Signs of grace

Not preaching this week for a change, I have the leisure to thumb through any book that happens to be at hand. This morning I happened on Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life, and found this:
 
“While preaching and celebrating sacraments are discrete tasks, the two particular functions to which I was ordained, they are also metaphors for the whole church’s understanding of life and faith. For me, to preach is first of all to immerse myself in the word of God, to look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that have accumulated there over the centuries. It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word of the page and the word at work in the world. It is to find my own words for bringing those connections to life, so that others can experience them for themselves. When that happens—when the act of preaching becomes of source of revelation for me as well as for those who listen to me—then the good news every sermon proclaims it that the God who acted is the God who acts, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the world.
 

“Understood in this way, preaching becomes something that the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. If the preaching they hear is effective, it will not hand them sacks of wisdom and advice to take home and consume during the week, but invite them into the field to harvest those fruits for themselves, until they become preachers in their own right. Preaching is not something an ordained minister does for fifteen minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.
 

“Likewise, the sacraments of the church embody a broad Christian understanding of life on earth: c
hiefly, that the most ordinary things in the world are signs of grace. The God who created them and called them good keeps on doing so. Through the sacraments, we are invited to understand that all the things of this world are good enough to bear the presence of God and to deepen the relationship between heaven and earth …
 
“We may spend our whole lives learning what those sacraments mean, but the experience of them exceeds our understanding of them. Reaching out to handle God, it is we who are handled, gently but with powerful effect.” (33-35)
 
Meaningful words to me, and yet I wonder, is this enough? Or is this only and forever really all we have?
 
I’ve struggled so much with preaching over the past year. How to touch those who come to church only or mainly to be sweetly comforted, those who long for comfort in the form of a howling lament that gathers their pain into something bigger and harder to turn away from, those who only want confirmation of what they’ve already gleaned from whatever source.
 
*The photos are of pretty little St. Augustine’s Church (Church of Ireland), which stands next to the city wall of Derry, high above and looking down on Bogside. When the gate swings open and beckons to come in and face “east” toward the altar, leaving behind the “westward” view of that neighborhood with so much painful history, is it a call to know God’s true peace, or a well-disguised temptation?

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Easter

It was good to be on vacation, and now it’s good to be back again.

We were at the Grand Canyon for a few days, and in San Diego for a few days after that, and as a photographer I loved taking pictures of sunrise over the Canyon, and sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

But as a church geek, I thought the high point of the trip was worshiping on Sunday in a very interesting parish in San Diego. We were staying in the North Park neighborhood, which is a lively place – Forbes magazine lists it as “one of America’s best hipster neighborhoods.”[1]

I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it did have some microbreweries and a lot of restaurants and coffee shops – which was certainly good for me! – and a lot of those classic California bungalow style houses, including the one we stayed in, courtesy of Airbnb. Which turned out to be more or less around the corner from the Episcopal church in North Park.

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Funeral sermon for Ruth E. Nemec

I remember the first time I visited Ruth after she had moved into the healthcare building at the Lutheran Community in Telford.

I knew she wasn’t feeling especially well that day, but we still talked for a bit – because she always appreciated hearing the news from Good Shepherd

– and then we got ready to pray – because Ruth was always grateful to have communion.

And when we reached the end of the written communion service, I offered a few more spontaneous prayers … for Ruth’s own healing and comfort … for her family … for those doctors, nurses, and others who were taking care of her.

And then I asked if there was anything else that she particularly wanted to pray for.

“Oh,” she said, “I want to pray for you.”

That was completely in character with Ruth as I came to know her.

She had what I would call a generous faith.

Her faith seemed unshakable – although there was sadness I never really heard her complain over the three years I knew her, even as her world continued to close in on her.

And every time I invited her to add her own prayer intentions to those I had spoken, she never hesitated.

She always had something on her mind to pray for – and it was never about herself.

She prayed for the community at Good Shepherd … or for her family … and even for me – when I thought that I was the one who had come to pray for her.

She had a deep and generous faith, and in that faith, I believe she’s still praying for us now … and I’m grateful:

For her prayers … and for the blessing of having known her even briefly in this life.

In her own way, Ruth was an example for all of us who live the faith she embraced so firmly.

And that is exactly what those of us who follow Jesus are called to do.

To share the Good News by living it, so everyone who knows us can see how we are formed and trans-formed by faith.

The faith we hold tells us that each one of us is a child of God … which makes us part of something bigger – we’re members of a family.

And each one of us has something we can contribute to this family – this is true when we’re young and able-bodied, and it doesn’t stop as we grow older and less capable of doing the things we used to do.

Ruth certainly demonstrated that. She set an example for all of us who mourn the loss of her graceful presence.

So we gather here in sorrow to acknowledge and express that loss – the loss of someone we loved, someone whose generosity touched our lives.

We seek comfort in the words of our first reading:

 “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God … they are at peace.”[1]

And we strive to balance our sorrow against our faith that Ruth is finally free of those things that weighed her down at the end.

Ruth worshiped in a number of different parishes over the course of her life, and I’m confident that she was a blessing to each one of them, but she spoke to me often of her great love for the community at Good Shepherd.

She was one of the founding members – her son Dave told me she was involved back in the days before there was a church building, when the fledgling community met in people’s homes.

It was a great sadness to her when she was no longer able to come to church.

And so, with this particular relationship to the Good Shepherd in mind, it will seem especially appropriate when we pray these words toward the end of this service:

Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, … “

With those words, we give her to God … yet we will hold her – and her example of generous faith – always in our hearts. Amen.

[1] Wisdom of Solomon 3:1,3 NRSV

A sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

You really have to admire the passion and commitment of the early church, as we hear about it in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.

Those first Christians were devoted to prayer and fellowship.

They were faithful to the teachings of the apostles, and to the breaking of the bread.

They spent time together in the Temple, and sold their possessions in order to distribute the proceeds to the poor.

They were dedicated to the life of the spirit, and to the life of their community.

I admire their commitment, as I admire the commitment of the members of this parish to life in Christ, and life in community.

I want to acknowledge and lift up that spirit today as we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, our special feast.

This is a blessed community of people who are committed to faith and fellowship, and especially to prayer.

We understand giving and doing for others.

We know that one result of our prayer for those in any kind of difficulty or pain creates in us hearts that are more caring and compassionate, and attendance at our Wednesday morning service of Eucharist and healing prayer is growing.

Ideal, not reality

And if we’re not quite as perfect as that community described in the book of Acts – well, the truth is, neither were they.

Most commentators think this passage reflects their ideals more than their reality.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good model for what a Christian community should look like.

To be a community that prays, breaks bread together, praises God, and takes care of those in need is still our ideal today.

We’ll take some time today to look back over the past year and think about how we’ve been living up to those ideals,

because at Good Shepherd Church, Good Shepherd Sunday is also Annual Meeting Sunday.

We call the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel is always taken from the 10th chapter of John, where Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd.

We hear a different part of that chapter each year in a three-year cycle.

This year we’re back to the beginning, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd who tends the sheep and keeps them safe … and also describes himself as the gate by which they have access to the sheepfold.

Jesus is the one we follow, and the way we go.

This Gospel and the reading from Acts complement each other, because they’re both about discipleship – about how we follow Jesus.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about thinking of myself as a sheep, but t does feel good to hear that our Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name, and when he calls, we know his voice and follow.

This passage concludes with a promise of the good life, life abundant: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says.[1]

And our beloved Psalm 23 gives us a vision of what that kind of abundance might look like – or at least what it might have looked like to the people of another time and place.

But I’m not sure the idea of enjoying a feast while your enemies watch on – or having your head anointed with oil – carries the same kind of meaning for us moderns.

What’s your vision of abundance?

I wonder if most of us don’t imagine that it means having way more than enough of everything you might enjoy.

But it really means just having enough.

Enough to generously meet your needs, but not necessarily having more than you need.

And I would say that is true of us here at Good Shepherd.

We are abundantly blessed. We have what we need.

I think our Annual Report bears that out.

On the business side, we have a balanced budget, and an endowment to help meet future needs not covered in an annual budget.

We are paying careful attention to maintaining our property as legacy that has come down to us from past generations and will be passed along to those who will follow us here.

Spiritually, we worship together here on Sundays and again on Wednesdays, when are prayers are not just for ourselves but for many other people and places where healing is needed.

I put the service of offering Vacation Bible School as an enrichment for children – and a bit of relief for their parents – in the category of spiritual abundance because it’s a place where we can extend our community and share some of the spirit of this place with others

I would put our Prayer Shawl ministry and even our book sale in the category of spiritual abundance as well. The book sale raises money for us, but we are able to pass a number of books in special categories along to others who can use them.

I could go on listing examples, but I’m going to stop there, and encourage you to read the Annual Report for yourself, if you haven’t already.

I think it describes a community that truly is enjoying life abundant.

So we have life abundant here in this community. We have what we need, and that is enough.

That promise of abundance is reassuring, and it’s reassuring to remember the loving care of our namesake, the Good Shepherd himself.

But even when the message of this Gospel is comforting – there’s always also some challenge involved.

Our Shepherd knows us by name, and we know his voice – and we follow him.

We follow him out of the sheepfold.

Out to pasture, to essential nourishment – but away from the safety of having four solid walls around us.

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Funeral sermon

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1)

When we read this passage at funerals, it’s meant to be a source of comfort … a word of consolation to those who mourn.  

 Don’t worry for your loved one who has departed this life. You may grieve the loss of their presence with you here, but take heart at least in knowing that wherever you make of these dwelling places Jesus has promised … your loved one has been released from the suffering of this world. 

I think there is some comfort in that thought, even in the midst of loss.  

But there’s so much more to this Gospel this passage is taken from – the Fourth Gospel, the last of the Gospels to be written and the one that is most concerned with the subject of love: God’s love for us, and for all creation, and our love for each other. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” 

The section these words are taken from is called the Farewell Discourse. It goes on for several chapters, and it’s full of deep sadness.  Jesus has come to the end of his life. He knows he’s going to die.  He’s stood against the authorities for too long, and now he finds himself caught in a plot driven by their fear of the power of his message.

 The end is very near, but there’s so much still that he wants to tell these friends who have come this far with him.   First of all, he doesn’t want them to worry about him: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  

But he wants to give them more than reassurance – he wants them to remember how he has taught them to live.  This is where he gives them what he calls his new commandment:  

“Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) 

So love will be the distinguishing mark of this movement of faith.  And love is with us here today. 

I never met Faith – your wife, mother, friend … and I know there are other relationships represented here, too, because our 

lives are webs of relationships.

I know from reading about her that she loved life … animals … friends … her husband and children.

And beyond that, I know that the faith of this woman named Faith was important to her in a way that made you choose this ritual to say goodbye to her today.

And through this, her faith and her love live on to touch this community, becoming part of our story here as we join in mourning with you.

Love is the thing that connects us, that shows us the face of God when we can’t see that ourselves.

Love is the thing that connects us, and gives our lives meaning,

The faith that is expressed in the words of this service holds that every life is a sign of God’s love.
We believe that our love for each other is a participation in God’s love for us. I believe that Faith is held in that love now. 

Life is such a mix of joy and sorrow mingled together — that is the mystery of it, and in some strange way that is also the beauty.

To know and love someone as wife, mother, friend opens us to the beauty – and also makes us vulnerable to loss.
But love will carry us through. And love does not die. 

There’s an Irish priest named John O’Donohue, who is also a poet. He has written a blessing that talks about the way the dead remain present in beauty and love all around us, and I want to quote from it.

O’Donohue says:

Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you. …
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves. …
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows …
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.

Amen.

*  “On the Death of the Beloved,” from John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, p. 170.