Showing posts with label sermon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sermon. Show all posts

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Begetting Blessèdness: a sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Bible readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. Preached on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at http://allsaintsglenrock.org/, Glen Rock, NJ.

Today in our gospel reading, we encounter the Beatitudes, the version that is found in Matthew’s gospel. We’re near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, in fact. Heretofore, Matthew has described the birth of Jesus, his flight into Egypt as a refugee fleeing the genocide of Herod, and his return to Nazareth; then his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, followed by his temptation in the desert. Then comes our reading today which comprises the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew goes on for some time. Indeed, we will be reading parts of it for four Sundays in a row, beginning today. This sermon will not last nearly so long, I assure you.


In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the very first public act of Jesus. This is his first undertaking, his first effort; this is the first work of his earthly mission. Each of the evangelists starts off the story of Jesus’ public ministry a little differently. In Mark, Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism. In Luke, Jesus begins his public career by declaring that his ministry will alleviate the suffering of outcasts and the downtrodden of the world. In John, Jesus’ first endeavor is to turn water into wine at a wedding feast at Canaan. So, an exorcism, a declaration of solidarity, a miracle, and then in Matthew, a teaching.

Matthew’s Jesus is first a foremost a teacher, a Rabbi, one who teaches us what we should know, teaches us the difference between right and wrong. And if Jesus is a teacher, then that makes us and all who would follow him his students, learners who hearken to his lessons, and through his teaching, gain in knowledge and wisdom.

But if Jesus is a teacher, his first lesson is a little suspect. He seems not to have his facts straight. His first teaching seems not to be grounded in facts at all. Instead we are given ‘alternative facts’, some sort of fantasy, a description of a world that we don’t recognize.

Blessèd are the poor, blessèd are the bereaved, blessèd are the hungry, blessèd are the persecuted. Well, no, I don’t think so. 

The poor don’t enjoy many blessings in our world or any world we’ve ever known; far from it. Poverty in our world seems to perpetuate itself. Our social scientists tell us that children born into poverty often live out their days in poverty. The cycle of poverty seems unbreakable. And the hungry… more families in our country struggle with more food insecurity every day; and those affected are overwhelmingly women and children.

The persecuted and beleaguered aren’t blessèd, not by us anyway. As of yesterday, we began to turn them away. 
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! 

So says the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Yesterday, that golden door was slammed in the faces of some of the most persecuted people in the world, those who are dog-tired of war and violence, whose homes, indeed their entire homelands, have been laid waste, those who gasp for a breathe of the freedom that we so cherish.

The world Jesus describes is not the world we live in at all, and it’s not the world he lived in either. The world Jesus depicts in his lesson from the mountaintop is nothing less than the kingdom of God. It is not a description of the world as it is, it is a vision of a world in which God, and the tenets of God, the values of God, reign supreme.

Not a world in which we deport the persecuted, rather it is a kingdom in which the persecuted belong, as much as anyone else. The world Jesus envisions is not one in which the poor are denounced as lazy, rather it is a kingdom that belongs to the poor, as much as anyone else. It is not a world in which the hungry are demeaned by drug tests in order to qualify for aid; it is a kingdom in which the hungry are filled with good things. It is not a world in which the meek are diminished as weak, to be exploited; it is a kingdom in which the meek inherit just as much as the mighty.

It’s an upside down world; one in which everything we know of the world we live in is upended.

+++++++++++++

In our reading from Corinthians today, Paul tells us such beliefs as these are foolishness to some. The hope that this kingdom that Jesus describes is the world that could yet be is a stumbling block to the more pragmatic, the more practical among us.

No, sadly, this lesson of Jesus’ is not one we’ve taken much heed of. It’s a lesson we’ve heard before, often, but we not yet passed the test. We’ve not yet shown that we got it. We have not built the kingdom of God that Jesus envisions for us. And for many of us, it seems the task of doing so just got a lot harder. 

But that’s no excuse for despair, or disillusionment on our part, friends. Our Christian duty to the poor, the hungry, the persecuted and the meek might seem harder today, but that duty has not decreased -- quite the opposite. 

The world needs to believe in the vision Jesus gives us, now more than ever. And we need to be about the work of building that kingdom, right now, maybe more than ever before.

Paul admonishes us, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” and so we must. And what is that call? The prophet Micah gets at it this way, “What is good? What does the Lord require of you?” he asks. He tells us it is nothing less than to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” 

You may feel that justice is in short supply these days. You may long for a kinder world. You may miss the time when humility was something more often seen. And if so, you’re not alone.

So, then, do justice, in as much as you can. If you wonder what ‘doing justice’ might consist of, consider the words of a psalm today: Speak the truth from your heart. Let no guile be upon your tongue. Do not heap contempt upon your neighbor. Do not take back your word. Do not give your money in the hope of gain; and do not take a bribe against the innocent. And honor all those who fear and follow the One God.

Love kindness, name it, call it out when you see it, lift it up when you find it. Emulate it, always. 

And be humble. Don’t demean or diminish or denounce anyone, even those who demean and diminish and denounce others. As our bishop proclaimed to us at our diocesan convention yesterday, disrespect begets more disrespect; but then so too does blessèdness beget more blessèdness.

Be blessèd, because that is what you are. 

Whether you are poor in spirit, or hungry for righteousness, or mournful for what seems to have been lost, or meek in the face of such overwhelming moral wrong. Be pure in heart even still, and be blessèd. Be merciful in spite of mercilessness, and be blessèd. Be peacemakers in a world of controversy, opposition and adversity, and be called children of God.

Let the master teacher teach you a new way. Abide by the lessons of Rabbi Jesus. Do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. +Amen.

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Liminal: a sermon for Year B, Easter 7

Preached on Sunday, May 17, 2015 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side. The Scripture readings that today's sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

Forty days after his Easter resurrection, Jesus is taken up into the heavens as his disciples watch. Jesus has promised that another is to come to them, an Advocate, to anoint them for the ministry they will take upon themselves in his name. But the Advocate is not here yet. So what to do now? What to do with this in-between time?


Social scientists call this in-between time ‘liminal time’. Anthropologist first coined the term when looking at non-Western societies and their rituals, especially the rituals that marked the passage to adulthood. These rituals and practices usually involved three stages, the preliminary stage (do you hear that, in the middle of that word: pre-limin-ary, literally the time before the liminal time), which is followed by the liminal time itself, the time of change, and then the post-liminal stage, when the newly transformed person is reintegrated into society bearing a new status, that of adult quite often.


When we look at our first reading today, we see the apostles in a liminal time. Jesus has ascended. They remain in Jerusalem as instructed, to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Liturgists look at Christian worship, especially our sacramental worship, as liminal time. We leave the world behind as we enter the church on Sunday mornings. This space doesn’t look like your home or your office. It doesn’t look like a museum or a Broadway theater or any other public space. It’s not supposed to.

In fact, it’s supposed to be different because it’s meant to take you out of the world for a time. You hear and see different things when you’re here. That is, unless you’re the type to go home this afternoon and put on a CD of the world’s greatest organ tunes. Probably not, eh? And I dare say, you probably won’t reach a point on Monday when you’ll rise from you desk to sing a hymn about the memo your working on, or the sales call you’re about to make. No, this is supposed to sound different, feel different.

We do different things in this space and during this time.

\In this space and this time, we are fed with word and sacrament, and then we are sent back out to serve this broken world, and to witness to the salvation we have found in Christ Jesus. In this space and time, we are fed upon the body of Christ so that we may become the body of Christ in the world. Hands that feed the poor, feet that march for justice, hearts that forgive, eyes that see the truth, and voices that give witness to that truth, witness to both the sin of the world, and its salvation.

So, Sunday worship is a liminal space and time, in which we step apart, are fed and transformed, made ready for our share in the ministry of the apostles.

The problem with liminal times, though, is that they are the time between two settled states; and therefore, they can be anxiety provoking. They can bring up all sorts of doubts about who we are, and what our purpose is. Of course they do. We’re unsure of who we are because we are no longer one thing, and are not yet another. We’re not sure what our future purpose will be because our present purpose is to wait, to make ready for something else, to prepare for something else to come.

To look at the apostles in our reading today, these women and men that follow Jesus will go out into the world to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. They will exemplify a new way of life. They will tread into dangerous waters, some of them. And some of them will be martyred in the process. But all that is yet to come. All of that is to come after the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Now, they’re just hanging out in the upper room -- and waiting… waiting for they know not what, waiting for whatever is to come, whatever what will be.

It’s tough to wait, it’s tough to sit still and be acted upon by the Spirit. It’s hard to wait upon the Lord, as the psalms tell us to do. We want to do something, be something. We want to quell the anxiety, quash our nerves. We want to make something happen so that we can be sure that what happens is what we want to happen; we want some control in this anxious, uncontrollable situation.

But sometimes waiting, waiting upon the Lord, is just what is called for, just what is needed. A time of anxiety, perhaps, but also a time of contemplation, listening, taking in, preparing. A time before the new, exciting, demanding, compelling time that will surely come. A time to wait for the time when the waiting will be over.

If you need help navigating these in-between times, then come here. Every Sunday, we’ll practice being patient, we’ll rehearse waiting upon the Lord. We’ll devote about an hour a week to it. We’ll put aside all the other tasks of our lives, duties as well as joys. We’ll take ourselves out of the world for a time. We’ll hear words that we don’t hear out in the world. We’ll contemplate in a way we rarely have time to in our day-to-day lives. We’ll hear some things and do some things that are rare if not downright odd. We’ll sing, for God’s sake, whether we sound like Renata Tebaldi or Jimmy Durante. And we’ll be fed on a tiniest of portions, a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. But in so doing, we shall be changed.


I promise you, you will. I know, because I see it every week. Sunday mornings, you come rushing in, some of you. A bit frantic, sometimes; worried, struggling. And then when you leave here, you’re different somehow. You’re calmer, clearer, more joyful, most of you.

Or you could be, if you show up for this liminal time in this liminal space between this world and the next; and allow yourself to be acted upon by the Spirit of God, to be transformed. If you let go of what you’re clinging to, in the world or in your own nature, and you let God in, let God transform you from within, by the word of God that you hear, and the holy food on which God feeds you.

If you’ll really allow yourself to be in this strange time and space that is in-between, if you will just be here, just be… here, in-between, you’ll be made ready for the time to come, made ready for the kingdom come. +Amen.


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Love People: a sermon for Year B, Easter 6

Preached on Sunday, May 10, 2015 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side. The Scripture readings that today's sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

In our gospel today, Jesus gives his new commandment, the mandatum, the mandate, that we commemorate each year on Maundy Thursday. And not for the first time. This new commandment has appeared already in John’s gospel, in chapter 13 in the discussions following the Last Supper. Today’s version is from two chapters further on in John’s gospel -- not an unusual occurrence. Like a Socratic teacher or Greek philosopher, Jesus repeats himself quite a bit in John, especially when making a central point.



In Matthew, Mark and Luke, we hear Jesus say something similar. When questioned about the Law of Moses, particularly about which of the 613 commandments given in the law is the greatest commandment, Jesus responds that we are to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. But here, in John’s gospel, Jesus is saying something significantly different. What Jesus says is not in any way a comment on the previous commandments, but rather it is a new commandment.

Jesus’s new commandment is ‘new’ in two main ways; in whom we should love and how we should love.

We are to love others not because they belong to the same nation, not because they are our neighbors, but because they belong to Christ. We are to love all those who have been bound together in Christ, all those who have been caught up in the love of Christ.

And secondly, we are not to love to the level, or by the measure, of our own self-love. But rather, we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us. That love has a different measure, and that measure, as we’ve noted recently, the measure of the love of Jesus is the love borne by him on the cross. This is the love of Christ that the disciples knew themselves and saw in the sacrifice of Christ; and this kind of love is meant to be a testimony to the world.

This new commandment is new. It’s a new way of understanding ourselves in relation to one another and to our God. Jesus tells us that this love changes our status, changes our relationship to God. We are no longer servants of God, but friends of God. That’s a rare thing, that’s an almost wholly new thing. In Exodus, Moses is said to talk to God ‘face to face’ as if they were friends, the original Hebrew reads (33:11). And in Isaiah, at one point, God refers to Abraham as ‘my friend’ (41:8). To be the friend of the Almighty is something once reserved to the most revered patriarchs and prophets.

But Jesus says we are all of us his friends if we do as he says, if we love one another as he has loved us. We are his friends, then, if we are each other’s friends. We most often think of our friends are those whom we chose to be friends with; but Jesus notes that is it not we who choose, but it is he who has chosen us, to be his friends, and to be friends with one another. Our friendship then, is one chosen for us, commanded of us, by Jesus himself. Our relationships with each other come out of this commandment. Our love for one another is to come from Jesus, and is to measure up to his love for us.

This idea, this new commandment of Jesus, becomes quite central to our earliest understanding of ourselves as Christians.  This idea appears 13 times in our Scripture. Twice in John’s gospel, as we’ve said, but another 11 times in the earliest Christian Scriptures, the epistles of John, Paul and Peter. Those epistles, letters to and from branches of the early Christian communities, refer to and repeat the new commandment’s idea of love, because it is so central to the way of life that those early Christians were creating for themselves as Christians, as followers of Jesus.

This love that we bear one another, rooted in Christ, it was one of the essential things about being Christian in our earliest days; it was what set us apart. Sources tell us that the Roman world was quite taken by these early Christians and their love for one another. In those early days, Christians gathered together to share the agape meal, the love meal, in each others homes; and it was noted that all classes mixed together in those homes, around those tables. There were aristocrats and peasants, Roman elites and poor Jews, masters and slaves, all together, on an equal footing.

The early Christians were known for their charity to one another, and to those not of their faith or society. This next bit is a bit of a tough message for Mother's Day, but stick with me... Infanticide was universal in ancient Roman society. Babies would often be rejected if they were illegitimate, unhealthy or handicapped, the wrong sex, or too great a burden on the family. Female infants were particularly vulnerable. These children were often exposed to the elements, left to die, or left to be raised up into slavery by slave dealers; but the early Christians took in these abandoned children and raised them as their own, loving those whom others did not or could not love. [1]

And then there were the martyrs of early Christianity, women like Perpetua and Felicity and their companions, who died rather than betray their faith or their fellow Christians; something that, again, the ancient world found preposterous initially, and eventually admirable. It was said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, out of which a great church was born by those who were following the teaching of Jesus that there was no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.



Our faith, and the church that preserves it, comes from these people and the love they bore one another. We were known for this great love, that we were willing to put into practice in all aspects of our lives, and even in our deaths. And this remarkable reputation for loving one another so impressed the ancient world, that hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands were drawn to it. Our epistle reading says, “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” And so it did.

But what are we known for now? If you ask those who only know us from CNN and the Internet, they’d tell you that we’re the marriage police, busy outlawing practically every human relationship except the most conventional. They’d tell you that we’re the most judgmental of sects, we’re the condemnation nation. Nowadays, we’re more often thought of as the hate people, not the love people.

How did we get to be the hate people, rather than the love people? Well, that’s easy to understand. Because hate is easy, and love… love is hard. It’s as hard as the wood of the cross, where was hung the world’s salvation, from whence the greatest love we can ever know.

Love one another, as I have loved you. This is my commandment. Maybe if we work at it, work at it hard, we might regain our past reputation, as the people who love, as the people who love one another no matter what, the people who fight for love, and who love those whom the world shuns. Wouldn’t that be something, to be better known for the love we bear, than the condemnation that is so often heard from our quarters. What fruit would we bear then, and such fruit as that could last at least another two millennia, maybe even unto the end of the ages. +Amen.


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

[1] Orphan Care in the Early Church - A Heritage to Recapture by Joanie Gruber, MSW; presented at the NACSW Convention, October, 2011, Pittsburgh, PA.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Truly Good Shepherd: a sermon for Year B, Easter 4

Preached on Sunday, April 26, 2015 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side. The Scripture readings that today's sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

For the first two hundred years of our faith, the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross was rarely used as the symbol of our sect. The historians surmise that the cross was too shameful a thing to be associated with our fledging faith.

It was, after all, an instrument of torture and death. And as we were saying last week, death on a cross was particularly offensive to observant Jews in the ancient world, as it would be to almost everyone today. So, it is rare indeed to find artistic representations of the cross, and especially, images of Christ on the cross, in our very earliest art and architecture.

But what you do find, over and over again, in house churches, in the catacombs in Rome, in mosaics and floor tiles, in murals painted on walls and formed into statues, are representations of the Good Shepherd. It seems that in our earliest days, when we wanted to represent our faith, when we wanted to depict our Savior, we most often pictured him as the Good Shepherd. The image, like our images of the crucifixion, became somewhat standardized, and seemed to follow a common format, more or less. Most often, the Good Shepherd would be depicted as a youngish man, standing upright, with a lamb draped over his shoulders, grasping both for and hind legs, bearing the lost lamb home to the flock.

It’s not surprising that this image should permeate the early Christian consciousness. The Israelites were a pastoral people, and shepherds were everywhere in everyday life -- and in Scripture. Patriarchs and prophets like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Amos, and perhaps most famously, David were all shepherds. Interestingly, the Quran says that all the true prophets of God were first shepherds, as was Mohammed. For those who knew Jesus, heard him preach and teach, sheep and shepherds were a commonality of life, well known to all.

Sheep aren’t the easiest animals to keep. They prefer the rougher forage found on hillsides and mountainsides, more so than the tender grasses of lowland fields. They’re likely to get stuck in crags and fall into ravines in search of their favorite forage. And they’re hard on plant life, slicing off the plants they eat near the root -- so their grazing lands take longer to recover before another flock can graze them.

They are skittish, scared of predators, as the gospel today indicates. They’re easily scattered, whether in the search of food or safety, and the shepherd must go to great lengths, over rugged terrain, to gather them in, as all those Good Shepherd images imply.



So, suffice it to say, sheep are hard animals to manage. No wonder then, that the herder with less of an investment in the flock might abandon his charges when faced with difficulties. In fact, shepherds were somewhat notorious in Jesus’s day and since. For one thing, they spent a great deal of time away from other people, driving the sheep farther and farther away from civilizing influences in search of new grazing lands. Not a lot of opportunities to bathe or wash one’s clothes out on the mountainsides. No other company but equally rough-necked herders like yourself.

We can say, then, that herders of sheep have a rough life, and make a rough lot, uncouth perhaps if not uncivilized, with nothing but rapacious sheep, rough fellows and rugged terrain out of which to craft a life.

Not surprising then how insistent Jesus is in making clear that he’s not one of those unreliable ‘hired-hand’ shepherds. He is the Good Shepherd. He’s careful to make the distinction. He sets himself apart from the usual type of sheep herder.

So what makes a good shepherd? We might expect the Good Shepherd to take good care of the sheep, to be responsible, to do his job and do it well. But Jesus says there’s more to it than that. Jesus says that the Good Shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep. Gives up his own life for those hard to manage, wayward sheep.

That would have been an extraordinary sacrifice, a foolhardy one at the very least, for the average shepherd. But, of course, Jesus isn’t really talking about shepherds and sheep, not really. He’s talking about himself and he’s talking about us. He is our shepherd; and we are the sheep, we are the flock given him by the Father to tend.

And how like sheep we are… Desirous of the most hard to find, the most exotic, fodder, of course. Likely to take ourselves into real danger to sate our appetites, requiring rescue and redemption to restore us to the fold. Fearful and easily scattered when challenged, prone to flee anything that scares us; and needful of one to protect us and defend us, from the evil without, and from our own foolish ways. What shepherd would deign to lay down his very life for such a flock?

Jesus, the Good Shepherd… would and did… so that we might be saved from the repercussions of our worst behavior, freed from the consequences of the worst aspects of our nature. Saved from sin, and freed from death.

Amazing, isn’t it? Altogether astonishing when you consider it…

And what is asked of us in return, in recognition of having been granted such a good and giving shepherd to watch over us? What might we do to be sheep worthy of such a shepherd?

Two things, our second reading from John’s first Epistle tells us. First of all, we should recognize the love that God has for us, the love inherent in the act of self-sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross. John says that we should know love by that act; that the cross of Christ should be for us the definition of love, the very meaning of love.

And secondly, that we should pattern our lives in light of this love, in a reflection of this love. That we should ourselves love, “not in word or speech alone, but in truth and action.” Becoming ready, if need be, to lay down our lives for each other, as Jesus gave his life for us.

Now, it’s unlikely that you or I will be faced with such a challenge. Very unlikely indeed that we will be asked to give up our lives for another of our number. But we should acknowledge and affirm that the truest love that we have known is exactly that kind of sacrificial love.

So, surely, when asked, when given the opportunity, we can act in ways that demonstrate that that is our understanding of love. We should show forth by our actions that we know love is not just a feeling, or sweet words we might say. Love is not just a state of being, an emotion.

Love is a verb. It is truth and action, John says. Love is what we do. We measure love by what we give, not what we receive. We know our love is true, when it truly reflects, to whatever degree we muster, the love shown to us by Christ on the cross.

Such a good shepherd have we, one that would give his own life for such troublesome sheep. That is what has been given us, that is the breadth and depth of God’s love for us. What else could we need or desire?

Other than to recognize that God is love, and then to go forth to love and serve one another, in whatever way we can, in whatever pale reflection we can make of the great love shown to us in our creation, preservation and our redemption by Jesus Christ, the truly Good Shepherd of the sheep. +Amen.


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Desire of Your Heart: a sermon for Year B, Lent 5


Preached on Sunday, May 17, 2015 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side. The Scripture readings that today's sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

Someone stopped me on the street in front of the church and told me that I needed to be praying for the end of winter and the beginning of spring -- that I needed to be praying harder. I told them that I had given up on praying for an end to this winter, and had just given over to begging, and pleading with God to end this winter, and let spring come! 

And lo, it just may finally be here.  It feels like it a bit today. Lent is drawing to a close and soon we will celebrate the mysteries of Holy Week which culminate in the joy and hope of Easter when all is made new, and our faith is renewed yet again.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah tells us of a time to come, a time of hope, a time of a new covenant. This new covenant will not be a covenant that is written in stone, on tablets brought down from Mt. Sinai as was the last covenant. It will not be a covenant of laws recorded on scrolls and policed by priests and Pharisees. This will be a covenant that is written on our very hearts. Imagine that for a moment. Written on our hearts, so that God’s law, God’s will for us pulsed within us with every beat of our hearts. Jeremiah’s new covenant in our hearts will mean that no longer will we have to admonish one another to “know the Lord,” because we will already know the Lord. With God’s law written on our hearts we will always know God and know God’s will for us -- from the inside out.

We find something, or rather someone, new in our gospel reading this morning as well. Philip and Andrew come to Jesus with a message, a request. The conjunction of Philip and Andrew and Jesus is worth noting in itself. Philip and Andrew were among the first disciples called by Jesus and more significantly; they brought others to Jesus to become disciples. Andrew brought his brother Simon Peter, and Philip brought Nathanial. We might think of Philip and Andrew as disciple head-hunters; they identify and recruit likely candidates for ministry. And that’s exactly what they’re up to in our reading from John today.

In today’s gospel, Philip and Andrew bring two Greeks to Jesus. These foreigners, likely visitors to Jerusalem for the Passover, want to see Jesus, to meet him, to find out what he’s all about. The Greeks want to know the Lord. An important event for the Greeks, I’m sure. But far from the most prodigious event in John’s Gospel. It’s just a sentence or two in our reading. A seemingly innocuous event, a small, perhaps insignificant moment really. Just Philip and Andrew saying, “Hey, Jesus. Couple guys here from out of town who want to meet you. Maybe take a selfie with you…” No big deal. 

But somehow this occurrence kicks something into gear. The Greeks arrive seeking to know Jesus, and then Jesus declares, “The hour has come!” Just like that. 

And true to form, the first knowledge Jesus imparts to the Greeks comes in the form of a parable. He recounts the parable of the single grain of wheat. A parable that evokes an all too common concern in the agrarian society of the Roman Empire, where crop failure and famine were not unknown. Wheat was a vitally important staple, ground into flour to make bread, the staff of life, as it, of course, still is today. A grain of wheat isn’t much wheat, it’s a small, perhaps insignificant thing. But it has such potential. It encapsulates so much hope. 

For as everyone would have known, a single grain of wheat is also a seed. And unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single, solitary grain. But if it dies, then it will come to bear much fruit, so Jesus says. A seed sown in the soil does not literally die but it does germinate; it becomes something more than just a single seed. A new plant begins to take form, and to burst forth from the buried seed. The seed ceases to be a seed; it ceases to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing. This is death and resurrection, this is redemption, and new life, this is hope realized. 

Jesus goes on speaking to the newcomers. And he tells them that those who love their life will lose it, but those who hate their life will gain eternal life. This one statement of Jesus is one of his best-attested statements, it appears throughout every gospel in one form or another. We heard the Markan version of this saying just three weeks ago, on the second Sunday in Lent. It is a central truth. And the Greek word translated “life” here is psyche which also has overtones of “soul” or “self” so that the saying is not so much about physical life and death as it is about the vital energy of personhood being diminished by self-centeredness but then expanded by self-offering. 

So, in order to grow, in order to live, we must reject our self-centered selves, and find a new way of being that encompasses so much more than just what we have known. 

But where lies that new way? In which direction are we to go? Do we travel from Greece to Jerusalem? Will we find what we’re seeking there? What is God’s will for us? How do we find it? 

Years ago, I had a nun as a neighbor. Sister Arlene Flaherty was a Roman Catholic Dominican religious, and she lived down the hall from us in Jersey City. Now, Not many of us have nuns living down the hall from us. Typically, they are gathered in convents and monasteries, to live in community, such is there vocation. But Arlene had a particular job in her order. She was head of the collected Dominican communities’ advocacy efforts for peace and justice. She played a very public role, and traveled extensively, to war-torn places of the world to witness the suffering of God’s people and then to place like Geneva to give testimony to that suffering on behalf of the Domincan orders throughout the world. All that coming and going would have been very disruptive to a convent, so Arlene lived in the world, so she could come and go as she needed to. 

Arlene loved our dog Molly and often dog-sat for us, and sometimes, just had Molly over for an afternoon’s visit when she wasn’t traveling. She stopped to talk with me once when Molly and I were out for a walk. She asked how my discernment for the priesthood was going. She caught me just at that point when the process itself had barely begun, but when all the steps that lie ahead of me had been carefully enunciated. Approval by as discernment committee, psychological testing, approval by the canon for ministry, meetings with committee members, approval by the commission for ministry, meeting with the bishop, approval from the bishop, seminary, ordination exams. More psychological testing. repeat approvals by the commission and the canon and the bishop… 

I confessed to Arlene as she petted Molly, “I don’t know how I’m get through it all. What if I don’t’ make it? What if I trip over one of these gates? Now that I have admitted that I feel called to the priesthood, now that I’m willing to admit to myself and declare to others that I want this so badly.

Arlene stopped petting Molly and stood up and looked me in the eye. She said to me, “Pay attention to what you want, Mark. The desire in your heart is God’s will for you. You’ll make it through, if you stay in that desire; and if everything you do is rooted in that desire.”

Just as Jeremiah promised, God’s law, God’s will for us, is written there ion our hearts. It can bring us from Greece all the way to the Jerusalem in search of greater knowledge of the Lord. More than that, it can get you through seminary -- a far more arduous journey, I can assure you. 

The beginning of this morning’s service is really the proper conclusion to my sermon, so if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to pray again the words of our collect for this Fifth Sunday in Lent. 

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. +Amen.

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Things Passing Away, Things to Come: a sermon for Year B, Epiphany 3

Preached on Sunday, January 25, 2015 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side. The Scripture readings that today's sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

I don’t want to speak too long today, because it’s Annual Meeting day. We’ve got some work to do, some vestry members to elect, and we’ve got some fellowship to share, which is, in many respects, the purpose and best part of the Annual Meeting.

But today’s readings offer some interesting comments and parallels with what we are all about today, our present and our future, about  the call of God to ministry; and about some of the hardships that ministry sometimes entails.


Our first reading this morning is from Jonah, and it’s not the famous whale story that Jonah is duly famous for. It’s about God calling Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and to pronounce God’s condemnation upon the inhabitants of that sinful city. The upshot is that the people of Nineveh hear God’s warning from Jonah, and they heed it. And then God changes his mind about the punishment that he has planned for Nineveh. God changes his mind… Later this morning, you are going to hear some reports that will challenge you to, perhaps, change your mind about what you think about this parish, and what you will do for it in the future.

This is the year in which the Vestry will call a new rector to lead this parish. Many of you have been waiting for that day with great anticipation, but our psalm verses today offers a different view. “For God alone, my soul in silence waits. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, my refuge,” our psalm verses say. God along is my salvation, it’s good to remember that on the eve of a new rectorship. Often, I think, we can place that expectation on a new rector. Hoping she will be our salvation, and fill the coffers with new pledges and fill the Sunday school with shiny faces and fill the pews with new congregants.


Paul tells the people of Corinth that the present form of this world is passing away. And that is true for us. My time among you is coming to a close, and a new rector will be with you in my stead -- no one can say when, exactly, but we know it will be soon. No one likes to here that, that change is coming that the present world is passing away. But it is ever thus, everyday, what is old passes away and what is new comes. It’s the rhythm of life, it is the order of God universe. Present things are not what we cling to, nor should they be, as our psalm verse says, not things, but God is our stronghold, our rock, and our salvation. Not priests, or old practices, or present times. God who was and is and is to come is the only thing that endures, and it is to God we cling to every day of our ever changing lives.

And in our reading from Mark, there is a pivot point in the story of Jesus. John is arrested, and soon will be executed. And Jesus goes to Galilee. In this passage in Matthew, it says that Jesus withdraws to Galilee -- with good reason, preachers and prophets are being arrested and killed in Judea and Jerusalem. It’s a good time to reassess and take stock of the threat, and to prepare for what’s next. But notice that as John’s ministry comes to an end (tragically), rather than withdraw permanently from the field because of the loss of a leader, Jesus steps up to the plate to take the mantle of prophecy and preaching upon himself. He calls together Peter and Andrew and James and John. He calls on some fellow believers to follow him as he prepares to preach the gospel of good news, of repentance and mercy to the people of Israel.

That’s a great image of the change that Holy Trinity is undergoing even now as the present times pass away and new ones come. As I’ve said to you, interim pastors ore often compared to John the Baptist in that we prepare the way for the one who is to come. And my time is drawing to a close -- I hope to be well and truly gone before my arrest and beheading. 

But someone is preparing to come, someone is being prepared to come among you, even now. And when he or she gets here, he’s going to call upon you, just like Jesus calls upon Simon and Andrew and James and John. It’s important for you to get ready for that call -- and like the people of Nineveh to hear and heed that call. Because the success of your next rector depends on you, and who you prove to be, what sort of leaders will rise up among you, and what sort of followers you will be when you heed the call to help make the next rectorship successful. Your next rector will need ready hands, and faithful hearts to support his or her work among you. He won’t be your salvation. She is not going to face the future for you, but with you. And the steadfast love of God with be what sustains you all into the glorious future God has planned for you.

Get ready. Hear and heed God’s call. Prepare yourselves for the time ahead, for your best days are ahead of you, and your God is already there, with bountiful and steadfast love to help bring about all the glorious things you will be. +Amen. 


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stop Helping, Start Serving: a sermon for Year A, Proper 7, Pentecost 2

Preached on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Scripture readings that today's sermon are based on can be found by clicking here. 

As some of you know, a few of our folks were confirmed last Saturday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Confirmation is one of the rites and sacraments of the church that has shifted and changed over our 2,000 year history. In our earliest centuries, when most of those who came to the church were adults, confirmation was something that happened at baptism. Later, when it became the custom to baptize children, confirmation began to separate from baptism, and to come later as one matured; and confirmation became a separate, adult affirmation of the vows and promises made on our behalf at baptism.

But when is one an adult, when is one ready to make such an assertion? Is it at age 13, or 18 or 21? Can any of us say that we are really spiritually mature at any point in our lives? So when, then, should we be confirmed, when can we make adult affirmations of our faith?


In classic Anglican fashion, our prayer book and our practice has come up with a compromise, one that, again in classic Anglican fashion, manages to be an encompassing compromise, a ‘both/and’, rather than an ‘either/or’, solution. At baptism, the vows of the Baptismal Covenant are made on our behalf by parents and Godparents. At confirmation, be it at 13 or 30, we renew those vows. And then, throughout the year, on special days like Easter, and the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, we renew those vows. So that over time, as we mature physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, we remember and remake our baptismal vows. And over all our lives, we seek to live into those vows at every age, as we journey through the learnings of our lives. 

When we hear our lectionary readings today, one of those vows comes to mind. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” to which we answer, “I will, with God’s help.” (BCP, 305)


In the epistle reading today, Paul tells the Romans, “All of us… have been baptized into Christ Jesus… We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5) This is the essential reality of what it means to be Christian. Through baptism, we are conjoined with the humanity and the divinity of our brother Jesus. We share in his very real, very human, death and thereby we share in his gloriously divine resurrection.


But if we do, then so do others. Our baptismal vow challenges us to seek and serve Christ in others. The death and the resurrection that are within us are within others as well. 


In our gospel today, Jesus says, “"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” (Mat 10: 32-33)


So, what is it then, to deny Christ in our own context, to deny the Christ in others, rather than to seek and serve Christ in others? What is it to deny? What is denial? 


In recent times, we’ve heard a lot about denial in our culture. We seem to be living in a time that has discovered the human propensity to deny the truth of our own lives, and the truth of the lives of others. Psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors and social workers have helped us learn that trauma often leads to denial; because denial is a very useful, very successful mechanism for coping with trauma.

Those who have suffered horrible abuse often block conscious knowledge of that abuse. They cover it up, to themselves, and do their best to get on with their lives. Of course, the truth will always out in some way, in some form. Those in denial of their trauma often choose behaviors that are compulsive, and inordinate to the actual life situations they are in. Mental health professionals have learned to look for these compulsive behaviors; and then look for a large wall of denial between the behaviors and the trauma that has given birth to the behaviors. 

Victims of physical abuse often ‘forget’ the abuse they’ve endured, and tragically, often become abusers themselves. Treatment of these individuals involves a slow chipping away of the denial, and a recovery of the initial trauma they suffered. It is often an awful, awful day, when physical abusers finally acknowledge that the abuse they have perpetrated stems from the abuse they themselves have suffered. Imagine the horror of coming to know that you yourself have become the very monster that once terrorized you. But this awful day, this personal Calvary, is necessary if healing and recovery are to have even the slightest chance. 


People who grow up in the chaos of alcoholic homes are often, to greater and lesser degrees, unconscious that the drinking they saw was in any way problematic. Their adaptive behavior is often to become extremely controlling, seeking to control everyone and everything around them, as a way to stem the chaos of their lives, chaos that they have been trained to respond to in just this way. Treatment of these individuals often involves “setting a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother” (Mat 10: 35) as the denial of the alcoholism in the family is supplanted with a freeing truth. Only then can the long process of letting go of control, letting go of manipulative, domineering behavior begin. 


Often those of us who have encountered trauma in others, trauma that leads to dysfunctional behavior, are drawn into the denial and dysfunction system, and we become caretakers and enablers of the traumatized, and fellow deniers ourselves. The untreated trauma of others traumatizes us, and we become compulsive in our caretaking. We help and help and help. And we deny and deny and deny that there’s anything wrong with our unrelenting help. Some of us will even claim that our compulsive helping is, in fact, Christian. 


It is not. 


Helping someone avoid the truth of his or her dysfunction is not Christian. 


What it is is a denial of the Christ that is in that person. It is a denial of the potential for resurrection that is in that person. In helping and enabling -- cleaning up the messes of others, helping them cover up their dysfunction, preventing them from suffering the consequences of their dysfunction -- we deny them their Calvary, painful as those personal Calvarys are, and thereby, we deny them their Easter. Again, to use Paul’s words from this morning’s epistle, their old selves are never allowed to die, to be crucified, and so they are denied the newness of life that comes only after that death. 


But it can feel so good to be a helper! We give advice that is really attempted manipulation. We help compulsively, even when our help isn’t sought. Unconsciously we remain vigilant, always on the lookout for another trauma victim to take on, to take into our lives, so that our self-definition as a helper can be supported and maintained. We become deeply enmeshed with these trauma victims, often they are our family members or co-workers or friends -- and we love them, as we should. Of course we do.


But to love, really love, with a truly Christian love is “to seek and serve Christ in all people” by allowing those we love to go to Calvary, and there to suffer, and to allow their old selves to die. So that, within them can come the resurrection of new life that comes only after Calvary. Or to put it more simply, as Alanon, the 12-step program for those affected by the trauma of others, advises, “Do someone you love a favor. Leave them alone.” Or as a Southern aphorism puts it, “Leave her lie where the Lord flung her!” 

So, stop helping. Rather, start serving. 


Seek and serve Christ in all people. The Christ that dies and lives again. The Christ who understands the necessity of death in the working out of the divine plan of salvation; the salvation of the world, and the salvation of every single person in the world. 


And maybe, just maybe, if we learn to seek and serve Christ in all people; if we allow others to go to Calvary, sure that it will lead to the garden on Easter morn; then just maybe we’ll come to serve the Christ that is in us, and go to our own Calvarys, confident in the knowledge that when we let our old selves die, we make room for the newness of life that comes in and through the death and resurrection of Christ, that Christ that is in us, with us always, until the end of the age. Amen+

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station: sermon for Year A, Easter 4

Preached on Sunday, May 11th at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. 

My home state of Tennessee is quite narrow, and very long. It’s as much as a 10-hour drive across it from the Mississippi River in the west to the Great Smokey Mountains in the east. If you were to traverse the whole state from the west to the east, along it’s southern edge, near where I’m from, you’d begin in the flat fields of West Tennessee -- that rich, dark alluvial soil of the upper Mississippi Delta. Cotton was long king in those fields; very productive farm land that Tennessee Williams dubbed the ‘richest acres this side of the Valley Nile.’ 


As you leave those flat fields and continue heading east, toward the Tennessee River and the mountains beyond, the land begins to rise and fall a bit, and undulate ever so slightly, and gentle rolling hills rise out of the ground. Those little hills are harder to plant; they’re no good for cotton, erosion being so much worse there than on the flat plains. Best to let the little hills run to woodland, and collect up enough flatter parts in and around those hills and turn it into pasture for livestock, as my father has done on his farm.

He’s retired from farming now, but I know my father still loves the little rolling, wooded hills of his farm just a few miles west of the Tennessee River. And his cows never seemed to mind them either, crossing them readily, cutting though the woods as they go in search of another bit of pasture to graze on. And the heifers seemed to appreciate the privacy of those wooded hills because that’s where they often retired to in order to birth their calves.    

A significant part of my father’s working day involved driving from one pasture to another ‘checking on my cows,’ as he calls it. He’d load a sack of feed into the back of his second-best pick-up truck; an old, beat-up baby blue model that has bounced over many a rut in a dirt road.  Once the feed is loaded, dogs and people pile into the cab of the truck and we’d drive sometimes a mile or two over gravel roads to get to one or the other of his pastures.  After the gate to a portion of pastures is safely closed behind us, my father blows the horn of the pick-up three times. Now, after years of driving over rutted gravel roads, the horn on his second-best pick-up truck is woefully out of tune -- a wire has come loose from one of the claxons, I think. It gives off a very distinctive sound, more of a bleat, rather than a honk.  But in a few minutes of that out-of-tune bleat, from over the hills and trotting through the woods, come my father’s cows.  

My father would then take out his pocketknife and open the sack of feed. He tilts the sack over his shoulder and spreads the feed in a line -- about 20 feet long or so -- on the ground.  The cows all gather along this makeshift manger on the ground, and begin to feed. My dad would then walk through the group of heifers and calves, counting, checking ears and eyes for infection. He notes the progress of those heifers that will bear calves in a few weeks or a month or two. And he looks to the health of the nursing mothers, and the development of their young, carefully tallying up the cows and calves, making sure each calf is in the care of a heifer, and that no one is missing. As he does so, the cows move gently aside to allow him to pass through their number. Some nuzzle his gloved hand, and he’ll scratch their suede-like foreheads were new horns sometimes sprout. 
His cows were always shy of me, keeping well away, never allowing me to come within reach. They, of course, know my dad’s dog, and they are surprisingly tolerant of my dogs, sensing, I guess, that these fellow creatures mean them no harm. They’re not so sure of me, nor of any other human animal besides my dad. They are mistrustful of a stranger; they do not know my voice or my smell. But they know and trust my dad. They know his voice, and the off-pitch bleat of his truck horn. They are nervous of me, but under his hand they are calm, they are well tended and cared for, they are at peace.  

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I’ve spent all this time talking about my father when it is Mother’s Day today. Recently in the news, there have been some interesting studies done on mothers and children -- and their voices. We recognize the sound of our mothers’ voice from before birth. In the final trimester of pregnancy, fetal heart rates jump when recordings of the mothers’ voices are played, verses the sound of other voices. That recognition lasts too. In older children, when they are stressed or upset, it’s been found that just the sound of a mother’s voice can calm older children, lowering their heart rates and anxiety, as much as a hug. Just the sound of a mother’s voice, a few sound waves striking the eardrum, calms and sooths as much as a full-on, arms-all-around-you bear hug. It’s, of course, well known that mother’s have a preternatural ability to distinguish the sound of their own child’s voice, and can often discern what is causing their child’s distress from the particular sound of the cry they make. 

I saw a great Facebook post yesterday from a mother, who happens to be a friend of ours. Lindsay Lunuum is my fellow priest -- we were ordained together -- and as many of you know Lindsay was sponsored for ordination by this parish, Holy Trinity. Lindsay was saying bedtime prayers with her daughter Maggie the other night. Apparently, Maggie is learning the Lord’s Prayer, and Lindsay heard Maggie pray, “And lead us not into Penn Station.”  That is in my opinion a total mothering win. Say your prayers, avoid temptation, and if you can, avoid Penn Station too. I think little Maggie is completely prepared for life with those three pearls of wisdom under her belt.  

++++++++++++++++++++ 

In our gospel reading from John’s gospel this morning, Jesus refers to himself as, among other things, ‘the shepherd of the sheep’ and he describes the special bond between our shepherd-savior and we, his sheep. “The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." (John 10:3b-5) Like my dad’s cows, we are meant to recognize the voice, the call, of the one who loves us and saves us. 

Jesus gives us much credit, I believe, maybe too much. I wonder, do we really know God’s voice when we hear it? I don’t know that we always do. I’ve spoken to many a faithful Christian, good people who try to live good lives, who try to avoid temptation and Penn Station alike. And very often, these folks struggle to hear God’s voice, strain to hear the loving voice of God in times of trial and loss. These are people who long to hear God’s voice giving them direction in their lives; people who long to follow Jesus if only they could be sure that the voice they hear directing them is indeed God’s own voice, guiding their choices and their lives.   

But it’s hard to hear God’s voice. It’s rarely as clear and discernable as three bleats on an out-of-tune pick-up truck horn heard through the quiet wood and over the calm pasture.  

But there are lots of times and lots of cases when we hear each other’s voices, and the voices of those in our world, when we might also be hearing God’s call to us to follow him.   We may hear our shepherd’s voice in the stories we share at coffee hour, in the hymns we sing, or in the voices of our children praying for the will and the strength to avoid Penn Station. 

We may hear the shepherd’s voice in the cries of the Nigerian mothers whose daughters have been kidnapped, or the lament of those Syrians, Afghanis, Sudanese and so many others who long for the silence of peace to come down and drown out the ceaseless cacophony of violence in their lands; because he taught us about justice, mercy and peace. 

We may hear the shepherd’s voice in the shouts of joy that greet the minister’s voice as she says, “I now pronounce you husband and husband” or “wife and wife.” Or in the happy tears that come when the doctor says,” You’re cancer-free.” Or when after a time of idleness and worry, we hear the longed for confirmation, “Congratulations. You got the job;” because he preached to us about the oppressed and the lonely, and those who struggle. 

We may hear the shepherd’s voice in the sometimes cringing moments when our consciences remind us of a wrong done, a falsehood told, a promise not kept; and we remember that justice is an interpersonal value, as well as a political and a legal one; because he taught us to be at peace with one another. 

Jesus tells us we’ll know it. We’ll know when it’s his voice we hear, calling us by name, leading us through the gate and out into the world. We’ll know it’s our Savior’s voice when it calls us to act with mercy and forgiveness, when it calls us to work for justice and for peace; because that’s what he told us to do. We’ll know it’s the Good Shepherd’s voice when we are urged to face the truth about ourselves we’ve so long denied; because he taught us that the truth would set us free. We’ll hear his voice calling us to be reconciled with those with whom we are at enmity; because he told us to live in peace with each other. 

We’ll know it’s our shepherd’s voice when it calls us to live in love with one another; to forgive, to respect and to serve each other, and to celebrate the triumph of love over hate, and the victory of life lived more abundantly over the culture of consumption and materialism. 


Listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd to call you by name, and to lead you where he would have you go. He will not lead you into temptation, and only occasionally, only when necessary into Penn Station. Hear his voice, heed his call. And he will lead you to green pastures beside still waters that will restore your soul. And into the risen life in him, a life more abundant than you can even imagine. +Amen. 
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins



© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Numinous Presence of the Living God: a sermon for Year A, Easter 3

Preached on Sunday, May 4, 2014 at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. 

Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and theologians have talked about and written about, and sometimes even experienced, events which they have described as ‘numinous.’ The numinous. The etymology of the word itself is interesting and gives us a clue to its meaning... Its Latin root numen, is taken from the verb nuere, which means to nod. In Greco-Roman times, a devotee would seek the guidance of a god by offering a prayer or incantation at the shrine of that god, and waiting to see if perhaps the statue of the god might be seen or suspected to nod as an indication of the path to take.

We’ve come to use the term numinous to mean an encounter with the divine, or
the supernatural. The American psychologist William James, author of Varieties of Religious Experience, referred to the numinous as “a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of … something there.” The Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung described numinous experiences as inexpressible, mysterious, sometimes terrifying -- and always pertaining, in some way, to the divine. Jung believed that our main task in this life was to discover and fulfill our individual potential. This individuation as he called it, is what lies at the mystical heart of all religions. The task of life, according to Jung, is to meet the self and thereby to meet the Divine.

You can find an account of a numinous experience in the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation. In it, an arrogant, judgmental, faultfinding woman named Ruby Turpin, has a vision, a numinous experience that is one of those that proves quite unsettling. After a day during which Ruby finds lots of confirmation that she and her class are so much more superior to the unwashed and uneducated poor of her town, which encompasses all the black folk, of course, and the white trash, as she calls them, Ruby gets her comeuppance. At sunset she witnesses a vision in which all those she absolutely despises and knows herself to be far superior to -- the poor, the simple folk, all black folks -- are being led gloriously into heaven across a crimson highway through a lavender light. And at the very last of this parade of the saints she sees her peers, in last place, and stripped of what they consider to be their virtues; on an equal plain with, even behind, all the unwashed humanity she detests. Ruby’s rather vacuous virtues -- race, class, social prowess, proper behavior -- are not reckoned to her as righteousness as she supposes, but in fact they are worthless in the face of God’s freely offered, freely given salvation.

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Our gospel reading this week contains another account of a numinous experience. Two people, called ‘disciples’ by the evangelist Luke, are journeying from Jerusalem after the astonishing few days of the Passover that they’ve just experienced. A fellow traveler joins them, and asks them what they are discussing. They give an almost perfect précis of the highlights of the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And then they share their disappointment. They had hoped that this Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. Then their fellow traveler challenges them, and recounts for them how, all that they have been told about their God has led to this very outcome. That, in fact, beginning with Moses, the words of Scripture and prophesy can be interpreted in such a way as to lead to just this result: not a great king, but a suffering, seemingly vanquished servant is, in fact, the messiah.


Then as the traveler is about to continue on his journey, the two disciples invite him to tarry a while with them -- and to share a meal. This strange and challenging traveler is invited in. Then as one does at table, the traveler takes bread, blesses and breaks it. Nothing special here; much as you do at the beginning of a meal. But this simple act proves both reminiscent and prescient. Because in that moment, that numinous moment, they experience the divine. It is Jesus that is with them, in the breaking of the bread, and since the beginning of their journey.

And notice; they come to this unutterably mysterious and joyous moment, only after having traveled the road, taken the journey to a place called Emmaus. They have been through an ordeal in Jerusalem. They have hoped and then lost that hope. Yet in the face of disappointment and loss, they remained open, open to a presence of a fellow traveler, welcoming to such a one, inviting him in to partake of a bit of simple roadside hospitality. Though let down, perhaps even heartbroken, yet still open to the possibilities inherent in every journey, any journey, the numinous breaks in upon them. And they come face to face with the glory of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In an instant, they find they are in the presence of none other than the living God.


And that is why, week after week, Sunday after Sunday, we revisit Emmaus. We join around this table just as they did. And we break the break just as they did. And we put ourselves in the presence of the living God, once again. Because here, God is present in our coming together and breaking bread.

Now not every Eucharist will prove to be as numinous as that supper at Emmaus. But the potential for that kind of experience is ever present, always possible; in this sacred rite, and, I believe, in every walk of life. The numinous experience of the living God is imminent in all of creation. Putting ourselves in the right place, in the right frame of mind, to avail ourselves of, to really welcome, the numinous experience of the living God is… well it takes work. Learning to set aside the really vacuous virtues that we, like Ruby Turpin, can be so proud of. The cultivation of a willingness to continue on our journeys after disappointment, even despair. The spiritual maturity to allow that the messiah we thought we were promised is not quite the messiah we are given. All these learnings and growings are part of what ready us to experience the numinous. The willingness to be wounded, to take the risks that will in some cases lead to hurt. It takes some of that too.


So, start out on the road to Emmaus. Begin your journey. Welcome those whom God might send to travel with you. Share your dreams and your disappointments with those who journey alongside you. Listen to what they might say, to how they might interpret your shared experiences. Listen to what they have to say about what you think you might already know. Be hospitable on the way. Give and accept the gift of time with one another, the gift of being in one another’s presence; for such presences are really the most valuable things we have to share with one another. 

And when it’s time to refresh and renew yourselves, break bread together. Share a meal, a glass of wine, a celebration, some pizza and beer and birthday cake after a long day of MayFair, for instance. And see what happens. And don’t be surprised if in the most mundane of moments, in the simplest act of sharing, the numinous, mysterious, surprising, fleeting, frightening, shattering presence of the living God doesn’t find you, doesn’t break into your life, and change it forever.  +Amen.



© The Rev. Mark R. Collins