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What Are You Gonna Say?

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April 17, 2016

When you work in social enterprise people ask, “What’s your elevator speech?” The idea of an elevator speech freezes me up, and I think what a horrible idea it is to give a speech to a stranger anywhere. My elevator speech is awkward silence on too long a ride as I stare up at the numbers. There’s no motivation really to give a speech since everybody is just trying to get out of there. And, an elevator ride is never two minutes. It is always like two minutes even before it comes down and I’m thinking , “Come on, I just want this elevator ride to be over with.” What might be a better expression is, “What is your portico speech? What are you going to say when you are standing in those moments of great consequence and pressure? Speak it. What do you believe? And better yet, speak it plainly.

The season of Easter readings line up perfectly to help us imagine how do we live our faith. How do you? How do I? How do we? How do we live our faith? The first week after Easter it was—you have to see it. It is the story of Thomas saying, “I need to see the wounds myself; I need to experience this. I need to see it to live out my faith.” The next week, the answer was, “You have to feel it." You have to feel your heart burning and the desires that are in us to live into this beautiful truth of what resurrection looks like in our lives. This week it’s easy. Speak it. See it, feel it, and speak it. The lesson comes in the Acts of the Apostles where the consequences are dire. The authorities tell the apostles, if you have something to say, you need to say it. And in this 9th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the portico, meaning he’s at the gate of the temple.

This Gospel places him exactly in the place where there was an attempted stoning of his life. And his disciples say to Jesus, “Speak your truth and speak it plainly.” Can you imagine? If we were put in that place our portico speech might start with something like: “Well, I don’t want to offend anyone. I think you get the gist.” There are all kinds of things you can say. But he said very plainly, “I have said it and said it. Unless you believe, it is hard for you to hear it. And you will never ever speak it as clearly as in the acts that you do. My acts testify to who I am and what it is I believe—watch me.”

What is it St. Francis said? “Preach the Gospel, whenever you can, use words if you have to.”

Bonhoeffer, that great saint who died executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, said for scholars and disciples, “the Holy Trinity is Truth, Freedom, and Simplicity.” People wanting to know how to speak the faith in their life need truth, freedom, and simplicity. It’s a struggle for everyone. Everyone gets caught up in theological gymnastics and complicated dogma, in rhetoric that becomes hollow. We are all subject to it. So the call today is to remember simply—how do you speak your faith? Are you surprised by what comes up even as I ask that question? Are you inspired by it? Humbled by it? Scared of it? That’s your portico speech—what you say at the gate of the temple. That’s what we are called to remember today—how to speak our truth and to speak it plainly. AA gets it right on that beautiful 12-step journey. “Keep it simple,” it says. “Keep it simple.” Give your testament simply as a witness to courage and hope on the journey.

We have seen over the years in our community at Thistle Farms, when people complicate it, it can get it confused, you get lost. And there are horrible consequences to it. At Thistle Farms we try to keep it so simple--we start by lighting a candle. That simple act speaks volumes. What are the simple acts that keep you focused? What simple acts speak your truth? We have tried in the faith community I serve to keep it simple—to keep the corporal acts of mercy. We have them hanging on the wall, preach about them all the time, to try and get it simply right. We are following the corporal acts of mercy that have been with us since this Gospel was written: give drink to the thirsty, give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, tend the sick, comfort the sorrowful, and bury the dead. That’s what we do and that is love preached most radically in words without judgment. That’s it. And so every week we say the St. Francis Prayer over and over again so that when you are asked to give that portico speech, you know it.

Truthfully in the end in our lives it needs to be simple.

The end of Bonhoeffer’s life was after he had been in prison for years. When all the stained glass was long gone, all the intricate patterns and all the deep, huge tomes of books on theology, he’s left with poetry. He writes about light and darkness and hope. Barth, one of the heroes that Bonhoeffer talks about and writes with, says at the end of his life when he is questioned, “What is it you believe, what is your portico speech?” he says, “Jesus loves me; this I know.” In the end it is pretty simple. Jesus says it over and over, “Love God, neighbor, and self.” So beautiful and so deep and it takes our lives to live into it. So as we live out our faith, remember the holy trinity: truth, freedom and simplicity….if you have use words.

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Sermon: "Our Hearts Were Burning"

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There is a part of our interior lives that almost nothing can touch. It exists in the deep space that holds the memory of what has been forgotten as well as what we hold onto. It is the place that longs for the love of God to be requited like a thirsty deer longs for a water brook. Such places exist in secret, beyond accolades, relationships, or work. They dwell in the sacred part of us that the psalmist said is woven in secret beneath the earth. I have seen glimpses of that space in others and have known it in myself like I know the back of my hand. It is where thoughts grow, fear hovers, and wonderings take on a life of their own.  All of us know that space within ourselves. We conjure up that place without consciousness. Mystics, disciples, entrepreneurs, and pilgrims are guided by some of the lessons from that divine spark that lives within. One of the great forefather’s of the Civil Rights movement, Howard Thurman, was a gifted writer, chaplain, mystic and social justice advocate who also talked about his first encounter with that interior place. He describes being a young child in a segregated south at the turn of the 20th century and going to sit under a big oak tree. There he said he found a relationship that could commune with his loneliness.  He said that the tree was one of his first teachers to show him the vital importance of paying attention to the interior fire and fear within.  As a writer he described this space as a kind of lining around our hearts with sentries standing guard so that nothing can harm that sacred and wounded space held in secret. 

On Wednesday nights this Easter Season, Claire Browne has been leading us through reflections on the practice of living into the truth of resurrection. Last week several people spoke about times recently in which they saw signs of resurrection and the face of God. Such reflections have felt like a call to pay attention to that interior place and to practice letting down our guarded and blind hearts to allow love to sink in. When stone becomes flesh and brokenness transforms into compassion, those are moments that initiate the healing of ourselves and the world.

In the post resurrection story in the Gospel of Luke, the disciples were walking down the road to Emmaus and met a man who walks with them. With overwhelming grief and brokenness emanating from within, they don’t recognize him even though he is right beside them. The guards around their sacred hearts were standing tall. But there was that place that burned within them they recalled. Such a burning was a sign that the author of the spirit and the guide on road was close. That place calls us on our spiritual journey.

It is the host at communion that holds the possibility of transforming a broken piece of bread into a sacred meal. This rich interior life calls us to attention, even as we try to ignore it. It burns within and when we allow forgiveness, hope, and all the other gifts freely given to us all to let our guards down, we can feel resurrection.

In the iconic images of the Sacred Heart, the robe is pulled back to reveal a heart with a haloed light. There is pain and holiness in that image, but what radiates is a heart open to the world that burns, for love; the most powerful force on earth. That heart and its haloed sacred lining reveal the truth that nothing stands between us and seeing love resurrected around us while we are walking down the road. The sacred heart beats within us and burns when we walk near the holiness and hope of resurrected love. When we see with eyes searching for signs and hear with ears tuned into hope, we can feel our own healing and sacred hearts.

About 20 folks that gathered last Wednesday nights at the chapel talked about such experiences as seeing Christ in a doctor who came to a friend’s bedside, how they recognized the face of God in a stranger who showed compassion, about hearing creation sing in the song of flowers. All of them describe a well of tears behind their eyes, a burning of their hearts, and deep gratitude that turned an ordinary moment into a sacred path of healing. Such moments are there for all of us to behold.

I have spent so much time in Vans and Airplanes this past year, traveling and speaking to conventions, as thistle farms share the story of how love heals. Whenever I travel I am with a group of survivors who also come bearing their sacred hearts and sometimes it is hard. If you are tired, having a bad day, or grieving, it can close the kindest of hearts. Especially if there is a relapse, death, or someone quits, it feels like there is a heavy blanket that covers a wounded heart and blinds us to the living God walking beside us.

On Friday we were driving through the mountains of North Carolina after sharing a justice tea party and helping start a new recovery home for women out of the work being done by Our Voice, a nonprofit community that works with survivors of sexual violence. It was a powerful and fairly intense event, so after we served the couple hundred of folks gathered the tea grown in Mexico and shared the story of the movement for women’s freedom, and after we sold thousands of dollars in body balm, we packed up our wares and headed on the road to our Emmaus---Nashville.

In that familiar rush of trying to get back, I wasn’t thinking about seeing the face of God or hearing the living word in my midst. But after a couple of hours of phone calls and emailing I stared out the window and just started listening. In the middle seats of a rented van I heard the voice of God. It startled me to hear it, and my chest burned.

There was a conversation between two of the amazing survivor leaders at Thistle Farms.  One was stressing about money, and the other started counseling her, not in broad terms but by getting out a pad and spending the next hour going through every single bill and making a budget and making a to do list to get her finances in order. You could hear the peace of God washing over the woman that was stressed. The flow of grace between them was a balm to all of us weary travelers along the road. The vision of God beside me didn’t come to me in lofty speeches or stunning images. That is the way the spirit works, as we are walking through our lives we suddenly realize our Lord has been there all along and we feel hearts beat to a rhythm of joy that makes it want to break in gratitude. I met the risen Christ in two women sharing a scary part of their lives and healing one line item at a time. Rarely do sacred moments come with rainbows and harps. Instead they come in graceful moments that give us a burning heart and remind us we are in the presence of God.

So today is a simple and deep call. Remember and feel that place in you. Thurman said toward the end of his life, "There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine. It is the only true guide you will ever have.

And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” The call to all disciples is to recognize when your heart burns, and then watch and listen as scenes before you become visions.  Feel the space when you walk beside a friend and know you are standing close to the image of God. Our journey as disciples is to walk into that space, to let down the guards, and feel our hearts burn with the presence of love.

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Easter 2016 Sermon: "I Lay Me Down"

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I want to lay me down in wildflowers; the silent harbingers of spring. During the Lenten season just as we are called to new life, flowers become the best preachers. With unaffected modesty larkspur blush in morning light. Dancing with the slightest breeze, Dutchmen’s britches celebrate everything. Trout lilies in long lines genuflect every sunset. Wildflowers seem to pass so quickly, yet their roots lead us back to Eve’s mother, and their descendants and distant cousins were witnesses in the garden on Easter morning. After Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethemane, his trial and crucifixion, the Gospel of John tells us he was carried by Joseph and Nicodemus to a garden with a new tomb. There they took spices and oils, wrapped his body in a shroud and laid him in the tomb. On the 3rd morning the Gospel places Magdalene with some assortment of other women in that garden searching for Jesus on the wings of that morning in Jerusalem. I can imagine wild lilies and geraniums greeting Magdalene as she and her sisters set out to anoint their Lord’s body. Carrying spices along with heavy hearts and fear, they followed the worn path just as dawn was breaking. Surely such a path was clearer because of tender blossoms pointing the way. I wonder if Magdalene, burdened with leadership and love, looked down long enough to consider the lilies as they bore a regal witness to hope. I wonder if the path she took smelled rich and offered her hope as she prepared to face the stone and saw them as a sign that in the midst of death love was rising. I wonder then if she remembered Jesus’ words as he led them on their first mission, “Don’t worry about your life.” “Seek the kingdom, and all else will be added unto you.” “Consider the lilies and how they neither toil or spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed like one of these.” Then breathing in the abundance that flowers offer, Magdalene reaches the tomb and finds angels, and discarded shrouds, and drops everything to run and proclaim the good news, “He is risen.” 

Just after finishing the clinics, sewing, tending the gardens and organizing the school in San Eduardo on our 19th annual trip to Ecuador, our group from St. Augustine’s headed into the mountains. We walked on rocky soil 13,000 feet above sea level draped in native paper trees, wild flowers and beautiful orchids as hawks soared  along vertical rocks from long forgotten volcanoes. Wildflowers are universal and timeless, and when we consider them in the hills of Tennessee, the Gardens of Jerusalem, or the mountains of Ecuador, they remind us of the abundance in God’s kingdom. The whole gospel is a reminder, even in death and injustice that God’s abundant love for us is more than 500 denari worth of sins that have been forgiven 70 times 7 times. When we are thirsty, 60 gallons of water can become wine and when we are hungry 5000 people can be fed from a few baskets. The gospel preaches that once barren nets spill over with fish, and we can pour out our hearts as lavishly as lavender oil on feet.

Leaving the mountain and flowers, we headed back to the city where I found myself early in the morning sitting in front of a big flower market by the Sanctuary Mariano. Aproned women made quick work of making arrangements for weddings and graves. Tuber rose filled the air with thick memory. It was an ever flowing stream of flowers that could fill anyone’s well of longing. There on an ordinary Saturday morning with a full heart, I bore witness to enough wild and cut flowers to sate new grievers and young lovers who long to mark ordinary days as sacred. With a heart full of gratitude, I stepped into the sanctuary with gilded lilies and bronzed saints to pray and was taken aback by the huge purple shrouds covering everything…the altar, the saints, the flowers. It was all hidden, as though it was too much for us to bear in our Lenten state. 

The abundance of love is right there, in the beauty of the flowers and the eternal hope of Easter, but sometimes we can’t see it, either because of the scarcity of wilderness, the shame clouding our vision, grief pressing like a heavy stone, and its too hard to bear in real time that everything we love passes. Sometimes the sting of death makes us feel as fragile as the spring beauties and it’s easier to drape a shroud over it all. But can’t you imagine the flower sellers, like Magdalene herself, on the dawn of Easter, letting the purple fabrics fall to the floor like the shroud in the tomb? And how the women will drape their saints and altars with garlands of herbs and flowers. Working through the night, they prepare for the pilgrims searching for the hope of a glimpse of love’s abundance.

This is what I believe. In the sacred and imperishable truth of resurrection, there is abundance. We have all grieved for people we love who have died. Magdalene knew suffering and grief, yet those pains did not outweigh her longing for love and the hope of resurrection. It is that longing and hope that carried her through the flowers to the tomb. I have known grief my whole life and have thought about that truth and believe that inside us is a well of tears that pour out in abundance as we remember that love washes away the scarcity that the fear of death holds over us. We know it like wildflowers know to bloom and like Magdalene knew, that before we make it to a graveside, love rises. Just like we know how to grieve, we know how to love beyond death.

I wish we could all lie down in flowers and feel our hearts beat with that truth coursing through our veins. We would lie there and breathe in the knowledge that even though these spring beauties pass in a moment, they return despite drought, floods, and grief and remind us that what seems dead rises in splendor. When we follow in the footsteps of Magdalene, through the garden, we can dance among the wildflowers as we glimpse the stone rolled and feel that all those who have died live on in love and the memory of God. All we grieve rises, like the wildflowers in spring. There are enough long winters over hard and hallowed ground, but today let the shroud fall and sing with Magdalene among the flowers that even in the face of disparity, fear, and injustice love blossoms. The wildflowers, the very preachers of how there is a time for everything, demonstrate that we can live in hope dedicated to justice and truth. Flowers are ours for the beholding and allow us to make our song even at our own Easter morning, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

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