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Sermon: Easter Sunday (April 1, 2018)

Easter Sunday 2018
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

My brothers and sisters: Happy April Fool’s Day!

Yes, this is a wacky liturgical year. First we had Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the same day, and today we celebrate both Easter and April Fool’s Day. Easter is a movable feast, it’s date dependent on the spring equinox and the lunar cycle, and is calculated using two things called the Golden Number (with a capital G and a capital N) and the Sunday Letter (with a capital S, which you would expect, and a capital L, which you wouldn’t). And if that sounds like something I made up for April Fool’s Day, alas, it isn’t. If you want to learn more, you can read pages 880-881 in the Book of Common Prayer—after the end of this service, of course. Naturally, you want to hear every word I’m going to say. But spring equinoxes and the lunar cycle and Golden Numbers and Sunday Letters are all a bit too confusing for me. So instead of going through all of the work of understanding it, I looked up the last time Easter and April Fool’s Day fell on the same day, and the internet tells me it was 1956. The next one will be in 2029, and then again in 2040, and then not again in this century.

So this is quite a day!

A member of this parish told me the other day that non-believers have been having a field day with this—the idea being that Christians around the world—and that includes us—are gullible fools who have fallen for one of the biggest hoaxes of all time. And I suppose that could be true—if I’m to be perfectly honest, I need to admit that it is always possible that all of this could be wrong, a joke, that I have fallen for—that we have fallen for. After all, we walk by faith, not by sight. A part of being people of faith is learning to live without proof.

Actually, at various times and in various places, the Church has embraced the idea of Easter being a joke, but not the way the non-believers might think. In fact, one of the precursors of April Fool’s Day is a day called risus paschalis, or Easter laughter. Celebrated in southern Germany in the 15th – 17th centuries, priests would urge their congregations to laugh out loud on Easter, telling jokes inside the church.

Why? Because early Christians believed that in the resurrection of Jesus, God played the ultimate joke on the forces of evil. On Good Friday, it looked like evil had won! God’s own Son had been killed. The good and the holy had been driven to its knees; it had been beaten and tortured and stripped and humiliated and nailed to a cross and died. The early Church would have said that on Good Friday, Satan and his army howled in victory.

But the joke was on them. Because with the resurrection of Jesus, God pulled off the ultimate prank. What more could Jesus have done to mock evil and the world that killed him than to rise from the dead? And in so doing, to have taken captivity captive, to have forced sin to its knees, and to have killed death?

Welcome to April Fool’s Day, folks. The resurrection is the divine joke that saves us.

That’s worth repeating: The resurrection is the divine joke that saves us.

And you know what that means for us, for those of us who follow Christ, don’t you? It means that we a people of the resurrection, and THAT means that we are a people of laughter!

Not all the time, of course. We still experience pain and suffering and death in this world, and so sorrow and grief and anger and mourning are all perfectly appropriate. And there are times when we are called to do the hard and difficult work of the Kingdom. But we aren’t meant to stay there—in the sorrow and grief and anger and mourning and hardness and difficulty. We’re not meant to make our homes there. We are called, my friends, to be a people who live in hope. In joy. In love. In life. In laughter. Because THAT is what the resurrection promises us!

Being a woman priest is still uncommon enough that if I’m wearing my collar out in public, I often get stopped and asked questions. Once, in a Starbucks, after talking with someone for some time about my vocation and the nature of faith and such, I was told that I didn’t seem like a priest—that I smile and laugh too much.

I smile and laugh too much to be a priest??? Is that really what the world thinks of Christians?

It seems it is. There’s this thing that I do from time to time, and I did it again yesterday. I sat down at my computer and brought up the Yahoo search engine, plugged in the words “Why are Christians so,” and then let it do it’s predictive search thing…In other words, Yahoo tried to complete the sentence “Why are Christians so” by giving me the top searches using those words. Usually I just look at the 10 top predictive search results. But yesterday, I tried something new. I typed in “Why are Christians so” and then the letter “a,” and looked at all the “a” words that people use to fill that search. And then I moved on to the letter “b,” and so on and so forth. Here’s a small sampling of what I found.

Why are Christians so…
Angry?
Bitter?
Boring?
Cruel?
Defensive?
Depressed?
Miserable?
Mean?
Negative?

That’s just a sampling. I looked at 78 predictive search results yesterday, and only 5 of them were positive.

What have we done? And what are we called to do?

Here’s a start: We need to live our lives and to act in ways that defy those descriptions! We need to replace those words that people think describe us! We need to be people who dance! We need to be people of love! We need to be people of hope! We need to be people of laughter! We need to live into Psalm 126:

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
Then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
And we are glad indeed.”

Then was our mouth filled with laughter . . . laughter at the divine joke that saves us.

This past week has not been an easy one for this parish or her people. We have worked hard. We’ve gone to one funeral. We’ve had another funeral here. On Maundy Thursday we remembered the Last Supper. We walked the Way of the Cross. We confessed our sins. We remembered and mourned Jesus’ death on Good Friday.

But here’s the thing, my friends. Good Friday is not the culmination of the church year. Good Friday does not get the final word. Sin does not get the final word. Suffering and grief do not get the final word. Death does not get the final word.

Because at the end of the day, at the End of Days, God wins. Love wins. Dancing wins. Hope wins. Fun wins. Joy wins. Resurrection wins. Jesus wins.

And what a joke that is, hey? What a wonderful, joyful, fun-filled joke that is. The greatest joke of all time. The divine joke that saves us.

And so let’s proclaim it together, with mouths filled with laughter, and tongues with shouts of joy:

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Sermon: The Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 11, 2018)

Sermon: Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4-9
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every morning as I eat my breakfast, I am treated to the sounds of Acorn the guinea pig—one of our many pets. Most of the time Acorn just squeaks and squeals for some breakfast—which WILL wait until the teenager on morning duty comes downstairs and begins filling up food dishes. But sometimes, because the guinea pig’s water bottle hangs in the back of the cage and the morning light isn’t always that good, it can be difficult to tell by sight whether Acorn has water or not. We’ve learned, however, that we don’t really have to worry—Acorn tells us when he doesn’t have water. He simply takes the end of the tube that is supposed to be delivering water to him into his mouth with a good, firm grip and sits and yanks and jerks that water bottle against the sides of the cage until someone notices and fills it back up. And it would do no good to argue with him, saying, “But Acorn, we just filled up your water bottle three days ago.” Acorn would have none of that. And why should he? Having water three days ago doesn’t help him if he’s thirsty and without water now. So Acorn is insistent in his thirst, and in his demands that we do something about it.

I thought about Acorn and his water bottle rattling about a week ago, as I asked God for something that I didn’t feel I should be asking for. I don’t think it’s any great secret that the past year of my family life has been a bit rough. There’s been a lot of health issues, a lot of me driving around and sitting in doctors’ offices and hospitals for multiple members of my family. And while I pray and try to stay positive and strong and all that, there are moments when I feel defeated and weak. About a week and a half ago, I went to bed feeling defeated and weak, and that night I had an amazing dream. In the dream, a person was comforting me. That’s it—that’s all that happened. But it was so much more than that, because in the dream, I FELT a comfort and a peace and a security and a love that I’ve never felt in waking life. In religious terms, we’d call it a peace that surpasses all understanding. When I woke up, I wanted to claw my way back into the dream, back into the comfort, but of course I couldn’t. Instead, I concluded that the dream had to have been a gift from God himself, and I gave thanks.

For a day or two. In those two days, life continued to happen, as life will. And the feelings of comfort that I felt in the dream slowly faded, as dream emotions will. And once again I got ready for bed feeling defeated and weak, and I prayed, “God, I know you just did this for me, and it should be enough. But if you could just send me the dream again, let me feel your peace again, I can’t tell you what that would mean to me.” It was no good telling me that God had just given me figurative water a few days ago. I was thirsty again, and so I whined to God, asking for more, now.

So you see, I feel a bit bad for the Israelites wandering in the desert in our Old Testament lesson for today, wanting some water and some decent food. This story is the last of five stories commonly called the “murmuring” stories; the murmuring stories tell of all the times that the Israelites murmured and whined about the lack of food and drink in the wilderness during their Exodus from Egypt. We tend to be pretty hard on them. The commentaries that I read on this week’s readings were all pretty hard on them. Had they learned nothing? God had provided them with water and food time and again. God had freed them from their slavery. God had parted the sea for them. God traveled with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. What more could they want, the scholars all asked.

And I pictured myself as one of the people wandering in the wilderness, trying to find my way to the Promised Land, and I thought, “They’re thirsty and hungry. It doesn’t matter that they were given food and water just one short chapter ago. They’re thirsty again. They can’t help asking for more any more than Acorn can help jerking his water bottle around, or I can help asking for the peace that surpasses all understanding again.”

And you know, theologically, I have to question their true sinfulness here. The New Testament has Jesus say on multiple occasions that God listens to those who are persistent and insistent in their prayer. Remember the parable of the wicked judge who gave into the demands of the poor widow just because she wouldn’t give up and stop bugging him? Jesus says that we should pray like that. So what’s the problem with the Israelites asking for food and water?

I suspect that the sin of the Israelites wasn’t that they asked for food and water again. I suspect that the sin of the Israelites occurred in the sentence before that, when they asked God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God hadn’t brought them up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Some of them would die in the wilderness, of course, including Aaron, Miriam, and Moses. But God wasn’t going to let the whole of Israel die in the wilderness. He had made—he had initiated—a covenant with them, and that covenant was pretty simple. He had brought the Israelites up out of Egypt so that he could bring them to the Promised Land, so that he could be their God, and they could be God’s people, a holy people, and a blessing to the nations.

Their sin wasn’t that they asked for food and water. Their sin was that they doubted that God would uphold his covenant.

We have been talking about covenant since the first Sunday of Lent. We’ve heard God form several covenants with humanity. That he would not wipe us out or destroy the creation. That he would give Abraham a son, and make of him a great nation. That he would lead the nation of Israel to the Promised Land, and give it to them, so that he could be their God and they could be God’s people, a holy people, and a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And in our Old Testament lesson for today, the people doubted all of that, and asked of God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

And so God afflicted them with poisonous snakes.

This is, quite possibly, one of the strangest parts of the Bible—at least it is if we think that God afflicted them with poisonous snakes for asking for food and water. Jesus himself would later say, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead? Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” No—God didn’t send poisonous serpents among the people because they asked for fish or water. He sent poisonous serpents among them because of their true sin—they lacked faith that God would keep his covenant. They failed to trust God to keep his promises.

It was a serpent that brought sin into the world in the book of Genesis. And it was snakes that came and afflicted the people now, meaning that they were afflicted and poisoned and some of them died as a result of their own sin. Our Old Testament lesson tells us that God sent the snakes, but in a sense the snakes are the direct result of the sin of the people, and they symbolize the biting and poisonous consequences of our sin, and of our lack of faith, of our lack of trust.

God has formed a covenant with us. It’s a new covenant, initiated by God through Jesus. We’ll talk about it more next Sunday, but the new covenant promises a new Promised Land that we call the Kingdom of God. It promises us not just that we will be God’s people but that we will truly know God in our hearts and in our lives. It promises the wiping away of every tear from our eyes. It promises living water. It promises us freedom from the slavery of sin and death. It promises new heavens and new earth. It promises eternal life for those who believe, who trust that God keeps God’s promises.

So my friends, I pray that I’m not wrong in what I’m about to say, but I would encourage you to continue asking God for water when you’re thirsty, for food when you’re hungry, for comfort when you feel defeated and weak. Jerk that water bottle around. I don’t think there’s sin in that.

But we do need to repent. We need to repent of all the times when we are thirsty or hungry or defeated or weak and we waver in our trust that God keeps God’s promises—that God honors God’s covenant. God is leading us to the Promised Land. There are still snakes in our midst, and sometimes they bite and sometimes they kill. But God is leading us through them, and has turned the instrument of our destruction into the thing that saves us, has turned the cross into our salvation. God hasn’t brought us up out of anywhere so that we might die in the wilderness. Lent will not last forever, Easter will come, and the snakes will not get the final word. That belongs to God.

“In poison places,
God is anti-venom.
God’s the beginning and the end.

Tonight, the foxes hunt the hounds,
And it’s all over now, before it has begun.
God’s already won.

In poison places,
God is anti-venom.
God’s the beginning and the end.”

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Sermon: The Third Sunday in Lent (March 4, 2018)

Sermon: Lent 3B
Exodus 20:1-17
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

 In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Most of you will remember that last year, I took a continuing education course on a farm, in which clergy and church leaders learned, among other things, about the connections between farming and pastoring. I finished that course in January, and will be participating in different continuing education options this year. But it was a valuable experience through which I learned a lot.

One of the things that I learned comes from having read a straight-up farming book: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman. Hartman doesn’t make any connections between pastoring and farming; he’s only interested in farming. Those of us in the course needed to tease out those connections ourselves.

One of the connections that I have found most fruitful is Hartman’s insistence that farmers sell through pull. So many farmers, he argues, decide how many acres of soybeans they want to grow, or how many chickens they want to (or have room to) raise, or whether they want to plant some sort of unknown vegetable that no one has ever seen, just for fun. And then if they end up with too many soybeans, or too many eggs, or a ton of unknown vegetables that no one will buy because they’ve never heard of them before and don’t know what to do with them, they try to push their product. Hartman argues that farmers should instead listen to what their customers need and want, and let the customers’ pull guide their planting strategy and production. So they should be guided by pull, not push.

So during the class, our group of clergy and church leaders sensed that there was something important to be learned here, but we floundered a little because we kept thinking of ourselves as the farmers and all of you in the pews as the customers. And we all knew, at our core, that this just didn’t feel right. We had our eureka moment when someone suggested that we think about God as our customer instead.

God is our customer. Now, this metaphor has its problems. I know that. But let’s talk about what works here.

We all know, we’ve all experienced, what it looks like when priests or congregations or small groups within a congregation all try to push their agenda, right? It doesn’t work. Priests and congregations end up in conflict. Groups of people within a congregation end up in conflict. Or no one is in conflict, but programs and ministries fizzle and fail. Ministry and mission grow limp, or become a source of contention, because everyone is trying to push their own agendas, ideas, and plans.

BUT … BUT!…if God is the customer, and we let God pull us, and the work we do, if we let God’s pull guide us in all that we do…IF WE JUST LET GOD PULL…imagine what that looks like.

THAT is holy ground.

A little like the holy ground of Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites.

Those of you who have not missed church yet this Lenten season may have noticed a theme emerging from our Old Testament readings: the theme of covenant. A covenant, remember, is an agreement willingly entered into by two parties. The first Sunday of Lent we heard about the first covenant formulated between God and humanity—the one between God and Noah, in which God promised never to wipe out all of creation or all of humanity ever. This covenant was unilateral, in that God made all the promises, and asked Noah and humanity and creation for absolutely nothing in return. We made no promises. No rules were given to us. Out of pure love, God promised to sustain us and not to destroy us, no matter how disappointing we might be.

On the second Sunday of Lent, we heard about the covenant formed between God and Abraham, in which God promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son, to make of him a great nation through which all the nations of the world would be blessed. God promised some land. God also promised to be in relationship with Abraham and his descendants—he promised to be their God, our God. But this time, God did ask for something—that all males be circumcised. I argued that the reason for this condition is that relationships need to be mutual—that both players need to participate in it and to have some skin in the game.

In this week’s Old Testament reading—this is where things get serious for us. Our reading from Exodus tells a part of the covenant formed between God, Moses, and the nation of Israel. And this time, God gives them a ton of rules. What we heard today is the Ten Commandments, but someday—perhaps some Lent—I would challenge you to read through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Because y’all, if you want to read through some rules and instructions, you’ll find them there. Rules governing sacrifice. Rules governing our relationship with God. Rules governing our relationship with one another. Rules governing our conduct with the poor and the needy. Rules governing our sexual conduct. Rules governing what we eat. Rules governing how we plant our fields. Rules governing how our priests should dress. Rules governing what we may touch and not touch. I could go on and on. In that covenant, God gave God’s people a ton of rules.

Why?

Let me tell you the wrong answer first. God did not give God’s people a bunch of rules so that if they kept them, they would be saved. That’s not how it worked. I’ve said this before—God did not come to Moses while the people were still in slavery in Egypt and say, “If they keep all these rules, then I’ll free them from slavery and take them to the Promised Land.” No—he just saved them. And after having saved them from slavery, he asks them to respond by being a holy people, a godly people, who walk in God’s ways and do what God says.

In other words, God asks the people to let God pull.

And this is important, because one of the sins of humanity is that we like to push. To push our needs, our wants, our ideas, our agendas, our plans, our desires. To plant what WE want to plant. To do what WE want to do. To live the way WE want to live.

But God tells us that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. And so being God’s people means letting God pull.

And so God gave those ancient Israelites a whole bunch of rules so that they might learn to let God pull.

Some of those rules don’t apply to us anymore. Like the dietary restrictions. Jesus came and told us that it’s what comes out of our mouths that’s important—not what we put into our mouths. So why did God give them rules about what they put into their mouths in the first place? Perhaps to teach them how to let God pull. If we begin by letting God pull us in small things, then we can go on to let God pull us in bigger things.

But some of those rules do apply to us. Like the Ten Commandments. They are our basic guidelines for letting God pull us in our relationship with him, and for letting God pull us in our relationship with others.

When Ben Hartman says that farmers should let their customers’ pull determine their planting strategy and production, he’s trying to help farmers develop more fruitful farms. When God says that we should let God’s pull determine our entire approach to life, God is trying to help us produce more fruit as well. There’s spiritual fruit, of course—the fruits of the spirit. There’s also making our world—that God created and loves and cares for and promised not to destroy—more fruitful as well.

So, in that covenant on Mount Sinai, God wasn’t trying to save us. God was trying to create a holy people, a fruitful people, who let God’s pull determine everything.

This is difficult to maintain, of course. We all know this. We’re all human, all sinful, and all too often we don’t let God pull—instead, we push.

This Lent, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting and talking to people about my own tendency to try to solve problems and save the world by the force of my own will. If I just work hard enough, I think, if I’m just smart enough, if I’m just dedicated enough, I can fix it all—my own problems, and all of yours, and my family’s and this parish’s. And it’s all well-meaning—I’m really trying to make things better and easier—I’m really trying to do God’s work. Funny how often I fall into the trap of trying to do God’s work without really listening to God—without letting God do the pulling.

And so a part of my Lenten discipline—the penance that I was given when I went to sacramental confession—was to spend more time in contemplative prayer, in prayer that is still and silent and listens and waits for God’s pull. I could do this at any time, of course. I don’t need it to be Lent in order to do this. But Lent is the time when we’re instructed to examine ourselves, to repent, to engage in practices that call us to let God pull.

When we give something up for Lent or we take something on and we are faithful in that, hopefully, we are training ourselves to let God pull us. To let God shape us. To let God determine how we live and move and have our being. So let’s pretend you know someone who gave up coffee for Lent. Does God care about whether or not that person drinks coffee? I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess not. But if the giving up of the coffee is a reminder that our lives are not to be spent chasing our own desires and having exactly what we want when we want it—if it becomes a lesson in obedience and in letting God pull our lives—then it’s of value.

Sometimes we need to do little things before we can tackle the big things. Perhaps humanity needed to circumcise its body before it could circumcise its heart. Perhaps tithing our material goods is a step towards truly living lives of mercy and compassion and love. Perhaps we need to give up coffee for a time before we can give up our weightier and more sinful desires. Perhaps it’s all a part of letting God pull us toward holy ground.

The covenant between God and Moses and the Israelites is too complex for me to cover all in one sermon. There’s so much more that could be said. But here’s the thing that I think needs to be said today:

God calls us to be a holy people. And that means letting God do the pulling. So don’t go out and plant your soybeans willy-nilly. Because God is so much more than your customer. God is your God. And you are God’s child. God’s beloved. Listen to God. And let God pull.

Amen.

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The First Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2018)

Sermon: Lent 1B
Genesis 9:8-17
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What do you think of when you think of the story of Noah’s ark? I’ll tell you what I think of: I think of nursery decorations. At least when my children were getting ready to be born, one could decorate nurseries and baby’s bedrooms with any number of Noah’s arks wall hangings, decals, figurines, and some such. Baby books and calendars often had Noah’s ark themes. And in fact, we did have Noah’s ark stuff in our kids’ bedrooms. We had been given decorations and baby books and calendars with the ark and the cute animals and the clouds and the rainbow as shower and baby presents, and we used them.

So when I think of Noah’s ark, I tend to think of saccharine-sweet images—until, that is, I remember the incident of my older daughter Alex and her Noah’s ark.

Now, before I tell this story, I should be clear with you that I asked Alex for permission to tell this story. Multiple times. Over the course of many days. She got sick of my asking. So if someday, she ends up sitting in a therapist’s office talking about how my telling this story destroyed her—well, I have my defense.

When Alex was little, as well as all of the baby books and decorations, she had a Noah’s ark play set. It was made of wood, and the ark itself was made in two pieces: a top which lifted off, and the bottom, which formed a large oblong bowl-like piece. It also had, of course, wooden animals. It sat in her room and she played with it quite a bit. One day, when she was three, she threw a huge temper tantrum—I can’t even remember what set it off, but I do remember that nothing that I did prevented this massive meltdown, so eventually, she ended up in timeout in her room, storming and screaming and tantruming in there. It was one of those tantrums that was so long and violent that it ended when she fell asleep. I went in to her room at that point, covered her up, and then looked around the room. Her Noah’s ark was scattered all over the place—the top lying in a corner, the animals all over the place. But the bottom of the boat was in the center of the room, and my darling daughter had peed in it.

Now, I had listened to her screams. She hadn’t screamed that she needed to use the bathroom, and if she had, I would have let her out of her room to allow her to do so. I’m pretty convinced that she peed in the Noah’s ark out of sheer anger.

How often are we like Alex? How often do we—either as individuals or as a people—piss all over God’s grace and saving work?

Now. Let’s stop here for a moment, because I’m guessing that I just shocked a pretty good number of you. I just used a word that we’re not used to hearing in the sanctuary, much less from the pulpit. So here’s the thing. Let’s remember that a good part of my life before I became a priest was spent in the study and teaching of the English language—of the rules that govern its use, of the ways that we employ it, of the stories that we tell with it. Words and how we use them are important to me. So if I just asked us to think about how we piss all over God’s grace and saving work, you better believe that I used the word that I think best conveys what we actually do. So if you’re shocked, or disturbed, or dismayed about what I’ve said, here’s my question for you: should it really be the word that shocks, disturbs, and dismays, or should it be the things that we do that shock, disturb, and dismay? I would argue—strongly—that it should be the latter.

Do I really need to sit here and list various examples of things that we do that piss all over God’s grace and saving work? I don’t think I should have to. I think that the beginnings of the answer to that question should be self-evident. If nothing else, all we need to do is turn on the news to see how we as a people piss all over God’s grace and saving work. But we do as individuals too. And figuring out, discerning how we do that, how we go so badly astray, is a part of the work of Lent. And I can’t do that work for you. Now if you’re really lost, I can guide you through the process of figuring out your sin. I have handouts. I have strategies. I love you all, but I am perfectly capable of lovingly helping you figure out your sin. So if you’re thinking, “I don’t piss all over God’s grace and saving work,” just set up an appointment with me, and we’ll get down to some real Lenten work.

And I’ll tell you this—the story of how we piss all over God’s grace and saving work is right there in the story of Noah and his sons. It’s right there in the story that we memorialize in sweet, cutsy decorations for our children’s rooms and nurseries. Because 3 verses after the end of our reading for today, the Noah that was saved from death, destruction, and chaos because he was the most righteous man on earth—that same man—planted a vineyard and got himself drunk. Not just like “Whoo-wee, do I feel good” type drunk, but like “Wow, I just passed out naked in my tent” type drunk. And one of his sons (Canaan) walked into Noah’s tent and saw his father naked and passed out. And when Noah learned of it, he cursed him, making him a slave to his family. In Bible-speak, Canaan was the father of the Canaanites, the enemy of the Israelites. And so Noah, in his post-flood life, having been saved by God’s grace, set in motion a chain of events that led to generations of violence, hatred, and oppression.

That’s some heavy-duty sin.

My friends, often I hear people question how the God that we worship could in this story send a giant flood to destroy most of the face of the earth and the people in it. Here’s the hard Lenten truth for us today: What is surprising about this story is NOT that God would despair over humanity and decide to wipe us out. What is surprising is that he hasn’t done it since—that he hasn’t wiped us with all of our pissy and sinful ways out of existence altogether. What is surprising is that he promised that he wouldn’t. Ever. And that he attached no conditions to that promise.

What we have in today’s reading from Genesis is an account of God’s first covenant with humanity. A covenant is a bond—a bond entered into voluntarily by two parties by which each pledges to do something for the other. Now God enters into several covenants with humanity throughout the Old Testament, and we will be talking about them all through Lent. But this covenant that God makes not just with Noah, but with all of creation, is the first. And as such, it reveals in a special way what God is like. And my friends, what is extraordinary about this covenant is that is one-sided. God does all the promising, and he asks for nothing in return.

That’s right. He doesn’t say, “If you behave yourself, I won’t wipe you out.” He doesn’t say, “Follow these rules, and I won’t wipe you out.” All he says is, “I won’t wipe you out. I promise.” This covenant only sets limits on God. Noah doesn’t say a word.

This may not sound all that surprising to us. After all, we’ve mostly been taught about an all-loving God, full of compassion, who gathers his children around himself and forgives all things. But that wasn’t the case when this story was written. Let’s get real here for a moment. The One who created all things is entitled to destroy all things if they prove disappointing. And we have proven disappointing. For God to limit Godself by promising for all time not to destroy—that is an unheard-of surrendering of divine power. Especially when we were and are the cause of the problem.

What we have here—in the story, and in our lives—is a God who sees that humanity cannot end the downward spiral of violence, and so God covenants to do so. When we, over and over again, threaten to close off all hope by repeated offenses, God keeps the future open and full of hope. The God revealed in this covenant is not an objective judge proclaiming a just sentence, but a lover grieved to the heart, yet still seeking reconciliation, and promising to continue to seek reconciliation, for all of time.

This story—this covenant—begins to reach a first climax with the coming of Jesus. Notice that God never said, “If you do these things, if you’re really good, THEN I will send my son.” God just does it. Jesus is just born. And he’s baptized, and then he willingly, without conditions, goes out into the wilderness of human experience, goes out and lives with the wild beasts. And then he’s crucified and he dies, not because we deserve to have him do this for us. But because God is so committed to us, to reconciliation and to life and hope and salvation and to love, that he’s willing to unilaterally step into the worst of us, and to transform things. To turn the waters of the flood into the waters of baptism. To soak up our violence and cruelty like a sponge. To stage an intervention. To say, “Right. Once again you have pissed in my ark. But my dear hearts, I love you anyway, and I will not destroy you. I will search for you to the end of the ages.”

THAT is the God that is revealed to us in this story—in this covenant. This is the God before whom we stand, to whom we belong. A God who limits himself in shocking and unheard of ways out of sheer love for us.

There is a danger inherent in Lent, I think. There’s a danger in all of this giving stuff up and taking stuff on, in our prayer, fasting, and self denial. The danger is that we put too much stock in our own efforts, and not enough stock in God’s grace. The danger is in thinking that if we just do enough, we’ll deserve to be saved. Don’t get me wrong—there are good reasons for the prayer, fasting, and self denial, for the giving stuff up and taking stuff on. There are good reasons for the examinations of conscience, for confession and repentance. But they don’t save us. They can’t save us. Because as a people, we continually piss on God’s grace and saving work, even with all of the Lenten stuff. Only God can save us. Only God DOES save us, through God’s unilateral promise not to destroy us, and later, through his Son, whose unilateral action changed everything.

So sure—give stuff up. Take stuff on. Pray. Fast. Deny yourself. Confess. Repent. Try your hardest not to piss all over God’s grace and saving work. I’m doing all of those things. And you should too. But through it all, place your faith in and focus your gaze on the God of this first covenant. Place your faith in and focus your gaze on a God who says to you, “Oh my love, you are so full of piss and vinegar. You are so devoted to violence and chaos. You are so stubborn and stiff-necked. You all are. But you are my love, and I’m setting things right. I promise.”

Amen.

 

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The Last Sunday After the Epiphany (February 11, 2018)

Sermon:  Last Sunday After Epiphany B
Mark 9:2-9
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’

I don’t know if this will come as a surprise to any of you or not, but I am not only extremely introverted—by which I mean that I recharge my batteries by being alone—but I am also naturally extremely shy. You should have seen me when I was little. Like the summer after kindergarten, when my family moved across town to a neighborhood of mostly retired folks and childless couples. The lack of kids was staggering. So one day, I hopped on my bike and started riding up and down the street, just for something to do. Suddenly, a girl about my age came out of her house, walked to the curb, waved, and said, “Hi!” Soon after, I went racing into my house and ran up to my mother and said, “Mom! Mom! There’s a girl about my age down the street! She said hi to me!” And my Mom said, “That’s great, honey! So do you two want to play?” And I said, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” And she said, “Well, what happened after she said hi?” And I said, “I rode back here and told you about it.” My Mom said, “Did you even say hi back?” “No.” “Well go back there,” she said, “and say hi back.” So I did. The little girl said hi again, and I said hi back, and then I rode home to tell my Mom about it. When, after the third time that I rode home to tell my Mom about this little girl, I still didn’t know her name, my Mom started practicing with me. She played the part of the little girl, and I played me, and we practiced having a conversation. We did this for a solid week before I started 1st grade at a new school too. In fact, I spent a lot of my young years practicing how to talk to others with my Mom.

While what my mother did with me here was helpful, and certainly helped me make friends, it had a curious side-effect:  It became my habit, when in conversation, to only half-listen to what others were saying.  While others spoke, I was engaged in furious thought:  What was I going to say next?  What was I going to do next?  As I got older, I began worrying about how others perceived me; I wanted others to think that I was smart, witty, and sophisticated.  And so I maintained the habit of only half-listening as I plotted my next move.  Let me be clear:  This had nothing to do with my ability to pay attention.  I was capable of spending long periods of time listening to others, as long as an immediate response was not expected, as in a lecture.  But in conversation or discussion, my focus was almost entirely upon myself, and it wasn’t until my early 30s that I began consciously trying to break this habit and to become a good active listener, with a focus upon others.

I spent years thinking that this was just me; surely others were better active listeners than I was.  But I’m not so sure anymore.  In fact, lately I’ve been wondering whether our failure to really listen to each other hasn’t reached the level of societal pathology.  Would it be fair to attribute the degree of our societal strife to our failure to listen to each other?  What would our world look like if we truly listened to others?  Would our nation be paralyzed by partisan politics if our leaders truly knew how to listen?  And are they just following the example of their constituents, who seem to gain more satisfaction ranting on Facebook than they do in truly listening to each other?  Would it be easier for the members of the Church (with a capital C) to remain in communion with each other if we truly listened to one another?  And if we did this, would we find more people walking through our doors and sitting in our pews?

And what would our world look like if we all became masters in listening to God?

In many ways, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a story about the disciples’ failure to listen, and this makes it even more compelling, because their failure is my failure; their failure is society’s failure.  Let’s take a look at this amazing chain of events.  Jesus invites Peter, James, and John up the mountain.  He was transfigured before them, and Moses and Elijah appear and begin to converse with Jesus.  Now the transfiguration is an amazing thing, as is the appearance of Moses and Elijah.  But do you know what I find even more amazing?  We have no idea what Moses, Elijah, and Jesus talked about!  Seriously—if I had a time machine and an invisibility pill, and I could go back in time to witness something, it just might be that conversation.  What do the Law, the Prophet, and the Messiah talk about during a reunion on a mountaintop?  How could Peter, James, and John not tell us?  This is just a guess, but I suspect they weren’t listening.  Instead, the gospel tells us that they were terrified. Terrified people don’t listen, because they are focused on themselves. Can’t you just hear their minds racing?  Instead of being fully in the moment, focused on what is happening around them, they are focused on themselves, and so this whole conversation is lost.

And this isn’t the only time that these three disciples weren’t all that good at listening to Jesus—at focusing on him rather than on themselves.  Looking just at the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus predicts the cross, Peter rebukes him; he is less worried about listening then about his vision of what the coming of the Messiah is supposed to look like.  James and John, you remember, ask Jesus whether when he comes into his glory, they may sit in places of honor, one at his right hand and one at his left.  At the last supper, instead of listening to Jesus and engaging in some introspection, Peter denies that he will deny Jesus.  And it is these three disciples that Jesus takes with him to Gethsamane.  He tells them to stay awake and pray, and they fall asleep.  All too often, their focus is on what they are going to say, what they are going to do, what they would like to see in future, and on themselves, instead of on the word of Jesus.

And then Peter clinches it.  When he joins in the conversation between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to here.”  He has an idea regarding what to do next.  Instead of listening to this historical conversation, he’s been thinking about what to do next.  Now, I really can’t blame him.  Peter must have felt that he had something to prove.  After all, just before their trip up the mountain, Peter denied the prediction of the Passion, and Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Get behind me Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.”  That had to sting.  I’m guessing that he didn’t want to mess up again, and so he came up with a really great idea, one grounded in Jewish tradition: “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  This calls to mind several pieces of Biblical history:  the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God, as well as the Feast of the Tabernacles, a sacred observance ordained by God in the book of Leviticus.  The prophet Zechariah had predicted that in the final age, all of the peoples of the earth shall come up to Jerusalem year after year to worship God and to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles.  Placed in this context, Peter’s suggestion is quite smart.  It recognizes the divinity of Jesus and grounds that day’s happenings in both the Law and the Prophets.  He must have felt really good; I would have!  But what happens next must have crushed him:  God cuts him off!  Today’s gospel says, “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”  If we were to completely anthropomorphize God and, moreover, make him sarcastic, can’t you just hear him sighing and saying, “Hey Peter, shut up a second, will ya?  This is my Son.  Focus on him.  Listen to him.”  We’ve heard these words once before, at the baptism of Jesus.  But today, God adds the injunction to listen to Jesus.  This was the failure of the disciples; this is our failure; once we have accepted that Jesus is the Son of God, we must follow up that faith with some real listening.  This is no small task.  It demands that we be a little less in love with ourselves, a little less enamored with our own thoughts and the sound of our own voices.  It demands a certain degree of quiet within our minds and souls.  It demands that we give ourselves over to the Word of—and the call of—God.

This changes our own narrative quite a bit.  We are no longer the central figure in our own story.  There’s nothing easy about accepting that.  Quite a few years ago, a friend of mine wrote, “Each successive ‘yes’ to God, however small, equals some measure of sacrifice.”  As we see in the lives of Peter, James, and John, listening to Jesus constitutes a pretty large “yes” to God.  And the measure of sacrifice—to our egos, to our world view, to our view of others—is equally huge.

But I ask again:  What would our world look like if we all became masters in listening to God?  It’s difficult, but it is what is best for us.

Wednesday, of course, is Ash Wednesday.  We are exiting the season of Epiphany, during which we relive and celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, as God’s own Son, and entering the season of Lent.  Lent, of course, is a time for soul-searching and repentance.  It’s a time for reflection and discipline.  It is, in short, a time for listening.  You know, I’m fond of referring to the 40 days of Lent as “the long slog through Lent.” It’s not my favorite season of the church year. I don’t like packing away the percussion instruments that the children use. I don’t like giving up the Alleluias. I don’t like fish. I don’t like talking about sin and repentance quite so much. Twice in the past week I’ve said out loud, “And after the Ash Wednesday liturgy at 6:00pm, we’ll all go home and be depressed.” And I REALLY don’t like giving up stuff in my own life—makeup or iPhone games or chocolate or what have you. But the purpose of all of it is to quiet us down, to be a little less in love with ourselves and our stuff. It is meant to force us to focus less on ourselves and on the things in this world that distract us and consume us, and to focus on God, really listening to God. And the narrative of the transfiguration helps take us there.  We move, in one amazingly brief story, from the revelation of the divinity of Jesus to the command to listen to him.  The narrative also holds for us a promise—the promise of the resurrection as foreshadowed by this transfigured Jesus.  And inherent in the story is, I believe, another promise:  the promise of the possibility of our own transformation, and the transformation of our world.  If only we can learn to listen.

What WOULD our world look like if we all became masters in listening to God? How would we be transformed? Can you imagine it—even a little? As we walk down the mountain this week, into the low ground of Lent and begin the long slog toward Jerusalem and crucifixion, let’s work on really listening to God. Because what would happen if we REALLY all became masters in listening to God is so much better than we can ask or imagine. So let’s practice together, for 40 days. Let’s just listen.

Amen.

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Sermon: The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany (February 4, 2018)

Sermon: Epiphany 5B
Mark 1:29-39
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

Have you ever seen that series of DayQuil commercials, in which a person is seen standing in a doorway, explaining to someone that they’re sick and need to take a sick day? When the camera pans to the person they’re talking to, it’s not their boss; it’s a crying baby or a sad little girl ready for a tea party. The narrator’s voice then says, “Moms (or Dads) don’t take sick days. Moms (or Dads) take DayQuil.”

The advertising for DayQuil aside, I so relate to these commercials. Remember that I spent years as a stay-at-home mom, many of those years overlapping with my husband’s years in the professional testing-ground. He didn’t have the freedom to take off work when I was sick so that I wouldn’t have to take care of the kids. So I had to power through. I remember once I was SO sick, and Brad was at work, and my kids were being especially demanding. When I finally got them down for a nap, I laid down in my bed, closed my eyes, and thought, “Maybe I have the flu, and it will get so bad I’ll have to go to the hospital, and people will have to take care of ME. That’d be SO cool.” I fell asleep to that fantasy.

So I always have an instinctual bad reaction to the story of Peter’s mother-in-law being healed by Jesus. In this very brief story in today’s gospel, we’re told that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then, in one sentence, we’re told, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

I always want to say, “Seriously? The woman’s been sick and in bed, and the moment she gets better, she has to jump up and get you some nachos and beer?”

And that’s the better of my two reactions. Secretly, I always wonder at the fact that Jesus healed her by hauling her out of bed. As if the Son of God were saying, “Woman, my followers don’t take sick days. Now get up and make me a sandwich.”

Of course, that’s not what the Son of God was up to. The better part of me knows that. And the message of this gospel is not that Christians don’t take sick days—that we’re all supposed to deny our own physical needs and limitations, power through, and serve the Lord until we collapse in sheer exhaustion. That’s not what this gospel is about.

Instead, this gospel is about healing and renewal and wellness, and how God is actually very concerned with all three.

Notice that the gospel as it is written doesn’t have Jesus say anything at all as he heals Peter’s mother-in-law. He doesn’t ask her for nachos and beer, or for a sandwich. He doesn’t kneel by her bedside and say, “Psst…Lady. I’ll heal you if you promise to make me a killer pot of chili after.” No—he just healed her. And knowing Jesus as we do, there are a whole bunch of reasons he might have healed her, none of which have to do with food.

Maybe he healed her because he loved and cared for Simon Peter, who loved and cared for her.

Or maybe Jesus knew her before he walked into her house that day, and he loved and cared for her directly.

Or maybe Jesus just saw a sick woman and had compassion for her.

Or maybe Jesus healed her because that’s what God does. God heals us.

Life is rarely as simple as a bunch of “or” statements make it seem, but we know for sure that the last thing I said is the truth: “Or maybe Jesus healed her because that’s what God does. God heals us.” We know that is true because the gospel goes on to talk about later that day, when “people brought him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of illness. That’s a lot of healing. And there’s absolutely no indication that Jesus asked for anything in return.

So what’s the deal with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law? Why does the gospel make sure to tell us that when the fever left her, she began to serve him?

Because that’s the proper response to being healed by God. Gratitude. Thankfulness. And both of those things lived out in loving service to God and others.

This gospel isn’t about a woman who was healed and then put to work. This is about a woman who was healed and then got to work, doing what she could to further God’s kingdom.

And that’s what we’re called to do.

FULL STOP. Let’s hold on a moment here. What did you just hear me say we’re called to do? Take a moment to think about this. I said, “This is about a woman who was healed and then got to work, doing what she could to further God’s kingdom. And that’s what we’re called to do.” What did I just say we’re called to do?

I’m the one who wrote those lines, and even I heard myself saying that we’re called to get to work for the kingdom. It took me a while to hear myself saying that we’re called to be healed.

But we are. They go hand in hand. We’re called to let God heal us, to renew us, to make us well. And then we’re called to get to work.

Jesus even lives this same pattern in this gospel. He’s out healing all those people—he’s working. And then in the morning, before the crack of dawn, he goes out to a deserted place to pray. He’s healing himself, renewing himself, making himself well, by spending some time with his Father. And then those disciples come and hunt him down and, renewed and healed, he gets back to work.

Even Jesus didn’t run on fumes. We see this pattern repeated time and again in the gospels. Jesus was constantly retreating, going to deserted places by himself, to pray.

We are called to spend time with God, letting God heal and renew us, increasing our wellness. And when we have done that, we are called to get to work, but not forever. Sooner or later, we need to spend some more time with God, letting God heal and renew us once again, to increase our wellness yet again.

It’s meant to be a constant cycle, a constant pattern, just as it was for Jesus. We are to seek renewal and wellness, then get to work, then seek renewal and wellness again, and then get to work again. Over and over and over again.

I don’t think it’s any secret why the Holy Spirit would have sent me this sermon message for today: it’s a sermon message that I needed to hear. Most of you know that I work hard, both here and at home. I’ve admitted to some of you that when the work load gets heavy, I tend to fall into the trap of cutting my prayer and study time so that I might accomplish more tasks. That’s not good. That’s not the pattern that the gospel gives me. I’m supposed to shape my life differently.

And so are you.

I worry, sometimes, about how many of you see this place as work—as a place that demands things of you. And to be fair—it is those things; it is meant to be. But this place should also be a place of renewal, of wellness, of healing. Our churches should be places of renewal, wellness, and healing. If they’re not—well, then, we’re missing an important part of the point. We’re missing an important part of who Jesus is.

Recently, a man named Scott Stoner was on a podcast that I listen to, “Priest Pulse.” Stoner is the Executive Director of Living Compass, a wellness ministry dedicated to making congregations centers of God-centered, whole-self wellness. He talked about how when he gets into conversations with strangers and explains to them what he does, he most often hears, “Huh. I never thought of church as a place of wellness.” And he said that’s just about the saddest thing he’s ever heard.

And I agree. That’s incredibly sad, and incredibly anti-Christian.

So, I need to say this. If this place, this parish, is not a place of wellness for you, then please come talk to me. Yes, I like to get things done. I like to work for the Kingdom. But a congregation cannot be productive unless it is well. You are more important to me than what you can do.

So yes, Scripture and the demands of parish life both call us to get to work. But let’s not forget that other step, the other part of the Christian life. We’re also called to give ourselves the time to let God (and, by extension, the Body of Christ, or other people) heal us, renew us, make us well. To let Jesus take us by the hand and lift us up. Not because he needs us to make him a sandwich. But because he loves us, and because that’s what God does.

The Forward Movement’s daily podcast always ends in prayer, and often ends in a prayer that I find especially useful today. So let us pray:

Oh God, I will try this day to live a simple, sincere and serene life, repelling promptly every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.

In particular I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.

And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sermon: The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (January 28, 2018)

Sermon: Epiphany 4B
Mark 1:21-28
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I know something of what it means, what it’s like, to ask that question: “Jesus, what have you to do with me, with us?” I wonder if you too know something of what it means, what it’s like, to ask that question. Of what drives us there, to that place.

Truth be told, today’s gospel lesson from Mark is full of distractions. Perhaps the most distracting element in this story is that the man that Jesus meets is possessed, and Jesus exorcises the unclean spirit. When we read this, as 21st-century readers and thinkers, we might begin by thinking that we don’t really believe in demon possession. That’s the stuff of movies. And then our imaginations might wander to what those movies have shown us of possession and exorcism: bodies levitating, heads spinning, superhuman feats of strength, strange and otherworldly voices coming out of the mouths of children. Well-meaning but clearly out-of-their-depth Catholic priests throwing holy water around and shouting prayers and commands in the name of God, while sometimes ending up being thrown themselves, from the room, out a window, to their deaths.

Now that I’ve planted all of that in your brains, I’m asking you to forget it all. It’s a distraction from what this gospel has to say to us. And worse yet, when we read this gospel through the lens of Hollywood tale-spinning, we end up saying, “This is the stuff of fiction, of sensationalism. What does this gospel have to do with us, a bunch of middle-class, salt-of-the-earth, level-headed Episcopalians? What does this gospel have to with us?”

Just this. If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” then this gospel was written for you. If you’ve ever known someone who has asked the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” then this gospel was also written for you. And I’m guessing that means that this gospel was written for every single person in this church today.

Because what drives people to ask that question is nothing more nor less than an unclean spirit.

Now. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep-end, or before you start thinking, “Oh good, she’s finally going to lay out a plan for our spiritual warfare against the demon world,” hear me out. Hear what a reading of Scripture has led me to believe about unclean spirits.

The Old Testament, and particularly the Penteteuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) are full of a concern regarding what is clean and what is unclean, about who is clean and who is unclean. Unlike what we might think, being unclean didn’t necessarily mean that someone lived an immoral or unethical life. One became unclean, for example, if one touched a corpse—even if that touching was done in order to prepare a loved one for burial. One became unclean if one ate an unclean animal, like a pig. One became unclean if one had a contagious disease, like leprosy and other skin diseases. A menstruating woman was unclean, as was one who had just given birth. Having a child or a skin disease didn’t mean that one was immoral, and there are certain types of uncleanness which could be redeemed, purified, and the person made clean once again.

On the other hand, a person could become unclean by killing someone, or by having illicit sex, or by worshipping other gods. These were considered immoral acts, and were punishable, often by death.

So, uncleanness might be caused by disease, contamination, infection, or sin. Why were all these things categorized as uncleanness?

Because the concept of uncleanness simply meant that one was in a state of being separated from God. It meant that one was separated from the worship of God.

I could go on and on. I’m not kidding. I could talk about why eating pigs was considered an unclean act that made the eater unclean. I could theorize at length about why a woman who had just given birth was considered unclean. I could explain why touching a corpse, even if it was to prepare a loved one for burial, made a person unclean, and why that’s actually not as cold as we might think. ‘Cause I’m a geek and this topic actually really interests me. But I don’t need to go on and on.

Instead, here’s what I want you to understand. An unclean spirit like the one we see in today’s gospel isn’t necessarily an evil spirit, or an immoral spirit. Being possessed of an unclean spirit simply meant that something in this man’s life was separating him from God, and doing so in a pretty permanent way.

In fact, I would argue that if this man’s unclean spirit was immoral, the man would be dead—he would have been killed.

Instead, this man was probably sick. Perhaps he was physically sick—since his exorcism included convulsions, he might have had a seizure disorder. Or he may have been mentally ill. But whatever was wrong with this man, it had separated him from God, from fully and truly worshipping the Lord. His spirit was unclean, or it been invaded by something unclean.

This doesn’t mean that I’m trying to make a spiritual matter into a physical one. What both the Bible AND science tell us is that body, mind, and spirit are intricately related. Our physical health impacts our spiritual health, and vice versa. But I’m guessing that I’m not telling you anything new. Chronic pain does its best to separate us from God. Chronic illness does its best to separate us from God. Mental illness does it best to separate us from God. How much harder is it to pray when our joints are screaming? How much harder is it to focus on our relationship with God when we’re always nauseated, or always fighting infection, or always fighting to move the way we want to move? How much harder is it to be right with God when we’re constantly battling overwhelming sadness, or anxiety, or feelings of paranoia, or the urge to self-harm?

No, I would guess that this man wasn’t evil. He was sick. His life had become a nightmare, and it might have felt like his personality had been taken over by alien powers—as indeed, it had been. He was no longer the man he had been created to be. He had an unclean spirit.

How many of us know what that is like? How many of us know someone who knows what that is like?

And here’s the thing. Scripture lays out degrees of uncleanness. I would argue that to have an unclean spirit doesn’t just mean that one’s life has become a nightmare. In fact, the Apostle Paul argues that all human beings are unclean because of inherited sin. We all live in a state of uncleanness because we live in a broken world. So I don’t need to be clinically depressed in order to be separated from God. I just need to be sad, or grieving, or hurting. We might be less separated from God if we’re sad rather than clinically depressed. We might be less separated from God if we tend to worry rather than struggle with clinical anxiety. But we’re still separated from God, to a degree, and for a time.

In other words, we all have unclean spirits.

What are yours?

That’s not a hypothetical question. I’m not going to ask you to speak out loud, but I am going to give you a moment to ask yourself, “How is my spirit unclean? What separates me from God?” You might find sin. In fact, you’ll definitely find sin. But you also might find other things. Things outside of your control. What are your unclean spirits? What are their names?

Now that I’ve taken you to that yicky place, are you ready for some good news?

Let’s go back to the man in the gospel with the unclean spirit. The man who was sick, whose life had become a nightmare, whose personality had been overcome by alien powers, who was no longer the man he had been created to be. Let’s go back to him. What happened to him?

My friends, Jesus happened to him.

Jesus entered the scene and spoke a word and healed him. Made him clean. Brought him back to himself. Restored his relationship with God.

Because Jesus has that authority. That is the major message of today’s gospel. That Jesus has a spiritual authority that is unparalleled. That his authority disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. That his authority liberates us, it heals us. His authority returns us to ourselves and to our God.

So, if Jesus has this authority, why do we continue to suffer? Why do illness and contagion and sin continue to impact us?

The answer is, I don’t know. I’ve said this before: I don’t know completely what God is up to.

But here’s what I do know.

When Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he healed people, yes. But he didn’t heal all people, everywhere. He released this one man from his unclean spirit, but he didn’t banish the unclean spirits from the face of the earth. The reign of God is both now and not yet.

That means that the healing of the man with the unclean spirit points us toward something. It points us toward a God who would and will heal us. It points us toward an eschatological future in which there are no more unclean spirits. In which all there is is God and us and God’s unfailing love for us.

And it points us toward what we’re called to do in the meantime. New Testament scholar Brian Blount argues that readers of Mark’s gospel are invited to follow Jesus into a whole new world, into a world of Jesus walking around possessed by the power of the Spirit of God. We’re invited to go with him and help him create the holy people and the holy world that he’s creating.

And that begins by taking care of ourselves—body, mind, and spirit. It means eating right and drinking right. It means getting enough sleep. It means exercising. It means reading books and watching TV shows and movies and engaging with technology in ways that feed the mind. It means developing coping mechanisms to get us through what’s tough. It means nurturing healthy relationships with one another. It means knowing when to go to the doctor, and when to go to the therapist. (And by the way, why is it that getting help for our medical woes doesn’t carry a stigma, but getting help for our emotional and psychological woes still does? Let’s stop that already.) It means reading our Bibles. It means praying. It means worshipping. It means knowing when to get the spiritual help that we all need.

But that’s not where it stops. Because we’re also called to be Jesus here on earth—to be filled with, to be possessed by, the Spirit of God and to transform and heal others. I’m not talking about faith healing, necessarily, though I never rule that out. But I am talking about spotting the unclean spirits in others and lovingly and compassionately naming them, exposing them. And then helping to banish their unclean spirits. To speak the word and to do the things that will replace the unclean with the clean, to banish the unclean in favor of the Spirit of God. To help bring them back to themselves, and to help bring them back to God.

So, what has this gospel to do with us? Only everything. What has Jesus to do with us? Only everything.  Thanks be to God for that. And Amen.

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State of the Parish Address 2018

State of the Parish Address 2018
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

“Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP 817)

Last November, on her show On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Jesuit priest Fr. Greg Boyle. Fr. Boyle works with gang members in the Los Angeles projects. In the middle of the interview, he told a story that had happened early in his Los Angeles ministry. Here’s what he said:

“I can remember walking in the projects late at night, long ago, and there was this kid, Mario, sitting by himself, 16 years old, just sitting on his little stoop in front of the crummy old projects. So I see him, and I greet him: ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And I sit down next to him, and he goes, ‘It’s funny that you should show up right now.’ And I say, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I was just sitting here praying, and I said, “God, show me a sign that you’re as great as I think you are.” And then you showed up.’”

Funny how a 16-year-old gang-banger from Los Angeles could perfectly express what it means to be God’s disciple, what it means to follow Christ. When I heard the story, I actually paused the podcast, and I thought, “You know, if I had to sum up what I would wish for St. John of the Cross, and for the members of her congregation, that’s what I would say. I would wish that people—people who walk in our doors and those who don’t, or who don’t all that often or who don’t walk in for the reasons that we might wish—would say, “Well, I was just sitting here praying, and I said, ‘God, show me a sign that you’re as great as I think you are.’ And then this parish, or a member of this parish, showed up.”

That’s it. That’s my vision. My ministry here, and our ministry together, will most likely never be widely talked about. I’ll never be interviewed by Krista Tippett; they’ll never make a movie of the ministry we do here—even if I have picked out who would play me in that movie. Our ministry is not half as sexy as the ministry that Fr. Boyle does. But we’re all working for the same things. We’re all working to show a world that so desperately needs it the greatness of God and of God’s love for us.

I’ve done this a little backwards, I realize. Usually, I present the numbers and talk about where we’ve been and how we’ve done in the past year, and then I present the vision. Today, I’ve presented the vision first. And it’s not even a very specific vision. But I did so because as I present to you the numbers—those quantifiable measures of how we’re doing—I want us to hold them in tension with that vision. What do the numbers have to say about how well we’re living that vision, or how do they help us work toward that vision, and how do they fall short of really measuring how well we show up, of how well we show people the greatness of God and of God’s love?

So. Here are the major numbers. And here’s what I think they mean and don’t mean.

Our membership is stable. It’s been stable since I came here in late 2014. Every year, we get a few people, and we lose a few people, to death or to relocation or to other circumstances. Here’s what I think is good about that. Church membership has been dropping across denominations for decades. The Wednesday night group and I were just talking about this: there was a time when everyone went to church on Sunday mornings. That isn’t the case anymore. Now, church is one option in a buffet of Sunday-morning offerings. Take that, and add to it the number of people who have been hurt by their churches, and there’s less of a reason for people to go to church, much less to join a church. So the fact that our membership has remained stable just might indicate that there are people who walk into this place, who walk into our midst, and see something of God, and choose to stay. That’s good news.

Our Average Sunday Attendance, however, is on the rise. This is my fourth State of the Parish Address. In 2014 and 2015, our ASA was 38. In 2016, it went up to 41. Last year, it went up again, to 44. Let me tell you what I find exciting about this number. As someone pointed out to me recently, the lower our Sunday attendance, the emptier and deader our church feels. The higher our Sunday attendance, the fuller and livelier it feels. A few extra people in church really does make a difference! It’s hard to see and know a great God in a church that feels empty and dead. So yes, it really does matter whether or not you show up here on Sunday morning. It matters in terms of your own relationship with God, sure. But it also matters because your presence here is a sign of God’s greatness for all those around you and for all those who walk in our doors. The more we show up, the closer we get to the vision, the closer we get to true discipleship.

The budget numbers are where things get really exciting. I don’t want to steal Terry Scott’s thunder, and you will get more detailed information in the business portion of the meeting, but the really outstanding news that you need to know is that you are faithful stewards of this parish. Not only did we end 2017 with our general operating fund over $17,000 in the black, but then our pledge income increased by nearly 24% between 2017 and 2018. Our General Operating Budget is 20% higher this year than it was last year. And since 2014? Well, since 2014, our pledge numbers have gone up 127%.

If that didn’t just take your breath away . . . Well, it takes mine away.

So first, let me say thank you. Thank you for your outstanding stewardship of this parish. Thank you for trusting me and the Vestry to be good stewards of the resources that you place in our hands.

But here’s what makes those stewardship and budget numbers really exciting.

Parishes that are cash-poor tend to be anxious and inward-looking. They’re so worried about how to keep the lights on, the doors open, and the priest paid that they cannot focus on mission, on making God visible out in the world. They don’t have the money to devote to programs that build disciples, or to outreach that allows them to show up to be Jesus for a world that so desperately needs him. A lack of money, in other words, is a distraction. A well-funded parish, on the other hand, doesn’t carry the same anxieties. Its people can develop and participate in programs that form disciples, and they can go out into the world, living witnesses to the Jesus movement, to God’s love for us.

So, there’s lots in the numbers over which we may rejoice, and lots of reasons for rejoicing. These numbers facilitate the vision that I gave you at the beginning: that we might be a sign to one another and to others outside of our parish of the greatness of God and of God’s love for us. And that is good news indeed.

Now, here’s why I don’t think the numbers are as important as we think they are.

God is even greater than the numbers.

In today’s gospel, we hear the story of Jesus calling four men. Four. When Jesus began his active ministry, his first act wasn’t to go out and build a mega-church. He went out and called people, one by one. His apostles numbered only twelve. His band of steady and faithful followers was never huge.

And that is consistent with what the Old Testament has to say about the numbers. Check this out from the Book of Deuteronomy, and hear the words that God spoke to his people then through his prophet Moses:

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery . . . Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-9)

That’s why the numbers don’t matter nearly as much as we think they do. Because the Lord our God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.

And we’re about to start celebrating 175 years in Bristol. That’s chump change. God is faithful and maintains covenant loyalty not just for 175 years, but to a thousand generations.

Nonetheless, that 175 years is a part of my vision for how we might be a sign of God’s greatness out in the world.

Because it doesn’t get that much older in this part of the nation than 175.

The Midwest didn’t start opening up to white settlers until the early 1800s. Bristol was platted in 1835, making it one of the oldest towns in Elkhart County. And this parish dates back to 1843. Now we should never, ever, ignore the rich history and culture of the indigenous peoples who lived here before white settlers ever showed up. But if you’re measuring the history of white settlement and of Christianity, 175 years old is about as old as it gets in northern Indiana.

And God has been faithful to us, to this parish and to this community, all that time. And God promises to remain faithful to a thousand generations.

In other words, when we celebrate 175 years, and when we do so in a way that is publicly visible, we act as a sign of the greatness of God, of God’s love for and faithfulness to us. This church showed up 175 years ago. And we continue to show up. And thus, people will know that God shows up too—always has, and always will.

175 years ago, the founders of this parish began building what today is just a portion of this building—just the sanctuary from the side aisles on in. Since then, our building has expanded—just as God’s love for us is spacious and expansive. And the roof that shelters us, that protects us, has expanded as well. God’s sheltering love, the wings that hide us and hold us, is spacious and expansive beyond our imagining.

And this year we will tear that roof off. And we will put it back on—stronger and better, better able to protect us from the wind and the rain, from the storms that surround us.

In the midst of all that, in the midst of the scaffolding and the lifts, the workers and the mess, let’s not forget that while the shelter of roofs eventually fail and need to be replaced, God’s sheltering love never fails. We may trust in God at all times.

But more than that, even, I would argue that as we replace this roof, we are called to be figurative roof-builders ourselves. We are called to be a visible sign for all those who sit on their little stoops praying for God to show them a sign that he is great. We are called to be a sign for all those who sit on their little stoops too tired or jaded or hurt to pray at all. To be a sign that God is great. That God is their fortress, their refuge, their shelter. That God will protect them from the storm. That God will hide them under the shadow of his wings.

We can invite more people into the shelter of this place, of course, but we can also extend the safety and the freedom that we know here to others. We can cover their little stoops and free them from the discomfort of the wind and the rain, and from the terrors of the storm.

So, what is the state of this parish?

This is the state of this parish: The Lord your God is God. God is faithful, even to a thousand generations. God hides us under the shadow of his wings. God loves us with a love that is spacious and expansive. And God is greater than the numbers. Even when the numbers are going in the right direction, God is greater than the numbers. That is the state of this parish.

So this year, let’s go and meet people sitting on their little stoops, desperately needing a sign that God is indeed great. And let’s show them that God is—that God is great and faithful and sheltering and loving and spacious and expansive. Let’s show them that God is God.

Amen.

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Sermon: The First Sunday After the Epiphany, or the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ (January 7, 2018)

Sermon: Epiphany 1B (The Baptism of Our Lord)
Mark 1:4-11
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I originally returned to church because I was lonely.

Many of you know that I wandered away from faith and from church around the age of 19. I tell a host of stories which all end with the sentence: “And that began my long, slow march back to faith.” But the truth of the matter is, there was never one moment that began my journey back to God and the church. There were many moments, all of which added up together into a willingness to return. But the actual thing that drove me back into a church building was that I was lonely.

I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband worked long hours. On an average day, I hung out with my two very small children. I needed someone to talk to besides them. I needed adult interaction. And I figured that church would give me that. Besides which, my husband and I had decided that we wanted to raise our kids within a church community. So eventually, I walked into Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, IL, and then later into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka.

Perhaps loneliness wasn’t the most godly or holy reason to go to church. But it got me in the door. And then God really got to work—on me and on my life. Even before that, God was working in ways that I didn’t see, didn’t suspect, and certainly wouldn’t have understood.

I suspect I still don’t. Actually, I more than suspect. I know that I don’t fully see, or fully suspect, or fully understand all that God is up to—in my life, in the life of this congregation, in the life of the Church, in the world.

Just as all of the people gathered around John the Baptist the day that Jesus was baptized had no idea of the magnificence of what God was doing in their very midst.

Today’s gospel begins by telling us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” That’s a lot of people going into the wilderness to see and experience a man.

I wonder why they went.

Nearly every scholar that I read makes the claim that all those people were there with John the Baptist because he was preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and they recognized within themselves and within the Jewish community a need for that. And that makes sense—sort of. But here’s the thing. I’ve been hanging out in churches for just long enough to realize that not everyone is there for the reasons that we might think. So I suspect that some of the people who flocked to John the Baptist were there to repent and be forgiven of their sins. But not all.

What about the others?

This is just speculation, of course, but I suspect that some went to John the Baptist because they were discontent with the Judaism of Herod and Caiaphas, the Judaism of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, of the scribes and the high priests, and they went in hopes of finding something better.

I suspect that some went to John the Baptist because they heard that the prophet Elijah had returned, and who wouldn’t want to see and hear Elijah?

I suspect that some went because they had heard about this strange thing happening—a man clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey was ranting about sin in the middle of the wilderness. And they were curious. Or in need of entertainment. They went to see the show.

I suspect that some went because someone pressured them into going.

I know that some went so that they expose the charlatan, the fraud, that was drawing all these crowds.

And maybe, just maybe, some went because they were lonely. Outcast. Alone. And hanging out in the wilderness with the baptizer made them feel a little less lonely, like they were a part of something.

I suspect that not everyone who showed up in the wilderness went for the best of reasons.

But there they all were, whatever their reasons, and Jesus showed up. Emmanuel. God with us. But most of them didn’t know that. He was just another guy.

And when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended and a voice came from heaven.

This is mind-blowing stuff. It’s even more mind-blowing if we understand what Mark meant when he said that the heavens were torn apart, or opened. In Scripture, “heaven” often means God’s dimension behind ordinary reality. Somehow, we have gotten this picture of heaven being in the sky somewhere, but we know that can’t be true. “Heaven,” biblically understood, exists just beyond or behind earthly reality. So when the heavens were torn apart or opened, it’s as though an invisible curtain that we can’t see but is right in front of us was suddenly pulled back, and a different reality, a divine reality, a holy reality, was revealed. And in that moment, heaven and earth were joined. Just as God and humanity are one in Jesus.

Can you see it? Can you close your eyes and see the curtain that divides heaven and earth, God and humanity, pulled back? Can you sense the Spirit entering our realm? Can you hear God’s voice around you?

If you can, then you have more than any of those people at the Jordan that day, with the exception of Jesus.

‘Cause here’s the thing. Scripture is clear. Just as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart. Not they. Not them. He. The Gospel of Matthew uses the same pronouns. Luke is vague. The Gospel of John has John the Baptist testify that he saw the Spirit of God come down upon Jesus. It would seem that this was a sight, an experience, a revelation not meant for everyone. All those people, gathered at the Jordan, for all their various reasons, and they had no idea what God was doing in their midst. They had no idea what was really going on. They couldn’t see or feel or hear the extraordinary, wonderful, grace-filled, holy thing that God was doing.

My friends, I don’t know what brought you here today. I don’t know what brings you to church at all. It might be God. It might be a desire for the holy. Or it might be guilt. It might be pressure from someone else. It might be curiosity. It might be hope. It might be loneliness. It might be any number of things. And it might be different things on different days.

But here’s what I know.

I know that when I get done talking, and I stand at that altar and we pray together, the Spirit will descend and bread and wine will become Jesus, and in that moment the curtain that divides heaven and earth will be pulled back a little. When we sing, we will sing in the company of angels and archangels and the whole communion of saints. When we consume the Eucharist, the divide between human and divine will become a little thinner. Again. When we leave here, we will leave as the Body of Christ here on earth.

But much of the time, it doesn’t look like anything spectacular, does it? It looks like a kooky woman wearing funny clothes doing the same thing week after week, with a bunch of people watching and participating. Standing and kneeling and standing again, doing liturgical calisthenics. Saying the right words at the prescribed times. And when we leave, we leave to be ourselves, living our normal lives and doing normal things. Or so it seems.

That’s where faith comes in.

A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by and in this different reality—this reality in which the curtain is drawn back and heaven and earth are one—even when we can’t see it. It’s learning that God is with us, even when we cannot sense him. It’s learning that the Spirit has descended and God’s voice speaks within us and around us and through us—even when life feels very mundane. Yes, there are times when some of us see the curtain drawn back, and we can begin to sense what God is really doing, what is really going on. But most of the time, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Those people at the Jordan River had no idea what was going on in their midst—what God was up to.

The first time I walked into Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan, IL, I had no idea what God was doing, what God would do.

I suspect that most days, when I walk into this church, I do so with very little understanding of what God has in store for us, and how we fit into God’s plan, God’s narrative. And neither do you.

But the story of Jesus’ baptism assures us that God is at work, in extraordinary and miraculous and grace-filled ways that would take our breath away if we only knew.

And it invites us to actively look for it—to discover in our own lives the normally hidden heavenly dimension of God’s world. At work in us.

My friends, two weeks from now, we’re going to gather together for our Annual Meeting. And if we’re lucky, it will feel very mundane. We’ll talk about the roof and how to pay for it. We’ll talk about our upcoming anniversary celebration. We’ll vote for wardens and vestry members and convention delegates. We’ll hear reports—numbers and financials and such. And it may be difficult to see how God is at work in all of that business.

But God is. Whatever brings you to that Annual Meeting—and you ARE being called to Annual Meeting—whatever brings you to church, whatever you feel or don’t feel or sense or don’t sense or understand or don’t understand, God is at work. Doing marvelous things.

Won’t it be glorious when it’s all revealed?

Isn’t it glorious to be a part of it? Even if much of the time, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Amen.

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Sermon: The First Sunday After Christmas (December 31, 2017)

Sermon: Christmas 1B
John 1:1-18
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know that I worked at Notre Dame for 6 years, in a unit called the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, with some of those years overlapping my years here. I worked in a relatively small office; there were just 7 of us. I was my supervisor’s only direct report; my supervisor’s name was Anthony.

Anthony is an amazing man in many ways. With a doctorate in English, he has done a variety of odd things at various universities. At the Nanovic Institute, he was the Associate Director of Academics. As such, he had fashioned himself into a true Renaissance Man. He could discuss literature, sure. But he could also discuss, with the best of them, architecture, sociology, psychology, history, theology, wine making—the works. And as the Associate Director of Academics, Anthony functioned largely as a visionary. He spent much of his time dreaming dreams—spinning cobwebs in the air—and then trying to sell them to others. He functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), in a world of ideas and musings, of air castles and enterprises.

I hadn’t worked for him very long when I realized that he needed a foil. He needed me to be the person with her feet planted firmly on the ground, setting limits AND helping develop the structures that would make his visions reality.

And so I became the creator of humongous spreadsheets. I established and published and enforced rules and guidelines. I knew the budget. I concerned myself with precedent. My computer was full of templates that I had created. I understood university procedures. I was the keeper of the files.

And more than that, I was the one who often called my supervisor to the mat. “Anthony,” I would say, “I have a deadline at 5:00pm tomorrow. If you want me to make it, I need you to make decisions on that stack of yellow file folders that I gave you 2 weeks ago.” “Anthony, can you please explain to me why we bother to put together a faculty selection committee if we’re just going to do whatever you want to do anyway?” “Anthony, we’re already overbudget.” “Anthony, Notre Dame International is going to throw a fit.” “Anthony, I really think we need to pass this by legal.” “Anthony, there’s no way I can do this and remain part-time.” “Anthony, a deadline is a deadline. We cannot bend a deadline just because you want to.”

But more than that, Anthony and I both worked to serve the students, but because he usually functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), I was the one who knew and formed relationships with the students. I knew what they were working on, and how they were going about it. I knew some of the details of their lives. I reported those details to him when necessary, sometimes making pleas for one student or another.

We were the perfect team. And I’m not even kidding. Because what the Academics branch of the Nanovic Institute needed was both someone who functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) AND someone who kept her boots firmly on the ground. Without me, things wouldn’t have gotten done, or the things that got done would have been late, way overbudget, and made a thousand people mad. Without him, the Institute would have lacked vision and heart and soul.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I want to suggest (humbly) that Anthony and I can function as an imperfect analogy for God as revealed to us in the first chapter of John, and in all the gospels, really.

But to explain this, I need to review with you two words that both describe God.

The first word: transcendence. God is transcendent. That means that God exists beyond the normal or physical level. It means that God is not just a bigger, better, more powerful version of us; God is completely other. God is un-understandable. God is mystery. God exists outside of the created order, because God created the created order. God is up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) in some vague, unknowable, all-powerful, completely sovereign way.

Think, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and you get a pretty good idea of God’s transcendence.

The second word: immanence. God is immanent. To be immanent means to be within, or to be near something. So if God is immanent, that means that God is present within our universe, within our created order. God lives in relationship with us. God knows us. God fills the earth. God takes up residence in our hearts. God loves us. God came to earth, in a specific time and place, in the person of Jesus.

Think, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and you get a pretty good idea of God’s immanence.

Just as the Nanovic Institute would have been weakened if we hadn’t had both Anthony functioning up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) and me functioning firmly in the real world of policies and procedures and budgets and record-keeping and relationships—just so our conception of God is weakened without understanding or believing that God is both transcendent and immanent simultaneously.

How? How is our conception of God weakened without understanding both God’s transcendence and immanence?

If we only believe in or emphasize God’s transcendence, then we become deists. Desists are people who believe in a supreme being who created the universe and then stepped out of the picture. Like a divine watch-maker who made a watch and then just let it do its thing until it wound down or its battery ran out of power. A God who is transcendent but not immanent doesn’t save us, doesn’t call us to discipleship, doesn’t love us. If God is just transcendent, then there is no Jesus, no miracles, no healings, no feedings, no cross, no resurrection. If God is just transcendent, then our prayers are meaningless. If God is just transcendent, then we’re on our own.

On the other hand, if we only believe in or emphasize God’s immanence, then we become pantheists. Pantheists believe that God and the universe are identical, and God is the world and the world is God. There is no God outside of the world or the universe, because there is no difference between deity and creation. A God who is just immanent cannot perform miracles, because God exists within the created order and scientific laws. A God who is just immanent cannot save us, because we are God and God is us. Our goal, according to pantheists is to more fully realize the divine within us. Sure, Jesus was God, but so are we—he was just better at it than we are. There may have been a cross, but no healings, no resurrection. If God is just immanent, than we’re on our own. There are no surprising works of God; there is no grace.

This concept of John’s that the Word became flesh, is the light in the darkness, that he was in the world but the world did not know him, is pretty darn important. Without it God doesn’t work. Without it we don’t work. Without it the universe doesn’t work. Without it none of this works.

When my children were little, I took them quite a bit to St. Patrick County Park, which sits right on the Indiana-Michigan border. We used to hike to the sign that marked the state line, and my kids would stand with one foot in Indiana and one foot in Michigan, and laugh and say, “Look, Mom—which state are we in?” Later, I told them that that’s kind of like what God is like—that God has one foot in heaven and one on earth, and so exists in both places. God is both up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) and has boots on the ground. God is both transcendent and immanent.

Why have I just gone on about this? Why this crash course in Systematic Theology? Here’s why.

Episcopalians and Anglicans tend to be people of the incarnation. Just as Pentecostals resonate with the Holy Spirit, and Roman Catholics tend to resonate with the mystery and omniscience and power of God, we tend to resonate with the incarnation. In that respect, I’m a perfect Anglican. I love preaching about a God who is Emmanuel, God with us, who was laid in the straw and worked with wood and got calluses and the stomach flu and stubbed his toe and mourned his father Joseph’s death and wept when Lazarus died and got angry with the money changers in the temple and suffered and died as one of us. I love the Christmas story. I love the story of the man named Jesus. And I hope you do too.

But that’s meaningless—or at least next to meaningless—if we don’t balance it with a God who is transcendent.

I suspect—I don’t know, but I suspect—that this is why we need to hear the first chapter of John at Christmastime. (Because it IS still Christmastime, you know! It will be until Epiphany.) Because otherwise, we might focus so much on the King amidst the straw that we forget about the pre-existent Word.

And we cannot do that and call ourselves Christians.

Eventually, at the Nanovic Institute, Anthony and started to achieve some balance. He realized that I had visions and dreams too, and would come into my office and ask me about them. I talked to him about my biggest vision—that we would have a group of undergraduate fellows who we would nurture and support and challenge. We didn’t have the budget for it, or any sort of rules or guidelines or procedures. But when I left the Nanovic Institute, he was working with the Development Office to get the money, and with other campus units to see how they implemented programs like that. Imagine that—me presenting the stuff up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), and him working in the real world to try to make it happen. We did our best work when we truly worked together as a team, as a unified whole, both of us with visions and dreams and with boots on the ground.

Just as we work best when we embrace Scripture, the Gospel of John, and the historic creeds, and hold God’s transcendence and immanence in balance.

Yes, this Christmas we worship and celebrate a king amidst the straw. But let’s not forget that that king is the Word, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Without that, Christmas, Christianity, all of this, just doesn’t work.

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