“Spirituality” A sermon for Pentecost

Pentecost, today, we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, the coming of the tongues of flame, what we used to talk about as the “Holy Ghost.” This day begs a series of questions: “what do we mean, as Christians when we talk about “Spirituality?” What (or who) is this “Holy Spirit?” and finally, “Why bother with Christian Spirituality? What is at stake?”

I confess, I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the popular phrase: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” I understand why people want a distinction. Religion in the eyes of the twenty-first century can seem old-fashioned at best, and often religion can be downright regressive.

While I sympathize with the sentiment, for me, the jig is up. (If you can’t tell by my outfit, I’m pretty pro-religion). But here is my caveat: while I can understand WHY people use the label “spiritual but not religious,” I can’t really tell you what they mean.

It seems to me that “spirituality” is something you might be able to buy at a specialty bookstore, you know the kind that smell like patchouli and feature a number of wind chimes? There you can pick up your copy of the Zohar, along with some prayer beads, a locally made beeswax candle, and then you can go home, light incense, and chant “OM” to your hearts content. Is that what we mean by “spirituality?”

The confusion for me comes because to call all of this “spirituality” is to divorce the practices from their originating traditions. You can say holy words. You can sit in the lotus position. You can click beads through your fingers. But by doing so, I don’t think you’re getting “less religious,” if anything you’re piling the religion on thick. And as I said, I think religion is a good thing. Go ahead. Any practice that helps you slow down, hold silence, anything that helps you get to a contemplative space is good in our busy world.

For Christians, spirituality can involve chanting, prayer beads, silence, meditation, even prayer postures. Spirituality can involve a rule of life, a simple set of practices that give shape to your faith. Such a rule can be simple: pray daily; worship weekly; give generously; serve joyfully; learn constantly; make pilgrimage yearly. Such a rule can be as complex as the book handed down by St. Benedict to his followers. No matter how structured your spirituality, a word of caution to spirituality enthusiasts: these practices can take lifetime to develop.

There is an old Zen story about a young convert who comes up to his master after experiencing what he believes is enlightenment. The old teacher listens patiently and then says: “If you meet Buddha on the Road, kill him.”

Like most Zen stories (and like many of Jesus’ parables) this tale is meant to trip up the hearers. Think about what the master says. “Kill the Buddha.” Any Buddha you meet on the road is not the fullness of the Buddha. Any supposed enlightenment you experience so quickly is not the fullness of enlightenment. Beware the early epiphanies. If you experience them, keep going. Don’t get stuck.

There is another deep truth in this Zen story: it is good to have friends and guides. Spiritual directors are not just for clergy people. Gatherings in homes to read the Bible and to pray make good groundwork for the journey. The journey of faith is long, and like any long journey, the walk is easier with companions.

We’ve talked a bit about what practiced Spirituality can look like. But for Christians “Spirituality” isn’t a nebulous concept. Spirituality is specific. It refers to a person of the Trinity, of the Godhead, God’s Spirit, living with us. That very wind which blew over the waters of creation, the wisdom which brings depth to God’s followers, the Spirit of truth and justice which was upon Jesus as he proclaimed good news to the poor. Spirituality is specific, it’s about God’s spirit.

Let’s turn to this morning’s scripture for a moment. In the Gospel Jesus speaks to his disciple’s at the last supper. Philip’s anxiety is echoed around the table. The disciples are nervous about Jesus telling them he’s leaving. So he promises them “an Advocate.” God will send the Spirit. The Spirit abides within you.

Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but God has not left us. God’s Spirit dwells with us, here, now. You know this Spirit, Jesus tells his followers. Christian Spirituality is about access. Through practicing our faith, we access God’s Spirit, always present to us. Across the spectrum of Christianity those practices may look very different. Holy Rollers may find themselves on the floor. Catholics might sit in silence with rosary beads. Protestants might find inspiration in Scripture. Here at Holy Communion, we gather round a table week by week. All these practices help us to become available to the Spirit which dwells with us, remains with us, abides with us.

So, what’s at stake? Why bother with all of this Spirituality mumbo jumbo? Let me venture an answer to this question based on recent experience. A group of 13 of us returned Thursday from a trip to El Salvador.

There is a story about El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero that I believe gets at the stakes of spirituality. Romero was famed for his faithful practice. When you visit his little house, you can see the rosary beads that he wore out by praying so often. It was rumored that the Archbishop spent an hour in prayer each day. The story goes that someone asked Romero: “with all that is going on, with the death threats, and the political organizing, and the preaching, with all that busyness bishop, how do you find time to pray for an hour a day?” Unblinking Romero answered him: “on the busy days, on the anxious days, I need two hours.”

The story from Acts reminds us of the prophet Joel’s words about God’s Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The day of Pentecost, for us, is a day of celebration. Holy Communion set a series of goals last year, and we’ve met or exceeded all of our goals. We are learning to dream dreams. We are learning to make a prophetic witness in the world.

In Joel’s eyes Spirituality is not a navel-gazing activity. Spirituality is prophetic. When practice our faith, we are sent out, out into the world with a vision for justice, with prophecy. Spirituality is about accessing God’s vision, that another world is possible. The stakes are high. Too many in our world go hungry. Too many live in fear of gun violence. Too many in our world lack access to basic human rights because of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or other status. We are too divided.

On this day of Pentecost we celebrate that God poured out the Spirit on every race and language and people and nation. We celebrate the indiscriminate love of God, the wide dreams of God, the sweet Spirit in this place. We pray that we might listen to the Spirit still guiding us today so that we might leave this world a little more welcoming, a little more open to diversity, that we might leave this world a more loving community.

Happy Pentecost. May the Spirit of God, who abides with you, lead you to deeper faith and prophetic work for justice.

Amen

The Way of Jesus

Some of you saw an invitation I made this week. I invited a certain Missouri State Representative out for coffee, and to talk about Scripture. Representative Rick Brattin, from Cass County near Kansas City, stood in the Missouri House Chamber this week and said that religion makes

“a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”

That’s a quote, from a Missouri legislator, on the floor of the Missouri House, and He’s making a distinction between homosexual people and human beings. I want to take this man out to coffee. I would even offer to buy. I’m fairly sure coffee wouldn’t violate any ethics rules.

I’d like to talk with him about Scripture. As a Christian, as a preacher, I’d like to ask him not to propose to speak for me. As a gay man, I’d like to ask him to stand up for my rights, and the rights of others who stand on shakier ground if Governor Greitens does not veto this bill, SB 43 which was passed by the house, the bill Mr. Brattin was “debating.” (Click hear to contact Governor Greitens to ask him to veto).

This Bill would make it harder for an employee to take an employer (or a renter to take a landlord) to court for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability, age, you name it, the bill makes it harder to legally prove discrimination. The media has called this bill a “license to discriminate.” Representative Brattin’s remarks were in support of the bill and against and amendment.

So far my invitation has gone unanswered. After news of his words spread across the internet, Brattin’s public Facebook page came down. I’ve sent him an old fashioned letter as well. If any of you in the congregation have occasion to speak with the Representative, feel free to pass along my business card. I’m not exactly optimistic that he’ll take me up on my invitation, but I hope I’m wrong. We’re fellow Christians. Representative Brattin and I have different takes on Christianity. But we are fellow Christians. We understand the faith we have received differently. Since we haven’t yet met to talk about Scripture, I’m not sure about this, but I would venture to guess that we read today’s Gospel especially differently.

Jesus words today are famous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Some Christians read those words to mean, there is no truth, there is no life, there is no way to heaven outside of Jesus. Jesus is THE way. The definite article holds sway in this form of Christianity. This Christianity intentionally involves a level of anxiety. Outside the church, there is no salvation. I know that several of you, in our pews, are recovering from this kind of Christianity. For some of you, even hearing this passage of Scripture read aloud makes you a bit nervous: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” You’d like to get up right now, see if there’s coffee out there. You’d like to disengage.

I’m going to ask you to stay put. If we avoid scriptures like today’s Gospel. If we actively skip those pages in the Bible. If we turn away when we hear Christianity used to justify discrimination, we cede our faith to the forces of misogyny, bigotry, and homophobia. We need to reclaim our faith. We need to stand up for a more inclusive vision of Christianity.

When I read stories about Jesus, I read about the Son of God who turned over tables in the temple, furious about what God’s people had allowed their religion to become. I read about a man who constantly debated the meaning of Scripture with religious teachers. I read about a young preacher who spoke with authority when he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me BECAUSE he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today this scripture has been fulfilled your hearing.”

I am not going to let fundamentalist Christianity have the last word on Jesus, because  our world needs the Good News, not the Fake news. We need the truth. We need the life. We need Jesus.

The early followers of Jesus weren’t called “Christians” they were called, “the way.” It has a sense of movement: “the way.” Our presiding Bishop is fond of calling us “The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

I find that language compelling. I hear Jesus’ words today as words of comfort. The Gospel today comes from John’s long account of the conversation at the last supper. Thomas has just asked Jesus, “How will we know the way?” in response to Jesus telling the disciples he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas is filled with anxiety. Even though Jesus has said, “do not let your hearts be troubled,” the disciple can feel the tension of this night. Where are you going Jesus? How will we find you? Jesus says, “I am the way.”

In our church mission statement we say that Holy Communion: “is a welcoming and diverse community seeking to walk in the way of Jesus…” We chose that language specifically. Faith isn’t about a single choice. You don’t choose once to follow Christ and “poof,” your life is complete. Faith is a journey. We walk that journey step by step, day by day. There are constants: we gather week by week around the Eucharistic table. We say our prayers. We rely on the kindness of friends and strangers. But as much as there are constants, the journey is also constantly changing. The terrain shifts. Some dreams fade. Some companions leave us. What once seemed permanent and definitive turns out to be transitory. Yet we journey on.

Some of you know my friend James Croft, James the atheist. We’ve spoken together at Theology on Tap, debated the existence of God. James likes to tell me, regularly, that my version, our version, of Christianity is not the version in power. The Christianity James preaches against has long oppressed people, he tells me. I should just give up on Christianity. I once asked James if he was an evangelist for atheism. He claimed the title proudly. Yet as often as we talk, I am more and more firm in my convictions.

I won’t give up on the Christian journey, on the way of Jesus, because I believe this way has something powerful to say in our world today. We live in a world where the old certainties are wearing thin. In the twenty-first century we encounter more of the world’s diversity in a day than our grandparents may have encountered across their whole lives. We hear up to the minute news from around the world. We live next door to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, and Presbyterians. We are working to make our public spaces, including our churches, more accessible to people with disabilities.

confirmation.jpg

Yesterday, at Christ Church Cathedral, as three members of Holy Communion were confirmed or received and became “official Episcopalians,” for the first time in my ministry I heard the Bishop forego the use of gendered pronouns as someone was confirmed. We are learning to welcome the transgender community. I believe that Jesus is standing in the midst of all of this growing awareness of diversity and smiling.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares to the wide and diverse city of Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Hold on that unlikely image a moment. Jesus casts himself as a mother bird. He longs to draw all the people to himself, but not as a scolding Father, not to stand over them and tell them how they were wrong. Jesus longs to protect, to nurture, to lead.

Today is Mother’s day, after all, and I find it compelling that Jesus chose such a feminine image for his own ministry. Jesus often defies stereotypes. Following that lead, at the end of the prayers of the people today I’ll pray a collect, a prayer for Mother’s day. This prayer pushes back against the “Halmark-ification” of Mothers’ Day, this singular image of what we hold up as “motherhood.” We’ll give thanks for all the women and men who have mothered others. We’ll pray for all of those who exhibit mothering virtues.

The prayer tries to capture the diverse experience of motherhood. Some of us delight in our relationships with our mothers. For others, the relationship is strained. Mothers day can be painful, for those whose mothers have died. Mothers day can be dreadful for women and men who have lost children, or who have lost pregnancies, or who have been frustrated in their hopes to have a baby. We’ll pray for them as well.

Happy #mothersday to all who express motherly virtues! #prayer #episcopal

A post shared by Holy Communion on Delmar (@holycommucity) on May 14, 2017 at 11:02am PDT

 

A word of advice if you know someone who is grieving on Mother’s Day, or really anytime someone is grieving. One of the worst things you can say to someone is: “God has a plan.” I know many folks who left church when someone from the leadership told them: “God has a plan.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say anything about a “plan” to his friends who are anticipating his death. There’s a subtle but important distinction. Saying to someone “God has a plan” makes it sound like God has some secret, unrevealed to the suffering. Saying, “there is a way, a way forward” that is a statement of faith, of trust. “There is a way,” invites forward movement. Jesus says “I am the way”  I am with you in the pain. I will be with you in the end. When you are ready, I will take the next steps with you.

That Jesus still has something to say in our world. Jesus stands with us in our pain, and offers us a way forward. Jesus stands in the midst of our growing diversity and longs to gather us together. Jesus stands before God’s people and declares that the oppressed should go free, the poor should be lifted up. That Jesus still speaks to me, still speaks to our world. That is a way that we can choose to follow.

As I imagine my meeting with Representative Brattin, I imagine that we would pick up coffee in a shop in Jefferson City and go for a walk. As we wander the streets of the Missouri Capitol, I’d like to talk with him about Jesus. I’d like to hear how following Jesus has helped him to become a better person, a better father, and I’d like to share my perspective as well. I’d like to tell him about all the diverse people I know, the mothers I know, the fathers, and the LGBT people who follow Jesus and find liberation in that following. I’d like to tell him about how for us, Jesus is also the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t know if he’ll accept my invitation, but if he does, I look forward to that conversation.

What will become of his dream?

The theologian Karl Barth once said that the task of a Christian is to hold the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. You interpret the newspaper with the Bible, not the other way ‘round.

This weekend the newspaper is thick. We have a president-elect making a great deal of news. The first African American president gave his last speech this week. And tomorrow we honor what would have been the 88th birthday of Dr. King.

Because I’m a preacher, I have to read ahead in the Bible. I knew we’d have these readings coming to us this Sunday as I watched the President’s speech, and the president-elect’s press conference. I had in mind that we would be celebrating Dr. King today, and I was thinking about Joseph’s brothers’ sneering words in the book of Genesis: “We will see what will become of his dreams.”

Joseph’s brothers are jealous. The young man has his father’s favor. He’s been given a beautiful technicolor dream coat. He has this gift of dreaming. He has not, however, at the age of 17 been given a gift for tact. (Few teenagers have the gift of tact, but Joseph’s lack is strong). He tells his brothers that he has dreamed that they will bow down before him. The brothers, shall we say, are not impressed. They plot to thwart the dreamer.

You know the story. Joseph isn’t killed, but sold into Egypt. Through his gift of dreams and interpretation, his station eventually improves. Joseph finds himself sitting at the right hand of the King, entrusted with Pharoah’s household. Meanwhile, back in the Israel’s land, a famine strikes. Joseph’s brothers come begging. They bow down before Joseph.

Dreams can be persistent.

You all know why this lesson was chosen. These readings are assigned for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, because brother Martin was famous for his dream. He had the audacity to dream, to invite a country to dream, for equality, for justice, for brotherhood. (Today we’d add sisterhood as well). Martin’s dream is taught to schoolchildren of every race today.

What will become of Dr. King’s dream?

This week’s newspaper witnessed a wide swing. President Obama and President-elect Trump are very different characters. You got a sense of the difference as Tuesday night’s speech turned to Wednesday’s press conference. These leaders campaigned from very different stances. “Yes we can” and “Make America great again” are vastly different ways of looking at our nation.

I can understand why so many people are uneasy. As I said to you the Sunday after the election:

I am nervous about the legislative and executive agenda about to be ushered into the halls of power. I am scared for some of my former immigrant parishioners who are permitted to work through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. I am concerned for members of this congregation who are insured through the Affordable Care Act.

In his “I have a dream speech,” Dr. King spoke of the sweltering summer heat. The march took place in late August, but Dr. King wasn’t just speaking about the sweaty swamp of Washington DC. King spoke of summer metaphorically. That summer protests raged across the South. As he shared his dream, he told the nation:

“This sweltering summer of…legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality…those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual…as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.”

As we embark on the adventure of “making America great again,” we cannot turn back. People marched, people bled, people died to guarantee freedoms. We cannot turn back. We will not turn back.

Dreams can be persistent.

Our country is great precisely because of the change that is possible in America. Just yesterday, Ellis and I went to watch “Hidden Figures.” The movie features the story of “colored computers,” black women who did the math that allowed our country to win the Space Race, to put a man into orbit. I encourage you to go see the film. It was remarkable. The crowd that gathered was also remarkable. The theater was full. For a movie about black women scientists, the theater was full. And it was full of white people.

America has changed. America is changing. We cannot turn back.

We have to keep dreaming brother Martin’s dream.

And we need to pray.

Some of you may have read that there’s a controversy brewing in our Episcopal Church about prayer and the incoming president. As is tradition, two prayer services will be held this week in Episcopal Churches.

On Friday, the President-elect, his family, and his invited guests will gather at my former church, St. John’s Lafayette Square, just across the park from the White House for a private prayer service. Almost every president since James Madison has had a service there the morning of their inauguration. (Kennedy went to the Catholic Cathedral.) Thankfully, St. John’s has not been a focus for controversy. The tradition is too old.

But the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral will also host a public service of prayer with the new president, to be broadcast on television, on Saturday. The National Cathedral Choir has also accepted an invitation to sing at the inauguration on Friday.

Some in our denomination would have us close the doors of our churches to these festivities. I can understand this point of view. The president elect’s campaign brought out some really negative elements of our society. Racism and hatred were emboldened following his election. Several mosques, synagogues, and even Episcopal churches were vandalized with words like “Trump’s America.” I can understand why some wish The Episcopal Church would boycott the inauguration.

I’m pretty close to many of the leaders in The Episcopal Church in Washington. I know the bishop, the priests, and the choir directors. I know that many of them swallowed hard as they took meetings with the inaugural committee. Big public decisions are never easy to make. I am glad I’m not in their shoes, and I won’t second guess their decision to participate. I was honored to be at St. John’s for the second inaugural service for President Obama. I will remember that day for the rest of my life. And I am glad that this week, I get to be in St. Louis, in “real America.” I am glad that on Saturday, I’ll be out in the streets with many of you in our Women’s March, in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.

I am glad not to be in Washington, but we all have to consider how we will pray these days.

As I said to you the Sunday after the election, we will pray for Donald, our president elect at Holy Communion. We pray for the president, by name. He needs our prayers. But, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church reminded us this week: prayer is not the same thing as cheering or declaring our support. Our Presiding Bishop went on:

“I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”

And Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

We will pray for Donald, but that’s not all we’re going to do. This coming Saturday, a group of us are going to meet up downtown for the Women’s March. If you want more information, get in touch with Kara Cummins, so that we can coordinate a meeting point and walk together. We will pray for the president, and we’ll march. In St. Louis, in Washington, along the US/Mexico border, wherever America needs dreamers, we’ll march.

What will become of his dreams? Dr. King’s dreams are still there to be dreamed. We’ve come close at times. Eight years ago I stood with 1.8 million people on the National Mall as the first black president was inaugurated. You could almost feel the earth shake. The world was changing. Still Dr. King’s dream was bigger than the first black president. The dream goes on.

What will become of his dreams? Dreams can persistent. Even when the newspaper looks bleak. Turn to the Bible. We learn that dreams are persistent when God’s people are persistent. God was there for Joseph. God was there for Moses, and Deborah, and Ruth. God was there for David. God was there for Peter and John and Mary Magdalen. God will be there with us, dreaming with us.

“This Little Light of Mine” we sing. “I’m going to let it shine.” How will you help keep the dream alive? How will you help the dream persist? Will you open your Bible and your newspaper? Will you allow yourself to be shaped, to be formed, and then to go make some news?

In the days, months, and years to come, a dream is at stake. The dream wasn’t just the dream of a single presidency. It wasn’t just the dream of a single preacher or a single movement. The dream is bigger. The dream belongs to God. God dreams of a world where justice rolls down like water. God dreams of a world where all God’s people are free from persecution, from violence, where all God’s people are free to love. God has big dreams.

Keep dreaming. Keep praying. Keep moving forward. Keep dreaming. Let your light shine.