of this movement?”

Maybe we need to look at the conversations and the thirst for meaning Lost has uncovered – a thirst that Jesus himself came to slake – and celebrate that there are still missionary frontiers and openings for us to carry the Gospel.

As Jackson Kemper might say if he were alive today:

It's out there. What are we waiting for?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Walk in Love" -- Easter 7C

Preached by the Rev. David Fly at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, May 16, 2010

“Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.”

You might recognize that line because it’s often used as an offertory sentence at the Eucharist. It’s from Ephesians, but could just as well be a summary of John’s retelling of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper with his disciples. Today’s gospel is the final prayer of Jesus with his friends before he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane. His final words before they go out are a prayer to the Father:

“Father, the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, 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. . . I made your name known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

As Archbishop Tutu has said, “It all comes down to this: that at the center of the universe there is a heart that beats with love and it is that love that empowers us to love one another because God first loved us and gave himself for us.”

So, this morning I want to spend a little time talking about what it means to walk in love. When I first moved to St. Louis in 1981, my fourth daughter Jessie was only a year old. By my second year at Grace Church, Jessie had just begun to walk. Thursday nights were very special for us because it was my night to be alone with my daughter while her mom went off to choir practice. Usually we had time for me to give her a long bath, to tell her a story or read her a book, and to have some quiet time with her before I put her to bed. On one particular Thursday night about this time of the year, it was evident that Jessie didn’t want to play inside – it was too pretty outside and she was just discovering that wonderful thing called walking. So, off we went on a long walk around the block. Because I had been so busy, I hadn’t taken the time to really focus on how much she had developed her newly acquired skill. Carrying a little purse on her arm, she toddled down the sidewalk, eyes wide open, taking in all the sights and reaching for my hand only when she came to a major obstacle, like an uneven crack in the sidewalk. It was one of those lovely moments that many of us have had with children. I was enchanted as I watched her toddle along. I was filled with admiration and, I must admit, I was feeling a good deal of pride at her accomplishment. As I saw the smiles of the passing motorists watching this father/daughter scene, I could feel my chest puff out just a bit.

It was when we approached the halfway point in our little journey that I saw another father/daughter scene that had a profound effect on me. Across the street and half a block away, another father was walking with his daughter. The difference was that he was older than me and his daughter looked to be in her early 20s.

The man walked slowly, his daughter carefully holding his arm. In her other hand was a cane which she used to steady herself. Each step looked difficult and, from time to time, she looked to her father for reassurance and he would smile and gently urge her forward. I don’t’ know the history that lay behind what I saw, but it was clear that some awful event had occurred that had produced the brokenness that was now seeking to be healed. I imagined that this man had once walked with his daughter as I was now walking with mine, delighting in her innocence, proud of her display of new-found skills and, probably like me, aware of the passing motorists that smiled as they drove by.

And here he was years later called to make sacrifices that he could not have foreseen: called to walk with his daughter in a new way – to walk with her that she might learn to walk again. That moment affected me in a profound way because it pointed to an unknown future – a future that might well call upon me to walk with my daughter when things were not so easy, to walk with my daughter when the going got tough, to be with her in love even when it cost me a great deal more than a pleasant Thursday evening stroll. As the father of five daughters, I have learned the truth of that lesson taught to me on a spring evening in 1982. Those times have come, those tough times when the going wasn’t easy, but a father’s love was very much needed.

Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Love is not primarily a function of the emotions – love is an act of the will which necessarily involves commitment, involvement and sacrifice on the part of the lover. It means sticking with another in the bad times not just the good, weeping with another and not just sharing laughter. It means accepting the brokenness of another and not demanding perfection as the cost of love. Those who walked with our Lord – those who sat around the table with him in the Upper Room – came to know this kind of love because he lived it daily – he embodied the love of God, the God who has been loving his people since the beginning of time.

Earlier, during that same meal, Jesus says, “As the father had loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends.” Just think of the context of these words and the final prayer we heard earlier. This is the table talk at the Last Supper! In a matter of hours he is betrayed and denied and his friends run away leaving him alone on a cross. And yet, though he senses their lack of understanding and their inability to be faithful, Jesus loves them to the end.

Bishop John Coburn, former Bishop of Massachusetts in his book The Hope of Glory tells the following story about Arthur Lichtenberger who was the Bishop of Missouri during the 1950s and a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. During the last three years of his life, Bishop Lichtenberger was a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School where Coburn served as chaplain. Bishop Lichtenberger suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Coburn writes:

“During the last three years, he became increasingly disabled, shuffled rather than walked, mumbled rather than talked, pointed rather than wrote. One winter morning as I sat alone in my study, I was going through one of those moods that we all go through, just feeling sorry for myself. I happened to look out the window, and there up on the road, shuffling along those icy paths, came Bishop and Mrs. Lichtenberger arm in arm. Just as I looked at them there came a surge of strength as if I were experiencing a rebirth. All I could do was to rejoice in them.”

Bishop Lichtenberger, in spite of all the adversity he suffered, was a tower of strength to many. But as I considered the story of Bishop Coburn and the question of what it means to walk in love, I focused on Mrs. Lichtenberger who walked arm in arm with her husband. Surely they had walked together many times and the going was easy – as easy as dancing. But now she was called to give herself in a way she could never have anticipated. But she was there with him, just as that father I had seen walking with his daughter. Those two images form for me a powerful picture of the kind of love Jesus prayed for us on the night before he was betrayed.

It is only after the resurrection that the disciples are led to understand the gift they’ve been given and are empowered to walk with the world in love as Christ walked with them. And because they were faithful to their calling, they have enabled us to walk with one another. It won’t always be easy and it may not always feel good and people may not meet up to our expectations and we may find ourselves called to walk with those who need to learn to walk again. And we will only be able to walk in that kind of love as we come to know the Lord who walks with us and reassures us that we can lean on him for support and he will go as slowly as we need. Amen.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Consider the Thistle" -- the Rev. Becca Stevens

Preached by the Rev. Becca Stevens at Christ Church Cathedral at Flower Festival, Saturday, May 1, 2010