Monday, June 30, 2014

You Are One With Me and I With You    3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 6/28/14
Episcopal Church of the Ascension                       The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. Introduction. Our Gospel reading is very brief this morning – three verses that conclude the second section of Matthew 10. Matthew contains five blocks of material modeled after the five books of The Torah. This Gospel was written for a largely Jewish Christian audience who loved Torah and was steeped in its traditions. The second section of Matthew mirrors some of the core ideas of Exodus, the second Book of The Torah. Exodus is the book of liberation and journey and struggle to become a new nation. So we are to pay close attention to these three verses: Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me . . . and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple . . . truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.” I hear two themes in this passage: oneness and both the giving and receiving of compassion.
II. The Principle of Likeness. Notice what Jesus communicates with these words. He is obviously giving a command to care for others – “the little ones.” But he is also making a two-way promise – both those who give and those who receive will be blessed. This is what Richard Rohr calls in his book The Naked Now (2013) The Principle of Likeness. He writes that in the spiritual life, there is always a “a coherence between the seer and the seen and between the seekers and what they are capable of seeing.” Rohr emphasizes that “ . . . The enormous breakthrough [in spirituality] is that when you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else too . . . “ (p. 159).

I believe that Rohr is onto something momentous here. We are all connected! Just as God the Father is connected and one with Jesus Christ the Son, and just as Christ is connected and one with us, we too are connected and one with each other. And one of the beautiful features of this oneness and singularity is that inevitably there will be times when we need to give and times when we need to receive. This reciprocal rhythm of oneness is built into our created human nature. When it is honored and protected, we thrive; when it is violated or neglected, we suffer.

This week I read a review of a book entitled: From Lynden Washington to Cape Town, South Africa and Back Again: The Journey of Susan Van Zanten. The review was written by Ascension parishioner Ron Wells and refers to a relationship between two disparate characters in the novel Moby Dick: Ishmael and Queequeg. While engaging in a dangerous and onerous task, the two are bound together by a rope tied to each of their belts. It is called “a monkey rope” and used as a safety device. Susan Van Zanten discovers on her journey that the many divisions we have among us are artificially contrived. I believe that that is one of the central lessons Jesus has repeatedly tried to teach his disciples then and now.

III. Let us once gain focus upon today’s Gospel. These three verses are a call to action – to go, to give, and to receive. The generative verb tense used in the Greek implies that one of the rewards we will be given when we receive is the actual presence of those who journey with us. Living out oneness is not difficult. It comes naturally to us if we live with clear intentionality. When it is our time to receive, we must be graciously open; when time to give, we must not procrastinate or withhold.

I’d like to share a true story about giving and receiving that I believe illustrates today’s Gospel. The story is told in my wife Peg’s words and shared with her permission:
One day in August, almost a year ago, my sister had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was not early stage. She planned to call me after a doctor’s appointment with the results of a second biopsy. My husband and I were in Townsend, having a week away. I knew her appointment was at 1:00 and didn’t expect her to call until at least 2, so I made a trip to the Townsend IGA. I was filling my basket when my cell phone rang. I could barely hear, but recognized that it was my sister. I quickly left my basket and went outside. It was one of those sunny 90+ degree August days. I glanced around for a place to sit, and, seeing none, just sat down on the curb right in front of the store doors.

I listened while my sister gave me the report – cancer in several lymph nodes and throughout one breast. The need for a full body scan. At least one mastectomy, maybe two. It was very hard to take in her pain, fear, and hopelessness . . . After about 15 minutes, someone tapped me and reached over my shoulder to give me one of those old-fashioned white cone cups filled with water. You remember those? They fell apart before you could use them twice! I turned and thanked her, and refocused on our conversation. Some time later, another woman tapped on my shoulder and handed me a cup of water. After thanking her, I felt the coolness as it went down, and then refocused again on my sister. She began to end the conversation and asked me to do her a big favor – would I call my mother and dad, both 90, and my brother, and tell them the results. My sister couldn’t. My heart sank as I thought about my mother hearing this news. I said of course I would. Just as we were saying goodbye, a third white paper cup made its way across my shoulder and into my hand.

When I got up from the curb, I noticed a woman standing behind me, beside the store doors. She walked toward me. She said it looked like I was having a difficult conversation; would I like to tell her about it? My default response to such a question in front of the grocery store is “no, but thank you,” but my heart said yes. I talked. She mostly listened and was gently and authentically present with me as shoppers were coming and going around us. I shared how much I dreaded calling my parents; this was not what we all had been praying for. After we talked for a bit, she asked would I like her to pray with me. “Here and now?” my mind thought, but my heart said yes. We stood there together with her arms around me. She prayed. It was if she had always known me and my family. And, to my relief, she did not say any of those things that folks in front of East Tennessee grocery stores sometimes do. I grew up in East Tennessee, I know!

After she prayed, we hugged, and I asked her “Who are you?” She explained that she and several others were in a ministry that had the intention to do acts of kindness. She nodded in the direction of several women I had not noticed and asked if she could tell them about my sister so they could pray for her. I gladly said yes. As we parted, I became aware of feeling grounded and deeply peaceful. I went inside and found my basket, somehow knowing it would be OK to call my family after I went back and told my husband about my experience. The deep peace stayed with me as I called my family; it stayed with me for days. I feel it still, whenever I recall the three cups of cool water.

IV. Conclusion. There are many persons in our lives who need our love, compassion, hospitality, and attention. There are many of our brothers and sisters in this parish who need some kind of cup of cool water. Seek them out; ask of others who they are if you don’t already know.  A cup of kindness can be sending a card to someone on the parish prayer list or calling someone who is going through a difficult experience. It also might be writing a thank you note or note of appreciation to someone who has been helpful to you. You will know what to do – the Holy Spirit will guide you. And if you are one of the ones who needs help – a cup of cool water of any kind – please let us know. I know as people of East Tennessee, we are hardy stock and very self-sufficient. But please stop worrying about whether we are too busy to help and share with us when you have a need.

The world desperately needs to see and learn what Christ has taught us – that we are already bound to one another in love; that love casts out fear; and that love is much more of a verb than it is a noun. Now let us love one another as Christ loves us. Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Trinity Steps on the Pitch

Trinity Sunday
Jun 15, 2014
Christian Hawley
Gen 1:1-2:4a
2Cor 13:11-13
Matt 28:16-20

So I’m going to try to convince us today that if we want to understand the Trinity better, we need to be watching the World Cup, the largest sporting event in the world that is going on right now in Brazil.

I want to begin by saying that too often when we talk about the Trinity we get bogged down in all the bad math. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to either extract three from one or cram three into one. And consequently the images we use to imagine the Trinity reflect our obsession with ones and threes. We have a triangle and a three-leafed clover and celtic knot and three bearded dudes sitting at a table (if you’re a Rublev icon fan). In all our obsession with numbers, we miss out on one of the most important revelations of Trinity which is that God, in God’s fullest expression, is a relationship.

The radical power of the Trinity asks us to set aside our conception of God as a singular being or even as a singular force manifesting in three persons, and instead to imagine God as a perfect relationship.

I don’t think we can represent a perfect relationship here on earth with static, geometric drawings. Our imaginings of the Trinity need to be creative, dynamic, and passionate, and for me, really well played soccer approaches those elements of a perfect relationship.

However, if soccer is not your thing, there are some other images that work really well as dynamic examples – a theater company, a jazz band, and a dance troupe have all been utilized by other Christians. The kind of players can vary, because it is the creative, dynamic, passionate relationship that is the critical piece. But for now I’m going to ask us to strap on our metaphysical cleats and go find the Trinity in the World Cup.

Having grown up playing and watching soccer all over the world, I’ve developed an appreciation for really good soccer. And you can always recognize the really brilliant teams by how they function as a single unit that flows up and down a field. In recent years Spain has been the epitome of this kind of soccer (however on Friday they got smoked by a Dutch team that might be the new exemplar).

What’s stands out about all the great teams, regardless of nationality, is that everyone knows their roles, fullbacks, midfielders, and strikers, but that doesn’t keep them boxed in to fixed spaces. With the great teams sometimes fullbacks will carry the ball all the way up the field and a midfielder will roll back to take their place in the defense. Or sometimes a striker will drop back to help defend a corner kick, and a midfielder will roll up to lead the counterattack. In any case, there is this creative and responsive movement that takes place, and it works because the players know each other so well and because they love the game so fully.

There are times when I watch the Spaniards, or the Brazilians, or English play that it seems as if all eleven players are operating from the same consciousness. There is this miraculous sense of plurality and unity dynamically working toward the singular goal of creating something beautiful. Let me say that last bit again, There is this miraculous sense of plurality and unity that is dynamically working toward a singular goal of creating something beautiful. Which also happens to be exactly what is going on in our Genesis reading today.

Now some of you might be wandering why in the world we even have this marathon reading from Genesis today. The usual Trinitarian formula of father, son, and holy spirit is no where to be found. We get the Father as the creator piece coming through loud and clear, but what about the Spirit and the Son? Well, my friends, follow me down the exegetical rabbit hole, and I will show you the Trinity in a handful of dust.

Pull out your bulletins and let’s take a closer look at the genesis reading. In verse two there is a clause that reads, “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word for wind there in Hebrew is ruach, and in Greek it is pneuma. Curiously enough, in both languages, those words can also mean Spirit. So in many translations that clause reads, “while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”
So we have God the Father in verse 1, God the Spirit in verse 2, and in verse 3 we get God the Son, although it took John’s Gospel for us to realize the Son was there. Verse 3 starts with, “Then God said,” and it is really important for us to notice that God creates the world by speaking it into existence. So from the very beginning God said Let there be light, and God said Let there be a dome, etc, etc. and that’s how the world was created, this speaking action.

Then John comes along and in Chapter 1 of his Gospel and reveals to us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. So all that creating God is doing through speaking in Chapter 1 of genesis is happening through the Word, which is Jesus, hence in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, not one thing came into being without him. So the Father was speaking through the Son and sweeping with Spirit to create the world. From the very beginning the perfect relationship that is the Trinity was dynamically creating something beautiful, something worthy of being called Good.

That same Trinitarian pattern of relationship responds with a surprisingly versatile and creative love over-and-over again throughout history. When humanity fails to enter the same kind of relationship, the Trinity responds by recreating through baptism. Again the Spirit sweeps over the waters of the Jordan River, the Father speaks from above, and humanity is recreated through the incarnated Word that is Jesus of Nazareth. We baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and through those sacramental waters we reenter that Trinitarian relationship of creative, dynamic love.

The Trinity is not a doctrine to ponder; it is a relationship to be entered into and a pattern for us to participate in. All our relationships with God and our neighbor, to include all parts of creation, should be characterized by creativity, flexibility, and love, and they should be oriented toward creating something beautiful and good.

Sometimes that kind of Trinitarian relationship becomes visible in a soccer team, or a jazz band, but more often it becomes visible in a mission team or a local parish. I caught a glimpse of the Trinity in Fr Rob and Mark Sander’s pictures from last week. I have no doubt I’ll experience the Trinity in some relationships over the next couple of weeks in Bolivia (especially since we ‘ll be working with La Trinidad). And there have been many days I’ve stood up here at the Eucharist and felt like I was participating with all of you in the Trinitarian life.

Over the next few months our parish will be going through a lot of changes. Clergy will be coming and going, a new youth director will hopefully be arriving, we will be going to three services, we will be changing how we do Rally Day and Sunday School and all these changes will test our relationships. When we are not sure how to proceed or how to respond let’s take a moment to reconnect with the Trinity, and then move forward with creativity, flexibility, and love. And when we continue down that path together, I have no doubt the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit will be with us all. Thanks be to God for that relationship.