From the Pulpit
Trinity is blessed with many excellent preachers on its rota, which gives us a wonderful diversity of voices from the pulpit. Read on to see what we mean.
First Sunday in Lent February 19, 2018 Year B
Trinity Church Hartford
The Rt. Rev. Andrew D. Smith
9 In those days the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
It’s the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness the forms the paradigm for the forty days of Lent, which we began on Ash Wednesday.
“40 days” is Bible-speak, code, for a long long time —Tink of Noah of whom we read this morning, and the dirty days and nights on the ark, Israel homeless for forty years in (another) wilderness, and the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, indicating that Jesus was with the disciples for quite a while after he was raised from the dead.
So, now, the gospels say that Jesus spent forty days int he wilderness. He was alone. the Bible doesn’t record that Jesus was DOING anything out there — just that he WAS there with himself, with temptations of the world and also with the angels (God).
And at the end of that time he came out, a changed person — stamped by who he is and ready to take up the mission God had given him: to proclaim the good news.
Forty years ago — almost to the month — I took the opportunity to be alone in the same wilderness near where we think Jesus spent his long, long time— not for forty days but one day.
I left Jerusalem on an early morning bus and headed down the Dead Sea valley. The bus left me off where there was nothing but a signpost and a side road. I was going to climb the mountain to Masada, the desert fortress Herod had built as a last defense. At the bottom of the snake path was the warning sign: Be certain you are fit and equipped with water and food; you could die on this path. The silence during the climb was like nothing I had experienced before; the only sounds were the rock crunching under my boots, my breathing, and my heart beating. I was utterly alone, with my thoughts — and, strangely, with God.
There have been other times too, alone, in silence, with God. The second night in silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery. On snowshoes deep in the White Mountains. Silence. Deep awareness. God.
And those times have marked, changed, my life with God, forever.
Have you had times like this too? (I hope so!)
What I have come to realize as this Lent season began is that I haven’t had that deep alone-ness, apartness, with God, for a very long time. It’s been as if life, especially in recent years, has been on cruise-control — marked I hope by good works, and nourishing relationships — but without that com-munion and closeness with God which can bring such insight and change to the way we live.
And Jesus regularly went off alone, sometimes with his disciples, to places where they could be apart. We read recently of his leaving Capernaum early in the morning to pray alone, and how the disciples hunted all over the countryside looking for him. Remember their going to Gethsemane, apart to pray.
So I thought, what if we pledged in Lent not to find but to make time, say once a week?, perhaps at home, to be alone, in silence, just oneself, open to God?
With the phone off the hook, tablets and smart phones turned off; no radio, no tv, no computer, no facebook, or twitter, or texts; no chores, no busyness, just to be apart by yourself, by myself, and be open to God.
As with Jesus, I am sure alone there will be temptations — distractions, desires, doubts: Recognize them, and ask, God, where are you in these things? There may be inspirations — the Spirit being in there — working to impart revelations, and even new purpose. There may be peace. And joy.
While thinking on these things, other things also have filled my mind: about the ways we are living in this world, and especially the ab-use of power. Persons in corporate authority, abusing others, Hollywood, Washington — officials in all branches of government, computer hackers in St. Petersburg, the new outbreak of atrocities and massacres one tribe against the other in eastern Congo, in the church, domestic violence ..
The violence happens over and over — a pattern now becoming ingrained and are we becoming inured?
What has struck me, all of us?, most especially this past week is the violence of white males with assault rifles shooting our children — while we refuse to ban and put outside the law the owning of these weapons whose only purpose to take life and take it massively.
How I wish our whole culture, the whole world, would go take time, go to the wilderness, face its ways, and God, and be changed into new life and purpose!
With the families now in Florida, with so many, I cry out, When will we ever learn?
We don’t allow citizens to own armored tanks or howitzers or machine guns, can’t we see how wrong it is to allow assault rifles and bump stocks, for anyone?
A mental health issue? Can anyone see where we as a nation are funding mental health care? And could that ever prevent violence which arises from within deep and hidden thoughts and fears?
A self-defense issue — against a potential enemy or even our own government? As one co-worker in New York, who served in Viet Nam and with the CIA told me, don’t be fooled: if we wanted to get you we would get you.
Come on, America! Come on, world!
A retreat time for all humankind is unreal, but maybe if we took time, apart and away, in silence, seeking God, God would rouse us (me) to do something to work to change maybe this one part of our culture, our policies, our codes.
Our children, those who have been killed and those who survived, now are begging us.
Maybe that’s too specific, but as Jesus and the prophets railed against how their ages turned their backs on God’s love and sovereignty, mustn’t we also?
Is it too much to ask? To begin with ourselves, and our forty days of Lent. Rather than race along on cruise control, like a train about to jump its tracks, let’s do what Jesus did: Make time. Apart. Outside the normal stuff of life. In silence. To be with God.
And like Jesus, find ourselves affirmed in who we are and who we are called to be — children of God, together the Body of Christ — and to proclaim, by word … and action.
The time is now. The Kingdom of God is near. Stop, world. Repent. Believe the Good News.
Dear God, as Jesus went to the wilderness and faced temptations and found you there, so may we there go, and know ourselves to be called to proclaim the good news, through our Savior Jesus Christ.
February 9, 2018
Funeral Service for Gus Andrian
Trinity Church, Hartford
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Frank G. Kirkpatrick
In the book of Genesis, God comes to Abraham, who was already 99 years old, and says to him that he and his wife Sarah, herself well-past child bearing age, will have a child. When Sarah hears this she can’t do anything other than laugh. I’m reminded of this story when I marvel at the advanced old age to which our friend Gus Andrian lived. He lived to the same age of Abraham when God spoke to him, an age that can truly be considered a blessing despite the afflictions that also accompany growing older. But in the Bible old age is honored and those who have attained it are worthy of praise. As God says to Abraham, "As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age.” Gus is certainly being buried at a good old age. Generally the Bible thought of old age as anything over 70. The psalmist says The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength [perhaps] eighty, but Gus defied these biblical assumptions about old age and made it well into his late 90’s. And so we have come here today not so much to mourn or grieve an untimely death (though those emotions are certainly appropriate), as we are to celebrate a long life well-lived from which Gus passed peacefully.
Gus Andrian led a life of accomplishment and fulfillment, as a scholar, as a teacher, a writer, a mentor to students, as a member of the faculty at Trinity College (where I was honored to serve with him for a number of years before his retirement), as someone who cared about everyone from janitor to president at the college, as a friend and colleague, as a neighbor, as a fellow-parishioner here at Trinity, but above all as a husband for 66 years to his dear wife Peggy, and as a father to his children Barrie, Bill, and Bob, and as a loving grandfather. If anyone has done so, Gus truly embodied what it means to live a long, full life, astounding many of his neighbors in Wethersfield before he and Peggy moved to Glastonbury with his energetic walking jaunts around the town well into his old age. And as his son Bob put it in some notes he sent me, “Up to the end of his life, Gus was conscientiously managing family affairs, checking his social calendar, spending quality time with Peggy like going to "happy hour" with their new found friends at their assisted living facility, welcoming his kids and grandkids, and trying to adjust his hearing aids.”
He led a full and remarkable life.
But I’d like to add another note to our memory of that life. Gus and Peggy were members of this religious community for sixty years. This is part of his remarkable life. We live in a time in which affiliation with a religious community is on the wane, as established religious institutions have ceased to be relevant for many people. But Gus and Peggy, even when their health was such as to make physical attendance at services difficult, looked forward to having communion brought to their home by members of this parish. As a scholar and academic Gus might have been expected to join in the anti-religious sentiments so many in the academic world seem to share. But I’m convinced that over the course of his very long life he acquired a certain kind of higher wisdom, not found in the often shallow understanding of the secular world, a wisdom that allowed him to see beyond the biases that so often afflict the worldly wise. As Paul says in the book of Titus: Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. And Gus embodied these characteristics. The wisdom he acquired through his long and fruitful life was evidence of a deep and abiding faith in the reality of God and his presence in Gus’s life. His faith was deeply grounded in his conviction that life is essentially meaningless if it is lived only for oneself. How exactly Gus defined the meaning of his life in relation to God I don’t know. There are, as the gospel we read this morning reminds us, many dwelling places in our Father’s house. Which exact one Gus was most comfortable in I don’t pretend to know. The precise concepts and words that encapsulated Gus’s faith are known to him and God alone. I’m convinced, however, that as the psalm we just heard says, Gus knew that God, in whatever form, was his refuge and stronghold, in whom he put his trust. At the heart of that trust, that fundamental religious conviction, is the belief that ultimately death has no final dominion over us. Death will eventually bring this present life to an end but God promises us as the prophet Isaiah says: Even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you. But to what will we be delivered? The Christian faith looks forward to a new world, a world beyond this one, full of all those things that will enrich, fulfill, and complete us. It will be a world in which we will flourish fully and without restriction. We may get hints of such a world beyond our biological death while we live out our lives here and now and Gus’s life is a living example of such a hint. But the religious seer, John of Patmos, in the book of Revelation, affirms that after death we will live in a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem. It will be a place where “God himself will be with his peoples, and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. And death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” because God is making all things new.
And so on this occasion of remembering our friend’s long and fulfilling earthly life we can rejoice in the newness of life beyond death which God promises us. It is a life which, I am convinced, Gus is already enjoying while he is walking again with full vigor and enthusiasm down all the corridors of the mansion God has prepared for him. It is a life in which we, too, will share someday, when the time comes, as we rejoin Gus and all those who have gone before us. And so the final word is not our celebration of Gus’s life and journey into death as important as that celebration is. The final word is that of hope and promise that nothing essential to the meaning of Gus’s life has been lost. It is preserved forever in the love of God and the new world beyond death into which we will all eventually be welcomed and embraced.
February 11, 2018
Trinity Church, Hartford
Feast of the Transfiguration
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
The Rev. Dr. Frank G. Kirkpatrick
This is the day on which we celebrate the event known as the Transfiguration of Jesus. As dramatic as this event must have been, however, it is one whose meaning is not entirely clear. Some would add it to the list of major events in Jesus’ life alongside his birth, baptism, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Some have used it to develop what is known as a Christology, a philosophical theory about who Jesus was in relation to God. Searching for such a theory eventually led to the calling of a conference of bishops by the Emperor Constantine in the year 325 at Nicaea, near modern day Istanbul, known to history as the Nicaean Council. It was out of that council that the bishops created what we now know as the Nicaean Creed which defined what the Church considers to be orthodox or correct belief. But why should we recall that council today, almost 2000 years later? Because it reminds us of both the importance and the dangers of searching too hard for precise formulas for articulating what we as individuals believe about Jesus. It is important to know who Jesus was (and is) because he is the core of what we believe as part of the Jesus movement. But the conviction that we have gotten our knowledge of Jesus down pat once and for all in a creedal formula in words and language that are beyond revision has, unfortunately, led to the labelling of some as heretics and others as orthodox depending on whether they can accept these exact words and formulations. And the fate of heretics in church history is not pretty. We often hear Don welcome those who come to our worship no matter where they are on their journey of faith. That seems to suggest and rightly so, that we are not all at the same place on that journey. We may all be coming to Jesus in our own unique ways but we might not have all signed on to a single, perfectly formulated set of phrases depicting who Jesus is, even though there are such phrases in the Nicene creed.
As someone who spent almost a half-century teaching theology as a professor of religious studies, I am clearly sympathetic to the urge to define our faith as carefully and as truthfully as possible. To state with accuracy and fidelity to the various attempts by our predecessors what they came to believe about Jesus is a responsibility we all share. Some of you would even say that I value precision of thought and articulation to a fault. But looking back over my career I have become increasingly more sympathetic to the limits of the search for precise theological language that claims to be the final formulation, once and for all, of what we want to say about Jesus. This sympathy for a less systematic or final formulation of our faith is driven in no small measure by the sadly lamentable fact that once people are convinced that they have an absolute grasp of the truth they often feel justified in condemning those who don’t share that particular version of the truth. Intolerant fanaticism is the ugly side of religious certainty.
Of course the truth about anything is important: we can’t live successfully on the basis of lies or deceptions. Alternative facts or fake news are nonsensical, and when they become the basis of actions they are dangerous and perverse. Facts and truth matter a great deal. Without them we are subject to the demagoguery of tyranny. But it is one thing to search honestly and openly for the truth: it is something else to believe we have found it absolutely and then use it to bludgeon others into submission to the truth we believe we have found.
Once some members of the church believed that they had seen the truth about Jesus in the stories of the transfiguration which we heard this morning, or read their belief back into those stories. They then used that belief to hammer out creedal statements that required strict adherence to every word and phrase if one did not want to be labelled a heretic and thus subject to persecution.
But any revelation of the truth about Jesus requires not only a revealer of what is transfigured, but it also requires acceptance by the one to whom the revelation is made, a personal transfiguration of the recipient. Unless God simply rams the truth into our minds without our consent or understanding, we are left with the very human situation of having to interpret through our finite limited ways of understanding what is presented to us by God. Not only was Jesus transfigured but those who see him must be transfigured in their lives as well. God gives us the space and freedom to respond to his revelations as they speak to us in our own individual life-situations with all the particularities of who we are, by where we are on our individual journeys of faith. The life situation of the seeker after truth is uniquely personal. It is the filter through which one’s interpretation is formed and developed. But interpretations exist in a sea of various other interpretations, no one of which contains the fullness of truth in absolute purity and completeness.
It would perhaps have been nice if after the transfiguration Jesus had handed out an instruction manual on how to interpret what had happened. Unfortunately he didn’t leave us with a theological treatise in which the definitive meaning of his revelation was spelled out in excruciating detail leaving nothing to be interpreted by us. Instead Jesus left it to his followers to work out ways in which he could be understood and responded to in their own personal lives. It’s significant I think that Jesus takes only 3 of the disciples with him up the mountain to view the transfiguration. If he’d really wanted a definitive consensus on the meaning of this event he should have taken no one with him because the more observers there are the more interpretations there will be.
The responses we make to the story of the transfiguration can take two forms: one is theological. The other is existential or personal: the way of precise conceptualization and the way of engaged meaningful living. While not totally opposed to each other and always in need of integration, they are two paths with different emphases and orientations. Too often, I’m afraid, the church has chosen the way of theological sophistication (to which I confess I have contributed over the years). In the process we, the church, have often neglected the nitty-gritty realities of our complex, variegated, complicated and messy lives in which we are challenged daily to make sense of Jesus for ourselves, here and now, in the actual situations that make up who we are. It may be true, as the majority of bishops at Nicaea insisted, that Jesus was of the same substance or being with the Father (or in Greek homoousia) and not of a similar substance (homoiousia). The difference between these two Greek words is the addition of the Greek letter for ‘I’, or iota in one of them, leading Constantine to remark at one point during the debate that he couldn’t see an iota of difference between them. But I’ve probably already lost you in this theological word-salad of foreign and virtually incomprehensible terms. This formulation regarding the substance of Jesus and God became the orthodox definition of Jesus which was later elaborated in a mid-fifth century church council at Chalcedon. There the official theological language about Jesus asserted that he was and I quote from the official text: “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, of one substance (homoousios) with the father as regards his Godhead and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood, recognized in two natures, without confusion, the distinction of the natures being in no way annulled by the union, but coming together to form one person and subsistence, but one and the same Son and only begotten God the Word.” [And I’ve edited out a lot of additional language]. And to think I got paid to explain this stuff. In many ways this Chalcedonian formula was an important step toward theological precision but I suspect that for many of us it doesn’t stir our souls, inflame our hearts, cause our blood to grow warmer or help us to come closer to the love of Jesus in our lives. Many of us are not ourselves transfigured by this theologically sophisticated language. We may be more like those people, later called Arians, who saw in Jesus more of a big brother, a somewhat less than divine companion on life’s journey; who saw no need to engage in metaphysical attempts to tie Jesus down to a precise theological formula that in their opinion overstressed the identity of substance shared by Jesus and God. In hindsight we can say that Arianism failed to do justice to the divinity of Jesus but the final vote at Nicaea revealed divisions in the thought of the assembled bishops there. These divisions did not prevent Arianism from being called a heresy and the eventual persecution by other Christians of those who refused to denounce Arian views. There is clearly truth in the orthodox position. But is it possible that we can accept that truth and still welcome those who find Jesus in some other way than through theological formulas that, so far on their journey of faith, make little or no sense to them or don’t speak to their personal questions and life-situations? We don’t need to rush to judgment against those who are not fully reconciled to the theological concepts and words that have defined the so-called orthodox position of the Church. If Jesus did not himself give us a complete owner’s manual or treatise of orthodox theology, then let us be willing to admit a variety of interpretations of who Jesus was and is for us. Because that is what is important: how do we at a deeply personal level, encounter and relate to Jesus as one who meets us where we are, as one who welcomes us person to person, not concept to concept. The only thing we would expect of those who are seeking Jesus is that they are doing so sincerely, faithfully, honestly, and because they desire something that will make their lives fuller, richer, and more fulfilling. They want to see Jesus as one who illuminates what it means to be fully human. As Saint Irenaeus reminds us, "the glory of God is a live human being and a truly human life is the vision of God.” In whatever way seekers find Jesus who will provide that model of a truly human life, they can be celebrated, and not made the subject of heresy trials and exclusion. Let us welcome all those who are truly seeking to find a Jesus who can transform and transfigure their lives no matter how loosely they define him in theological language. It is the personal, spiritual, and fully human encounter with Jesus that really matters. Existential personal transfigurations in our own lives are worth more than all theological formulas if the latter do nothing more than distract us from the business of living as Jesus would have us live.
Trinity Episcopal Church
5 Epiphany – February 4, 2018
“Nothing is Lost on the Breath of God”
Isaiah 40: 21-31 Mark 1:29-39
This week’s Gospel passage from Mark Chapter 1 verse 29 is Part 2 of the story that began in last week’s Gospel with verse 21. You may recall – and if you don’t I’ll recap it here – that Jesus and his newly acquired disciples were in Capernaum, and Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. And there was a man with an unclean spirit that began acting up and— after an interchange between Jesus and the spirit – Jesus commanded the spirit to come out of the man. And everyone was amazed at what they called this “new teaching” which can order the dismissal even of unclean spirits.
Last week, we heard an inspirational message from Fred Faulkner, a message of hope and healing as we observed Recovery Sunday and I want to thank Fred again for that. This morning I want to pick up on the significance of this “new teaching” of Jesus in the events of this morning’s passage.
What we saw in last week’s Gospel is that Jesus teaching and his power to heal are interrelated – they are one, and this theme continues today. This morning’s story takes place immediately after they have left the synagogue – so this is all one day of activity. As soon as they leave the synagogue, they enter the house of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus comes to her, takes her hand, lifts her up – and the fever leaves her, and she immediately sets about to serve them. That very same evening, everyone in the city who is sick or possessed with demons was at Simon’s door, waiting for that healing touch of Jesus. And today’s passage closes with these words: “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
Teaching and healing. Healing and teaching. It was the pattern of Jesus’ ministry, and I think it can also serve as a good model of ministry for the people who follow him. For nearly 10 years, the sign on the front of this church has proclaimed that we are a place of “welcome, hope and healing.”
I think one of the most powerful things we can do for and with one another is to pray, and I couldn’t be more pleased that in the last month we have re-established our intercessory prayer ministry on Sunday mornings. Especially when someone is suffering from some affliction – whether it be addiction, physical or mental illness, a broken spirit, hopelessness, poverty or maybe some combination of these – the ministry of presence of another person sharing that burden and praying with them is actually sacramental – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
But what, exactly, are we praying for? Contrary to the understanding of his day, Jesus makes it clear in the Gospels that physical or mental illness is not the result of some offense against God – either the person’s own sin or the sins of others. In John 9 we find the story of Jesus healing the blind man. In verses 1-3 it reads, “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Jesus teaches us that even the hurts and shortcomings of this imperfect world are occasions for God’s light to shine through. Jesus understanding of healing seems to be more aligned with the contemporary understanding of healing not necessarily as cure but as a process that leads to wholeness. In Mark 5:34, where a woman reaches out and is healed simply by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, the King James Version reads, “And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.”
When I was a chaplain in training at Hartford Hospital, and when as a seminarian a group of us started an intercessory prayer team at Yale Divinity School, one of the hot topics of debate was, When we pray with someone, what exactly are we praying for? Are we praying for a cure? Or are we praying for a healing of body, mind and spirit? There were those in our group who were convinced that they had a charism of healing – that when they prayed with someone God worked through them in a unique way that enabled actual physical healing. And there may well be such people in the world – I’m not sure I’ve ever met one.
Without getting into the merits of any one person’s individual charism for healing, the sad challenge for us is always the question, how are we to understand situations where the desired outcome doesn’t happen? How do we respond? Pastor Thomas Oord tells the story of the mother desperate to have a child but instead has her fourth miscarriage despite her own prayers and those of others. The comments from people at church ranged from, “This is part of God’s plan,” to “It will make you appreciate your children even more once you have them,” to “God is building your character by allowing this.” Or perhaps the most hurtful of all comments came from those who shared biblical passages pointing to the faith of people whom Jesus healed and concluded, “You just don’t have enough faith.” Weak faith, so the argument goes, gets weak results.
In just the last two weeks, Paul Bolduc, husband of Trinity Academy’s Development Director Lisa, and LJ Sadosky, Jo-Ann Sadosky’s son, died suddenly and unexpectedly of massive heart attacks. This morning as we pray here, the husband of Karen Connal, Trinity Academy’s Head of School, lies at UConn Medical Center having just suffered a stroke. Who among us can find a coherent rationale for that? How do people of faith understand these things, and how do we respond? What are we to say or believe when the young father has a heart attack or a stroke and doesn’t survive? When the young cancer patients whom our own Kate Steven cares for at Children’s hospital don’t respond to the latest “miracle” drug?
The question of wholeness and healing isn’t limited to issues of physical or mental health. What role does our prayer play when the person who has been desperately seeking employment is turned down yet again? When the single mother piecing together several low paying jobs can’t be home at night to supervise her children and they fall into harm’s way?
Philosophers, ethicists and theologians have written thousands upon thousands of pages over many centuries attempting to address the “problem” of how evil and suffering can co-exist alongside a benevolent, loving God. They have provided no certain answers, nor will we arrive at an easy answer this morning. But we can reflect and learn something about how we respond.
I’d like to suggest that the role we play when we pray for others is to provide human interaction – whether it be actual touch or just physical proximity. That human interaction reminds us that God became incarnate – one of us – in the person of Jesus Christ so that we could experience God’s presence in him. As brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus calls us his followers to experience that same presence in each other. Research studies have actually been done comparing the outcomes for people who were being prayed for by known members of their own church as contrasted with those who were told they were being prayed for by faithful but otherwise anonymous people. The patients who had no intimate relationship with their prayer partner showed no significant difference in improvement from the general public, whereas members of the group who knew their prayer partners indicated a marked improvement in their condition or in their quality of life, or both.
Gerald May, a medical doctor who practices psychotherapy in Washington, D.C., writes of the importance of community in the healing process: God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant nor as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.
Last week, as we observed Recovery Sunday, we were reminded that folks in 12-step programs are not the only ones in need of wholeness and healing. All of us – from the most successful businessman or elite celebrity to the person under the bridge and everyone in between – we, each one of us, has holes in our soul that are desperate for the healing touch of God that can lead us closer to wholeness – to being the person God desires for us to become. After all, Bill W, the moving force behind Alcoholics Anonymous, was himself a successful businessman who, despite his success, never felt he was good enough, or deserving enough. The condition is so common it even has a name – Imposter Syndrome. My friend and former colleague Matt Lincoln, who is now the rector of Trinity Church Buffalo where they have a weekly recovery service, speaks of the cruel reversal that many of us make in our subconscious assumptions about ourselves, “namely, we think of ourselves as more important and at the same time less valuable than we are. We put ourselves at the center of the universe, yet view ourselves as barely worth being thrown into the outer darkness. . . None of us is the center of the universe, yet each of us is cherished, valued infinitely by the one who actually is the center of the universe.”
This understanding of community and the intrinsic value of every single human individual is part of the DNA of this congregation, Trinity Hartford. It was articulated at the laying of the cornerstone of our present building in 1894 by Colonel Jacob L. Greene, who said, “Here no one is to be higher in right or privilege than another, this common and equal right being based on the common and equal need which each one has of divine help.”
In this morning’s message from the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah asks ,“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. . . He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. . . [T]hose who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
As brothers and sisters of Jesus the Christ, as his followers, one of our most important roles is to be partners with God in promoting wholeness, hope and healing, for ourselves, for each other, and for the whole world. Because as Episcopalians we believe that everything God creates is cherished by God and to be honored by us. In the beautiful words of our sequence anthem by New Zealand composer Colin Gibson, Nothing is lost to the on the breath of God, nothing is lost forever, God’s breath is love, and that love will remain, holding the world forever. No feather too light, no hair too fine, no flower too brief n its glory, no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air, but is counted and told in god’s story.”
God so loved us that he gave his only begotten son to become one of us. As part of Jesus call to follow him, we are called to share in His ministry of healing, to extend that touch to humankind, for the healing and wholeness of the world, and to the glory of God, that God’s works may be revealed through our own self-giving love. Amen.
Recovery Sunday: Amazing Grace
A Sermon by Mr. Fred Faulkner
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford, Connecticut
Sunday ,January 28, 2018
I want to start out by expressing my sincere thanks to the staff and members of Trinity for the very warm welcome that you have extended Janice and I. Trinity has a strong and positive reputation in the church and secular communities. I have wanted to be a part of the Trinity community for a long while. You see I believe that the church, the parish, is the place where members of the Jesus movement come to organize, energize and revitalize in order to go out into the world and do the work of Jesus. The church is not the place where the work of Jesus is done. Unless, of course you invite the world into your church. Trinity is a model on both counts. The boundary between the world and the church that exists in many places is not here at Trinity. Trinity both goes out to the community of need and brings that community in. I want to be a part of that. I am so very happy to say that Janice and I are going to be a part of the Trinity Hartford branch of the Jesus movement.
Last week Father Don came to visit me at my house in the Coltsville section of Hartford. My house is called The Open Hearth. 110 men live in my house and 35 staff work there.
Most of the men in my house are alcoholics, drug addicts or chronically mentally ill. Their legal status includes legal incarceration, parole, probation, and jail diversion. Many of them have never committed a crime but most have. Their convictions range from petty larceny to murder but the vast majority of their crimes are drug and alcohol related. I am proud to say that the backgrounds of the staff reflect the backgrounds of the residents.
The Open Hearth is the last stop for many of the men in the programs. They have lived on the fringes of society their whole lives. You will find men at The Open Hearth who are 50 years old and have never had a real job. Men live at The Open Hearth who are 30 years old and have never completed a full year outside of a prison as an adult. I have brothers at the Open Hearth who went from foster care to mental hospitals to living under bridges. Men live at the Open Hearth that havw no recollection of clean and sober days until they arrived at the Open Hearth.
There is pain, guilt, remorse, anger and frustration at The Open Hearth. But there is something else at The Open Hearth. There is hope, there is joy, there is success, there is freedom, there is relief, there is a sense of caring and belonging.
I haven’t had a chance to talk with Father Don since his visit. I haven’t asked him to share with me his impressions. I don’t know what he walked away with. But I hope he saw a little of what I see on a daily basis. In the midst of the pain I hope he saw relief. In the midst of the anger I hope he got a sense of men taking responsibility for their actions. I hope he saw men asking for help and I hope he understands what a huge accomplishment that is.
People see or hear about what I do and often they are impressed. They congratulate me on doing such admirable and difficult work. But they don’t understand. I thank God on a daily basis for giving me the opportunity to serve him at The Open Hearth. There is no place on the planet that I would rather be on a daily basis than the Open Hearth. I spent my entire adult life preparing to serve God by serving his people who live on the edges. They are me and I am them.
So let me properly introduce myself to you.
My brothers and sisters in Christ I want to tell you that my name is Fred and I am an Alcoholic. My name is Fred and I am an alcoholic. It is important that you know that about me but it is even more important that I remember it about myself. You see I am also a husband, a father, a brother, a counselor but none of those things are as important as my declaration that I am an alcoholic. Because you see if I forget that I will not be able to function as any of those other things.
And as an alcoholic I know pain, I know depression, I know guilt. Many a night my prayer was that God take me that night, that I not wake up in the morning. That the pain of my death to my family would be less than the pain of my living. There were times that I thought that I wasn’t even good enough to end it all. I was guilty that my love of the bottle was greater than the love of my children.
And somebody within the sound of my voice understands what I am talking about. Whether it be alcoholism, drug addiction, or other forms of mental illness there are people in this room that know what I am talking about. They know what I am talking about because they have the disease or love somebody who does.
Somebody here knows about depression so deep, so pervasive that it actually physically hurts and you lack the energy to get out of bed for days at a time. Somebody here knows about addiction so strong that feeding your addiction is more important than feeding your hungry baby. Somebody here knows about fighting off the voices in your head that you know are not real and losing that fight and they become more real and more powerful than any voices outside of you. Somebody in this church knows somebody whose emotional pain was so deep, so intense that they cut themselves and inflicted physical pain on themselves to distract from the emotional pain.
And all of these illnesses make the victims unable to fulfill their basic responsibilities to their families and to society. And unlike other diseases the symptoms of these diseases engender rejection and anger in others rather than understanding and caring. When was the last time you sent a get well card to somebody in active addiction? And unlike other diseases victims of mental illness will blame themselves for having the disease. And because we blame ourselves we do not feel worthy of restoration. We do not come to God because we do not feel worthy of the love of god. Our sins are too great. There is a sense that we deserve to be punished. Our guilt and self-loathing is pervasive.
But Jesus said
“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
God sent his son here for us, for we who are captive to our addictions. We who are blinded by our diseases. We who are oppressed by a system that is too quick to treat mental illness as a crime.
But my brothers and sisters let me tell you something. Jesus came here because of our sins not in spite of them. Jesus came here for us who suffer. Jesus walked amongst the lepers and he cast out demons and at no time did he blame the victims for their disease. For Jesus it was the disease that was rejected not the victim of the disease. Jesus didn’t suffer on the cross for the righteous. Jesus spent his time engaging with the very people that many so called Christians try to avoid. Jesus spent his time with us, us who live on the edges of society. I heard Jesus say
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
The message is clear from Jesus . Come to me with your burdens, we will do this together. Coming to Jesus does not mean the work ends. Recovery work, particularly in the early days is probably the most difficult work you will ever do. But if you join us, if you join the people of Jesus who are in recovery you will find rest from your work. Your burden will be lighter because we will carry it together. Learn from us, be with us, the people of Jesus in recovery.
I stand before you today a grateful man. I am not grateful in spite of all the pain I endured. I am grateful for the pain I endured. Because it is because of that pain that I am the man I am today and I am happy with the man I am today. It is because of my suffering that I can serve my God through his people the way I do. It is because of the life that I lived that I can say to a homeless destitute mentally ill alcoholic that change is possible and have him believe me. It is because of my history that I can offer men the opportunity to change their lives. It is because of my experiences that I can talk about the love of Jesus the way I do.
One of the reasons our staff at the Open Hearth reflects the clients is because at The Open Hearth we not only teach that recovery is possible we show it. We live it. Because of my experiences I can model recovery -- I don’t just have to talk it. I thank God for that privilege, a privilege that comes only because of my experience.
I stand here and disclose to you my disease and my recovery because I want you to know that long term recovery is possible, it is doable. It is not to portray myself as exceptional because of what I have overcome. It is exactly the opposite. I want you to know that if this garden variety gutter alcoholic can stop using so can you. 16 years ago I was unemployed and unemployable. I stand before you today an employed man. 16 years ago my health was marginal at best. I stand before you today in the best health of my adult life. At 65 I am living and pursuing dreams that I never thought possible.
But let me be clear about something. While I consider it my right to disclose my recovery status I am very clear that I do not have the right to disclose others. There is clearly a movement in recovery to depart from the traditional guidelines regarding anonymity. I am part of that movement. But I strongly believe that each of us has the right to make that decision for ourselves. To my brothers and sisters out there that I know from the rooms do not be concerned. I will maintain the spirit of anonymity.
I’ll be done in just a few minutes but first I want to talk about something that at one point I wasn’t aware of, that I didn’t believe in, that I didn’t accept and to this day I don’t truly understand. I want to talk about grace.
Archbishop Justin Welby said, “Grace is the most beautiful word in the language of God. It means love given freely and without the expectation of return. “
Rick Warren said, “In God’s garden of grace even a broken tree can bear fruit. “
Tim Keller said, “The more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying and amazing God’s grace appears to you. “
But what then is grace? I think grace is a gift from God. I think grace is God giving us something that we have done nothing to deserve. The granting of grace is counterintuitive. Many of us who have suffered from mental illness have lived lives that we think are worthy of punishment. But grace grants us peace and rewards despite our sins and irresponsible life styles.
God is not a vengeful punishing God but a loving, caring and forgiving God. That is Jesus’ message to us and that is my message to you.
For a Christian to maintain a healthy recovery an acceptance of the pervasive existence of grace is essential. Without it we get caught up in a vicious cycle. You see we become consumed by guilt which translates into feeling not worthy of God’s love which leads us to desperation which leads us back to active addiction. Without an acceptance of grace we can’t get beyond the feelings of self-loathing.
I’m here to tell you the road to sustained recovery is not easy. It requires work, hard work and in many ways the work never ends. But take my yoke upon you and I’ll take yours. Together each of our loads will be lighter.
You see God understands that our conditions are diseases. We didn’t ask for them. No schizophrenic saw schizophrenia as their life’s goal. When as a child, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never said I wanted to be an alcoholic. You should feel no more guilty for having depression than a diabetic feels guilty for having diabetes.
Trust me God loves you and understands you. Jesus came here for you. He suffered and died for you.
So today I am going to finish my first sermon at Trinity Church by telling you about something that I accept but don’t understand. But really there’s nothing new or different about that concept. I have no understanding of how electricity works but when I flip the light switch I expect and accept that the light will come on. I don’t understand the maternal instinct but you won’t see me getting in between a mother bear and her cub.
I can’t explain grace but I know what it is and I accept it. It is that phenomenon that tells us that God loves us no matter our sins. Grace is that sense that God has forgiven me so I can forgive myself. It is the knowledge that in the throes of my addiction I rejected God out of a sense of anger, defensiveness and shame but God never rejected me. Grace tells me that I am worthy to be called a child of God and treated that way. Grace tells me to learn from the past but not get stuck in it. Grace tells me that no matter what I have done, I am still a child of God and that as a child of God I deserve recovery, dignity, and respect. Grace tells me that it is not by works that I will be saved and inherit the kingdom, it is by faith. Faith in a loving, caring and forgiving God. Amen.