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Building Up the Body of Christ
Sermons of Community
Finding Our Storm Home
Isaiah 25:1–9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4–13; Matthew 22:1–14
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. Psalm 23:6
Our world is a world of change. A world that seems to spin faster and faster.
Places change. When I left Nashville there was no Cool Springs Mall. The first time I drove down 1-65, for a minute I didn't know where I was.
Maybe to keep up with these changes, people move. Every ten years, fifty percent of the American population moves. My son is nine years old and he has lived in six different houses.
Although we no longer tend flocks and live by the seasons, we have again become a nomadic people. In a world of drastic change—where is home?
Even if you are living in the house in which you grew up, this is still the main question. For home is where you belong; where you are accepted; where those deepest longings of your heart can be met. Home is not just a place; it's a condition. And you can have lived in Franklin, Tennessee, all your life and still not feel at home.
When will we find our home? All three readings as well as the psalm address this problem. And this is the answer they give: So long as we are on this earth, this fragile island, our only home is the presence of God. No house or family will fully satisfy our deepest longing. There is a hole in our heart only God can fill.
But we are given a promise of a real home, a banquet, a wedding feast in the kingdom. In the kingdom, God will:
Swallow up death;
The Lord will wipe away our tears; (Isaiah 25:8)
We will not be in want;
God will anoint our heads with oil;
Our cup will run over;
We will have a home to dwell in forever. (Psalm 23)
But, you know, Christianity is always a paradox. Thomas Merton says, "In one sense we are always traveling.... In another sense we have already arrived."
Like Isaiah, we long for a shelter; we look forward to a feast. Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom, and Judah had just been overtaken by the Assyrians. Isaiah longed for the day when the Hebrew people would again be free. And Paul writes his letter to the Philippians from prison. He knows what it is to be in need, to have little, and, of course, to be persecuted for one's faith.
For Isaiah, for the psalmist, for Paul—where is home? It's both in the future and it's right here.
As I thought about this sermon, I kept thinking of a story that Garrison Keillor told. He talks about going to school during the fierce winters of Minnesota:
Mr. Detman, our principal had his own winter fear: that a blizzard would sweep in and school buses be marooned on the roads and children perish. So he announced that each pupil that lived in the country would be assigned a storm home in town. If a blizzard struck during school, we'd go to our storm home.
Mine was the Kloeckls, an old couple who lived in a little green cottage by the lake. It looked like the home of the kindly old couple that the children lost in the forest suddenly come upon in a clearing and know they are lucky to be in a story with a happy ending.
I imagined the Kloeckls had personally chosen me as their storm child because they liked me. "Him!" they had told Mr. Detman. "In the event of a blizzard, we want that boy. The skinny one with the thick glasses!"
Isaiah lived during a storm, and so did Paul, and so did the psalmist, and so did Matthew, and so do you and I. Outside, the clouds are always gathering, and as much as we try to get things fixed just the way we want them, nothing stays in place. Our lives change. And like the boy in Garrison Keillor's story, we are afraid of being trapped in some school building far away from home.
At some deep level, I believe that's where we are. We say to ourselves, "Things weren't supposed to turn out this way." People weren't supposed to suffer or die or get divorced or move away. Our cities weren't supposed to become such violent places. People we respected weren't supposed to make mistakes in their personal lives and shock and disappoint us.
We don't want to hear about all the troubled places. We feel like we are in the seventh grade, and it's beginning to snow. The other children are on their way home because they live close, but our home is far away, and no buses are running.
And then maybe we remember something from Paul:
The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.... And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Every time it starts snowing in our hearts and we feel trapped in some distant place—remember we have been promised a Storm Home: And that is in the arms of Jesus Christ.
The Saints of God
A Sermon for All Saints' Day
Ecclesiasticus 44:1–10, 13, 14; Psalm 149; Revelation 7:2–4, 9–17; Matthew 5:1–12
Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. Ecclesiasticus 44:1
This week I saw an amazing film: Pleasantville. It's about a teenage set of twins who are somehow transported from 1998 into a 1950s television program called Pleasantville. Pleasantville is much like Leave it to Beaver—it's a one-dimensional world. Everything is always pleasant. No one ever ages, and no one has any idea what lies outside Pleasantville.
The people of Pleasantville deny the reality of time. They deny the communion of the present with the past and the future. In Pleasantville, all roads go in a circle. They don't come from somewhere and go somewhere else.
Now this may seem a little far-fetched to us. After all, it's only a movie. But Pleasantville points to a particularly American phenomenon. We think of ourselves as ahistorical, isolated individuals. Ralph Waldo Emerson described himself as "an endless seeker with no past at my back."
We have this illusion that we were born ex nihilo—out of nothing. Henry Ford said, in his typical American way, "All history is bunk." We have the illusion that we owe nothing to the past and nothing to the future, but we only focus on now. It's just ME living in my digital moment. So I don't have to pay any attention to those who came before; I don't care about those who come after me. In the film, all the books in the library are blank because there is no memory. Because nothing new ever happens—no new generation is ever born.
Well, something happens in the film Pleasantville. And, we pray, something happens to us. In the film, the brother and sister bring life into this static world. As they touch other people—as they encounter people and broaden their perspective, slowly the world and the people change from black and white into color.
Bud, the brother from our time, says to the mayor of Pleasantville:
The people now in color are not any "different." They just see something inside that you don't see.
Now what has all this to do with the feast of All Saints?
As Bud says—saints are not any different. "They just see something inside that we don't see." Saints are ordinary people who see the face of Christ in other people's faces. Saints are Christ-bearers, or what Presbyterian pastor and writer Frederick Buechner calls "life-givers": men and women who are so filled with Christ's love that they are radiant. The light within them spreads all about them. When we come into their presence, saints change us from black and white into color.
They help us feel alive. They help us incarnate as the people we were created to be. They remind us that being fully human means that the divine Holy Spirit resides in our mortal bodies, that God is to be found in our flawed lives.
We celebrate saints not so much for what they do, but for who they are. On this All Saints' Day we celebrate the fact that we do not live in Pleasantville. Our roads do not go in a circle. We are part of a great history. We hold hands with those who have come before and those who will follow us.
Therefore, All Saints' Day is a celebration of our living in time. First, we celebrate those who have gone before us: the famous and the unfamous, the people who have touched our lives and brought us from death into life. The people who have loved us along the way.
Sometimes when I look up from the altar, the faces of the congregation are blended into the faces on the mural at the rear of our church. For a moment I see Martha and Cecelia and Gregory and John with us. But it's no illusion. It's just that those are the moments I see clearly.
Remember the film, Places of the Heart? The film ends at a Protestant church. The congregation is taking communion, and those who have died in the film sit with the living. Everyone feeds from the body and blood of Christ. As we say in the eucharistic prayer: "Now with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven." All those we have loved and who have died are here in a holy communion, the famous and the unfamous.
Everyone is in the great parade: People like Abraham and Sarah, Joseph and Mary, Paul and Mary Magdalene, Augustine, St. Francis, Thomas Cranmer, William White, William Stringfellow, William Temple. And people who are not in any book. People like Julia Capps who taught me eleventh-grade English, and Finley Cooper, a priest in charge of our EYC group. And Jayne Haynes, and my grandmother, and my father and my uncle.
I wouldn't be here without them, and I wouldn't get to tomorrow without their help. The mystery is that the past is alive in us. Over and over again, I hear my father's voice coming out of my mouth. I say to my kids, "What were you thinking when you did that?" And when I look at them, they are me, and time falls back upon itself.
So we celebrate the past, but we also prepare for those who come after us. When we baptize someone, we baptize them into the body of Christ. As they are baptized, we will be handing on to them what we have received from our ancestors. We will say to them: You are now part of the parade; you are a Christ-bearer to the world. We are commissioning them to carry the light into the world after we are gone.
The Navajos have a saying that every time we make a decision we should consider it's effect on the seventh generation. For you and I do not live for ourselves; the future depends on us.
When we celebrate all the saints, we also celebrate those to come. We celebrate those to be baptized as well as their children and their children's children. We pass the faith to them so they can pass it on in their turn.
And finally, the hardest is us—right now in this moment.
In the novel, The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene writes about a priest who has led a very sinful life. On his deathbed, he has a realization:
He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He now knew that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.
We are not called merely to honor saints or prepare for future saints; we are called to be saints. As absurd as it may seem, God has picked such unlikely people as you and me to receive the love of Christ and to take that love into the world.
We don't have to go to Calcutta. We don't have to sell all our possessions and give them away to the poor. We don't need a march on Washington. We need to receive the love God is always giving us.
For the chalice here today at St. Gregory the Great is the cup of salvation, and the bread baked by the women in this parish really is the bread of heaven. God is calling us to let go of our fears; to let go of our illusion that we are isolated from the past and future and isolated from one another; to receive God's grace and to carry that love into the world. For the truth is, it doesn't take much to transform the world. It only takes a little love, a little courage, and touch. It takes an encounter.
Who else is going to change the world? Who else is going to turn a black-and-white world into color? Drugs—racism—the poor without hope—schools filled with violence—a world where a person like Matthew Shepard is beaten to death because he is gay. Who else is going to bring the redemptive love of Jesus Christ into the world?
We honor the past; we sow seeds for the future. However, we pray for God to use us. For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too.
Roots and Wings
Preached on Epiphany
Isaiah 42:1–9; Psalm 89:1–29 or 89:20–29; Acts 10:34–38; Matthew 3:13–17
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
Parents can give two gifts to their children: Roots and Wings.
Roots mean you know who you are. You know where you come from. If we know our roots, then we know that we are part of something bigger than our lifespan. Now, if you are from the South, this may not be a problem for you. We are big on roots. When I go to my mother's family's reunion, the Richardson clan, every "hello" lasts 10 minutes, because it begins with "Now, let's see—your momma's uncle married the first cousin of my granddaddy's brother." Even while you are nodding, this crowd of people is gathering to supply names and dates and stories about Uncle Joe Frank who came up from Moncks Corner to Columbia in '25.
We all need roots; even people from strange places like New York need roots. We need to know that we are not defined by this moment or that our identity goes deeper than our present circumstances: Who we are is not about what we own or what we do or what others think of us.
But the need for roots is deeper than being connected to our parents. We yearn for a holy communion—to be connected to those who have gone before, and to our Lord Jesus Christ, and, through him, to one another.
Today we celebrate Jesus' baptism, and God shows us what it is to give God's Son and, therefore, all of us real roots and real wings. God says to those around Jesus:
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
And God says that to every person baptized: "You are my child; you belong to me; you are the Beloved and I am pleased with you." Those are the words that tell us who we are. I am not just Joe Frank's second cousin four times removed. I am an ordinary sinner who is loved by God, because God is love. And so are you.
The core of the Christian life is receiving that amazing gift. But how often we cannot open our hands. How often we make love into a commodity we have to buy or that is beyond our means.
I have a friend who went through a period of self-doubt—even self-loathing. Every time she looked at someone, all she saw was criticism. And so she began to withdraw more and more. One evening, she was walking after a meeting, and she happened to run into an old friend she hadn't seen for a while. The friend, instinctively, intuitively, reached out her hand and caressed the woman's face and said, "You are so beautiful." And that simple gesture changed everything. It reminded her that she was connected. She had roots. She was loved.
But roots are useless without wings. Wings mean we can do things that have never been done before. Wings mean that the past feeds us but does not limit us. So the passage from Isaiah ends with
See, the former things [God sent] have come to pass, and new things I now declare.
Now, let's not confuse wings with self-expression. The "new things" are not meaningless assertions of one's own freedom. Our wings are not the power to alter our appearance or to break every rule our parents made. Someone gave me a pad of Post-it® notes that says: "No rules—no boundaries—no problem." Or, as Outback Steakhouse® says, "No rules—just right." That's not wings. That's a denial of being the beloved. That's a refusal to embrace one's roots.
No, to have wings is to have courage to live out our covenant with God.
Remember the film Dead Poets Society? One of the students, named Neil, wants to be an actor, but his father is insistent. No, he is fanatical, about his sons becoming a doctor. Neil signs up for a play against his father's will. There is an ugly confrontation, and the father says: "You tell them you are quitting. I've made enough sacrifices to get you in this school. You are not letting me down." Well, the son makes the ultimate sacrifice and takes his life, because the father cannot love his son for who he is. He cannot give his son roots or wings, and Neil falls into the earth of his grave.
Parents need to give the blessing and set their children free to flourish. Knowing who we are enables us to focus on the world outside our selves and discover a communion.
What is true for our biological parents is true for God. God pronounces God's blessing at the River Jordan and Jesus sets about his ministry. Once we know we are God's beloved, then God sends us into the world to spread the good news. God says to us what he says to Isaiah:
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Excerpted from To DREAM as GOD DREAMS by Porter Taylor. Copyright © 2005 Porter Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Building Up the Body of Christ: Sermons of Community
Turning Round Right: Sermons of Conversion
To Dream As God Dreams: Sermons of Hope
The Deepest Longing: Sermons for Transitions