Sunday, May 18, 2008


I wrote this as a call and response for the sermon at our HipHop Mass on May 10, 2008 (the Eve of Pentecost).

The Spirit of God on the Streets of God
We are all together in this life
Everyone deserves to live
The Spirit of God makes us one
All people are one human family
We are persons through other persons
Who we are is who we are with
Each got the back of each
Caring, generosity is our creed
The Spirit of God on the Streets of God

Made for Ubuntu

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1--2:4a

Once again, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message comes through with a fresh sound to a familiar text—the Creation story.

Let us make human beings in our image, making them reflect our nature, so they can be responsible…[so] he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Many things—it is like a multi-faceted diamond, this reality. Peterson gives us two things it means: reflecting God’s nature and to be “godlike.”

The latter may stun us. It is one thing to say we are made in the image of God, quite another, perhaps, to say we are “godlike.” Isn’t that a sin, to think we are like God? Isn’t that what gets Adam and Eve into trouble in the story that follows this one?

I think there is a difference—a fine line perhaps, but still a difference—between being God and being godlike. Being God makes us equal to God—in charge of things. Being godlike makes us not God but like God, not in charge of things, but, as Peterson translates, responsible for them.

So the word “responsible” is a check on any power that being “godlike” seems to give us. There’s another check on this power, a bit more subtle, and something we Christians bring to the equation—the Trinity.

We are made to reflect the nature of God. What is God’s nature? The primary answer for Christians is “the Trinity.” It is God’s nature to be one-in-three, three-in-one.

The concept of the Trinity is a difficult one to grasp—always has been and always will be. Preachers traditionally dislike this Sunday because of the seemingly impossible task of “explaining” the Trinity. I don’t mind it so much myself, partially because I accept the fact that there is nothing to explain. I can no more “explain” the nature of God than I can “explain” my own nature, or yours.

The Trinity does not so much “explain” or “define” God as lead us more deeply into God’s mystery. God is One—that is fundamental—but when we peer deeply into the mystery of God we see something we do not quite expect. We see community.

If the Trinity tells us anything about the nature of God it is this—that community is at the very heart of God’s nature.

Therefore if we are to reflect this nature, we too must have community at our very heart. We are not made to be alone. We are made to be in relationship. Our very personhood depends upon other persons, some of our choosing, many not of our choosing.

I was well into my twenties before my adolescent rebellion toned down. I spent many years trying not to be like my parents. That is not an unusual thing, to test out and assert one’s autonomy. But there came a day when it suddenly dawned on me that the person I was depended on the persons my parents were and there was nothing I could do about that. “Son of Willi and Patti Hopkins” is a fundamental part of my identity. Of course, other relationships are constantly affecting my identity: spouse of John Bradley, priest of this parish, friend of this person and that person, uncle and one and on. Every person with whom I am in relationship deeply affects who I am.

I am made for community. You are made for community. And in that we are godlike.

The word “community” alone is not quite enough. Peterson gives us the right adjective to put with it. We are made for responsible community, community that has a particular way of being and doing. Community of responsibility, community of stewardship, community of generosity, community of hospitality, community of mutual, ever growing and ever changing identity.

There is a word for community like this in South Africa. The word is ubuntu. Ubuntu is an ancient African concept popularized by Desmond Tutu. It doesn’t translate into English very well. It is another multi-faceted diamond. It means all those things I just said: mutual identity and responsibility, stewardship, hospitality, generosity. It means living in solidarity—community—with all that is.

Ubuntu is what we were made for, and it is another way of expressing what we mean by the Trinity, the very nature of God.

We Christians believe not only that God is by nature Trinity but that all creation is as well. All creation is by nature community, responsible community, ubuntu.

Where’s the Trinity in our relationships? It’s pretty simple really. There is me and there is you and there is our relationship, the community we make, that is not just me and not just you, but a mysterious third thing that depends upon both of us to make it.

St. Augustine said long ago that the Trinity was the Lover and the Beloved and the Love between them.

Now what difference does this make in our lives?

It makes a difference that we are made for community and not for autonomy. Who each one of us is and what we do affects everyone and everything with whom we are in relationship. There is no such thing as a solitary self. “No man is an island,” as the poet and priest John Donne once said.

We are responsible for one another and in the biblical vision this “one another” is wider than we can possibly imagine. It is those we like and those we do not like. It is those known to us, and those who are strangers. Our lives are dependent upon one another, in as wide a circle as can possibly be.

That means when lives are damaged in the community around us, we are damaged. When a life is taken, like 16 year-old Daniel Davis’ life this past week, a piece of our life is taken. Our identities as members of this community we call Rochester are affected. We cannot pretend otherwise and be true to our biblical story.

So when another young life is taken on our streets we must ask, what is the response of responsible community? Sometimes the answer to that question comes very hard. But it begins by knowing that we absolutely have to ask it. We cannot let the murder of anyone, much less a child, drive us into a greater sense of autonomy where we have the illusion of safety. We cannot say, “That’s a tragedy but it really doesn’t affect me.” The first and most important step is to say, “This does affect me and calls me to greater responsible community.” That is Trinitarian acting, ubuntu.

On a brighter note, the renovations we are dedicating today are an act of Trinity, of responsible community, of ubuntu. We as individuals gave to this parish community and a need is being met, a need for deeper accessibility and hospitality. Our identity is changed by what we have done. We have been generous, we have cared for one another, and whenever we do that, God calls it “good.”

The good news today is that deep in the heart of God is community, and this means it is deep in our hearts as well. We are made for it, ever deepening, responsible community.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Discomforter & Comforter

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Day of Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21, John 7:37-39

How do we know when the Spirit shows up?

It’s an honest question, and an important one if this Spirit is God at work among us in the present time.

How do we know when the Spirit shows up?

We have a tendency in the church to claim that the Holy Spirit has shown up when things have gone our way, when God seems to be supplying our needs and clearing our path to something that we want.

But can the criteria for knowing when the Holy Spirit has been at work simply that we feel good about what has happened?

Being an Episcopalian I want to be a bit more rational about it than that. I have a suspicion of religious experience that is simply “feel good.” I want a bit more meat on the bones of the answer to the question.

How do we know when the Spirit shows up?

The images we use for the Holy Spirit are not very helpful to answer the question—they are at least confusing. On the one hand we have images of wind and fire, both things that move and change and shake up. On the other hand we have the image of the dove, all soft and, well, “coo-ey.” And then there is the image this morning of a spring of water within us and elsewhere John’s titles for the Spirit: Advocate and Comforter.

So which is it? Fire or dove? Wind or Comforter?

The answer must be both. But how? I want to propose that there is a kind of “cycle of the Holy Spirit”: the way the Spirit works using these contrasting images. The way we can tell that the Spirit has shown up in our lives.

The Holy Spirit is indeed the great mover and shaker of the people of God, and indeed the world. We can see this truth in the Acts reading this morning, the story of the day of Pentecost.

As the story goes, the disciples had been waiting in Jerusalem together for this promised Spirit after Jesus had taken leave of them. We are told they spent much time in “the upper room” together in prayer.

When the Day of Pentecost had come they were again together in that place of waiting and safety and calm. Then there came “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” This was no soft summer breeze, but a hurricane. Suddenly things were anything but calm and safe. And what happened?

Among other things, they became exposed. They could no longer wait in that upper room. The Spirit “outed” them. And people took notice on the streets because these people were acting crazy, like they were drunk or something.

The Spirit always drives us out of our comfort zone, blows off the doors of our safe places and out into the streets. The most misnamed church I ever heard of was “the Ark of Safety.” I don’t think so. Not if the Holy Spirit is around.

We know the Spirit has shown up when we are not content just to be the Church in our safe and beautiful building dutifully at prayer. We know the Spirit has shown up when we feel literally shoved out the doors that have been blown off their hinges. Like those first disciples, the Spirit sends us onto the streets.

And then the Spirit sends us into community. That was the second sign of the Spirit in the Acts reading. First, the violent wind and the tongues of fire, and then the phenomenon of suddenly being given the gift of speaking in other languages, and being understood by the greatly diverse crowd that had gathered in pilgrimage for the festival. A new and wondrous community formed, but one so unlikely and so crazy looking that many bystanders suppose that a lot of people here began their latest binge with breakfast.

So the Spirit always drives us out the doors and into community. The Spirit forms unlikely, weird community—people together who don’t belong together.

This weird community into which we are called is, of course, the human family, the family of the streets. The Church as a community is meant to be a microcosm of that larger community. It is to its shame that it is often not.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury once said, “Baptism catches us up in solidarities not of our choosing.” We have a tendency to think of the church as a chosen community, because we do, by and large, choose which church we go to, and it is, naturally, one in which we feel comfortable. But Archbishop Rowan is quite right. The church is also a place of discomfort as we are put next to folks to whom we wouldn’t necessarily be attracted.

This ought to be true of the church at all levels. Despite the fact that we call a church like this one a “family,” I don’t think that all of you would actually choose all the rest of you to be members of your family. There is, and ought to be, irony in the air when we call one another sister and brother. It is why passing the Peace is such an important and profound act. We are wishing peace to all those around us, even those to whom we would not naturally wish peace—some of them our brothers and sisters that we wish God would give a swift kick in the rear.

But it is also why it is so important for us to be part of a diocese, and a worldwide fellowship of churches, because then the differences get very large and very stark. Yet the Spirit calls us into community with these very different people. It is why schism has always been seen to be perhaps the greatest sin in the church—it denies the work of the Spirit in bringing disparate peoples together.

So we know the Spirit shows up when we are driven out of our comfort zones and onto the streets and into community not entirely of our choosing.

But once there we find the Spirit to be Advocate and Comforter. In community we are upheld and given consolation. We need to seek this kind of community in all our communities, even the general civil society to which we all belong—the human family. We ought to be one another’s advocates and comforters. The Spirit seeks to empower us to be these things for one another.

This too is radical, because the world around us is deeply competitive and harsh. Instead of being one another’s advocates, we are encouraged to be one another’s accusers, and instead of being comforters we are encouraged to be autonomous. “The fewer people I depend on the better.”

Sadly the church can act this way as well, but we are called to a better way, the way of the Spirit, where we are all seen as deserving of this wellspring within and worthy of advocacy and comfort.

So there is a sense, at least for us in the church, that we are constantly being blown onto the streets and then being led back into community. That is the cycle of the Holy Spirit to which I referred earlier. We are sent into the world and called into community, made uncomfortable and given comfort.

Now this is not necessarily good news. It can seem like a never-ending roller coaster ride. It is no wonder that many churches seek to shut the roller coaster down and seek to be simply “arks of safety.” In this world of ours, after all, can we get enough comfort?

If we are truly to go deeper into union with God, deeper into our true selves, and deeper into relationship with the world around us, the answer is “yes.” We can get too much comfort. Held in ceaseless comfort we become increasingly self-centered and even greedy. The world becomes increasingly all about us and we lose any sense of justice. Our spirit, the Spirit, withers and dies.

But likewise we can see too much action and get lost in our own self-righteousness, pouring out our spirit so much that the well dries up because it is never replenished.

The cycle of the Holy Spirit that I have described is literally vital to our lives. Discomfort and comfort, action and rest, passion of the spirit and replenishment of the spirit. Both are necessary for the church and each one of us to live whole and full lives.

Let us thank God today for the gift of the Holy Spirit: Discomforter and Comforter, vibrant life of the world and the church, of you and of me.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Can I Get a Witness?

Sermon preached on May 4, 2008, the 7th Sunday of Easter at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York: Acts 1:6-14, John 17:1-11

“Witness” is not a word we Episcopalians like to use much. We have largely given it to our more evangelical friends along with the whole notion of testimony or testifying. In truth, I think, the average Episcopalians actually spends time thanking God that he or she does not have to give his or her “testimony.”

Yet Jesus says that the job of his disciples—and us by extension—is to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. So my question today is, “Can I get a witness?” Yes, Episcopalians, “Can I get a witness?”

What does it mean to be a witness? There are some clues available to us this morning.

First off, to be a witness does not mean staring up into heaven. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Jesus, I believe, would have agreed. The very point of following Jesus is to do earthly good. Why else would Jesus’ most predominant image have been the kingdom of God? And why else did he teach us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as in heaven”?

Yet when we think of witnessing—because we have given the word away—we think of testifying to our relationship with God, how we know we are saved and getting into heaven rather than the alternative. This is not, however, the testimony Jesus had in mind when he commanded us to be witnesses.

He had in mind our carrying on his work. When he left the disciples they were now his body on earth. We are the eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet and heart of Jesus. We are called to witness in that we are called to continue his ministry: his compassion and help for those among us who are sick or oppressed, his prophetic cry for justice and peace on the earth, and his courageous confidence that relationship with God was possible for all people. Those are the things we are to continue to do in his name. Doing them is being a witness.

Can I get a witness? In this regard the question means, “Can I get a minister?” Can I get someone who is willing to continue to do the work Jesus began?

We don’t need witnesses to tell people how to get into heaven. We need witnesses to tell the story of compassion, justice and love that is the story of Jesus that we have taken as our own story.

This kind of witness is costly, a notion that is buried in the Greek word translated “witness” itself. It is the word μαρτυς (martus), from whence we get the word “martyr.” A witness is one who is willing to give his or her life away.

Few if any of us are called to die a martyr’s death, but all of us are called to give our life away for the sake of God’s kingdom and Jesus’ witness to compassion, justice and love. If nothing else giving our life away means risking our popularity.

It is not popular to stick up for those among us who are poor. The world wants us to believe that they are simply lazy because, of course, our great myth is that anyone can succeed if they really try hard enough.

It is not popular to be critical of the injustices of our culture. We are supposed to be only proud to be Americans. Criticism is not patriotic.

It was not popular for our church to side with the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, or begin to ordain women, or openly include gay and lesbian people among us. Since we have begun doing those things we have lost something like half our members. People don’t like their sense of superiority questioned.

It is not popular to witness to the compassion, justice and love of Jesus. To do so is to be a “martyr,” risking one’s life, one’s reputation and success.

Can I get a witness?

I have seemed to mock what we have come to think of as “testimony,” but I only mean to be critical of the kind of testimony that is little more than “staring up toward heaven.” I mean to say that our testimony is primarily in our doing. On the other hand I do want to also say that we have to get better at the telling as well. We need to be able to tell why we do what we do, especially since it just does not make sense to many in the world around us.

We need to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry—his compassion, justice and love, his courageous commitment to these things that got him killed, and God’s vindication of his ministry—and ours—in the resurrection.

We need to be able to tell why we do some of the seemingly crazy things we do—our acting to show we are all one human family: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, foreign born and American. We believe these are expressions of the unity for which Jesus prays and to which Jesus calls us as a human family and church.

We need to be able to tell about how following Jesus makes a difference in our lives—really affects the way we live our lives. We need to be able to tell how our lives would not be the same if it were not for Jesus.

Can I get a witness?

Perhaps the hardest—and, for most of us, riskiest—thing we have to do is to talk about Jesus. We have to get over the fear that if we do so we will be painted with the same brush as our more evangelical and fundamentalist brothers and sisters. We need to claim Jesus for our own. We need to claim following his life and teaching as something we gladly do because it changes life. We need to claim that in serving him we are serving others and making a difference in the world around us.

To be witnesses of Jesus is to be tellers and doers of good news. Episcopalians may be communally the most introverted people on the planet when it comes to their own faith. We act as if we have nothing to tell.

There’s a joke about another denomination that might as well be about us. What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and an Episcopalian? Someone who knocks on doors for no apparent reason. We act as if we have nothing to tell.

We do church, we do have something to tell. And we need to start telling it. There are many out there, I believe, who have a hunger for spiritual meaning and who are not attracted to a fundamentalist way of believing. We need not to be afraid to tell about our way of believing and practicing Christian faith for their sakes, and for our own, because we will never grow like we need to grow without them.

I should practice what I preach, so here’s a piece of my personal witness.

I am a Christian because the biblical story in general and Jesus in particular helps me make sense of life. Jesus teaches me and empowers me to be a person of compassion, a doer of justice and a lover of all people, even those very different from me. Following Jesus and living in the church has changed my life for ever. It has given me the strength I need to get through many things life has thrown at me, and it is constantly challenging me to be a better person.

I find Jesus is present with me in his working through other people in my life, both friends and strangers, and in those things we in the church call “sacraments.” One of these, the weekly celebration of Communion, is at the center of my life because in the simple meal of bread and wine shared with my sisters and brothers I experience myself to be fed by God in a way I could ever do on my own.

That’s the beginning of my witness. For the rest you have to join me in living life as I struggle to live as God would have me live—sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. The good news is that God is with me whether I succeed or fail.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

I challenge you to go home and write two paragraphs about why you are a Christian and how it makes a difference in your life. It will help to have done it that next time you are given an opportunity to tell. And, once again, if we don’t get better at telling, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves that nobody knows who we are.

Can I get a witness?

Having our Being in God

Sermon preached on April 27, 2008, the 6th Sunday of Easter, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York: Acts 17:22-31

“Rogation” is not a word in anyone’s normal vocabulary, and the “Rogation Days” are not much celebrated in the Church anymore. They belong to a day when farmers were what most people were and farming perhaps the most honorable of industries.

You wouldn’t know it now, but this parish was founded by farmers and those who depended on farming for their livelihood, given the flour mills that had sprung up along the Genesee in these parts. Agriculture was at the center of life then, the only hint of that truth being the agricultural symbols that frame the windows of this building.

The rogation days were a special time of prayer in the spring as the earth awoke from its winter slumber and new planting was beginning to be done. At the beginning of the growth cycle it was a time to stop and give God thanks for the land, remembering just whose creation it was to begin with.

We live in a different world. We are still dependent on the land and those who work it, mind you. Our food comes from somewhere, we just don’t think about it very much and those who produce it are mostly far removed from us. By and large they are not our neighbors, as they would have been two hundred years ago.

Yet we still need to stop ourselves and remember the gift of the land and our dependence upon it and its Creator. This is all the more urgent given the ecological crisis which now almost everyone agrees we are in. Our abuse of the land—of all creation—has gone about as far as it can go—further actually—without doing us and those who come after us significant harm.

So the basic message of these “rogation days” remains vital: the gift of the creation and our stewardship of it.

At first glance none of the readings seem to jive with this theme of creation, but if you look closely at the first reading from Acts you’ll find it.

Paul quotes an ancient Greek philosopher, “We are the God-created,” or in the more familiar language, “In God we live and move and have our being.” That’s a bottom-line for we people of faith—creation is God’s handiwork. However it works, God’s hand supports all creating and all creation, so that everything that lives, lives and moves and has its being in God.

That includes us. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I think we lose touch—real touch—with this truth all the time. Our being and all other beings seem very much to be in our control, ours to use as we please.

We often act as if we literally do “have our being;” it is ours to possess, and if our being is ours than it is ours to possess everything else is as well.

But one of the things the life of faith calls us to wrestle with the most is the whole notion of possession and ownership. We are called to struggle with our fundamental stance toward the creation. We are not to think of ourselves as possessers. We are not to think of the creation—even our own lives—as something we can possess.

The life of faith tells us that everything is a gift. We only possess in that we are given stewardship over parts of the creation, including our own bodies. We only have our being in God. Nothing is ours alone.

The consequence of this alternative reality is that in relation to the creation we can only be grateful. All is a gift and it is our primary job to say thank you and then to treat everything with the dignity a precious gift deserves.

The Church is just as much to blame as anyone else in our current ecological crisis. We spent generations supporting unquestioningly the notion of ownership and the creation as given to us as something over which we have dominion, which meant it was ours to use as we needed to use it. We lost for centuries the true nature of that word “dominion” from the Creation Story in Genesis. Dominion means stewardship, something given to us not to use but to care for.

It is an imperative for us as people of faith, as they are saying these days, to “reduce our carbon footprint.” The waste and abuse of creation is a sin, pure and simple, a sin that infects our lives perhaps more thoroughly and perniciously than any other. Rooting out this sin takes a great deal of commitment and even courage.

I say courage because the resistance of the waste and abuse of creation means saying “no” to some things that are still highly valued in our culture, including things like cheap produce and other commodities and unthinking additions to our landfills. Cheap produce is sustained largely by unsustainable use of the land. Mountains of garbage continues to be created because we value disposable goods.

If it is true that everything belongs to God and we are stewards of the whole creation, than taking out the garbage is an act of faith. It has real, moral consequences.

So do all our purchasing decisions. It’s a real pain in the rear end, actually, but not a single one of us can afford not to face this pain head on and do whatever we can even if it hurts a little bit. It is a moral and faith imperative.

In God we live and move and have our being. That means we are responsible for life, for our actions, for our very being. We are to be driven only be our gratefulness. And the planet desperately needs for us to get with God’s gratitude program.

Once again the message is simple but unsettling to the way we tend to live: let the thanks in which we center our worship also be the way we center our life.