Jesus’ Paraclete

My friend Evan Garner, being the good Church Nerd that he is will hopefully find this next sentence very exciting.  Evan Garner and David Lose have me thinking.  In his post for today, Evan offers a quality reminder that even though 90% of sermons for Pentecost Day will focus on Acts 2, there is a deep and rich Gospel text ready and waiting to be mined as well.  Meanwhile, in his post for Pentecost B, David Lose works out his own issue with the Gospel text, specifically the word Paraclete (Advocate), in light of the Acts lesson.

I will, no doubt, preach on Acts 2 this Sunday, but thanks to Evan and David, it won’t be without at least some temptation to deal with Jesus’ promise of the Paraclete in John’s Gospel.  The more I think about it, the more I think I might even find a way to preach on both.  The Holy Spirit that appears with power and might and leaves the crowd in Acts 2 totally blown away needs to be jived with the Comforter/Advocate that Jesus talks about in John 15.  The Holy Spirit that works in the lives of the faithful, calling them out of their comfort zones, empowering prophets, lifting up leaders and voices for change, sending forth missionaries and reticent priests often doesn’t feel a whole like like she’s comforting us.  No, when the Spirit is at work in your life, things get downright messy; sometimes even dangerous.

The Holy Spirit compelled Peter to stand up before a crowd of bewildered, sometimes sneering people and tell them that Jesus is the Messiah, that he was killed by those outside the law, and that God had bigger plans, bigger even than the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, or Solomon.  As one who steps into the relative safety of a pulpit on a regular basis, it is easy to take what Peter did for granted, but the reality is that what he did was shockingly risky.  Jesus had been hung on a cross 53 days ago.  The religious powers-that-be were still on edge about the whole Jesus movement, and Peter and the disciples continued to, rightfully, be scared for their lives.

As David Lose says in his blog, “We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem; that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’e done so!”  That’s what the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 is all about.  As I said earlier this week, the universal gift and call of the Spirit is to preach the Gospel in the language of our circle of influence.,  That’s pretty damn frightening.  That’s why the Church is shrinking rapidly.  We’re too afraid to share our story, too afraid to let the Spirit do her work in our lives, too afraid to offend someone.

The Paraclete that Jesus promises is literally, “one who comes alongside” and when she does, hold on tight because the ride is about to get rough, for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of God.

Paraclete Tactical Body Armor Solutions is perhaps the best image of what the Holy Spirit does in our lives. She calls us out of safety, but promises protection along the way.

What kind of sermon will you preach?

Sunday isn’t just the Day of Pentecost, but it is also the last Sunday before my sabbatical.  I’ll be out of the pulpit for eleven straight Sundays after this one.  As I prepare to preach, I am finding myself struggling with what, if any, challenges I should place upon the people of St. Paul’s in my absence.  At its best, a sabbatical isn’t just for the cleric taking time off to study, fish, travel, or whatever.  The goal of a sabbatical should be for clergy AND congregation to spend some time thinking about their ministry together.  Now this is different, of course, in a congregation with more than one priest.  At Saint Paul’s, TKT will be here all summer, and he is the Rector, after all, so that vision and goals go through his desk, and yet, TKT and I have the sort of relationship where we share that work of vision and goal setting, and my sabbatical will be a time for me and the congregation to reflect on our work together, but certain for him to be thinking about it as well.  So I wonder, how pointy a stick should I use on Sunday?  And you, dear friend, what kind of sermon will you preach?

How sharp a stick will you use?

The lessons appointed for Pentecost, Year B are ripe with opportunity to challenge the status quo.  The Acts lesson is all about the Spirit pulling the disciples further and further out of their comfort zones.  The text from Romans reminds us that things are still not what God wants them to be, and we know it, and we are called to join with all of creation in struggling and striving for the Kingdom of God.  Even the Gospel lesson asks us to re-think about what the work of the Holy Spirit really is in our lives.  There are real opportunities to push the envelope on Sunday and leave our congregations feeling not unlike the crowd gathered outside the disciples condo on the Day of Pentecost: bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed.

Yet even those aren’t strong enough words to convey what the crowd was feeling that morning.  In his commentary on Working Preacher his week, Frank Crouch, Dean and President of Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem (PA, not that other one) notes that our popular English translations have watered down what people felt when the Spirit arrived on the scene.  “The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered… as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, [and] completely uncomprehending.”  Are we willing to risk, just as things are supposed to be settling down for the summer, whipping our congregations into an uproar?  Is it possible, through a story we think we know so well, to help our people feel thoroughly disoriented?  Isn’t Pentecost the ideal day to trust God enough to invite the Spirit to come with power and might, understanding that it might mean changing everything we think we know about the Kingdom of God?

I’d like to have a job to come back to on August 30th.  I’m just not sure how much risk I’m willing to take?  What about you?  What kind of sermon will you preach?  Will it be safe or will your people find themselves blown away?

Tongues of Fire

I grew up going to a fairly charismatic Episcopal Church.  It was big in the Alpha movement, an evangelical program designed to help people find a place for Jesus in their lives.  As a part of that 10 week program is the Holy Spirit weekend.  It makes sense that you’d spend some intentional time talking about the Holy Spirit because a lot of what she’s about can be pretty intimidating.

Since the Day of the Pentecost, it has been the Spirit calling us out of our comfort zones.  It is the Spirit who imparts gifts in baptism.  It is the Spirit who on that first post-resurrection Pentecost appeared as a mighty wind and tongues of fire.  One topic that inevitably gets dealt with on the Holy Spirit weekend is the whole idea of Glossolalia, the gift of tongues.  There are some churches that argue that one is not actually grafted into the book of life by the baptism of the Spirit without the gift of tongues.  This argument gets its foundation in the Pentecost story where the first outpouring of the Spirit comes with universal speaking in tongues.  Except, not quite.

Glossolalia is not the gift the disciples received in that upper room on Pentecost Day.  Glossolalia is talked about in Scripture, Paul makes very specific references to it in 1 Corinthians 14, but what he talks about is a private prayer language.  What the disciples experienced on Pentecost wasn’t a private event, but a very public utterance of the Good News in every language under heaven, which gets the fancy Greek name of xenoglossy.

The universal gift of the Spirit on Pentecost Day wasn’t a one-on-one prayer language with God, but the conviction and the ability to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is, no doubt, a whole lot scarier than being able to hide in one’s prayer closet and speak in the tongue of angels.  Xenoglossy comes in many forms: it might mean you can speak a foreign language you never could before.  More likely, it means having the ability to share the Good News, in word and deed, in a way that the people around you can understand.  Quite simply, xenoglossy means speaking the language of love, and that is the gift of the Spirit.

On Sunday, when you once again hear the familiar story of the tongues of fire, don’t get nervous that you don’t have a prayer language of your own.  The Pentecostal gift of xenoglossy might make you more nervous, but take heart, that we’re all in this together, all called to spread the Gospel, the stories of God’s deeds of power in Jesus and in our own lives, in a way that the world around us can understand.

The Pentecostal Mandate

Even if their congregation doesn’t do footwashing on the Thursday before Easter, the average Episcopalian is at the very least familiar with the themes of Maundy Thursday.  If you’ve read this blog for long enough, you’ve learned that the word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get the word “mandate.”  The mandate of Maundy Thursday is Jesus’ New Commandment, that we love one another.  Two weeks ago, we heard that mandate echoed as Jesus continued to give his disciples their final instructions, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  On Sunday, as the Church gathers to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day, we’ll hear yet another mandate, this time not from the lips of Jesus, but from the authors of the 1979 Prayer Book (who, according to Marion Hatchett, borrowed heavily from the Gelasian sacramentary of c. 7th or 8th century).

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This prayer might be asking God to help the Holy Spirit move her way across the globe, but the onus sits squarely on our shoulders.  The Holy Spirit will be spread, at least according to this Collect, by the preaching of the Gospel.  The mandate is clear, we must preach the Gospel.  The problem is that we’ve so compartmentalized the Gospel that the average church-goer either has no idea what it looks like or has an insanely specific understanding of it.  You’ll hear, for example, that Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” so good works are all we really have to do.  Some will argue that marriage equality is the Gospel, while others will argue that feeding the poor is the Gospel, and still others will say that amendment of life is the Gospel.  Each of these are a part of what the Gospel message calls us toward, but none are, in and of themselves, the Gospel that the Collect for Pentecost Day would have us preach.

The full Gospel can be summed up in several different ways, but I find it helpful to go back to an earlier teaching from Jesus in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever puts their trust in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  The Gospel is the story of God’s love made flesh in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That love changed the world by changing the hearts of human beings.  That love will compel us to do good works, to seek justice for all people, and when we sin to repent and return to the Lord, but the first step, the Gospel that will set the Spirit free, is to recognize and put our trust in God’s unending love.

A Sermon for Albert Kennington’s 40th Priesthood Ordination Anniversary 

You might not know it, but Saint Matthias and Father Albert Kennington have something in common, and it isn’t that they graduated from high school together.  Albert was actually two years ahead of Matthias.  No, what Albert and Matthias have in common is that they went through the discernment process during times of great transition.  Father Kennington was the first person to be ordained a priest in the newly formed Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.  Saint Matthias was the first person to be ordained… Ever.

It had been a whirlwind of a week for the disciples.  On Thursday afternoon they were with their resurrected Rabbi on the Mount of Olives when Jesus was lifted up to heaven in a cloud.  As they stood there, slack-jawed, staring up to the heavens, two men appeared before them and asked, “Why are you staring into the sky?”  Luke doesn’t say if they answered the question, but I think we all know what their response was, “We’re standing here staring into the sky because we don’t know what else to do.”  The world had been forever changed and now Jesus was gone again, and they were totally confused.

Eventually, they stopped staring upward and they made their way back to that same upper room where they’d been staying for more than a month.  There the eleven remaining disciples gathered with the Mary the Mother of our Lord, and a smattering of other men and women and they did the only thing they could think of doing, they prayed and they prayed and they prayed.  The first great Act of the Apostles wasn’t preaching a sermon, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, or baptizing new members.  Before all of that, the Apostles prayed.  Here again, Luke doesn’t tell us what they prayed for or about, but we can pretty much guess what they were asking for, the same thing everyone asks for in times of transition and transformation: wisdom, discernment, and above all else, peace.

It was during those days of prayer, sometime between the Ascension and Pentecost ten days later, that Peter got a word that eleven Apostles simply would not do.  Twelve was the number Jesus had chosen.  Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel.  Twelve was, at least in Peter’s mind, the right number, and so it was that the first discernment process began.  In his first ever resolution to convention, Peter sets forth a single criteria for ordination, “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”  The disciples prayed some more, they cast lots, and eventually Matthias answered the call to serve God as a witness to the resurrection.

This morning we gather to give thanks to God that men and women, and especially Albert Kennington have continued to answer that call. For more than two-thousand years Christians have benefited from leaders who can speak from their own experience as witnesses of the resurrection life in the Kingdom of God.  Of course this calling is not just the purview of the ordained.  You need not have a penchant for black shirts or wearing a funny collar around your neck to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus.  In fact, one of the lasting gifts of the Great Reformation was the rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers.  Each of us is uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit in baptism for the building up of the Kingdom.  Not all of us are called to be priests or evangelists, but every follower of Jesus is called to share the Good News of God’s saving love that had its fullest expression in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of  Jesus Christ.

This would be a good place to transition into a sermon for the service of Celebration of New Ministry, but today isn’t that service.  I’m not sure if part-time Vicars or Priests-in-Charge, or old fogeys get to have those sorts of services.  Today we gather to celebrate 40 years of priestly ministry by Father Kennington. There is something fitting about celebrating a milestone like this in the place where a priest continues to minister to and with a body of faithful disciples. Having retired from Trinity Church Mobile several years ago now, this day could have passed by nearly unnoticed except for a few friends, his family, and Albert himself, but anyone who knows Albert knew that retirement was not going to be the end of his time witnessing to the resurrection; it was merely a moment of transition.   There is still much for Father Albert to do, and still much for us to learn from him as a pastor, priest, and teacher, but there is a natural tendency on milestone days to look back on the days that have passed.

Truth be told, I’ve not known Albert for very long.  He and I have only gotten to know each other well over the past eight months or so as I’ve served as his Assistant Diocesan Secretary, and so my retrospective on 40 years of ministry would be sorely lacking.  Instead of boring you with the stories of our car trips from Robertsdale to Pensacola, or that lunch we had at Ed’s in the Causeway, I decided to ask three people, who know Albert a whole lot better than I do, to share what they think has defined their father’s ministry over the last forty years.  Elizabeth, Curtis, and Jessica were unable to be here today, but they were happy to share their thoughts on how their dad has faithfully followed in the footsteps of Saint Matthias as a witness to the resurrection.

Elizabeth was the first to respond, and she shared about her dad’s ecumenical and interfaith work saying that one “hallmark of his ministry” is the way he has built bridges “between people of different faiths while upholding our traditions as Christians and Episcopalians.”  Through his interfaith and ecumenical work, Albert has shown us what it looks like to be a witness to the resurrection by “proclaiming by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Albert’s son, Curtis, is just finishing up his first year at the General Theological Seminary and is staring down the barrel of Clinical Pastoral Education.  He’ll spend the summer serving as a chaplain at a New York hospital and fittingly, he was drawn to his father’s skills as a pastor.  “He walks into a hospital room or bedroom and is able to connect, be present, love and serve… He knows when to speak, when to cry, when to pray, when to bless. He knows, most importantly … when to exit.”  In his pastoral work, Albert has shown us what it looks like to be a witness to the resurrection by “loving and serving the people among whom he works.”

The last response came from Jessica, which makes sense, she’s recently given birth to Albert and Nancy’s third grandchild and spare time is a rare commodity these days.  Jessica noted what was echoed by all three children, that despite the long hours and decades of hard work, Albert takes the vows he made to his wife and family very seriously.  She wrote, “I think something that speaks to his integrity as a priest… is that all three of his children remain faithful Episcopalians who care deeply for their church.”  As a man who continues to navigate the difficult balance between Father and dad, Albert has shown us what it looks like to be a witness to the resurrection by “patterning his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ.”

As Albert begins his fifth decade of priestly ministry, we give thanks that he answered the call to become a witness to the resurrection, using his skills as an ecumenist, pastor, father, preacher, parliamentarian, liturgist, historian, and above all, his modeling for us what it means to follow Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God for forty years of grace and power poured out upon Albert.  And Father Kennington, may God bless you with many more years of faithful ministry as a witness to the resurrection.  Amen.


A Memorial to the Church

I am a firm believer in the future vitality of The Episcopal Church.  I have to be.  I’m 35 years old and looking at another 30 years of ordained ministry.  I’d also like the Pension Fund to still exist when I retire someday.  I’ve got two daughters and I’m committed to raising them in the knowledge and love of the Lord.  I’m even spending the bulk of my sabbatical time this summer exploring what The Episcopal Church has that makes us special and what we might need to tweak to ensure that the current religious climate isn’t one of crisis, but an opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ for generations to come.  All of these reasons, and many more, are why I am thrilled to join Susan Brown SnookScott GunnTom FergusonFrank LogueBrendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and Adam Trambley in presenting “A Memorial to the Church” along with several enacting resolutions calling on The Episcopal Church gathered at the 78th General Convention to proclaim resurrection by to acting with boldness to proclaim the gospel in some very specific ways.  The Memorial has six points, which I’ve repeated here with some brief commentary.

  • Engage creatively, openly, and prayerfully in reading the signs of the times and discerning the particular ways God is speaking to the Episcopal Church now.  This means moving beyond politics as usual.  It means letting go of our long-standing arguments over any number of things that are adiaphora to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It means listening to the culture and looking for signs of God already at work in the world.
  • Pray, read the scriptures, and listen deeply for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in electing a new Presiding Bishop and other leaders, in entering into creative initiatives for the spread of the kingdom, and in restructuring the church for mission.  As a democratically governed church, we assume that the Holy Spirit is at work in the election process: from Bishops to Standing Committees to Vestries.  This is true of our senior leadership as well.  The Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies, and Members of Executive Council will work to enact the vision set forth by General Convention.  If they are not willing to risk creatively for the spread of the Good News, then we have already failed.
  • Fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly: training laborers to go into the harvest to revitalize existing congregations and plant new ones; forming networks and educational offerings to train and deploy church planters and revitalizers who will follow Jesus into all kinds of neighborhoods; and creating training opportunities for bilingual and bi-cultural ministry. It is no secret that ministry happens at the local level.  Unfortunately, many local congregations are too worried about keeping the lights on to think about mission and evangelism.  It is our hope that General Convention will put its money where its mouth is and set aside upwards of $10 million to plant and revitalize congregations.
  • Release our hold on buildings, structures, comfortable habits, egos, and conflicts that do not serve the church well.  In order to move into the future, some of the past must be left behind.  This is not new in the life of the Church, but even thought we’ve done it before, change is never easy.
  • Remove obstacles embedded in current structures, however formerly useful or well-meaning, that hinder new and creative mission and evangelism initiatives.  There is much in our current structures that started out as very useful tools for ministry, but as the world is changing right before our very eyes, we have to look honestly and critically at every level of structure and ask “Is this supporting the work of the Church or could these resources be better used elsewhere?”
  • Refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.  Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go and make disciples” and they immediately sat down in a committee meeting to discern how to do it.  Two thousand years later, we have committees, commissions, agencies, and boards asking the same question.  While they aren’t inherently bad, CCABs do tend to be self-perpetuating with ever expanding budgets.  Let’s turn our focus back on the Great Commission and find ways to work together to help unveil the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I hope you will take a couple of minutes to read our Memorial in its entirety.  If you’d like to join the movement by adding your name, simply email with your full name and whether you are a Bishop, deputy, alternate deputy, or better yet, a supportive Episcopalian.  Above all, please pray for the Church, for her leaders: Katharine, our Presiding Bishop, Gay, the President of the House of Deputies, the House of Bishops, and the House of Deputies; and for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we might have the courage and wisdom to move forward with boldness to the glory of God.

Complete Joy

Last week, while Jesus was still talking to his disciples (as opposed to talk to them under the auspices of talking to God), he told them these words, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).  This week, Jesus is praying to his Father (with added commentary for his disciples) when he says, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13).  If last week’s promise seemed unimaginably hard to reach, this week’s is downright absurd.

I mean, come on!?!  The joy of Jesus made complete in us?  Clearly Jesus had never been a part of a church or had to pay a bill or gone to get his air conditioner looked at and walked away seven hours later with a brand-spanking-new car note (like I did yesterday).

I don’t find car buying to be a joyful event.

Joy is not a commodity much traded in these days, and even when we do find a way to be joyful even in difficult circumstances, that joy feels far from complete, fullfilled, or overflowing.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the key to understanding these two promises is knowing the one who made them.  On my own, I’ll never achieve joy.  Instead, I’ll chase after the hopeless pipe dreams of this world: fame, fortune, prestige and power; only to find myself frustrated at every turn.  If I place my trust in Jesus instead of this world, and follow the will of his Father, then soon I find that even when things aren’t going my way, there is peace and joy that abounds.  To paraphrase Psalm 23, even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, my cup overflows with grace and mercy.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding is the source of true joy – complete joy.  It is not something I can find on my own, but comes from trust in the one who guarantees it: God Almighty: Father,  Son, and Holy Spirit.