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Religion and Change

March 17, 2019

You have heard me mention Karl Barth from time to time, the Babe Ruth of modern theologians. Today I’m going to tell you his theory of religion, which is comforting to me in times of controversy about change. I have our friends the Methodists in mind.

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany 3/3/19

March 03, 2019

Today, the last Sunday after Epiphany, we arrive at another transition point in our pilgrimage through the church calendar.  Epiphany’s celebration of the glory of God concludes with the theme of transfiguration.  Today, we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus.  Today, we hear the voice of God telling us to pay attention.

All three of our synoptic gospels tell the same story.  It is so important that on August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the church gives us another opportunity to hear it again.

The more I read the Transfiguration story, the more I find to think about.  With each new reading, I find myself with a fresh thought that leads me through a different perspective.  Another story like it is recorded by all three synoptic Gospels immediately before our reading for today—it is the story where Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  

Indeed, who do we say that Jesus is?  

In our Gospel today, Jesus, Peter, John, and James climb a mountain.  While Jesus prays, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Moses and Elijah appear, in glory, to talk with Jesus about his exodus. The disciples respond to this experience with awe.  They become deeply aware of God’s presence and hear a voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Still in awe, now the disciples are speechless.  Holy awe, it seems, requires time to unpack before we can find the words to speak about what we’ve experienced.

Two things to notice:  God’s glory was revealed in Jesus’ face—a human face, and we are told to pay attention.  

In today’s epistle, Paul says the most amazing thing about this.  We should underline verse 18 in our Bibles and reflect on it often.  “All of us,” Paul says, “with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord . . ., are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

Listen to what Paul has to say today about our call to a lifelong journey of transformation:  it rises not from our own effort, rather from allowing the Spirit to do its work in us while we keep our gaze upon the face of Jesus.  It is the Spirit that softens hearts and changes lives.   We just show up—maybe with nothing more than a glimmer of curiosity, we just show up.  

Paul isn’t just talking about the way we look at God, or Jesus.  Paul is talking about the way we gaze at the life-giving spirit in the faces of one another.  Paul wants us to remove the veil imposed by “the world” and to see the light of Christ in our everyday lives, and to be transformed by it.  Where do we see that light?  If we are paying attention, we see it everywhere.

Here is one of my own examples that I draw from relationships created through my Daughters of Abraham Interfaith Book Group.  We are a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women who have been meeting since 2011 to talk about how we live out our faith.

At one of our monthly gatherings, the Jewish women explained The Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith.  I, for one, had a lot of questions about principle number 12, their belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era.  At the end of an enlightening discussion, the Orthodox Jew in our group looked directly at me, with tears in her eyes, and said something like this: “Last month, Deb, you talked about Christian Hope.  In our Orthodox Jewish tradition, every generation hopes that they will be the generation to bring in the messianic era.  As I sit at this table with women from three different faith traditions having these conversations and really caring about one another, I am amazed that this is happening--we all see each other as an extension of G-d,” she said.  We all see each other as an extension of G-d.  The Daughters of Abraham, she said, is an example of what her Jewish community expects to see happening in the messianic era.  

Eighteen women responded with silence and eye contact that spoke volumes, hearts touching hearts, in awe, as we sat within that thin place and acknowledged the truth in the moment, forever changed by it. 

When I am asked why I started the Daughters of Abraham, I often quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "...we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference."  I am an example of that as my faith is enlarged, with depth, as I learn more and more from this diverse group of women.   Rabbi Sacks has also said that “the supreme religious challenge is to see God's image in one who is not in our image."   

It’s not just the faces of folks from different faith traditions though.  It’s other faces like the examples we have in our gospel today:  a discouraged, exhausted, and desperate father crying for help; a young boy convulsing out of control; confused disciples feeling the pain of failure and not knowing what to say.   It’s a mosaic of faces that shows us the face of God.

So, what does the face of Jesus look like?  

The New Testament itself is what Jesus looked like.  Frederick Buechner reminds us (as does Paul) that we “glimpse the mark of [Jesus’] face in the faces of everyone who ever looked toward him or away from him, which means finally of course that we glimpse the mark of him also in our own face.”   Paul says we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.  

Just as Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, so must we.  Lent is a time to prepare for the difficult and scary times we face, like Peter, when we must decide to stand up and say whether we know who Jesus is, or not.  Lent is a time to prepare our ears to hear who Jesus says he is.  Lent is a gentle but also demanding time.  Lent is a time to take pains to pay attention to faces, including our own.  Lent is a time to prepare our eyes for Easter’s morning Light.

The Church offers us scriptural readings, symbols, space, and disciplines to surround us with ways to help us to consciously walk our lifelong journey of transformation.  Beginning this week, we will have the opportunity to be marked with dust, the opportunity for confession, the opportunity for adoration, the opportunity for our liturgy to draw us further into Life and Love through Holy Communion, silence, prayer, and music.  We just need to show up and allow the Spirit to work.

Aspire to climb that Holy Mountain; aspire to bring your experience back to your everyday life.  Pay attention to God’s glory in human faces. Pay attention to the journey for what it is and see it whole—a lifelong journey filled with grace and freedom.  Be prepared, even in Lent, especially in Lent, to stand in Holy Awe, seeing one another as an extension of God.

  i. The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story, Frederick Buechner
  ii. The Message version of 2 Corinthians 3:18.

A Funeral Homily for Candice Earley Nolan

February 24, 2019

Last week I preached at the funeral of Candice Earley Nolan, wife to my cousin Bob. As an actress, Candi played leading roles on Broadway and soap fans remember her as Donna on “All My Children.”  I hope you won’t mind my making Candi’s funeral homily my sermon for today. It fits today’s Epistle, where Paul emphatically affirms the power of God to raise the dead. Candi was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.

I’m going to live forever
I’m going to light up the sky

Those words are from Fame, the show tune.

I suppose that every high school musical leading man or lady entertains the thought, if only for a moment, that they can make it big. A few might make it to New York, wait tables, and get some call backs from auditions. “Hey mom, guess what!” Those are the one-in-a-million talents. My jazzy sister Neil, living in New York in 1968, saw an ad for public tryouts for a part in Hair. She and her roommate Bobo went downtown to strut their stuff. The line of hopefuls ran around the block and Neil and Bobo never made it to the door.

Candice Earley, of Lawton Oklahoma, made it to the stage and lit it up. After Hair she was Nellie Forbush, the girl from Little Rock, in South Pacific, opposite to Robert Goulet. In Jesus Christ Superstar she was Mary Magdalene, opposite to Jesus Christ, whose feet she massaged with ointment, to soothe him in his time of trial, cooing:

Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh.
Don't you know everything's alright, yes, everything's fine.
And we want you to sleep well tonight.
Let the world turn without you tonight.
If we try, we'll get by, so forget all about us tonight

In 1992, the year Candi married Bob, I was starting a new church in Little Rock, working from an office complex that mainly housed insurance companies. Two girls in the building always took their lunch break in the hallway by the stair, watching a little black and white TV. I’d pass them on my way out to lunch. One day I asked: “What are you watching ladies?” “All My Children.” “Is there a Donna on that show?” “Yep,” they said, impatiently, wishing I’d move on. “Didn’t she leave the show? I thought I’d heard that.” “Well yea she did, we heard she got married.” That’s when I bragged: “That’s right, she married my cousin.” They snorted at that in unison and turned up the sound. Later I found out their names and Candi sent me pictures for them, inscribed with personal notes. When I delivered them, they screamed.

I'm gonna live forever
I'm gonna learn how to fly, high
I feel it comin' together
People will see me and cry!

Mary Magdalene sang of Jesus: “I don’t know how to love him.” But Candi did. In New York she would wake up Sunday mornings on the upper west side near Lincoln Center, read the Times and sip her coffee, then spiff up for church in a dressy blouse, short skirt, dark hose, tennis shoes for walking, high heels in her shoulder bag. She would trek to the actors’ church in Murray Hill, an hour’s walk, heads turning as she went. After church and brunch she would change her shoes again and start the hike uptown. That’s know how to love him in Manhattan.

I believe it was his daughter’s wanting Candi’s autograph that broke the ice for Bob. Here is the story of their meeting on an airplane. Bad winter weather had grounded Bob’s plane, messing up his and his daughter Carrie’s travel plans. They scrambled for tickets and boarded a big jet. Bob remembers: there Candi was across the aisle, white jeans, blue blouse, curled up with a script. “I saw gentleness,” he says, I’m quoting, “sweetness, beauty, goodness.” And now his voice rises, trembling, “and for the next thirty years nothing I ever saw in Candi was any different from what I caught in that first glance.”

After Bill Nolan, Bob’s big brother, first met Candi he pulled Bob aside and told him to forget about it: “You’ve outkicked your coverage.” Bob had gotten a call-back, good for him—but he’d never land the part.

Candi told me that she saw things otherwise. After meeting Bob on the airplane, Candi told her mother about this man with his daughter she had chanced to meet. “If only I could find someone like that,” she wished.

He courted her for years, then asked for her hand. She said yes, gave up acting, and moved to El Dorado, Arkansas.

In El Dorado, like New York, Sunday mornings Candi went to church. The routine was changed. Getting ready for breakfast, Bob would hear Candi in her dressing room, listening to music, the same song every Sunday. It was Sandy Patty belting out the old hymn “It is Well with My Soul.”

The words to that hymn were written by a man named Horatio Spafford, who was grieving when he wrote them. His grief was double: the death of his son at the age of two, and the devastation of his city in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Some in Spafford’s church believed catastrophes like that were punishments from God. Spafford knew the Bible better than to believe that.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

So Bob is listening, as Candi gets dressed for church. The first verse or two, it is Sandy Patty’s powerful voice drifting from the dressing room, with soft accompaniment from Candi, humming in the background. But then Candi’s voice picks up the words and swells to a crescendo, eclipsing Sandy Patty.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
In biblical Greek, the word for soul is psyche, which means life. It was Thomas Aquinas who taught me not to think of bodies and souls as separate parts like oil and water. The soul is “the form of the body” he said, using Aristotle’s terms. He meant that the soul is what makes us human, in the same way that the form of a chair is what makes a wooden chair a chair rather than a log, a bedframe or a stick of lumber. Our soul is the fact that we are more than the sum of our mortal parts. It is in that greater sum that wellness finally matters. Candi’s voice in full flight praised God whose grace is the mother’s milk of wellness.

On stage, as Mary Magdalene, Candi sang to comfort Jesus:

Sleep and I shall soothe you, calm you, and anoint you.
Myrrh for your hot forehead, oh.
Then you'll feel everything's alright, yes, everything's fine.
And it's cool, and the ointment's sweet
For the fire in your head and feet.
Close your eyes, close your eyes
And relax, think of nothing tonight.

Offstage, as soul mates, Candi and Bob would take turns soothing one another “in sickness and in health” as they had promised, making everything all right as best they could. The day came when Candi could no longer walk or skip to church, turning heads. Then faithful, high healed El Dorado Christians brought Holy Communion to her. “The blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life” they’d say. “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” This was Christ, from his last meal on earth, reaching forward in time to Candi to soothe her, calm her, and anoint her: “Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine.”

Pools of clear blue water, starlight in the sky
You’ll be mine forever, my darlin’, far beyond the great divide.

That’s from an old Emmylou Harris song, “Green Pastures.”

Forever is a long time. Our Uncle Charles Murphy, having fun at dinner, would challenge his nephew the priest: “Ok Reverend tell me this: how can we live forever without getting bored to tears?”  Thomas Aquinas would have loved Charles Murphy. In writing the Summa Theologia, for every claim that Aquinas made he would begin by naming the best objections to it he could think of. For example, Does God exist? It would seem that God does not, because for everything that happens we have solid natural explanation--making God superfluous. Also, a God worthy of the name would not allow the evils that we see on earth—moral, like murder, and natural, like disease. Belief in God is inconsistent with the facts of life. Only with those objections squarely in view, will Aquinas start his exposition. Page after page, reading the Summa is like a dinnertime repartee between Reverend Aquinas and Uncle Charles.

So to the present question. When we die:

Are we going to live forever?
Are we going to light up the sky?

It seems that we will not, the objection states, because an eternal life worthy of our hope would be a happy one, but sooner or later we would wake up bored. Bummer.

My thought had been to try to figure out how Aquinas would respond to that objection. I am not an Aquinas expert but I have taken a course, read books, and written papers on him. If I am worth my scholarly salt I should be able to cipher out his answer. Then I remembered that this is 2019 and I could google it. “Ask Thomas Aquinas,” I typed in, “Why won’t we be bored in heaven?” Up popped a website called “the Catholic Resource Center,” which lists fourteen objections to belief in immortality. Number 14 is boredom. To that, three replies are offered, but I need only to tell you the last one.

Q. “Why won’t we be bored in heaven?”    

A. “Because we are with God, and God is love. Even on earth, the only people who are never bored are lovers.”

Which takes us back to an icy night and a chance encounter on an airplane: a father with his daughter, an actress curled up with her script across the aisle. In those few moments an intimation stirred in both of them—a foolish-seeming hope but real, and potent.

That fateful moment on an airplane is our clue.

Sermon Epiphany 6 2/17/19

February 17, 2019

Our readings today swing on concepts of contrast that feel heavy and pretty black and white.

Our Jeremiah reading opens with strong language: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength...”


Thirty Minutes before Sunrise

February 10, 2019

Mid-January I went duck hunting with my cousins, my son, and some friends—three hunts in two days with six or seven guns each time, over rice and in flooded timber. We saw some ducks, and worked a few, but no one ever fired a shot. It was a bad season from Missouri south: too warm for too long up north and way too wet down here.

Water to Wine

January 20, 2019

Inside, in church, today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Outside across America, this is a weekend for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside, we listen to Isaiah: For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn. Outside, we listen to King, who for his people’s sake would not keep silent, and for his country’s sake was restless to the end. Inside, we reckon with Israel, the ancient people who struggled with their high call. Outside, it's our turn to do the same.

Tolstoy said happy families are alike and unhappy ones are different. That is probably about half-right. Though ancient Israel and modern America are worlds apart, our pain in one respect is similar to theirs. It is the anxiety of having fallen short of a high call, of disappointing something, someone, that we hold dear.

America’s call rings out from the sacred text of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says why the new country would be exceptional among nations: race, language, and geography don’t define us, nor unite us. Love of freedom, with acceptance of the truth that all are equal, does.

That was Abraham Lincoln’s take on American uniqueness. The Constitution was the how of the American experiment, the Declaration gives the why. Immigrants from anywhere and emancipated slaves could hear in the Declaration principles that rise above ancestry and nationality. As Lincoln put it in 1858:

“When they look back through that old Declaration of Independence. . . They find that those old men say ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and they have a right to claim it as though they were . . . flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]

That quote was from Allen Guelzo’s book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It was “the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” as Dr. King unforgettably declared underneath the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, holding America’s feet to the heat of its founding flame.

When I think about what makes King’s prophetic message so importantly distinctive, two qualities stand out. First, was his devoted belief in the inherent value of what he called human “personality,” by which he meant what Thomas Aquinas meant by soul. People add up to something more than the sum of our separate parts. Second, was King’s conviction that black and white folks need each other to rise to our potential.

[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)

Baptizmo – not a name for a Super Hero

January 13, 2019

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we will witness infant baptism. Today, we also hear of baptism in our gospel reading – the narrative of the baptism of Christ.

Jesus, an image of the invisible God, come to us – Incarnation – taking off some of God’s self and putting on some of humanities self – fully human, fully God; has become one of us.

Jesus saves us and shows us the way – how to live.

Here. Now. In our narrative this morning Jesus is showing us the need for baptism.

Scripturally Jesus models two things for us that are what we call “sacraments” – though there may be a wider lens of considering sacrament. In the New Testament, it is Holy Communion and Baptism.

In Greek, the word for baptism has a more descriptive meaning than English conveys that helps us understand the significance of what is taking place. The verb “bapto” means to “dip in or under, to dye” – like dying a garment…when you dip in the cloth the garment changes completely into something different: it’s evident; it shows. The word “baptizmo” appears in different constructions throughout the New Testament: it may vary a bit but includes meaning “immerse, sink, drown, go under, sink into…” (Bromiley, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 410).

We hear both the power and force of baptism. And perhaps the danger.

In the back of our Book of Common Prayer – which you have in your pews – there is a wonderful section called “An Outline of the Faith: commonly called the Catechism.” The word Catechism tells us the format of this outline – it is a summary in question and answer structure. How great is that?

On page 857 we have the questions: what are the sacraments? And what is baptism?

A sacrament is defined as an “outward visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.” We spoke recently of grace – grace is unmerited favor. Something we neither deserve nor earn…it just is…God’s extravagant posture toward us: full of grace.

A sacrament is something outward that is a means of grace. A vehicle of grace…of God’s extravagance…a special way God provides connection to God…revelation of God.

Communion. Baptism.

Bread. Wine. Water.

Normal and familiar things with cultural associations that God uses to show us God, to connect us to God.


January 06, 2019

Forty years ago this spring, my life’s direction veered towards a vocation in the priesthood. By that September I was enrolled in seminary, a postulant for Holy Orders. A year from now, next January 4, I turn sixty-five. The following day, the twelfth day of Christmas, is a Sunday. On that Monday, I will retire.

We had a funeral here two days after Christmas. For the service I chose a reading I had never used at a funeral before, from Lamentations, chapter 3.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;

Rosa Mundi

December 25, 2018

                                               Lo how a rose e'er blooming

This Christmas I have roses on my mind. Rosie was born four weeks ago Thursday—our first grandchild. Rosie is short for Rosamund, from the Latin Rosa Mundi, “Rose of the World,” whose birth we celebrate tonight.                                  

                                               Lo how a rose e'er blooming
                                               From tender stem hath sprung
                                               Of Jesse’s lineage coming
                                               As seers of old have sung.

In our house, the day prior to Rosie’s birth felt to me a little bit like Christmas Eve: calm, quiet, expectant. Modern obstetrics being what they are, we knew tomorrow was the day. Over at Rosie’s parent's house, the atmosphere was busier and on the father’s side more nervous. Rosie’s father’s name is Christoph which like his daughter’s echoes Christmas. Christoph means “Christ-bearer.”

Christoph’s birth might not have happened. Somehow, Julie and I managed to get married without first discussing children: would we have them or would we not. On our wedding day, right here, on my side of the aisle, the complacent assumption was that we would of course. I would found out that the new Mrs. Keller harbored reservations. The reasons why are none of your beeswax—but they were weighty. Constitutionally, in marriage, a decision to have a child requires a unanimous vote, so my wife’s uncertainty was also mine. Now I imagined two distinctly different futures: through the door to the left was life with children; through the door to the right was life without.

Living with uncertainty on big questions takes a little faith, and I had some—about average faith, I figured, for a young man who had been raised in church by faithful parents. In college, I realized I had above average faith compared to peers from other backgrounds.

On this matter of children, my faith was neither neutral nor dependent on a certain outcome. My hope was specific: the passage to the left was what I prayed for. But through either door, faith, hope, and love abide. I believed that. I had been taught it here. As the years went by, no children in sight, life was good at home.

One day, walking by Julie sitting in an armchair working yarn and needles under lamplight, I asked, just making conversation, what she was crocheting. It was none of my beeswax, she let me know, not looking up, but I peeked and saw it was a little teddy bear. The door on the left cracked open. Through the door and down the road our family would add Christoph, Mary Olive, Laura, John, and, on November 27, Rosamund.

More powerful than John

December 09, 2018

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

He will baptize you with God.

Who is speaking?  John the Baptist, who “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” received the word of God and went out to tell the world about it, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” we are told.

How powerful was he?  Plenty.  John was a prophet, and prophets have been thought to speak for God. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos chapter three, the seventh verse. Prophets see or hear what God is doing, it is said. They fascinate us that way. 

I have an odd little book by a respected Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.  (Imagine trying to make it through first grade with that name.) The book title is A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr.  Dr. Adrienne Von Speyr was a physician or whom Father Von Balthasar had served as spiritual director and confessor, through the course of many years

Here is how the book begins.

“This book is an eyewitness account… It is not intended as publicity or propaganda, but rather as a source of objective information.  I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements.  There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom ‘nothing can be which ought not to be.’  There will be many others who will at once attempt to ‘illuminate’ the entire matter through the methods of depth psychology and so make it supposedly understandable or who will dismiss it all as completely ‘out of date’ and therefore neither interesting nor credible.  Finally, there will be those who will be very annoyed about a charism[i] – should it prove to be a charism – which does not conform to the conventional trends in Christianity today.  To all these persons I must say in advance that (in the sense of 1 Cor 4:1f) their opposition does not trouble me, for, when I state the facts known to me… I am simply doing what I must do…”[ii]

Well, that’s got my attention. What sort of doubtful, annoying, or otherwise objectionable information is Von Balthasar preparing his readers to encounter?  Here goes:

[i] Charism means “divine gift.”

[ii] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 11.