Sermon for the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, May 9
The abbey church has been a profound delight for me to pray in since I first visited here to discern if I had a monastic vocation. I’m still here, so maybe I do. I missed out on the Anglo-Catholic setup we once had which I am sure was also beautiful, but I deeply appreciate the simplicity of our worship space that has nurtured me and many others for many years. Our church is something to celebrate.
Much as I love this building and its space, I think the best way to celebrate it is to reflect on how we can be the Church with the help of this Church building. Solomon admitted that the temple could not contain God since not even the heavens can contain God. Moreover, we hope we don’t need Jesus’ ministry of throwing money changers…
I’ve been wanting to write more about my recent transition from the Presbyterian Church to the Episcopal Church, but a hectic schedule has not allowed. Hopefully, I will get to that soon. I’m sorry for leaving my readers in the dark, but living life has taken precedence over documenting it.
The transition process has been full of providential coincidences, deepening relationships, and a profound sense of finally settling into a church tradition where I can feel at home.
I have had a steep learning curve in my new job as parish administrator at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek. I’m grateful that the community there has been wonderfully welcoming and patient with me as I learn how to juggle these new responsibilities. I have desperately needed to learn the administrative and financial aspects of church life, which this job allows me to do. Knowing about these things will make me a much stronger presbyter when I (hopefully) return to that role in a few years. I believe I am exactly where God has called me to be for this moment.
At the same time, this new season is not without its own pain and anxiety. First of all, I am still grieving my previous call as pastor of North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I had hoped to remain in that position for much longer than I did. Even after I came to the realization that I was not a Presbyterian, I was determined to stay on for the sake of serving that amazing group of people. Unfortunately, the financial realities made it impossible for me to continue in the call.
Second, the reality has begun to sink in that I am taking a substantial risk by hopping between denominations like this. The Anglican commitment to the historic episcopate (a theological commitment I have come to agree with, btw) means that I will have to re-enter the discernment process for ordination. The process will take several years. And there is the possibility, however slight, that a bishop might look at my situation and not decide to move forward with ordination. My priest assures me that this, while technically possible, is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the fear sometimes keeps me up at night. I felt it acutely this weekend at the Diocesan Church Development Institute (DCDI), where clergy and parishioners from two Michigan dioceses gathered to learn about helping members grow spiritually, live together in community, and nurture transformative change. I was thinking about how much I love this when the terror struck that I might never again be able to invest my whole life in pastoral ministry, as I have for the last decade.
But God is not without a sense of humor.
Today’s epistle reading at the Daily Office was from 1 Peter 5:1-11. St. Peter writes as an apostle, bishop, and priest (presbyter, translated as “elder” in the NRSV) in the Church. He exhorts the leaders of the Church “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it not for sordid gain but eagerly.” (1 Pe 5:2)
I heard the following words as if they were spoken directly to me in this moment:
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pe 5:6-7)
And I then I read the following as a promise:
“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Pe 5:10)
As one trained in the arts of biblical exegesis and church history, I am fully aware of the dangerous situations that arise when one inserts one’s personal desires and fears into the text of Scripture. Furthermore, I know how church bodies work and have come to trust in the process of discernment that happens with the bishop in concert with relevant committees. There are no guarantees that I will ever become a priest in the Episcopal Church. Even if I do, the path will not be short or easy.
But the promise I hear in this text is that my life is destined to reflect God’s “eternal glory in Christ” and I will be given whatever manna I need to make that journey safely. I write these words from a place of faith, knowing that those same old fears are likely to reassert themselves in the next few years, days, or even moments. May God grant me the grace to trust the promise, even as my own heart screams in terror.
Last night, I was venting these fears to my wife at some length (ad nauseum, she might say). I eventually paused to go say Evening Prayer. Reaching down to get a hymnal from the bottom shelf, something must have shifted. There was a noise on the shelf above me and a sudden, stinging pain in the back of the head. I turned around to see what had fallen and hit me… it was my ordination certificate.
[SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing details of series 10’s first episode. If you want to see it for yourself first, then stop here. You have been warned.]
Like so many others, I was beside myself to finally see a new episode of Doctor Who, after an entire year of absence from the small screen, save for the annual Christmas special. And the first episode of the new series did not disappoint.
In it, we see the return of Peter Capaldi, in his final season as the Doctor, along with the cheeky Nardole, who we have come to know from the last two Christmas specials. We also meet Bill Potts, the new companion played by Pearl Mackie.
In this episode, we meet Bill, who works in the university cafeteria. In addition to being inexplicably drawn to the Doctor’s lectures at the university, she also develops a crush on the enigmatic, but seemingly sad, Heather.
All Heather wants is to get away from everything. She sees herself as ‘defective’ and acts withdrawn toward everyone. Heather’s one place of solace is a mysterious puddle in a back alley on campus. She spends time staring into it, trying to figure out why her reflection doesn’t look quite right.
Eventually, the puddle (which turns out to be something else entirely) consumes Heather and leaves a ghost-like entity in her place. What follows are some delightfully scary encounters in the tradition of Japanese horror films like Ringu.
Heather wanted to get away, and she got her wish by becoming ‘the pilot’ of a liquid alien spaceship, but at the cost of her humanity. Her pursuit (haunting) of Bill is driven by her last conscious thought, a promise to not leave without Bill herself.
What the episode stirred up for me are memories of being a suicide survivor. For those unaware of the term, suicide survivors are the loved ones of those who take their lives. We are the ones who get left behind when someone decides that this world isn’t worth living on anymore.
I have known several such people, but the one who stands out most prominently is my college roommate, Rob, who took his own life in March of 2001, during my junior year at Appalachian State University.
The suicide of a loved one is a wound that never fully heals. With time and good inner work, it stops bleeding and becomes a scar, but the mark abides and the absence is felt forever. In a figurative sense, Rob’s ghost follows me across space and time.
Release only comes for Bill when she stops running, turns to face Heather’s ghost, and finally lets her go with the words, “I really liked you.”
Those of us who get left behind by suicide live with that same kind of haunting presence. I really liked Rob. Was I not a good-enough friend? What could/should I have said on that last weekend together, when he looked so pale and gaunt, but I dismissed it as a weight-loss routine? What questions should I have asked on the night he died, when we chatted via Instant Messenger, and I prattled on and on about my latest personal drama? I will never know.
All I remember is the next day, when Rob’s campus minister met me outside our dorm and told me that Rob was dead. Later that week, I attended my first Roman Catholic mass and began to fall in love with liturgical worship. I started going to mass regularly after that. Even though I never converted to Roman Catholicism, that journey has now led me to the Episcopal Church, where I am beginning the confirmation process and hope to pursue ordination to the priesthood. I’m grateful for that experience, but it still doesn’t redeem Rob’s death. I carry that scar with me to this day.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that suicide is a worse crime than murder. “The man who kills a man,” Chesterton writes, “kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” (Orthodoxy, Ch. 5)
Now, let me be perfectly clear that I reject any notion of the belief that all suicide victims are necessarily condemned to hell for eternity. Such theology is indefensible from a moral or biblical standpoint. Rob was overcome by his bipolar disorder when he refused to take his medication. He failed to manage his disease, so it raged out of control and left the rest of us with a permanent scar.
None of that is fair. It was unfair that Rob had to live with bipolar disorder. It was unfair that he chose to go off his meds. It is unfair that his loved ones have to deal with the consequences forever.
But this unfair situation cannot be dealt with by assigning blame and running away from the ‘evil’ that is haunting us.
As the Doctor so keenly observes in the episode, “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. And hunger looks a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery.”
The situation only finds resolution when Bill stops running and turns to face Heather’s ghost. In a moment of tenderness for the monster, she reaches out, takes her hand, and says, “I really liked you.” Then she let Heather go.
If I had one more face-to-face encounter with Rob, that’s all I would say to him.
If you are like me and Bill, suicide survivors, don’t waste your time with the blame game, which has no winners. That ghost will haunt you from here to the other side of the universe. The whole thing is patently unfair, but we can’t demand “a life for a life” when the life lost is the one that was taken to begin with. We have to forgive, to let go, in order to move on. With time, grace, and care, the bleeding will stop and the wound will become a scar. But scars are stories and can be useful in the healing of others.
If you are like Heather, wanting to end your suffering by running away from this world, I urge you to reach out and seek help before it is too late. Don’t seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are more who love you than you realize. Don’t outsource your suffering onto others by becoming a ghost. In the words of Scripture, “There are more for you than there are against you.” There are people, some of them even strangers, who would rush to your aide if they knew how dire the situation was. Seek them out.
A couple of Sundays ago, I filled the pulpit for a friend in Coldwater, MI.
After church, I checked out a local barbecue joint and got to chatting with a lovely Evangelical couple in line with me. By the time we reached the register, we had become so friendly, the clerk thought we came together and rang us up as a single check. I decided to just roll with it and picked up the tab. They ended up inviting me to their table.
Knowing I had just come from a preaching gig, and seeing me cross myself before eating, the wife asked me how it is that I maintain a personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of worship that seemed so “religious.” I gave a response in the moment, but have continued to think about her question since then.
Here is my fleshed out response to my new friend, sent over Facebook:
One of the marks of a good question is when someone is still pondering it, weeks after it was asked. Such is the case with the question you asked over lunch in Coldwater, about my personal relationship with Christ in the Episcopal Church and its more formal, some might say “religious”, worship. Still thinking about that one. Bravo!
Continuing to formulate an answer:
As I tried to articulate on the spot, the worship I experience in the liturgy is no mere “going through the motions”. I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Bottom line. Full stop.
It is sadly true that such has not been the case for many in mainline denominations, Episcopal and otherwise, over the years. The temptation to simply “go through the motions” is ever present and one must be vigilant to guard against it. Equally dangerous is the temptation to snobbery that one form of worship is better or more pleasing to God than another. Christ was quite clear in his declaration that the Father is only interested in those who worship “in Spirit and in truth.”
Whether this takes place with a rock band or Gregorian chant is, at one level, irrelevant. Forms of worship are human creations. In their best moments, they are outward expressions of one’s deep relationship with God and vessels through which others can enter into a similar relationship.
My experience of the Church’s liturgy has been one such vessel for me. Furthermore, a careful reading of history, especially time-tested classics like the Rule of St. Benedict and the Book of Common Prayer, indicates that the liturgy was certainly born of sincere devotion and a desire to nurture others’ formation into the Imago Dei.
There are two staples of a healthy spiritual diet in our tradition: the Daily Office and the Eucharist.
The Daily Office is our version of what Evangelicals might call their “quiet time”. As the name indicates, it is meant to be practiced every day. Our current prayer book provides services for Morning, Noon, Evening, and Bedtime.
Its roots are in the monasteries, dating back to ancient times. Even today, at my favorite monastery in Three Rivers, the monks rise every day at 4am to pray and read Scripture. They repeat this pattern around the clock, seven times a day. Basically, the job of a monk or nun is to be a full-time intercessor. Our churches often employ full-time pastors for leadership, administration, preaching, worship, youth, and children… but why do we not encounter pastors whose whole ministry is prayer? Strip away the mystique surrounding monastic life and that is what you have: people who have given their whole lives to the work of prayer.
When practiced faithfully, the Daily Office causes us to step back from the hectic rhythm of life to remember that we are ever in God’s presence. Brother Lawrence (another famous monk) called this “the practice of the presence of God”.
The Offices contain prayers of Thanksgiving, Intercession, Confession, Adoration, and Self-offering. They contain copious readings of Scripture for study and reflection. They leave room for holy silence, which is so often lacking in our hectic world. In the service, we recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as a way of calling us back to the center of Christian faith and spirituality.
Above all, the center of the Daily Office is the praying of Psalms. These ancient prayers were the first hymnal of the Church. They express every imaginable emotion. As prayers from Scripture, they are especially interesting because they are simultaneously God’s Word to us and our words to God. Reading them as one’s own prayers engages us in a holy conversation. If one is interested in exploring the power of liturgical worship, all one has to do is crack a Bible and read a Psalm as one’s own prayer.
The other thing is the Eucharist (a.k.a. Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper). In our churches, we celebrate this mystery every Sunday. We can no more imagine a church service without Communion than Protestants can imagine a service without reading from the Bible… it just wouldn’t be church! Strip away the formality from the written prayers, and one can see a familiar pattern (I bet even the most casual church service follows something similar to this):
-Welcoming the presence and power of the Holy Spirit
-Praise and worship
-Reading from the Bible
-Hearing the Word explained in a sermon
-Proclaiming our faith in Jesus Christ
-Praying for the needs of the world
-Confessing our need for God’s grace
-Giving to support the work of the Church
And then comes the celebration of Communion itself. This is the high point of every service. For us, this is so much more than an occasional remembrance that Jesus died for us (although it certainly includes that). Think of it like an ‘altar call’:
-The priest (pastor) recalls God’s creation of the world, humanity’s fall into sin, and Christ’s redemptive incarnation, death, and resurrection.
-In response to this saving grace, we offer our whole lives to God’s service, along with the physical gifts of bread and wine.
-The priest asks God to send the Holy Spirit upon this offering, to transform it (and us) into the Body of Christ (remember… you are what you eat).
-Then we get up from our seats and walk down to the altar at the front of the church, with hands outstretched to say, “Yes, I want to receive Jesus Christ. I want to welcome him into my heart, my life, and even my body… so that I may become part of his Body in the world today.”
-Then the priest pronounces God’s blessing and sends us out to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today: filled with the Holy Spirit, instructed by God’s Word, strengthened by prayer and worship, and fed by Christ.
…and next Sunday, we do it all over again!
This is why I have come to love the worshipful liturgy of the Episcopal Church. This is home for me. Yes, I have to guard myself against “going through the motions”, but the same thing could be said of Evangelical churches where the same praise choruses are sung from week to week. Often, I find the words of the formal prayers helpful if I am feeling spiritually dry or empty. These ancient prayers carry me along, like floating down a river. Even when I am not strong enough to swim on my own (which is all the time), God is strong enough to bring me home. I think of it like the Good Shepherd who finds the lost sheep and carries it home on his shoulders. That’s me in worship.
Thanks for asking good questions and getting me thinking!
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.”
One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that, when you ask him a question, you almost never get the kind of answer you expected. He has this way of turning questions on their head. His response tends to shed more light on the person asking the question than it does on the issue at hand. Such is the case in today’s gospel reading.
The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples encountering a blind man while they are in Jerusalem for a religious holiday. As they pass by, one of them asks a question that has plagued philosophers for thousands of years: “What is the nature of suffering and evil?”
This question is especially troubling to those of us who believe in God. People have come up with all kinds of theories that try to find an answer. Some suggest that God is loving but not almighty. In other words, God cares about suffering but cannot do anything about it. Others say that God is almighty but not loving. God could solve the world’s problems but just doesn’t care. Finally, some suggest that God is both loving and almighty, but that all suffering is merely an illusion or a misunderstanding on our part.
For Jews in Jesus’ day, the most common answer was judicial. They believed that everything happens for a reason. If someone was happy, healthy, and prosperous, then that person was being blessed and rewarded by God. If someone was suffering, then that person was being punished for their sins. This judicial theory is probably what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Even though they had their own pet theory to explain why this person was suffering, it didn’t answer all their questions. In fact, their pet theory left them with quite a dilemma. You see, the man in question had been blind from birth. There was no way he could have violated Jewish law before the onset of his blindness. Therefore, God was either punishing this person for someone else’s sin or God was punishing this person for a sin that had not yet been committed. Either way, God comes across as unfair.
Jesus doesn’t resolve this dilemma for them. He lets it stand out like a hole in the middle of a donut. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Rather than taking a side in this debate, Jesus once again turns the entire question on its head. He says, in effect, “You’re asking the wrong question.” His response seems cryptic and mysterious because Jesus is answering the question they should have been asking all along. He continues, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
What does that mean? It means that Jesus is trying to shift their attention. He’s saying, if you really want to look for God in the midst of these tragic situations, don’t waste your time looking at the cause of the pain; look instead at the response to the pain. The most important thing, to Jesus, is that we be doing God’s work. And what’s the very next thing he does? The text says, “he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes”. In other words: Jesus got his hands dirty. While other people were standing around and arguing about philosophy, Jesus was busy healing those who hurt most.
But the scene doesn’t stop there. The recently-healed blind man quickly became the center of controversy in Jerusalem. This time, the debate was all about whether Jesus had the proper credentials to work such a miracle. Witnesses were called while scholars debated back and forth about the issue. All the while, the healed person is stuck in the middle. He doesn’t have any answers. He was probably still using his brand new eyes to figure out the difference between red and blue. When they push him, he says, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He stays true to his experience and simply tells the world what happened to him.
Eventually, it becomes pretty clear to this guy that he is simply a pawn being used in someone else’s religious and political agenda. What I like best about this guy is his moxy (chutzpah). Once he realizes what’s going on, he’s not content to play his part and go home. No, he stands up and gives them a piece of his mind. In more ways than one, his eyes were open. Better than anyone else in the room, this “ex-blind man” was seeing things clearly. So he stands up to this room full of rabbis and tells them off!
Well, these rabbis weren’t used to being spoken to like that! After hurling a few choice insults about the nature of this man’s parentage, they voted unanimously to kick him out of the synagogue. He was anathema, excommunicated, dis-fellowshipped, dishonorably discharged, and “don’t let the door hit you in the rump on your way out!”
So, there he was. His situation seemed hopeless. For years, he had been excluded from the life of his community because of his disability. Now, he was kicked out and called a heretic. What was he supposed to do now? He probably felt further away from God than ever before.
I love that Jesus decides to show up again at this point in the story. It says, “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and… found him”. Then Jesus affirms what the blind man had suspected all along: that he could “see” better than any of those rabbis and scholars. In spite of their educated debate over this controversy, they had completely missed the point about what Jesus was doing. But this blind man got it, and Jesus wanted to make sure that he knew it. Jesus said, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Once again, Jesus makes sure that those who fall through the cracks of controversy and debate find their honored place in heaven’s economy. The pawns become the kings. The victims become the heroes. Jesus shows us that these suffering and forgotten people are the ones who matter most to God.
When I am forced to endure hard times in my life, or when I witness tragedy in the lives of others, I do not reach for a book that tries to explain away the problem of pain in philosophical or theological terms. I think instead of these words by the Rev. Fred Rogers, a fellow pastor in the Presbyterian Church, who you may know better as the long-time host of the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
I think Mr. (Rev.) Rogers hits the nail right on the head with this one. When we go looking for God in the midst of suffering, whether it’s our own pain or the tragedy of an entire nation, let’s not get lost in philosophical debate over the causes. Rather, let’s be the “helpers” who get our hands dirty in the work of healing.
That is, after all, how God responds to us in our suffering. When human beings brought themselves to the point of destruction by turning away from God and each other, God did not abandon us to reap the natural consequences of our sin. Instead, God took on flesh and dwelled among us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Jesus loved us and lived among us, as one of us, healing, forgiving, and restoring lives. Jesus got his hands dirty in the mess of our lives and our world. Even when we resisted his saving efforts to the point of killing him on the cross, Jesus still would not stop loving us. On the third day, he rose from the grave, conquering the power of sin, death, and hell, so that now, we who have been baptized in his name, filled with his Holy Spirit, and fed with his Body and Blood are sent out to get our hands dirty as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.
Let us go out to meet the hurting people of this world, not armed with arguments about the nature of evil, but equipped with the power to love and heal this broken world in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior.
“Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
I’ve had a friend from college visiting with me this week, and it’s been delightful to catch up with her–to find out what has been going on in her life, and share what’s been happening in mine, and also to reminisce about our college days, which were nearly 20 years ago, now.
As I’ve been preparing for this sermon, I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular experience I had in college. It was at a worship service I attended most weeks. This was a student-led service, not affiliated with any church or campus organization–just a couple kids with a guitar and a violin and a drum who started getting together to pray. It started with about 10 friends and quickly…
As many of you have got to know me over the past few years, one of the first things you must have realized is that I am a sci-fi geek. Among the many movies and TV shows I enjoy is the BBC series Doctor Who.
Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien known only as “the Doctor” as he travels through time and space. The Doctor’s vessel for these travels is a ship called “the TARDIS”, which looks like a simple phone booth on the outside, but on the inside…
On the inside is a vast structure of control panels, rooms, hallways, and even a swimming pool. The running gag for all fifty years of the show’s history is the astonishment experienced by the Doctor’s human companions as they enter the TARDIS for the first time.
Invariably, the first, gasping words out of their mouths are, “It’s bigger on the inside!”
I love that line, as well as the wonderment that inspires it. For my fellow Christians, who also happen to be fans of the show, I like to say that this is a perfect description of the Church Catholic: It’s bigger on the inside.
From the outside, Christianity is just another of the world’s religions. Like all the others, we have rituals, sacred texts, spiritual practices, and a moral code. We have produced brilliant works of art, philosophy, philanthropy, and inspired workers for social change. It’s also true that we have blood on our hands: moments, sometimes even centuries, when we have sold our souls for power and money. We have hurt and killed in the name of our religion, much to the chagrin of our founder, I imagine.
In the same way, Jesus of Nazareth, when seen from the outside, looks a lot like another founder of the world’s religions. He is admired by many as one of the “great souls” of history. He was a teacher, moral philosopher, and revolutionary movement leader.
But Jesus, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, is much bigger on the inside.
Viewing Jesus from the inside, as Christians do, he is Divine. His whole being radiates with the essence and energies of God. When Christians look at Jesus, we see what it means to be fully human. Furthermore, we also find out who God is. And the main thing we learn about God by looking at Jesus is that “God is love.”
The Church also, like her Lord and Savior, is bigger on the inside. More than just a collection of individuals inspired by the two thousand year old teachings of an itinerant rabbi, we understand ourselves to be the very Body of Christ on earth: the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. We are baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit and knit together with bonds that are unbreakable, even by death. When we read the Bible, we don’t just study a historical record of events; we hear the Word of the Lord speaking to us today. When we share bread and wine in the Eucharist, we are spiritually fed at a table whose boundaries transcend all of time and space, and we are joined into one Body with all the saints of ages past and ages to come.
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples get their first glimpse into the mysterious reality that Jesus is bigger on the inside. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up Mount Tabor to pray. This event appears in Matthew’s gospel immediately after St. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Peter didn’t realize what he was saying at the time, but he is about to find out.
While they are praying, Jesus’ skin and clothes begin to shine with an otherworldly light. Suddenly, there appears next to him two major figures of Jewish history: Moses and Elijah. What’s happening in this moment is that the veil of this world is being pulled back, ever so slightly, and the disciples are seeing Jesus as he truly is, in his divinity. I imagine their astonishment in that moment being like that of the Doctor’s companions, who enter the TARDIS for the first time and exclaim, “It’s bigger on the inside!”
Moments of insight like this are rare, compared to the everyday experience of faith. They are precious, for that very reason. And they are a grace, coming suddenly or gradually over time, sometimes to those who have spent a lifetime exploring the faith and sometimes to those who are opening up to it for the first time. Authentic Christian faith does not depend on such experiences (in fact, many faithful Christians never have them), but they serve to bolster the faith of those who do.
For me, the enlightening epiphany of Christ’s divinity has emerged through the liturgy of the Church. As I recite the ancient prayers and creeds of our faith, as I open my mind to study the Scriptures and my hands to receive Communion, I often feel myself being “carried along” by the river of the Spirit. When I recite the Collect for Purity, the short prayer we often use at the beginning of worship (i.e. “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”), I imagine my fellow priests and pastors, who have said that prayer for over a thousand years, standing behind me and adding their prayers to my own. It is a moment of transfiguration for me.
There was a time in my life when I struggled to find that experience of faith. Having been raised with a more strict form of biblical literalism in the church of my youth, I assumed that a true Christian must accept every word of the Bible as literally, historically, scientifically, and exclusively accurate. As I grew older and became more educated, I began to question many of the tenets of my faith. “If one part could be inaccurate,” I thought, “then why should I believe any of it?” It was a time of deep spiritual darkness and doubt for me. I wondered whether I could even call myself a Christian anymore, or if I really believed in God at all. I was looking at my faith “from the outside.”
Eventually, I decided to press on as a Christian, embracing doubt alongside faith. I saw myself as an enlightened revisionist. I believed, but I didn’t believe. I accepted it as mythology, rather than fact; poetic, rather than scientific. And I continued to engage with the faith through the liturgy.
But then something unexpected, and very interesting, happened: I had changed the way I was engaging with my faith through the liturgy, but quickly discovered that the liturgy was changing me. Reciting those ancient prayers and creeds, reading the Scriptures and receiving Communion each week, I felt like something (or someone) was waking up inside of me. I would catch myself talking to Jesus, just because I felt like it. I never went back to fundamentalism, but I had a very personal relationship with Jesus again. Not just a philosopher from two thousand years ago, but the risen Christ who lives in my heart by faith. For me, the liturgy of the Church is not just deadpan repetition, but a raft made by saints that carries me to Jesus on the river of the Spirit. It is an experience of transfiguration where I look around and go, “It’s bigger on the inside!”
The other place where I met Jesus again, for the first time, was in serving this congregation as pastor. From the outside, North looks like a small church with big problems. Money is often tight; attendance is lower than it used to be. But this congregation is also “bigger on the inside.”
Most congregations, when faced with financial difficulty, tend to take resources away from church programs and mission; anything to pay the pastor and keep the building. But that’s not what this church did: We cut back on everything but the ministry. We gave away our building to another branch of Christ’s Church that is serving the neighborhood in ways we could never dream of. This church knows what it really means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is not a building or a pastor. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is a community on a mission, and everything we do is in the service of that mission:
To love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength;
To love our neighbors as ourselves;
To go make disciples of all nations.
What makes North Church so special is that it should not be special at all. You are simply doing the things that all Christians should be doing: loving God, loving your neighbors, and being a witness to your community, especially those who are despised and rejected by the world. You are simply doing the things that Jesus did, and that’s what makes it so easy to see Jesus alive and at work in you.’
For three and a half years, I have been among you as one who is called “minister”, but it is you who have ministered to me. You showed me Jesus again, alive and at work in you. And for that, for the privilege of bearing witness to the presence of Christ in your midst, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
And I leave you with these now-familiar words. If you remember only one thing from my time with you, let it be this:
I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.