Tag Archives: presence

This child is our spark | Sermon for 2 Christmas

The candles and the fire sparkle in the dim light of the simple home.

The visitors from far away have come and gone. The presents are opened and already forgotten; the child is playing with the boxes they came in.

The child is young and probably won’t remember the presents, anyway, especially after his family takes flight in their desperate need and leaves that simple home behind.

The British poet and priest Malcolm Guite writes:

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

As we stood at the beginning of this service, we prayed:

O God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ … (BCP 214)

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, the Christ Child inspires us to reflect on the dignity of human nature.

First, we must listen to our prayer and its wisdom that God “wonderfully created … the dignity of human nature.” That is our starting point. God created all that is, including us, and it is good.

But we also know that sin quickly entered the picture, and that human history has often been undignified, to say the very least.

Our dignity can be obscured by our circumstances:

By poverty

By racial prejudice

By sickness

By war – making refugees out of people fleeing from the threat of death

And our dignity can be disfigured by our selves:

By greed

By fear

By anger

By cruelty – like the murderous arrogance of Herod and any who lash out at others

But our dignity can also be restored by our creator’s life-giving Spirit:

By our wonder at the stars and at human learning

By our faithfulness to God’s leading

By our foresight to protect those whom we love

By our willingness to travel far from home and face risks

Another British poet, George Szirtes, was himself a refugee from Hungary at the age of eight.

His haunting poem called “The Flight” was set to music as a commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge this year.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

Its dissonant chords like wailing sirens made it hard to breathe as I listened last week:

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

This child is our spark.

This child whose very life restores the dignity of human nature.

This child who humbles himself to share our humanity, his own dignity obscured by poverty and war, by arrest and execution, but never disfigured by himself.

This child who through his death and resurrection, and the sharing of his Spirit, invites us to share in his divine life … this child is our spark.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road …

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to work against all that obscures and disfigures the dignity of human nature – by combating poverty, standing against war, facing up to racial prejudice, exposing greed, and abstaining from cruelty.

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to participate with the creator’s life-giving Spirit in restoring the dignity of human nature – by our willingness and wonder, by our faith and foresight, by our humility in the face of the oppressed, and by our presence wherever humans still suffer.

That presence sparkles in dim light and desperate need.

That presence is not lightly forgotten or tossed aside.

That presence is in fact the Christ Child making his home with his people.

Here is our fire. This child is our spark. Amen.

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The Lord is near; be patient and hope in him

I am at the annual NAMI Wisconsin conference, hearing from speakers about mental illness and the peer-to-peer support which is the hallmark of NAMI’s recovery approach. Helping people experience recovery — living well with mental illness — builds hope.

One of this morning’s psalms resonates with my own experience of recovery.

The LORD is faithful in all his words *
and merciful in all his deeds.
The LORD upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.
The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, *
and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand *
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.
The LORD is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.
The LORD is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; *
he hears their cry and helps them.
The LORD preserves all those who love him, *
but he destroys all the wicked.
My mouth shall speak the praise of the LORD; *
let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever. (Psalm 145:14-22)

“The Lord upholds all those who fall; he lifts up those who are bowed down … the Lord is near to those who call upon him.” These assurances build hope in us as we share our stories of God’s faithfulness in our own times of trouble.

The writer Jesus son of Sirach (whose book the church calls Ecclesiasticus), describes the internal attitude I try to have as I work my own recovery each day.

Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him. (Ecclus. 2:4-6)

The slogans of recovery, like “One Day at a Time,” and the teachings of our Christian faith echo Sirach’s timeless human wisdom.

Accept whatever befalls you. What is, is. Accept that things are the way they are without becoming “restless, irritable, and discontented.”

Be patient. One of our speakers yesterday suggested that patience is a fruit of practicing mindfulness in every situation, and that mindfulness is really being present to what is actually happening.

Make your ways straight. At the men’s breakfast and Bible study I attend on Thursdays, we spoke this week about how our lives are to be lived in response to God’s grace. We do not earn grace; but in gratitude we make changes in order to stay in God’s way.

The short reading from the Acts of the Apostles exemplifies the simple faithfulness that is to characterize our new life — whether it’s life in recovery, life in Christ, or both.

Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark. Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 12:25–13:3)

Notice how John, whose other name was Mark, is simply present with Barnabas and Saul. Notice how he doesn’t figure in the action at Antioch — it’s Barnabas and Saul who are made apostles.

Mark must have been practicing mindfulness throughout that time, though, paying attention to the new life in Christ. Eventually, his insights bore fruit in the gospel account that bears his name.

The Lord is near to those who call upon him, who call upon him faithfully.

In times of humiliation, be patient.

Make your ways straight, and hope in him.

Collect for St. Mark

Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God: We thank you for this witness, and pray that we may be firmly grounded in its truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The power and the presence of God

victory of life and peace

The Fifth Sunday in Lent + Healing Sunday

Sermon given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church + Menasha, WI

About 46 years ago, I was baptized, my Episcopal priest father scooping the water over my head with his hand, and my parents and godparents promising on my behalf to renounce Satan and all his works, to turn to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to see that I was brought up in the Christian faith and life.

About 35 years ago, I was confirmed, renewing that commitment to Jesus Christ and promising (with God’s grace) to follow him as my Savior and Lord. My godfather, Bishop Folwell, laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would empower me for God’s service.

About 25 years ago, Katrin and I married each other, joining hands, and promising to “have and to hold, from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”

A couple months after that, a high school friend of Katrin’s invited me to attend a John Guest evangelistic crusade in Chicago. Seriously? An evangelistic crusade? People waving their hands in the air? As the altar call began, my skeptical self was confronted by a vision of Jesus in person. That night, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and made a mature commitment to follow him as my Lord.

About 18 years ago, Bishop Frank Griswold laid his hands on my head and made me a deacon in God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I promised not only to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church; but more importantly “to make Christ and his redemptive love known to those among whom I live, and work, and worship.”

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We make promises before we fully understand what they will mean for us and for our lives. We vow to follow, and then we find out where we’re going.

Our namesake Thomas exemplifies this pattern. Things are coming to a head between Jesus and the religious authorities, and they could expect trouble in the days ahead.

“Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:14-16).

We make promises in time, without fully understanding them, and it’s only over time that we come to appreciate how they will impact our futures.

But underneath these promises, in all our lives, in all of the details of what we promise and who we share our lives with, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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A little more than 5 months ago, head in my hands, I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable, and I made a decision to turn my life and my will over to the care of God as I understand Him.

XTD68231

Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is such an accurate picture of those moments.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know’” (Ezekiel 37:1-3).

When we admit we are powerless, time stops, and in the present moment we see how broken and dry and dead we have become. It’s only through that awareness that we begin to rely on God entirely. “Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know.” The meetings I now go to, the 12 Steps I now follow like millions before me are about learning to live a sober life, sober meaning “dependent on God and free from self-centeredness, fear, anger, and resentment.”

As our Gospel lesson continues (John 11:21-27), Jesus is almost to Bethany, and there is Martha – brimming with anger, seething with resentment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” What she really means is, “if you had been here, I wouldn’t be in pain right now.”

Her faith tries to reassert itself: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says to him – focusing back on her pain, her frustration – that’s no help to me, but sure, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus looks her straight in the eyes – no hiding – and says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She blinks, realizing as she looks back at him that her trust is stronger than her grief, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha trusts Jesus, and even knows him to be the Messiah, but she actually has no idea the breadth of his power or the depth of his love for her, for Mary, and for their brother, for his brother Lazarus.

What is happening here is that, faced with our grief and frustration, faced with our anger and resentment, faced with our fear of death, God’s heart breaks.

christ-in-gethsemane-p

“God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), stands with us and weeps.

When God’s eternal Spirit, blowing through all creation, touches the tears on Jesus’s cheeks, even death is no match – even graves spring open.

Underneath our helplessness, underneath our fear and resentment, in all of the details of how we have failed ourselves and those we love, underneath even our own death is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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Until he died about 10 years ago, there was never a time in my life when my father did not pray for me. I can still hear his voice and feel his hand on my forehead:

Rodger, I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with oil, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you and you may enjoy that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him now and always. Amen. 

Woven throughout my life, woven into the fabric of the promises I have made to God and the admission of my failures, is another pattern of healing prayers being offered on my behalf.

One of my first conscious memories of healing prayers other than my father’s is from about 30 years ago on my first Happening – Happening number 12 in the Diocese of Albany. I loved the singing, but I was rapidly losing my voice. I asked the Spiritual Director to pray for me at the healing service, and it felt like there was soothing honey pouring down my throat – for the rest of the weekend I could sing freely and loudly, even hitting the high notes in “I am the bread of life.” Thirty years later, and I’m still singing at Happenings – this last one was Happening number 67 in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

Here at St. Thomas, I know myself to be surrounded by healing prayer, whether it’s in the chapel after the Eucharist, or here at the rail during a healing service, or at birthday and anniversary prayers during the Peace, or through special prayers for healing after my foot surgery. Your healing ministry also took the form of an invitation – since I have been home more often these last few months – to join the Thursday morning men’s Bible study group.

We ask for healing – we accept God’s invitation to health – before we fully understand what it will mean, before we fully grasp what wholeness may free us to do.

We admit our vulnerability, and find that, paradoxically, our weakness and honesty helps to strengthen others.

We are healed in eternity – because in praying for healing we are made open to God’s eternal love for all of creation. Like with Lazarus, even death cannot stop God’s love.

Underneath these healing prayers, in all our lives, in all of the details of our sickness and pain, in all the frustration of our limitations, in the loneliness and separation we feel, in all the push and pull of our relationships, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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If you desire to know the presence and the power of God in your life more fully, I will invite you in a moment to come forward and ask a member of the healing team to pray for you.

Who knows what that healing will mean for you, who knows where it will take you, who knows what it may set you free to do with and for others?

If you’d like to know “that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve God now and always,” I invite you to come forward now and ask.

victory of life and peace