“A Tiny Seed” | Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | December 20, 2015

Micah 5: 2 – 5a | Psalm 80: 1 – 7 | Hebrews 10: 5 – 10 | Luke 1:39 – 55

The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain

One thing I really love about this extended fall we’re having is that I can spend more time in the garden. Several years ago, Cherise and I moved into a house in Bridgeport with amazing perennial gardens. The problem was that, as a kid who grew up in Manhattan, I had absolutely zero experience – I couldn’t tell the difference between a weed and a flower. So I either had to hire a gardener I couldn’t afford… or learn how to do it myself.

As grace would have it, a parishioner in her 80’s volunteered to teach me. And the first lesson had to do with the fact that there is no consistent relationship between the size of a seed, and the plant it eventually produces. In fact, some of the tiniest seeds can produce the most extravagant vegetation. Remember Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?

It’s a seed like this that makes its appearance at the end of today’s gospel, arguably the most beautiful canticle in the entire Bible, The Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord;” Mary says, “my spirit rejoices in God my savior… Surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed…

And we have. Generations of the world’s greatest artists and musicians have tried to capture Mary’s powerful and prophetic words in gorgeous paintings and exquisite musical compositions, but in the end, the words themselves carry the starkest beauty. And the fact that these words are spoken by one of the few women prophets who survived generations of mostly male scriptural editing, makes them even more extraordinary.

Because the words carry such power, such confidence, it’s easy to forget Mary’s actual circumstance – a very ordinary young teen, betrothed to an older man, who experiences some kind of other worldly encounter with a frightening creature full of light, who gives her what only an extraterrestrial could call good news: “You’re going to get pregnant by some spirit, and have a baby you’ll call Jeshua – he who saves. But don’t worry, I’ll send another extraterrestrial to your fiancée in his sleep to break the news. What do you think? Are you game?”

Well, I’d like you to remember back to your early teen years, and imagine yourself in whichever role would fit best – Mary or her fiancée. Really, how do you think you might respond?

Mary must have felt the same range of emotions we would – including panic. But rather than take one look at this awesome creature and bolt, she apparently focuses not outside, but inside. She accesses some inner wisdom, some strength that allows her to say the words that always send a chill down my spine –
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Because we know the rest of the story, we know what that “Yes” will cost Mary.

The power and inspiration that Mary accesses is the tiny seed of faith, a modest share of divinity planted deep within each of us. That’s part of what it means to be made in the “image of God,” the ability to overcome our egos and the rest of our human limitations, and actually try to make decisions as if we had something in common with God.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary for Mary to say “Yes” to God, just like it’s scary for us. French abbot and poet Michel Quiost puts it beautifully,

“I am afraid of saying ‘Yes,’ Lord.
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the ‘yes’ that entails other ‘yeses.’

Mostly we’re unaware of this tiny seed, but it’s there. And because it’s there, it allows us to consider saying “Yes” to the most outrageous invitations God offers.

When have you found yourself, against all odds, able to say “Yes?” Maybe it was the decision to believe in yourself enough to apply to Yale. Or maybe, after a really tough first year, it was the decision to stay. For some of you, it meant coming out to those closest to you, about who you really are. For others, it was standing up for someone or some cause that was really unpopular with your peers. For many of us, it’s when we choose to enter into the chaotic life of someone we care about, no matter how disruptive to our own lives. simply because they needed us.

In those tough moments, how did you find the courage to rise above your fear and do the right thing? Well, maybe the answer lies in the fact that God, knowing we are human, doesn’t stop by simply planting the seed of divinity within us. God also provides the continuous loving encouragement of the Holy Spirit to water and nurture that seed so that it grows and spreads, so that it will be as strong and courageous as we need it to be when the going gets tough.

And the Holy Spirit has lots to work with. For example, she offers you any number of wonderful individuals to be friends with, people who will respect you, support you, and encourage you to make healthy choices. She deepens your faith by giving you the wisdom to choose from among the incredible multiplicity of activities Yale offers, and to pick the ones that will strengthen you emotionally and spiritually. She does it by planting within you a yearning, a kind of unsettledness that neither human relationships nor all kinds of busyness can ever fill. “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord…” St. Augustine famously said, “…and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

And finally, she does it by inviting you into a community like ECY, fragile, flawed, funny, and foolish, a motley group of souls who commit to loving each other as God loves us, to picking each other up when we stumble, and to helping water that tiny seed of our faith during the times when we feel bone dry.

Face it, we’re all worriers. We especially worry whether we will have enough faith, enough courage to do the right thing when the going gets really tough. But don’t worry, here’s the real miracle of God’s gift of that tiny seed. All we need to do is to develop the habit of looking around every day, seeing all the resources God provides us, take a deep breath, and say “Yes,” to all the little choices we are faced with. That way, when the really tough ones come along, we may just find that they’re a piece of cake.

“Birth Pangs” | Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, PhD | November 15, 2015

Mark 13: 1 – 8

The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain

If you’re looking for the most powerful metaphor about life, death and salvation, you might try childbirth. Unless of course you’re a man. In the Ancient Near East and today, real men don’t dare talk about “women’s problems.” They’re too messy.

Except… How on earth do we have new life without birth pangs? It’s the 21st-century and life feels pretty messy. Maybe that’s because we find ourselves in the deepest throes of a new kind of childbirth today, the birthing of a new way of living with each other, which bridges the great divides of wealth, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and culture, of dying to a world in which certain flavors of people get to judge others as less valuable or necessary for our common salvation. It’s messy and it’s exhausting.

Sounds like Jesus’ world, huh? But our hope is that, over the millennia, we’ve grown a new consciousness, so that you, along with your older allies, and with your faith, may just be ready to change the world. But, my oh my, isn’t it a bumpy road?

I remember a vacation with my college age son in Florida, driving through the beautiful islands of Sanibel and Captiva. As I looked out over the seascape, I spied the most magnificent sunset. I turned to Oliver and said, “Isn’t that extraordinarily beautiful?”

But in the moment it took me to view that scene, turn my head, and report it to him, we were already passing a new scene – a beach completely devastated by the most recent tropical storm. Without missing a beat, Oliver looked and replied, “Yeah Dad, it is beautiful… in an apocalyptic sort of way!”

I think that’s exactly the kind of birth pangs Jesus is talking about. In a kind of whiplash, one moment we witness the sea change of marriage equality becoming the law of the land, and in the next, the pain and anger of so many of our sisters and brothers of color, or our LGBTQ friends at Yale, or women experiencing sexual harassment, testifying to their continuing experience of exclusion and disrespect.

The foundational assumptions we hold dear begin crumbling, just like the beloved Temple of Jesus’ contemporaries. What we thought were the ultimate tools of polite discourse – civility, carefully crafted arguments and counter arguments – fall apart in a deep rift of mutual misunderstanding. It’s like trying to manage a transaction with totally unfamiliar currency, and the result is defensiveness and anger. What seemed placid relationships, well – ordered by a mutual acceptance of relative authority, break down, revealing the underbelly of all the suffering this civility has covered up.

Birth pangs are the messiest and most disorienting moments of creation, even as they’re often the only path to the in – breaking of God’s dream of shalom. Moments before Jesus predicts the Temple’s destruction, he overturns the moneychangers’ tables, showing how corrupt institutional religion had become. People want to kill him, not for upsetting tables, but the whole natural order. Remember that when we blithely say, “What would Jesus do?”

Watch for the birth pangs all around us. Like the long string of posters on the High Street gate last week, reading – “Sisters of Color. We’re Here, We’re Loved, We’re Home.” If anything echoes Jesus’ Good News, it’s that – We’re here. We’re loved. We’re home – whether or not particular leaders or peers accept it.

The old Yale of expressing ourselves cerebrally, with nothing relevant below our necks, is fading. The timeless assumption that we’re all white, English – speaking, heterosexual, Christian “Yale Men” barely represented reality 50 years ago, and it completely misses the miracle of who we’ve become in 2015.

Over those decades, our community has given birth to a wonderfully life – giving expression of the Body of Christ. Step by difficult step, we’ve become a university of every nation, tribe and people, blessed with a wealth of gifts that are meant not to be tolerated, but to be celebrated as vital and necessary sources of learning and transformation for all of us.

  • Watch for the birth pangs, and watch also for the signs of hope.
  • Hope, as the faculty of disparate disciplines weave conversations about the tumult on campus into their classes.
  • Hope, in the massive outpouring of solidarity from students, faculty, chaplains, and staff.
  • Hope, in ECY, as members who may have started on the sidelines, end up marching, talking deep into the night, changing and being changed.
  • The hope Jesus provides in the incarnation, that once birth pangs begin, the proverbial cat has been let out of the bag, and there is no turning back.

Watch for the birth pangs. Watch for the signs of hope. And nourish your faith. Our faith gives us extraordinary gifts to navigate these turbulent times.

  • The gift of knowing that every one of us – those we like, and those we don’t like – are all equally beloved by God.
  • The gift of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, between us, among us –– that’s where we find the courage to speak our truth with love and respect, to listen to others’ truths, knowing God is doing God’s job, working to transform each of our hearts.
  • And finally, the gift of this amazing oasis that is ECY – a place, wherever you are on your journey, where you can listen, be heard, and be loved.

So, my sisters and brother, before you re – enter the fray, come apart and rest awhile, be fed by the word, be fed at the table, be fed by your community. And be fed by the words of the great Sufi poet, Rumi:

“The clearest sign of grace,” Rumi writes, “is that dung becomes flowers. The ground’s generosity takes in our compost and returns beauty. The world is saturated, wet with love. Be ground. Be crumbled. So that you will grow wildflowers where you are. You have been too strong for too long. Try something different. …Surrender.”

“Identity Crisis” | Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | October 11, 2015

Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12 | Psalm 8: 1-2, 5-8, 10 | Mark 10: 2-6

The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain

Ever since I was a child, I’ve struggled with the question, “Who am I?” Partly it’s rooted in my experience in Catholic school, when three of us Carling boys wound up in the same fourth grade class – me, my twin Frank, and my older brother Richard. You see Richard was a truant, and was held back from the fifth grade. He’d attend school very occasionally, but more often than not, he’d “play hooky,” standing outside our first floor classroom window, making rude gestures toward the teacher, then running away. The class would collapse into hysterics, and either my twin or I would end up in the principal’s office – Sister Bernadette, who steadfastly refused to learn any of our names. Try as I might to say “I’m not Richard,” she’d simply mete out punishments to whoever was available. When we’re kids, people knowing our name is important.

But as we grow up, this question of “Who am I?” becomes much more complicated, doesn’t it? We’ve become so many different people – a child of certain parents, a sibling, a soccer player, a tenor, a physics major. Eventually, our various identities span our family histories, our ethnicity, our faith tradition, our sexual orientations, our passions and aspirations, and so much more.

In all this confusion, it’s hard to remember, when we strip away all of our roles, our activities, our achievements, what’s left? At our core, who are we really?

Which is actually what’s behind the rich young man’s question to Jesus in today’s gospel, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” You see, Jesus has been preaching that eternal life is not just a distant dream we hope to attain, but rather a matter of whether we’re truly alive in the here and now; whether the choices we make every day, create either a kind of heaven or hell for ourselves, for others, and for our world. Jesus has been teaching that our deepest attachments are actually our idols, and that they’re the true test of whether we’re spiritually alive or dead, the true test of who we really are. Jesus’ answer was simply too hard a choice for the rich young man, and he knew it, which is why he went away grieving.

The great Christian thinker Henri Nouwen once said, actually while teaching at Yale, that if you asked someone today this question, “Who are you?” you’d inevitably hear a three – part answer: “I am what I do.” “I am what others say about me.” “I am what I have.”

Apparently, 2000 years after Satan drove Jesus into the wilderness to present him with the three greatest temptations known to humanity, very little has changed. “Turn these stones into bread” the devil says, “and prove you’re a miracle worker. After all, you are what you do. Climb to the pinnacle of the Temple, throw yourself down, then land unharmed, and everyone will say you’re the Messiah, because you are what people think of you. Ascend the highest mountain, look all around, and I’ll give you everything you can see. You are what you have.”

Jesus replies that these are all bald – faced lies, derived from the common human hunger to be valued in the eyes of others, to be loved. He knows there’s a better way to nurture that hunger. You see, Jesus has just come from his own baptism by John, and he’s heard from his own Father who he is – “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”

If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, in word or in deed, make sure you’re basing it on what you know first – hand, not just on what some smart person has told you. Jesus only proclaims what he himself has experienced – that God sees us, God knows us, and God loves us – just as we are – you, me, and everyone in this church, at Yale, in New Haven and beyond. Because we are all God’s beloved, Jesus calls us his sisters and brothers, which means we are siblings of every human being in this hurting and violent world.

It’s like Jesus is saying to the rich young man, “You can choose whether to live into the amazing love affair I’m offering you – with yourself, with others, with my precious creation, and with me, your God – or you can choose other gods to love – what you do, what people say about you, what you have.”

I especially love the fact that Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him. He didn’t judge him, and he doesn’t judge us. Jesus lived and preached among an amazing diversity of people, and the last thing he expects is that we will all make the same choices about our lives. He’s not saying that what we do, or what people say about us, or what we have aren’t important, he’s asking how attached we are to any of them. How distracted we are by them from the work of God’s kingdom?

Jesus knows the cost if we’re not careful. We become workaholics, and stop caring for our families, friends and communities. We become so imprisoned by the expectations of others, we commit our lives to vocations that have nothing to do with making this world a better place, with developing all our gifts and talents in a way that brings us true joy. We become so attached to what we have, we protect it at any cost, whether that’s war, or a country that’s become awash in guns.

It’s not enough, Jesus tells this young man, to avoid the big sins, to do what’s expected. No, we’re called to a radical re-ordering of our lives to make them consistent with God’s purposes in the world, to assure that our life, well – lived, actually makes a difference.

So the next time someone asks you, “Who are you?” remember the choice that God gives us. Are you what you do, what people think of you, what you have? Or are you the best and brightest gift that God could ever imagine, a companion of Jesus in the creation of a new world? Which will it be? Careful… how you answer is guaranteed to change your life.

“Beyond Nice” | Sermon by the Rev. Paul Carling, September 27, 2015

James 5:13-20  |  Mark 9:38-50

The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D., ECY Chaplain

A dear monk friend of mine from the Midwest, once told me the defining characteristic of Christians in the heartland. “Be nice to others,” he said, “and they will be nice to you.” If that’s all there is to being a Christian, talk about “salt losing its saltiness!”

This week belongs to Pope Francis. More than any predecessor, you simply never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. And you never know what kind of t-shirt he’ll be wearing when he says it – a “Stop Global Warning,” or a “I’m one of the 99%.” Here are a few of his gems:

  • It’s not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. Traditional religion is outdated – you CAN be spiritual and not religious.
  • I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God.
  • All religions are true. Proselytism is solemn nonsense.
  • The internet is truly a… gift from God.
  • One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is for all creatures.
  • Evolution and big bang theory are right – God’s not a magician with a magic wand.

Since his election, Francis has an opinion on everything, and they’re mostly surprises. We each have our favorites. Personally I’d like a few more related to women, and to human sexuality, but no one can deny he’s been a breath of fresh air.

Francis’ words today are as radical as Jesus’ were in his time, a time when life was all about sect and tribe, who you belonged to. So when his disciples say someone’s healing in Jesus’ name, but is “not one of us,” they expect Jesus to retaliate and condemn these amateurs. But Jesus understands the complexity of faith AND the political realities of his day. “Don’t stop him,” Jesus says. The world desperately needs good works; don’t stop him.

But Jesus goes on, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.” This practical politician, knows how divided the world will soon become over his mission. He wants to gather as much company around his beloved friends as he can.

Within all the hoopla, somehow I find Pope Francis’ words on economics and politics most courageous. To those who say priests shouldn’t meddle in politics, Francis responds:

Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the common good… a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” He sees politics as sacred, in that they are the major vehicle for promoting God’s dream of shalom in this weary and troubled world. “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person,” he concludes, “it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and to finance.” Cleverly, rather than condemn both politics and economics, he says a new politics is responsible for building a new economic order.

This was a bad week for those who believe in the impenetrable firewall between religion and politics. One prominent journalist quipped, “I guess that means that if he could vote, Pope Francis would choose Bernie Sanders.”

What struck me most about Francis’ words was the rare combination of faith, political and economic sophistication, the same that we heard in Jesus’ words today. Listen:

  • “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise, in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
  • “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies of the absolute autonomy of markets and of financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to states which are themselves charged with the providing for the common good. Such an economy kills… our souls and lays waste to the lives of the poor… This inequality is the source of most violence in the world today.”
  • “Some people continue to defend trickle down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting. We can no longer trust in these unseen forces and in the invisible hand of the market. We must attack the structural biases of inequality in society.”

The Pope’s words grate against the conventional wisdom about what is possible, against the paralysis and polarization that has become our national political scene, and they are easy to dismiss as unrealistic, unattainable, too contrary to our own varieties of self – interest.

But isn’t that exactly what Jesus suggests in his hyperbole about cutting off our hands and feet, and plucking out our eyes – that we need to cast away those parts of ourselves that separate us from God and from our neighbors.

Which is why I am so deeply grateful that we have ECY. As the letter of James suggests, we cannot do any part of this business of following Jesus, of being disciples, in the absence of a community like ECY, where we create a safe space – without shame or blame – to grapple with the meaning of the gospel and how to live it out in each of our very different lives. “I need a community,” Pope Francis says. And so do we.

By daring to embrace a community which cares about our faith – as diverse as it is; which cares about our world’s problems, though we have a hundred different perspectives on what ought to be done about them; which cares about all of God’s beloved children, even when we often feel clueless about how to help them. It is in community, that we fulfill Jesus’ essential mandatum – to learn how to love. First to love ourselves, in spite of everything we may have been told to the contrary, then slowly but surely to dare to love others, so that our hearts, nourished by the most extraordinary gift God has to offer, begins to overflow so abundantly that we can’t help but share that love with the rest of the world.

Go,” says Pope Francis, “Go forth and love.”

“Living in a Parallel Universe” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | 31 May 2015

Isaiah 6: 1-8 | Psalm 29: 1-4, 9, 11 | John 3: 1-17

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingNow that all the hype of the Harry Potter craze has died down, how many of us can actually remember back to the very first book? It was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and my favorite scene starts when Harry, in his letter of admission to the Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, is told to board the train on Platform 9¾. He arrives at Paddington Station, swarming with adults, only to find that there’s a Platform 9, and a Platform 10, but no Platform 9¾. Harry asks for help, but the conductor acts like he’s lost his marbles. Finally, he spies another child carefully aiming his luggage cart toward a solid brick wall exactly between Platforms 9 and 10, picking up speed, zooming right up to the brick wall… and then passing clear through.

This teenage wizard already knew what Nicodemus was having such trouble understanding – that at every moment, there’s a parallel universe, an alternate reality all around us; very different from the “reality” we experience in our daily lives, or on “reality” TV shows. But this isn’t some escapist world like we find in Harry Potter or in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. As theologian William Countryman puts it:

“It’s simply the everyday world seen at a new depth, with new comprehension… a place of intense vitality… (that) doesn’t draw us away from the everyday world, so much as it plunges us deeper into a reality of which the everyday world is merely surface.”1

On the surface, Nicodemus has everything. He’s rich and successful, a religious leader, and a master teacher. So why is he so uptight that he comes to Jesus in secret, at night? He’s hungry, something’s missing, and he thinks Jesus might fill that hole. But he’s all head and no heart. Even though he sees Jesus’ amazing miracles, that’s not enough – he needs to be convinced by some heady theological discussion. So when Jesus gives him this ludicrous – sounding message about being re-born, he can only stammer, “How can you be born again if you’re old? Are you supposed to crawl back into your mother’s womb?”

Jesus patiently explains that he’s not talking about being born again physically, but spiritually. Still, Nicodemus can only wonder, “How can this be so?” He reminds me so much of us, hungering for something deeper, casting about in all directions, and when we’re sure no one’s looking, we stumble upon Jesus’ invitation. In our fear, we try to make it into an intellectual proposition rather than an assent of the heart. But just like us, God never gives up on Nicodemus. In fact, the next time we meet Nicodemus is at the end of John’s gospel, when he joins up with Joseph of Arimathia, at great personal risk, to anoint Jesus’ body with rich spices, before it’s laid in the tomb. So if there’s hope for him, there’s surely hope for us.

Today, Jesus is saying we have to be born again with water and the spirit – the water of baptism is not enough; we also have to be baptized in the spirit – to choose to let the Spirit inhabit us and direct us as we try to follow Jesus Christ in our lives.

  • In the parallel universe Jesus invites us to enter, all the rules are reversed from what’s erroneously called “normal life.”
  • Instead of getting ahead, we choose to be last, so others can be first;
  • Instead of being masters of our destiny, in control of our futures, we choose to surrender our ego and our will to God, and become servants to others;
  • Instead of spending time with people just like us, or people we really admire, or people who can help us advance, we spend time with other seekers, and with people who are poor or sick or hungry or in prison, and we do it without judging any of them;
  • Instead of planning out our whole life, we make room to be blown about by the Spirit, toward however God wants us to grow next, toward whoever needs our help;
  • And because we focus not on appearances, but on what’s going on inside, we find our lives continuously interesting, continuously interrupted by joy.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But it’s not easy. The reason many of us only glimpse this parallel universe, rather than live in it, is because everything around us operates on opposite rules. It’s so much easier to hunker down and live with blinders on, moving faster and faster, numb to the hunger we feel, the hole that burns in our heart. We’re interested in spirituality; we’re interested in Jesus; we’re interested in the gospel; as long as none of these has too much “bite.” They’re easier to wear as accessories, rather than as the substance, the essence of our lives. That’s why it often takes a crisis to help us fall into this parallel universe, and to discover, if we truly want to live, how much we need to stay there.

C. S. Lewis once said “We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us; we’re like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”2

But the Good News in today’s gospel is that Jesus never asks us to live in this parallel universe alone. He invites us into a community where we help each other discover a new depth of joy; where we learn to “go with the flow,” to be blown about wherever the Spirit invites us; where when we fall down, as we all do, someone’s there to help pick us up; where we get to be re-born not just once, but every day; a community that understands this is the whole point of the gospel – to access the new life bubbling up from within that Jesus offers. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.

So in this season of Pentecost, go for the gusto! Go for the big thing, not just the easy thing. Choose to be re-born into eternal life. And if anyone criticizes you or makes fun of you for behaving so strangely, don’t apologize. Just say, “I’m living in a parallel universe. Do you want to join me?”

1Countryman, L. W. (1999). Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing.
2C. S. Lewis (1965). The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Eerdmans Press, pp. 1-2.

“Unruly Spirit ” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. for Pentecost Sunday | 24 May 2015

Acts 2: 1-21 | John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingIf you want to believe in Jesus, just look at the disciples before and after Pentecost. Before, they were fickle, fearful followers, ready to run away at the slightest hint of trouble. After, they were bold, articulate leaders. These guys who didn’t think they could tie their own sandals without Jesus’ instructions, suddenly ran outside, and started to talk, and somehow it sounded like Jesus. They healed the sick, and they cast out demons. They went to jail, where they sang hymns – and the prison walls came tumbling down. If you want to know how this transformation happened, just pick up the Book of Acts… There we read that three thousand people were baptized that day – a miracle – when a dozen bumblers received some kind of power that turned the world upside down – from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome to Alexandria – across nations, centuries, and cultures.

And Acts tells us it was all the work of the Holy Spirit. Usually, we think of the Holy Spirit as the abiding presence of God in Christ, that relationship of comfort and presence and safety, we cherish so much.

But today, we see the other side of the Holy Spirit – and it’s not so comforting. As one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor put it, this is the Spirit “who blows and burns, howling down the chimney, and turning all the lawn furniture upside down1.”

We can relate to that “before” picture of the disciples, can’t we? None of us is a stranger to the same fears that paralyzed them – pandemic diseases, economic uncertainty, global terror. Has there ever been a time when we’re more in need of the coming of the Holy Spirit? But whether we believe that this kind of Holy Spirit will come – the one who transforms our lives – I think, goes to the heart of what kind of God we really believe in.

As Rev. Taylor puts it:

“The question for me is do we still believe in a God who acts like that? … who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? … a God with a power to transform us, as individuals and as a people? Or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is pretty old and tired by now, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests, but not anyone we really expect to change our lives.”2

Mostly, I think, we succumb to a kind of collective amnesia about the Holy Spirit. Just the other day, a parishioner confessed, “God the Father I get. Jesus, I certainly get. But the Holy Spirit – what’s that about?” Or maybe, in the hubbub and busyness of our lives, we’ve simply lost touch with an active experience of the Holy Spirit. Maybe, we’ve realized that slowing down, and rooting around inside, opening ourselves to how the Spirit might be calling, can be anything but comforting – it can feel unsettling, even dangerous.

In fact, the Holy Spirit is so unruly, that we’ve spent centuries, as a church, just trying to tame her. We either try to individualize or to institutionalize her. By individualize, I mean we try to make the Holy Spirit’s coming a private act, a set of astonishing gifts bestowed on certain select individuals. They’re in such a different league from the rest of us, it’s easy to let them do the spiritual heavy lifting.

But the Spirit doesn’t call only the most spiritually distinguished. Remember, this is the unruly Spirit who engineers the pregnancy of a frightened girl; the one who inspires Mary to proclaim the good news not through the worthy priest Zechariah, but through his pregnant wife, Elizabeth. And when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple, the Spirit enables not the local church authorities, but the aged Simeon, to recognize Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.

If we don’t individualize the Spirit, we institutionalize it, somehow assuming that the Spirit moves only through the church. The church’s activities are where we find the Spirit, who we then come to see as part of the institution itself.

But notice that when God pours out the Spirit on the disciples in Acts, they neither fall on their knees individually, nor do they immediately form a committee, or call a rector, as a church. No, they go out into the streets…. together. The Spirit empowers this gathered community to proclaim what they’ve witnessed; to seek out others to join them (regardless of nationality, economic status, race, or creed); and then together to enact the coming kingdom of God, not only in their worship, but also in their life work.

The Spirit doesn’t move Pentecost off the streets of Jerusalem and back indoors where things are safe and secure. No, she stays out in the open, where people will ask questions, challenge, and demand to know how this “Good News” has anything to do with the lives they’re living.

Pretty wild stuff, huh? Well, that’s because, as theologian Michael Dwinnell reminds us, the Spirit of Pentecost is as simple as she is bold. She calls us to

“… set each other on fire… to innate generosity, like the wild mint that gives itself away, sacrifices itself by releasing its fragrance…, to spread the good news about God’s love affair with the world – and with all creation – and especially with us.”3

That’s a tall order, of course, especially for us staid Episcopalians. Which may be why Alan Jones, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, once quipped, “Only a fool would pray for the Holy Spirit to come… and only fools for Christ do.

But the good news is that opening ourselves to the coming of this Holy Spirit is the fastest way to cast out our fear, to help ourselves come alive again, to receive this same kind of boldness.

So whenever we find ourselves speaking with an eloquence we know we don’t possess; or offering forgiveness we hadn’t meant to offer – whenever we find ourselves taking risks we thought we didn’t have the courage to take; or reaching out to someone we’d intended to walk away from – we can be pretty sure that we’re breathing in and breathing out the Holy Spirit, taking God into us and giving God back to the world again, just as those first disciples did.

Welcome to Pentecost! It’s the season of the Holy Spirit – totally dependable and utterly unpredictable; gentle and wild; challenging and comforting – the Spirit that can’t be described or contained. It blows where it will, taking us along for the ride – a wild Pentecost ride, to which we’re all invited. Hold on to your seats – and each other. And discover that God can be found not only in a faint whisper, but in the fury of fire.4

Let us pray. Come Holy Spirit. Enkindle the fire of your love. Transform all that is fearful into boldness of heart. Inspire your servants with wonder and awe at the mystery of your presence. Conform your friends in compassion and forgiveness. Whisper discernment in the midst of confusion. Be wisdom in times of trouble; reverence in the face of diversity; patience with the unfolding of life. And forever anoint your messengers with joy. Amen.

1Barbara Brown Taylor (1997). The Bread of Angels, p. 67. I am grateful to Rev. Taylor for several other images used in this sermon.
2Barbara Brown Taylor (1999). Gospel Medicine, p. 145.
3Michael Dwinnell (1993). Being Priest to One Another, Ligouri, MD: Triumph Books, pp. 14, 145.
4See Joyce Hollyday, “The wild ways of the spirit,” Sojourners, May – June 1995.

“Repent, Return, and Rejoice” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling | 18 February 2015

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingThere’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here to Dwight Hall; more than just habit or duty; more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and do on this particular Wednesday has a special power.

Today we say – and then confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. So much else that we say in this place we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.

From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate becomes strangely visible.

Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust virtually every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and one we usually do our best to ignore.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this out loud, and we know its truth and its power.

And it sounds like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we’ve known it all along.

We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and today reminds us of this grim reality.

From dust… to dust.

To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death – that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it has profound meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed and cherished by God.

In this way, what appears as a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before, and will be with us to our very end, and beyond.

Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross – so today we mortals are connected with both Good Friday and Easter morning. Today we remember the promise that, as we have risen from dust to this mortal life, so, with Christ, we will rise from the dust of death to eternal life. Yes, to dust we shall return, but with Christ.

Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, to look and to move in a new direction.

Today’s call to repent isn’t based on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t rely on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.

At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it depends on concrete action. That’s why we follow the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving, because they keep us continually moving in the right direction – towards God.

So, remember that you are dust – and rejoice. For God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. And repent, and return to the Lord, and rejoice. For the one who created us, who loves us, and who travels every step of our journey with us, is calling us home.

“All Things to All People” Sermon by Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | February 8, 2015

1 Corinthians: 9: 16-23; Mark 1: 29-39

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
– 1 Corinthians 9: 20-23

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. Carling

In this land of rugged individuality, one of the worst insults you can make about someone is to say that he is a “phony,” “two faced,” that she is “all things to all people,” someone who, like the proverbial politician, “tells people just what they want to hear.”  People like this remind us of the snake oil salesman, sizing up their mark, and convincing them that whatever they’re selling will cure exactly what ails them.

So what are we to make of Paul’s famous assertion to the Christian community of Corinth: “I have become all things to all people?”  Does he mean to say that he just tells people what they want to hear?  That to an orthodox Jew, he too piously observes the 612 purity laws from Leviticus?  That to the reform Jew, unhappy with the rigid and doctrinaire temple religion, he’s a revolutionary reformer?  While to a Gentile, he thinks most Jewish practice is irrelevant?  Doesn’t he stand for anything?

Well, to understand this, first let’s look at the context – Corinth was a wildly diverse cosmopolitan place, a cultural melting pot for the Ancient Near East.  Here lived observant Jews, reform Jews, Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, a rainbow people from literally “…every tribe, language, people and nation.”

Most, of course, lived in teeming poverty, while the tiny elite hoarded all the wealth.  So if Paul wanted to win people to Christ, he needed to understand all of these cultures, and to speak each of their languages.  He needed to find a way into each and every very different heart.

Because what he had to share was absolutely foreign and revolutionary and scary for all of them, regardless of their culture – the Good News that none of these divisions matter in the eyes of God; that God loved every single person in this melting pot equally, and that God called them to love each other, not compete for cultural or religious or racial superiority, or for the scraps from rich people’s tables.

That’s why Paul saw a great freedom in becoming “all things to all people.”  As a Christian, he saw every person in a new and different way. “I am free with respect to all,” he said, “I have made myself a slave to all.”    Confronted with the tremendous diversity of the Body of Christ, Paul saw that God had no favorites.  Yes, the Jews were God’s “chosen people,” but so were the Gentiles, so were men and women, so was every one.

Because the fact is that what joins all of us is our common identity as “beloved children of God,” and what joins us as Christians, is that we’re committed to “loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  The more different we perceived someone, the more we were called to love them.  “What is it worth,” Jesus asked, “if you love only those who love you?”

Which is why in today’s gospel, Jesus makes a bee line directly from the synagogue gates to the gates of the city, where the most untouchables lived – the sick, the disabled, those possessed by demons – and doing so was a scandal to the priests whose company he had just left.

And speaking of priests, just after I was ordained over a dozen years ago, I arrived in a parish that had just chosen a wonderful, energetic, wise and very smart Rector, Thomas, 29 years old… and gay.  On my first day, barely hours into my priesthood, Thomas called me into his office and said,” Paul, when I arrived, a dozen families left in protest over my sexual orientation.  Your first assignment is to bring them all back.”  I found myself tearing up, confronted by this extraordinary priest – someone who, knowing he is hated simply for who he is, responds with phenomenal generosity of spirit.  “Paul,” he went on, “we all have need of one another – no matter what we believe about each other.  Go gather my lost sheep.  They’ll listen to you in a way they can’t right now to me.”

It was a slow and painful process, listening to so much I found so painful to hear, so impossible to respond to.  But I sat in each of their homes visit after visit, prayed with them, and tried to find the words that would penetrate each of their hearts.  After a year, eight families had returned, each in their own way, some only when I celebrated the Eucharist, but in the end, fully embracing Thomas when they finally let themselves get to know him.  The next year one other family came back – nine out of town lost sheep.  The tenth moved away… probably because I just kept on visiting them.  This was an experience that shaped my priesthood forever.

I’m thrilled to announce that at Easter Vigil this year, Bishop Laura will be joining us, and we will confirm at least one of our ECY members, and we hope more, and maybe even some folks from nearby parishes.  And at every confirmation, we all join in and repeat our own baptismal promises.  Together we’ll affirm this revolutionary faith, and together we’ll assert that God’s impartiality trumps all of our prejudices.  We’ll promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being; knowing that none of this is even remotely possible without “God’s help.”

St. Francis once famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary, use words.”  We don’t bring people to Jesus by giving them some slick sell job, nor by telling people just what they want to hear.  No, we win them to Christ by looking so deeply into their hearts, we see their common humanity, their common share of God’s abundant love.  And we love that bit of the divine within them in a way that afflicts them with the contagious joy Christ plants in our own hearts.

That’s precisely why God calls us to be “all things to all people,” to see beyond the differences of language and culture and race and economic status – and yes, even prejudice – and to love every person we encounter – every person – as equally beloved of God.  This is how we discover the wideness in God’s mercy, by trying our best to first see God’s love in ourselves, so that we may then see, in every person, near and far, the beloved child of God that lives within them.


Holy Muck: Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Paul J. Carling | January 11, 2015

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
-Mark 1: 4-11

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. In my parish church, St. Paul’s, we’re blessed with a virtual explosion of baptisms. Sometimes it feels like we don’t have time to dry off between services! So because we’re Episcopalians, we try to keep things neat and tidy – a few dollops of water on the forehead, a drop or two of oil, both quickly wiped off with a towel. It reminds me of the old commercial – “A little dab will do you.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingBut every once in a while, a baby will take charge and remind us that baptism is intended to be messier than all that, the gift of new life breaking into our lives. And I’m always thrilled when that happens – my glasses get pulled off, the baby tries to dive into the font, or maybe the water just suggests something very basic to the baby and… When things like this happen, they kind of remind me of how messy Jesus’ baptism must have been.

Imagine the scene: Crowds of people gathered in the mud and muck of the river Jordan, elbowing their way toward this wild man with hair matted by locusts and honey, people from every one of the margins of society.

John baptized sinners, and in Jesus’ time, sinners were those who had some misfortune befall them – lepers, people with disabilities, impoverished widows, people “possessed” with demons, people without a home or a meal – the last, the lost and the least, the ones who spent their lives falling down and getting up, and then falling down again.

They came to John to repent of their sins, to be washed clean in the waters of baptism, to be reminded of God’s presence on their journey.

And this was familiar to them. Baptism, and various other purification rituals, were an essential element of praxis for faithful Jews.
So into this motley crowd steps Jesus, one of maybe hundreds baptized that day, patiently waiting his turn. Is it any wonder that John is shocked? In Matthew’s gospel, John blurts out, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

He couldn’t believe that Jesus, who was without sin, who was God, for heaven’s sake, would make himself equal to all those social outcasts, and ask to be baptized. This Jesus, who put himself right in the middle of the messiest situations imaginable, was simply not the Messiah John expected, nor the God – distant and judgmental – that John knew.

So why did Jesus – who was without sin – choose to be baptized?

The evidence of how early Christian communities offered and prepared for baptism suggests that they saw a whole new meaning in baptism, apart from ritual purification. Christian baptism was, in effect, an affirmation of the basic covenant between God and God’s people; not just a periodic demonstration of repenting for our sins, but a once and for all fundamental commitment to continuously conform our lives to God’s will, and not our own. That’s the origin of the bold promises we make at baptism, and that we repeat at every baptism in which we participate.

So just sit back for a moment – or better yet, fasten your seat belts and put on your crash helmets, as author Anne Lamott warns us – and listen to how absolutely outrageous these promises are in the context of our 21st century lives:

  • to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God;
  • to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God
  • to renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God;
  • to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior;
  • to put your whole trust in his grace and love;
  • to promise to follow and obey him as your Lord;

Whew! But wait, there’s more:

  • to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers;
  • to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord;
  • to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
  • to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • and (finally!) to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of all human beings.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear those promises again – the basic commitments to live a Christian life, I feel overwhelmed by inadequacy.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? The only chance we have is to acknowledge that none of these promises can be fulfilled in our lives without God’s grace, God’s confidence, and God’s strength – it’s the only shot we have.

I think there may be a second reason, beyond redefining baptism, that Jesus chose to be baptized by John.

Maybe it’s the same reason Jesus was born in a trough reserved for cattle, as a homeless immigrant; the same reason this king of ours was crowned with thorns instead of gold and precious jewels, and hung on a cross.

Maybe it’s God’s way of saying that there’s no place so messy, no situation so hopeless, that Jesus is not willing to jump right into the middle of it with us, to offer us strength and guidance, to help lead us back to safety, to bring us home.

Maybe it’s because Jesus has never been the kind of savior to cheer us on from the sidelines, to shout directions at us from some safe place of his own. His style has never been to save himself the grief, the pain, the death, by insisting that we come to him wherever he is.

No, whatever our situation, Jesus loves each of us so much that he walks right into the middle of the muck of our lives, so he can lead us to life eternal. He has always led us from our midst, joining us in the water, in the skin, to show us how life is to be lived.

Today’s gospel message is loud and clear; “Fear not,” says Jesus, “there’s nothing too messy in your life for me to get involved in. There’s’ nothing you can say or do or think that can separate you from me and from my love. It’s simple – just open your heart, and let me into the mess. So that together, we can figure out how to live a life of great meaning… and great joy.”

“Watching and Waking,” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | Nov. 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Have you ever noticed how unnecessary God seems much of the time? Except, of course, when we’re confronted by fear that’s so thick we can almost taste it.

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingSeveral years ago, I remember sitting in my office on a cold afternoon in early December. The phone began ringing, just as I was pondering whether I could end the day a little early and take advantage of some Christmas shopping. My brain decided to let the answering machine respond, but somehow my hand picked up the receiver. It was the sister of my closest college friend. “Get on a plane immediately,” she said, “Dennis is dying of AIDS.” The next few hours are still a blur, but I vividly remember driving to the airport, nearly blinded by my tears, saying over and over again: “God, we need you…”

Today’s readings each describes a time in which God’s presence is desperately needed, and yet when God, for all practical purposes, seems to have vanished. First we hear the people, Isaiah among them, returning from exile in Babylon, and what they find is appalling: the hollow shell of a city. Everything that was precious has been smashed.
As Isaiah wanders through the ruined remains, he raises his arms and shouts: “O that you would open the heavens and come down.” God, we need you.

Then we hear Paul, addressing the Christian community in Corinth, famous for their divisions and conflict, and they’re in a terrible mess. God has bestowed abundant grace and individual talents upon them, but they’ve utterly failed to express this grace in their community life, and they’ve consistently misused their talents.

Finally, in Mark’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking to a group of Palestinians, struggling under one of the most oppressive regimes in history – they yearn for a Messiah who will come and drive the Romans from their promised land. “God we need you” they may well have said. In each of these situations, holding onto any consistent faith in a compassionate God who dwells among us, was a very tall order.

Now the early Christian communities hearing Mark’s words must have been riveted by Jesus’ message. They were suffering intense persecution, and while they busily recruited new Christians, they also watched carefully for the signs of the imminent “end time” Jesus seemed to be describing. But years, and then decades, passed after Jesus’ crucifixion, and they had to re-think Jesus’ meaning. Where are you God?, they might have prayed, God we need you.

We, of course, are the companions across time of those early Christians, challenged to live between the “now” and the “not yet” – the “now” in which we see only dimly the workings of God breaking through in our lives, and the “not yet,” when God will appear in glory.

Today is the first day of the new church year, and I love this beginning – it always reminds me of how we are invited to view time, as Christians, so differently from the secular world, to be aware and intentional as we shift from the “ordinary time” of the Pentecost season to the anticipatory, quieter time of Advent from chronos to kairos.

As Advent begins, we too listen carefully to Jesus’ words. Rather than encouraging his listeners to wait around and speculate about when the end time might be coming, Jesus literally gives them, and us, a “wake up call” – a call to the kind of action that inevitably results from waking up to a new consciousness about life’s abundance, to a focus on light, not darkness, on the spiritual rather than the material, on others, rather than the self. In this way, Advent invites us to live as if Jesus’ coming, which we celebrate in a few short weeks, so that it actually makes a difference in our lives today.

Is there a better time for Jesus’ message than right now? As Advent dawns, we feel just as desperate for God’s intervention as in the examples we just heard read. Today communities from Ferguson Missouri, to Florida State, to the University of Virginia, to cities and towns across the Middle East are racked by violence. The scourge of Ebola continues to spread across East Africa. Across the United States, established members of our communities and their children, ponder the calculus of the President’s executive orders on immigration to determine who is now “in” and who is still “out.” “God we need you.”

We resonate with Isaiah’s plea for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” and we also remember that God did just that in sending Jesus to become one of us, to vanquish not the Romans, but our greatest oppressors, sin and death; to give us, through Jesus’ resurrection, the gift of hope; and the continuous inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah reminds us that ours is a God who is always faithful, even if we forget to watch, even if we fail to stay awake. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand,” he says. And in response we sing: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” ‘Emmanuel’ – God abiding with us, in a relationship that will totally transform us, a God who continuously shapes each of us with abundant grace, with plentiful talents, and with the joy of a community in which to exercise our gifts.

This came so clear to me that cold December night, as I sat holding my friend Dennis’ hand, stroking his unconscious brow, and watching his life ebb away in that dingy city hospital room – that God had sensed exactly what Dennis needed at the end, the gift of being surrounded by those who loved him, being ushered into the promised land of eternal life. And so the Holy Spirit inspired each of us there that night to drop everything to be present for our friend at his death and resurrection.

Just like the servants who are asked to care for the owner’s home as he leaves them for a time, while we wait, we are called as a church community, to take Advent seriously – to stay alert for the countless opportunities, large and small, to be the eyes and ears and hands of God, to heal this world wherever healing is required, whether the world yearns for a ministry of reconciliation, from global crises to a dear friend or a member of our family who truly needs our loving attention.

And even though, when faced with these opportunities, we may find ourselves asking “Why me, God?” if we listen carefully, we will hear God’s quiet response, “Because I need you…”

As the 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, puts it:

God’s ground is my ground
And my ground is God’s ground.
All our works occur on this common ground
Where God and the soul
Do one work together.
Just as I can do nothing without God,
So too God can accomplish nothing
Apart from me.1

As we begin our Advent journey together toward the promised land of Jesus’ birth, remember that we will all certainly need God, just as God needs us. May we be inspired to continually remind each other of that fact, so that each time God calls, guided by our faith, and not by our fear, we will stay alert enough and awake enough to hear the call, and to say “Yes.”

1 Meister Eckhart (1260-1329) in Matthew Fox (1983). Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.