“John’s Good News?” | Sermon by Erin Flinn, YDS ’17 | December 13, 2015

“…and with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Erin Flinn, YDS '17
Episcopal Church at Yale Seminarian Erin Flinn, YDS class of 2017

The Gospel this week requires a bit of wrestling with scripture. How are we to approach John’s strong text that begins with the words, “You brood of vipers!” and ends with Christ carrying a winnowing fork? Sure, I could stand here like a street corner evangelist, shaking the bible and telling you that God’s wrath is coming—so prepare, stay awake, be vigilant. Do good, or else. But for those who know me, you know that is the very last thing I would ever do. So, in truth, this passage in the Gospel left me wondering, in all his zealousness for justice, did John the Baptist miss the mark?

Sure, John seemed right on track when he told the crowd that he was not the Messiah and that one who is more powerful than him was coming, but then he keeps going, and he paints an image that is nothing short of a nightmare. He tells his audience that Jesus will one day come with a winnowing fork to sift through humanity, separating the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad, and the chaff will then be burned with unquenchable fire. Not to mention he says that an ax is waiting at the foot of the tree to cut down any branches that do not bear good fruits. This is John’s good news? Really? What do we do with this text? Do we simply write it off as metaphor? Well, yes and no.

This story is full of metaphor that speaks of the day of judgement, but I am not here to tell you what that day will look like, mostly because I do not know, and that is not my message today anyway. Furthermore, even if we accept John’s words as a metaphor, that does not dismiss the fact that his words are harsh and violent. After three weeks of opening to this text, and hoping that John’s message would have miraculously changed, the conclusion I have come to is this:

John, being mere mortal like us, could not imagine that judgement could come any other way than through a violent separating of good and bad, just and unjust. He could not image salvation without damnation, or peace without violence. For you see, we humans have a tendency to be violent creatures.

Think about it. Even when we are doing good we say that ‘we are fighting for what is right.’ Or, ‘we are fighting for peace.’ Or, ‘we are fighting for justice.’ We wage wars to bring peace to our nations and the world. But, peace in our time, and in our way, means that there is a winner who lives happily ever after, and a loser who is punished if not eliminated entirely. We are so quick to raise up arms against our enemies and in the moments of uncertain fear, but at what cost? To what ends? More destruction? More pain? We know full well that violence begets violence, maybe not right away, but if you look at history there is a pattern.

We as humans are so used to violence and it is so much a part of existence that even when Jesus came 2000 years ago people did not think he was the Messiah. They expected a great king to come and turn over thrones, and cast out rulers. They expected a great general to lead them into battle. This was not the Messiah that they got. Instead the one who came was the Prince of Peace. I do not mean this to say that Jesus was weak or always pleasant. He was neither, but his message was one of love, hope, and charity.

If we only anticipate one who will come to judge, than we risk the potential of seeing punishment as God’s ultimate goal. This sort of anticipation provides us with justification to enact God’s judgement by taking matters into our own hands. It gives us the power to go after those who are not living up to our expectations of what it means to be Christian. Even worse, it give us the power to choose who is good and who is bad, right and wrong. This mentality justifies violence because we imagine that if the violence leads to peace it is somehow permissible. A few weeks ago a man walked into Planned Parenthood, opened fire, and killed three people. This man was clearly deranged, but his motivations were not isolated. They came from people who openly proclaim that the murder of these doctors was justified because of the procedures they perform. They believe that humans are allowed to enact the judgement that belongs to God alone.

Furthermore, if we believe that we have the power to identify who will be saved and who will be damned, we are at risk of ourselves on a pedestal as somehow better than our neighbor, and not equal to our neighbor. In this country there are people who are crying out for religious freedoms while at the same time demanding that our Muslim brothers and sisters carry an ID and wear identification, or not be permitted into this country at all. We have been there before folks. It did not end well.

It is not our job to separate the wheat from the chaff because we as humans will never know who is truly good and who is truly bad in the eyes of God. But I will tell you this, gender, race, sexuality, or religious affiliation can never be the dividing line. There is no religion in this world that truly promotes violence at its core. Violence is a human invention; it was never God’s desire for us.

God gave us two commandments. We are to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s it. Love God. Love our neighbors. Nowhere in there does it say that we should judge our neighbor. It does not say that we should grab our weapons and enact God’s judgement. There will be time for judgement and it will come through God’s hands alone, not ours.

John the Baptist could not imagine that peace would come through any other means than through violence. He believed that Christ would be the judge who punished those who did not live up to the laws. But this message was not what the one who came after him actually proclaimed. In the Gospel of John 12:47, Christ tells his people, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” Rather than living out our faith through violent judgement and hate speech. I ask you to choose love and mercy. Make this your New Year’s resolution on January 1st.

Last Tuesday, December 8th, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church ushered in an Extraordinary Jubilee Year. It is extraordinary because this jubilee year is being brought about because of a necessity and not because of an anniversary. For this Jubilee year, the Pope has challenged Catholics to find new ways of building community. He wants them to be open, and to accept the change and vulnerability that comes with living a life guided by mercy. Most of all, he has invited his church to truly see the face of God and mercy in the people who stand in front of them. This is an idea of radical love. We may not be Catholic, that is true, but I would challenge each and every one of you to live out this jubilee year. Choose mercy over fear, love over violence, and be open to the change that will come in your life when you partake in the radical love of Christ.

This Advent season, when we look to the already not yet, I ask you to imagine a love beyond all measure. We already live in a world that is hurting. We already experience daily violence on the news and in our own lives. Violence is not God’s message; it is not what we wait for with great anticipation. So, rather than quake in fear at the words of John the Baptist, I invite you to sit and rest in the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always… Let your gentleness be known to everyone… and let the PEACE, which surpasses ALL understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is the good news my friends. Christ will come again not in judgement, but to usher in a new peace which surpasses the imagination of John the Baptist. And we will rejoice! For when God comes again, he will restore his creation to good.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Amen.

“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.

“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.

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.

“Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There” Sermon by the Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | Nov. 16, 2014

Judges 4: 1-7; Matthew 25: 14-30

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingI love a good story, but sometimes, when I’m right in the middle of telling a great one, Cherise will interrupt me and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not what actually happened,” to which I’ll respond, “But sweetheart, it’s so much more entertaining my way!” Maybe that’s why, as a people, we seem to love re-writing our history. Take Rosa Parks’ story, for example. We know that her refusing to move to the back of a Birmingham, Alabama bus in 1955, changed the entire course of the struggle against the social sin of racism in our country. But we like to picture her as an anonymous woman, worn out after a long day, after a long life of hard work, just too tired to move when she was ordered to give up her seat for a white man.

But in her autobiography, Parks explains what really happened: “People always say I refused to give up my seat because I was tired,’ she says, ‘but that isn’t true. I wasn’t tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I wasn’t old, although some people think I was an old lady then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”1

In today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, once we get past all the unpronounceable names – it’s sort of like a Dostoevsky novel, isn’t it? – we find another extraordinary woman, Deborah. Deborah, a judge in Northern Israel, is simply doing her job – hearing the day to day complaints and conflicts of her people, and mediating just solutions. She’d kept her job when the Canaanites enslaved Israel, as long as she agree not to challenge their iron rule.

I imagine Deborah sitting there, shielded from the scorching desert sun by her palm tree. In between appointments, she’d get a little drowsy, and begin dreaming about a better time for her people, about what it might take to set her people free. But it wasn’t the hot sun, so much as listening for God’s voice, that made her realize, just like Rosa Parks, that what was making her really tired was giving in to this kind of slavery.

Deborah was no soldier; she was a counselor and a legal advisor. So she went to Barak, Israel’s military leader, and told him about God’s plan. Then she used her mediation skills to get all of the tribes of Israel to work together, for the first time. And Israel rose up as one, and took back its freedom.

Which brings us to today’ gospel – the story of a master who entrusts his fortune to his servants while he’s away. We like to re-write this story as a kind of seminar on prudent investing, where God is the master and we’re the servants, who are given talents we either invest successfully or squander. We all know who the good guys are here, right?

Well, the message about using our God-given talents wisely is right on, isn’t it? But a more careful reading shows this particular master is anything but God. The text says he “…is a harsh man. He reaps what he doesn’t sow and gathers where he didn’t scatter seed.” In other words, he makes his wealth by exploiting other people. Off on a junket, he asks his servants to manage his nasty business while he’s away. Two of them invest his funds successfully, while the third buries them in the ground.

When the reckoning comes, the nameless third servant, who’s apparently as tired as Rosa Parks was at participating in this kind of situation, simply speaks the truth, and of course pays the price. Just like a friend I talked with recently who lost her job in financial services because she refused to go along with an unethical demand from her boss. Three very different people – three courageous moral choices.

This is pretty explosive stuff for the people listening to Jesus. They still believed that God, and everything sacred, resided in the Temple. But Jesus is announcing that the sacred lives not in church, but in our everyday lives, and in the day-to-day choices we make to either advance the kingdom of God or to go along with the status quo.

Which is the whole point of our baptism, where we promise to pay attention to God’s voice in our lives, and not just the demands of other people. If you look at the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll remember that in our baptisms, we promise to:
“Continue in the apostles’ fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers” – that’s what we’re doing right now – why? So that from Monday to Saturday, we will: “Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

The truth is that Deborah, the nameless third servant, Rosa Parks, and that friend of mine in finance, are just like the rest of us – cruising along, devoting our time and talents to doing our jobs, taking care of our families, going to church; reading the news headlines each day about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and struggling to figure out how that has anything to do with us. But on one crucial day each of these four came face to face with a terrible injustice and they realized how tired they were of being silent. They listened for the voice of God, and they chose to live the gospel.

Devoting our God-given time and talents to living the gospel is never the easiest or the most comfortable thing to do. We all struggle to stay aware of God’s presence in the ups and down of our lives. But remember, we’re never asked to do this alone. In baptism, we promise to remind each other of God’s presence, to discover together the courage and the hope and the joy we need to make it through our messy lives, to bring God’s reign just a little closer – one day at a time, one courageous decision at a time.

Retired Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, a modern prophet, explains the great paradox of how, as Christians, we’re able to face into such an ocean of human need, such a sea of human injustice, and still proceed with hope and joy. It’s because, Bishop Harris says, “We are an Easter people, living together in a Good Friday world.”2

 

 

1 Parks, Rosa (1992). My Story. New York: Penguin Books.
Harris, Barbara (June 15, 2001). Sermon at the ordination of Transitional Deacons, Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston, MA.

Sermon Text and Bible Study Update

After our informational meeting last week, we decided to continue the weekly Bible Study at 6:00PM on Tuesday Evenings at Luther House, 27 High Street.

This semester we will be studying the Gospel of John with an especial emphasis on how Jesus encounters “the other” throughout the narrative.

Join us tomorrow at 6:00 PM for dinner and our discussion as we begin with some background on the book and look at John’s first chapter weaving together the themes of creation and incarnation!

Also, anyone who is interested can find the text of last night’s sermon by seminarian Alex Marshall by following this link.

 

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