My Trinity Sunday Sermon from 2016

Last year I preached on Trinity Sunday at my parish, St. Thomas’, Washington, DC. The text of it is below, but you can also listen to it online.


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Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity

Believe it or not, but Trinity Sunday can be one of the trickier Sundays to preach on. It’s sometimes joked that this is the Sunday that’s often given to seminarians. Some sort of hazing, I’m sure. Personally, I love it. The Trinity is such a fundamental part of the Christian faith and of my own personal understanding of God, that I get excited learning about it and talking about it.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right, I am nuts. You’re also right that it’s not an easy thing to grasp. Three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But one God. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Now some people might try to prove how this is so or explain how they all relate. If they can do that well, great. I’m not going to try. What I’m going to ask you right now is for the time being just to say yes to it and go from there while I talk with you about why it’s important.  Continue reading

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“Reborn by the Holy Spirit”: Pentecost Baptism

Baptism1 - Pentecost 2017

My first time as a baptismal sponsor

Some of my favorite experiences of church life (aside from Holy Week liturgies) have been times when I’ve taught people preparing for confirmation or reception. This year I had the privilege to prepare someone for baptism; so for the past few months I’d been meeting with her to help her in this. I hesitate to say “teach her” for a few reasons:

 

  1. People often say that in the sense of filling someone’s head with information. There was information shared by me but only as a complement to the main task of providing resources and helping her do her own learning.
  2. She actually was a very eager student who took initiative to learn from other sources and bring back questions about it.
  3. I saw myself as more of a guide and companion on her way, helping to draw out (e-ducere, educate) the process of learning and find the path.

The real teacher, I believe, here and in the Christian life in general, is the Holy Spirit. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. [John 14:26]. . . When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [John 13:16]” Maybe the best thing to do when it comes to educating people in the Christian life is to help draw out their curiosity and wonder and prepare the space in the upper room for the Holy Spirit to fill it and form them into bearers of Christ in the world.

[Pictures come via St. Thomas’ Parish, Washington, DC on Pentecost, June 4, 2017]

 

“He ascended into Heaven . . . ” (Part 2): That he might fill all things

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
— 
Collect for Ascension Day, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 226


Ascension - Dali

Ascension of Christ, by Salvador Dali

For those who’ve followed my posts, you’ll know that I like to use images. They sometimes illustrate my points in a way that complements my words. Continuing from my last post, I want to use some art to help me with the theology of the Ascension.  [Forgive me if this post is a little longer than others.]

As I wrote in my previous post, Jesus Christ rose to Heaven taking his full self with him, body and soul, bringing his humanity (and ours) to the Father. Ironically, it is by his earthly absence that He can be even more present with us. The painting to the left here, Salvador Dalí’s Ascension, illustrates this to an extent, particularly on the cosmic scale.

The Empyrean, by Gustave DoréAt the bottom we see a sliver of the earth’s surface, and as the eye moves upward, we see the clouds of the sky give way to the vast blackness of space. However, in front of that darkness is a large yellow disk, the center of which looks like logarithmic spiral in the head of a sunflower but can also be seen as the nucleus of an atom. Above/behind that is what looks like the sphere of the heavens. At the top of that sphere is the dove of the Holy Spirit with rays shining from it and even the heavens looking like an extension from its wings. At the same time, one can see it in its inverse, leading not up and out but further inward. (I’m reminded slightly of Gustave Doré’s illustration of the Highest Heaven in Dante’s Paradiso.)

Above all that we see a female figure modeled on Dalí’s wife, Gala. In a number of his works, she represents the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven. Some see her in this role here as well, a mother shedding tears for her son. However, if one goes beyond artist’s intent, the figure could also be compared to the divine person of the “Father” but in this case showing a more feminine/maternal side. The tears could be seen as evidence of sorrow at the suffering of Her Son or perhaps as tears of joy at His return.

In the midst of this is the figure of Christ. His positioning adds another dimension to the painting with his feet pointed toward the viewer and his head extending away. He seems to be moving into the painting toward the solar/nuclear disk and ultimately toward the Mother figure above. The soles of His feet are dirty, bearing the soil on which He walked. As our eyes move along His body, we see His arms outstretched as on the Cross. Although Dalí does not include Jesus’ wounds, the hands seem to curl in pain and agony. This too He carries with him into Heaven. At the same time, clouds of smoke and flames of fire (?) surround his hands and perhaps even emanate from them. Agony, yet also great power. On the other hand, could they not also be like arms of the Divine Mother/Father reaching outward to receive the Son, their hands clasped together, with the Spirit in the middle proceeding from Her as the Love uniting them.

However, is Jesus moving inward away from us or toward us? It’s actually a little ambiguous. Ascension? Or the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ? Perhaps it’s the whole Mystery:  the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, Christ’s return to rule over all. (We even see here the whole Trinity itself.) I mean, what is the mystery of our faith? “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (From Eucharistic Prayer A in The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer,  p. 363)

Christ Pantokrator

Christ Pantokrator, Florence

Not just will Christ be present at his return. He is present with us now. As the collect (opening prayer) above says, “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” We actually see this in Dalí’s painting. As Jesus ascends, we have everything from the earth itself to the vastness of space down to the very atoms themselves and even out to encompass the Heaven of Heavens. Through the Spirit he can indeed “fill all things.” It is also by His Ascension that He can send the Spirit (John 16:7) and thereby be even more present with His Church. “Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” United with Christ, who brings His whole humanity to the Father, we are also united to the Father in the Spirit. (“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:20

Dalí might not have intended all of this, but any sort of “text” exists not just in the mind of the author (or in this case artist). It also exists with the audience and their response. I certainly don’t claim to be the definitive authority, but I hope some of my theological musings have provided at least some understanding of the Ascension through a meditation on this painting. May the Risen and Ascended Lord be with us all as we await the Feast of Pentecost and celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered believers.


Almighty God, make our hearts dance with joy and thanksgiving; for in the ascension of Christ, your Son, our human nature is raised above the heavens, and where Christ, the head, has gone before in glory we, his body, are called in hope. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen
— Roman Catholic Opening Prayer for the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord [according to the (rejected) 1998 English translation of the Roman Missal]

“He ascended into Heaven . . .” (Part 1)

Ascension of Christ, by the Master of the Dominican CycleFeast of the Ascension

Thursday, May 25, 2017

First of all, no, this is not a sermon. It’s just some reflections on Jesus’ Ascension. So here it goes:

I remember seeing this picture (or a similar one) on the cover of a church bulletin once and got a kick out of the footprints Jesus was leaving behind. Actually, at first glance of the printing, it looked almost like Jesus was getting pulled right out of his sandals. Honestly, it looks a little silly with his feet dangling there, but it’s still pretty much like most depictions of the event.

I’m also reminded of a talk I attended by John Shelby Spong (don’t judge). At one point he said that Carl Sagan had once told him that even if Jesus had risen vertically from the earth at the speed of light, he’d still be within the Milky Way galaxy. Therefore, absurd! Well, I suppose the response would be “Duh!” The idea of Jesus zooming off into the sky is pretty silly and simplistic, and the attempts to “refute” it are actually more like a straw man argument.

Yes, we know that the earth is an atmosphere-enveloped sphere located within the vastness of space. Heaven isn’t some place above the clouds. It can be easy to just excuse it as simple people of the past not really knowing what things were really like and just making up a story. Mind you, a lot of people at the time and for quite a while after probably did hold to a cosmology placing Heaven above the dome of the sky. However, explaining it away in that manner and reducing it just to some sort of demythologized metaphor or such is also pretty simplistic and not quite fair to early Christians and all those since who have believed in Jesus’ Ascension.

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Yeah, like this but with a tad more of a sigh . . . and laser beams.

Both of those responses, in my opinion, miss the point. Do I believe that 40 days after the Resurrection Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father? I am willing to say “Yes” to it. A literal rising into the sky and sitting next to an old guy on a fancy chair? No. (And imagine me looking over my glasses like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.)

So is “ascension” metaphorical? Yes, in the sense that human language is limited, especially when trying to make sense of God’s mysteries. However, it still represents an actual reality. And that reality is an essential aspect of the larger saving mystery of Christ from the Incarnation to his teaching and healing ministry and to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, as well as the Sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Jesus is fully human, with a flesh-and-blood body; and that body was not discarded when he rose from the dead. Neither is it discarded when returned to Heaven to take his place once again with the Father. Rather, Jesus brought not just his humanity to the divine life but ours as well. We who are baptized into His Body will one day share in that divine life at the end of the age when all things are made right in relation to God. When or how will that happen? I don’t know. It’s above my pay grade. I’m leaving it to God. For now, we exist in the tension of the absence of Jesus physically here on earth and his continuing presence with us through the Spirit.

I do have a lot more to say, but the post is getting a little long; so I will leave the rest till tomorrow later.

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Icon of the Ascension, by Andrei Rublev

Sacred Weirdness

I recently saw a post on The Living Church’s Covenant blog titled “Evangelism of the Weird.” Wow, both evangelism AND weird. At first glance, it seems like no better way to scare people off . . . well, except me. (I’m rather fond of both.) First glances, though, are not always correct.

If you really think about it, having faith and actually practicing it in our current society are pretty weird (at least in a number of areas).  (In this case, I’m specifically talking about Christian faith.) We worship a God who’s three but also one. We believe in a guy who’s both God and human and who died and then came back to life and will supposedly return at some point. And that’s not even getting into burning bushes, parting seas, multiplying loaves and fishes, etc.

Then there’s all the stuff about believing this world isn’t all there is, that we’re more than just a bunch of atoms floating about. We have an intimate link to our ultimate Creator, one who is more than a distant watchmaker but rather deeply involved in the warp and woof of our lives, albeit in often mysterious ways.

Of course, for a lot of people these days see Christianity (or at least Christians) as a different kind of weird. Many view right-wing evangelicals as the face of Christianity in this country. Increasingly, the image in their minds is one of bigotry, homophobia, hypocrisy.  One of people who care more about passing anti-abortion laws than making sure children get adequate health care or education, who believe “religious liberty” is a license to discriminate. It’s not just weird but, frankly, immoral.

With all of that, it be be hard to tell others I’m a Christian. In some places it’s actually easier to come out as gay than as Christian. However, just as coming out as an LGBT person is vital, especially in areas where it’s less accepted, coming out as Christian is also needed. As an Episcopalian, I can tell you that we can appear a little weird. We gather on Sunday mornings. We sing. We wear funny clothes and funny names for things. We consume special bread and wine that somehow represents the presence of Jesus. (Or actually contains his presence, but we can’t seem to agree on that.) For crying out loud, we even wash other people’s feet once a year!

Some want to tamp down some of that weird and focus on social justice causes. Well, the latter is good, and I do see it as a Gospel imperative. However, lots of groups work for social justices; so what makes us different? Well, I think a lot of what I mentioned above plays into that. We have a firm foundation for what we believe and what we do. We’re not just making it up as we go along but also draw on a long tradition. What we have to proclaim more effectively is that it’s a living tradition with many strands that is always evolving. It’s one that involves all of who we are — mind, body, and spirit. We have to proclaim that none of us are alone. We are connected with each other, both now and in the past, in a larger body. Can there be anything weirder in this hyperindividualistic culture-of-now? I for one embrace that weird.

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Oops, wrong kind of weird. Never mind.

Friday in Easter Week

Ever had one of those times when you want to be able to write something, but nothing appears? Yeah, that’s how it’s been. I had hoped to do a couple of Holy Week-related video projects but didn’t get those done last week. I’m still working on them, though, and will post them when they’re ready.

For now, however, I’m getting ready to fly down to Mississippi to visit my parents. I’m definitely looking forward to it. Even though my relationship with my home state is, well, complicated, I do like spending time with my parents. Hopefully, I can do some more writing and work on the videos during the trip. Anyway, take care, y’all.

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Maundy Thursday (a day late)

Reposted from last year. This time on Maundy Thursday itself.

Sacred Wandering

Yes, I know it’s Good Friday, but I had some thoughts about Maundy Thursday last night; so please forgive me for the tardiness. Anyway, here it goes:

There’s a LOT going on at the Maundy/Holy Thursday liturgy. It’s often seen as celebrating Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. At the same time, we have a ritual of footwashing as a liturgical enactment of Christ’s example in the Gospel of John. Of course, there’s also the Stripping of the Altar and, depending on your particular parish, an Altar of Repose where the Sacrament reserved for communion on Good Friday is placed so that people can keep watch and pray or meditate upon Christ’s Body. However, I’m going to focus on the first two, Eucharist and footwashing.

Not surprisingly, it can be hard to keep a whole bunch of different themes running at once, kind of like juggling several…

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