This is Trinity Cathedral: Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

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I want you to take a moment this morning to just look around this space. This is Trinity Cathedral. Take a moment to imagine what it must have been like for the first few people who, in 1856, gathered to form an Episcopal Church in Omaha. Imagine what they must have left behind to come to this new place. Imagine how crazy family and friends thought they were when they told them they were coming to Nebraska. Imagine what it must have been like, when the blueprints for this magnificent cathedral were first drawn up. Imagine what it was like to dream about this place, and try to figure out how to pay for it, and then, twenty-seven years after the congregation was organized, to finally see it completed in 1883.

Take a moment to look at the three largest windows in here. Each of them is given in memory of a missionary bishop who gave up the comforts of an eastern city, a handsome salary, a stable, reliable flock to cast out into the deep waters of an unknown land. For John Coleridge Patteson and George Selwyn, it was literally the deep waters of the South Pacific. Patteson’s stand against the abominable injustice of slavery cost him his life. For Jackson Kemper, the deep waters were miles and miles of open prairie, and he traded afternoon cocktails with the rich and powerful for endless journeys by horseback or covered wagon across Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana. This is Trinity Cathedral.

Today, we’re officially kicking off our new strategic plan, which we’ve called “casting into deep waters.” It’s the culmination of all of the working, and planning, and discerning, and focus groups, and whatever else that we’ve come through over the past three years. I think there are some exciting things we’ll be working on together over the next several years, but really, what we’re doing now isn’t any different than what we’ve always done. Casting out into deep waters– launching out into the uncertain and unknown, trusting that, as Francis Drake put it, the storms of the sea will only serve to show God’s mastery–is what we’ve always done as members of Trinity, as citizens of Omaha, as the people of Nebraska.

We’re going to cast into deep waters again by doing the same things that Christians have done since day one. We’re going to teach people how to follow Jesus, how to do the things Jesus did, how to know the power of his love in their daily life. We live in a world where death, and enmity, and evil are present in really tiny mundane ways, and in really big ways. We are going to be radically focused on teaching people how to know the truth that in Jesus, love wins, death has died, and the darkness cannot contain the light in their ordinary lives.

We’re going to continue to offer weekly encounters with that love, that life, and that light by relentlessly pursuing excellence in the very best Anglican liturgical and musical traditions. I hope we will become more and more a center for music and the arts, that we will continue to support those movements in the city, because all art really comes from the same impulse as religion, a desire to transcend the normal limits of our experience, a deep longing to connect with something more powerful than ourselves.

We’re going to serve the poor and needy who are right outside our doors, because that’s what Jesus did and commanded us to do. We’ve already started to do that in really exciting ways in our emerging Downtown Episcopal Outreach ministry, and our ministry at the Yates Center. I hope that we will greatly expand both of those efforts in the coming years, even as we remain open to the new ways the Holy Spirit moves us to care for the poor whom Jesus loves.

We’re going to focus on making sure as many children as we can reach know that God loves them, and that they know from the earliest possible age that no matter how the winds of life blow them about, God’s love will not let them go.

Following in the steps of Jesus, transformational worship through the excellence in liturgy and music, serving the poor and lonely, nurturing children and their parents. I can’t think of anything more valuable to give one’s life to.

But to do all these things, to cast out into deep waters again, we need you. Each and every one of us has a critical role to play in this moment at Trinity, just as each and every person was needed to get this church organized in 1856, or to lay the last stone in 1883.

Each of us is given exactly one life. That’s it. Long after we’re gone, our children, our children’s children, the 22nd century members of Trinity Cathedral, won’t remember us for what we had, they won’t remember us for what we accomplished, they will remember us for what we gave. Just like we remember Jackson Kemper, Henry Clarkson, Jack Fricke, Liz Longacre, Dan Loring, Gloria Dunbar, Woody Thelin for what they gave, what they risked, how they shone God’s light in their day.

This might be a new day, this might be a new age, but we are the same Trinity. Today we are being called to cast into deep waters like every member of Trinity has before us. I can’t think of any more important way to spend the life we’ve been given. To really do what God is calling us to in this moment we need you, you, to join us. This is Trinity Cathedral.

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost, 2014

There’s an old Lyle Lovett song called “God Will” that offers some great wisdom about forgiveness. The character in the song is someone who has been wronged by a lover, and he asks:

Who keeps on trusting you
When you’ve been cheating
And spending your nights on the town
And who keeps on saying that he still wants you
When you’re through running around
And who keeps on loving you
When you’ve been lying
Saying things ain’t what they seem
God does
But I don’t
God will
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me

Today’s gospel lesson is all about forgiveness, which is one of the hardest things for any of us to both give and receive. Last week, Jesus spoke about how to handle conflict in the community, and reminded us that our relationship with God cannot be separated from our connections with each other. This week, Peter asks Jesus just how far we’re supposed to go with all this. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive, seven times?” And let’s be clear, even that seems like a lot. If someone offends me seven times, I start to get a little irritated with the whole situation. But Jesus’ response is “Not seven, but seventy-seven times.” And of course, his point is that the forgiveness we’re called to show one another should have no limit.

I don’t know about you, but that’s more than I can do. That’s just too much for Jesus to ask of me. It’s hard enough to forgive the small irritations we all get stung with: someone else’s annoying habits, or tv volume, or sharp tone, or forgetfulness, or whatever. But what about the really bad stuff that happens, to us, or to those we love. Jesus just tells Peter to do it with no acknowledgment of just how much he’s asking. So what gives here?

Two thoughts: First, it’s important to say that Jesus isn’t telling Peter (or us) that we have to forgive anyone who has ever wronged us. Jesus is talking about our relationships with each other in the church. Remember, last week I talked about how the church is like a spiritual gymnasium where we practice grace with each other so that we can be signs of love out there. Forgiveness is one part of the spiritual exercises we rehearse in here with each other. Don’t hear what Jesus isn’t saying. Jesus isn’t laying on a guilt trip because we can’t just offer blanket forgiveness to the really monstrous and horrendous things that are done to us or to others in the world.

And second, I think Lyle Lovett was exactly right. Forgiveness, whether for small or large hurts we suffer, isn’t something we do. Forgiveness isn’t about garnering the psychological and emotional energy to feel good about some wrong we’ve suffered. Forgiveness isn’t simply pretending that a wrong never happened. Forgiveness is something that God does on our behalf. We are simply asked to consent. Forgiveness is drawn from God’s bank account, all we do is sign our names to the check.

That sounds pretty good, but how do we actually do that? The answer comes in the parable Jesus goes on to tell: we learn how to forgive each other by facing down the full extent of how God forgives us. The first slave has an unimaginable debt forgiven, and then he is ruthless in collecting debts from others. The king can’t understand how someone could really know what has been given to them and not give it to others.

That’s how it is with us. I think a lot of times in church we get it all backwards. We often think that church is the place where we try to impress God. You’re supposed to be on your best behavior in church, and put on a shiny façade for God and everyone else. And actually, that’s what most of us do everywhere in our life. Think about the time you spend in your life trying to impress, trying to prove your worth, how much energy to you expend trying to avoid failure, or at least keep people from seeing the ways that you have failed or are imperfect. Church should be the exact opposite of that. This is the place where we are called to fully expose to God the capacity we have to damage other people in our lives, church is the place where we can fully face down our own imperfections, the ways we have failed in our lives, so that we can feel the full embrace of God’s love in spite of the worst we can be.

I say it a lot: the good news of Jesus is that God doesn’t love us because we’re good enough. God doesn’t love us because we’re successful enough or because we’ve earned it through properly polishing that shiny façade. God loves us simply because God made us, and there’s nothing that can change that. The only way you can consent to God’s forgiveness of the irritating person next to you is if you feel the full depth of God’s love and forgiveness for you.

So the work we have to do here each week is to stop trying to impress God and everyone else. The work we are called to here each week is to bear the fullness of ourselves, with our failures and shortcomings and shame and whatever, so that having seen, and touched, and tasted God’s love and forgiveness in here, we can use our lives to show that love and forgiveness out there. Amen.

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, 2014

John Wooden was the coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team during the 1960’s. He was an amazing coach, whose teams won ten national championships in twelve years, which is a feat almost unheard of anywhere in sports, and unlikely to repeated in any sport, at any level. His approach to coaching was remarkably simple. On the first day of practice each year, he would only do one thing: teach his players out to properly put on their socks and shoes. The idea was that championships are won by learning how to do the most basic things as well as they can possibly be done. He would run the same drills the night before the national championship game as they ran during the first week of practice. By dong the same thing over and over and over, it eventually becomes second nature, so you can run plays perfectly almost without thinking about it. There’s a similar idea for people who play musical instruments. Proficiency at piano or guitar or whatever involves hours and hours of repeating the same motions over and over and over so that you build enough muscle memory to hit certain notes without really thinking about it.

I like coach Wooden’s approach because it in my experience, that’s how faith works, too. Church is like a spiritual gym where through weekly worship, by running the same liturgical drills over and over and over, our spiritual muscles are shaped over time by God’s grace and love, so that knowing and showing God’s love in our lives becomes almost like second nature.

Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that this work is a team sport. Jesus offers instructions on how to handle conflict in the church reminds us that faith isn’t just a private transaction between us and God, it’s about how we share our lives with each other.

Anyone who’s ever been part of a family, or worked in an office, or been part of a church—so basically, everyone—knows that conflict and disagreement are inevitable. It’s just what happens when human beings live together. Whenever I meet with couples for pre-marital counseling, I tell them, “the only thing that will really worry me is if you tell me you never argue, because if you say you never argue you’re either lying to me or you’re lying to each other.” The trick with marriage is not to avoid arguing or disagreeing. The trick with marriage is to disagree in a way that leads to understanding, forgiveness, and deeper love.

Conflict is a constant in life for two simple reasons: people are different, and people aren’t perfect. Life in a family, or a neighborhood, or a city, or a nation requires a constant practice of making room in ourselves for someone else: someone else’s politics, or bad tv shows, or organizing habits, or whatever other preferences and quirks.

Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that this is some of the main work of the spiritual life. After giving the advice, he reminds us that our relationships here on earth resonate in heaven: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”The church is a training ground where we are formed more fully in the image of God’s grace and love. How we connect with other people is a key part of how that happens, because our connections with each other is where love, and grace, and forgiveness really start to count.

I love all the ways we run those drills of connection here at Trinity Cathedral. I see it in our Sunday adult forum, where a group of folks with all kinds of different perspectives and opinions share their thoughts about almost every topic imaginable, people can disagree but stay connected, and then come and share Christ’s body and blood together. I see it in our Wednesday Bible Studies, where people have different perspectives and opinions and interpretations and we all learn from each other and don’t worry too much about who is right or wrong. I see it in the way the choir—a diverse group of people, take care of each other and share their lives as they’re drawn closer to each other through the demanding work of lifting our spirits in song. I see it in our weekly altar guild teams, who share their lives with each other as they do the holy and hard work of arranging, and cleaning, and caring for our altar and the vessels for Christ’s sacraments. I see it over and over and over as I live and work among you week by week.

Our connection to God cannot be separated out form our connections with each other. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century nun famously wrote that “Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.” I might add: Christ has no forgiveness but yours, Christ has no love but yours. Practicing God’s love and grace and forgiveness in here forms us to put that on display out there, for a world where those things are in desperately short supply.

The core of our faith is that there is no sin God can’t forgive, there is no evil God’s love can’t destroy, there is no one so lost that God cannot find. We exist as the church to show the world that’s true. We can only be credible signs of grace for the world when we are regularly practicing that grace with each other.

Today is the first day of the new program year. As we set out in this new season, I hope and pray this will be a year we connect more deeply, learn how to love and forgive and live with one another more fully, so that we might be a sign and sacrament to a broken, conflicted, divided world of the endless, life-saving power of God’s love. Amen.

Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2014

 In the 1999 movie, “The Hurricane,” Denzel Washington plays Rubin Carter, a boxer who in the 1960’s was sent to prison for three murders he didn’t commit. After many years of appeals, and exhausting every opportunity to prove his innocence, he is completely undone. In a heartbreaking scene, he tells his wife to divorce him, saying: “I’m dead. Just bury me.” He languishes in prison for many more years, public interest in his cause ebbs and flows, and gradually disappears altogether, until he has lost any shred of hope. Years later, a young man finds a discarded copy of Rubin’s autobiography in a used bookstore, and buys it for a quarter. He writes to Rubin in prison, they become friends, and their relationship eventually leads to his conviction being overturned.

 When Rubin is at the very bottom, no longer able to see any possibility that his wrecked life can be redeemed and the injustice inflicted on him be righted, someone else sees him, loves him, and offers him hope in the very depths of despair.

Something similar is at work in today’s gospel lesson, which is John’s version of Easter morning. Early in the morning, Mary comes to the place Jesus had been buried, still overcome with grief at the death of her friend, the one she had placed all of her hopes in; God’s plan of redemption evidently a failure. She discovers the body isn’t there, and a bit of chaos ensues as she runs to tell the disciples. When the dust settles, Mary is alone in the garden again. Jesus, standing behind her, then asks what might be the most ridiculous question in the Bible, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary doesn’t recognize him, until he says her name, “Mary”, to which she replies, “Rabbouni,” my beloved teacher.

The grief that has robbed Mary of all hope prevents her from being able to see the risen Christ, even though she’s staring right at him. In this moment of despair, Mary can’t see Jesus, until she knows she has been seen by Jesus. Just like Rubin Carter, it’s only when she is seen, and known, and loved in the depths of her grief, that she can recognize the new life right in front of her.

The good news of this day is not just that God’s love is stronger than death, it’s not just that Jesus’ resurrection is a promise of the same life for us in some distant future. The good news of this day is that the resurrection guaranteed by Jesus can transform the very depths of the tragedy we experience now, and that so often marks our lives and our world. The good news of this day is that even when you can’t look for new life, new life is looking for you. Even when you can’t look for God, God is always looking for you, calling out to you, loving you, and refusing to let you go.

I don’t know what the garden of despair has looked like for you. Maybe it came early in your life in the sudden death of a parent, or a child. Maybe it came in addiction you faced as a young adult, maybe it was a painful divorce in mid-life, maybe you’re right in the midst of it today, maybe you haven’t been there yet. Whatever it is, as one commenter observed this week, Easter’s promise is that Christ stands right in the midst of it, assuring you that God’s life is more powerful than death, and that the darkness you have faced, the darkness you will face, simply doesn’t get to have the last word. Even when you aren’t looking for God, even when the darkness is so heavy you can’t look for God, God’s light is always looking to pierce your darkness.

Here at Trinity Cathedral, the point of everything we do is to practice listening for that call, and looking for that light. That’s why we do this every week, because the death we face out there is real, the way life can knock us around is real. Sometimes we hear the voice loud and clear, in some moments the light almost blinds us, and sometimes we wonder if it will ever come, or if it’s even there at all. Most of the time, we have to hear the voice of the risen Christ through each other, just as the disciples have to hear about it from Mary. We see the light in one another’s faces, and in our kindness for each other. Searching for signs of life is usually just too hard to do on our own.

Rubin Carter faced a hopelessness I can barely begin to imagine. It took being seen, and known, and loved by another for him to see new life in the deepest death. Easter is finally about the fact that God sees us, knows us, and pursues into the very darkest night. Easter is finally about the fact that there is no darkness God’s light can’t illumine, there is no prison God’s love can’t unlock, there is no death God’s life will not defeat.

Jesus died the same awful, cold, hard death that so many of our loved ones have died. Jesus was really raised up to new and unending life. He promises the same for each of us, and for everyone we’ve known. If we really believe that, if we really let it sink into our very bones, it gives us the power to see signs of life in the midst of the deepest death, it gives us the power to be agents of light shattering the darkness around us, agents of love unlocking the prisons of despair, and agents of life singing triumphant alleluias, even at the grave.

Beloved, why are you weeping? Christ is risen. Death has died. We are free. Alleluia. Amen.