Monthly Archives: May 2016

Sermon: Pentecost Year C

My sponsoring rector has been abundantly generous in inviting me to preach at our parish, The Church of the Redeemer.  He has made sure I have had great lessons to work with and am preaching days I have not preached before.  Continuing this trend, he invited me to preach on Pentecost (May 15, 2016). 

Below is a copy of my manuscript, and you can find the lessons here (we used Acts and Romans).  You can listen to a recording for the 10am Liturgy through the media player below or over on The Redeemer’s website.  

 

 

One of the greatest challenges, and ultimately the great gift of seminary, are the moments when what you are learning confronts and conflicts with what you have always believed to be true. It is the encounters where the old and new can no longer coexist together. Over the last two years I have watched countless friends and classmates enter into these struggles – these crises of faith – and emerge on the other side; the old being cast down and replaced by a new and deeper understanding of God. In the last week, I 20120513144615!Icon-Pentecosthave realized that today, this great feast of Pentecost, is one of my crossroad moments. In struggling to craft this sermon, I have come to know that what I thought I knew about Pentecost can no longer stand with what I understand to be true about the Christian life.

Growing up, Pentecost was one of my favorite days in the life of the Church. This excitement had nothing to do with the fact that everyone wore red or any liturgical pageantry, but had everything to do with coffee hour. You see the parish I grew up in celebrated this principal feast day as the birthday of the church – so coffee hour was one big birthday party. There were balloons, we sang “Happy Birthday,” and blew out candles on not one but twelve birthday cakes. My foundational experiences of Pentecost were happy, joyous, sugar fueled, parties.

This foundation was further built upon when I had the opportunity to travel to Taizé, France at the end of my freshman year of college. As I journeyed to Taizé I was convinced that I would finally understand what the Pentecost moment was all about. Over the course of my weeklong pilgrimage, I gathered with hundreds even thousands of other people to worship in the Church of Reconciliation. Each day our number grew larger and the cacophony of voices increased. There we were, worshipping in the Spirit, each in our own native tongue. You could feel the Spirit at work in that place. It was a warm, embracing, joy-filled Spirit. Young people from around the world – separated by boundaries of geography and language – praising God with one voice. To add to this, the week I was there was mostly windy and rainy. I thought I had it all. I had experienced Pentecost – the wind, the multitude of voices, the Spirit descending on the people of God. So I entered seminary, believing Pentecost to be a fun, exciting, party of love and worship.

But as I read today’s lessons, as I listen to John’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, those are not the words that come to mind. Instead, I think of intense intimacy, unsettling peace, terrifying transformation, subversive behavior, and unceasing fire.

What we just heard from John’s Gospel is a testimony to the profound intimacy of God. Just as we heard last Sunday, we hear again today that Jesus and the Father are one. That God the Father sent Jesus – who is God the Son – into the world, that all people might come to believe and know God. With the incarnation came a promise that God would dwell with God’s people forever. Today we hear again of that promise, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” This Advocate is God the Holy Spirit. So when God the Son is no longer physically present among us, God the Holy Spirit comes to be present to us and to dwell in each and every one of us. It is this same abiding Spirit that is going to reveal to us everything that we need to know, because the Spirit of truth brings Jesus to mind, the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. Or succinctly as Gregory of Nazianzus profoundly wrote, “we receive the Son’s light from the Father’s light in the light of the Spirit.”

The concluding sentences of today’s Gospel reading jump ahead a few verses in John’s narrative, and, according to the lectionary, are completely optional. We hear these concluding words from Jesus, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The peace proclaimed in this Gospel, is not the type of peace that the world proclaims: a peace championed by celebrities and imagined as children singing in harmony and unity. The peace of God, to quote Hymn 661, “it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” It is the peace that changes everything we think we know. It is not some comforting imagine, but unsettles all that has become stagnant and transforms it to the way God intended in creation. It is this transformation, this marvelous peace of God that we are called to pray for. This transformation is at the heart of the Acts of the Apostles.

In Acts we hear of the flashy, intense, and action packed descent of the Holy Spirit on God’s people. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” These closest followers of Jesus were hiding, trying to stay safe. After witnessing what happened to Jesus, they were understandably terrified that the same would happen to them. And all of a sudden, there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind. How completely terrifying – that in this place they thought was safe, they would be overwhelmed by a deafening and violent sounds that seems to come out of nowhere. God the Holy Spirit did not descend upon them like some cute little bird, but rather came crashing in shattering the World as they knew it. All of a sudden they began speaking in every language imaginable – languages they never spoke before.

This transformation, this descent of God, was not something to be confined to those in the house, but quickly spread throughout Jerusalem. We hear that a bewildered, amazed, and astonished crowd came and gather to figure out what was going on. And as each person heard the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their native tongue those feelings only intensified. Some tried to figure out what had happened, while others mocked and scoffed – writing off this transformation as if the apostles were a bunch of drunken fools.

Then Peter steps up and begins to preach as a way to explain all that is happening. “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you supposed, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel” When I stop laughing at Peter’s insistence that the twelve could not be drunk because it is nine in the morning – because no one has ever been drunk at that hour – I can not help but wonder more seriously, “what would it take for the world to be so surprised, bewildered, astonished, and amazed by our actions that the only logical conclusion would be that we have had a little too much to drink a little too early in the day?

What would it look like, if we stepped outside our perceived houses of safety and proclaimed the righteousness of God in the world around us? What would it look like if we – as exemplified in Paul and Silas last week – praised and worshipped God in such a way that walls came crashing down? What would it look like if we actually believed that “a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down,” even more to the point, what if we believed that it could happen again?

This is why the Holy Spirit descends on that Pentecost day, and this Pentecost day, in such a terrifying and startling way. Because the Spirit of truth dwells in us so richly that if we truly believe we will do greater things than Jesus himself.

The world in which we live is torn apart by useless division and senseless violence. If the Pentecost event teaches us anything, it is that these divisions can and will be cast down. If one hundred people turned the known world upside down that Pentecost day – why can’t 50 turn Providence upside down this Pentecost day? If the prayer and praise of Paul and Silas casts down the prison wall, why can’t our prayer and praise break down the wall between the East Side and Camp Street? If God has created us to be at unity with God’s self, why can’t we get out of God’s way and be open to receiving the Spirit of God?

On that great and glorious Pentecost day divided tongues as of fire appeared among them. By the preaching of all, hearts were set a blaze. As long as fire gets the fuel it needs, it can continue to burn without end, but without fuel the fire starves and quickly extinguishes itself. Today, that fire has arrived at our door. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us and transformed us into fuel to keep that fire burning.

The life of discipleship is hard and it requires much. In fact it requires everything. This day we celebrate is not a glorified liturgical birthday party. It is God fulfilling God’s promise – that the Holy Spirit will be our advocate and guide here on earth as we strive to build the kingdom of God. On this day God equips us to do the impossible – to follow the God who took on our mortality so that we might take on God’s immortality.

13062071_1187681657942722_9198193583684222493_n

Renewal of Baptismal Vows. Photo by Dan Harvey

In a few moments we will recommit ourselves to this work as we renew our Baptismal Vows. With that renewal and with being nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist we will go forth from this place as a living Pentecost moment: to share in the intense intimacy of God who is three in one and one in three, to be unsettled by the peace of God and shaken from our complacency, to stand unafraid of the awesome transformational power of God, to act in a way that is so subversive to the ways of this world people think we are drunken fools, and to share the light of Christ that burns so brightly in our hearts that it sets this world on fire.

 

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” It is time for us to prophecy, it is time for us to dream, it is time for us to get to work and do the impossible.

AMEN.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Life in a parish, Seminary

Sermon Easter 7C : Last Sunday at Trinity Hartford

Below is the copy of my sermon from my final Sunday at my internship parish Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT.  The lessons can be found here.  Here’s the audio so you can give it a listen.  .  

What a day this is.

giotto-the-ascension

Giotto, The Ascension 

Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as the Sunday after the Ascension. Just a few days ago, on Thursday, the Church celebrated one of the seven principal feasts – one of the seven most important and special days of the year – the feast of the Ascension. Given this is the Sunday after the Ascension, it seems to me that to truly understand all that we have just heard we need to take a step back, and think together about what exactly happened on that great and glorious Ascension day.

 

There’s an old story told by one of the desert fathers. No one really knows where the story comes from, but some say that St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nyssa told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as they sat around the campfire. I do not know the facts behind this story, but it is certainly true. Following in their footsteps, I want to tell you an Ascension campfire-story:

As Jesus began to rise, John just could not bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! To make matters worse, when Mary saw John’s plan, she too, jumped up, and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father . . . now what?”

A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples could not bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who had heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people whom he had fed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God kept calling out, “Ascend!”

But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.

“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined that his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus could not stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling Jesus back up to heaven.

It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. The soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he pulled all of creation – everything that ever was, everything that is, everything that will ever be – Jesus pulled it into heaven with him.

This story expresses in beautiful imagery the words of my favorite early church theologian, Athanasius, who says more profoundly than I could ever muster: the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine. This is what Ascension Day is all about. In fact, this is what the incarnation is all about. That one day thousands of years ago, God took on the frailty of our human flesh – God became human – so that we might ascend with God back to heaven and be transformed into the fullness of our own creation. In the Ascension the incarnation cycle is completed, but it is not finished.

This morning we hear from the Gospel of John, just how serious God is about being in relationship with us. We hear Jesus pray, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus passionately and earnestly prays to God that we might be at unity with each other and with Jesus so that we might also be at unity with God the Father. Jesus prays for all of this so we might be able to see, know, experience, and share in his glory. But Jesus’ glory, particularly in John’s Gospel is a complicated and difficult thing.

As we look at John’s Gospel, and the placement of this passage in John’s large narrative, we see these are Jesus’ final words before the account of Jesus’ betrayal. We are reminded that Christ’s glory is inseparable from Christ’s suffering. We come to know again that Jesus’ glory can only be seen from the cross. As we step back and look at this narrative it is clear that this deep and abiding intimacy with God is rooted in the cross and endures through suffering. This is the life we are called to as followers of Jesus. Luckily, we are not the only ones who have been called.

In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles we hear of Paul and Silas, out proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman Colony. This passage contains two very different encounters that reveal something to us of the nature of our unity with Christ and the journey to which that unity calls us.

First, Paul and Silas encounter a salve girl who makes a lot of money for her owners by telling fortunes. Acts tells us of their encounter with the girl, but the important part of this story has nothing to do with the girl: it has to do with her owners and their response to Paul and Silas.

When the slave girl’s owners find out what Paul has done they are furious, have Paul and Silas seized and bring them to court where they are charged with disturbing the peace of the city. They are charged with being subversive to the public order. So they are flogged, they are beaten, and thrown in jail.

The charge brought against Paul and Silas is strikingly similar to the change brought against Jesus. They are changed for disrupting the status quo. They are charge for breaking down a system of oppression and setting the captive free. For that liberating and life giving work they are punished – and punished harshly. There is a reality for us in this experience of Paul and Silas. When we do the work of Christ there is a cost. Indeed unity with Christ – that very unity Jesus begs the Father to give us – has throughout history often meant suffering at the hands of unjust powers, for the sake of love – for the sake of integrity. Being in unity with God through the person of Jesus means we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the Gospel: we must be willing to face unknown hardships and sufferings for the sake of the cross. But, suffering never has the last word.

As Paul and Silas are in jail they have another important encounter. As they sit in jail, as they sit broken and bruised, they prayed and sang hymns – they worshiped God all night long. Their worship was so powerful that it caused the earth to quake and all in the prison were set free. Yet, they did not leave – instead they save the jailers life.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the jailer says to Paul. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And without delay the jailer and his whole household we baptized. Because of the worship and witness of Paul and Silas this jailer’s life was save and transformed. This is our chief responsibility to gather in prayer and song and worship God in such a way that lives are saved.

There are many problems in this world: release needs to be brought to the captives, justice to the oppressed, and peace to those ravaged by conflict. As important as these actions are, they are only a part of a higher, more important action, the saving action of a sovereign God who enters our humanity to take it up and redeem it to its final destiny.

This time of prayer and worship is a time to clarify our values and motives, and to see all we do and all that we are in light of the gospel message. As we gather at this holy table to time stands still. Everything that was, everything that is, everything that will ever be comes together in this moment as simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Past, present, and future unite to sing the praises of God. As we receive this most blessed sacrament we, in the words of Augustine, becoming what we receive. We are receiving the physical manifestation of our unity with God – we are receiving the redeeming and life giving, sustaining, and nourishing meal of God.

Though this sacrament of praise and thanksgiving we stand with Paul and Silas, who in the face of suffering never stop their worship of God. Their praise shakes the foundations of the prison – doors are opened and chains are unfastened. When we gather at this table this is the same worship we are called to. We are called to stand in the midst of our suffering, our doubt, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty and worship in such a way that shakes the foundations of the world so that all those held captive, all those in chains, are set free.

Do you feel that? The spirit is at work in this place. Wherever the Spirit moves, the work of worship and witness by faithful people brings freedom to all who believe. Trinity Hartford this is your call. To praise God in such a way that walls of division come down, that chains break open, and all people are set free in the name of Jesus.

13102638_10206367625374041_7785126652530279402_n

with The Rev’d Don Hamer (rector, Trinity Hartford), April Alford-Harkey (Postulant for Diaconate) and her ministry dog Sandy.  Photo taken by George Chien

From the bottom of my heart I want to thank each and every one of you for an amazing year. I have learned so much, tried on new things, and come a little closer to understanding what it means to be a priest. I want to offer my particular thanks to Don who has so graciously and generously taken me under his wing and walked with me as I continue my journey to ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church.

 

As Jesus, in Luke’s account of the Ascension, departs from his disciples he blesses them, they worship him, return to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually bless God in the temple. If I may be so bold as to speak on behalf of April, as we depart from you this day you are blessing us. You have and will continue to be a blessing in our lives, and we can only hope that you feel the same way about us. But, it is time for us to take the paths that have been set before us: to go forth from this place continually praising God. While we may be in different places we are all united by that same song of thankfulness and praise that makes eternity stand still. That God loves us so much, that God became what we are so might become what God is.

Beloved children of God; keep the faith, stay strong, and do not give up. Most importantly never stop worshiping because when you do; that is when they earth stops shaking, that is when transformation ceases, that is when lives are no longer saved.

AMEN.

Leave a comment

Filed under Life in a parish, Seminary