I get asked all the time: When is it appropriate to stand for prayer? And when is it appropriate to kneel? In typical Anglican fashion, the answer is: it depends. Yet also in typical Anglican fashion, we believe that the posture in which we pray reflects the posture of our heart.
In Psalm 95, which we will read this Sunday, the psalmist prays: “Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker (verse 6).” When I pray while kneeling, my heart is bowed, recognizing that God is God and I am not. There is something very humbling about pulling down that kneeler at church and getting on our knees. In Lent, especially, it is appropriate to kneel in prayer, as our hearts are bended in a new direction.
At other times, standing is an appropriate posture for prayer. In Eucharistic Prayer B, as we gather around God’s table, we pray: “In him (Jesus), you have…made us worthy to stand before you.” Because of Jesus’ Resurrection, we have been made daughters and sons of God, worthy to stand around God’s table. In the Easter season, it is especially appropriate to stand before God, as our hearts are lifted up in a posture of resurrection hope.
All that said, I could care less if you stand or kneel or stand on your head to pray. What I do care about is that we pray with our whole being. What I do care about is the posture of our hearts.
Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night. In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is cautiously curious about the message and the identity of this man named Jesus. Jesus tells Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (3:3).”
In our study of the Gospel of John, one of the nuggets that I learned is that, in John, ‘seeing’ has two meanings. We can see with our physical eyes - and we can see with our hearts. Jesus is telling Nicodemus how to see, to see with his heart. To see in a new way involves transformation, renewal and change in the ways we view the world.
We are born from above, born again, when we see people and things in new ways. We are born again when we see a homeless man not as a statistic, but as a son of God. We are born again when we see our problems not as struggles, but as opportunities for personal growth.
During this Lent, I hope that we may see with our hearts. I hope that we may be born again, from above.
Sermon from March 13, 2011 (Lent 1 – Year A) Romans 5: 12-19 St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas
My younger brother and I grew up very near the shopping mall in our neighborhood. As young boys, one of the highlights of going to the mall was making a stop at Sears department store. Sears was where my mother bought all of our clothes, including our Toughskin jeans. Sears also had a small candy shop at the bottom of the escalators where you could buy popcorn in little brown and pink cardboard boxes. Consequently, the inside of Sears always smelled like buttered popcorn that had been sitting around for days and days.
At the Sears in our shopping mall, there were two floors of the department store. And two side-by-side escalators took shoppers up to the second floor where they sold TV sets and other cool stuff. One of the best parts about going to Sears was that my brother and I used to like to race each other on the side-by-side escalators.
At first, one of us would go to the top and ride down while walking down briskly, While the other person would stand at the bottom and ride up the escalator while bounding up the steps two at a time.
But the granddaddy of all of the escalator races was when we would attempt to go up the escalator that was going down. At first, we would start our competition at the half-way point, struggling with our little thighs to reach the very top. Then, we would start at the very bottom and struggle with all our might to reach the top, by climbing and battling against the momentum of the down escalator. I don’t think that either my brother or I ever did make it for the entire journey up the down escalator at Sears. I don’t think that either one of us ever did overcome the struggle.
Life can be viewed as just one struggle, one hurdle after another, as we strive with all our might to go up the down escalator. Or life can be viewed - not as a struggle, but as a gift.
In 1859, Nathan Ames is credited with patenting the invention of the escalator. With the gift of the escalator, folks could travel up to the second floor without the struggle of stairs. With the gift of an escalator, we no longer have to choose to battle our way up the down escalator. Yet is our choice: We can choose to struggle and battle our way through life. Or we can choose the free gift.
In his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul outlines this stark contrast between the struggle and the gift of life. Except rather than using the word ‘struggle,’ the Apostle Paul uses the word ‘sin.’ And instead of using the word ‘gift,’ Paul uses the word ‘grace.’
Paul explains to us that Adam, who represents the first human, lived a life of struggle. Adam lives a life dominated by sin and separation from God. Adam lives his life by struggling to go up the down escalator. I mean, the poor guy really does live a life of struggle: First, Adam accepts the forbidden fruit that is offered to him by his naked wife. Then Adam has to battle it out with a snake in the grass. Finally, Adam lives out the remainder of his days, not in the beautiful garden, but in the toil of labor, in the struggle of the job market.
The Apostle Paul contrasts the life of struggle that is represented by Adam vs. the free gift of grace that is offered by Jesus Christ. And since Jesus is a much greater man than Adam ever was, the gift of life is so much greater than the struggle of life.
Yet the choice is up to us: You can either choose to live the struggling life of Adam, the life of battling to go up the down escalator. Or you can choose the free gift offered by the life of Jesus, a life of riding with freedom up to the top floor on the up escalator of grace. The choice of struggle vs. gift is ours to make.
On Ash Wednesday, Jimmy and I had the honor and the privilege to visit with many of our at-home parishioners, most of who are more advanced in age. Jimmy and I had the honor of putting ashes on the foreheads of these dear parishioners and sharing communion with them. Jimmy had the distinct honor of visiting with the oldest living member of St. Alban’s, Adele Khoury, who is 99 years old. And I had the honor of visiting the second oldest living member of St. Alban’s, Inez Rowe, who will be 98 years old this coming Saturday.
Inez Rowe used to be a mover and a shaker in the life of St. Alban’s. She and her husband, Rocky Rowe, love this place with all their heart. Every time I see Inez, she proudly wears her St. Alban’s gold cross around her neck, a replica of the cross that hangs above the altar here.
Inez’ first question to me is always: “Well, how are things at St. Alban’s?” Yet she already knows the answer because she reads the monthly Epistle newsletter cover to cover.
At my most recent visit with Inez, I asked her if there was any kind of message, a witness, that she would like to give to the people of St. Alban’s, to the folks who are still able to gather weekly in the pews. And this was Inez’ witness, as she said:
“You tell them that the life that they live at St. Alban’s is all a wonderful, wonderful gift. Sure, I bet they all have their troubles and worries, raising kids and working hard and trying to make ends meet. All of us have those worries and struggles when we are younger. But when you get to be my age, an old lady who is going to be 98 years old, you look back on your life and you don’t focus on the troubles. You tell the people of St. Alban’s that I would give anything in the world to be able to come to church and to receive communion with them. You tell the people at St. Alban’s that life in the church, life with Jesus, is all a wonderful, wonderful gift.”
The Apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans that the gracious gift is not like the transgression, not like the struggle. For the struggle of Adam is the life of battling up the down escalator. But how much greater is the gracious gift of Jesus, the gracious gift of grace and hope and freedom of going up via the up escalator, without the struggle of sin and hopelessness and death.
There is an old Presbyterian hymn that sings about the struggle of life vs. the gift of God. The hymn sings: “Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all my sin.”
Or, in other words: “Grace, grace, God’s gift, Gift that is greater than all my struggles.”
You see, it is our choice. We can choose to either battle up the down escalator. Or we can choose to accept the free gift of an upward grace.
We can choose to look at our bank accounts and our paychecks and possibly even our unemployment checks - and see a life of struggle and scarcity. Or we can choose to see that we have received the abundant gift of a roof over our heads and daily bread to eat and always enough money to put in the collection plate.
We can choose to look at the season of Lent as a time to focus only on our sins and shortcomings - and just a 40-day struggle without chocolate or caffeine or booze. Or we can choose to see that we have received a gift, a gift of 40 days to focus on grace and hope and love within the life of Christ’s church.
We can choose to see our life as a struggle, the embattled life that Adam and Eve and every human being throughout the ages has been tempted to live – a struggling life that is focused on what we don’t have. Or we can choose to see that we have received a generous gift, the gift of forgiveness and freedom and amazing grace, A grace that is greater than all our sins.
So, my friends, stop trying to run up the down escalator, And accept the grace that Jesus Christ gives you. Accept the gift that is greater than all your struggles.
Ash Wednesday, which was the first day in the season of Lent, blew me away this year. I had expected that because Ash Wednesday fell during the middle of spring break this year, that our crowds would be much lower than in past years. However, attendance at all three services yesterday was strong; the noon service had almost twice as many people as last year!
Yet more importantly than the numbers was the amazing diversity of those who came to receive ashes on their foreheads. Ash Wednesday was an unexpected gathering of people who came to hear a word of grace, a message that the dusty people of God are welcome; all are welcome in God’s kingdom.
Faithful stalwarts in our parish were here; staff from Avance Waco were here; a couple from Abilene who had come to Waco to witness the birth of their grandchild were here; new folks were here. God assembled a surprising congregation on that day.
Ash Wednesday taught me that God is the one who invites us to God’s table. God is in charge of the guest list. The people who come through the doors of St. Alban’s might not be the people that I expected...maybe that’s what kingdom of heaven is like.
Sermon from March 6, 2011 (Last Epiphany – Year A) Matthew 17: 1-9 St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas
Twenty-three years ago, I experienced a summer of love. In the summer of 1988, I made the irrational discovery that I was in love with a young lady named Susan Stephenson. Susan and I had met before at a Young Singles retreat at Camp Allen sponsored by our church. We were friends for several years while we both attended St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston. Yet it was in 1988 that something happened to me – to us – and I fell in love.
I cannot fully explain what happens when two people fall in love. In fact, falling in love is not based at all on logical, rational arguments and theories. Falling in love is based upon illogical, irrational feelings and experiences.
Remembering that summer of love in 1988, I can still almost smell the perfume that Susan wore during our whirlwind courtship. All I wanted to do was to be with her - and to hold on to her. My friends and my family noticed this transformation and observed: “Ever since Jeff and Susan got together, he just hasn’t been the same.”
Although it can be rather embarrassing to talk about openly, the experience and feeling of falling in love was and is real to me. Yet some would say that when I fell in love with my wife - that my head was in the clouds.
Almost two thousand years ago, three of the followers of Jesus experienced a conversion in the clouds. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain. Jesus is transfigured. He is changed in front of three disciples - as his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Peter smells the heady perfume of the divine coming from the bright cloud. Peter babbles like a youngster in love about wanting to stay on top of the mountain, about wanting to stay in love forever. Irrationally and illogically, with sweaty palms, Peter proclaims that it is good to be converted and changed.
When the three disciples come down from the mountain, it would be rather embarrassing to talk about their conversion experience with the nine disciples who did not feel or experience the transfiguration on the mountain. Yet the experience and feelings of Peter, James and John were very real. Some would even say that their heads were in the clouds.
Thirty-one years ago, I had a transfiguration experience. I grew up in a faithful Episcopalian home, going to church every Sunday in our suburban parish on the west side of Houston. I served as an acolyte and attended Sunday school faithfully.
In 1979, the new assistant rector at our church took our youth group on a field trip to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, on the near east end of downtown Houston. For those who do not know about Church of the Redeemer, in the 1960s and 70s, Redeemer was transfigured from a dying Episcopal church near the inner city - into an exploding church that became the center for the charismatic and renewal movement in the wider Church. Miraculous healings occurred at Church of the Redeemer. Singing and speaking in tongues were commonplace in the worship services. And a new style of music, centered on guitars and simple voices, emerged from this Episcopal parish on the other side of town.
In December of 1979, our youth group traveled from west Houston to a Sunday evening worship service at the Church of the Redeemer. As we entered the front doors, each usher hugged us. The hymns were sung out of the very same hymnal that I had used my entire life. Yet I was amazed how every song sounded fresh and new and alive. People in the congregation raised their hands in praise. And yes, after communion, a chorus of angelic voices singing in tongues could be heard.
My friends, I cannot fully explain what happened to me that night. But I do know that for me – and for many other teenagers in our youth group – it was a moment of transfiguration, a conversion experience, as I felt the power of the Holy Spirit as a fresh and new reality in my life.
After our youth group’s initial visit to the Church of the Redeemer, renewal began to spread through our own suburban Houston parish. In just two years, our youth group exploded from about 12 kids to over 40 kids. Our youth group was transfigured - from a motley crew of preppy, upper-middle class teens - into a true Christian community. And lives of all ages in our parish church were irrationally changed and transfigured.
And thanks to the miracle of Facebook – I am now in touch with many of the friends I made in that youth group 30 years ago. Amazingly, from that group of kids who got turned on by the Holy Spirit, many of us are now still involved in our churches. Two of us are now priests.
Last weekend was the last Sunday of worship at the Church of the Redeemer in Houston. Church of the Redeemer has been closed, due to declining attendance and the structural aging of the buildings. I was there a week ago Friday night for worship on their last weekend. It was important for me to return to the place where my head got up into the clouds.
Now I realize that in the years since the 1980s, an expose book has been written about the glory days at Redeemer – and about the abuses of power that also became tragically apparent. Over the years, I have become a bit embarrassed by my irrational and illogical experiences that began at that church that was on fire with the Holy Spirit, yet a church that was also wounded and strange.
You see, as Episcopalians, it can be rather embarrassing to talk openly about our experiences of transfiguration. For example, in all my years of being a priest, I have never spoken from the pulpit about my own experience of conversion that was sparked at Church of the Redeemer. In my years as a priest, until this morning, I have never spoken about my experience on the mountaintop with my fellow teenagers in the Youth Group of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Houston, Texas. Some might say of me during that time that my head was in the clouds. Yet the experiences and feelings of the Holy Spirit that I felt in those years were and are very real to me.
In 1799, the German theologian Friedrich Schleirmacher, wrote a paper called “The Addresses on Religion.” Schleirmacher is referred to as: the Father of Modern Protestant Theology. Schleirmacher believed that the bedrock of religion is not based upon scripture, nor is it not based upon the creeds. In his “Addresses on Religion” from 1799, Schleirmacher writes this: Religion is “above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling.”
I can see Schleimacher’s point, because when I come to church and I say the Nicene Creed, the Creed has never convinced me to be a Christian. Yet my own transfiguration experience - the feeling of Jesus Christ coming alive in my life – is what is convincing to me. And the words of the Creed and the words of the sacred scriptures simply give a language and a depth to my experience of an illogical faith.
Now I realize that some people here this morning have had a feeling or an experience of faith – and some have not. Even in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, three of the disciples shared in that feeling on the mountain – yet nine of them did not. Yet I do not want to overlook the fact that for many of us, we have experienced that thin place where the human and the divine come so close together that we are transformed - And our lives are never the same again.
When I fell in love with Susan, people said: “Jeff just hasn’t been the same.” When I experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as a living presence in my life, some folks said: “Jeff just hasn’t been the same.” And because I have heard your transfiguration stories, I know that some people have said about you: “You just haven’t been the same.”
Many of you in this congregation have had your faith in Jesus Christ come alive by an illogical experience or by an irrational feeling of God in your life. And in this upcoming season of Lent, please do not be afraid to share your story, your witness, with others.
Don’t be embarrassed to tell the story of your summer of love. Don’t be afraid to share your transfiguration story, When your head was in the clouds.
I highly recommend the Academy Award winning movie, The King’s Speech. The film is about King George VI of the United Kingdom. The King has a speech impediment that he overcomes through relentless coaching that remedies his fears. My favorite scene in the movie is when the King is in Westminster Abbey, practicing his lines for his upcoming coronation. His coach is prodding him, coaxing him along to find his voice. In a moment of released frustration, the King yells out into the empty, historic abbey: “I do have a voice!”
I am so proud of all of you. Jimmy and I worked very hard to teach the Gospel of John during the season of Epiphany; and you responded magnificently. Each session had moments of spiritual awakening and new discoveries. Together, we learned that John makes a witness, a testimony, as his voice cries out down two thousand years, leading millions of people to the good news of Jesus Christ. Together, we heard God’s voice, giving us courage to find our voice, to make our witness.
Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach at the Iona School for Ministry at Camp Allen. The Iona School for Ministry is the brainchild of the Diocese of Texas; the Iona School is a place to train and educate people who will be ordained as deacons or bi-vocational priests in our diocese. Last weekend, I was teaching a class on “Practical Preaching” at the Iona School. I led the students through a coaching exercise, helping them to “find their voice” so that they can make a witness, a testimony to their faith in the pulpits and in the pubs where they will proclaim the Gospel.
You can do this simple exercise, as well, to find your voice. Choose one or more of the following phrases and fill in the blanks: * I follow Jesus because ________. * The hope that is within me is ________. * I believe that Jesus gives me eternal life because ________.
If you will do this exercise, filling in the blank with a short answer, then you will have a short witness, a testimony of faith, to share with anyone at anytime at a moment’s notice. You will find that you do have a voice and something to say.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 9. This Lent, it is our turn. It is our turn to be a witness to the Faith. It is our turn to step up our commitment to Jesus Christ. This Lent, I look forward to hearing you proclaim:
“I do have something to say. I do have a witness to give. I do have a voice.”