Archive for the ‘Feast Days’ Category


May 24, 2015

In 1980 I stood by at an open-heart surgery.  That was new surgery then, and the hospital where I was interning as a chaplain — Presbyterian in San Francisco — led the field in open heart surgery.  One day I summoned my courage and asked the preeminent surgeon if I could observe an operation.  I anticipated standing in a gallery above the operating room, so you may imagine my shock on the day of the operation when I found myself in green scrubs, standing on the operating room floor, at the surgeon’s left elbow, breathing through a little paper pyramid, with the patient’s head right before me.

Imagine my further shock when the surgeon took what looked like an ordinary electric skill saw and with a long, firm stroke, opened up the man’s breast bone.  Soon the heart itself lay bare; I could have reached out and touched it.

Two hours later, when the patient’s heart was back to pumping blood and his breast bone stapled together and his skin sewn up, I left the operating room in a daze.  For two hours I had been standing precisely on the threshold between life and death — not the concepts, but the bright red, pulsing reality.  I took the rest of the day off and went straight home to be alone.

This is not really a story about the mechanics of open heart surgery; it is a story about transformation.  I made my way home with new eyes.  On the street, in the bus, on the train — I saw, not a bag lady, not a cable car repairman, not a professional woman in a business suit; but vulnerable, precious beating hearts — hearts held more intimately in God’s loving care than a new born baby.  I had just enough sense not to rush up to hug all those precious strangers, but that was my whole impulse.

Luke told a similar story in today’s reading.  His story wasn’t about a hospital, a surgery, or an open heart; rather, he wrote about a mighty wind, flames of fire, and a dozen different languages.  But his real story, like mine, was about the human soul being transformed.  In other words, it is about salvation.

Why did Luke choose those three events for his story?  First, why the mighty wind?  The wind symbolizes freedom.  Jesus said, “The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The wind signifies the unbounded nature of the spiritual life.

Let me give you an example.  Our religious beliefs are meant to open our eyes to what faith makes possible — vast new vistas of what life can be.  But if beliefs become set in stone they act as barriers, and limit where we can go in our quest for greater intimacy with God.  For those who are “saved,” in other words, life is open on all sides.  We are never finished with flourishing.

Second, why the tongues of fire?  Luke’s readers would have connected them with another life-changing fire, the burning bush.  Remember the story?  Moses was still just a scared man on the lam when he saw a mysterious thing: a bush that was blazing, and yet was not consumed.   When he started to go near for a closer look, God actually spoke to him.  That was the moment when Moses went from being a man on the lam to being a man with a mission — a transformation of his whole identity, from being a leader of sheep to being a leader of a nation.

The burning bush held another message as well, one too deep for words; and perhaps Moses only came to understand it gradually over the years.  Through the symbol of a burning bush, God was, if you will, holding out a mirror to Moses.  “Look, Moses, a mystery, a sign of eternity, a life that does not depend on fuel.  See the true nature of your own life.”  ….That is also the true nature of our life.

Third, why the different languages?  Again, Luke’s people would have gone back to the only Bible they knew, what we call the Old Testament, and recalled the story of Babel — a story of division.  At that time the people all spoke one language and they mis-used it to worship their own technology.  God foresaw suffering if they continued, and gave them different languages to bring their project to a stop.  Pentecost reversed that.  The different languages remained, but understanding took place at a level beyond words.  Pentecost tells a story of divisions healed, a story of the underlying oneness of all creation — of unity in God beneath all the beautiful diversity.  This is a third aspect of salvation.

Friends, let’s step back for a moment.  Luke faced a dilemma.  He was writing to people, none of whom had known Jesus personally.  Luke needed them to know, not just about Jesus, but to know Jesus personally —  to experience what it was like to be in his presence.  Luke himself had never met Jesus, and yet he had come to know Jesus personally.  He doesn’t tell us how that came about, because it would not help us.  It could even mislead us into thinking that we could follow in his footprints.  Salvation is a journey we make on our own into the unknown.

So Luke could not tell his people directly, but he could do two things.  First, he can let us know it is possible; and second, he can tell a pointing story; and that is the story of Pentecost.  This story is not the experience in itself, but it points to the experience.

As we have seen, Luke used the wind to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally would have certain effects.  Freedom, for instance.  A relationship with Jesus would bring us freedom from constricting fears — such as fear of death, fear of failure or error, fear of loss, shame, even fear of false beliefs, which religion is prone to.  And freedom from always leads to freedom to.  It’s as if, like Moses, we’ve been in hiding for fear of Pharaoh, and now we are free to come out, stand our ground, and speak our truth, humbly but clearly.

Another effect.  Luke used fire to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally turns us inside out; that is, it transforms my sense of who I am.  Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself” put it this way, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Not only do we sense how at-one we are with all creation, but at a deeper level, I sense how my life does not depend on this body and its fuel.  My life will go on eternally in the fiercely tender fire of God’s love.

Another effect.  Luke used different languages to tell his people that the experience of knowing Jesus personally means that you don’t need words to tell others about it.  I may not speak your language, I can still let you know by my love how I experience salvation, and that you can too.

We might call Pentecost the greatest of the Christian feasts.  We are celebrating how the experience of knowing Jesus personally did not end with his contemporaries.  That same transformation is ours to claim as well, but claim it we must.  Claim, not seek.

I was not seeking inner transformation when I asked to observe open heart surgery.  Afterwards, when it turned into a Pentecost experience, it wasn’t that something new had been added; but something dormant had been watered.  I claimed that experience as genuine and given by God — the experience of salvation.

But if salvation means going on in that blissful state of new freedom, new life and love, then salvation is a passing thing.  I didn’t stay on that mountain top.  But salvation is not like a merit badge, either you have it or you don’t.  Salvation is a process, the way an acorn is an oak tree.  But it helps to water it.

Forgive me if I’m being too fanciful, but picture God standing by with a watering can, longing to pour it out, freely and fully over each one of us.  We need only to open our hearts.  I have my own unique way of doing this, as do you, but let me offer a suggestion.  The thirteenth century theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, said “Nothing in the world resembles God so much as silence does.”

The suggestion is this.  Make room in your day for silence.  Go into it and let your heart be opened.  Not with a skill saw, but tenderly, from the inside, the way a leaf opens and unfurls into its full beauty through the action of the Holy Spirit.



Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-11

May 23, 2013

The lectionary offered us two readings today, both dealing with language and communication. I was mulling them over a few weeks ago when I came across an op-ed by Thomas Friedman, and that was when the penny dropped.

John 18:33-37

November 26, 2012

As far as the church calendar goes, we could call this New Year’s Eve, because next Sunday will be the first Sunday of the new year.  Since 1925 today has been designated “Christ the King” Sunday.  It marks the culmination of Jesus’ life journey, a kind of summing up: what did his life finally amount to?  On this day our faith replies: Jesus became the king of kings. (more…)

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

January 10, 2010

First Sunday after Epiphany, 10 January 2010   The Baptism of Our Lord

Which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead pellets? Today’s Gospel reading can fool us by looking brief, until we discover how dense it is with points to ponder. For instance, it raises the question of two baptisms. Why two? What is the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism? Why did Jesus go to John for baptism if he had his own? For another thing, it raises the question of John’s depiction of Jesus. John had not met Jesus, yet he casts Jesus as a harsh, judgmental figure – a portrayal that the Gospel, itself, does not bear out. What accounts for that contradiction? For a third thing, this passage dangles a demeaning temptation in front of us when it comes to interpreting these issues. I’ll say more about this temptation in a moment. (more…)

Trinity Sunday

June 7, 2009

Today we celebrate the Trinity.  Right off the bat you might not see a connection between Pygmy people and the Trinity.   Nevertheless, I want to tell you a vignette about a group of Pygmies.  It is meant to serve as a kind of angelus bell for the Trinity.  About forty years ago Jean-Pierre Hallet, a Belgian anthropologist, gave a lecture on the Pygmies, which I attended.  From that lecture I now remember only one curious fact.  When Hallet took a group of Pigmies out of the rain forest one day, and pointed to a human figure in the distance, they hooted with delight.  Tom Thumb!  No, no, Hallet assured them; this was a full size person, but distance made him seem small.  The Pygmies would not be convinced.  He proved his point, of course, by walking toward the person; but he in turn realized that for those who have never been able to see further than a few feet, reality appears warped.  We’ll come back to this in a few moments. (more…)

Pentecost 2009 Acts 2:1-11

May 31, 2009

Acts 2:1-11

If you have been looking for a good Pentecost movie lately, you might consider “The Soloist.”  Both stories – “The Soloist” and Pentecost –  speak to desperate times and point to a way through.  This Way does call for courage; yet those who step out on it will find a surprising spring in their steps, as if they already touched the goal. (more…)

Mother’s Day John 15:1-8

May 10, 2009

Orthodox churches value icons to an extent that may be hard for us to understand.  Icons take dull theology and convert it to living color.  By means of icons, Orthodox churches turn stories from the Bible into symbols of shimmering beauty.  Icons bring to the surface in us emotions we may not be able to touch otherwise, emotions that might transform our faith.  For example, most of us can call to mind an icon of the Madonna and child.  Typically, the Madonna’s head appears in the shape of a dome, often nearly filling the whole space.  In her arms she holds the tiny infant.  Some icons show the infant the size of her heart.  What do we make of such art?

Let’s turn to John’s Gospel.  John’s Gospel pays homage to Jesus’ mother in a way that none of the other Gospels do.  You remember the scene on Calvary.  John describes it this way, “…  standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’  Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”  Then Jesus said, “It is finished.”  In other words, the last loose end has now been woven in.

Many scholars of the Bible read this symbolically.  Jesus, according to this reading, finishes his earthly ministry by making provision for the future, for continuity.  The mother symbolizes the church.  The beloved disciple symbolizes all of us down through the ages who have elected to follow Jesus.  The church will be to each of us as Mary was to Jesus – nurturing, protecting, training, loving, forgiving, sustaining….  The Orthodox iconographers capture this truth by making the shape of the Madonna’s head resemble the dome of a church.  At the same time they shrank the size of the infant to represent our dependence and vulnerability.

If we gaze at these icons as the Orthodox traditions intend us to do, we gaze, not at them as objects, but through them, as if they were windows into heaven, into spiritual truth.  Their beauty, simply in itself, gives rise to a power that draws us in and holds us.  Then, too, the figures in the composition arouse our feelings.  For instance, the sheltering Madonna quickens a sense of infinite tenderness; so that gazing through it, so to speak, we actually feel that quality of tenderness in God’s love, as mediated through the church.  Her knowing eyes nearly always open into depths of sorrow and love, as if to say, “I know you suffer and have caused great suffering; I suffer with you, for my love is with you always.”

Whether Jesus actually intended to speak in this symbolic way or not, it does carry truth.  The church, like an actual building, carries on generation after generation.  Through liturgy, prayers, fellowship, sacraments, hymns, art and architecture, healing, preaching, doctrines and disciplines, the communion of saints – in countless ways the church, like a mother, guides and strengthens, protects and challenges our faith.  Literally, our faith could not live without her.  So this picture of mother church comforts us, as it should; yet motherhood can have another side.

Mothers can also smother.  They can keep their children dependent by holding back their natural growth to independence.  Through fear, threats, or other strategies of control, mothers may prevent a child from striking out on its own.  Mothers, who can be so averse to risk, may resist when a child is ready to begin her or his life journey.  We have seen this in the church, too.  Rather than aiding us in opening up to life, some churches would keep us forever in the bud stage, ever obedient, ever rule bound – little clones, ever in dread of erring.  What is to prevent this?

We need to remember that little-noted ending to the scene on Calvary.  The Gospel adds: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”  So the Madonna would be caring for the disciple as Mary had cared for Jesus; and the disciple would be caring for Mary as Jesus had cared for his mother… but note this: under the disciple’s roof ! The disciple is not to be dependent, not to be infantilized.  There is to be a relationship of mutual caring, yes; but on the disciple’s terms.  This is meant to prevent mother church from forsaking her true self.

Most of us can call to mind instances of abuse, where mother church ceases to be authoritative and instead becomes authoritarian.  It can happen in any generation.  She all but looses sight of our needful claims on her; but presses her claims on us to the full – financial demands, for instance, or political ones.  It’s as if the Gospel foresaw this possibility and cautioned us against becoming the victim of our own mother church.  And so it added these all-important and empowering words, “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”

On what basis would the Gospel do this – put the trump card, so to speak, in the disciple’s hands – in our hands?  Where is the wisdom in that?  Think of today’s image of the vine and the branches.  Jesus speaks of us as branches, that is, as individuals, not as a collective.  We do unite with one another, but not like a gelatinous mass of frogs’ eggs, but through a stem, distinctive to each of us, that links us to the flow of Christ’s life.  Call it the flow of the Holy Spirit.  This is not all, though; this is only passive.  Then comes the active process, the pruning.  It’s as if God’s hands run over the vine, day in day out, shaping it for health and vitality.  The whole vine becomes healthy and vital, but only through the shaping of the individual branches.

In actual practice this means that collectives, including mother church, depend on their members in order to learn, to develop a conscience, to evolve a mission.  Mother church will thrive and create new growth only to the extent that we do; and we can only thrive and create new growth to the extent that we stay connected to the Spirit of Christ.  That is why it was so important for the Gospel to specify that the disciple took the mother to his house, and not the reverse.  You can feel the mutual dependence here: the disciple caring for the mother and the mother caring for the disciple.  Only one thing keeps the system from becoming static or stagnant.  The Holy Spirit.  New energy enters the system through the disciples, creative energy seeking ever new forms of life.

To bring all this down to earth, let us ask a practical question.  How are God’s hands running over me this morning?  What shaping is taking place in me?  What pruning?  How are God’s hands running over you?  What pruning, what shaping are you experiencing?  We are connected to the same vine, yet each of us shapes up differently, uniquely.  Ultimately, taken all together, our forms will add to the form and character of mother church.

Specifically, today, the Holy Spirit asks us to make a decision about the Carpenter’s Kids – children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika.  Each of us, as today’s Gospel puts it, is connected to the vine.  As individuals, how shall we respond?  Renew our commitments?  Add a bit for socks and soap?  Adopt an orphan if we have not done so before?  Add one more child?  Those decisions, made one by one, in the aggregate will add to the form and character of mother church here at St. Gregory’s.

In my experience we enjoy a healthy, happy mother church we can look to with pride, and trust with our confidence.  She stands here in Woodstock, not only outwardly beautiful, but possessed of even greater inward beauty.  She cares for us in those many ways that Jesus intended, and why?  Because we care for her.  And by caring for her we enable her to be gracious and compassionate, even to children she has never seen.  If icons were a part of our spirituality, serving as windows into heaven, a picture of St. Gregory’s would make a beautiful alternative to the traditional Madonna.

Easter John 20:1-18

April 13, 2009

Nature has her secrets, but we  humans have prying minds.  Last spring I visited friends who live on the mountain above the village.  Standing on their deck, I looked up to where the wall of the house met the eve, about ten feet above our heads.  Eastern Phoebes had built a nest right in that angle.  In fact, the lip of the nest so nearly touched the eve that I wondered how those wind-borne architects squeezed into their nest.  What goes on inside?  Those used to be nature’s secrets, but no more.  Our friend had installed a pea-sized surveillance camera in the nest.  From the vantage point of their kitchen, we watched life in the nest unfold on the screen of their laptop: gaping baby beaks, quivering quills, and a beady-eyed parent, offering a fly. (more…)

Genesis 22:1-18 Good Friday

April 13, 2009

For today’s reading go to http://Bible.

What shall we make of the story of the command to sacrifice Isaac?  Perhaps no other story in the Bible arouses such horror in us, or such pathos.  We try not to ask what kind of God would set up such a test, because we do not want to hear the answer.  We try not to put ourselves in Isaac’s place, because we so need to trust our father, and yet, seen through Isaac’s eyes, doesn’t he turn out to lie to us and to betray us monstrously?  We try not to put ourselves in Abraham’s place, because he is setting out to put an end to everything in life that he holds dear – his son and his progeny.  What is this story of horrors doing in the Bible? (more…)

Luke 2:8-20 Christmas 2008

December 27, 2008

For Today’s reading go to

Tonight I simply want to tell you three stories.  The first is a well-known story about a baby born about 2,000 years ago.  No doubt God chooses carefully where every baby will be born, so this baby’s birth puzzles us.  This baby was destined to bring God’s love into the world in a marvelous new way.  In fact, this baby was so close to God’s heart, that people later said of him: to see him is to see the human face of God.  So why would God arrange for this special baby to be born in a cattle shed?  Let’s try to get behind the image of our little creche scenes – so clean, so sweet-smelling and sanitary – and face the truth.  Jesus was born to humble parents in a squalid setting.  The sudden bellowing of a cow could well have blasted Jesus’ little new-born ears.  Whisps of straw surely poked his tender skin.  And his very first breath would have filled his tiny nose with the pungent smell of fresh manure.  Some start for the one who would be called the Son of God! (more…)