All posts by Stephen Smith

The State of the Parish–St. Patrick’s, Dublin

In a word, the state of the parish is good. We have enough money in the bank to pay our bills. We have enough reserves to handle what we expect may be the next major building projects. We have great worship and music, education programs for all ages, and outreach to the wider community. We are meeting our goals of being a church that grows, that cares, and where our children can grow in the faith.
I want to highlight some wonderful things I’ve seen in the past year.
First of all, I am thrilled by the expansion of the number of small groups we have in the parish. When I came here 15 years ago I said we needed more small groups. Back then we had foyer groups and a spiritual direction group and that was pretty much it. We expanded, with EFM groups, post EFM extension groups, sacred circles, a men’s group that meets at 6:45 every Tuesday, which is now supplemented with a men’s group that meets on Thursday at a more decent hour (calling themselves the later in the day saints). For a medium size church like ours, offering more and more small groups is a way to grow the church. It creates opportunities for people to find connection and community which may allude them in a crowd of 150 to 200 on a Sunday morning.
Speaking of Growth, the vestry made one of its goals to revamp the new member ministry program. Some of us will be attending a conference in Cincinnati on March 10 to learn more about this. I am looking for others who may be interested.
But even without attending that conference yet our new member ministry has improved. The staff is doing a better job tracking visitors. Also, the blurbs the vestry and I wrote for the Sunday News that talked about the role of people in the pews creating a welcoming church must have had some effect. These past two Sundays I led newcomer classes attended by 17 people. One of the main things they shared about coming to St. Patrick’s is how welcoming the people are.
I was also pleased with the transition we made with Amy O’Neill taking over the parish administrator job from Roy Barker. Roy did great work, and Amy is picking right up where he left off, as well as adding her own skills and touch to the job. Between her and Mother Cameron I feel surrounded by colorful and helpful bulletin boards.
I am also so glad to have Mother Cameron on staff. I looked 20 years to find an assistant who liked kids, liked working with kids, got right down on their level with them, and actually liked working with arts and crafts. You just do not know how few clergy fit that description and she does.
Mother Cameron and Bill Eddy started the Thursday night family suppers this past year and now we regularly have over 35 people.
Other things I want to highlight from last year include another very successful Vacation Bible School. We had almost 100 campers. We took our first international mission trip as five youth and two adults went to Cuba for a week and build relations with the Episcopal Church there. We participated in Social Media Sunday in a way that highlighted our media profile more than ever before.
I could go on and on because we have a lot to offer, we accomplished a great deal, and we have a lot to be thankful for. At a programmatic level I am most thankful for the options we have. From small groups, to educational workshops, lots of varied youth activities, to three different services on Sunday, Thursday night dinners, fish fries, fellowship events, and outreach projects people have an option for how they connect with their faith here at St. Patrick’s. The days when active church membership was defined by Sunday attendance are long over. In a culture where choice is paramount, being a church with many choices should be a continued strategy for growth and sharing the love of Christ with our community. Let’s keep up the good work.
Which brings me to the future. Over the last two years we have considered the possibility of a pipe organ. The vestry will continue to work on this project in the coming year and will keep you informed along the way. I will say, as I said last year that I am in favor of the project if enough people support it. And the main reason for my support is that it gives us more options. In a world that prizes choice, more and more options are needed.
Also, in the coming year, I hope to install a camera and recording system for putting the church services and/or sermons on line. We have some memorial gifts which can make this happen. We will start out with posting the week of the service, and we will have the capacity to move to live streaming video in the future.
I do have some concerns about the future. One of my concerns is that as we provide more and more options, one option that seems to be chosen less often is worship. Though we can count many more people connected with the Church each year, our average Sunday attendance continues to decline. This is true across the board in this country. A recent pew survey shows that of those who say they are very connected with their church, the number who attend worship every Sunday dropped from 78% to 58% in just three years!
What we do in worship, even if it is at a contemporary church with no vestments and nothing that looks like liturgy, is foreign to everything else we do in our culture. Our culture is about marketing, entertainment and self-fulfillment, and worship is none of those things. Because it is so different I’m not always sure we get it. Worship is meant to remind us that there is a God and it aint us. God is also not our economy, or our government, or our country, or the world. Worship is meant to remind us that God is greater than all these things; that God loves us, but that God also holds us to a higher moral standard accountable to God’s desire for justice and peace. I don’t know about you, but I need daily reminders of that reality, not just weekly.
Another minor concern I have about the future is finances. We met our budget last year even though we presented a deficit budget to all of you at last year’s meeting. We have a deficit budget again this year. And I have little doubt we will have enough money to meet our expenses. My concern is that we are stuck. For years we have seen pledges come in for around $490,000 from about 190 individuals and families. We have over 250 individuals and families actively involved in this church in one way or another. I would like to see us make it a parish-wide goal to finally get more than 200 people to make a pledge to the Church and to cross the $500,000 mark.
Finally, I want to thank all of you, the staff, and especially Mother Cameron for the space you gave me to take a sabbatical this past year. The highlight of the time away was the time I got to spend with Jan in Italy. It was the trip of a lifetime and expanded even more my appreciation for the history that created our Christian faith.
I am grateful to serve as your rector and pray that this year will be so filled with the love of God for each and every one of us, that so shines forth from us that we share it with the world around us simply by the way we live and move and have our being. God bless you all.

Christmas Day Sermon by The Rev. Cameron O’Riley 2017 “The Theology of Buddy and Bonheoffer”

One evening, not too terribly long ago, I needed to jump start my Christmas spirit. So, I curled up into the corner of the couch with a blanket and a freshly brewed cup of coffee and settled in for a few mindless hours with Netflix. I was maybe a fourth of the way into my chosen flick, when my friend Amy called. “Whatcha’ doin’?” she inquired. “Oh just watching a stupid Christmas movie.” “Is it one of those where in the end they get everything they ever wanted including the guy?” Embarrassed to have been caught watching such sappy smaltz, I replied “Yes. Plenty of unrealistic holiday angst and cheer complete with snow on Christmas Day and a ‘foot popping kiss’ in the last thirty minutes.” “Not gonna happen” she said. “I know.”

We all have our favorite Christmas movies, the ones we watch year after year – holiday staples if you will. Movies that bring friends and families together, even give us common ground for small talk with strangers. Films that inspire us, make us laugh, or bring us to tears. And sometimes, they remind us of what Christmas is all about – capturing the timeless story of hope and joy and love and the birth of a child.

These reminders make their appearance in the most obvious of ways like in a Charlie Brown Christmas or a beloved rendition of the Christmas Carol. Others can be found in the classics of White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life. Or perhaps, you find such meaning in more modern films like Love Actually or Family Stone. Yet at times, the meaning of Christmas creeps in, in the most unlikely places of all.

Enter Buddy the Elf, who traveled the seven levels of the candy cane forest, journeyed through the sea of twirly whirly gum drops, and finally sped through the Lincoln Tunnel and straight into our hearts with exclamations of “Santa, I know him!” Buddy is a man of great joy, filled with a tremendous amount of belief and wonder, which he extols to all whom he encounters. He finds joy in riding the elevator and lighting up the buttons in the shape of Christmas tree. He shows us the proper way to greet someone is to tell them your name and then ask their favorite color. But perhaps most of all, he likes to smile. “Smiling’s my favorite” he says. And he reminds us to never overlook the opportunity to show affection and give someone a hug. Buddy’s life lessons are full of genuineness, but there is one lesson in particular I find most memorable and applicable to the gospel lesson we hear today. It even ranks number three in the Code of Elves! “The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” I’ll say it once more just to make sure you heard it, “The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing out loud for all to hear.”

In a world that so often pushes past joy and excitement and focuses on the negative or the next best thing, we’ve simply shut down and let the extraordinary become ordinary. Buddy invites us to be present in the here and now and take the risk of spreading cheer. Imagine if we were able to bring Buddy’s level of wonder and amazement to our encounter with God. What would it be like were we to respond with such enthusiasm not only this Christmas morning, but throughout the entire year “Jesus, I know him!”

We see in today’s lesson various styles of processing information. The shepherd’s talk it out, and are spontaneous in their reaction. As soon as they see Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger, the shepherds make known what has been told them and all are amazed. And then upon leaving the holy family, they praise and glorify God for all they have seen and heard! They can’t contain, they just have to tell someone and immediately engage others in the conversation. Yet Mary treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart. She demonstrates the merits of feeling as well as thinking it out. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Mary in this state.

Just yesterday morning, Advent 4, we heard the reading which precedes this one in which the Angel Gabriel appears and announces an impending and miraculous birth. But Mary doesn’t freak out, she is perplexed! She’s thinking, trying to understand clearly. It’s a bit confusing to be honest. Yet she sings her fearless song-responding to her unique call with faith and trust- let it be with me as it pleases God she says. Nothing is impossible with God and “while it doesn’t mean God will do anything and everything” it does mean that today through the humble birth of Jesus all other things become possible. So yes, Mary clings to what has happened. She continues to ponder the events and the words…the angel Gabriel’s visitation, her visit with Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, of the shepherds’ visit, and on and on.

Our engagement with Mary points us to the Christ child, and ultimately helps us to see with greater clarity the many dimensions possible as we engage with this new born babe. She models for us learned compassion, and an ability to listen often and listen deeply. Mary becomes a means for us to discover and more fully understand our nuanced relationship with God so that we can in turn share that message with others. Through quietly listening and observing, we are able to inwardly digest and then outwardly respond according to God’s will. Our relationship with God and our faithfulness to the teachings of his Son is a relationship which must be continually sought after and nurtured faithfully.

Theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer spent two years in prison for his vocal opposition to Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. While there, he corresponded with family and friends, pastored to fellow prisoners, and reflected on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.” In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethage in 1944, Bonheoffer speaks of our relationship to God in terms of a fixed song, a cantus firmus. That is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis for a multi-voiced composition. While there are “twists in pitch and style, counterpoint and refrain,” the fixed song is “the enduring melody, not always in the forefront, but always playing somewhere within the composition.”

In essence, what Bonheoffer says is this: “God the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of [fixed song] to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint. Where the [song] is clear and distinct, a counterpoint can develop as mightily as it wants. The two are undivided yet distinct…like the divine and human natures of Christ. Only this [multi-voiced composition] gives your life wholeness, and you know that no disaster can befall you as long as the [song] continues…Have confidence in the [fixed song].” (Women, Wisdom and Witness, p. 23-24)

This Christmastide, see the extraordinary in the ordinary, wonder in amazement at God and God’s marvelous works. Perhaps in so doing, we will learn to grab hold of these precious moments, ponder them in our hearts, and hold them in our hands before the memory of them flies away. Willingly and with an open heart, cling tightly to the song of God as it flows over and around us listening intently for what speaks of joy, what our souls are praying over and over, and how the light is shining in the darkness. Unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord. It is in this we find our tune, and join in the chorus spreading Christmas cheer singing out loud for all to hear.

Christmas Eve Sermon by The Rev. Stephen Smith 2017

The Rev. Stephen Smith Christmas Eve 2017
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Dublin, Ohio

One of my favorite cartoonists was Doug Marlette. He was the political cartoonist for the Atlanta Constitution and then the Charlotte Observer, until his death in a car crash in 2007. Like many political cartoonists, he also created a daily comic strip. His was called Kudzu. The strip took place in By-pass Mississippi, and the main character was Kudzu DuBois, a sixteen-year-old boy with all the issues and problems that sixteen-year-old boys have. Kudzu’s best friend was a short, portly, nerdy looking boy named Nasal T. Lardbottom. And their spiritual advisor was the pastor at Bypass Baptist Church, the Rev. Will B. Dunn, a cowboy-boot sporting, tobacco chewing, and broad-brimmed hat wearing man of God.

Obviously, the comic strip had a southern feel. It did not find a home in newspapers up north, but when I was in seminary back in the 1980s it did not matter if I was reading the newspaper from Atlanta, Nashville or Chattanooga, Kudzu was always at the top of the comics page.

One December I remember a series the Kudzu strip ran. Apparently Nasal T. Lardbottom was having an attack of teenager hormones. He was found doing the “Shimmy” on top of the Card-Catalogue in the library, while listening to Van Halen music and shouting “Girls, Girls, Girls.” He was brought before the student council to determine an appropriate punishment for such lascivious behavior.

The council decreed that since he had so besmirched the reputation of Bypass High School, henceforth he would be required to wear a bag over his head with the letter “H” on it, so that decent people might shun him.

So, for the next few weeks Doug Marlette milked this story for all it was worth. There would be a panel showing Nasal sitting all by himself in the lunch room, with everyone else at the tables crowded against the far wall away from him. He would be sitting at the front of class with the teacher at the far end of the blackboard, and all the other students crowded against the back wall.

The local BBQ refused to serve him, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store no longer redeemed his coupons, not even on double coupon day.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, Nasal seeks solace at Church. As he enters, still with the bag over his head, everyone screams and rushes out of the Church. But they gather around the windows to look in. Because everyone wants to see what the Rev. Will B. Dunn will do with this situation.

The Reverend marches up the pulpit steps and puts a bag on his head with the letter “H” printed on it and says, “Nasal, unto us a child is born.”

Great theology, and form a cartoon. No matter who we are, “unto us a child is born.”

Now I hesitated to use this story because the bad guy in it is pretty lame. Let’s face it, Nasal T. Lardbottom doing the shimmy on the card catalogue while listening to Van Halen and shouting “Girls, Girls, Girls,” is not all that bad. So, yes unto him a child is born.

There are people so much worse than Nasal, like the man who shot his supervisor at the Dublin post office yesterday and then the postmaster outside her apartment. Recently, we have heard so much about those who abuse their power to take advantage of others, from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, and so many others. There are those who try manipulating racism and fundamentalist Christianity for the sake of political power. We see violence and war perpetuated by the powerful against the lowly. We fear the onslaught of war from a madman in North Korea.

Yesterday I heard a woman from the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (also known as SNAP) say that she hoped the doors of hell would swing wide to let in the recently deceased Cardinal Bernard Law, the man who conspired to hide priestly abuse of children for years.

There is no shortage of horrible people. There are plenty of villains. Do the angels say to them, “Unto you a child is born.”
In a word, “yes.”

By coming into the world as a vulnerable, little baby, God declares God’s love for us; all of us. Even if it means that horrible people will visit their violence on that baby Jesus when he grows to be a man. Still, God bestows favor upon us. When the Angels say, Peace, good will to all whom God favors, they are not picking and choosing. God favors this one, but not that one. Rather, it is blanket statement meant for all humanity. Because God comes to all humanity, therefore all humanity are recipients of God’s favor.

What we forget is that when God declares God’s love for us, or bestows favor upon us, it is does not mean that we deserve it. And it certainly does not mean that God now excuses our bad behavior, or that our behavior has no consequences. Rather, God is saying, in essence, “let me help you with that. Let’s see what we can do to turn your life around.”

Maybe a good way to explain this comes from my experience nearly 20 years ago when I was summoned to jury duty. I wore my collar, to be honest, in hopes it would get me out of serving. But the very first day I reported to duty I was called into a courtroom to be interviewed for serving on a jury. The prosecuting attorney did not waste any time. Seeing my collar, she immediately homed in on me and said, “Reverend Smith, you’re in the forgiveness business, am I right?”
“That’s correct,” I replied.

“How will that affect your serving on a jury?” she asked.
I thought for a moment and said, “Forgiveness does not take away the consequences of our actions. Instead it helps allow the love of God to support us as we try to face those consequences and amend our lives.”

“I have no problem with this juror,” the prosecutor said. Meanwhile, the defense attorney was looking much paler.

The world is a messed-up place. It would be so much easier if we could pick and choose who the bad guys are, and who we could write off; who is deserving of God’s favor, and who should be cast into the depths of hell; who is right, and who is to be shunned for their wrong actions, their wrong beliefs. We certainly use that kind of language in our politics these days.

But God comes to us all. Unto all of us, a child is born. And God comes in hopes that some who must face the consequences of their horrible behavior may actually be changed.

God comes to us, God favors us with his presence, not because we are all that good, but because God hopes and works for our transformation. After all, without God it is a vicious circle, of hate and war, revenge, and violence.

But with God there is hope, that even those we describe as horrible, evil, our enemies, can be transformed.

If we did not believe this transformation was possible then why are we doing prison ministry?

So, whether we are Caesar Augustus in power and luxury, or the unnamed shepherds in the fields, unto us a child is born.

Whether we are people who have made poor choices which we regret harmed others, or people who tried our whole lives to live as virtuously as possible, unto us a child is born.

Whether we are the perpetrators of evil and abuse who deserve to face the consequences of our actions and amend our lives, or the victims of violence and abuse who need the healing love of God, unto us a child is born.

Peace, good will to all whom God favors. And God favors us all, for unto us a child is born.

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

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!