Groaning is the Soundtrack of Creation

Text of the sermon preached on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11A (July 23, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

 

 

If you go into any gym and find the section where people are pumping iron, you will hear a lot of grunting and groaning. Weightlifters often groan. They groan as they strain to push weights off of their chests, or over their heads, or pull and heave them off of the floor.

Engines straining also groan. If you hook a heavy trailer to a pickup and point it uphill, you will hear the engine groan. Gears push against gears, the engine revs, and the truck groans as it strains forward.

This is the sound of creation. Groaning is the sound of creation. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”

This is a vivid image. Perhaps it isn’t such a fantastic metaphor for women who have actually experienced labor pains, but it reminds us of the difficult work of creation. That work can be hard. That work can be groan-inducing.

Groaning happens in a gap — a gap between what we are trying to do and what we hope to do. Groaning reminds us that the time spent in the gap between what is and what could be is a place of hard work.

Our readings from the New Testament today are about living in this gap. We hear about the gap between creation as God intends and wills it, and where we are now. Paul describes how to, somehow, live in optimism and hope in a world that so often doesn’t fulfill what God has promised to us. He calls this life in the Spirit. Paul’s whole ministry, in a way, was driven to close this gap.

Paul felt that he had seen the fulfillment of creation in Jesus, he knew that that fulfillment was within reach. He also knew the communities he preached to still lived with injustice, war, poverty, and suffering. He knows both the glory that is to come and the very present sufferings of the present time.

He exhorts the Christians in Rome to live in the Spirit, because he also sees the glory that is just beyond the gap. A life in the Spirit is a life characterized by the confidence that through Christ we have been freed from all the things that can increase our suffering. A life in the Spirit is a life lived free of hatred and violence, and instead filled with joy and reconciliation. A life in the Spirit is a way to live in the gap between what is and what shall be, in joyful exertion, not in desperation.

The Gospel parable also speaks to life in the gap. The Reign of God — a reign that Jesus preached was here and now — is described as glorious. Jesus compares it to a grain field. A field of grain is the source of not just one loaf of bread, but an abundance of bread. This is an image of an abundance of what was, and for many still is, the basic food, the basic source of life. Yet, in the midst of this vision of an abundant life, there are weeds. The weeds gum up the works. They cannot be removed easily. The parable today is about having to wait in the gap — in a world of both abundance and weeds. The parable is there to comfort those who live in the gap with the assurance that at the end, the weeds will not ruin the harvest.

It is extremely difficult to live in a gap. It is difficult to see the glory beyond the horizon and still live in a place that is not yet fully glorified. The first Christians must have felt this very strongly. Those who actually knew Jesus had known in their minds and felt in their souls the goodness and love of God in creation, the Reign of God in the here and now. Paul had seen the glory of the risen Christ, and his conviction, faith, and excitement must have filled the minds and souls of the people in the churches he planted. Yet, just outside the door of each house church, every time the communion meal ended and people returned to their lives, they were confronted by the realities of a world that did not meet their vision.

The parables Jesus told about the end of time, the words Paul gave to his communities, were written to help those communities understand and overcome the gap between what is and what ought to be.

They are also words written for today. Christians still live in the gap. Many know the feeling of God’s love and have experienced it in their lives. Many have seen it in grand acts of compassion and small daily acts of kindness. Christians rejoice when justice triumphs and celebrate when sickness turns to health. These are signs of the Reign of God come near. Yet, people everywhere also wake daily to news of war and rumors of war, of violence in homes and communities, of soul-crushing poverty in every country, of injustice, and all the many ways the dignity inherent in every person is neglected.

As Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, we are reminded now — we do not hope based on what we see. Christian hope is based on the confidence and assurance that the risen Christ is present in the world, bringing all things to what they are meant to be, closing the gap. God’s focus is on closing the gap between what is and what ought to be. This is the work of God from the beginning of creation. To be Christian is to join in this work, for all people are children of God, part of that creation coming into being.

The way to join in this work is to live a life in the Spirit. This isn’t a life that tries to ignore the gap. It is a life that can stride confidently into the gap — angered at injustice, grieving at suffering, striving and straining and groaning.

Groaning is the soundtrack of creation. It is the sound of the gap closing, of the Spirit overcoming resistance. Life in the Spirit strains and groans to close the gap. It is a good, honest groaning, the soundtrack of what will be coming into being.

Life in the Spirit is a life that closes the gap between the weight on the chest and the weight lifted high and triumphantly overhead. Life in the Spirit closes the gap between the engine straining against the gears and finally reaching full speed, running like a well-oiled machine.

Christians are to be gap closers. Christians are to see the distance between what should be and what is, and strain, and heave, and work, and lift to close that gap. It may be necessary to groan, but the groans sing the soundtrack of creation.

May we stay true in the struggle, groaning if need be, laughing at our groaning when we can. The gap is closing, let us hear the soundtrack of creation as we raise our voices in work and strain and joy.

 

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The Good Sower

Text of the sermon preached on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10A (July 16, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

 

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Episcopal Youth Event, EYE, in Edmond, Oklahoma with around 1,500 high schoolers and adult sponsors from all over the Episcopal Church. From Delaware to San Diego. From Seattle to Houston. From Kansas to the Dominican Republic. Episcopalians from all over the United States and World. The theme for the week was “Path to Peace” “el Camino a la Paz.” We attended worship filled with energy and life, we went to workshops, we toured Oklahoma City, including the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Museum, holding a powerful prayer service on that holy ground where people have found peace after such a horrific tragedy, and most importantly we learned about how we can all be peacemakers in the world. Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson.

Jesus has such a heart for his church. In this parable and its explanation, he’s not only addressing his first disciples but, as with all scripture, he’s addressing us too. This parable could be a way to get us to do a little soil sampling of our hearts, a little analysis to see what kind of ground we are for seed-reception. This parable could be an invitation to ask ourselves, how can we make the soil of our hearts more fertile, more ready to receive the seed that is the word of the kingdom? How can we be the good soil so we can produce grain a hundredfold, and be part of a great agricultural ripple effect that makes more and more seed that can be sown near and far and take root in places we may never dream of? How can we clear our little patch of ground of stones and be strengthened to endure even persecution for the sake of the gospel? How can we root out the thorns of worldly busyness, worry, self-interest, pettiness, and greed, so the word of the kingdom can abide with us, settle down in us, make a home in us, and bear fruit? These are good questions, and if being good soil is the goal, there is help for us.

Gardeners and farmers tell us that soil that is good for planting has particular characteristics: good soil has a lot of humus — decayed material like grass roots and leaves — that encourages good nutrients, good drainage and good aeration. Good soil has room for water and air to move through it and get to seeds and plant roots. And although it seems like it’s just an inert substance, good soil is full of life. For instance, earthworms burrow through soil, carrying away dead matter and taking needed material from the surface of the soil deep down where it can decompose and make more rich humus. In some places, good soil for planting exists because fire has burned off saplings, preventing forests from growing.

So good soil seems to be the result of letting some stuff go, die even, perhaps getting burned away and allowing room for life-promoting organisms to do their work.  The same may be said of our hearts.  To be receptive to the word of the kingdom, we may need to let some old, false ideas go, die even.  To let idols go or have them taken from us may feel as painful as having them burned away, but letting them become compost may be the first step in making healthier soil.  Letting in life-promoting, wholeness-producing understandings of Jesus and the true nature of God’s reign can turn worthless clay into soil good for planting.  We can be the good soil in which seeds take root and grow into healthy, seed-bearing grain. Who wouldn’t want to be part of making God’s bumper crop of growth and new life?

But perhaps Jesus has another good word for us in this parable: not just exhortation—come on, be good, soil!—but  explanation and reassurance that has to do with the sower rather than the soil.  Perhaps Jesus has an invitation for us to be sowers and not just soil.

For the early Church, for those in whom the word of the kingdom initially took root and brought healing, peace, and joy, there was still a conundrum:  why doesn’t everyone who hears the word believe?  Why is what is so plain to us so imperceptible to others?  Why, when we can say, “Jesus is Lord,” even at the risk of our lives, don’t others get it?  What’s wrong here?

We may wonder some of the same things.  Faith in Jesus is important to us.  We go to church.  We’re here listening to this sermon. Why isn’t everyone?  Why are we the minority in our community, showing up, giving, serving, while all around us there are people who choose sports or coffee or sleep over what makes sense to us?  Why are churches getting smaller or struggling?  Is there something wrong with the word?  Is the seed not what we thought it was? Are we wasting our time?  Is there something else we should let take root in our hearts? Keeping soil good for planting can be hard work sometimes, and we want to know, is it worth it?  Did the sower get it wrong?

To the first disciples, to the early Church, to us, Jesus says, there is nothing wrong with the seed.  The sower is dependable.  But here’s what happens when the seed falls on different kinds of ground.  Trust the sower.  Trust the seed.  Be good soil.

Be good soil, but take a clue from the sower too. The sower’s approach to sowing is carefree, to say the least. The sower flings seed willy-nilly as he goes, with seeming disregard for where the seed will end up.  Shouldn’t the precious seed be saved for careful deposit in some meticulously prepared narrow furrow where it has a better chance of germination and survival?  Not with this sower.  To this sower, it’s as if the seed is so precious, he can’t hold on to it—it has to be shared.  To hold onto the seed would be to squander it.  This sower’s method seems to be to fling the seed as he goes, letting it land where it will, and keep going. This sower covers a lot of ground, not sticking to one pathway or field or territory.  The point, for this sower, is to sow.  So he does.

What if Jesus’ word for us has as much to do with the sower as the soil?  The sower is often taken to be God or Jesus, and that’s a good analogy.  God in Jesus flung the seed of the word of the kingdom wherever he went, and it found good soil in some places where others thought nothing good or holy could grow.  God in Jesus never said a word about some people deserving to hear good news and others not, although he did suggest once that a fig tree that sounds a lot like a group of people might benefit from a heaping application of compost (Luke 13:6-9).  Jesus sowed the word of the kingdom, wherever he went.  He himself was even buried like a seed in the soil, and from that sowing, God brought forth an unimaginable harvest.

But in the explanation of the parable, Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the sower.”  He just says that the sower sows the word, wherever the sower is, wherever the sower goes, and sometimes the word gets snatched away by the devil, and sometimes people fall away because the following is costly and risky, and sometimes the cares of the world choke the word, and sometimes, sometimes, the word bears a ridiculously abundant harvest.

What if Jesus is not only saying to be good soil, to be open and receptive, to let dead and death-dealing ideas die, and to welcome all that is holy and life-giving to make room and a hospitable reception for the word?  What if Jesus is also saying, “Sow!”  Don’t worry about whether you think the soil you’re walking over is good or bad, receptive or not.  Don’t be saving up seed for the places you think will be the most fertile.  This seed is so precious, it has to be shared, and there’s plenty more seed where that came from.  Not every bit of fruitful sowing is going to happen in the tidy rows of our pews, although by God’s grace it can happen even there.

There is so much seed to be sown.  Fling it.  Toss it.  Share it.  Get out there. Sow.

Jesus Yoke of Love

Text of the sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9A (July 9, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

There is some debate about whether or not people can change. The spiritual and psychological sages throughout the millennia basically agree that people can learn better ways to cope with who and how they are, but people don’t change all that much. Transformation can occur, though that’s for later in this sermon. But changing is hard, maybe even impossible, and changing another person, well, that’s just folly — pure folly. It has been said that having expectations for others and wanting them to be more like we would have them is just a down payment on future disappointment. This might sound down and dour, but good news is on the way.

All notions of progress have to do with growth and change, and personal progress is usually cloaked in the power of our own wills to change ourselves. If we all just had the right information, the right policy, the right data, then we would just be who we are meant to be. But as Derek Sivers says, “If all that we needed was more information, then we would all be millionaires with perfect abs.” Perhaps you have some experience with trying to stop some behavior only to return again and again to what you don’t want to do, much like Paul in the epistle reading today. Maybe you have been trying to lose weight for years only to gain it all back again. Maybe you have been trying to grow closer to God through feats of discipline in prayer and study, only to feel cold and distant from God. No. Instead, our happiness, our fulfillment, our satisfaction, and ultimately our growth in Christ has less to do with taking on more data and more to do with unlearning a great deal.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is clearly frustrated. He indicates that those around him criticized John the Baptist as being possessed by a demon. Then they criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with the wrong people too often. Jesus then prays aloud to God, in thanks for having hidden the purposes of what God is up to in Jesus from the wise and wonderful of his age. He then says something that has become so famous that you could be forgiven for not truly listening to what he says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Aren’t you weary? Aren’t you carrying a heavy burden? Don’t you need a rest? We are all weary and heavy-laden. Each of us is dealing with something, or a whole litany of somethings, that if we all had to wear them outwardly, I daresay we’d have a much more compassionate world. But Jesus is inviting us into something completely different. Jesus first names our spiritual state. This is an amazingly compassionate thing to do, to notice and name, to tell the truth of a situation. Sometimes it is enough simply to have someone notice our weariness and our burdens. This noticing, without judgement or fixing, is a lesson in empathy for all of us. That might be the distinction between empathy and pity, by the way.

Then Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon ourselves. This is an interesting image that most of us modern types might not understand. A yoke is for a donkey or other beat of burden. It is a collar that harnesses the animal for whatever work that the master wants the animal to do, like pulling a cart or plowing a field. The yoke is a symbol of servitude and onerous labor. But the yoke that Jesus is offering is easy and light.

What does this mean, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light?” In our world and society, clever and never-ending marketing would have us believe that each and all of us are deficient in some way. Jesus and, by extension at all, God, accepts us precisely where and what we are with no exceptions. The world has become exceedingly sophisticated in laying heavy burdens upon us. The largest companies in the world deploy deeply effective psychological understandings on us to encourage us to feel that we must scratch this or that itch immediately, or buy into some lifestyle in order to be the happiest or most authentic self we can. This has been captured most recently by the acronym “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.”

Now the world is not some separate creation or arena of evil. The world, as the church has usually described it, is that which does not proclaim Christ as Lord, so it does not live by the light burdens of Jesus and instead heaps up heavier and heavier burdens. Of course, the history of the Church is littered with teachers and rules that have given heavy burdens to certain people to designate them as less than loved by God, but they were wrong and actively working against the intentions of Jesus.

Jesus does not expect or desire for us to take on more and more in discipleship to him. His learning is an unlearning, his burdens are an unburdening. His work is rest. What this looks like in a daily practice is a constant reminder that we are enough, we are sufficient. This is not some mere positive thinking, feel-good humanism. Our sufficiency with God is not about our own inherent goodness, though there may well be some inherent goodness in us, it is about God’s goodness and love and acceptance of us. So we remind ourselves every day of God’s goodness and love.

And then, if we are brave and want to be taught by Jesus, we can extend God’s radical love to those whom God presents us with each day. Since God’s love is unconditional, since this loving yoke is easy, and the burden of acceptance is light, since it is unlearning to judge others, what would it be to live like this? What would it be like to love that person who annoys you? What would it be like to love that estranged relative or friend? What would it be like to love that politician who you not only disagree with, but who actively enacts policies that hurt those you already love? Jesus is not asking you to be foolish and merely accept injustice, but he is inviting us to love. And while Jesus meets us all where we are and accepts us for who we are, he does not let us stay that way. To encounter Jesus is to be transformed. I cannot think of a single encounter Jesus has in Scripture where the other person did not leave changed or challenged. Jesus is not in the trans-fixing business, he is in the transforming business. This love can transform you and this world, but it is hard. To follow Jesus is work, it is still a yoke, no matter who easy.

I think this is where the marketers and the fear-of-missing-out folks get life wrong. To change, to be transformed, is not to start with deficiency or want, but with love and acceptance. Now, love and acceptance are simply bad for the economy, but in God’s economy, love and acceptance are the starting point. This is why Jesus describes discipleship to him as easy and light burdens: following him makes a beginning in not requiring a series of good behaviors in an attempt to earn love. Once we understand our status as beloved, we can make the radical turn to do the same: loving others without condition or remainder.

May the Holy Spirit empower each of us to go into the world and love as deeply as we are loved by God. Amen.

The Comfort and the Challenge

Text of the sermon preached on Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 25, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

 

 

Sometimes when we pull a piece of the Gospel out of its natural habitat and read it in our cozy Western Kansas church, the impact of the words changes. Take the lesson I just finished, for example. How surprised would you be to learn that Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples with these words? You just heard them. They don’t sound very comforting, do they?

Certain passages of the Gospel cut through the dusty weight of years and touch our hearts in the same way I’m sure they touched the hearts of Jesus’ original followers. Others, like today’s, meander towards the present time and get a bit lost along the way. So let’s see if we can follow the path back to Jesus’ lips and hear anew these difficult words. Then we can bring them back to the present and hear what they have to say to us now.

Today’s Gospel lesson comprises the end of a set of instructions, which Jesus gives to his inner circle before sending them out to do the work he has appointed them to do, namely to cast out unclean spirits and cure disease. If we had started the passage sooner, we would have heard Jesus instruct the twelve disciples not to take any extra clothes or food with them, but to rely on God’s provision in the form of hospitality. If we had started the passage sooner, we would have heard Jesus tell them not to worry about what they will say when brought before the authorities, but to rely on God’s Spirit to speak through them. If we had started the passage sooner, we would see what a challenge Jesus sets before his friends, a challenge to rely on God — for sustenance, shelter, endurance, eloquence, in all things really.

This show of reliance on God in the face of challenging circumstances might even be the reason Jesus sent his friends out in the first place. They were living billboards for the kind of life Jesus promoted: a life of trust in God, a life in which you put God first and everything else fell into place. Jesus’ disciples trudged from town to town with nothing but the clothes on their backs, good news on their lips, and the power to heal in their hands. Now some scholars tell us that they didn’t bring extra clothes or food so they wouldn’t be juicy targets for bandits out on the dangerous roads. And I’m sure that’s part of it. But the more compelling story is their acceptance of the challenge to rely on God for all things.

And I’m sure the story was compelling: compelling enough to make new disciples and new enemies. And this is where Jesus’ supposedly comforting words for today arrive on the scene. First he reminds his friends that his opponents have openly called him Beelzebul (that is, the father of demons). If they call me such a name, he says, then don’t expect kind treatment. But even if they treat you poorly, “Have no fear of them.” In fact, Jesus tells his friends not to be afraid three times in this passage, just to make sure the words sink in.

Don’t be afraid, he says, because, while they slander you now with false words, all will be revealed in time. Don’t be afraid because, while they can hurt your physically, they cannot touch the soul, which resides with God for safekeeping. And don’t be afraid because your Father in heaven knows you intimately, knows even how many hairs are on your head. If you do happen to fall to the ground, God will be there to pick you up again.

So far, Jesus’ words are speaking comfort to the challenge. Jesus trusts his disciples to rely on God, and this trust will help them overcome their fear. But now we move to the more difficult words, the ones which the long march of time has mangled. As we listen to them, we have to remember one immutable fact that separates our experience from that of Jesus’ original followers. We do not live in a part of the modern world that is charged with religious fervor. Indeed, in our part of the modern world, the religious fervor tank is approaching empty. I don’t know about you but when people discover I am a practicing Christian, their responses range from total indifference to mild surprise to pleasant curiosity. I can count on less than one hand the number of times my identity as a follower of Jesus has been met with unmitigated derision.

Not so for his original followers. Their world was charged with religious fervor. The very idea that someone like Jesus might be teaching something new would be downright offensive to many people. Jesus’ reinterpretation (and in some cases strengthening) of the Jewish law was a punishable act. The words Jesus speaks in the rest of today’s passage are not intended to strike fear into the hearts of his listeners (as they might do to us), but rather to lay out plainly the state of affairs if you were to take the leap and join Jesus’ team. Such a leap would cause division, as symbolized by the sword. Such a leap could separate families. Such a leap could lead to physical death.

The religiously charged atmosphere was hostile to change, and with his words here, Jesus shows that he knows exactly what he is asking his friends to do. But in the final verse of our passage, he also tells them that it’s worth it: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he says.

So, as we bring Jesus’ words with us back to our modern moment, what do they say to us? Well, the comfort remains. “Do not be afraid” always rings true and always will. But the things we might be afraid of have changed. In fact, our fear might ironically spring from Jesus’ own words: what he meant as comfort has become our challenge. He says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” As religious fervor leeches from our land, speaking about how we make choices because of God’s movement in our lives – indeed, being on fire for God’s service – has somehow become impolite, even taboo. But we have good news to share, and we have God’s work to do. And we can do so invitingly, unapologetically, and – yes – fervently. Our faith is nothing to be ashamed of. So be open, and rely on God to find the right words and actions to display your allegiance.

In Jesus’ day, he upset the status quo by deepening and expanding the meaning of what it meant to be a follower of God. He spoke comfort and challenge in equal measure to attract and galvanize people to join him in his mission to re-imagine what God was doing on earth – indeed, to make earth more like heaven. In our day, we follow Jesus’ lead when we continue upsetting the status quo. With God’s help, we offer hospitality to the stranger when society tells us to shut our door. We offer generosity to the needy when society tells us to hoard what’s ours. We offer friendship to the lonely, dignity to the outcast, love to the unlovable. This is our story, and it is a compelling one.

Just as Jesus sent his friends out to heal and serve, so he sends us out. He sends us out in trust and not in fear. He sends us out, knowing that our road will not always be an easy one. But he sends us out always walking a road he trod before us, a road that leads, yes, to the cross, but then past the cross to the empty tomb and the glorious new life God offers to all.

The Blueprint

Text of the sermon preached on Trinity Sunday (June 11, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Genesis 1:1-2:4
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Psalm 8

 

 
It’s Trinity Sunday. Too many sermons over the years have tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but talking about apples or flames or coke. What those sermons didn’t understand is that you can’t explain a mystery without destroying the very quality that makes it mysterious. When Sherlock Holmes figures out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub over discovering the body, the mystery is solved. No more mystery. This Whodunnit? type mystery is the kind that we’re used to: Gibbs and the NCIS team solve their mysteries within the length of the 45-minute episode. The light-hearted mystery novels that my mother loves to read always wrap up the intrigue by the end of the story.

But here’s the difference between these small, ordinary mysteries we watch or read and the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. The small mysteries have answers to them, like the poisonous snake. But the mystery of the Holy Trinity is the answer — the fundamental answer that rests at the very core of existence. Here’s what I mean.

Before creation came into being, there was God. There was only God. Then God spoke, “Let there be light,” and creation erupted in a rush of dust and energy and far flung fire. And suddenly, there was something known as “not God.” Suddenly, there was an “other” for God to love. And yet, we believe that God’s essence is love, which means that God must have loved before there was creation to love. Confusing, right? It is confusing until we realize there’s only one possible answer for whom God loved before there was anything else. God loved God. This may sound narcissistic or vain, but it’s not. Narcissism and vanity are distortions of love, but God’s love is perfect and unsullied. God loves God with such perfection that there is still only One God, even though a loving relationship exists.

That’s the keyword: relationship. To try to come close to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we employ relational words: Father and Son, Parent and Child. We speak of the Holy Spirit as being the love that flows between them. This perfect relationship existed before creation, and thus serves as God’s blueprint for creation. Have you ever noticed that if you drill right down to the core of any subject whatsoever, you end up at relationship? At the most fundamental level, life, the universe, and everything are based on the relationships between things. Elemental particles vibrate next to other elemental particles, weaving the fabric of creation. Atoms repel and attract each other. Ecosystems thrive as complex series of relationships. Celestial bodies dance the precarious waltz of gravitational balance. Not to mention, the most important things in the lives of us humans on this fragile earth is our relationships with one another.

All of this grows from that blueprint God used from God’s own self — the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. In the act of creating something that was not God, God knew creation wouldn’t be perfect. And yet, God made it anyway. The reason the Holy Trinity remains a mystery is that our relationships — indeed, all relationships in creation — are not perfect, and thus we cannot fathom perfection.

But while we aren’t perfect, the idea of perfection lingers within us, an echo of our Creator’s own perfect love. We feel this echo as a longing for connection, for relationship with God and with each other. God loves us perfectly, even though we have the capacity to return a mere sliver of that love. But that sliver is more than enough to activate our ability to engage in loving relationships here and now. When we nurture such loving relationships in our lives, we come as close as our imperfection allows to the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity.

Indeed, the Holy Trinity transcends our imperfections, draws us in, and strengthens our earthly relationships. This echo of God’s perfect love grows louder, more insistent, as we give ourselves over to be born again from above, to be remade closer to the blueprint than we were before. The blueprint calls for less domination and more mutuality, less prejudice and more generosity, less pride and more humility. The blueprint calls for less defending and more welcoming, less grasping and more embracing, less tearing down and more lifting up. And above all, the blueprint calls for love to spill forth in the forms of justice-seeking, mercy-granting, grace-sharing, hope-planting, and joy-singing.

And so you go home and do the dishes even though it was your brother’s turn. Or you tell your wife “thank you” for her poise in the middle of chaos and for putting up with you all of these years. Or you introduce yourself to that bedraggled person you always seem to run into on your morning jog and ask if he needs assistance. Or you look those who are oppressed in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for not showing up sooner,” and then turn to stand with them.

Each of these is an expression of the blueprint of the perfect relationship of the Holy Trinity. And each of these will be done imperfectly. And yet, the mystery of the Holy Trinity rests at the core of all existence, of all we do and all we are. And so our imperfection is even now being redeemed by the perfect love of God, which somehow manages to fit all of itself into our mere slivers of love.

If in your life, the Holy Trinity has seemed no more than an abstraction, I invite you to take a step back and look again. Reassign every single urge you have ever had to seek justice, to grant mercy, to share grace, to plant hope, to sing joy, and to love. Reassign all of them to the perfect love of the Trinity flowing, however imperfectly, through you. Notice now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit catching you up in the ever-spinning dance of perfect love, and be thankful.

Can You Imagine That?

Text of the sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost (June 4, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

 

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians
John 20:19-23

 

 

 

Picture it: The disciples are gathered for worship, as was their custom. They’ve brought with them some bread and some wine, and perhaps some olives or a few pieces of broiled fish. They arrive at the specified location, greet one another with the kiss of peace, and then begin their simple and intimate worship service. One of them reads from the Hebrew Scriptures, another offers a meditation and all of them share in the communal meal.

But all of a sudden, a violent rush of wind bursts into the room and flames descend upon the heads of the disciples! They try to communicate what is happening, only to discover that they are all speaking different languages! The commotion in the house where the disciples are gathered is so loud that it quickly draws the attention of the people outside. As a crowd gathers and sees what is happening, many are amazed.

“What does this mean?” some wonder. Others approach the scene with a healthy dose of skepticism: “They are filled with new wine,” they scoffed. In other words, “They’re drunk.”

Just then, Peter jumps up and says something to the effect of, “Hey, we’re not drunk. It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning. What has happened to us isn’t because we’re full of wine, it’s because we’re full of the Spirit!” Peter continues, repeating the prophet Joel’s foretelling of the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh.

In the two millennia that have passed since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that first Day of Pentecost, Christians have associated this day with the beginning of Christianity as its own distinct religion — the experience of God doing a profoundly new thing.

Through the centuries, this day has become a celebration of that new thing — a celebration of something that happened a long, long time ago. After all, we’ve come here today to read ancient scripture about an ancient event, and aside from a few of the liturgical trappings, our worship surely doesn’t feel all that different. But when Pentecost becomes just another nice, neat conclusion to a story that began thousands of years ago; or just another nice, neat liturgical celebration of something that happened a long, long time ago, it loses its ability to speak to us in the here-and-now. It loses its power.

Imagine a Sunday, not all that different from today. The weather is getting warmer, the strawberry and tomato plants are putting out fruits and vegetables and final plans are being made for summer vacations. The faithful gather here at the church for the annual observance of Pentecost — or as our Anglican forebears call it, Whitsunday.

The service leaflets are proofed, folded and distributed with a caring smile; the congregation is prepared to renew their baptismal vows; and the red vestments have been set out on the altar for the morning’s services.

The music begins to play, the people begin to sing, and the acolytes begin to make their way down the aisle when, all of a sudden, a violent rush of wind bursts into the nave and flames descend upon the heads of everyone who has gathered for worship! And just as the faithful attempt to put the experience into words, they realize that everyone is speaking a different language!

Of course, we can be assured of two things: If that happens here today, all of us will make the six o’clock news and somebody is going to be having a lengthy chat with the bishop. Things like that just don’t happen anymore, right?

But what is still happening is that, just as they were 2,000 years ago, people are still crying out for salvation. Everywhere we look, people are imprisoned — physically, mentally, and emotionally — behind walls of depression and loneliness and addiction, shackled with burdens that keep them from living into their identity as beloved children of God.

The cry for salvation is not a simple problem with a simple solution; it is a deep, guttural groaning for deliverance. It is a cry that the quick and easy formula of “Say these six words and the rest of your life will turn out OK” can’t hush. It is a cry that a date on the calendar or a memorial of what happened a long time ago can’t soothe. And it is a cry that Christians who are content to let somebody else do the hard and dirty work for them, can’t pacify. No, this cry can only be answered with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit — a Pentecost right here in our midst!

But that’s impossible, right? Rushing winds and howling storms and spontaneously learning to speak different languages — the whole bit — that just doesn’t happen anymore, right?

Well, maybe it doesn’t happen anymore. But that’s not the question Pentecost dares us to ask.

The question Pentecost dares us to ask is, “Could it happen?”

Could a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit happen?

Well, chances are that if we sit and wait for the Holy Spirit to send fire and wind and all of the trappings we’ve come to associate with the first Pentecost, we are going to be disappointed. But if we allow ourselves to imagine what a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit might look like, we may be surprised at what we find. Maybe a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit causes us to approach a long-severed relationship with a loved one with new hope and fresh patience. Perhaps a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit nudges us to commit to a ministry — either here at the church or in the community. Or it could be that a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit draws us into a deeper, stronger, more life-giving relationship with God.

The Day of Pentecost calls us to keep watch — to imagine what a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit might look like in our own lives. Of course, if we sit and wait for the same old thing to happen, we’ll always get what we ask for. But if we allow ourselves to imagine something new, something fresh, something holy, then anything is possible.

God promises, not that the Holy Spirit was poured out a long, long time ago; not that the Holy Spirit might be poured out a little bit, here and there, on a chosen few; but that the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!

Can you imagine that?

Jesus Didn’t Say “Beam Me Up”

Text of the sermon preached on Easter 7A (May 28, 2017) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

 

The Ascension of Jesus took place on our liturgical calendar on Thursday last week. We unfortunately do not have an Ascension Day service here at St. C’s, so todays sermon will touch a lot on that even though the Gospel was about Jesus’ praying with the disciples.

We are all familiar with depictions of people coming and going. Many will recall in the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” how Glinda, the good witch, descends upon Dorothy and the Munchkins in a bubble, and after delivering a message and explaining the mystery of the ruby slippers, departs in the same way. And no one who has never even watched one episode of “Star Trek” can have missed Captain Kirk or his crew being beamed up by a transporter beam. “Beam me up Scotty!” is a well known phrase in this world.

So, that is just like the Ascension, right?

Wrong. The Ascension of Jesus is not a device to get him back into heaven from whence he came. The Ascension is an account of how Jesus, having finished his work on earth, blazes a trail over which we one day shall travel, a trail to eternal life that continues our relationship with the risen Jesus and God, our creator and redeemer.

While other religions have their divine ascension narratives, with other worthy ones ascending with them, Jesus departs alone, leaving his disciples behind, staring int empty space, as a cloud takes him out of their sight.

And why does that matter?

Because our work is not done on earth. We learn more about that work from Jesus’ prayer for his disciples — and us — in the gospel reading for today: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you.”

This farewell prayer is said, not just for the small band of family and followers, but also for each of us. The good news here is that Jesus prays openly for us, for our protection and our unity so that we might be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

Jesus also tells us, shortly before his Ascension, what eternal life means for us: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

The Ascension makes Jesus accessible to all people, not just his disciples in a particular historic moment. He prays for all people, and that all may call upon him. There is no limi to accessing him, no request too small.

A classmate of mine told me about a woman who recently called her church office in distress because her husband had just received a bad diagnosis. She did not know what to do. As she talked with her priest, her voice became calmer and she began to voice her fear about what might happen. Then she said, “Will the church pray for us?”

“Of course,” her priest replied, “and I am praying for you both right now.”

“I know,” she said. “I can feel it.”

The risen and ascended Lord entered into her time of need with a calming presence through her plea for help and her priest’s prayer. That is how a relationship with Jesus is supposed to work: immediately accessible, even when we cannot say the words because of our grief or distress.

People are constantly learning how the living Lord works on their behalf. Jesus’ Ascension paves the way for this work, and we are the beneficiaries of it.

In the Easter season, we are continually drawn to stories about Jesus’ pastoral care for us. He walks to Emmaus with the troubled disciples who had hoped he would redeem Israel, and then helps them see his risen life and the power it holds for them as they begin to share the Good News with others. He cooks breakfast for his friends on the shore of the lake, and they know through this simple act of hospitality how deeply he cares for them, and we know how deeply he cares for all of us.

When was the last time you asked God for something? When was the last time you knelt in a church or in your living room and asked Jesus for a specific need? When was the last time you prayed for yourself or a friend to be healed?

For whom will you pray today? For whom will you offer prayer this week? These prayers are dialogues with Jesus, and he wants us to speak to him. He wants to give us good things, the things we deeply desire and need to lead lives of hope. That is what he does for the disciples in today’s gospel reading, and that is what he will do for you.

Conversion and transformation are the steps the risen one takes with us. Few people have the dramatic experience recorded by the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road, but many have moments when life and their place in it begin to come together. That is the conversion experience, when the pieces of the puzzle of life begin to fit together. The conversion leads to transformation, a new life centered in the risen, ascended Lord. It is no longer all about you or me.

Many of us have a favorite person whom we admire for their ability to go through a crisis or meet difficult challenges head on. One young man works for the Veteran’s Administration and sees vets from many different wars. He says the ones who teach him the most are the ones who can articulate their faith, the conviction that God loves them and cares for them, even with lost limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses. “They are,” he says, “the people who have found peace in the midst of strife. They know Jesus and see him as their friend.”

Jesus does not come and go on a transporter beam. His presence abides in the church and in a personal and unique relationship with each of us. That is what we celebrate in the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

Today, whether you are joyful about something or sad and grieving over what might have been, remember you are connected to the risen Christ, through the community of faith and directly with him. Pray for specific things you need. Ask for the things he wants to give you, and always remember it is his risen and ascended life that makes him accessible. He wants to walk with you. Will you take his hand?