A sermon for Pentecost

at at a café where they change the art on the walls from time to time, so I notice different things each time I’m there, and this time the thing that caught my eye was a big wooden plaque with a slogan that said:

“There will always be a reason why you meet people. Either you need them to change your life or you’re the one that will change theirs.”

And it occurred to me that this is a perfect summary of the book of Acts. A couple of us have been reading Acts for our Good Book Club discussions, and I have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve read Acts straight through since seminary. And when you do that, you don’t just see the individual stories, you’re more aware of the big themes that connect them.

And the story in Acts about the early church and how it grew is all about people meeting other people and changing them, with the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

When that big wind blows, you never know what’s going to happen next, but you can see that it’s probably not going to be what anyone expected.

Sometimes the followers of Jesus Christ are the ones who are changed, and sometimes it’s the people they meet, and we see both of those things happening in this morning’s story about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

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Planted

In the distance ahead, the meetinghouse where I was married 40 years ago come October. It sits by a busy country road and when the doors and windows are open on a fine morning, the building hums with the sound of passing traffic. But this spot is set back so far from the road that it’s quiet here, except for birds and insects.

This is the spot where I expect what’s left of me when this life is done to rest for eternity, here in close proximity to some I knew before their time came. I didn’t choose the spot; I suppose you could say it chose me, but that’s a long story.

For most of my life I’ve felt uprooted, and I’ve wondered what it might have been like to be raised where my parents and their parents grew up, to be supported by connections that were already in place before I was as much as a thought in their minds. We moved when I was not quite 5, again a year or so later, and again two years after that, and from then on I’ve never been able to shake the feeling of not quite belonging the way other people did, wherever I lived.

I’ve come close now, having lived in this community these 40 years, and yet the security of being truly grounded is still elusive. I’ve grieved its absence, longed for it, and yet I wonder what it will be like to be planted, finally, in one place.

I’ve been reading a book called Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which includes some wonderful reflections on trees and life, including this:

No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—and to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.

Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the “hypocotyl”) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.

But when it wins, it wins big. 

Funeral sermon for John R. Strong

When I think back over all the conversations I had with John Strong in the four years since I came to Good Shepherd, there’s one that stands out for me for the way it demonstrates the essence of who John was as I came to know him.

This happened on a Sunday morning, as he was coming out of church—when he nearly always had something pleasant to say about the sermon, or the service, or both.

Now just for background I’ll mention a guideline that anyone who wants to be an effective writer or preacher should know, which is that it’s best to choose one good, strong point and stay focused on it, so you don’t dilute your message.

But during this particular week, as I was preparing for Sunday, I found myself thinking about two different ideas, and I was finding it very difficult to choose just one to preach on.

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Beauty

The bush these grow on is taller than I am. Each cluster of blossoms is the size of a softball. I see Creation showing off again these days, everywhere I look.

According to the Internet, the writer Alice Walker said this about beauty: “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.”

Perhaps that’s true, but there’s more. What I would say is, this: Whenever you really see the beauty that already is all around you, you are restoring your own soul. Call it mindfulness if you like, or just call it being truly alive.

So what exactly is Beauty, and why do we crave it so?

The poet/priest John O’Donohue wrote, “We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strings of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances the sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness.”

We awaken and surrender in the same act. I love that.

Honoring a life

My dad, who was a veteran journalist, used to joke that he hoped to die on a slow news Sunday, so his obituary would be prominently featured in the next day’s paper by editors looking for copy to fill the paper.

He didn’t, but his obit still made it into two newspapers, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, which respectively covered the areas where he had grown up and become a newspaperman and where he lived for the last 50 years of his life. He didn’t make the New York Times; apparently you have to be multiple kinds of wonderful for that, and the wonderful ness of my smart, gentle, kind and loving dad wasn’t quite enough to make the cut.

So what does it taken to be deemed the worthy subject of a real obituary, not just a paid death notice? The Times itself has been doing some soul-searching about that lately, recognizing that “who gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.”

Big surprise: the Times’ look back at its own obituary archives revealed that the achievements of white man have been disproportionately valued in those pages over the years.

So consider this: When my father-in-law died in 2007, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran his obituary. It reported that he served in the Merchant Marine during and after World War II, founded a couple of successful businesses with his wife, and was involved in many community activities.

My mother-in-law, Doro Kerr, died three weeks ago, but the Inquirer said they would not be able to run her obituary. Thumbnail sketch of her life? She fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and started over again in this country. She worked for the Inquirer itself and was the first woman at the paper to sell national advertising, despite some resistance from her immediate superior, who is said to have commented that the people who were best at that kind of work wore pants. (She says she told him that would be no problem, she’d be happy to get a few pair.) She founded a couple of successful businesses with her husband—and believe me, he might have had the big ideas but she was the one who made them happen—and was involved in many community activities.

His life worth an obit. Hers not. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Anyway, she will be remembered at a memorial service this Saturday, May 5, at Solebury Friends Meeting. The service itself begins at 2, and it will be preceded by a 20-minute prelude of piano pieces that were meaningful to her. She will be remembered and honored there by those who knew and loved her, so all will be well.

Rector’s reflection: Seeing the face of Christ

In the shadows next to the main door of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia, there’s a sculpture that touched my heart when I first saw it at Diocesan Convention last November, and I’ve continued to think about it ever since.

It’s called Hungry and Thirsty Jesus, and it shows a life-size figure in bronze, seated on the ground, a beggar who has pulled a blanket around his shoulders and up over his head to stay warm, so his bearded face is barely visible. He has one hand extended as a plea to passers by, and that hand is the clue to his identity, for it bears a wound in the center of palm, the ugly mark of a nail.

The sculpture was installed last year, and it’s the work of Timothy Schmalz, a sculptor who describes the art he creates as ͞visual prayers.͟ This piece draws its inspiration from Matthew 25:35: ͞I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.͟

As faithful Christians we know we’re called in baptism to see the face of Christ in all those around us, from the rich and powerful to the homeless beggar on the street. We accept this as an ideal, and yet we fail at it again and again. How many of us would recognize Schmalz’s beggar as Jesus if he didn’t have the mark of that nail in his hand?

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A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8

I want to start by asking you a question, and I’m not going to put you on the spot by making anyone answer out loud, but I want to put this out there as something for each one of us to think about.

The question is: What exactly is love?

Everybody knows what love is, right? But really, can you describe it in a sentence or two? Or even in a paragraph? Can you say what it is?

It would seem to be a vitally important question if, as the author of this letter puts it, “whoever does not know love does not know God.”

And yet as I thought about this question over the last week myself, I found it difficult to come up with words that would be adequate to define it.

Love is, ideally, our very first experience of what it means to be human. Ideally, we’re conceived in love, and when we come into this world, love is there waiting to embrace and care for us.

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