“Sustain me, 0 Lord, as you have promised.”

“Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised.”

A Sermon for the
Weekday Eucharist at 11:30 a.m.
July 10, 2019

The Feast of Saint Benedict,
Patron of Western Monaticism
480-547

Trinity Episcopal Church
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

HPSB 07-10-19

On the eleventh day of July at the Eucharist to commemorate the Solemnity of Holy Father, Saint Benedict of Nursia, the Patron of Western Monasticism, the monk who is to make his Solemn Profession of Vows kneels before the Archabbot of Saint Vincent in front of the altar in the Archabbey Basilica. He places his hands in those of the Archabbot and “in the presence of his Father in Christ and the monks of that community,” he professes to God the Solemn Monastic Vows—binding for life—of stability, of obedience (according the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict and the laws proper to the American Cassinese Congregation) and of conversion of life.

He then goes to the altar with the Archabbot and, after both sign the vows formulary, it is laid on the altar to symbolize the offering of the Vows to God.

Afterwards the now Solemnly Professed Choir Monk returns to stand in front of the altar. With the Community standing in unity with him, he holds up both hands to God and sings the Suscipe: “Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised that I may live. And disappoint me not in my hope.” This song of offering and commitment is sung three times, each time on a slightly higher note.

The notion that God is the one who sustains the “one who is truly seeking God,” is at the very heart of the understanding of the monastic vocation. It is derived from the personal experience of Benedict who dwelt in solitude in the cave until he was called forth to serve others as a guide and to lead them on the path that leads to God.

This is the foundation on which Benedict founded the “School of the Lord’s Service,” as he described the monasteries which he founded. But above all, it is in the actual quest-for-God that the monastic calling is upheld and sustained.

Benedict was unique in the practical way that he explained how God could be sought and found. Deeply impacted by the experience of the Prophet Elijah, that first “Man of God,”—who, following his greatest success found himself on the run from the evil Queen Jezebel (who had hired hit men to bring him in “dead or alive”),—hid out in a cave. Frightened for his life and shivering in that cave, Elijah discovered that God could not be found in dramatic external events like tornadoes, earthquakes and infernos. No, Elijah powerfully found God in quiet peace and solitude.

Benedict suggests that God may be found in community, in prayer, in quiet solitude, in work, in generous and loving hospitality and in service to others. Each of these elements offer an opportunity to become aware of the loving presence of God. Unless one is focused and knows where and how to search, God’s subtle and gracious presence could be missed. The quest-for-God requires discipline, focus, and—asculta,” that one  learn to “listen.”

Of all these elements, though, the most surprising might be “work.” As then, many today regard work as a “necessary evil.” As a popular song puts it “we work hard for our money.” In a society in which so many do not have a reliable employment which pays a living wage, work can be viewed as something which one is “forced to do to endure” in order to “just get by”—to “survive.” I recall, for instance, my Grandfather Cook telling me, when I complained about hoeing tobacco in the hot Summer sun, that it “was the punishment that Adam and Eve had brought upon us for sinning against God.”

Benedict, though, had a far more hopeful and optimistic view. For him work was something which should be joyous and fulfilling. One should be able to use talents, gifts, and abilities to be artistic and creative in producing something of beauty and value. He even goes so far as to suggest that an ordinary implement like, for instance,  a hoe which a gardener uses (or a farm boy in the mountains uses in a tobacco field) should be treated with the same respect that is given to the chalice on the altar. And if one is able to produce a surplus, it can then be used to share with those in need “so that in all things God may be glorified.”

In the Prologue to the Holy Rule, Benedict encourages us: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

On this feast of Saint Benedict, Patron of Western Monasticism, may we have the grace to seek and to find God. May God bring to completion the work we undertake to empower the Jesus Movement.

As we “progress on the road which leads to salvation” in this faith community, may God indeed sustain us in our call —as God has promised to faithfully do.

“El obrero merece su salario.”

El obrero merece su salario.”

A Sermon for the
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
July 7, 2019

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom,
help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our
communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy
Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe

In the summer of 1985, I had completed my first year as a seminarian for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and was assigned to serve as the Director of the Greensboro Vicariate Migrant Ministry Program. I lived at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro, but the office was located at Holy Infant Church in Reidsville. It was an amazing experience—in so many ways a life-changing one. I spent a good deal of time driving in a beat-up car along the back roads visiting the migrants and learning about their lives.

Each Sunday afternoon, there was a Spanish Mass at Holy Infant. Various Priests from the Vicariate would come and preside and preach. In many cases, the parish in which they served would also come and bring a collection of food and clothing which the parish had assembled. And, they would provide a home-cooked meal for the migrants. It was a mini weekly fiesta. They were always a lot of fun.

Early one week, I received a surprise call from the Priest who planned to come that Sunday. In a very humble conversation, he shared with me that he was going to come that week because no one else was available. He admitted that his Spanish was pretty bad. He was willing to make an effort to “say the Mass” in Spanish, but thought that there was no point in even attempting to preach. He recognized that the needs of the migrants would not be served by having a sermon in English. So, he said, “I am willing to make you a deal. I will come and preside if you will preach.”

It was the last thing on earth I ever expected to hear! In those days, the formation program required five years of study–one year of philosophy and four years of theology. I had just completed the year of philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. I had not even had any “official” classes in Scripture or Homiletics. I felt completely unprepared! Then too, I had no idea what to say. I felt comfortable that I would be understood in Spanish but was not sure that I had anything to offer that was really worth hearing. The kind priest told me to give it a try. And so, I did.

God often surprises me by working things out in ways that I do not expect. The sermon for that day was from the tenth chapter of Luke. I honestly can not remember a single word that I said that day. I will never forget what happened during that inaugural sermon, though. All at once I saw that congregation in a shockingly different way. As I looked out at those familiar faces which I had come to know over the few weeks that I had served in that community, I heard those words from the Gospel and they spoke to me in a most powerful way: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

It was as if my eyes were almost literally opened. I suddenly realized that those words, to me, were speaking about these people whom I had come to know, to admire, to love, and to respect. Many of them had shared horror stories of their journey from the middle of nowhere in Mexico to the middle of nowhere in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

They had shared stories of leaving behind everything and everyone they knew. They came to a new place—a place where they did not speak the language, were treated as sub-human, worked exhausting hours under the burning sun working in fields from sunrise to sunset. They took jobs which no one else wanted, lived in horrible conditions, and were paid very little. They did this to escape even worse situations at home—because they had to provide for their family. Or, because there was not work where they had lived before.

I suddenly realized that they were people of amazing and incredible faith. My own faith paled by comparison with theirs. They had literally done what the Lord said. They were able to bring nothing with them on a dangerous journey. And somehow, even without “purse, bag, or sandals,” they trusted that God would protect them and give them what they needed. I did not have that kind of trust in God. It was one of those transformative moments which completely changed my understanding of what ministry was all about.

I also realized that these were my Sisters and Brothers in Christ. They were members of my church—of my family. They had as much right to be present in that congregation on that day as I did—or as anyone else did—it was their church too! For them it was perhaps even more important to be there than it was for me. This was the one place where they were truly welcome and at home. Here they were not strangers, or aliens or foreigners. The fact that they were born in another country did not matter at all. I had a much clearer understanding of the universality, inclusiveness, and diversity of the “kingdom of God.” Suddenly things like national borders and boundaries seemed irrelevant and insignificant in God’s eyes—and in my own eyes as well.

As the summer progressed, I reflected on that gospel passage so many times! As I visited with the migrants—often in the evenings after the workday was over, I learned important lessons about hospitality and generosity. I was shocked to discover that my coming to see someone was a “big deal.” I was used to thinking that I was not all that important. For the migrants, though, I was “Padrecito,” or “el gordo.” And both of those terms were spoken with love—an endearment of the best kind because it was spoken with love.

They would so often stop whatever they were doing and throw together a meal. It might have been very simple—sometimes rice and beans served with fresh tortillas. But it was delicious! And they always made sure that I was served first—and had an ample serving. They had nothing! And yet, they delighted in welcoming me and in sharing whatever they had.

I came to realize that there was another passage from that Gospel that was just as important: “Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid

These loving lambs, working among wolves in rural North Carolina and being shamelessly exploited—because they had no legal protection at all—were the very embodiment of peace. But that last line, continued to haunt me—I remember the words in Spanish, “el obrero merece su salario,” “the worker deserves his wage.” It was at that point that I really began to understand the reality of injustice and exploitation. It was at that moment that I became convinced of the need to work for justice! These long-suffering, hard-working women and men (in a few cases, families traveled together), were not receiving a just, fair, or equitable wage. And that was wrong. That was a violation of the Gospel as I heard Jesus speak those words to me so clearly.

As I advanced in my theological studies, I was exposed to the rich history of work for social justice in the Roman Catholic Church. I read several encyclicals from various Popes, written over a period of more than one hundred years. I read some of the writings of John Paul II. He spoke about the need for families to earn a “living wage.” In his vision, each family would find work that they were qualified to do, which allowed them to use their gifts and talents, and which would pay them enough for adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care and education for the family. They would not have to work two jobs or three jobs. They would have time to rest and to spend with the family. They would be treated with dignity and respect—and especially if it was a less than desirable job which no one else wanted to do. I got it. I knew that he was speaking about my migrants!

I completely understand that we live in the tensest political world that I can ever recall. People in our country are divided in a way that I have never seen before. The lack of civility and actual viciousness and “meanness of discourse” is unprecedented. I am not here today to speak about partisan politics. The Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, though—as Saint Paul might say, “impels me” to share with you what I hear God saying about the reality of migrants on our borders and in our country. To love you and to be sincere with you, I have to share that truth. You are free to disagree with me—and I respect that. But here is what I have come to believe to be true.

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael Curry recently expressed his understanding of what God is saying to the Episcopal Church in these words: “’We are children of the one God who is the Creator of us all. It is our sisters, our brothers, our siblings who are seeking protection and asylum, fleeing violence and danger to children, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. The crisis at the border is not simply a challenge of partisan politics but a test of our personal and public morality and human decency.’

Even as I am preparing this text (on Wednesday evening) our own Bishop Kevin just sent us a letter in which he wrote:

“I write to you this day broken-hearted. Vulnerable people, especially children are being mistreated, neglected, and are, tragically, even dying at our nation’s border. What is happening at detention centers is inhumane, deplorable and counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who tells us, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Since being called as your bishop, I have gathered with so many of you. As we have renewed our baptismal promises, I am often indicted by the words “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” I have been struck by your commitment to the communities you serve and your generosity of spirit. I imagine as you see news of these tragedies occurring within our own country that you may be confused, hurt, and seeking ways to ensure all people, and especially vulnerable children, are safe, secure, and receiving the care that they need.”

He goes on to provide simple and direct ways in which we can individually and collectively make a difference:

  • Partner with the Diocese of Texas to send supplies to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX.
  • Support Immigration Ministries in the Diocese of West Texas.
  • Join Partners in Welcome, an online learning and networking community from Episcopal Migration Ministries that works to support refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Learn more about immigration and refugee resettlement from the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations.

Bishop Kevin concludes with this appeal: “And I also encourage you to pray–pray for the people who are being detained, especially the children. Pray for those who are entrusted with providing care. Pray for the people who are ministering to them. Pray for our country and its leaders.

Let us continue to reach out in love and strengthen the bonds that unite us.”

Dear friends, let us truly be a community of prayer. Let us also be a community of action. The worker deserves a fair and just wage. The migrant deserves to be treated with love and respect—and with welcome! This is Wisdom. May we be truly attentive.

“Our Gotterdammerung.”

“Our Gotterdammerung.”
A reflection on the Fourth of July
July 4, 2019

When I was a student in Avery County High School—I was probably a sophomore—I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. I had seen the movie. It may have been one of those things in which they broke it up into episodes which lasted a week. But, I do not really think that I understood a lot of what was going on.

I read it because I had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. And I wanted to try to make sense of what that might have meant. As an aside, I have said elsewhere that I studied history to try to understand my family—and theology to try to understand myself. While I have made great progress in both those endeavors, I still have a long way to go.

Interestingly enough, I read the book, originally, because I thought it was pro-South. That impression was based on a very superficial viewing of the movie. I quickly discovered, though, that the novel was far more complex than I had imagined—and far more honest than the movie was able to be at the time. I guess it has been fifty years since I read it. I imagine that if I had the time to read it now, I would view it through far different lenses! And, I can not help but wonder how Margaret Mitchell would tell the story if she was writing the novel today?

The one lasting memory, though, was that of disbelief. I wondered, even then, how was it possible that the Southern Planter class—the aristocrats–had no idea what was coming—that the war would literally bring to a dramatic and quite surprising end, their very way of life. They were clueless! I seem to remember too that the only Southern person who had some notion of “reality” was Ashley Wilkes. He spoke about the gotterdammerung—the “fall of the Gods.” And for him, that was as good a metaphor as any. I guess I had a sort of love/hate relationship with Rhett. I started out really disliking him—but by the time the book ended, I had a much better appreciation for him!

In college at ASU, I had the opportunity to take a fascinating class called “The Road to Hitler.” Again, I encountered the surprise that those in the latter days of the Weimar Republic seemed completely unaware where things were headed. They foolishly thought that so much progress had been made that it would be impossible for the “rule of law” to be overturned. They failed to recognize the threat that Hitler posed until it was too late. More recent scholarship, though, has pointed out how very popular Hitler was with a huge section of the population. And really, that had to be the case, otherwise he would never have been able to manipulate the system as he did. Cabaret also gave an amazing insight into what the glory days of Weimar were like.

While living in California, in 2004-2006, I came to an interesting realization. The U.S. that I had known and which I just assumed would continue “as is” was changing in ways that I did not like and did not understand. When I thought more about it, I came to realize that ever since the birth of the “Moral Majority” and the advent of Reaganomics, the country had begun to divide and to become polarized. Now I did not remember the late 60’s—I was born in 63. But I did remember people in my family were affected by Vietnam.

And when I saw the reality of Guiliani’s administration in NYC—cracking down on diversity, attacking the homeless, the increase in subtle (and not so subtle) violence against People of Color (mostly Black) and migrants—and the LGBTQIA community, I realized that the city was beginning to feel like a “police state.” 9/11 had a way of hiding this reality, because the city “united.” This made it even more difficult to address the problems without being accused of being “unpatriotic” or “anti-American.” I am sorry to say that, at that time, I did not have any Muslim friends. I can only imagine how terrible that time must have been for them! I do remember the reality of living in a Dominican Republican neighborhood and beginning to hear the words “La Migra” for the first time. I was well aware of the impact and virtual terror the phrase imparted.

Today, I have the real sense that we are in the “dying stage” of the U.S. Empire. I feel that our “reign” as a “superpower” is coming to an end. It seems to me that a majority from my native Southern Mountain culture has become so frightened by this—and by the prospect that they are quickly becoming a minority—that they had made the conscious decision to accept whatever means are necessary to either slow-down the inevitable. Or, they have a dream of “turning back the clock” to the way things were. That is not going to happen. Those days are “gone with the wind.” That “boat has already sailed” and I am not just “Whistlin’ Dixie.”

If we are at the final stage of our own Weimar Republic—and I honestly think we may be—all that is needed is a catalyst—a “Reichstag fire.” If that happens, the Republic—weak and “hog-tied” as it is—will be overthrown. Either a dictatorship, or an actual Empire will be the result. If that happens, the concentration camps on the border–for largely innocent and harmless people fleeing from intolerable situations which our own policies have helped to create—will become the norm. Except now, they will be expanded and will be filled with political prisoners and “deviants.” As a gay man, I know, all too well, the history of the pink triangle.

When I have shared these fears, some have thought that I might be alarmist—or unduly pessimistic. I honestly pray that they are right. But more and more, things are happening which frighten me. The rhetoric against Latinos, and the concentration camps for migrant children; the rise in police violence towards Black People; the violence towards the LGBTQIA persons—and especially Trans persons of color: these things frighten me!

I was attacked on a subway in NYC by a young man saying homophobic things to me in August 2017. I was knocked unconscious, had a black eye, and required ten stitches in my mouth. No one came to my aid during the attack, or afterwards. So, I know firsthand that violence is simmering just below the surface. I will not be surprised to see blackshirts or brownshirts or “redshirts and hats” prowling the streets and looking for people to “control” “intimidate” and “put in their place.”

We are at a moment of decision and crisis as a country. I honestly have no idea how things will go. But, based on my reading of history, I do not expect the best. Will we return to the McCarthy area with the compilation of lists? That would certainly appear to me to be the “writing on the wall.”

I had the blessing of attending a presentation by the amazing historian and thinker Martin Dubberman (famous for his history of the LGBTQIA movement in NYC prior to and after Stonewall). He said in his remarks something like, “I am no longer a progressive. I have now become a revolutionary.” I hope that I am not misquoting him. In any case, he seemed to have given up hope that the present system could be repaired. He had come to the conclusion that the “system” was so broken that it needed to be discarded and something new created. I can understand why he would say that.

Is there hope? The Episcopal Church gives me hope. Our Presiding Bishop has talked about a return to essentials—about becoming a “Beloved Community,” the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” I am on board with that. Honestly, it is the only thing which has offered much hope at all. If that transformation, rebirth, and reformation are allowed to take place it will prove to be a very painful process. Many will be unwilling or unable to go all the way. But, the result will be well worth the price to be paid. We are making progress on that journey. But, for it to come to fruition, it seems that political stability will be needed. Otherwise, we may well plant seeds which may only sprout “after the deluge.”

I do believe that God is in control. Yet, God is not a magician and chooses to work through us–and through our decisions and actions. May we choose wisely, act justly, and “with the help of God,” truly live out our Baptismal Covenant. In that case, we will realize that even though “old things” have passed away, the “new things” which God has prepared for us are even better than we could have hoped for or even imagine.

“More than Conquerors”

“More than Conquerors”
A Reflection for Pride Sunday

June 30, 2019

When troubles come knockin’ at your door
Don’t be afraid, you know it’s not like before.
Don’t you give in, don’t let it bring you down
Cause you don’t have to worry anymore!

We’ve been made more than conquerors,
overcomers in this life.
We’ve been made victorious
Through the blood of Jesus Christ!

“We’ve been made more than Conquerors” by the Rex Nelon Singers

The one thing which I treasure most from my Southern Missionary Baptist childhood in the Blue Ridge mountains of Northwestern North Carolina was my exposure to Southern Gospel Music. It was from this music that I first learned many important things about faith and God—things which have stayed with me ever since. It really is interesting to reflect on how often these songs continue to impact and influence me. They have given me hope and encouragement at times of difficulty and confusion. I will certainly acknowledge that my theological understanding has changed, even dramatically, but the essentials which I still find in those songs has not.

Of all the groups from my childhood, the one group which I may have loved most was the Rex Nelon Singers. I found their music inspiring, joyful, and comforting. Although I love many of their songs, and especially “Victory Shall be Mine,” the one song which I have listened to more than any other is “We’ve been made more than Conquerors.” The lyrics are inspired by the Eighth Chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome (which is, by the way, one of my all-time favorite passages from the Christian Scriptures). This song is not just a recapitulation of the passage from Romans, though, it explains how that passage—and the hope which it promises applies to our lives. And it is for that reason, that I chose to begin this reflection today on Pride Sunday with those words.

Growing up in the country, I had never heard of Stonewall—and do not think that I even knew that it existed until I was in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, many years later. It is quite possible that I had encountered a reference to it along the way, but really did not have much of a sense of what it might have been about until later. Even though I did not know the history of the LGBTQIA rights movement, I had some very clear ideas about the impact of the movement in the rural South.

I had just entered into the first flowering of my sexual awareness and identity when Anita Bryant burst onto the scene warning of the dangers of the “radical homosexual agenda.” It would be impossible to describe the impact that her movement had in the Baptist world of my childhood. All at once, Southern Baptists became aware of and frightened by “queers.” Until that point, the two dangers which had most occupied their attention were “drinking” and ‘Godless Communism.” You could be sure that almost each revival (usually one in the Spring, before we got busy with farming, and in the Fall, after the tobacco had been harvested-but before we began grading) would have at least one night devoted to those issues.

All at once that changed. Now, preachers began to warn us that “degenerates” and “deviants” were set out to destroy the Christian Family. After Bryant was successful in getting some protective legislation overturned in Florida, Baptists began to celebrate. Now they did not go quite so far as to have a “victory dance,” (after all, “we don’t drink, dance, smoke or chew—and we don’t run with them that do), but they came pretty close. To my shock and horror, they seemed to become fixated on the details of gay sex and of gender identity! The clear consensus what that “homosexuality was a lifestyle” and a “choice,” and that “queers were sinners who needed to repent and accept Jesus.”

And this began to unfold precisely at the moment that I faced the unavoidable realization that I was—and am—gay. To this day, I do not know if many people knew, at that time, that I was gay. If so, they never mentioned it to me. I heard all the regular macho bullying things in school. But they did not seem to be addressed specifically to me. I may not have appeared to be especially effeminate? Or, it may have been that because I was so clearly a person of faith, that they just chose to ignore it. I would love to learn more about that time and about how I was actually perceived—but I may not ever have that opportunity.

It was only later, after I had the opportunity to live in larger “Northern” cities that I actually encountered the safe haven of the “gay ghetto.” That was of no consolation to me during my years in high school or in college.

I went through a period of intense spiritual torment and suffering. I became convinced that I was so deeply flawed that it would be impossible for God to love me. I became convinced that my sexual desires and longings damned me to an eternity in Hell. There was nothing that I could do about it. I pledged that I would fight those desires with everything in me—and that I would never act on them. But, of course, that was impossible. And when I gave in to temptation—in the very few and mostly innocent and harmless ways that was even possible—I fell into despair and depression. I was lonely, miserable and contemplated suicide. It really was a miracle that I finally had the opportunity, in college, to begin counseling. What a miracle that was! For the first time in my life I came to believe that there might be hope after all.

My own experience as a repressed gay boy from the Southern highlands is by no means unique. I later learned that many other young men like me were suffering in similar ways in mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim families. We experienced angst in the country, in villages, in towns and cities. This happened in the South, in the North, in the heartland of the U.S. and on the West Coast. It was an experience for LGBTQIA persons in every part of the world. It was only worse in those areas where same sex activity was punished by strict laws and enforcement. I was, at least, spared that. Ironically, I later came to know and to realize that there had been far more going on in many of the communities in which I lived, moved, and had my being than I had known at the time. I was truly naïf.

For most of my adult life, I was “closeted.” The decision to live as openly and unabashedly gay man took decades. In the end, it meant making the choice to leave behind things which were precious to me. But, I came to realize that in order to achieve wholeness, integration, and health (mental, physical, and spiritual), I had to be honest. I realized that I was gay, and had always been gay. This was not a choice—it was who I am. Interestingly enough, it was only as a result of having a partner for three years that I finally came out to pretty much everyone.

This week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. It is not at all ironic to me that it was the most radical members of our community who finally stood up and said, “No more.” In those days, they were called “drag queens.” Now, we understand that some of them were Transgender. To be clear, though, the gay men who were able to “pass” had little incentive to protest. Unless they were “caught in the act,” and were arrested, they seem to have been pretty much resigned to accepting their lot. It was only those persons who were never going to fit in or be accepted who were willing to take the risk of being even more vulnerable. Without them, Stonewall would never have happened. The great irony of that is that they were just as persecuted within our community as outside it. Gays who were under attack were quite willing to “throw them under the bus.” Too may of us wanted to assimilate and be accepted. They wanted the right to be truly free-and paid the price for it. In doing so, they won freedom for the rest of us.

Perhaps the bravest person I have ever known was a person who went by the name of “Kitty.” Later, I learned that Kitty had probably been born with ambiguous genitals. For whatever reason, the decision was made to raise “him” as a boy. He shocked and scandalized, even as a child, by choosing to “cross dress.” The abuse and insults to which she was exposed for most of her life far surpassed anything that I ever experienced. I remember when a report was given that a group of men from my church had visited her home to witness to her about Jesus. I can only imagine what that must have been like at the time. One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I did not have the courage to be a friend to Kitty. Years later, I attempted to reach out to her. I learned, to my great sadness that she had died. I do not know the circumstances surrounding her death, but imagine that they may have been horrible. I do not think that she ever escaped to a safe haven. Even if she had, she still wound have faced oppression, persecution, abuse and torment.

It may have taken almost fifty years, but finally it became possible to people to marry the person whom they love in our country. Not every place makes that decision easy. Not every congregation is willing to bless such marriages. And, there remains persecution in towns and villages, on farms and in many work places. But much progress has been made. I would like to believe that a day will come in which people were not be judged for the color of their skin or for their gender or orientation. If that ever happens we will truly be overcomers.

The song reminds us: “When troubles come knockin’ at your door, don’t be afraid, you know it’s not like before. Don’t you give in, don’t let it bring you down, cause you don’t have to worry anymore!” We are not there yet, but we have come farther than I thought would be possible in my lifetime. And, I have every reason to hope that the “long arc of history” will move in a direction of affirmation, empowerment, and inclusion. I am committed to do all in my power to help move in that direction.

When all is said and done, I honestly believe that it is truly the grace and love of God which has made this progress possible. As people of faith have come to recognize, acknowledge, and repent of prejudice—healing has become possible. It seems unlikely to me that even on the farms in the mountains it would be as difficult for children like me or like Kitty these days. At least I desperately want to believe that is so. I do not think of myself as the LGBTQIA poster child. But I can not help but hope that my openness about my own experience might be helpful to someone who needs to hear it. My own struggles could be a source of hope for someone like me who struggled to reconcile my identity with faith.

The one thing of which I am absolutely sure today is that God loves me—absolutely, totally, unreservedly and unconditionally. I am also convinced that has nothing to do with anything I have ever done. It is because God has created me as good and worthy of love, respect and dignity. And that is equally true of every single person who has ever lived or who will ever live.

I joyously sing—with modification: “We’ve been made more than conquerors–overcomers in this life. We’ve been made victorious through the all-inclusive, transformative, reconciling and healing love of Jesus Christ.”

A note—on Sunday I did not have any responsibilities in my own parish family, and so (for the 50th anniversary of Pride) I intentionally chose to gather with my LGBTQIA siblings at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem.

MCCLV

This coming Sunday I will return home to be with my church family of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, PA.

“Finding God in the ordinary”

“Finding God in the ordinary”

A Sermon for the
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 23, 2019

Green at Trinity in Easton 2018

There is always a bit of surprise in coming into church this day and seeing green. After all, it has literally been months since we have seen this color. And in those cold days before the beginning of Lent, it was a color that we did not see much of outside in nature. Now, at the beginning of summer we see lots of green-in grass, in trees, in hedges—and in the abundance of flowering plants and bushes. It is, sadly, a color which we have come to take for granted. We see so much of it everywhere that it just becomes routine, even common, and ordinary.

In some liturgical traditions the word “ordinary” is used to describe these days after Pentecost. Originally it did not mean ordinary as we understand the word in daily use. It was derived from the Latin “ordinatus” or “ordo” meaning “counted” or “arranged.” For instance, today is called the “Second Sunday after Pentecost.” Thus it is a counted Sunday. Each of the Sundays and weeks which follow until the end of the Liturgical year will be counted in that order. And then a new liturgical year will begin with the Season of Advent.

I suppose that I prefer “Ordinary” to “After Pentecost” for two reasons. The first is that it gives the hint of an explanation as to what this Season is all about. It is about what happened in the life of the Church following the incredible drama of Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. After the Apostles recovered from the shock of all those momentous events, they found themselves living the new life in Jesus. It was in that daily reality of becoming the Jesus Movement that they found their ultimate meaning and purpose in life. It was in the proclaiming of the good news of Christ to the very ends of the earth that they found their ultimate mission. It was in going out and teaching, preaching, baptizing and celebrating the Sacramental Life that they welcomed so many others into the Household of God. That, they discovered, was the “new ordinary” ebb and flow of their life. As we saw in our readings today, this hardly seems ordinary to us. But more about that in a minute.

The second reason that I like the word ordinary is that it reminds us of a very significant reality. If we want to find God, we will need to do so where we are. Everything around us has the possibility of revealing God’s presence, love and grace. But to find and experience that presence we will have to take the time to really see our current and ordinary reality. We will literally have to take time to “stop and smell the roses” which are all around us. Otherwise we will be so busy that we do not even notice God’s loving and empowering presence all around us—and in us.

How is it even possible to find God? The first step in this process is to have the mindset of someone who is looking for God. That description of the quest or search for God is at the heart of the monastic vocation. Saint Benedict, in the Holy Rule suggests that the person who is called by God and responds is one who is “truly seeking God.”  The Holy Rule is a guide for the Christian Life, as St. Benedict calls it, a “School of the Lord’s Service.” As such it has meaning and value, not only to monastics, but to anyone who wishes to deepen their relationship with God. I would even go so far as to say that the guidance which it offers is of value to the whole Jesus movement. After all, it has been proven over more than 1500 years as a reliable way to progress in love and faith on the road which leads to union with God.

If we plan then, at each moment which comes to us in the course of the day, to look for and to find God, we may be sure that we will discover amazing things all around us.

The prophet Elijah gives us an excellent insight into the quest for God. It would be hard to imagine greater drama than witnessing the calling down of fire from heaven. To drive home the point that the God of Israel was far from ordinary, Elijah had a moat dug around the altar of sacrifice and covered the sacrifice on the altar with so much water that it even filled the moat to overflowing. Talk about monsoon season. Everything was so wet that it seemed impossible for fire to even ignite the sodden mess. Yet, when the Man of God prayed, the unexpected occurred. Such a mighty blaze erupted that the sacrifice was consumed, the altar was consumed, and the flames even dried up the water in the moat. One might have been deceived into thinking that this was the real presence of God.

Elijah quickly learned, though, that this was not the final answer in his quest for God. From this moment of victory the tables were quickly turned. Everything unraveled and came undone. The prophet left this moment of unbelievable success—a “mountaintop experience” and ran away into the wilderness. Queen Jezebel was not happy that Elijah had interfered with her agenda. And so, she put a contract on his life. She offered a huge reward for anyone who would bring her Elijah “dead or alive,” and preferably dead. Elijah thought that this was it. He went into hiding and found himself in a cave. From the sounds of his conversation with God, it appears that Eliah was not happy. After all, he had done what God asked and was looking for a happy ending. He thought that God would work everything out according to the “Elijah plan.” When that did not happen, he was confused, shocked, disappointed, and perhaps angry. Interestingly enough, Elijah was also brave enough to “give God a piece of his mind.”

In that cave, though, God opened Elijah’s eyes to see God’s presence in a completely unexpected way. God was not present in all the drama outside the cave. God was not present in the earthquake or in the tornado, or in the inferno—no, God was present in the silence of the cave. That was more than enough to convince Elijah. He realized that God was not finished with him. His career was not over. God had plans for Elijah which could only be fulfilled if he had the courage to leave the cave and go back into the world. God would be with him every step of the journey. Not even the wealth and power of Jezebel would get in the way of God’s plan.  And so, in that moment of seeming defeat, Elijah moved on—trusting in God—to the greatest victory. He saw an astonishing reversal. The mighty were cast down from their thrones and the poor were lifted up. God’s justice was restored.

Another discovery which we make in the readings today, is that the “ordinary” includes everyone. Saint Paul makes that clear to us in the Letter to the Church in Galatia. For my money, the most surprising and powerful words which Paul ever wrote are contained in the passage we heard today: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Wow! To God, none of the things which we humans spend so much time and energy worrying about matter. God is no respecter or persons. In God’s eyes every person, created in the image and likeness of God, is sacred. How sad that we spend so much time focusing on differences.

This is the very antithesis of the good news. It means that we look for ways to discriminate, and to determine who is or is not worthy of God’s love and acceptance. It means that we intentionally set about to exclude anyone who is different from us or who does not live up to our expectations. With God it is just the opposite. There are no binaries—them or us—male or female—rich or poor—heterosexual or LGBTQI—domestic or foreign—”red or yellow, black or white,” or brown. In fact, all those “differences” are just superficial. They are ultimately not important. The things which we share in common are far more important, meaningful and significant. Each variety offers something unique, special, and precious—something which we desperately need.

In God, In Jesus, there is a new creation. God is at work in the life and heart of every single person—without exception. The call to love and to serve God really means that, among other things, we are called to find God in every single person whom we encounter. Truth be told, we are more likely to find God in people we do not like, do not want to be with, who are different from us, and who challenge our basic notions of how things are supposed to be. Saints have told us that if we do not find God in the beggar on the street, we are unlikely to find God in the Sacrament on the altar. But how? By recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of the “other.” By speaking with them openly and honestly. By allowing them to teach us from their experience and knowledge. And by believing that in their presence and in their story, God has something to say to us.

It is no mistake that our Lord tells us that in reaching out to those who are in need, we minister to him. We must be concerned about the poor and needy. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the widow and orphan, and visit those in prison. We must work to break down barriers which separate and divide. We must work for justice—to end oppression, injustice, abuse and exploitation. We must work to preserve God’s beautiful creation so that there will be enough resources for everyone to have what they need. And, for us to be surrounded by wonder and beauty which reveal the love with which God has placed us in this garden and entrusted it to our care.

We find God, then, all around us. We find God in the beauty of creation. We find God in other people—and especially in the vulnerable, weak and needy. We find God in the oppressed, and those who are discriminated against—for any reason. We find God when we gather in Community. We find God in Holy Scripture, and in Sacrament.  We have thousands of opportunities to find God each and every day.

The prophet Elijah, though, gives us a final insight. If ever there is a moment in which we do not know where to begin to find God, let us enter into silence. There, as we think, and reflect, and pray, we are sure to find God. It will be in the common and ordinary that, like Elijah, we have the most powerful and transformative experience of God.

Today I am not preaching in community, And so, this is a sermon which God thought I needed to hear.

Elijah in the cave--small whisper

“The first time I was accused of heresy.”

“The first time I was accused of heresy.”

A Sermon for the Feast of Trinity Sunday
June 16, 2019

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Holy Trinity Graphic

When I was in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, I served as the President of Catholic Campus Ministry. Not bad for someone who had only been Roman Catholic for a few years! I had spent most of my life as a Southern Missionary Baptist and had only been exposed to the Roman Catholic Church a few years previously, when I was selected to attend the Governor’s School, West, at Salem College, in old Salem. I fell in love with the Catholic Liturgy, though, and in my final year in high school made my profession of faith and was Confirmed.

Although the beauty of the Eucharist—I had never experienced this kind of liturgy previously, and honestly had no idea that anything like this even existed—was the thing which first lured me in, it was my discovery of theology which most captivated me and engaged me. Although I came from an intellectually inquisitive family, the church in which I was raised was decidedly anti-intellectual (they were also unabashedly anti-Sacramental, but that is another story). For instance, one of the great heroes was a preacher who had been illiterate until he received the “call to be a minister of the Gospel.” His wife taught him to read and write. There was a real fear of “too much education,” and the very concept of seminary would have been anathema. This preacher, it was believed, received his knowledge from God, and not from humans. As a result, the idea was that his preaching was not contaminated by human thinking and reasoning. It was “dabitur vobis” theology in its purest form. (As an aside, I was closely related to both the preacher and to his wife).

I recall being shocked, at the age of 17 to have been introduced, for the first time, to the dogma of the Trinity. It is entirely possible that I may have heard the word. But I actually doubt that I would have known what it meant. I say that because I recall being stunned! The Church in which I was raised primarily talked about Jesus, or more commonly, “The Lord.” There were occasional references to God (as in “God the Father,”) and even rarer ones to the Holy Ghost. The great irony was that the Baptists of my childhood were afraid that people might accidentally mistake them for Pentecostals, or “Holy Rollers.” And so, there was always more than a bit of apprehension if anyone started sharing too much about the role of the Holy Ghost in their lives. The one thing which would NEVER have ben tolerated was glossolalia or “speaking in tongues.” I suspect that the taking up of serpents might have been more acceptable than that.

The only time that I ever recall hearing a reference to what I later learned was the Trinity was at baptism, “We baptize this our brother in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Had I asked about the use of the Trinitarian formula, though, I suspect that people would have looked at me like I had two heads. Actually, that was not an uncommon experience for me. They never quite knew what to make of me. Even so, there were so many who loved me and accepted me—even though I confused them regularly.

Leaving aside the Baptist experience, though, and getting back to ASU, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte had an amazing retreat program for college students. It was called “Encounters with Christ.” I do not know where the program originated. I suspect that it ultimately had a connection to Cursillo, and may well have come from some larger diocese.

Encounters with Christ served two amazing purposes. Perhaps the most important was that it gave interested Roman Catholic students the opportunity to bond. Aa a time in which Roman Catholics were still a small minority in North Carolina–and still experienced hostility and persecution–it gave us a chance to be in a loving, supportive, and affirming environment. In those times together, we really became a family. We did not have to be ashamed of our faith or to be defensive. No one was going to attack us or make fun of us when we were together. There was also an interesting cultural and socio-economic dynamic. Most of the students were either from “the North,” or else their families were. And so, it was a gathering of “Yankees.” I, of course, was fascinated, because I learned from them what it had been like to grow up and to live in places where “we” were in the majority.

We were all in college, and I suspect that I was the only farm boy in the group. Most of them came from families which, on Beech Mountain, would have been considered “well to do.” And so their life-experience was quite different from what I had known. As I came to know a number of the families, I was introduced to wonderful things like “gravy,” “kielbasi,” and tiramisu.

The other amazing thing which this retreat did, though, was to provide opportunities for leadership and for evangelization. It was intentionally designed around a group of themes which had real-life application for college students. On a given weekend, there might be ten presentations. Half were given by the Campus Ministers from the various colleges in the Diocese (in those days there were two Roman Catholic Colleges: Belmont Abbey and Sacred Heart College—all others were either state schools or affiliated with some Protestant denomination).

The other half of the presentations were given by college students. For many of them, this was the first time that they had ever publicly spoken about their faith. Almost all of them shared openly about their own personal experience of God. It was not uncommon for them to share about how they had not really been interested in faith in their childhood and adolescence. But in college, that had all changed. Perhaps it came from having others ask probing questions about their faith. In other cases, they had just been lonely and had started going to Mass again. A few brave souls started attending Campus Ministry (there was always a free meal-often home cooked by parishioners). And before they knew it, they were more active than they had ever expected to be. I have often wondered what happened with those friends? It would be quite interesting to learn how their lives have turned out.

In my Junior year in college, I was on the team which planned the retreat. As a result, I was part of the “test audience .” The students who were going to be speaking at the retreat had to first present their talk to us. Afterwards, we gave them constructive feedback to help them refine and improve their talk. It also meant that they were not speaking for the first time to the large group. They had already had the opportunity to share once. And so, it made them less anxious. I realize now that it also gave the Campus Ministers a “heads up” about what they were going to hear at the retreat. I do not think that there was “censorship” but do occasionally remember the Campus Ministers making helpful suggestions.

I was deeply touched by one of the young speakers. He was a Senior at Belmont Abbey College and was a theology major. He shared with us his ultimate desire to become a Benedictine monk and a priest. Not only did he speak eloquently about the way in which he had experienced God in the Eucharist and in the Divine Office (which he was able to attend with the monks at Belmont), he also spoke of the ways that he had grown in love and knowledge of God through his study of theology. This was all new to me and excited me and frightened me at the same time. It was, perhaps, the planting of that first seed which ultimately led to my own decision, a few years later, to “seek God” in the monastery.

My hope was that this neophyte and I could become friends. And so, I wrote him a letter telling how much I had been touched by his presentation and asking him for prayer as I discerned my own sense of calling and vocation. To my disappointment, he wrote back a very curt and dismissive response. In it he accused me of heresy! He said that my comments about God, in the letter, had been condemned by at least one of the Ecumenical Councils (or perhaps more). Sadly, I no longer recall which heresy it was? Modalism? Subordinationism? I lacked the “theological sophistication” to even understand what he was saying. I was really hurt. But, I was also curious and wanted to know more. Was this a reason for going to seminary? Who knows. But, I have never forgotten the hurt that went along with receiving that letter.

Those who have studied theology are often leery of saying too much about the Trinity. We recognize how easy it is in “unscripted comments” to make casual remarks which we later realize to have been “heretical.” Later in life, I have come to think that may not be such a bad thing, after all. An Adrian Domincan Sister once told me “Every good sermon contains a little heresy.” That may well be true. And since most of us are not going to be professional theologians, I don’t even think that is something we should even spend any time worrying about. St. Anselm said that “theology is faith seeking understanding.” As I wrestle trying to make sense of my faith, I have to use the language and categories which I have. As I struggle to articulate my feeble understanding of the indescribable and incomprehensible, I will no doubt do so in a limited and flawed and paltry way. But, if the alternative is to say nothing, and by so doing fail to give witness to the love and empowerment which I have experienced by being connected to the Triune God, I will speak from the heart and allow others to “clean up the mess” which follows.

God really does have a funny sense of humor! The second Sunday following my ordination as a priest, I returned to Boone, to my home parish of Saint Elizabeth of the Hill Country, for a Mass of Thanksgiving. It was Trinity Sunday. I was the preacher. The Pastor was a Jesuit!

Thankfully, in seminary, I had been forced to read an amazing article by the German theologian Karl Rahner. The very mystifying and confusing title was something like “On the ontology of the Symbol.” It turned out to be one of the most helpful and thought-provoking theological works I ever read! As best I recall, Rahner said something like “for any reality to be real, present, and effective, if has to reach out beyond itself in love.” He then went on to say that this was as true of God as of anyone or anything else. If God had remained “self-contained,” God would not have been real, present or effective. From all eternity, God is love. That generative powerful love reached out-and thus was the eternal Son begotten before time and before creation. The Son, in turn, loved the Father-totally, absolutely and without limitation. The reciprocal and life-giving love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. For the first time, the Trinity became not just a dogma for me, but an invitation to enter into, to be transformed by, and to become a small conduit of God’s love. This is what I shared at that Mass. The Jesuit approved—no one said anything about heresy! Talk about feeling relieved afterwards.

The Church seems very wise, to me, to conclude the Easter Season with one last Sunday in which we celebrate the Holy and undivided Trinity. Next Sunday we will return to “ordinary time,” and will change again to the color Green. But as we begin to follow the Apostles, fresh from Pentecost, headed out into the streets to carry the good news to the ends of the earth, we will do so knowing that they do so in the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In the final commission in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus made this clear to them: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 16-20).

For those of us in the liturgical traditions, it is second nature to begin every prayer with the Trinitarian words “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We end many prayers the same way “We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.” And for those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we so often pray the doxology: “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” That daily invocation of the Trinity can not help but have an effect in our lives. But may this prayer be transformed to enable us in every context in which we find ourselves to become truly real, present and effective.

With all our hearts, with all our minds, with all that we have and are may we truly pray, “Glory to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–from this time forward, now, and always, to the end of the ages. Amen.

Final note: Since I am not preaching in a parish today, I had the freedom to focus on the day, rather than on the Scriptures. A heresy? Perhaps. But this is where God led me.

“If you’ll say this is for me, you shall be filled.”

“If you’ll say this is for me, you shall be filled.”

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost
June 9, 2019

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life
to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy
Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the
preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the
earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

IMG_6462.jpg

This beautiful banner is the work of artist Patti Pasda
and hangs in the nave of Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

This weekend I am not preaching. For some time I have considered the option of trying to write a sermon each week, whether I am preaching or not. But, until now, I have not acted on that impulse.

I do find myself in an interesting situation. Each Wednesday, I am honored to preach at the Weekday Eucharist at 11:30 a.m. where I work at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem. I try to make those sermons very short—no more than five minutes or so. They are a fascinating connection for me to those years that I served as a Roman Catholic priest. The homily plays a different role there. Early on, I came to the realization that, unless it is a very special occasion, the typical Roman Catholic congregation was willing to accept a length of one hour for Mass. Anything more than that was going to make some unhappy—and drive some away. So, that meant that the homily could not normally go beyond 8-10 minutes. Over a period of many years, I learned to work with that limitation.

With two or three exceptions, I never wrote the homily out in advance. And, it became easy to tell when the congregation was growing tired—and to know that it was time to “wrap things up.” From my own personal sense of the liturgy, I believed then—and still believe now—that the actions which recalled the words of Jesus and his own example were far more important than any words I had to offer. So, I invested more time in being a good presider at Eucharist than in being a good preacher.

The Sunday Episcopal Liturgy is another matter. To my delight, Episcopalians seem to operate more on the model of an hour and a half. The joy of that is that there really is no rush. This allows the preacher, and I would imagine, the priest presiding at the Eucharist to be more relaxed. There is no sense that the clock is ticking. It also means that the expectations are higher. I do not really thing that I spend any more time in preparing Episcopal Sermons than I did in preparing Roman Catholic homilies. The Episcopal ones are more polished—and developed in a different way. It seems that 15 minutes would be an appropriate length for an Episcopal sermon.

I have recently given all of this a good deal of thought and consideration, because this Summer, at Trinity in Easton, the preachers are also leading a discussion in the Forum each Sunday. When asked about this, I thought it was a wonderful idea and a great opportunity. Whenever, I have led Bible Study classes in the past, I have learned as much as I have shared. That really is the joy of exploring the Holy Scriptures—Hebrew and Christian in community. There are always new insights gained. Others see things that I do not see. And, at times my own ideas are challenged or validated. Both of which are very good things! In such sessions, I often feel the presence of God. Of course, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable for those studies to be successful. Especially if the participants share their own life-experiences, that means that they have to be unafraid to open up and let people know sometimes very personal things about themselves. I think that is also true of the preacher. The sermons which have moved me most powerfully are ones in which I have connected with the hurts, pains, struggles, and joys of the preacher.

Pentecost, provides a wonderful experience, I think, to reflect on the role and power of the spoken and preached word in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry has shared two vital ideas which have had a powerful impact on my own spiritual life.

The first is “If it’s not about love, it is not about God.” I am convinced that the single greatest longing of every human heart is to be loved. Nothing else is even remotely as important as this. When it happens, that love is truly transformative, empowering and life-changing. Sadly, not everyone has had an experience of being loved. Many people have been hurt, wounded, and feel un-loved. Their experiences have led them, in some cases, to feel that they are not loved. Even, at times to fear that they might be unlovable. They feel flawed, broken, and rejected. They have given up on any hope of every finding love or of being beloved.

This has been so devastating for them that they have withdrawn from life and find themselves existing rather than living. This is especially true of people who have been rejected for who they are. People of Color, people from other parts of the world, those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, or Intersex, and those who suffer from various addictions know this all to well. At the very core of their wounded souls is either the fear that “if they really knew me, they would not love me.” Or else, they have been made to fear that they are “less” and not “deserving” of love. Bishop Curry’s message, though, is that God is primarily about love rather than judgement. And, God loves very single person who lives, who ever lived, or who will live. That is the message of hope which needs to be proclaimed. If someone listens to a sermon or homily and does not hear the good news that God loves them—that sermon or homily may be about many wonderful things, but is it about God?

The second important idea is that the Church is really nothing more-or nothing less-than the Jesus Movement! If it is not about Jesus, it is not about the authentic church. That does not mean that we have nothing else to say—or that we have the only answer. It does mean that in Jesus we have found an answer that makes sense to us. An answer that gives value, meaning, and purpose to our lives—as individuals, and as a community of faith. Seen in that light, every single action of the church must be evaluated in light of one question: “Does this lead people closer to an encounter with the loving, healing, saving, and life-giving Jesus?” If not, it may be interesting, and even important, But it will never be essential.

Sadly, we have allowed the fundamentalists to co-opt talking about Jesus. We are afraid that if we do too much of that, we will be thought of as “fanatics.” There has been so much hurt and pain caused by allowing others to hijack and distort the loving message of Our Lord, that there is no time to waste in introducing others to the real Jesus. A Jesus who loved unconditionally, who welcomed everyone, who served the needs that he saw in each person without ever stopping to ask what it would cost him. A Jesus who loved us so much that he endured the passion and crucifixion and the experience of death—not to show us that he suffered to take away sin—but to show that God’s love can never be halted or overcome by hatred or prejudice or cruelty or violence. That love is made especially clear in the power of the Resurrection and in the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

It raises the question, then, “How do I come to encounter and to know this Jesus?” How can I experience that limitless and transforming love? Although I have had amazing personal experiences of God—of Jesus—in moments of prayer and solitude, my primary and most powerful experiences of God’s love have come in the gatherings of community of the Jesus Movement. To be very specific—I have found and find God through the Sacraments.

In Baptism, I was claimed and sealed as Christ’s own for ever! I was made a member of the household and family of faith. In Confirmation I was empowered to become an evangelist for Christ—not like the televangelists or even the local preachers in a tent revival. But like every Confirmed Christian, I was anointed with the Holy Spirit—as was Jesus—to be a witness in the world of the reality and power of God’s love. In the Holy Eucharist I received the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ—the “bread of heaven” and the “cup of salvation.” I was invited to become the reality I consumed—to allow it to transform me and to then carry that presence of Christ into the world. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, a successor of the Apostles laid hands on me and invoked the power of the Holy Spirit giving me a sharing in the Ministerial Priesthood of Jesus Christ, as a Deacon, and as a Priest—to build up the Jesus Movement in conjunction with Bishops in whose dioceses I served—and with the women and men in whose parishes I exercised that ministry. At moments of illness-physical, emotional, and spiritual, I received healing and restored wholeness through the Sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and the Reconciliation of a Penitent. Until now, God has not gifted me with a husband, and so I have not joined with another in Holy Matrimony. If that is part of God’s plan for me, I welcome it. And, if not, I will be accept that too.

Today, though, I want to say a few more words about Confirmation. For me, Confirmation, is about empowerment. Jesus told his disciples that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would receive “power.” To me, it seems obvious that they did not have power! There was something missing, something lacking in their lives. One reading of the texts would suggest that they might have already been baptized, and after that Final Supper/Seder, some claim that they had even been ordained. But before the day of Pentecost they were hiding out in fear in that upper room. After the power of the Spirit came upon them, they became fearless, public witnesses and preachers of God’s love on the streets of Jerusalem—and ultimately to the ends of the earth.

This was not a simple liturgical rite showing that they were now adult Christians. This was not a rite of passage. This was an explosion that rocked them to the core of their being—and which literally changed the history of the world. The Jesus movement was born on the day of Pentecost. Without the power of the Spirit the followers of Jesus would have returned to their old way of living with conflicting emotions. They would never have become the Apostles on whose witness, teaching, and ministry, the Church was built.

It is no mistake that we have been introduced to the idea of “Gifts of the Spirit.” Especially in the writings of Saint Paul. But we often make the mistake of thinking that those gifts only apply to a few people—certainly not to us! Another traditional approach was to speak of the seven “Gifts of the Holy Spirit”—these clearly are intended for each of us: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Without saying anything about the particular gifts, one way to understand them is that they give us everything that is needed each day to accomplish God’s will in our lives. That is something which Baptism does not give!

In the first year after I was ordained as a priest, I served a year in a parish in North Central Pennsylvania. During that year, I was invited to lead a retreat for a group of High School Students who were preparing for Confirmation. They were wonderful young women and men. And, they took this very seriously! Yet, it was clear to me that, after listening, to them, that they really did not expect that it was going to make much of a difference in their lives. They thought it would be a nice day—and some were looking forward to spending time with relatives that they had not seen in a while. All of them had done many hours of service in preparation for Confirmation. For a few of them, it meant that they were finally going to be finished with catechesis and classes (they were honest enough to admit that). A few of them were not really sure how active they were going to be about Church afterwards. They were finally going to be able to make that decision for themselves when they went away to college the next year!

I honestly felt sad! They expected so very little to come at and after Confirmation. Really, it was not their own fault. No one had ever told them that there was another possibility. There was the possibility that they could have an experience of the Holy Spirit like that which had happened to the Apostles and the Disciples gathered in that upper room. Who was to say that there could not be a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame or even the gift of tongues? Even if that did not visibly happen, they could have such a powerful experience of God that their lives would be changed forever!

What prevented this from happening? One possibility, I think, is that God will not give us more than we are willing to accept. God is a gentle person. God will not come into our lives uninvited and unwelcome. But, if God is invited and welcomed—anything is possible! All things are possible! Pentecost in the here and now is possible!

There is a lovely Pentecostal hymn which I learned in traveling through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky one summer: “You shall be filled with the power of the Spirit. You shall be filled with the anointing from on high. If you’ll say this is for me, you shall be filled.”

May prayer for all of us on this Day of Pentecost is that we will say “This is for me,” and that we will permit that power promised to us—and gifted to us–in the Sacrament of Confirmation to be unleashed!

I will conclude on a personal note. On June 6, 1991, in the crypt of the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica, I presided at the Eucharist for the first time. It was the Vigil of Pentecost. That day I was empowered to serve as a priest in Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Thus, Pentecost will always be for me not only the Birthday of the church—but the day of my rebirth and empowerment for service. That in all things God may be glorified.