All posts by Stephen Smith

Advent 2 Sermon by the Rev Stephen Smith

 

Advent One Sermon by the Rev. L. Cameron O’Riley

We welcome Advent today not joyfully, but with an initial sense of distress. The words and the pleas imparted through our readings continue to reach across time as the authors seek God’s intervention and restoration. “Isaiah has beseeched God to rend the heavens and come down. The Psalmist calls on God to restore the fortunes of God’s people. Paul speaks to a community that waits for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And in Mark’s “Little Apocalypse,” Jesus seems to warn “Be careful what you ask for.” (New Proclamation 2005)

The people are disheartened and lonely, yet express a sincere confidence that God can and will save them. As scary as it is, they call for God to make a spectacular entrance, an awesome display of unbridled vibrant power that scares our fears away and shows our enemies and us who’s in control. What a contrast to the gentle quiet God we envision coming into the world on a Silent Night in a stable bare. This is a raw plea, for a passionate God. So keep your eyes open and be on guard, because you know neither day nor the hour. And you don’t want to miss this!

Thomas Merton’s poem Earthquake best captures the spirit of this morning’s (Evening’s) readings. It can be found in a series entitled “Eight Freedom Songs,” written in 1966 in response to a special request in connection to the Christian Civil Rights movement. (The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, pg. 670) I first learned of Earthquake in 2007 when the Concert Choir at my Alma Mater performed a musical adaptation by the inspired composer Gwyneth Walker. The lyrics are arranged into verse pairings, so the men’s voices are paired with, and answered by, the women’s voices. The alternation between them continues several times, with the revolving notes of the piece shifting up a step with each section of the poem. The modulations, or variations in vocal tone, are intended to increase the strength and intensity of the song, and thereby the voice of God. The hearer is carried along by the call for peace in the sections in which “pacem” is inserted to form bridges between the verses. The overall effect is both unified and dimensional. As Merton calls for the earth to shake “with marching feet of messengers of peace,” the singers bringing of peace becomes the means by which the people are brought together as one. (http://www.gwynethwalker.com/tellthee.html)
These are the words of Merton’s Earthquake:

Go tell the earth to shake
And tell the thunder
To wake the sky

And tear the clouds apart
Tell my people to come out
And wonder

Where the old world is gone
For a new world is born
And all my people
Shall be one

So tell the earth to shake
With marching feet

Of messengers of peace
Proclaim my law of love
To every nation
Every race.
For the old wrongs are over
The old days are gone
A new world is rising
where my people shall be one.

So tell the earth to shake
With marching feet
Of messengers of peace
Proclaim my law of love
To every nation
Every race.

And say
The old wrongs are over
The old ways are done
There shall be no more hate
And no more war
My people shall be one.

So tell the earth to shake
With marching feet
Of messengers of peace
Proclaim my law of love
To every nation
Every race.

For the old world is ended
The old sky is torn Apart.
A new day is born
They hate no more

They do not go to war
My people shall be one

So tell the earth to shake
With marching feet
Of messengers of peace
Proclaim my law of love
To every nation
Every race.

There shall be no more hate
And no more oppression
The old wrongs are done
My people shall be one.

Hearing these words, I wonder if such a world is possible given our proclivity to sin. As we mark the first week of Advent, we are beckoned into holy sobriety. To glance back and look forward, and ask of ourselves are we living as a people of hope believing and behaving as though there can be peace on earth. The splitting open of the heavens is exactly what we seek each Advent, recalling heavenly visitations of the past, angels spilling over heavens edge, God made manifest, and anticipating the magnificent return of Christ yet to come. We seek divine intervention, a revelation that what we believe is real, and we aren’t alone, that our suffering has not been for naught. “We seek signposts and roadmaps to help us find our way.” (New Proclamation, 2005) Perhaps even a fig tree or two. And what lesson were we to learn from the fig tree. Not long ago the tree was cursed, and now today it’s leafing and tender. But Life is found in the continuity of cycles, “in the flashes of grace and forgiveness we see every day.” (New Proclamation, 2012) It’s as sure as one season turning to another. One must end so that another may begin. Do not be anxious of life changes, Jesus’s words, the love of God, do not pass away. They are continual. “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
The challenge then is to break open our hearts, so that we may be overcome with the peace and love of our awesome God. Then perhaps courageously and confidently, fully alert, we can Go and tell the earth to shake with marching feet as messengers of peace proclaiming God’s law of love to every nation, every race. In the bringing of peace, there is hope. Just you watch…We shall be one.

The Rev Stephen Smith’s sermon September 10, 2017

September 10 2017

Sermon on Charlottesville by the Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith, August 20, 2017

Charlottesville Sermon

Sermon on the Transfiguration 2017–The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith
The Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017
I must share with you my experiences with food this past week. It started with a trip to the farm market to buy corn—corn that had been picked that very morning. It was home and in a pot of boiling water by 1 pm that afternoon. And, oh, how it tasted. I didn’t even need butter or salt. There is nothing like the taste of freshly picked sweet corn. There’s a science behind it. You see, once you pick corn, when it is 12 hours off the stalk it begins to convert the sugar to starch. That’s why that stuff they strip-mine in Florida and ship up here tastes like wood.
I also bought some peaches and yesterday they were ripe. I took one and peeled away the skin. It came off without effort, just lightly falling away with a little tug. And when I tasted it, oh my. I know you’re supposed to let the juice run down your arm but I ate it so fast there wasn’t time.
And last night I made salsa, with fresh tomatoes and peppers from my garden, and onions and cilantro grown locally. I didn’t even waste chips on it. It tasted so good.
I love this time of year. It is the only time of year you can get these kind of fresh fruits and vegetables; the only time of year when you can enjoy these incredible flavors. And when those tastes registered in my brain they latched on to the pleasure centers and opioid receptors and made my mind go Ka-pow.
That is what is supposed to happen. We are wired that way. We are wired to love fresh fruits and vegetables because they are good for us. Our bodies, after years of evolution, know this. So, these foods appeal to us in ways beyond even taste to the very pleasure receptors of our minds.
My recent experience with food reminds me of a sculpture I saw recently on the trip Jan and I took to Italy. I was reading in our guidebook, while on the train from the airport to downtown Rome, and I discovered that one of my favorite pieces of sculpture was just a block and a half away from the central train station. It was just there in some random church. We had to see it.
I had only seen pictures of this piece of art. It was amazing in real life. The sculpture is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini. I love Teresa of Avilla. She was a great mystic who said people could have direct encounters with God, that did not have to be mediated through the rites and offices of the Church. She ticked off a lot of priests and bishops. She was not saying the church was unnecessary, after all we need the church to help make sense of our experience. But she did insist that all people could have direct access to the presence and love of God.
In the sculpture Teresa is obviously in the throes of joy and ecstasy. It is sensual. And it is obvious that this encounter with the presence and love of God is making the pleasure receptors in her brain go Ka-pow. And the incredible realism with which Bernini depicts this scene makes you realize that he had to know what Teresa was experiencing. He knew. It must of happened to him as well.
Now there will be people who will tell you that my experience with food and Teresa’s experience with God are two very different things. After all, I was truly eating these foods, and my body is the product of years of human evolution that made it possible for me to enjoy such flavors. Whereas, Teresa had an imaginary or fantasy encounter with God.
Some scientists would disagree. About 20 years ago, a group of scientists studied mystics who claimed they had experiences of the presence of God, detailed in book entitled Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. They mapped the brain waves of these people while they prayed and asked them to raise a hand when they felt they were in the presence of God. In every case, the parts of the brain that lit up were not the parts associated with imagination, dreams or fantasy. Rather the part of the brain that was active during mystical experiences was the part associated with sensory perception: hearing, sight, taste, and sound. The experience of God, and the way it effects the pleasure receptors in our minds is, according to our brains, just as real as the ecstasy at the food I ate this past week. It appears that we are hard wired even for God. This is real.
So, let me tell you what is truly unreal. What is unreal is the assault we have waged on our minds’ opioid and pleasure receptors.
Human beings have always had pleasurable experiences with the things we’ve ingested. We discovered, early on, what plants would stimulate the pleasure centers and opioid receptors. We learned fermentation. We have ingested things that altered our moods, and our view of the world and reality, and often this brought us joy.
But a few hundred years ago we discovered distilling. So now we have rapid alcohol delivery devices. We also discovered ways to turn the poppy plant and cannibals into massively potent mood alerting drugs. And, if that isn’t enough, we have created synthetic drugs with massive mood and pain altering power and we are overwhelmed.
Human beings have always loved beautiful images; sunsets, oceans, the attraction of another beautiful human being, the beautiful earth on which we live, or even the starry sky at night. But now we are so bombarded with images on TVs, Computers, phones and all around, that they overwhelm our minds.
And food. Yes, we love the taste of fresh food. But through years of evolution we have been wired to crave and love things that we could only find rarely in the natural world. We needed these things to stay alive and they were in short supply, so we developed an almost insatiable appetite for them. These foods are salt, fat and sugar. Now, food companies take advantage of that natural craving and overwhelm us with these ingredients, and it is killing us.
What is more, all these overwhelming assaults on our brains are dulling our pleasure centers and opioid receptors, so we are less likely to respond to the natural and real stimuli of ecstasy. Now that is unreal.
Which brings me to Jesus’ transfiguration. You might say that Jesus’ transfiguration was a mystical experience. While with his most trusted community, Peter, James and John, he is caught up in the presence of God. He is declared the fulfillment of the law (by the presence of Moses) and the prophets (enter Elijah). But more importantly, he is reminded who he is—the son God, the chosen. He is the beloved.
Now I have often said that most of what happens to Jesus can happen to us. We too can be caught up in the presence of God. We are not the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, but we are beloved children of God. And that is real. It is who we are. And it is worth contemplating that reality and allowing it to soak into our very being. Allow it to reach even to the pleasure centers and opioid receptors of our minds so our brains go Ka-pow; just like Teresa, just like Jesus.
So every morning, before anything gets turned on, I want you to remind yourself that you are a beloved child of God. And every night, when everything is turned off, remind yourself that you are a beloved child of God.
It won’t necessarily make your life easy or free of pain. After all, the transfiguration is the last thing that happens to Jesus before he starts his journey to Jerusalem. And we all know how that turned out. But we know that the one who loves us will carry us through our tough times.
And, if we can make ourselves aware of the presence of God in our lives through community, through beauty, through food, or just in prayer, and if we can allow that experience to remind us who we really are—the beloved children of God—then it will make our brains go Ka-pow.

 

 

The Rev. Stephen Smith’s sermon, July 23, 2017

Easter Vigil Sermon 2017–The Rev. Cameron O’Riley

It was the Deacon’s first Easter post-ordination. He had pulled out his favorite blue and white seersucker suit just for the occasion. Paired with his freshly pressed clergy shirt, a collar starched to perfection, and his Oxford’s polished to a high shine, he was looking ever so stylish and smart. He got to church, donned his Alb almost white as snow, pulled his cincture tight, kissed the cross at the neck of his stole, and secured it across his chest. Lifting his arms, he slid into the dalmatic that Mary, the head of the Altar Guild, had searched out from the back of an old cedar closet and hung with care, just for him. Nervously he paced the sacristy. He didn’t want to mess this up. He went through a mental checklist of all the things he was supposed to do during the service. Where he was to stand, how the priest celebrating that day liked the table to be set, and perhaps most importantly what he was supposed to say when. It was He who was to read the Gospel lesson, and announce to all those present that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The service was soon to start, so he went to the Altar to retrieve the Gospel book for the procession.

As he walked to the back of the church, politely smiling at parishioners as he passed, he thought, “You know, I better check to see if the readings are marked.” Sure enough the ribbon was placed to the Gospel of John, but the bulletin said Matthew. So he moved the ribbon to the appropriate reading. The service started, the streamers swirled, the music swelled, stations were taken, and prayers were said. The readings began, and finally it was his turn. He walked reverently to the Altar, picked up the Gospel book and turned around to face the congregation. Pausing for the crucifer and the torch bearers to begin their descent down the stairs, he then followed them out into the midst of the people and said… “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew.” The Rector, cocked his head, surely not. The Deacon began reading… “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake.” It was at about this point that the Rector began to visibly squirm from his chair. You see, there was only one Mary, and NO earthquake in the reading he was fixing to preach on. He became increasingly fitful as the oblivious Deacon continued. “That’s not the reading!” he gritted through his teeth.

Now from where the Rector stood, the Organist was to his immediate right, and apparently, she had had quite enough of his display, because in not so much of a whisper she informed him “It’s STILL GOOD NEWS!”
The reading concluded, and those in the the Gospel procession returned to their seats. The Deacon perplexed by the glare directed at him by the Rector, who had now ascended into the pulpit, sat down, as the Assistant leaned over. “Not to worry baby,” she said, “It’s all ok” hoping to assuage his fear. “What?” he replied as the Rector began with a comment about the “Good News” not being exactly the “News” he had expected. It was the Deacon’s turn to want to crawl into the tomb, yet the stone had been rolled away and Good News had been proclaimed. God vanquished the power of death, raising Jesus, and drawing all to new life to Him.
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Sometimes we go into something thinking we know what the good news is, but someone tells the story a little differently. And other times, the stories don’t work out the way we think they will, and the Good News comes from unexpected places and people. So prepare yourselves to see the Good news with new eyes, even when it’s difficult to do.

Today the Good News is that the veil of death has been lifted. Christ is Risen and while there is work yet to be done, we are reminded that death has not had the last word. There is Hope in the Risen Christ. And with this Good News, we are strengthened to go forth in the name of Christ, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, spreading peace and being a reflection of God’s love to others.
And that’s the key, right there, to doing what the Angel and Jesus instruct the Mary’s to do, and by extension us, to Go and tell, to make the announcement, but to do so in Love. “Love is a matter of telling the truth, being faithful in sharing the word of God, continuing to act for those who may not be responsive, and, if need be, to give one’s life. If love is understood as acting toward one another as God has acted toward the world and as Christ has acted toward his disciples, then love is not simply a feeling. Love is a way of speaking and doing and being for one another.”

Without love, our actions gain nothing. The real proof we are Christians is visible in our actions of love towards others, especially towards those within the fellowship of faith. God first loved us, and so the initial step is to recognize and remember Jesus as the one who is with us in our deepest joys and sustains us through our times of greatest fear and loss. If as Christians we first persevere in the memory of God’s gracious love that he would lay down his life for us, then in turn can we enact that same type of love for one another.
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The Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock once told an Easter congregation he had one job for that particular service, and it was to make an announcement. “I know it’s difficult to hear,” he said. “Announcements are always difficult to hear. Nobody pays attention to announcements. The announcements about the church’s life put in the bulletin midweek, printed on the back of the Sunday bulletin, read to you as though you couldn’t read by the worship leader or minister. And then included in the benediction, “Lord help the people to remember the fellowship dinner Wednesday night….but you will have to make of the announcement what you will…My assignment is simply to announce to you that” sometime after sunset, “God raised from among the dead, Jesus of Nazareth.”

So in a way that is what I have done today, I have made an Announcement. And now it’s up to you to go and do likewise. Having heard the good news of Jesus, delighted in the Holy Spirit which resides within each of you, and having come to this place, seen the tomb empty and encountered the Risen Lord….Go quickly, and do not be afraid, seek the unexpected Good News, for it is STILL GOOD NEWS, and Announce boldly, loudly, happily, and publicly with great exuberance and passion the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ is Risen Indeed!

Annika Russo–Dance to Isaiah 55:11ff

Stephen Smith’s sermon on the raising of Lazarus

Sermon on the Orlando Tragedy

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Smith

I Kings 19:1-15

Omar Mateen did horrible damage to us as a nation last Sunday.  First and foremost, he killed 49 people, all of them young, all of them in the prime of life.  We should mourn their loss.  He wounded more than fifty others; a horrific tragedy.

On another level his actions also magnified almost every issue we have been fighting over in the culture wars of recent years.

He had to be a Muslim.  And so that raises all our fears, including the fears of our moderate Muslim friends. We’re all afraid of domestic terrorism, local radicalization, and lone wolf attackers.

Never mind that he appears to be Muslim in name only.  He has lived in this country all his life. In his acts of violence, he pledged allegiance to both ISIS and Hezbollah. Like most Americans he did not even realize that these two groups are at odds with each other and would welcome killing one another. Yet his very name, Omar, instills more panic.

And it had to be a gay bar.  We are still fighting over issues of sexuality and even a small group of Christians protested at a funeral for one of the victims. I am sure most Christians would not even consider this, but it does not change the fact that conflict over issues of sexuality are still being debated in our churches.

Mateen also exhibited severe mental health issues.  He was violent, bragged of connections with terrorists when there were none, and was obviously confused about his own sexuality since patrons at Pulse recognized him as a person who previously came to the bar to meet men.

And that raises our concerns about health care and how we afford mental health care for those who need it.  As the cost goes up and up and the affordable care act does not seem to help, we wonder if only the wealthy will receive the care they need.  And it ignites that debate as well.

And he bought guns.  He was investigated twice by the FBI for links to terrorism.  There were none.  He was just shooting his mouth off.  But even with the past investigations he bought guns. And so we haul out that hot button issue and fight and fight over gun control.

Finally, it was Latino night at the Pulse. So let’s fight about immigration.

Last Sunday was an event of extreme horror, and an event which heightened all our tensions and conflicts in the midst of a culture war. It makes you want to run away and hide.

That’s exactly what Elijah did. He, too was dealing with a culture war, and one that may be even more deadly than ours. You see, Israel was supposed to be different than the nations around it. The nations around Israel all believed that might made right. The strong were supposed to lead and the weak should get out of the way or die.

But it was not supposed to be that way in Israel.  If you read through the prophets of the 8th century BCE you come to realize that Israel was not going to be judged by how many other countries it defeated in war. It would not be judged by how well it preserved its borders, or by assuring that the king’s heir would take over the kingship upon his death in a smooth transition of power. No.  The prophets kept pointing out that God wanted to be sure the king brought justice to the poor, and remembered the helpless like widows and orphans. Israel would be judged not by its might alone, but by how it cared for the least of God’s children in the kingdom.

Ahab and Jezebel did not like this idea.  They wanted to be more like the other nations. And so they threatened Elijah whenever he would remind them of God’s justice.  So Elijah ran away for his own safety.  In fact, he went as far away as he could to be still among people who worshipped Yahweh.

An angel appears to him and offers food and drink and encourages him to partake, otherwise the journey will be too hard for him.

Then, God comes to Elijah and ask, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah.”

And he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, I’ve done everything you asked. But they’ve killed your prophets, abandoned the covenant and thrown down your altars and I, I alone am left.”

I half expect God to say, “Oh Elijah, quit whining.”  But instead God appears to Elijah, not in fire, or wind, or earthquake, but in the still small sound that cannot be mistaken for anything else but the very presence of the divine.

And again God asks, “What are you doing here Elijah.”

And despite the power of God’s self-revelation, Elijah comes back with the same whining rant.

“I have been very zealous for the Lord. I’ve done everything you asked. But they’ve killed your prophets, abandoned the covenant and thrown down your altars and I, I alone am left.”

This time, God does tell him to stop whining. He informs Elijah that there are still thousands back in Israel who remain loyal to God. And he informs Elijah that Ahab and Jezebel will not last forever, but that God will bring about a change.  You might say God has always been about regime change when necessary.  And God invites Elijah to be a part of that change.

Here we need to revisit that food and drink given by the angel. The angel says it’s to empower Elijah for a hard journey.  But Hebrew can be an ambiguous language. There’s another way to translate it.  The phrase could be, “eat and drink for the journey is bigger than you are.” In other words, it’s not all about you Elijah, it’s about God and what God is doing to bring about his goodness and his purposes for humanity and the world. The journey is bigger than you are and you can come along if you want.

God says the same to us.  The journey toward God’s goodness is bigger than we are. Good is working God’s purposes out, and God invites us to come along. It’s easy to believe that God is working out God’s purposes when things are going well, but when it’s all a mess . . .

There are signs, however.  Two weeks ago David Brooks wrote a column calling for a new culture war, not one based on our positions alone, but on the moral obligation to treat each other as human beings; to treat each other with dignity and respect. Can you here the baptismal covenant? David Brooks is an Episcopalian. He called this the “new moralism.” New? We’ve had since the publication of the 1976 prayer book, so let’s live it!

And in Orlando itself there are signs of the goodness of God. Scott Simon shared the following Morning Edition. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, after witnessing the outpouring of love, support, and the people lined up to donate blood said of his community that it was “the most horrific day in the history of the city of Orlando yet I stand here prouder today of our community than ever. We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater. We will be defined by how we respond, how we treat each other, and this community has already stepped up to do that.”

Dr. Joshua Corsa, a surgeon at the Orlando Regional Medical Center helped care for 54 wounded people until his shoes were covered in blood.  He said of these shoes on his Facebook page:

“…when the last patient leaves our hospital, I will take them off, and I will keep them in my office. I want to see them in front of me every time I go to work. For on June 12, after the worst of humanity reared its evil head, I saw the best of humanity come fighting right back.”

The journey to God’s goodness is greater than us.  We come to this church to encounter God and God asks of us, “what are you going here?”

How else can we respond but to say that we are seeking God’s nourishment for a journey toward God’s goodness. Even in the midst of a world stunned by horrific tragedy and culture wars, we join the journey that is greater than us.