Texts for Preaching:
“Breakage” by Mary Oliver
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Don’t you love how descriptive
that Mary Oliver poem is?
She takes us right to that place on the shore
we have been before
and shows us all the bits and pieces
washed up from the ocean,
few arriving whole or unscarred
on the tongue of sand our toes wiggle in.
Then, at the very end,
she tells us they are all words
of a story — one whole story.
And we can see what she means
even if we have never thought it ourselves.
There, all of it a whole story for us to read.
The thousands and millions of bits
rolled up on the shore
to tell us a story about the deep.
The bible is like that too.
We misread it as single bits and pieces
when all of it
is the whole.
All of it, thousands of words
and thousands of stories
rolled up on the shore of history
to tell us about a deep and pervasive
presence and love
from a power so much greater than ourselves.
Take that one little word
in John’s gospel today, “sanctified.”
By itself it is just a piece of periwinkle
or “blue mussel pale pink and barnacle scarred”.
But understood as part of a whole story,
it means something.
Taken that way
it even means something to us,
something about us.
In the midst of all the other gobbledygook of words,
John has Jesus pray for God
to “sanctify” his little community
so that they will “be in-the-world
but not belong-to-the-world.”
Let’s pause on that a moment…“Sanctify.”
“Please God, sanctify my friends…”
Like stone-age priests were sanctified.
Like the ancients sanctified animals
before slaughtering them on the altar
and smearing their blood in the name of God.
Like how people and places
were set apart for God’s business
and smeared with blood.
“Sanctify them,” Jesus asks God,
at least in John’s imagination.
What a bewildering idea.
This prayer Jesus prays in chapter 17 of John,
is a lonely prayer.
Churchy theologians call it his
“high priestly prayer” – which means
the Church likes to think of Jesus as a priest
instead of a prophet.
That is a little too convenient for the Church
because it is easier to domesticate a priest
than a prophet.
But this prayer as composed by John,
consists of a series of reports Jesus makes to God,
like a field commander reporting in.
The prayer lets loose a flurry of petitions
for God to care for Jesus’ little band of friends
from whom he is about to withdraw.
And then, at the end, Jesus makes a final request
that his band of friends be sanctified.
It is the same word his ancestors in Israel used
to describe the nation as “set apart.”
It is the same word used to suggest
Israel was to be a model of relationship with God.
It is the same word used to describe the temple priests
as “set apart” to function around the altar.
It is the same word used to describe the animal
without blemish set apart for sacrifice.
“Sanctify them,” Jesus asks,
“and for their sake I sanctify myself,
so that they also may be sanctified…”
It is a bewildering idea for us moderns
What could all this have to do
with people who work for a living;
who have houses and gardens,
and monstrous amounts to take care of;
with people who have places to go and people to see,
commitments to be fulfilled,
bills to pay,
children to nurture.
In other words, people like you and me
who are not set apart
but live with our feet deep in the mud of life.
What does an other-worldly
high priestly prayer
like the one John wrote for Jesus,
have to do with us right here in the Finger Lakes,
or anywhere else
where we may be listening or reading from,
and who are trying to live and thrive
on the cusp of difficult and changing times?
This may be the core question of spiritual practice
for every religion
anywhere in the world,
and for people who are not cloistered monastics
or professional clergy-types.
How do we be IN the world,
but not OF the world?
How do we be set-apart
when we do not live apart?
I chuckled at the foolishness of me asking this question
on a Thursday morning
sitting on my porch in the sun
listening to the neighbor’s fountain
make lovely water music
and knowing I was being paid to do it.
I am one of those professional clergy-types.
But my mortgage and car payments,
and IRA and 403b,
and my taxes and groceries,
and sharing your worry about this building
behind us and funding Trinity Place…
all of that means I am no more cloistered than you.
Even though I have the dubious distinction
of wearing a clerical collar,
the fact is, in our present world,
and in our present church,
the clergy are not sanctified —
we are set apart for a particular function,
but our lives are no more sanctified
than anyone else.
We are all IN this world
and all OF us,
like the periwinkle and mussel,
we are chipped and scarred and broken pieces
rolled onto the shores of the community
with a story to tell.
I think the big and telling question,
is whether we see ourselves
as the spiritual descendants
of those first sanctified pals of Jesus.
Do we in fact see ourselves,
via the act of baptism and traditions we keep,
as that same community gathered around Jesus
but simply in a another time and another place?
Are we in fact,
the text of scripture being written today
for those on the shores a thousand years from now?
If so, how are we distinguished, differentiated,
made peculiar for a reason
that God intends will benefit the Creation?
What is it that sanctifies us? Sets us apart?
Clearly it is not our moral purity
as the Puritans and others struggled to achieve.
Clearly, we in the church,
are not distinguished by our virtuous living
or high moral standards.
No way, no how, has the Church,
or many of us in it for that matter,
ever fulfilled the purity mission.
Personally, I’m good with that,
because I am not a purist about anything.
The way to frame this sanctification question
is not around purity,
as the temple religion of Jesus’ day did —
after all, Jesus was likely trying to bring that show
down to the ground.
The frame for us has to do
with being baptized
to be agents of God’s love
among those with whom
we live and work and play.
And I think it is a communal question
as much if not more than an individual one.
I am guessing that if Jesus was preaching today
he would be preaching against
the radical form of individualism
that has so scarred and wounded our culture,
our communities, our families, and our planet.
So I want to ask about ourselves as a community,
as the 21st century version
of Jesus’ community.
What sets this place apart?
Trinity Place I mean – this community?
It is not our beauty – Jesus wasn’t about beauty.
It is not those of us here – surely we are like most anyone else
we might meet in the Finger Lakes.
It is not Trinity’s overly proud and glorious history –
Jesus doesn’t gush about the glory of the temple.
It is not our liturgy or our sacraments –
we can go to any of a thousand sanctuaries
and find a way to be fed, challenged,
and infused by the Holy Spirit.
So what sanctifies Trinity Place — or
your place and your community
wherever you are?
What distinguishes us?
What differentiates us?
What special role have we been given to play?
For what peculiar benefit to creation
has God brought together this present mix
Here we are,
a community of strangers
whose destinies have become intertwined
because we found or were led
to this place and these people.
For what purpose has God invited us here?
Again, there is a two-fold answer: yours and ours.
Yours is worth thinking about: why did God invite you to this particular place,
with these particular people,
at this particular time in your life?
I invite all of us to be asking ourselves that question.
You may have been a part of Trinity for 30 years
but that is not an answer to the question:
longevity is not an answer
it is only a form of momentum.
To consider why God
has invited you or me to be here,
in this place
with these people
at this time,
is more than about longevity,
It is a question worth thinking about
if you haven’t visited it in awhile.
But there is the communal dimension
of that question, that seems vitally important
when it comes to being set apart
in God’s scheme of things.
Why did God invite us together,
and how does our being together
in this place
at this time
sanctify us as an act of love for the creation?
I do not know the answer by the way,
it is a real question I wonder about.
I think we will find ourselves
in the thick of that question fairly shortly,
once the Trinity Inn project has commenced
and we are free of responsibility
for this property.
It will be then that we have a host
of questions to ask
and an amazing, unusual freedom
with which to explore
how we are set-apart
as agents of God’s love.
But in the short term
here is something I want us to notice
about the community Trinity Place.
We are a community in the Episcopal tradition
but no one must be,
or is even asked to be, an Episcopalian
to be here, to be active here, to be fully one of us.
We are not a church
in the sense of membership —
which is the way church has been thought of
in this country for centuries.
We do not care what creed you have,
or whether you have a creed.
We do not care if you are Christian or not,
or even whether you believe in God or not.
It may go too far to say
that no cares who you voted for,
but it is not a question upon which
our welcome or love is based.
What I observe about us
at this moment in time
and with this group of people,
is that we may not be for everyone
but we are pushing ourselves to welcome everyone.
By saying we are not FOR everyone,
I mean we will not meet everyone’s needs.
Welcoming everyone to the table
is not something everyone wants from their
And to be down-right blunt about it,
we are pretty small
and pretty old
and not terribly diverse
racially, ethnically, or socio-economically.
But we do span nearly five decades in age,
we do have a host of different opinions,
we are politically diverse,
and our beliefs, and practices, and theologies
color inside and outside the lines.
We have people who have been coming
for fifty years
and people who joined up during the pandemic.
We have people who love to sing
and people who wish we wouldn’t.
We have people who like Big Church liturgy
and those who like it intimate and informal.
We have people who think spiritual community
is about spiritual formation and worship,
and those who think it is about outreach and activism.
We have those who live close enough to walk
and others who live in towns thirty miles away
or out in the boonies near no town.
We have people who make contributions
from out of their abundant investments
and those who contribute from their paycheck
that only goes so far.
We have people who cannot leave their home,
and people who only know about us
from watching their computer screen,
and others who have great mobility
and are able to do things like
set up our worship space every week.
We have folks that thirst for small group conversation and study,
and others who prefer a more casual kind
We have people that like to just come sit
in the back row and be left alone
to enjoy the worship
and others who don’t fee like they have worshiped
until they have passed the peace.
Introverts, extroverts, friendly and grumpy,
exuberant and reserved…all gathered here.
The ability to hold all that together
around a common table
is a charism —
which is a religious word for “gift.”
It causes me to suspect
that is points to what sanctifies us
or sets us apart as agents of God’s love.
I recognize too,
that it represents a new Trinity
from the old one whose history is torn asunder
by conflicts, separations, and divisions.
So if I am onto something here,
about what sanctifies us,
we will need to be thinking about it
as a gift – a charism –
of the sacrifice and change
we have and are going through.
A change that itself is a gift
from a God who has something in mind for us.
Well, that is a lot of musing —
probably too much sun and water fountain.
So let me end by noticing a kind of soothing
aspect of John’s Jesus
and his farewell prayer.
Jesus summons his community to a final meal
and, like a loud noise scatters crows from the corn,
Jesus shoos their hands from bread
with his words.
He speaks to them as one who is leaving.
He tells them what he has been up to.
He offers them a vision of the road ahead.
He invites them to be sanctified – set apart
by becoming an act of love for the creation.
His friends flutter about;
they flap with anxiously,
searching for some way out of the present grief.
like the crisp light before dusk,
is everywhere present and calm.
That is the center of our community, here and now
and yesterday and tomorrow.
That peace-stilled presence
in the midst of flutter
that regardless of the day,
and no matter what the time,
is here waiting for us,
If we, this community,
do what God has invited us to do,
we will continue to thrive
regardless of our eventual shape or size or beauty.
If you and me,
do what God has invited us to do,
we will continue to thrive
regardless of our eventual health,
or wealth or beauty.
That’s all I got.
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