Rest For Your Souls: Journeying Through Grief

RestForYourSouls

trinity-logoWhen:
6:30 pm to 7:3o pm, beginning October 21, 2015
Where:
25 Pine Street, Lower Manhattan

Join the Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin of the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute in “Journeying Through Grief,” a six-week series to address loss, grief, and recovery.

If the work of grieving has a goal, it might be this: to realize that life will never be the same again, but to begin to sense that there is much in life that can be affirmed. We can live in the world again. We can even love it again. Participants in this workshop will explore the many, varied dimensions of grief and the possibilities for healing and transformation. A commitment to the full six weeks is strongly recommended; drop-ins are discouraged. Participants will be invited, but not required, to share their own stories. Confidentiality and respect will guide our conversations together.

October 21: Come as You Are: The Uniqueness of Grief
October 28: The Lonely Work of Grieving: Is There a Roadmap?
November 4: Road Blocks: Navigating Through the Unhelpful
November 11: After the Loss: What Endures
November 18: Is There an End to Grief?
*No session November 25
December 2: The Journey Forward

The next sessions will be in Spring 2016: Sunday, April 10; Wednesdays, April 13, 20, 27, May 4, 11, 18.

For more information, please contact the Rev. Kristin Miles at kmiles@trinitywallstreet.org or 212.602.0895.

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Flipping the Script

This showed up on my Twitter feed a few days ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it:

Yes. Absolutely. Unconsciously- which is really the problem here- it never occurred to me to think otherwise. By the grace of God, and by my growing attention to and awareness of the unplumbed depths of spiritual and religious diversity, I have experienced an awakening and uncovering.

Or, to use another analogy, I have been eating off of a very tiny menu. I just had no idea how much good ‘food’ there was out there to try. I liked what I ate; I knew what I was getting; it always tasted the same. I still like that food. It still tastes good to me. But I have stumbled upon a world of new food, some of it odd, some of it delightful, to excite my palate.

Waffle Church has been my introduction to these new and exciting flavor profiles, necessarily, because Waffle Church is a buffet, not a prixe fixe.

Some very good things I’ve learned:

  • Don’t assume that you need to preach a 15-20 minute sermon to impart an abiding message about how we know and experience God.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of ‘margins’ in a liturgy– meaning, it’s OK to have longer transition times between worship elements. The larger margins invite more natural progressions.
  • MUSIC. MUSIC. MUSIC. Music is NEVER a filler between ‘word-ed’ parts of worship. Music is the message, the prompting, the exuberance, the keening.
  • Use your hands, or just watch someone use theirs. Maybe you’re crafty; maybe you’re not, but using your hands in worship is a bit like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand- it forces your brain to create new pathways.
  • Fellowship isn’t coffee at the end of the service; fellowship is our encounter with the living God. It happens always and everywhere.
  • Intergenerational worship is the very best kind of worship. EVER.
  • There has never been anyone like you in the history of the world, and there never will be again. Because you are made in the image of God- unique and irreplaceable- you have something to give that no one else can.
  • Short theologians (aka children) will call you on your bulls&*t when you use ‘pat’ answers, and they will make your brain explode with new insights. And they will make you laugh.
  • Outsiders are the real insiders.
  • You can worship God just as faithfully with a mug of hot coffee in your hand.

Next Waffle Church is October 18th. Maybe there will be a reprise of the newly-coined Waffle Church Jam Band…

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Looking for Good News Under the Table

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 6, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield Gardens, Queens.

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, it is my privilege to be here with you today to share in the worship of God Almighty, and I thank you for this invitation. We are almost, but not quite neighbors. I live about 12 miles from here, which is close by any other standard than New York City. After seven years as an associate at a large congregation in Manhattan, I have turned my ministry toward evangelism and church growth.

Most weeks, I am doing this– preaching to God’s faithful in congregations without steady pastoral leadership. It is so wonderful. I have learned new music, new prayers, and more new ways to encounter the risen Lord on a Sunday morning than I even thought possible. I have shared communion, and also coffee and cake with Christ’s disciples in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

Yes, the reports say, church membership is shrinking, as if the decrease in attendance is proof that God is no longer at work in the world. That’s nonsense! The landscape is changing; that is true. But the church is not dying. It is shifting contexts; it is reforming; it is being cast in the fire for purification, to burn away the dross. So that we will be nimble for the sake of the Gospel. So that we will be known, perhaps not for our denominational ties, but for our steadfastness, our forgiveness, our hospitality. So that they will know we are Christians by our love.

So, thank you for being here. For proclaiming the Gospel in this little part of the world. For bearing witness to the kingdom of God that breaks through into the world no matter how many people fill the pews on a Sunday morning. As if that could stop our God!

On Sundays when I am not filling pulpits, I am participating in a new thing called Waffle Church. Yes, you heard me correctly. Waffle Church is a monthly service for people of all ages, from the youngest to the eldest. It is an intimate and informal service that embraces music and movement and art and food in a liturgy that always finds at its center the Word and Sacrament.

It’s been a change for me, accustomed as I am to chancels and pulpits and silver chalices and white lace tablecloths. At Waffle Church, the children help me set the table, with colorful fabric and a plastic baptismal bowl and a large, seeded loaf of bread. Last week, a Darth Vader figurine sat beside the cup and Luke Skywalker contemplated his baptism by the font.

We worship in a storefront without pews. Worshipers stand or sit in chairs around the table. The kids prefer to sit on pillows on the floor. Last week, as I prayed the Great Thanksgiving, my four year-old somehow crawled underneath the table and sat there through most of the Words of Institution. He had found both a secret fort and hiding place. But when it came to serve the bread, he jumped up from under the table and exclaimed, “I want to help!”

He has proved my point to those who question a child’s ability to understand the mystery of faith. Even from under the table, he was listening. He knows the story that I tell each month, about the friends of Jesus gathered at a table. Not just any table. A table of promise. A table of hope. A table of remembrance. A table of Good News. And when I cracked that loaf and tore it in half, he saw the crumbs sprinkle down around him, and he knew that God had, once again, been unleashed into the world. And he, absolutely, definitely, wanted to be a part of it.

Maybe you can begin to see where I am going with this?

To another table… Not in Jerusalem, or Nazareth, or any of the towns on the Sea of Galilee. A table in a city in what is now Lebanon. A table in a place filled with Gentiles. A table that Jesus thought was far enough away that the hungry and the desperate who had been following him day and night might not be able to find him.

A table on the far side of his rivals and critics who assail Jesus at every turn, for failing to wash his hands before a meal and for healing a suffering man on the Sabbath. And in the verses leading up to today’s story, Jesus appears to lose his cool:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines…” Then Jesus said [to the Pharisees], ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.’”

God’s presence in the world, Jesus then explains to his disciples, is no longer contingent upon human action. Traditions and laws have a purpose, but God’s purpose in and for the world through Jesus Christ has broken down every barrier that might stand in our way of receiving God. What goes in the body cannot mitigate our access to God, Jesus tells them, only that which comes out of our hearts, if it is malicious, or self-serving, or at odds with God’s will for God’s people. No human law or tradition can stand in the way of God. God will break through every barrier, every wall.

From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

This is one of THE most controversial stories in the New Testament, maybe in the entire Bible. A woman found Jesus, despite his effort to stay hidden. A woman with a passport that marked her ‘different.’ A woman with a sick child who would do anything to save her daughter. A woman who believed that Jesus, the one who rejected the exclusionary claims of his critics, might actually cross the borders of ethnicity and culture to help her.

And Jesus says, No. You do not belong within the scope of my mission. I cannot have my energies pulled away by an outsider. There’s no room for you here. I have other children to feed; I cannot also feed yours. I must take care of my own first.

This doesn’t sound like Jesus. But it does sound familiar, coming from the countries and politicians who are saying to the teeming mass of Syrian refugees, ‘No. You do not belong within the scope of our mission. We cannot have our energies pulled away by foreigners. There’s no room for you here. The borders are closed. We have other children to feed; other problems to solve. We cannot also take care of you.’

There was a picture in the paper this weekend of a bridge in Hungary. Thousands of Syrian refugees flowed across the bridge on foot, headed to Germany and Austria. Hungary doesn’t want them, and is poor besides. Turkey has two million of them. In Lebanon, one out of every three people is a Syrian refugee.  Western Europe is the apex of their hope. A place to put a roof over their heads; clothes on their bodies; food in their bellies. They are drowning by the thousands, crossing between Turkey and Greece by rubber boat. The image of that three year-old on the beach; I wish my eyes could unsee it. And that child– that one blessed, made-in-the-image-of-God child, is only a single, horrible glimpse of a reality that is simply unimaginable.

No one wants these refugees; they will die if they stay in Syria, so they risk their lives trying to escape. I saw one quote that said, A parent will only take a child on a boat if the water appears safer than the land. The roiling waters of the Mediterranean, to many parents, appears safer than the raging violence that drove them from home in the first place.

These refugees, are looking for restoration; to have their humanity returned to them; to be free; to be safe. There is no more home to return to, only the hope that home might be rebuilt on foreign soil.

In Mark’s gospel, we get an image of the crowds, swarming together like a school of fish, following Jesus wherever he goes. And he goes, it seems everywhere. From one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. East to the Decapolis in what is now Jordan, north to Sidon and Tyre in modern-day Lebanon. He puts miles on his leather sandals. Each and every time he heals, he says, “Don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen and heard.” And each and every time, it seems, the one healed pays no heed to Jesus’ command. The crowds grow bigger; they find him behind closed doors; on a secluded mountaintop; across the country; across the border.

So desperate that they travel by foot on dusty landscapes toward Jesus, the apex of their hope.

He does not disappoint, he heals and proclaims; proclaims and heals. When the crowds are stranded, he feeds them. When he is weary, he heals them still. When their hearts are hardened against the truth of who he is, he welcomes them anyway.

And then this foreign woman challenges Jesus, when he refuses to heal her daughter. She calls him out on his own hypocrisy, just as Jesus has called out the Pharisees on their hypocrisy, and, as the story goes, changes Jesus’ mind. The Syrophoenician woman tells Jesus, “Guess, what? Jesus. God said yes to me. God said yes to me when God tore open the heavens. God said yes to me when God decided to show up in the wilderness rather than in the temple. God said yes to me when you came here instead of spending all your time in Jerusalem.”

Even the dogs under the table deserve some good news, Jesus. The kingdom of God can reach this far, Jesus. The boundary-breaking message you proclaim has found its way here, too, Jesus. There’s no turning back now, Jesus.

Even under this table, there is good news to be found.

And Jesus agrees, and the light pours forth from that table, and through the streets of that Gentile city, and into the woman’s house and over her daughter’s ailing body, and then out the window again and through the entire world.

In every place, there is good news to be found.

We find the good news here— every time we prepare the table with our best, as our best, to receive the gift of God’s breaking into the world for us. But the light that emanates from this table, cannot be snuffed by the darkened shadows underneath, or in the far, dusty corners of our world. Or laid out like a doll on the beach, or broken on the asphalt of our city streets, or even blood-soaked at an evening bible study. Even there! There is good news to be found.

Jesus, you’ve broken through the world, and there is no putting it back together again. The shards of your grace have scattered, reflecting light everywhere. Everywhere.

There is no ownership, no proprietary rights on this good news. It is, like water and fire and wind and air, a shape shifter. That kind of good news can get in anywhere.

I saw a picture last night of Hungarians lining the highways with platters of fruit and cases of water to offer the refugees as they plodded past on their march westward. I received emails as recently as last night from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, detailing how we can help. The good news is pouring forth, even if it’s hard to see.

I’ll end with the information on PDA’s website about how to Stand in the Gap: Give, Act, Pray.

Give money to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, knowing that PDA is engaged with the best disaster organizations around the world and get supplies and services to those who need them most.

Act. Don’t turn your eyes from the problem, but join together to study and understand what’s happening and how you might advocate for increased, compassionate action by our government. Be bold like the Syrophoenician woman to cry hypocrisy when you see it.

Pray without ceasing. Turn over to God all of the hurt and pain and suffering that you see around you, in the confidence that God is present in every shadowed corner, spilling love and light and hope to dispel the darkness.

And finally, come to the table of hope, the table of love, the table of remembrance, the table of grace, the table of justice. Come and be fed. For God has laid out a great feast for us, for any who come hungry.

Let us keep the feast.

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Looking to get hitched?

It’s no secret– I love a wedding. To be more specific, I love to officiate weddings. I have never thought of myself as a romantic, but I am in awe of the deep commitment, vulnerability and hopefulness that work in tandem toward a couple’s decision to get married.

Marriage is hard work, and I privilege the opportunity to play a role in establishing a firm foundation.

Premarital counseling is sacred. It gets a bum rap sometimes, which is a shame. Sharing your life with someone is no easy feat, and the better able we are to see the terrain, the better we will be able to navigate with compassion, gratitude and joy.

And the wedding ceremony has such potential beyond the blandness of magazine features and website formulas. Holy worship- liturgy- that celebrates the true fact of being a relational species. God desires us to love and be loved, for our own enjoyment and for the benefit of the whole world (maybe we can call it discipleship?).

I have a particular interest in working with couples from distinct religious backgrounds. The pictures below are of a Christian-Hindu wedding I officiated in April 2015. The joining of traditions has so much more potential to be a blessing than a challenge.

So… Who wants to get hitched?

Sent from Sarah’s iPhone. Pardon the questionable grammar.


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Eat Me, Speak Me

My itinerant preaching led me this morning to Good Shepherd- Faith Presbyterian Church, in the shadow of Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side.

This week, I am indebted to Craig Satterlee’s beautiful column on the lectionary from www.workingpreacher.org. His ideas and words are scattered throughout the sermon.

And to the Moravian pastor who I met on Shelter Island last week, who told me the BEST story ever (it’s near the end of the sermon, if you’re wondering). Thank you for your ministry and your storytelling!

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Picky Eaters

The Union Chapel in the Grove, Shelter Island Heights, NY

The Union Chapel in the Grove, Shelter Island Heights

Wherein, immersed in the RCL’s focus on the sixth chapter of John, I find more and more ways to talk about Waffle Church with other lovely people. In this case, the lovely community at The Union Chapel in the Grove in Shelter Island Heights. A once-in-a-lifetime invitation that I’ve received TWICE!

And wherein, in the heat of the moment, I coin the term “short theologians” to refer to children, who are often more astute and whimsical theologians than the most highly trained adult professionals.

Sermon based on
John 6:24-35 and Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 

It is a joy and a privilege to be here among you again today. I was here almost exactly one year ago, at the beginning of what has been a great transition in my life and ministry. No longer an Associate Pastor of a tall-steeple church in New York City, where I met Judith and Bill Winship so many years ago… and also Bill Buice and our beloved, Stuart. I am now a therapist, a workshop leader, an itinerant preacher, and, as you might have noticed in my bio, the Organizing Minister of Waffle Church.

Waffle Church is what it sounds like— church where we eat waffles— and it is a whole lot more. Waffle Church is an all-ages, ecumenical worship service that includes table hospitality within its liturgy. It is an outgrowth of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, which is also what it sounds like—a worshipping community in Brooklyn that is modeled on the liturgy of the early Christian church. When there were no chapels, no cathedrals or sanctuaries or A-frame churches, but, instead, gatherings of people over a shared, sacramental meal, where the stories of Jesus were shared and interpreted.

In addition to dinner, or, in our case, waffles, the bread is blessed and broken, the cup blessed and poured out. The stories of Scripture are told and responded to. There is music; there is prayer; there is movement. And there are children who make noise and fidget and who also serve as theologians in their own right, noticing things that we as adults no longer can.

At our first ever Waffle Church workshop two weeks ago, we had twenty adults and nine children, ranging in age from one to 65.

I told the Parable of the Mustard Seed from Mark’s Gospel. It is a straight-ahead, familiar parable of a small seed that becomes a large, encroaching weed which, once planted, spreads over everything it touches, not unlike the Kingdom of God.

But when I set the stage… when I put Jesus where he belongs, by the Sea of Galilee, with the crowd pressing in around him and spilling onto the beach from the surrounding hill country, so much so that Jesus feels the water lapping his ankles and decides to jump in a boat so that he doesn’t end up preaching to the fishes… the children laughed. They thought it was hilarious.

“Short theologians,” I call them, for they are able to appreciate a good exaggeration, to suspend their disbelief in order to ponder a mystery, a willingness to let the story speak for itself, without being raked over the coals by our adult-sized skepticism.

In today’s story in John’s Gospel, the crowds are also following Jesus, because they saw the signs he was doing for the sick, and they were curious and some were likely desperate and willing to suspend their disbelief, like children, to see this man who could do miraculous things.

And Jesus, seeing the crowds flowing coastward from the surrounding villages, mounts a hillside, to find a better perch, I imagine, or catch his breath, or survey the hundreds… no, thousands of people who had come looking for something.

But for what? They could not yet say.

And therein begins that well-worn, soft-edged story of a young boy with five barley loaves and two fish, and Jesus, who, giving thanks to God, broke the bread and fed the crowd so that five thousands bellies were filled, with leftovers besides.

But Jesus didn’t stick around for coffee and dessert after the big meal. He did not hang back to receive accolades for the miracle or even the crown that those who had observed the miracle wanted to place upon his head. Jesus vanished into thin air, or so it seemed.

And the crowd, well…

“When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there [on that hillside], they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for him.”

It’s like a mad caper, now! “Short theologians” would love this part. Jesus and his disciples disappear from the scene, like magic, and like clowns in a circus car, the crowd jumps into a few small boats and rows after them in hot pursuit.

When they finally catch up to Jesus, doubled over with exertion and trying to catch their breath, they are incredulous, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Or, maybe it was, “Why did you leave us?”

The crowd functions as a single, energetic unit with one voice and one pursuit.

And according to Jesus, one hunger.

You’re just looking for more bread, Jesus says to them.

As if that is such an ignoble aim.

These are hungry people.

And here comes Jesus, who feeds the crowd real bread and real fish– complex carbohydrates and Omega 3 fatty acids. Protein and calories to fill the bellies of able-bodied men and women, as well as the vulnerable bodies of young children and the infirm.

The miracle was just as much about caloric intake as it was about anything else.

Yes, Jesus is the Bread of Life. Yes, Jesus is offering a spiritual bread that endures forever. Yes, Jesus is speaking to the crowd about who he is and what he has to offer that will sate their spiritual hungers and slake their spiritual thirst.

And, yes, they didn’t know what exactly they were looking for, but they knew they were looking, and they knew also, at some level, that they were looking in the right place with Jesus.

The miracle is about the experience of abundance in an economy of scarcity.

This crowd is, by no coincidence, a reflection of an earlier crowd of hungry people asking for real food to fill their bellies. The Israelites, by the mighty acts of God and the leadership of Moses, escaped the cruel hardship of slavery and the calculated suppression of their religious and national identity.

But memories of plagues and parting seas can’t quiet the grumbling of an empty stomach. And promises of a land flowing with milk and honey can’t move oxygen and nutrients into the muscles; can’t rebuild tissue; can’t keep the mind sharp. Who can argue with the single, energetic voice of the crowd that makes it plea,

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Well-sated servitude can begin to appear preferable to starving freedom. It’s an old story, right?

The stomach is a powerful force.

What does the crowd want from Jesus? They want bread. They do. Unabashedly, they want more of what Jesus provided them on the hillside– food enough to fill their bellies with leftovers beside.

The crowd wants the promise that there will always be enough.

Which is exactly what Jesus is offering.

But we can be picky eaters even when we are hungry.

We try and manage God in our lives, saying, ‘God, fulfill your promise to me in this way, but please, not that way.’ ‘God, give me proof of how you’re going to do it, so I’ll know.’

And all along, the promise is there, just waiting for us.

But we can’t be picky eaters. What Jesus offers the crowd is not an a la carte menu, or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Jesus’ promise is not just food, Jesus promises, to borrow a Yiddish phrase, the whole “megillah.”

“Megillah” is the Hebrew word for scroll and traditionally stands for a group of books in the Hebrew Scriptures that are read in total during certain Jewish festivals. The most familiar of these books is Esther, which is read at Purim. The book of Esther is long and exhaustive; it is not simple; it is not pithy. Yet it is of one piece; it cannot be shortened or condensed and divided up. When you read the story of Esther, you read the whole scroll.

That is what Jesus offers to the crowd. The whole megillah. A promise that cannot be shortened or condensed or divided up. It begins with the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And it ends like this, “If every one of the things Jesus did was written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Surely, the crowd cannot understand all of these things. Surely, neither can we. Can we really comprehend the theological and existential significance of pouring water over a child’s head at baptism or gathering around the altar during the Lord’s Supper? No.

But Jesus does not ask that of us.

Jesus offers a hungry people food, in the form of a table– long enough to accommodate five thousand hungry souls and even more, besides. A table where each will receive his or her fill. Where there will be food and drink enough for everyone. But you can’t put the rolls in your pocket and walk away. There are no doggie bags, no carry-out. When you need more, you have to come back to the table.

It is not easy to trust that God will provide for tomorrow. It is not easy to walk away from the table without scraps in our pocket, to save some grace for later without the exertion of showing up again.

Sometimes it’s not easy to come to the table in the first place. We’ve been burned and doubt that anything at that table can close the wound.

Or we’ve felt what we think is God’s absence in the wilderness and wondered why we ever chose to follow in the first place.

Maybe we’ve shown up at the table and tried to eat only what is pleasing to us, but left the table feeling empty, all the same.

What does it mean to say ‘yes’ to God’s promises? What does it mean to really trust that God will provide for tomorrow? To believe that the God can satisfy our deepest hungers?

Trusting God’s promises will not mean getting the dream job, or the recognition we deserve, or the money we’re owed. It will not mean that we won’t get hurt, or suffer loss, or experience illness, separation and death. God’s promises do not amount to a force field protecting us against our perceived enemies or even against the heartache of our humanity. God is not a superhero.

God’s promises come to us on God’s term, not ours.

But, if we take a cue from “short theologians,” it might mean experiencing a willingness to consider the mysterious, the unknown, or the uncomfortable without a mind to solve, fix or dispel.

It might mean that we live with a little more lightness, when we are not weighed down by things and plans and anxieties to meet every possible circumstance. Storing up moldy bread in our pantries, or some such thing.

It might mean that we enjoy what is set before us each day with a little more gratitude and maybe even some joy. Not because it portends future success, but because today is a gift that cannot be reopened tomorrow.

You may have read in February, or again this past week, one of two Op-Ed pieces in The New York Times by Oliver Sacks, the acclaimed psychologist and author. With clear-eyed, heart-wrenching honesty, Sacks shares his intimate experience of receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. Though still alive, it is as if Sacks is coming to us from beyond, traveling back to us from that foreign shore, to share his bits of wisdom and reflection with 20/20 hindsight, when it is, in fact, more like 20/20 insight, or 20/20 foresight…

He writes,

At the start of the year, in the weeks after I learned that I had cancer, I felt pretty well, despite my liver being half-occupied by metastases. When the cancer in my liver was treated in February … I felt awful for a couple of weeks but then super well, charged with physical and mental energy… I had been given not a remission, but an intermission, a time to deepen friendships, to see patients, to write, and to travel back to my homeland… People could scarcely believe at this time that I had a terminal condition, and I could easily forget it myself.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.

We all have a terminal condition. Death comes, one way or the other. As Christians, we also surround ourselves with little emblems of eternity: a table, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, a bowl of water. St. Augustine calls these emblems of eternity “visible words”- the embodiment of the Gospel in the ordinary ‘stuff’ of life.

Visible, physical words for visible, physical people. To be touched, and tasted, held and observed, like the metals and minerals of Oliver Sacks’ boyhood.

As one preacher has suggested, Christ comes to us first to say “no”—no to our desire to be in control, no to our pick-and-choose spiritualties, no to our quest for easy answers—so that we might then hear Christ’s “yes.” In Christ’s “yes,” when all else fails, our relationships or our sources of security, our health or even life itself—when we fail—God’s promise yet stands firm. With one voice, one hunger, we will say, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And Jesus will say to us, “Yes. Come to me. I will meet your deepest hungers, and I will satisfy your deepest longings. You will be fed the Bread of Heaven, and you will be full, forever. I promise.”

And so may it be.

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What I learned from Waffle Church…

Waffle Church, today at 11

Waffle Church, today at 11:00

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…

– a seed which, once removed from the jar by one or many small children, will find its way under the table, into the cracks between the floor boards, and buried with hundreds of its mustard seed friends in the church’s backyard, where it is then fed with the water from the baptismal bowl.

– a seed which, according to a four year old, will sprout between the floor boards and crash through the floor and then through the ceiling where the birds will gather around it and then (my apologies on behalf of the the four year-old, who, in all truth, belongs to me) poop through the branches.

– a seed which, while meant as a simple sermon illustration, will become a source of endless amazement and curiosity and entertainment to all the children gathered, who then become a source of endlessness amazement and curiosity and entertainment to all the adults who get to watch the children who are watching the mustard seed.

Claire and Teru with the Mustard Bush.

Teru and Claire with the Mustard Bush.

– a seed which, though tempting to consider, will not taste good on the from-scratch waffles served with lemon curd, cinnamon butter and summer fruit salad.

– a seed which may prompt an excited six year-old boy to reply emphatically to the pastor who asks (sort of rhetorically) during the Invitation to the Lord’s Supper, “If this is not our table, or the church’s table, who’s table is it?” “The Lord’s!!!!!”

– a seed which, like a jumping bean in your back pocket, incites you, with the others around you, to stand up, and move around, and sing with your body, and tape green, cardstock mustard leaves to the church’s storefront window.

– a seed which is unstoppable, finding its way into every nook and crevice, including the cracks in our broken and wounded hearts, reminding us that God will find a way in, no matter what.

St. Lydia's storefront decoration.

St. Lydia’s storefront decoration.

That’s what I learned about the Kingdom of God today at Waffle Church!

For our next Waffle Church workshop, Sunday, August 30th, we will be learning about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and while I don’t think there will be livestock at St. Lydia’s, the kingdom of God is unpredictable…

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Promises, Promises

Beverly Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, NY.

Beverly Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, NY.

I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 12th, 2015, at Beverly Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY. The Scripture readings for the morning were Psalm 85 and Ephesians 1:3-14.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I want to thank you for inviting me to worship with you this morning. You see, I love worship. Y’all, I really love worship. I love the gathering of the people from north and south, from east and west, to meet at the table of our Lord.

To tell the story of God, which is also our story. To sing praise; to lift our hearts and voices in prayer for the healing and reconciliation of the world; to share the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation with one another; to remember God’s promises to us in the flowing waters of our baptism.

And though there is never a moment when we are not Christians, there is something particularly special to me about our public worship on Sunday mornings. I sometimes say that it’s real hard to be a Christian all by yourself. I say that mostly to folks who have stopped coming to church, for one reason or another.

We are meant to be Christians together, I say. It is when we do our best work, and it is when we are at our best, too. Oh, OK, I sometimes don’t mention that the church is the place where we can be at our worst, too. No truth in my advertising, I guess…

Church can be messy, for sure. And the meetings are long. And there are arguments, and hurtful things get said and done. I mean, we aren’t God, even though we sometimes wear our righteousness on our sleeve and pretend to be…  We are sinners, all, and in just as in need of God’s salvation work as anybody else. But church is also the place where we try to handout forgiveness and grace and mercy and compassion as if we had an everlasting supply (which we do!).

On Sunday mornings, like this one, I like to imagine that the walls of the church expand outward, or draw upward, like the arms of someone you love reaching out for a hug after a long absence. It is our time to be embraced, in celebration and in sorrow, in pain and in consolation. It is our time to hold one another to account for the ways in which we have advanced the cause of the Gospel, or not… It is our time to rage against the ways in which violence and hatred still ravage our communities. It is our time to contemplate the promises of God. Like the promises of the Psalm we heard this morning…

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
         righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
        and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
       and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
          and will make a path for his steps.

What a prayer! With what confidence and assurance the Psalmist prays, as if there is a red phone on the writing desk with a dedicated line going straight to God. ‘Ok, God, I’m gonna use the simple future tense for this one, so I’m counting on you to come through for us. I’m not gonna hedge.’

It just doesn’t have the same impact if it reads like this:

Steadfast love and faithfulness might meet…
Righteousness and peace will probably kiss each other…
Faithfulness is likely to spring up from the ground…
The Lord may decide to give what is good…’

The Psalmist writes with certainty; these things WILL happen. It is a forgone conclusion that love and faithfulness will greet one another, that righteousness will give peace a kiss on the cheek. God is absolutely, definitely going to give what is good. The Psalmist knows this is true because it’s happened before. At some distant point in the past landscape of the community’s shared life, God had restored their fortunes, forgiven their iniquities, and pardoned their sins.

But at the present moment, things have gone sour again, and the people cry out in a communal prayer for help…

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
          and put away your indignation toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
          Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
          so that your people may rejoice in you?

They are suffering. They are in a terrible time, and they are having trouble seeing a future brighter than their presently dim circumstances. They aren’t sure God’s promises are to be trusted for a second time. They wonder if God is angry with them. If God has the instinct and desire to restore them again. God’s done it before, but will God do it again? Will God scoop the people up in his arms and console them in their anguish. Will God repair the breach? Will God restore justice in the gates? Will God show favor and faithfulness? Will God be reliable, unrelenting in love and concern for God’s people? These are the laments of the people. This is their communal prayer.

This is a community we know well. Or, more accurately, these are communities we know well. Oh, we know communities who have experienced immeasurable tragedy. We know communities who have seen the calculating violence of human hatred. We know communities who have known God’s restoration in the past but are brought to their knees by ever-new devastations.

We know Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston. We hear and share their prayers of lament, their prayers for God’s help. We know other communities that have suffered from racially-motivated violence– physical violence, structural violence, psychic violence– by white supremacists with a mission of hate; by police officers and politicians motivated by bias, and ignorance, and arrogance. By a country that claims a Christian heritage, but a government that largely fails to govern by Christian values. In South Carolina. In Georgia. In Maryland. In Missouri. In New York.

These are communities we know well. Communities subject to violence and insecurity, to persecution and internal division. From the Israelites enslaved in Egypt; to the early Christian communities under the thumb of the Roman Empire; to religious minorities in Asia and Africa and the Middle East.

These are prayers we know well. Prayers of lament. Prayers for help. Prayers for God’s protection and restoration; prayers for peace and unity; prayers for safety. In every place where violence and hatred threaten to have the final word, there is a community praying for God’s help.

And so, too, do we also know these communities whose prayers for help express, simultaneously, confidence that the help prayed for will indeed come. Communities whose hope is in the Lord, even in the midst of anguish. Communities whose willingness to turn to the Lord exceeds any instincts to hide and take cover, or take up the sword. Communities for whom forgiveness is not conditioned on the restoration of what has been lost, but a response to God’s promises, both revealed and not yet revealed. We know these communities and their prayers, too.

Prayers of mercy and forgiveness for the perpetrator. Prayers of confidence that God’s will is for wholeness, not division. For restoration, not fracture. Prayers of keening sadness edged in hope as a delicate border. Prayers reverberating with the conviction that what is asked for will be granted, what is sought after will be found, what is behind closed doors will be opened to the light.

And the Psalmist responds… to all these communities… ours included:

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
          for God will speak peace to the people,
          to God’s faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.
Surely, God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear God,
          that God’s glory may dwell in our land.

God will do these things, the Psalmist says, and God is already at hand. These ‘salvation powers’- steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace- will be observed on the ground and in the sky, on earth as it is in heaven. Salvation is much more than an individualized experience of inner contentment.

Our salvation is part of God’s work to reconcile ALL of creation to God’s self. Not just our little sliver of creation, not just the parts of creation that are nice-smelling and innocuous. Salvation is a communal event, experienced in the gathering of God’s people together and all-encompassing..

The community laments together; experiences anguish together; expresses confidence in God’s promises together; receives the power of salvation together; experiences healing and restoration together.

It’s why we can’t be Christians all by ourselves. It is why we are a ‘community’ faith.

God’s promises are for the present and the future. There are gifts for us to open now. Can’t you remember being a kid and seeing those first Christmas presents from your aunts and uncles show up under the tree? All tied-up with silver ribbon and a tag with YOUR name on it? And mom says, it’s not Christmas yet; you can’t open the presents. And you are devastated and impatient, and you wonder if Christmas will ever actually come or maybe it’s going to be cancelled this year and you will never, ever get to open that gift with the silver ribbon that you are SURE holds exactly the toy that you most desire.

That’s not how salvation works. There are gifts, a table full of gifts, prepared for us by a loving God and given to us by Jesus Christ, for us to open together NOW. Right now. Don’t wait even another minute before opening these gifts. Open them; enjoy them; give thanks for them; share them.

Paul got so excited telling this to the congregations in Ephesus that verses 3-14 in our text today are actually a single, run-on sentence. One gift upon another upon another, lavished on us by a God who has adopted us as children, according to God’s own good pleasure!!! Promises, these gifts. Every one. On land and in the sky. On earth as it is in heaven.

One after the other, we open these gifts together-

We are promised redemption, the forgiveness of our trespasses, individual and communal, according to the riches of God’s grace.

With all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ– a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up ALL THINGS, in heaven and on earth.

We have received as a gift the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation.

All of these gifts, all of these promises, marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. All of this our inheritance, for now and forever.

These are promises that God keeps. We know because we have received them already. We have known, as a community, the hope that conquers despair, God’s faithfulness that restores us from brokenness, God’s peace that heals us from our divisions, God’s steadfast love that endures.

And so… as recipients of so great an inheritance as this, we have the confidence to pray for God’s help; to lift up the source of our anguish; to live in a community that is broken and whole at the same time. Knowing, all along, that we are never far from God’s promises, even when they seem distant and unreachable from the depths of our own heartache.

When we gather at the table this morning, we will receive another gift, wrapped in silver ribbons, for us to unwrap together. We will take the top off the box and reach in for the bread of heaven and cup of salvation, the gift of Christ himself, for us now and as a promise of that great banquet that awaits us at the consummation of time. But we don’t have to wait. We can pull it out of the box, lift it up for all to see, pass it around, touching it, tasting it, enjoying it.

Friends, it is time to receive this gift, to rest in God’s promises. To feast together as God’s beloved community.

Come, let us gather.

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Introducing Waffle Church

Waffle ChurchI am doing another new thing! The community of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn discerned over the past year a need to create worship opportunities for people of all ages. Their discernment led them to Waffle Church, and amazingly, to me, to serve as the Pastor for Waffle Church. We will be workshoping Waffle Church this summer and beginning a monthly service this fall. If you would like to be a part of Waffle Church, please let us know! And if you can’t be here to stir waffle batter or lead song or make play doh, you can donate to help us get this (and two, other new services at St. Lydia’s) off the ground.

This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church on June 14 & 15, 2015

Matthew 18:1-5
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked,
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus called a child,
whom he put among them, and said,
“Truly I tell you,
unless you change and become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever becomes humble like this child
is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever welcomes one such child
in my name welcomes me.”

Last year, I took my three year-old son, Henry, to a small church near our home. The pews were sparsely populated by an aging congregation. There were no other children; no Sunday school; no children’s message. I packed an arsenal- toy cars, Goldfish, crayons, more Goldfish, and, for emergency use only- my iPhone.

Henry fidgeted; he rustled the bulletin; he dropped his metal cars on the wooden pews; he asked questions. This was in the first five minutes. I shushed. I sweat. I pleaded. Please sit still. Please be quiet. My three year-old did the best a three year-old could do under the circumstances. I did not. I was so worried about disturbing the worship of the adults around us that I paid no attention to what was taking place in front of me.

It came time for the unison prayer of confession, and I stood up, bulletin in hand. Henry climbed on the pew, standing next to me, and as the congregation intoned the somber prayer, Henry sang the theme song to Thomas the Tank Engine. I was mortified. I don’t remember the rest of the service.

It wasn’t until later that night that I realized what had happened. Henry had joined us in prayer. He can’t read; he doesn’t understand theology. But he understood that all the people were standing up and saying something together, and he joined in, in the best way he knew how. Through all the rustling and fidgeting and dropping things, Henry was paying closer attention to worship than me.

This is a new experience for me- having my kids in worship. When I was a pastor in a large congregation, I entrusted my children to my wise and compassionate church colleagues and a coterie of lovely volunteers. My kids received great religious education, learned some beautiful songs by heart that they still sing, and made friends.

What they didn’t get was a full worship experience with the entire community. They never saw or participated in communion. They never sat at the base of the font for baptisms. They were sequestered, as it were, in other spaces, away from the sanctuary. I’ve heard it called ‘sacred babysitting.’

But since we’ve been worshiping together as a family this past year, their spiritual lives have erupted. It was the opposite of what I had expected, in fact. I expected that being out of a large and well-managed church school program, my kids interest in church would atrophy and fall away completely. I was, to be honest, desperately sad.

But then Henry joined in the corporate prayers of the church with his rendition of the Thomas theme song. And he began asking when the ‘feast’ would take place, though I had never, ever referred to communion with ‘feast’ language. Claire began singing a song from our new church, unbidden.

They often remind my husband and me to say or sing grace at the table. They talk about Jesus. They ask questions about God. They still fidget and talk and drop crayons and toy cars. But if we can tolerate the disruption, the payback is extraordinary.

There is a rich trove of literature focused on the spiritual lives and religious potential of children that suggests that all children have a tremendous potential for real spirituality– an intuitive sense of God and a deep longing to know God. So great is their capacity for knowing and seeking God, that it is Jesus who calls us to be ‘like children’ in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Which brings me to our Scripture reading…

Jesus was somewhere in Capernaum with some people. And some disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, Jesus put the child in the midst of them…

Where did that child come from?

Was she in the crowd with her parents?

Were there other children there?

Were there usually kids near Jesus when he was teaching and preaching and eating and healing and casting out demons?

Did they have Sunday school in the early Christian community?

Did ‘house churches’ have childcare rooms?

Or were children underfoot, capturing, as it were, the crumbs from the table?

Were the children telling stories, playing make-believe, wondering about Jesus in the same way their parents did?

Were they doing what all children do– being curious, using their imagination, asking their parents questions that their parents couldn’t answer?

It’s probable that Jesus may have been speaking symbolically about children. He may have been helping the disciples understand about the upside down and backwards entry into the kingdom of heaven- not as one with pride and worth, but as a child, humble and powerless. Jesus was likely comparing children to others in the community who are dependent, marginalized or otherwise ‘insignificant.’

But the child was in their midst, and belonged there, by Jesus’ exhortation. Not symbolically, but, as my kids will say ‘in real life.’ Children, in the context of Jesus’ ministry, have something vital that adults cannot easily access.

My favorite writing on children’s spirituality is Sophia Cavaletti, who was writing in the Roman Church in the late 1970s and informed richly by the work of Maria Montessori. Her book, The Religious Potential of the Child, was a precursor to Godly Play and Gretchen Wolff Pritchard’s beautiful book, Offering the Gospel to Children. In Cavaletti’s observations, children are able to enter into a relationship with God that goes beyond the intellectual plane, but is founded on a deep, existential level. They can tolerate ambiguity and mystery in ways that we cannot. Fantasy and reality are not at odds with one another yet, but move in and out of consciousness with fluidity.

“God and the child get along well together.” Or, as the Transformer Rescue Bot said to his Rescue Bot buddy on a cartoon we watched this morning, ‘the young of their species make the best advocates.’

Children belong in the midst of the community of faith, alongside others deemed outsiders, powerless or insignificant. Not as charity cases, but guests in the seats of honor. For they know, better than any of us, what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

That’s why I’m so excited about Waffle Church. Not to teach children about God, but to learn from children about God… My head is stuffed with seminary classes, and thousands of sermons, and unhelpful tools like logic and sophistication and, God help me, maturity. I know words like symbol and metaphor and allegory and parable. But I’ve lost my wonder. And my imagination. And my creativity when it comes to thinking about God. I need new teachers.

There is a mutuality in this endeavor. It is our job as adult members in this Christian community NOT to introduce children to a subject they know nothing about (because we believe that they, in fact, know A LOT), but to provide them with the tools- images and stories- that will allow them to work with their own experience, and yearnings, to speculate and to wonder, and (in their own way) to build a conscious, articulate faith.

And the children, in turn, will teach us how to encounter the mystery of God with wonder and awe; allow us to work with our own experiences and yearnings, and (in our own way) to build, or rebuild (as the case may be), a conscious and articulate faith. And in so doing, give to us new eyes, and new hearts, and new ways to welcome God among us.

You all at St. Lydia’s are so good at this already.  As a worshiping community, you already embody the experiential practice of encountering the mystery of God. You use all of your senses; you encourage curiosity; you make space for improvisation and imagination. You not only welcome the outsider, you save her the seat of honor.

Waffle Church is not a stretch. It will be a new thing, but it will really be simply an extension of what you are already doing.

Waffle Church is NOT children’s church. It will, I hope, distinguish itself in that way. It is not a church just for families. We may not all have children, but we have all BEEN children. That is our commonality.

We have all been invited into the lap of God and welcomed as we are, without need to prove ourselves worthy by reciting back our knowledge. We sit in the lap of God as children—pure-hearted, yearning, curious, open, and joyful.

If we value children’s potential for religious experience, worship together will be meaningful, complex, unresolved, and challenging. And, it might also resemble kindergarten- with movement and fluidity and the deployment of tactile expressions of faith. The best of both worlds. And Waffles. We can’t forget the Waffles!lydiaslogo

St. Lydia's

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Rest For Your Souls

Rest for Your SoulsI am pleased to announce that I will be joining my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy-Mason, for a three week series on grief and loss as part of a partnership with Trinity Wall Street. You can find more information here, including details for a worship service to be held this Sunday evening, May 17th- Rest For Your Souls: A Eucharist for Those Experiencing Grief and Loss.

Three years ago, I worked with the Board of Deacons of my previous congregation to create a Blue Christmas liturgy, a similar service meant to acknowledge the reality of pain and loss that comes as an essential and unavoidable part of our human condition. The timing of the Blue Christmas service suggests that the anticipatory and joyful season of Advent/Christmas can be extraordinarily painful for those who would have an empty place at the holiday table.

But, as we know all too well, there is never a ‘good’ time to lose a loved one, whether by death, divorce or estrangement. There is never an ‘obvious’ time to grieve their loss. Grief and loss can pervade everyday life if not properly attended to, and we live in a culture that rarely grants us permission to attend to grief. We are supposed to ‘be strong,’ or ‘move on,’ or ‘count our blessings,’ or any number of other cliches that do nothing more than convey the message that others are made uncomfortable by our sadness and would like it to go away, or be hidden away.

Oh, there are so many other ways to attend to grief! To acknowledge the loss; to explore its many angles and rough edges; to grant gentleness and kindness and grace to grief’s process; to seek the possibility that if grief does not ever go away completely, that it might be embraced in such a way that it no longer needs to cry out for attention. To fold grief into the fullness of our human experience, rather than shun it. Grief will have its say, one way or another, and the longer we shut it up, the louder it may become.

This is my way of saying, if you have experienced loss recently (or ever!), come to worship this Sunday to receive readings, music and meditation with the Rev. Dr. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, Dr. Kathy Bozzuti-Jones, and the Rev. Kristin Kaulbach Miles. And then join the Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy-Mason and me for the follow-up series on grief and loss, taking place on May 20, May 27 and June 3. All are welcome.

P.S. I found this old sermon of mine from Advent 2013. Yes, I realize we are on the edge of Pentecost, but the message isn’t stale or expired. Darkness threatens to prevail all the time, and we are never not ready to receive the promise of the bright, flickering light of one candle that can not, will not, be extinguished.

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