Bishop Lee’s Pilgrimage to Palestine of Jesus

Bishop Lee is planning a spiritual pilgrimage to explore the Palestine of Jesus from July 26 through August 8. The pilgrimage will start at the Walled City and travel to important landmarks, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Dead Sea. Young people are encouraged to apply. For more information regarding costs, itinerary and travel, please contact Elizabeth Nelson at or 312-751-4215.

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Sermon preached February 7, 2010 at St. Gregory’s, Deerfield

A sermon on Isaiah’s call, Epiphany 5C, February 7, 2010:

Today, we hear Isaiah’s call.  It begins with a magnificent vision of God’s throne, with a robe so immense it fills the temple.  The seraphim aren’t cute cherubs or lovely angels, seraph referred to a fiery serpent.  These basically are six-winged dragons flying around God’s throne.  It is overwhelming and Isaiah reacts with fear and a sense of unworthiness.

But the song of the seraphim is so familiar that it’s easy to lose the holy terror of the scene.  (It’s probably not helpful to suggest that you imagine the seraphim as we sing the Sanctus today?)

Isaiah responds with another oft-used line:  “here I am, send me!”  It’s often used at ordinations, along with the lovely song, Here I Am, Lord.  And at this point, the lectionary gives us the option to end the reading.

Ah, but there’s more, as they say.  Only after Isaiah has volunteered for this vague mission (“Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”), he gets the details.  He is to go and tell the people of Israel to listen but not to hear, to look but not to see, somehow intentionally to dull their minds for as long as it takes for their cities to be laid waste and the people either dead or in exile.  How can God say, “Make the mind of this people dull, . . . so that they may not . . . turn and be healed”?

Fun.  What are we to make of this disturbing mission?  Isaiah is like the ancient Greek figure of Cassandra, who is given prophetic powers but when she refuses the god Apollo’s love, she is cursed so that no one will believe her.  Is the God of Israel as fickle as the Greek gods?  Is the story of Israel to be as fatalistic and impotent as that of the mortals in Greek mythology?

[I plowed through an article that wrestled with this question, pulling in all sorts of theories of interpretation, including the sociologist Emile Durkheim.  It’s too early in the morning for that, and I think there may be another way to get at this ]

Both the biblical and the ancient Greek prophets are known for telling the future, but white for the Greeks the future is unchangeable no matter what we do, the goal of Biblical prophecy is not simply to predict.  In fact that is perhaps the least important part of the prophets’ message.  The future is presented to the people not as some magic trick or a way to make money on the lottery, but rather as a way calling the people’s attention to the present.  The future is a consequence of the roots laid down in the present, in the actions, attitudes and beliefs of the people right now.  If the people practice injustice, the prophets say, then society will not hold together, those who have power will overstretch themselves and be vulnerable to the powerful of those outside of the nation.  Conversely, if the people hold to their covenant with God and do not follow other gods, if they remember the ethical component of their covenant, then their sense of identity will be maintained, even in exile, and God will be with them.  This means that we have a choice—the future can be changed if we change the present.

I am of the opinion that today one of the closest people we have to prophets are mothers.  They, too, have an ability to tell the future, in a way often most mysterious to their children:  “if you keep rough-housing like that, someone will get hurt”—and bam! It happens! They can see beyond simply human abilities:  “get your hand out of that cookie jar” and she’s not even in the room!

Mothers’ prophecies, like those of the biblical prophets, are based in the present, rooted in watching the patterns and the natural and logical consequences of the choices their children make.

Mothers’ prophecies can also, like those of the biblical prophets, fall on deaf ears.  How many parents have found themselves yelling at their children over and over, repeating yourselves a thousand times, and it’s as if you’re – choose one:  talking to yourself, talking to a brick wall, in a time loop?  How many of you children (both young and grown) have heard that vague parental rumbling in the background, nodded your heads, yet have no memory of what’s been said?

Picture those situations and listen again to the words of Isaiah:

Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds

God is highlighting the same dynamic.  When we get used to ignoring God, when we think we’re fine the way we are (playing in our own little worlds, enjoying our own stacks of cookies, provoking our siblings), when we’d rather not get up and do our God-ordained chores (of feeding the poor, caring for the stranger, visiting the prisoner, tending to the sick) – when we do those things for long enough, we stop hearing.  We nod and say, “yes, Mom,” but the meaning fades into the background.

At least until Mom – or God – gets tired of all this.  At this point we have two ways to look at reality and the rest of the reading from Isaiah: the consequence of not paying attention is, by one account, God’s punishment, which means we (and Israel in Isaiah’s day) can attribute our future suffering to God’s wrath, an option I’m not entirely comfortable with (particularly in light of how that gets used against others, e.g. Pat Robertson’s comments about Haiti).  On the other hand, it could be that the cities lying waste, houses without people, the nation in exile, all these things could be a consequence of not being attentive in the first place.  Mom says, over and over, brush your teeth.  If you don’t, the cavities are not Mom’s punishment but a natural consequence.

“Real life” in the big bad grownup world is rarely as simple as not brushing teeth = cavities, but I believe that God’s message through Isaiah points to an important truth.  I couldn’t help but see our current economic situation in the references to houses without people, and to wars and natural disasters in the cities lying waste, and in the realities of environmental destruction in the desolation of the land.

Have we stopped listening to God?  In our comfort, do we sit and play with our own toys, deaf to the cries of the poor next door and around the world?  In our fear, do we plug our ears and sing “la la la,” so that we don’t have to deal with the consequences of our choices to live beyond our means, both individually and collectively.  In our twisted sense of self, do we stare so hard into the bathroom mirror that we can’t hear the truth about either our sin or our loveliness?  In our habit of not listening to God we grow calluses on our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

These are hard questions, perhaps more fitting to the season of Lent, although one of the themes of Epiphany is God’s revelation of truth, particularly in Jesus.  I don’t want to move too quickly from these questions, as uncomfortable as they may be.  I encourage you to take time in prayer, in solitary reflection, and in communal discernment, to be attentive to the ways that we have stopped listening to God (and not in the easy-out ways . . .

But I want to add a final note of encouragement.  Despite Isaiah’s backhanded sign of hope (“the holy seed is its stump”), we do have always, always, always, the redeeming love of God in Christ.  Doing the hard and scary work of recognizing the ways we have covered our eyes, blocked our ears, and dulled our understanding is not so that God can say “I told you so” or punish us.  It is so that we can participate in that abundant life that God longs to share with us.  In today’s gospel, Peter could very well have covered his ears when Jesus asks him to let down the nets again.  Like some request from Mom to take out the garbage yet again (I took it out last week!), it may have seemed unreasonable.  Yet he was able to hear Jesus’ voice, and in responding he got – more work, yes, more suffering, yes, a harder road, yes – but it was all in the context of a sense of God’s abundant love.  And that love is always worth listening for.

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Sermon preached at St. Gregory’s, Deerfield, April 13, 2008

I’m behind on posting lots of things.  Here’s a sermon about sheep (Easter 4A, 2008):

Today’s gospel gives us two of three parable Jesus tells in the gospel of John about sheep, the third one being Jesus’ famous words about being the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep..  It is likely that Jesus didn’t tell the stories right in a row like this.  He probably told them on separate occasions and John put them together because of their common theme (kind of like telling stories about great uncle Billy:  “oh and that reminds me of the time when he said this . . . “)

As Jesus told these parables, his listeners would probably have pictured a communal sheep pen in the village to which various flocks would be herded at night.  The shepherds would take turns being gatekeeper (perhaps using their own bodies as the gate while they slept across the opening) and then each shepherd would come and call out his own sheep (through the gate) with a call that the sheep had learned to recognize from him.

In these three parables about sheep, shepherds and pens, Jesus focuses on different parts of the image.  In the first parable, Jesus doesn’t identify himself with any particular part, but rather notes that true shepherds enter by the gate and don’t climb over the wall, while others–thieves and bandits–climb over the wall.  The sheep, he notes, recognize the shepherd’s voice and follow him.  He doesn’t at this point identify himself with the shepherd–he does quite explicitly a bit later–so he seems to be making a point about people other than himself.

The second parable identifies Jesus with the gate to the sheepfold.  If true shepherds enter only by the gate, then their entrance, he says, is through him.  In the first parable, he says that the sheep will not follow a stranger (i.e. the thieves and bandits who have climbed over the wall), but he does say in the second that the thief comes in “only to steal and kill and destroy.”

Some biblical scholars tell us that John is using these parables by Jesus to encourage the church in a very difficult time, a time when different teachings have arisen, a time when the church has been challenged and maligned by the Jewish communities of which they’d originally been a part, a time when things seem quite precarious and dangerous.

Today’s reading is preceding by the amazing story of Jesus healing the man born blind.  In it, the Pharisees are shown to be blind to Jesus’ true identity and blind to the very signs that he is working.  It ends with the lines,

“Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.”

The whole set of sheep and shepherd parables closes with parallel words:

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’

A bible interpretation tip here:  if a passage has very similar phrases surrounding it–as in this one where we find two parallel references to blindness–one should consider that they are meant to highlight something.

I think John is trying to get us to understand something about us as a community and about the leadership of our communities.  The Pharisees–that is, the authorities–are blind, John tells us, so listen carefully to find out how we should see.

One of the overriding questions for these parables is “how do we know that our leaders and teachers come from God?”  “How do we see them?”  You’ll recognize them, Jesus says, because they will come into the community by the proper way:  through the gate.  They won’t sneak in, they won’t take shortcuts and they know their sheep.

Leadership in the Christian community takes various forms–or at least it should.  There is the obvious leadership of the bishop, as chief pastor, administrator, and bearer of the tradition.  There is that of the priests, essentially deputized by the bishop to teach, preach, offer pastoral care and administer the sacraments.  Those are pretty obvious.  But then there is the leadership of the deacon, who reminds the community and each of its members of their duty to serve the least and most easily forgotten around them.  There is the leadership of those whose lives seamlessly integrate Christ’s love and reconciliation wherever they are–at home, at work, even at church.  There are those whose wisdom helps the community stay on course when fear or confusion or wounds threaten to lead them astray.  There are those whose leadership is in the formation and education of all of the members of the community.  Christian leadership is meant–as we are reminded by Paul’s powerful metaphor of the church as a living body–to be diverse and varied, lay and ordained.

So how do we recognize that leadership as being that which Jesus would have for us?  First, those leaders don’t sneak in.  They don’t manipulate their way to prominence, nor do they hide their light under a bushel basket.  They are true to who they are and who God has called them to be, no more and no less.  Second, they don’t take shortcuts.  This is a hard one.  The work of love and reconciliation is hard, yet it cannot be sidestepped.  True leaders in our community are willing to stay in hard conversations, to hear all of the stories, to allow God to do God’s work in God’s time.  The shortcuts of manipulation and deception (or at least dissimulation), taking advantage of lack of communication, of using fear or other forms of pressure–none of these things are the ways that true shepherds enter a community.

Those first two characteristics find completion in the third:  the true shepherds know their sheep.  Shepherds who tend to use their sheep for wool rather than meat will spend years with their sheep.  The sheep learn to know their shepherd’s voices and the shepherd knows theirs.  Sneaking in will not lead to better knowledge, nor will taking shortcuts.  That comes only with time and entering into the relationships directly and honestly.  (You’ll note that the issue in the story of the healing of the blind man, that the Pharisees don’t know him or recognize him.)

The second parable that Jesus tells gives another key to leadership in our communities of faith.  Jesus is the gate, so the true leaders will enter through him.  But what does this mean?  Those who enter by the gate of Jesus will be like him (tall order, but what we’re all called to follow):  they will seek out and love those who are usually on the margins, they will offer words of encouragement to the struggling and words of challenge to the comfortable, they will serve rather than look to be the boss, they will relate to God with the trust of a child to a parent, they will offer healing and nourishment in surprising and abundant ways, they will seek God’s glory rather than their own.  Now, none of us is Jesus, and we will never fully  live up to those things.  We will see, however, glimpses of that gate in our various shepherds and a desire in them to be more and more like him.

So that’s all very nice and orderly.  I don’t usually write sermons with three point lists:  the three qualities of a godly life, five steps to forgiveness.  But here you are, the three qualities of Christian leadership, or conversely, how not to be a thief and a bandit:  don’t sneak in, don’t take shortcuts, make sure you know the sheep.

But there’s a wrinkle to all of this.  In what we’ve heard, we have a nice, safe sheepfold, walled all around, the one opening guarded by Jesus, kindly shepherds who call our names.  but there’s a catch.  All of this is to prepare the sheep to leave.

If the sheep were to spend all of their time in the pen, there would essentially be no need for shepherds.  The pens are to keep the sheep safe so that they can do something more important:  leave.

Leaving is tricky.  On the one had, the food and water are outside the sheepfold; on the other, most of the dangers are, too.  But this is what shepherds do, they lead their sheep out into a big world full of lovely green grass and sharp-toothed wolves, full of clear running streams and steep cliffs.

As Christians, most of us will not spend our lives inside the sheepfold, if we understand it to be the church.  Nor should we.  We are made to go out into the wide, wild world and face both its joys and its dangers.  The difference is that we have a good Shepherd who leads us, knows us and is willing to give all for us.

All the more reason to pay attention to who your shepherds are and to pay attention to what happens inside the fold.  Jesus implies at first that the sheep will not follow these thieves and bandits because the sheep don’t know their voices.  There is a danger, however.  The thieves enter, he says, to “steal and kill and destroy.”  They do damage inside the sheepfold so that the sheep cannot leave, the sheep cannot go out to find nourishment.

Another mark, then, of a thief and a bandit infiltrating the Christian community is that somehow the members of the community are not permitted or encouraged to leave the fold.  Strange, isn’t it?  But Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. . . . I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Staying in the sheepfold won’t do it.

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FTE Fellowships

Applications for FTE’s 2011-2012 academic year fellowships are available now on the FTE website. Fellowships are available for the following groups of students interested in ministry:

  • undergraduate students
  • entering seminary students
  • first year seminary students (who will be second year students in 2011-2012)
  • racially and ethnically underrepresented doctoral students.

If you meet these criteria, check out the FTE website for more information or for the applications.

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“We wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed”

A sermon preached by Stacy at St. Paul and the Redeemer on June 18, 2006:

“we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed”

So, as is often the case with the epistle reading, we have entered 2 Corinthians in the middle of a conversation—and a pretty intense one at that. Just before this passage, Paul has been making his case against severe critics in Corinth.  In the previous chapter, he uses lots of language about proclaiming the gospel message openly and making reference to the physical frailty of the messengers. His physical body suffers and even carries, he says, “the death of Jesus.”  He leads into today’s reading with this:

7For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Then we heard today:

2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— 3if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Life in this body is hard, Paul says.  He was, like any educated person in the ancient world, influenced by Greek philosophy—which was very distrustful of the body and the material world—and used philosophical categories and vocabulary in make his arguments.  At first, I thought that he had fallen into the distrust of the body and the material world that infused Greek thought, but on reading the following I realized that he is critiquing that very system:

. . . Paul speaks in the language of popular philosophy, from which the following images are drawn: death as a stripping away of the body (5:2-4); the body as a temporary dwelling (5:1, 4); and the body as a burden (5:4). Seneca taps the same tradition that Paul has at his disposal when he describes the Stoic’s attitude toward death:

But this heart is never more divine than when it reflects upon its mortality, and understands that man was born for the purpose of fulfilling his life, and that the body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host.10

Yet, in spite of the shared metaphors concerning the finitude and difficulty of bodily existence, Paul resists with all his might the notion that for the sake of the soul’s liberation the body is finally to be put away like clippings of hair and fingernails. Notice in 5:4 his abhorrence of the goal of Stoic eschatology, a soul stripped naked. Death, Paul argues, is not the separation of the soul from the body but the further “bodying” of the soul in an eternal house not made with hands. (David Fredrickson, “Pentecost: Paul the Pastor in 2 Corinthians,” Word & World 11/2 (1991), p. 212)

Let’s dig into these metaphors a bit more then.  Why do we wear clothes and live in houses?  Both serve as protection from the elements, yes, but there’s more. Even when the climate allows for it, human beings like to decorate and define their space with clothes and houses.  Our clothing and our houses define us—for better or worse—they tell the world who we are or who we think we are or who we want to be.  They define our space:  here I am and this is where I live.  Letting people into our dwellings (and into our clothes for that matter) is a way of expressing intimacy and trust.

Paul has been celebrating the frailty of his own earthly dwelling, saying that it draws people’s attention not to him but to Jesus, the real power that dwells in him.  But he longs for and trusts that this is just a temporary state.

So all of this talk about clothes and dwellings leads me to make a confession. I watch makeover shows.  First there was “What Not to Wear”.  Then there was “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”  You know, the shows where some slob’s closet is unceremoniously dumped and a whole new wardrobe (and makeup and hair and more) is offered. The process of watching some woman who’s hopelessly caught in the 80’s or a guy who lives in oversized t-shirts and baggy sweats be transformed into someone who looks classy and put together is somehow compelling to me. Now I’m hooked.

What is it about those shows?  These folks certainly are living in pretty shabby earthly tents.  The people around them give testimony to the dwelling (of their clothes) not expressing who they are or sending mixed messages about what they want.  One of the things that the “candidates” often worry about at the beginning is that somehow they will forfeit their identity, lose their uniqueness, get stuffed into someone else’s idea of style and beauty.  They want to be comfortable; they think they look just fine.  Most of the time, however—and I know that these things are heavily edited and if there are failures we probably won’t see them—but most of the time, the person made over will say at the end that he or she feels more comfortable, more beautiful, more fully themselves now that the clothes fit properly and are the right color and style.  The outside now reflects the inside.  The outside now proclaims grace and confidence and fun and maturity and whatever else we long for the world to know about us.

So will there be clothes in heaven?  Or houses?  I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s Paul’s point.  Whatever his physical ailment, he struggled with his body.  Yet he knew it to be an important, even essential part of his witness to Jesus Christ and his transforming power.  The weakness of his body was essential to that witness.  But when the witness was no longer necessary, once that body was left behind, he knew that he would be clothed in something else, something similar but transformed.  He didn’t hate the body; he longed for it to be more, for it to be transformed into its own perfection.  I love that line I read earlier: the soul would be even further “bodied.”

It seems to me that Jesus’ parables reflect the same sense that Paul is expressing, that the visible, the obvious, the physical, the world around us and our very bodies are a sign, but only a pale or ineffectual sign of what is to come. The seed is housed in the earth when it is planted.  The seed itself is a dwelling, an earthly dwelling for the plant that is to come.  And yet the final outcome of that seed is a plant with stalk and leaves that themselves clothe, even more extravagantly the same seed the dwelt in the ground.

The parable of the mustard seed goes even further.  One of the things we don’t often realize with this parable is that it’s a joke.  The mustard bush as we know it is not the “greatest of all shrubs.  Have you ever seen a picture of it?  Birds can’t make their nests in its branches, not the way we know it.  So this tiny mustard seed is dwells in the ground, grows and is reclothed as a bush , a powerful transformation in itself, but then Jesus says that in the Kingdom of God this pathetic little shrub is able to do things we’d never believe.

There’s a still further tie to Paul’s musing on being clothed and unclothed, on dwellings made with hands and not and to Jesus’ riddles about secrets hidden in simple packages.  Today is, for many, the feast of Corpus Christi, a day commemorating the institution of the Holy Eucharist.  The original idea was to be able to celebrate the Sacrament outside of the bittersweet, solemn tone of Holy Week.  It can call up visions of monstrances and way too much incense (is that possible?) and distance between the sacrament and the people, but I found even as we celebrate Eucharist every week, I like the idea of celebrating that gift.

What is that we believe about the Eucharist? (BCP 859)

Q.  What is the outward and visible sign in the Eucharist?

A.  The outward and visible sign in the Eucharist is bread and wine, give and received according to Christ’s command.

Q.  What is the inward and spiritual grace given in the Eucharist?

A.  The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ give to his people, and received by faith.

Q.  What are the benefits which we receive in the Lord’s Supper?

A.  The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.

I love the Eucharist, but really, the bread and the wine certainly don’t look or taste like a banquet.  We eat this bread and share the cup knowing that they are like the mustard seed, hiding a reality beyond what we can even imagine—just as we are to look at each other and within our lumpy bodies and cranky souls see Christ waiting to be revealed.

And so we return to Paul. In the Holy Eucharist, Christ is clothed in bread and wine, and, once eaten, takes up residence, makes a dwelling within his people, even as we long for a dwelling place freed from sin and pain and death.  We already are “a building from God, a house not made with hands.”  Here Christ dwells.  Just as he is clothed in simple bread and wine, so is he clothed in us.  Just as the seed holds possibilities unseen and unimagined, so, too, this community has within it possibilities for reconciliation and justice and love far beyond anything we could manage on our own.

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