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A sermon preached at the Church of the Epiphany, New York City
Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2017
John 4:5-42
I am frequently asked what does the Bible really mean to me? My answer is simple: The Bible has shaped my life. I have found and continue to find my story within “The Story.” I think of the Bible as a family photo album for people of faith, with a complete and complicated cast of characters, some whose stories inspire and others that make us cringe, but all of which are instructive. I understand the Bible to be a mirror that helps us to see how God has worked with our ancestors and is working with us today.

I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account of the Woman at the Well is one of them. This story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved “just as I am” by both God and another person. It is a story about the beginning of relationship, exemplifying those familiar words of St. Paul, “to see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12) It is also the story of the beginning of evangelism – the invitation to “come and see.”

In John’s Gospel, both a nameless woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved. Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.

Imagine the scene. It is noon at a local well. The well is abandoned, because everybody is at home eating their mid-day meal and hiding from the sun. A woman is there alone – no friends, helpers or companions. She is at the well with her buckets in the mid-day heat because she is not welcome in the cool early morning hours when all the other women and children are gathered.

Jesus was also at the well, tired and resting. He asks the woman for water. She looks up from her labor and responds, “Don’t you know better than to be talking to me, a Samaritan woman.” Without hesitation, Jesus replies, “Why not? If only you knew who you was asking.” Initially, not knowing who he is, Jesus sounds a bit like a flirt, a bully, or a big man on campus. “I want to give you something – water that will quench your thirst forever.”

At first, the woman retorts, “So how are you going to give me water? You don’t even have a bucket or a rope.” And then she asks a deeper question: “Where do you get this living water?” Jesus does not really answer her question, but he tells her more about the water. The woman responds in a reasonable manner: “I want what you have to give. Then I wouldn’t have to come back to this lousy well in the hot, noonday sun.”

This woman appears to misunderstand the water that Jesus is speaking of, but she is sincere and down-to-earth in naming her basic wants and needs. Like so many impoverished women around the world, this woman has to daily carry gallons of water from a common tap, well or river back home to feed and wash her family. It is no wonder that the Samaritan woman saw endless, clean, flowing, living water as a real life-giving gift.

Jesus abruptly changes the subject and dismisses the woman with the command, “Go and get your husband.” The woman responds a bit defensively, “I have no husband.” Jesus, acknowledging this fact says, “That’s right; you’ve had five husbands, and you’re not married to the guy with whom you are now living.” Now, she’s been outed (so to speak). “Sir, you must be a prophet.” (Nice diversion tactic, if only it had worked.) They have a brief exchange about religion, and the woman shares her messianic expectation. And then Jesus catches her off-guard: “Lady, I am the one you’ve been waiting for.” The Samaritan woman at the well probably wonders, “Could this man be for real, or is he just coming on to her?”

At that moment, the disciples (another set of characters in the photo album) return from their grocery shopping in town, and they certainly don’t’ understand Jesus’ encounter with this woman. While they don’t say anything, I can only imagine the looks on their faces. The woman departs from the well, leaving behind her bucket, and returns to her village to tell her family, friends and neighbors of the extraordinary man she encountered at the well.

In John’s Gospel, this unnamed, outcast (a woman who had been married five times and was now “living in sin”) became the first person to proclaim the simple evangelical words of invitation – “come and see.” “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

This woman, usually shunned by her neighbors, took the risk and shared with them the gift of her encounter with Jesus. She could have kept her meeting with Jesus to herself, but no – having received divine love incarnate, she was willing to pass it on. In doing so, she became the first witness to testify, the first evangelist to proclaim, the first apostle to share the good news of Jesus Christ in the Fourth Gospel.

The other villagers (both men and women) actually believed because of her testimony, “He told me everything that I have done.” Jesus penetrated one woman’s soul with words of truth spoken in love, and when she shared her experience with the invitation, “Come and see,” her community followed. They went out to the well and met Jesus. They offered him hospitality; he taught; they followed; and the gospel (good news) spread.

This is a remarkable story about being seen, given what you really need, accepted “just as I am,” coming to see with eyes of faith, and then inviting others to do the same. The 19th century Swiss theologian Alexandre Vinet once said, “Faith doesn’t consist in the belief that we are saved; it consists in the belief that we are loved.” Jesus offered the gift of unconditional love and acceptance, and the Samaritan woman reluctantly but gratefully received it.

My theology professor Dorothee Soelle taught that faith is a two-way street we call grace: a gift freely given and the decision to accept the gift. Jesus spoke truth in love to the Samaritan woman, accepted her life with all its hope, promise and brokenness, and she received this gift of grace. And then she, the outcast, the woman who had been married five times and was presently “living in sin”, became a living sacrament – an outward and visible sign of this inward and invisible grace. Through her simple but direct words, “come and see,” this once-rejected but now-affirmed woman led others to faith. That’s what evangelism is all about – sharing your story about God with friend and neighbor.

At a conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes a number of years ago, former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori shared a story about modern-day evangelism at the well. She told us about a priest who went Starbucks regularly, bought a cup of coffee, and put a tent sign on a table saying: “Tell me your story about God. He then waited for people to sit down with him and talk. If after talking with them, he sensed they might be searching for a spiritual home, he invited them to “come and see” the Episcopal Church. As a newly retired priest, I’ve been thinking about do the same. Can you imagine what might happen if we all spent more time talking about God in coffee shops and restaurants, and on golf carts and park benches?

God’s love made known to us in Jesus is a radical, all–inclusive gift of abundance. It is water that will always quench our thirst and food that will always satisfy us. It is a gift that genuinely keeps on giving to all who are willing to receive it. People are hungry and thirsty for God in their lives, and we need to open the pantry door and turn on the tap.

I received a gift like the account we heard this morning at a McDonald’s on 42nd Street one cold January afternoon. Jesus met me as he did the Samaritan woman, a young woman feeling unworthy and thirsty. I had a similar conversation. He told me all that I had ever done, naming those innermost wounds. He told me who he was, and he instructed me to tell my brothers and sisters, that God is there for each and every one of us. God loves all of us – no strings attached.

That conversation changed my life once and forever. And like the Samaritan woman, I was a new woman eager to return to my community and say to all who would listen, “Come and see whom I’ve met.”

If you’re feeling unloved, why don’t you try meeting Jesus, if not for the first time, then as Marcus Borg used to say, “again for the first time.” If you’re feeling lonely and misunderstood, why don’t you try reaching out to Jesus and asking for some conversation and companionship. And if you’ve met Jesus, maybe you could share that story with others, perhaps over a cup of coffee. If nothing else, invite your friends and neighbors to “come and see.” What do you have to lose? What do they have to gain?

A Sermon preach on the First Sunday of Lent
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Paterson, New Jersey
March 5, 2017

It’s been 17 years since I preached from this pulpit. It was the Last Sunday in Epiphany in the year 2000. We stood on a mountain top and recalled our time together. It wasn’t always easy.  Building our congregation was like climbing Mt. Everest; with all of our diversity and energy, sometimes there was not enough oxygen for everyone to breathe. Building St. Paul’s CDC was like climbing a mountain range; every time we thought we had reached the peak, we realized it was just a plateau.

However, with God’s encouragement, we were determined. Together, we built one of the most diverse congregations in the Episcopal Church – Black, White, Hispanic and Asian; native-born and newcomers from many lands; young, old and in-between; urban and suburban; lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual and transgendered; married and single; rich, poor and middle class; seeker, sojourner, and cradle Episcopalians.

Over the course of our time together, we had some extraordinary mountain top experiences like:

  • Opening the doors between our men’s parish hall shelter and the church
  • Inviting our shelter guests to worship with the congregation
  • Constructing a permanent shelter facility in our undercroft
  • Walking the stations of the cross from the perspective of new immigrants in our community.
  • Making a public witness during the Heresy Trial over gay ordination
    Dedicating 180 Carroll Street, the first of our affordable housing efforts
  • The CityServe Ensemble performances of song and dance
    The Night the Bell fell through the baptistry
    The World AIDS Day Vigil led by our Sisters on the Streets
  • Gathering on the Ash Wednesday after Lawrence Meyers was killed
    Watching the Hale-Bopp Comet pass over our parking lot on Maundy Thursday
  • The Easter morning visit by Bacardi and the Good Friday interruption by Yvonne after her shoes were stolen while she was sleeping
  • The Pentecost Service when we baptized 12 babies and welcomed 30 newcomers with a Dixieland jazz band and the gospel proclaimed in 15 languages
  • The Epiphany pageants and Youth Sundays
    The fiestas, dinner dances, Mardi Gras, Holiday Express Christmas parties, and Super Saturdays
  • The Martin Luther King Day Celebrations
    The 175th Anniversary
    And the list could go on and on…
  • On those mountain tops, we saw the glory of God. But like the Bible tells us, you can’t stay on the mountain forever. Seventeen years ago today, we came down from the mountain together and went our separate ways.

Over the past nearly two decades, a lot has transpired in my life, your lives, and the life of this city and this 200-year old parish. There have been many changes in the Episcopal Church, our nation, and our world. As much as we enjoy the golden age of memory, we can’t live in the past, recalling what we thought were better days. Nor can we live in the future – simply hoping and dreaming for a better tomorrow. We have to live in the wilderness of the present with all of its opportunity, challenge and temptation.

Wilderness and temptation are realities of human existence. Thus, the wilderness-temptation story always stands as a toll booth on our Lenten highway to Easter. Each year, we have to stop and pay homage to it so that this parable about the way of the world vs. the way of God can shed light and truth for our journey.

The first temptation – turning stone into bread – is about fast food, the temptation of convenience. Provide a hungry world with a full dinner pail and the masses will follow you anywhere. Jesus rejected it. He believed that our needs (both physical and spiritual) must be met by God’s way, not our own cheap, selfish and often-unethical ways.

Our Lord also realized that he was called to fill a hunger for justice and human dignity. You know as well I do that it’s easier to hand out loaves of bread, bags of groceries, warm meals, and shallow promises than to actually address the systemic issues of hunger, nutrition and poverty.

Jesus teaches us that there simply are no meaningful shortcuts to substantive change. As President Trump admitted in this past week’s address to Congress, health care reform is far more complicated than he had realized. I pray that he and his advisors will quickly realize this to be true about most public policy, including immigration reform.

The second temptation – worshipping Satan in exchange for rule over all the kingdoms of the world – is about unrestrained power and tremendous wealth that has a tendency to corrupt. Jesus knew that he could not win over the world for God through absolute control.

At first glance, we say, “Of course, Jesus rejected this offer to make a pact with the devil.” However, if we consider the deals we’ve cut for influence or money, the trade-offs we’ve made for advancement, the compromises we’ve agreed upon for the sake of keeping the peace – then it’s not so simple.

But Jesus insists there is another way. It is not by serving two masters – God and Caesar; it is by trusting God and loving God’s creation with integrity and compassion in both good and times. This third way relies on God to promote us and make our boundaries broad and wide.

The temptation of power and wealth is at the heart of American politics today, and we who follow Christ need to get clear and determined about walking Jesus’s third way. We can’t hide from the harsh reality that is facing us; rather, we have to engage the powers and principalities that are conspiring to dismantle American democracy.. That is the task before us, and we must overcome the temptation to run away from it.

The third temptation – jumping off the highest pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and be saved – is about magic and instant acclaim – coercion, conversion and fame through pyrotechnics. It’s the gimmicks, entertainment, and promised miracles of some politics, religion and advertising. It’s the essence of reality television. One minute you’re nobody, and the next minute (or at the end of a season), you have instant fame. While reality t.v. is fairly harmless, the temptation for instant fame, popularity and power, also has reared its ugly head in the public square, as politicians and pundits use fear to win voter confidence while keeping people in their place. Fear mongering encourages us to distrust strangers, scapegoat neighbors, and even act against our own best interest.

Many (if not most of all of us) fall prey to this temptation in our daily lives. If we can’t get our way, we force the situation with an action that gives the other no choice. We demean ourselves to get someone else to say something nice about us and build up our weak egos. We play to the fear and insecurity of the other. We threaten to walk away in order to get others to call us back.

Jesus said no to all of that silliness. He insisted that we should not force the hand of God by putting the Holy One to the test. And if we say we see the face of God in our neighbors, then it follows that we should not force the hand of our neighbor by putting him or her to the test. Rather, Jesus calls us to love our neighbors (nearby and far away), which means standing with them and standing for them when they are facing discrimination, scapegoating and oppression.

In the end, all of the temptations Jesus faced and we face involve taking the easy way out, a form of spiritual laziness and political complicity. Jesus didn’t resist temptation by just saying “no.” Jesus resisted the temptations of convenience, absolute power, and manipulation by digging deep into the roots of his faith, his spiritual ancestors, and his sacred story.

The fact that Jesus was baptized and immediately found himself tempted by the devil is an ever-present reminder that following Jesus is not easy work. It’s hard to be faithful. It’s hard to be a part of the “Jesus Movement.” But, as this text reminds us every year, we are called resist the temptation to look for simple solutions to complex problems, to seek easy answers to complicated questions, or to get our way through fear, shame and manipulation. Rather, we – you and I, each and every one of us, individually and collectively – are called, commissioned and empowered to do the hard work of justice and mercy that will guide us through the wilderness of our time.

Shortly after the presidential election, my former church, Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, hosted an interfaith clergy gathering to talk about the role of the faith community and faith leaders in this new political climate. The guest speaker, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, suggested that we might have to become prophetic like Nathan was to King David, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to Hitler and the Third Reich, Martin Luther King was to President Lyndon Johnson, or Desmond Tutu was to the Apartheid government of South Africa. Someone asked what that might look like. Rabbi Rudin responded that it might mean taking courageous action if the line is crossed. One person at the table asked what is the line that can’t be crossed. Rabbi Rudin responded that each of us will have to discern for ourselves what lines that can’t be crossed and what action must be taken. That’s what it means to follow Jesus’ third way.

Friends, I know that this church has experienced some tough time and difficult challenges in recent years. But your mission to proclaim God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation; to live out the good news of God’s kingdom for all people, and to be a healing sign that the things which divide us from each other may be overcome in the oneness of God, is needed now more than ever before.

I’m here today to remind you of your high calling and to encourage you to come together in the name of Christ and begin your third century with renewed dedication and determination to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. May this be your Lenten task.

Listen to my entire sermon: 

http://www.trinitycleveland.net/podcasts/sermons/Lind12132015-1115.mp3″

 

A Sermon Preached on National Gun Violence Sabbath
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Trinity Cathedral
Sunday, December 13, 2015
Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What shall we do? That’s the question raised by those whom John the Baptist called a “brood of vipers.” They were ordinary folk – like you and me – seeking God in the wilderness.

What shall we do? It’s a question we ask many times a day. What shall I wear? What shall I eat? What shall I watch, see, touch, or feel? Read the rest of this entry »

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Every year, congregations in The Episcopal Church prepare parochial reports, which are then compiled by dioceses and submitted to the national headquarters in New York City.  And sometime later in the year, the church issues its membership statistics.  Like many of my clergy colleagues, I’m concerned that our parochial reporting is not an accurate reflection of growth and vitality in today’s church.  Yes, across the nation, weekly Sunday worship attendance has decreased, but that doesn’t mean that The Episcopal Church is in decline.

Like many other aspects of American life, patterns of worship are shifting.  In a cathedral with vibrant weekday worship, education and programming, as well as weekly podcasting of sermons, choral evensong and The Dean’s Forum, does average Sunday attendance accurately measure our life?  When we look at indicators that are out-dated and incomplete, and we feel bad about ourselves.  Accountability and evaluation are really important tools in organizational growth and vitality, but it’s time for a new dashboard.  My friend and colleague Sam Candler, Dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, once suggested that we should measure “average weekly touch.”

Let’s consider the following:

  • Average weekly worship attendance (let’s count all of our worship services during the week and not just Sundays because lots of people don’t get to church on Sundays but they do show up at other times during the week);
  • Podcast audience and website visitors;
  • Attendance at weekday concerts, lectures, classes, labyrinth walks, prayer meetings, support groups, bible studies, workshops and retreats;
  • People served in our hunger and homeless programs, volunteer hours spent in our community gardens and neighborhood schools, and parishioners who show up for community organizing meetings; and
  • Pastoral connections such as, hospital and nursing home visits, pastoral counseling sessions, newcomer conversations.

I’ll bet we’ll see more vibrancy and growth than we realize.  We talk about shifting paradigms in organized religion.  It’s time that our evaluation tools and measurement indicators catch up.

However, I’m pleased to report that in 2013, Trinity Cathedral had an average Sunday attendance of 376 (average weekly attendance was closer to 450) and nearly 300 pledging households.  And, this coming Sunday, we will present 20 individuals for confirmation and reception in the Episcopal Church.  It feels vibrant to me!

 

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Living Waters on The Way, Tracey Lind, Camino de Santiago, 2009

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Lent – John 4:5-42

I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account is one of them.   The story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved.  It is a story about the beginning of a love affair, a relationship that exemplifies St. Paul’s familiar words, “To see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12)  

In John’s Gospel, both a nameless Samaritan woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved.  Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.  Read the rest of this entry »

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In a recent sermon, Sam Candler of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta spoke of his desire to rescue and salvage Christian vocabulary.  Sam is not alone in that pursuit.  The language of Christianity is in such a state of crisis, says Marcus Borg, that “it has become a stumbling block in our time.”[i]

From my own pastoral experience, I know this to be true.  So often, people tell me that they simply cannot believe all those things that Christian doctrine teaches.  They don’t believe in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, much less the ascension.  They don’t understand words like atonement, justification, salvation, or even grace.  They’re not convinced that there is a heaven or a hell, and the idea that Jesus died for our sins is a huge obstacle for many seekers and believers.

This past week, a friend called.  She asked me what I was doing?  When I told her that I was writing a sermon about sin, she responded, “I don’t believe in sin.”

I think that “sin,” a familiar and widely used religious word, is one that could benefit from some rescue and salvation. We say that it’s a sin to steal, murder, tell a lie, dishonor one’s parents, or cheat on one’s spouse.  We also say that it’s a sin to let the last piece of apple pie go uneaten, and when something tastes or feels really good, we exclaim that it must be sinful.  The dictionary defines sin as: “An offense against a religious or moral law.”  The Book of Common Prayer defines sin, as “The seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” (p. 848)

St. Augustine said, “Sin is energy in the wrong channel.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asserted that sin was missing the mark or “falling short of the glory of God.” (3.23)  I think Paul Tillich said it best: sin is “the personal act of turning away from that to which one belongs.”[ii]

I’ve always understood sin as a state of estrangement that separates one from God, other people, the rest of creation, and one’s own self.  Perhaps that’s why Leonard Cohen once sang, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”[iii]  Estrangement can be a lonely place.

Since the earliest of times, human beings have been fascinated and intrigued with the origin of sin.  Some believe that we are born in a state of original sin, that it’s part of our human DNA.  Others argue that we choose to be sinful.  The truth is that we are not really sure from whence our sinful state originates.  But, there comes a time in the course of life when we ask St. Paul’s probing and perplexing question: Why do I do that which I ought not to do, and why don’t I do that which I know I should do? (Romans 7:19)

My short answer to that question is that we – individuals, institutions, communities, and nations – fall out of step, out of balance, out of sync, out of harmony with God, the world around us, and ourselves.  We are not mindful or attentive to the presence or intentions of God and so we turn away from what Tillich called “the ground of being,” and we become estranged or separated from that to which we belong.

Think about a time during this past week when you said or did something that you regretted, or when you didn’t say or do something that you should have, when in the words of the prayer book, you might “have sinned in thought, word or deed by things done or left undone?” What was going on in your life?  What were you thinking or feeling?  How were your home life, work life, and prayer life?  Had you been eaten well; were you getting enough exercise or sleep?  My hunch is that you were not being mindful or attentive to your relationship with that to which you belong: God, the people around you, and perhaps yourself.  If you had been, you probably would have behaved differently.

As I said on Ash Wednesday, I start off each morning intending to be mindful throughout the day, but by midday, I’ve mis-stepped, mis-spoken, mis-acted, or mis-thought at least once.  The truth is that we all fall into sin because staying mindful; keeping in right relationship is hard work.  That’s why the baptismal covenant doesn’t say, “If you fall into sin…” It says, “Whenever you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?”  God assumes that because we are not perfect, we will fall out of mindfulness and right relationship and into sinfulness and estrangement; so when it happens, we are encouraged to not deny it, or beat ourselves up for it; but rather, we are invited to acknowledge our human imperfection and loneliness, turn around and once again get mindful, grounded, attentive and intentional about our relationship with God, neighbor and self.

This morning’s lectionary readings explore the relationship of mindfulness and sin.  The book of Genesis tells us Adam and Eve fell into sin by not being mindful of their right relationship with God.  When they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, they forgot what God expected of them, and were expelled by God from the garden.  Some call this punishment for the sin of disobedience.  Others say it was an essential part of God’s plan of creation, insisting that Adam and Eve needed to leave the garden in order to become fully human, like birds being pushed out of the nest by their mothers in order to learn how to fly, or children leaving their parents’ home in order to become adults.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of human beings growing up, leaving home, and returning – all the while falling in and out of right relationship with God, neighbor and self.

Enter Jesus.  According to the apostle Paul, Jesus is the second Adam who overcame the human temptation to sin.  He gave his unblemished, perfectly mindful life as a ransom for all the rest of us sinners, and thus redeemed and saved humanity from our fallen state of depravity and estrangement.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury wrote an 11th century treatise that canonized this doctrine of Jesus’ life and death.  Because Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was eternally condemned.  God, the divine judge, wanted to redeem a fallen and sinful humanity, and therefore, sent Jesus, his perfect and blameless son, to make restitution, accepting punishment on our behalf by dying for our sins. Thus, God could forgive and restore us without diminishing the Divine honor.  Anselm’s theory of substitution atonement, which asserted that God actually sent Jesus into this world to die for our sins, depended on the belief that God’s honor, perfection and integrity would be compromised if divine forgiveness was offered without restitution.

Not all Christians understand the human condition or Jesus’ mission on earth this way.  Certainly, Anselm’s contemporary, the French theologian, Peter Abelard didn’t agree with him.  Abelard rejected the notion of original sin.  He thought sin was created by human choice and could not be inherited.  He argued that each of us have to bear responsibility for our own sins.  Abelard saw Jesus as a victim of human sin and yet understood his willingness to die as the ultimate act of God’s unconditional love.  For Abelard, restitution was not required for forgiveness; remorse was sufficient.

In the end, Anselm won the debate and Abelard was declared a heretic.  And, while Paul’s Letter to the Romans still holds a central place in the Christian canon, the debate about sin continues.

This morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew speaks of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as he wrestled with Satan, the great tempter, about how he would carry out his ministry without falling prey not to Sin (with a capital S), but to the temptations of ministry: convenience, manipulation, magic, and abusive control.

I often try to imagine Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  In fact, I can still recall sitting on a rock in the Judean desert, looking out over that forlorn landscape, visualizing in my mind’s eye what it must have been like to sit there not just for an hour, but for forty days and forty nights.

To sit for more than a month alone, in the wilds, exposed to the elements with only your thoughts, dreams, visions, and nightmares – that’s a lot of time to spend with one’s self, one’s own demons and temptations, and the ground of one’s being.  I bet that Jesus spent a lot of that time in prayer: talking, arguing, pleading, probing and listening to God.   When his vision quest was over, Jesus emerged, weakened by hunger but strengthened by both divine grace and his own mindfulness, able to resist the tests of the Tempter and prepared to demonstrate the unconditional love of God in a world filled with pain, disease, poverty and oppression.  To stay grounded and mindful, throughout his ministry, Jesus returned to the wilderness to spend time alone in prayer with God.

So back to the dilemma of human sin: if sin is a lack of mindfulness, a separation or estrangement from God and the world, then grace is the getting it together again.  The challenge is how to stay mindful in all the complicated moments and messes of our lives.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to stay mindful all of the time, but I do think we can work at mindfulness through the practice of prayer.

Recently, a member of this congregation too me that it would be helpful I would share about my daily prayer practice.  It’s really fairly simple.  When I have my morning coffee, I imagine that Jesus is sitting across the table from me.  And then I begin a conversation with him as if I’m talking with a friend.  I tell him what’s on my mind; I remember those who have asked for my prayers; I share with him my plans for the day; I ask for his help in staying mindful, engaged and connected to the source of my being and to those around me; and I finish with the Lord’s Prayer.   As I go though the day, I invite Jesus to accompany me into my meetings, conversations, emails, and visits.  And then, if I don’t fall asleep too quickly, I try to review the day with Jesus, recalling both my grace-filled and less-than-gracious interactions, giving thanks, seeking forgiveness, asking for blessing, and closing with the prayer our Lord taught.  When I do this, life is pretty good…no matter what happens.  When I don’t, life gets out-of-sorts.  I guess you could call it falling into sin.

So friends, there you have it – a little salvaging of the short but very big religious word “sin.”  We can discuss and debate it origins and nature for days on end without coming to absolute conclusions.  In the end, I think Tillich was right: sin is essentially estrangement from “the ground of being.” So, as we begin this season of Lent, this time of renewal, I want to suggest that you be intentional, attentive and disciplined about your daily prayer practice.  For prayer keeps us mindful and connected to “the ground of being,” and that is both preventive medicine and a remedy to sin.


[i] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p.1

[ii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Part III, Chapter 1, p. 46

[iii] Leonard Cohen, The Sisters of Mercy

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Happy New Year!  That’s right.  I’ll say it again.  Happy New Year!  I’ve finally concluded that Ash Wednesday is my New Year’s Day.

The essence of Ash Wednesday lies in the collect of the day:  “You hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.”  The rest is commentary.

God hates nothing in all of creation.  God loves it all – even those creatures that we don’t like.  However, God doesn’t always like the way we humans behave in and towards the creation.  In fact, God wants us to mend our ways.  The worship of Ash Wednesday, the readings, prayers, and the ashes help us understand what this amendment of life is all about.

The prophet Isaiah said it very directly:  The people cry: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  God responds: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?  Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?’

The fast that God wants and expects is not a shallow apology, insincere remorse or pompous piety.   The fast that God wants and expects is a mending of the tear in our individual lives and in the very tapestry of creation.  That’s what God wants!

God doesn’t really care if we give up sugar for Lent.  God wants those who cut sugar cane and labor in sugar factories to get a living wage and be treated fairly by their employers, even if it means that the price of sugar goes up for the rest of us.

God doesn’t really care if we give up alcohol for Lent.  God wants to us to take care of our bodies, our brains, and our souls; and I don’t think that God wants us driving around drunk and putting the lives of others in jeopardy, or being abusive to those around us because we abuse alcohol. So if we’re drinking too much, then God wants us to deal with that, and maybe Lent is good time to begin with Ash Wednesday marking “the first day of the rest of our lives.”

God doesn’t really care if we give up Facebook or Twitter for Lent.  God wants us to stay connected with one another, but would really appreciate it if we made sure to stay connected with God.  And perhaps, God wants us to have more face-to-face conversations with each other.

God doesn’t really care if our names are displayed on donor plaques, but God wants and needs us to give generously of our time, talent and treasure to God’s work in the world.

God doesn’t really care if we if walk around with ashes on our foreheads, but God does want us to remember our connection with creation: that we are part of the humus, the good earth, the dust of creation.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”  If having a smudge of ashes placed upon our foreheads helps us make this connection, then this act of contrition is pleasing in God’s sight.

What does God expect of us?  Simply put, God wants us to make ourselves available to be reconciled in Christ: to be made whole and put back together.  God wants us to be righteous – that is, in right relationship with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. 

What does God require of us?  God wants us to turn around in order face God anew and remember our rightful vocation as stewards and caregivers of God’s precious creation. We have the awesome responsibility for serving God by caring for God’s earth.  This is our particular calling as human beings.  It is a sacred vocation, and we need to remember it.

Ashes mark our frail humanity, our connection to this planet, and our relationship to Adam and Eve who were symbolically formed out of the dust of the earth, molded out of the clay by God’s hands.  Ashes are mentioned throughout the Bible.  In Genesis, we hear our forefather Abraham say, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  Tamar, after she was raped, put on ashes in mourning.  Job, as his life fell apart, put on the ashes of grief.  Almost all of the prophets speak of ashes and dust.  It is right and good that we mark our foreheads with ashes to remind ourselves that our God is here – ready, willing and able to receive our repentance, our anger, and our grief – and to offer in return divine forgiveness, comfort and love.   

As a people, we need to return to God.   We need to remember and be mindful of the pain and brokenness in our own lives, and that of our families, friends and communities.  We also need to remember and be mindful of the pain and turmoil of our nation, our world, and the rest of God’s creation.

Ash Wednesday is about remembering or being mindful: remembering and being mindful of God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder that everything we do and say has an impact on somebody else. 

The prophets writing thousands of years ago said it well.   God calls us to a fast – a fast of making justice, loving-kindness and walking humbly with God.  And if we take these steps,  “we shall be like a watered garden, our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, we shall raise up the foundations of many generations, and we shall be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets” (Isaiah 58:12).  If we live the fast of God, then we shall feast. 

On Ash Wednesday, we pray a litany of penitence.  Like on Yom Kippur in Judaism, each petition acknowledges an element of our broken and wounded soul.  In praying this litany, we confess that we have not loved God, our neighbors and ourselves with our whole heart, mind and spirit.  We acknowledge that we have sometimes not heard the call to serve.  We admit that we have been unfaithful, prideful, hypocritical, and impatient.  We disclose that we have been self-indulgent and exploitative.  We declare that we have been angry, envious and dishonest.   And guess what – it’s true.  The truth is that, like the collect for Ash Wednesday, sometime during the past year, we have been sinful and wretched, and that we need to be forgiven and made whole.  In short, on Ash Wednesday, we will plead that God “create and make in us new and contrite hearts.[i]

I for one am grateful for Ash Wednesday – the opportunity to get down on my knees and say, God, please let me start over.  Please give me a second chance.  And once again, mark my forehead with the seal of your cross so that I may remember from whence I came and where I am going.


[i] “Collect for Ash Wednesday,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264

_MG_8625HideAndSeekLast night Trinity Cathedral hosted our annual Shrove Tuesday Party.   This year we chose a Mardi Gras theme (most appropriate for 7 degree winter weather).  Instead of pancakes, we had gumbo, jambalaya (meat and vegetarian), and cornbread, jelly donuts and kings cake.   We had masks and beads, and we ate and danced to the music of eight-o’clocker Bob Gref’s band, The Dixielanders.  Because of the extremely cold weather, we couldn’t use the Cathedral Hall, so we gathered in the cathedral itself.  Colorful round tables were set, the band used the altar platform as a stage, and the dinner buffet was in the east transept.  But we had one challenge: where would we play our annual game of Hide-and-Go-Seek?

Our Hide-and-Go-Seek tradition started on a Shrove Tuesday many years ago.  Walking through the promenade, a parishioner asked me: “Is it all right for kids to be in the cathedral tonight?”  I agreed to investigate the situation.

I walked in the cathedral and found a group of young boys playing Hide-and-Go-Seek in the shadows of the nave.  The pulpit was the countdown location, and the altar decorated with Mardi gras beads and paper peace doves had been designated home base.  Off to the side was an adult stewarding the Labyrinth by candlelight.  I sat down next to her, stared at the Labyrinth, glanced at the altar, looked at the boys and said: “Now, this is my idea of church.”  She readily agreed, and before I knew it, I was up on my feet to join the game of Hide-and–Go-Seek.  A younger boy squealed with delight: “Look, Dean Tracey is playing.  Get her.”  The next thing I knew I was “It” – up in the pulpit counting to ten and then running through the darkened nave chasing after an eleven old child.  A few minutes later, parents began to wander in looking for their children.  One-by-one, they too joined the game.  Eventually, there were about ten kids and five adults playing Hide and Go Seek in the holy space on the night before Ash Wednesday.

Later that evening, I remembered the game’s homecoming cry, “All ye, all ye out in free,” which in old English means, “All who are out come in for free.”   I thought to myself, this is what the church is all about.  In fact, this is the good news of the Gospel.  All who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the outside, on the margins, on the edge are invited to come in to a place of safety, a place called home – for free.

Last night the kids and I had to decide where to play the game since the Nave of the Cathedral was not available.  We marked the boundaries and then determined that the High Altar should be home base.  “Why?” I asked, and one youngster shouted, “Because that’s where God lives in this church.”  Then we decided that the Baptismal Font should be the starting point.  Again, I asked, “Why?”  And another youngster answered, “Because that’s where we begin our lives in the church.”  And off we went for a rousing game of Hide-and-go-Seek.

With the homecoming cry of “All-ee, all-ee in free,” the altar as home base, and the baptismal font as the starting point, I’m convinced that not only is Hide-and-Go-Seek a good game to play on Shrove Tuesday, but I’m beginning to think it’s a sacrament – a visible sign of God’s invisible grace in this old cathedral.

Samson the Cat

Shall I tell you who will come

To Bethlehem on Christmas Morn,

Who will kneel them gently down

Before the Lord, new-born?

One small fish from the river,

With scales of red, red gold,

One wild bee from the heather,

One grey lamb from the fold,

One ox from the high pasture,

One black bull from the herd,

One goatling from the far hills,

One white, white bird.

And many children — God give them grace,

Bringing tall candles to light Mary’s face.

This Spanish Christmas carol, set to music by Ruth Sawyer, Jimmy Webb, my friend Eleanor Robinson, and probably other composers speaks to a missing link in the Christmas story.  The storytellers neglected to mention some of the characters that were in that Bethlehem stable on a cold, December night.  The Bible’s version of the story includes:  Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the angel Gabriel, the shepherds, King Herod, the Magi, and the heavenly host.  Everybody knows that there was also an innkeeper, a donkey, some sheep, and a few camels.

As the words of this Christmas carol suggest and as many pageant costumes attest, there were others present at the birth of Jesus.  If all the characters and details were included, the Christmas story would be far too long to fit into one book, and there wouldn’t be any room for our imagination.

Over the years, I have conjured up other characters, the one who never made it into the written story.  They came to the stable, witnessed the birth of Jesus, and gave what they could give.

Take for instance, Samson the barn kitten.  He belonged to the Innkeeper, but he had to live in the stable.  There was no place for him in the inn.  On the night that Jesus was born, he was sleeping on a pile of hay.  When Mary and Joseph came into the barn, he hid behind a pile of wood and watched everything from out-of-sight.  After the exhausted new parents laid Jesus in the manger and fell asleep, Samson snuck up to the little baby and purred.  He brought Jesus a little piece of string.  Then, he lay down close beside the baby and kept him warm.  On that special night, I think Samson offered the kind of hospitality and generosity that Jesus taught for the rest of his life.

In this book, I will tell you the story of Christmas from the perspective of some of those unsung characters that watched in shadows and helped in the night.  In the first section, there are short stories for young children that can be read on a grown-up lap by the Christmas tree.  In the second section, there are stories for children at heart, stories that can be read by older children or grown-ups after the younger ones have fallen asleep.  In the third section of this book, I offer some new ways to think about this old holiday.   I’ve also included the words to some of my favorite Christmas carols in hopes that you might teach them to the children in your life.Perhaps, you’ll be inspired to write your tales of Christmas and add your own characters to the nativity scene because Christmas is one of those stories that is simply too good not to be not be told over and over again in all kinds of ways.  By the way, I hope you’ll consider trying a 10RH holiday season.

You can check it out at Trinity Cathedral’s website: http://www.trinitycleveland.org.  Print copies will be available soon.

Rust Belt Christmas

Rust Belt Christmas – Tracey Lind

Every year I go looking for my Christmas sermon.  For nearly three decades, my sermon search has become part of my annual holiday tradition.  My brother might say it takes the place of our childhood tradition of looking for yet unwrapped, but carefully hidden Christmas presents.

It’s not like my sermon is ever really lost; I haven’t misplaced it; I just don’t know where to find it.  I’ve always found it, often in some pretty odd places like an abandoned house in a run-down neighborhood or a discarded Christmas tree on a New York City sidewalk.  I’ve become aware of it sitting by the bedside of a dying woman or in a maternity ward waiting with a teenage mother in labor.  I’ve unearthed it in holiday lights, newspaper headlines, music, film, poetry, and art.  One year, I came across it while reading a letter from a former youth group member serving in Desert Storm.  And if I’m honest, like many of you, I’ve found the essence of Christmas in a sentimental card or sappy Hallmark ad.

This year my Christmas sermon actually found me, not once but twice: first, in the memory unit of a nursing home, and then in a doctor’s office.

Last Thursday evening, I attended the Christmas party in the memory unit of Judson Park, the retirement community where my mother lives.  I joined the holiday festivities with some fourteen of my mother’s companions, their caregivers, and a small handful of what I like to call “designated daughters and sons.”  We are the ones who live near-by and frequently visit this little peculiar world of aging with memory loss.

My mother’s peers are a fascinating group of women and a handful of men who, in their prime, were doctors, dentists, lawyers, nurses, therapists, college professors, business executives, sales clerks, homemakers, civic volunteers, and church leaders.  And now, because of dementia and memory loss, they live in a small and protective world, vulnerable and dependent on the care, compassion and respect of others.

Last Thursday evening, after a long day of pastoral visits and a poignant memorial service in another retirement community for a member of the cathedral congregation, I walked into the unit singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and then offered hugs, kisses and season’s greetings all around.  My mother looked up, smiled and greeted me with her usual: “Where did you give from?” And as usual, I responded: “Mars,” and sat down next to her.

For the following thirty minutes or so, we sipped wine and coffee, ate cookies and brownies, opened bags of candy and ornaments prepared by local school children, and listened to Christmas carols and sentimental holiday music played on the piano by a delightful Jewish cantor.  I even did a line dance with some of the staff as my mom and her friends looked on and laughed.

With the evening coming to a close, the pianist began the familiar refrain of “Silent Night.”  I put my arm around my mom and started to sing, and so did she.  I glanced around the room at this little community of women and men who probably could not have told you what they had eaten for dinner, and most of them were singing or humming as well.  I saw two other daughters and one son with arms around their moms, and I realized that we all had tears in our eyes.  For here we were: adult children holding our vulnerable, elderly mothers in our arms as they held us when we young; middle-aged children laughing, singing and playing with our aging mothers who now see the world through the eyes of a child; grown-up children helping our mothers eat cookies and drink from their cups in the same way they helped us when we were little.

In the singing, feeding and holding our vulnerable mothers, we – their daughters and sons, the fruit of their wombs – were given permission to be vulnerable.   After all, they were still our moms.  The roles were reversed, but the honesty, vulnerability and grace of love remained.  There we were – authentically ourselves in this time and space none of us ever thought we would be.  As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable.  But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be vulnerable.”[i]

Christmas is about vulnerability.   God dared to come into the world in the most vulnerable way possible – a newborn baby.  No matter how you understand or explain the complexity of this mystery we call the incarnation, Christmas asserts that the very character of God is revealed in a naked, needy, dependant, gurgling, grubby, smelly, sometimes happy and sometimes cranky, vulnerable baby.  The infant Jesus had no more ability to care for himself than any other newborn baby, severely disabled adult, or old person with memory loss, but that is how God chose to come among us on that first Christmas.  In Jesus, God became vulnerable so that we would have the courage to be vulnerable and have compassion for the vulnerable among us.

The next morning a friend asked me about my Christmas sermon.  When I said that it would be about vulnerability, she looked at me like I was out of my mind and replied, “I don’t want to be told to be vulnerable.  That’s scary.”

For many, if not most of us, the idea of vulnerability is scary.  We’ve been taught just the opposite.  We’re supposed to be strong, capable, and in control.  You know the messages:  don’t let them see your vulnerable side because you might get hurt, embarrassed, or rejected.  Don’t make yourself vulnerable because you might appear to be weak, stupid, and out of control.  Unfortunately, we learn it from our parents, our teachers, our playmates, and our colleagues.  We pick it up on television, in the movies, in politics.  You name it – the message is clear.  It’s not safe to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is actually a great sign of courage.  The word “courage” comes from the Latin word cor, meaning, “heart.”  In Middle English, courage meant to speak the truth of one’s mind or one’s heart.  According to bestselling author and research professor Brené Brown, courage is, “all about putting our vulnerability on the line.”  Based on years of narrative research, Brown has concluded that, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.”[ii]

In the incarnation, God cultivated love by becoming vulnerable, and making the Divine Self deeply seen and known, speaking his mind and sharing her heart with a weary world.   In Jesus, God appeared on earth as the most vulnerable creature imaginable so that we would take him into our hearts and be equally courageous and vulnerable, and then to courageously care for the vulnerable among us, those with whom God is pleased to dwell.

The morning after Mom’s Christmas party, I awoke with a fever, cough, and headache.  It got worse over the weekend, and Monday found me sitting in an urgent care doctor’s office explaining to a stranger that I had to be well by Christmas Eve.

At the end of our visit, with prescriptions in hand, I thanked her and asked what was she doing for the holiday.  She smiled and said, working, so her Christian colleagues could have the day off.

Chatting for a few more minutes, we realized that we actually had many friends in common through Greater Cleveland Congregations, our local interfaith organization.  “Well, at least we got a nice holiday gift in the expansion of Medicaid,” I quipped as she was leaving the examining room.  She abruptly turned around and said, “Without Medicaid, my family would be bankrupt and I wouldn’t have a life.”  Then closing the door, she began to tell me how important Medicaid was for her severely disabled child.

Like any proud parent, she took out her I-Phone and showed me photos of her eleven-year-old daughter Maddie who can’t walk, talk, or feed herself.  I asked if she could see.  With a thoughtful smile, she responded, “Just a little. At night when the lights are low, and I get her ready for bed and say goodnight, she smiles, and I think she can see me.”

I thought to myself, that’s how I feel at Christmas.  I know that bad things happen to good people, that we don’t always get what we want or deserve, that when we offer ourselves fully, we might get rejected, and when we have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable, we might get hurt.  But every year, on this holy night, no matter what’s going on in the world or in my own life, when we darken the cathedral, light the candles, and sing “Silent Night,” if I look carefully, I see the face of God, if I listen closely, I hear the voice of God, and if I make myself vulnerable, I feel the love of God enter my heart and be born anew.

And that is my Christmas prayer for each and every one of you.  May you look carefully and see the face of God in those around you, may you listen closely and hear the voice of God in those around you, may you make yourself vulnerable and feel the love of God enter your heart this Christmas, and then may you have the compassion and courage to speak out and care for the vulnerable ones with whom God is pleased to dwell.


[i] Madeline L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (North Point Press, 1995)

[ii] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham Books, 2012)