“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.

Sermon by Pauline Samuel, YDS | November 8, 2015

Pauline Samuel YDS '17
Episcopal Church at Yale Seminarian Pauline Samuel, YDS Class of 2017

The gospel reading for today highlights the story of the widow’s offering. Many of us may be familiar with this story and the messages of stewardship, charitable giving as well as sacrifice to God that can and have been interpreted from it. And while these are great interpretations, today I challenge us to go deeper. Jesus was in the Temple teaching earlier on in this 12th chapter of Mark. When he was finished teaching, he sat down across from the treasury and he watched the crowd as they put money into the treasury. Then Jesus called his disciples and drew their attention to a woman who Mark describes as a poor widow. He called attention to this widow and said to the disciples that she gave more than just two copper coins, she gave all that she had to live on.

What’s even more significant than the poor widow’s sacrifice is what Jesus does. He sits down and he watches. He watches the crowd. He watches the crowd of people as they move about depositing their money into the treasury. Jesus is watching, he’s being observant. He sees something. He notices what the others around him are oblivious to. He sees the shenanigans and opulence of the wealthy, their posturing and pretentiousness, making a show of dropping their large sums of money into the treasury. He sees their arrogance, exclusion and insensitivity to the poor. Conversely, he sees this woman, an impoverished widow, a woman living on the margins of society solely dependent on the grace God to take care of her. Could she be a victim of the injustice Jesus had just described when he denounced those scribes that devour widow’s houses, forced out of her home with nowhere to go? She makes her way forward and Jesus watches as she quietly drops her two coins into the treasury. Jesus doesn’t just see the obvious; he sees things from a different perspective, at a deeper level. Jesus sees people beyond the labels of rich or poor, of race, gender, sexuality, and other manmade limitations. Jesus also sees the inequalities, the injustices, the hypocrisy and the hurtful actions that cause pain and division. Then Jesus calls attention to all that he is witnessing. He calls his disciples to open their eyes and see it all for themselves.

My friends, Jesus is calling us to see what is going on around us, to pay attention to all that is happening in our communities. To be aware of our actions or inactions and how they affect others. Jesus is calling us to see and love our neighbors. Our neighbors are more than just the persons who live next door to us. They are more than our families and friends. Our neighbors are our classmates, professors, co-workers, the persons sitting in the pew next to us on Sundays; and even the displaced and the destitute. Our neighbors are racially, culturally, economically and socially diverse. When we love our neighbors we are in fact loving the beauty, the richness and the diversity that God created. When we love our neighbors we love and value all that they are and we are able to see the image of the divine, the image of the one who created us.

Like the disciples, Jesus is calling us to look deeper, look beyond the surface, beyond the obvious, beyond the material and see the inequalities, see beyond our own prejudices and instead see the best in humanity. Jesus is calling us to a heightened sense of awareness. Jesus is calling us to be aware that our words and actions have the power to hurt, divide and destroy. But our words and actions also have the power to give life, to heal and to restore.

When Jesus pointed out the widow to his disciples, he told them that she had put in more than all those who were contributing to the treasury. But Jesus was not focusing on the monetary amount of her contribution. The widow emptied her livelihood but more than that she emptied herself. When you empty something in essence you are making space. When we empty ourselves of the non-essential things in life we make space for God to move in our lives. We also make space to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When we empty ourselves we make space to widen our circles of fellowship welcoming and loving the other. As we read in First Corinthians 13:4-7, it says that Love is patient and kind, love endures all things and hopes all things. But we must remember that love is not self-centered, rude or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrong doing but it does rejoice in the truth.

And the truth my friends is that Jesus is asking is us to empty ourselves, just like the widow at the treasury. We are called to empty ourselves to make space for love and to love. A few weeks our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spoke up the hill at YDS during Convocation. He said, “The way of Jesus is the way of the cross and the way of the cross is love, and the way of love is the way of life.” Love has the power to stamp out all evil, division, malice, prejudice and hate. Let us empty ourselves so that we may be full of love, able to love God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds and with all our strength. And let us love our neighbors just as we love ourselves. Amen.

Senior Day Sermon by Jacob Schafer | 26 April 2015

Jacob SchaferIn September 2011, I was a freshman living on Old Campus, as many of you are or were at one point. One Saturday, a knock came on my door. It was Abby Bok and Dacie Thompson, two ECY upperclassmen whom some of you may know. As I soon discovered, they were bringing me three things: an invitation to ECY, a small pamphlet with dates, times, and so forth, and, most importantly, a Snickers bar.

Now, at this point, I had not had much contact with ECY. I was a cradle Episcopalian, and so sure, I had turned in the card to the chaplain’s office identifying me as an Episcopalian. ECY had sent me a packet at the beginning of the year with, among other things, an ECY hat. I was now receiving periodic emails giving me information about ECY’s weekly services. But until then I hadn’t yet made the time to come to ECY and see what it was about. Whether it was the personal contact, my desire to find a home church at Yale, or the Snickers bar, I couldn’t say, but I ended up going to ECY the next Sunday, and I’m so glad I did. That Sunday, ECY happened to be doing a choral Evensong in place of the regular service, and were performing Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. It immediately brought me back to my home church, where as a chorister I had actually sung the soprano solo in the Magnificat. Yet even more importantly, throughout the service I felt the presence of God and a connection to this place, and to ECY. From then on, I have attended ECY services, bible studies, evening prayer, outreach programs, anything ECY has put on, as much as I could.

At ECY, I discovered a place where every Sunday we reach God’s presence through worship and music. As many of you know, music has been an important part of my time here at Yale, and I’ve really appreciated being part of a community that has shared my appreciation of music, and where I can find not just an aesthetic or intellectual interest in music, but a deep spiritual connection to it as well. Yet at ECY I also discovered a place where we can have fascinating, insightful, and wide ranging discussions at Bible Study, where we strive to give back to the community, and most of all where there’s a community of friends in Christ.

Throughout my four years at Yale, a lot has changed. I’ve changed majors, taken different classes, and (I hope) grown as a scholar, a musician, and as a person. ECY has had changes, too, from its membership, to its choir and choirmaster, to, yes, its chaplain, but through it all, it has remained a supportive and close knit community, a community I have often relied on to get me through Yale. Even if I only got one Snickers bar out of it, ECY has been a constant presence through my college years, and for that I’ll always be thankful.

Senior Day Sermon by Austin Schafer | 26 April 2015

Austin PreachingMy sister, Allison Schaefer, is a sophomore at Brown University. Right now she’s taking a writing course in creative non-fiction, and she wrote her final paper on her faith journey in college. I’m going to begin with a passage that she wrote just last week:

It’s 5:27 pm. There are only two other people at the service—neither of them students. Today is the last day of “Spring Weekend,” Brown’s annual three-day concert extravaganza which features rappers and rockers, dazed and confused students, and dangerous levels of intoxication, amidst a general splattering of chaos. The silence of the small chapel is interrupted by music blaring out of a fraternity window across the street. The two other attendees, older gentlemen, exchange irritated glances.

Spring weekend is not over, I think. People are still partying—still having fun. Why am I spending my Sunday evening at Church when I could be out with my friends? There are four of us in the chapel, while thousands of students are tanning, dancing, and singing out on the green. Why am I here?

Father Blake glides in, wearing his long, black cassock. As he begins the service, I open to page 62 in the prayer book.

It only takes a few seconds for these thoughts to leave my head. The gentle rhythm of the opening prayer spoken in unison, the aroma of fresh candles burning before me, the rainbow pallet of colors shining through the stained glass window all cause me to understand why I came to Church at 5:30 on that day.

These words could not be more timely. Just yesterday, many of us in this room were similarly enjoying the debaucherous excess of Spring Fling just outside these doors. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose, as Allie did, between evening prayer and bacchanalian frenzy.

What struck me most about Allie’s words was not this timely coincidence, however, or the way she’s grown into such an eloquent and expressive writer. It was the eerily parallel experiences we’ve had with faith in college. We grew up in Wilton, CT and regularly attended services at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church with our parents, who are seated here today. Faith, to us, was not an ecstatic emotional experience, but a weekly routine. Allie put it much better than I possibly could, so I’ll quote her again:

Going to Church had been like visiting a distant relative. I went when protocol required it. I was polite, gracious, and attentive. I went through the motions, but didn’t understand the movement. I recited the words, but didn’t know whom I was talking to.

Like Allie, when I came to college as a freshman, going to Church was a comfortable routine that, for reasons I couldn’t articulate, felt good to do. I lived in Farnam Hall, just across Old Campus, and when I heard the organ music start playing at 5 pm every Sunday, I would wrap up whatever I had been working on and amble across the green to Dwight Chapel.

Attending services at ECY was comforting, and it added structure to my week—dedicated time for solemnity and reflection. But at the same time, I struggled with my identity as a Christian. At such a highly intellectual, secular place like Yale, many people don’t openly discuss their faith. Atheists and agnostics enjoy a sort of intellectual satisfaction—or perhaps intellectual conceit—that people of faith don’t, and I’ll admit I was embarrassed to discuss my faith with people who I worried would consider me unintellectual. Even to myself, I was unsettled by my inability to rationalize my Christian beliefs. God, in fact, is easy to rationalize—someone had to invent the laws of physics. Christ is more difficult—how can I accommodate the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection with my understanding of the universe as an orderly place, governed by strict rules without exception. And I’m not a deist, satisfied with an understanding of God as a disinterested, divine clockmaker. I’m a Christian, and I want to be a Christian. Like Allie, I could go through the motions, but I could not understand the movement. And I found this immensely frustrating.

Gradually, however, I came to realize that I had been thinking about this in entirely the wrong way. People here are really intelligent—often too smart for our own good—and we’re used to being able to figure things out. Not until I began to shed this intellectual vanity—the assumption that I could somehow figure Christ out—could I ever hope to be satisfied with my Christian identity.

Just as Allie found meaning in the scent of the candles and the light shining through the stained glass, I’ve finally started to feel Christ’s presence in the world in sublime, ineffable ways. When the choir sings the Anthem at the Offertory, when the organ plays the closing voluntary, when the Congregation reads aloud the ancient words of the Nicene Creed—this is when I feel the Holy Spirit. I shut my eyes, empty my mind of thoughts, and feel the presence of God.

I will never be able to rationalize Christ. Nor should I even try. All I can do is take comfort in the knowledge that Christ is peace; Christ is love; Christ is life.

Senior Day Sermon by Chamonix Adams Porter | 26 April 2015

Chamonix PreachingI was a bit of a late bloomer, spiritually. I never really belonged to a congregation as a child. When I arrived at Yale, I, like many freshmen, packed my schedule with meetings and decided that I couldn’t possibly make time for church.

By the summer after my sophomore year, I felt exhausted and aimless. I’d spent hundreds of hours on social justice projects, taken dozens of classes to teach me how to change the world, and yet I still felt stuck. So, early in my junior year, I came alone to a service at the Episcopal Church at Yale.

For me, ECY has been a place both of rest and of action.

As today’s readings remind us, God is a refuge—God makes us lie down in green pastures. Similarly, ECY has been a place of rest for me—a place of quietness, prayer, and reflection, a place to escape the busyness of campus and be still.

At the same time, as today’s readings remind us, God calls us to action. At ECY, I have learned that God calls us to so much more than just “being nice”—we are called, instead, to “lay down our lives for the brethren.” At ECY, we respond as a community to Christ’s call to action. In conversations and prayer, we have asked what it means to follow Christ. Our leaders, Rev. Paul and Rev. Kathryn, have offered us examples of godly lives. Together, we strive to love God and love each other.

When I first came to ECY, I could have never imagined the impact that it would have on my life. I saw it as an experiment, and it became a home. ECY is a place of rest and a place of action—just as our God is a refuge and a shelter, but also a living presence that moves our world to greater justice.

As we leave this place, I know that we will each carry this community with us. Together, we have built a community that strives every day to know and follow God: in rest, in work, and in every moment.

“Be Present in Love” Sermon by Eliza Robertson (’17) | 22 March 2015

John 12:20-33

Eliza Robertson ('17)When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a cat when I grew up. I knew a few cats, and they seemed to have a pretty good time of it, so I figured that was the right path for me. I spent time practicing being a cat, which (if you’re curious) mainly consisted of choreographing solo dances to most of the songs from the Broadway musical of the same name as my chosen profession.

Then I got a little older, and I realized that maybe being a cat wasn’t a viable career choice. So I decided that I wanted to be a zookeeper instead. I went to zookeeper camp, where I realized that cleaning up monkey droppings wasn’t quite the glamorous life I was looking for. So I decided to become a fantasy writer. That lasted until I realized that I liked reading books more than trying to write them, so I decided to become an editor. And then I decided I wanted to be a professor, like my dad. And then I wanted to open a bakery. And then I wanted to start my own theater company.

In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t something I wanted to be when I grew up. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some vision of the future. And I think that’s a pretty common thing; I’d be willing to bet that, if you were to ask anyone else in this room what they wanted to be when they grew up when they were a little kid, they’d have an answer. My brother wanted to be a frog. One of my cousins wanted to be a retired banker, which I still think is a pretty good answer.

There’s something so human about that insistence on looking towards the future, on figuring out what and who we want to be when we get older. And for those of us who are still students, figuring that out is almost a full time job. It often feels like everything I do is about finding the answer to that ever-present question: What do I want my life to be? It’s as if I’m living life looking firmly at the future, working backwards from the life I want to live through all the steps I’ll need to take to get there. If I can only figure out how the things I do now will impact my future self, I’ll be able to build that perfect life, that life that I will love.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading that “[t]hose who live their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. As we all spend so much of our time struggling to build the lives that we want for ourselves, what are we to do with a statement like that?

Jesus reminds us here that the time we have on this earth are short. Our lives may seem long as we’re living them, but from the perspective of eternal life they’re peanuts to space. And our sight into in the future is even shorter. In reminding us that all the time and energy we use trying to be the architects of our own futures is, ultimately, wasted, Jesus calls us to live lives that aren’t oriented towards the future.

Thankfully, he doesn’t end there. He continues, saying: “Whosoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also.” More than calling us to follow Him, as He so often does, Jesus asks us to be present with him. But what does that mean for us? It must have been pretty straightforward for Andrew and Philip, who could see Jesus in front of them. Be where Jesus is? Done. But it’s not quite so clear-cut for us. We don’t have a physical being to follow, as the disciples did.

I’m reminded of the parable of the sheep and the goats: Jesus tells of a time when the people will be separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, those who helped the Lord in His time of need on his right and those who didn’t on his left. Those on His right don’t remember having helped Him, so He tells them: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus’ point, for once, seems pretty clear: Jesus is present in those around us who need us. What we do for them, we do for Him, too.

By that logic, to be present with Jesus is to be present with other people. And not just any people: the least of these brothers and sisters. The hungry, the imprisoned, the afraid. These brothers and sisters in need. These brothers and sisters who probably don’t live in the beautiful futures we imagine for ourselves.

Because the funny thing about our imagined future lives is that we are necessarily alone in them. They may include imagined versions of our loved ones, to be sure, but other people can’t really live in our imaginations. Our imagined lives are necessarily about us. Other people live in the present. Other people need help kindness and love in the present.
So when Jesus says that those who love their lives will lose them, I take that as a call to stop putting so much of my energy into imagining my perfect future. A life full of richly imagined futures is of no use to anyone. It’s the things done in the present that are of use to those in need.

The Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh wrote in The Miracle of Mindfulness that “[m]any people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” I think that miracle is right now. It’s all of us exactly as we are now. It’s each bit of kindness and tenderness and love that exists in this present moment. It’s what we do for each other. For as we do to the least of each other, so we do to God.