With all that is happening in the world around us – the arguing and the threats, the raging and the fear, the blame and the anger, the loneliness and pain… we have a promise.
And we show up here on this night because we believe in that promise, or because we want to believe, or because it’s what we’ve always done, or because we need to or want to find a way to let something in to vanquish the shadow from our lives.
Someplace inside of us wants to be melted so we come to hear the story. We come to this sanctuary and we celebrate this birth, this gift from God that is God incarnate.
Because it is in the midst of all the fear and anger and pain… in the midst of the desert of our disbelief… that God always comes to us. The story we have of this promise is about a young woman named Mary, who was forced to travel through the desert with her beloved while she was with child.She gave birth in a barn and put the baby in a feeding trough.
This hope is born in the lowliest of places.In the terror of forced migration, the pain of childbirth, the filth of a cowshed, this child, this hope is born.
Because God always comes to us unbidden as the light returns each year in the midst of the darkness of our own lives. With no worldly ceremony, no grand entrance, God breaks into the world… on this night. This quiet night. This holy night.
The human heart is a complicated thing.Capable of great love and joy, this part of us is also the most tender, most vulnerable part.We carry our entire lifetime in our heart – the memories of our own, personal human story – the hopes and disappointments, the joy and the pain, the love and the loneliness. This story that tells us to keep ourselves hidden, not to hope too much, not to shine too much, not to love too much.
Our heart is understood by many to be an organ of perception – the instrument through which we view the world.When our heart is open and joyful, we see abundance and possibility.When our heart is burdened and in pain, we see problems and danger.
Neither is a marker of faith, nor any indication of our own goodness. It’s just an indicator of where we are on our journey because sometimes these dangers are very real – like they were for Mary.And sometimes, we are able to see the possibility, like Mary.
And so this is where the bigger story connects with our own. God’s breaking in is real – it’s not just a story about something that happened 2000 years ago.It happens all the time.This is why we call Christ the Alpha and the Omega because it’s always happened from the foundation of the world through to the completion of all things because Christ is the beginning and the end.
God’s promise, which we celebrate this night, this beautiful night, this holy night… is that in the midst of our own darkness, our own pain and vulnerability, God’s light shines through the gloom to find us once again.No place is too lowly.No person is beyond hope.No heart is incapable of mending.
In this manger that is our heart, we find that when we make room, even if it’s just a small space, this light of Christ enters in.And God breaks into our world once more.When this happens, we might find that we have so much more room in our own hearts that we could have ever expected.
In this manger that is our hearts, we learn that our pride and our opinions… our stories about who we are, become impoverished in the presence of this vulnerable child of flesh.And our greatness can do nothing but bow, our intellect surrenders, we fall on our knees in the presence of this meekness, this little one.
In this manger that is our hearts, our hardness softens, our darkness is pierced by light and we are humbled: our stories dismissed, our mountainous fears made into proverbial molehills.
Because every stone shall cry in its presence. Every stone shall cry… on this night.This glorious night.
This story of hope that we have, this promise we celebrate on this night, is that God’s will is never accomplished by the ways of the world, by power or coercion, by social norms or expectations.
This story we have tells us that God’s desire for us, God’s dream for us will come in the form of vulnerability in the lowliest of places, in the most hopeless of moments.God’s will is accomplished in our surrender to the quiet spaces in our hearts that yearn for connection and truth, those aspects of ourselves that receive and respond to light, like a newborn baby opens her eyes for the first time as it gazes upon the love shining forth from his mother.
Because ultimately, what comes to us at Christmas is Love. We look for a sign, we search for that star that will guide us, telling us where to go and who to follow.But when we open our eyes and see with our hearts, what we find in the manger is Love.Just Love.
And our only task is to receive this Love… on this night.This glorious night.
As you may have heard, this past Sunday we kicked off our Stewardship campaign. At our 10am worship service, parishioner John Bennett gave such a truly beautiful reflection on stewardship that people requested for us to make it available to read and pass along and John graciously agreed. It was a wonderful worship service highlighted by his story of abundance. I offer it here on my “blog” as a guest post. Enjoy!
Click on the play button below to listen as you read.
What is prayer?
I think prayer is our response to God, our encounter with God. Prayer is our declaration of God’s presence in our lives. Prayer is our testimony and our longing. Our lament and our praise.
Luke’s Gospel this week offers us insight into prayer. Jesus is telling a parable that demonstrates the way we pray is important. He says, a Pharisee and a tax collector go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee offers thanks that he is not like other people – thieves, rogues, adulterers… or even this tax collector. “I follow the rules. I tithe and I fast. It’s good to be me.”
Then Jesus says, the tax collector “would not even look to heaven…” and asked God for mercy. And Jesus explains the point of his parable – that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
So, Jesus is reminding us that it’s not enough to pray for others because, inherent in that, is the arrogance that we do not need God ourselves and, as a consequence, that we are not open to God’s intervention.
Jesus is reminding us to be humble in our prayers – to exhibit humility in how we encounter God, in our testimony and our declaration, our longing and our praise.
And so, we arrive at a second question – what is humility?
I think sometimes we define humility as something that is too close to the word humiliation… a demonstration of unworthiness or shame, a recognition of contemptibility and pitifulness. But that’s not humility.
Humility comes from the word humus, which means “ground or soil.” And when I think about my connection to the earth, I call to mind the story of creation from Genesis: “then the Lord God formed humanity from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” (Gen 2:7)
Humility is a marker of our place, our location in the Reign of God. The word “human” comes from the same root. We come from the earth, made from the very elements of the earth. We require nutrients from the earth and oxygen from the breath of plants. Our physical being is dependent upon the ground, and soil, the humus.
We are not self-reliant, but deeply reliant on the earth, on one another, and on God.
On Ash Wednesday, when we receive ashes on our forehead, we are told: Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality… that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life…
Click here to listen to Hot Rize perform a bluegrass version of “Standing in the Need of Prayer”
The priest makes the sign of the cross on your forehead and says the following words… Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And then we recite psalm 51, asking for God’s mercy… as Jesus instructs us in today’s Gospel.
True humility is simply the honest recognition of self in relationship to God. Knowing there is a god and knowing our connection to God, our reliance on God. It’s an understanding of our belovedness and our brokenness and how they are tied together. It’s learning to see ourselves through God’s eyes, instead of our own. It’s cultivating the space to hear God’s voice instead of our own. In other words, humility is a practice of prayer.
Each week, we offer our prayers to God. We spend time asking for God to help other people. Our prayers are filled with asking God to intervene in the lives of others. We share our concerns and our hopes through prayer, wanting God to take care of those we love.
And after we offer the prayers of the people, we offer prayers for ourselves – we offer our confession. We remind ourselves and God, that we, too, are standing in the need of prayer. We, too, are in need of God’s mercy.
And this is important. The way we pray is significant. This lesson from today’s gospel is one of the most pointed messages of transformation we have. Because confession, that is, the asking of God’s mercy, is not about thinking poorly of ourselves. It’s quite the opposite.
To ask for God’s mercy demonstrates that we are ready and willing to claim our place in the Reign of God. We are worthy of God’s attention – God’s love and comfort. We are whole in our weakness and our power.
Where we get lost and lose our connection to God is when we are over-identified with either our weakness or our power. To take our place in the Reign of God, to recognize our preciousness and our brokenness, our perfection and our imperfection, is to see both in others. To see others as, not only in need, but with gifts to offer.
To see our neighbor with the eyes of God to not just recognize their full humanity, but honor it, by honoring our own. Remembering that we are all amazing, wondrous, precious children of God standing in the need of prayer.
Humility is remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return, that we are precious and insignificant at the same time and therefore intimately reliant upon one another, connected to one another and to God, the source of all.
Last week, I talked about identity. We had a reading from Jeremiah that spoke about God writing God’s laws on our heart… because the seat of our identity is actually in our heart, not in a place or a way of life.
Our identity is not tied to preferences or a sense of nostalgia that brings to mind former glories and a desire to be great again… but our identity rests in our heart, where we connect with one another and build relationships with one another.
Our heart is where we find ourselves because others see us and where we see other people. It’s where we find our guidance to move forward, becoming what is calling us to become. It’s the seat of desire for stewardship of one another. Our heart is where we find our impulse to build the Beloved Community.
But what prevents us from truly living in our hearts, is one of 2 extremes:
1. an excess of independence, an over-emphasis on self-reliance and the refusal to acknowledge our inter-dependence
2. or the opposite – an over-reliance on others, a refusal of our own capacity and autonomy
And so, we either end up hearing only our own voice or the voices of others that we rely upon… and we never hear the voice of God.
Hearing the voice of God is something that is cultivated, over time and intention… through prayer. But it begins with silencing the other voices – the voices of others, the voices of fear, the voice of society, the voices of pride and desperation, the voices of pain, the voices of gossip, the voices of disappointment, the voices of limitation and opinion… and asking, “what else does God have to tell me?” What other story is there?
This is what confession is… standing before God and saying, “Here’s the story I tell myself. And here are the things I’ve done based on the story I tell myself.” And we say, God, free me from the tyranny of this story and tell me a new story about myself – one that is based on my true identity which is my heart and my true origin which is as a creature of this earth intimately connected with all the other creatures of this earth.
And so I end here with a single question: What is the story you tell yourself?
If you want to listen to the sermon, click the play button below. (I forgot to hit ‘record’ before I started so the first paragraphs aren’t there)
Jeremiah is one of my favorite books of the Bible. The word “jeremiad” is a term that has come to mean “a long, mournful complaint; a list of woes.” Jeremiah is known as the weepy prophet – a woe-is-me kinda guy who complains throughout this collection of verses and poems and proclamations… about how no one likes him and people want to kill him.
There is good reason. As a prophet of God, Jeremiah has been called to be the one to lament the actions and choices made by the leadership of Israel. It can definitely be a bit of a downer to read because Jeremiah offers us a full picture of the story of Israel and it’s not a pretty story:
In approximately 1025 BCE, the people of Israel, which consisted of a loose confederation of tribes, decided to name a sovereign king, despite God’s urging otherwise, because they felt threatened by the regular military invasions into their lands by neighboring nations. They decided a central leader would be a kind of messiah, a savior of sorts, to raise an army and defend the tribal lands.
This king, as you may recall, was Saul (Book of Samuel II). Now, at some point during Saul’s reign, David gained power within the society and become an internal enemy of Saul. When Saul died and his heir and son was assassinated, David, who was, at best, morally questionable, did what he needed to do to take power in 1005 BCE.
David established the dynasty of kingship in Israel and established Jerusalem as the nation’s capital – centralizing everything. The nation of Israel was now identified with Jerusalem, and with a king.
David is known in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the great king because humans have a need to identify with powerful institutions and greatness. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke go out of their way to has connect Jesus with the line of David (not the line of Saul) to demonstrate Jesus’ place as the inheritor of greatness. The Son of David.
But it’s this very need to be a part of greatness that is at the heart of bigotry and prejudice because in order to see ourselves in the winner’s circle, someone has to be the loser. Someone has to be an “other” so that our identity of greatness remains intact.
So David is a perplexing character in the history of Israel. We laud King David but we fail to see the shadow side of that kind of power, which is that David unilaterally eliminated the self-governance of the tribes and mercilessly conquered the weaker, nearby city-states. And he did so with a lot of bloodshed and by creating alliances with the leaders of other nations to keep his internal enemies at bay. But hey, he’s a great king… who cares at what cost as long as I’m not the collateral damage.
When David died after being in power for about 40 years, and his son Solomon took over, the nation of Israel knew peace, finally, for the first time since the monarchy had begun. Well, a time without rebellion or war or conquest, anyway.
Solomon focused inwardly, using the wealth gathered from conquest and power to rebuild many of the cities that had been demolished in local rebellions and scuffles. And he solidified Jerusalem as, not only the political capital, but the religious capital as well by ensconcing the Ark of the Covenant in the newly built Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant carried the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments and was the mercy seat, where God sat. It followed the Israelites through their journeys. It was looked after by the priestly families but always remained an autonomous seat of power. So, when Solomon moved it into the temple, it changed the nature of how Israel knew God – from a God who was everywhere and anywhere, to a God that was inherently connected to the political center of the nation.
The construction of what came to be known as Solomon’s Temple changed what it meant to be God’s chosen people. Worship was centralized and religious practices took on a very legalistic nature – rules, uniformity, and a hierarchical power.
But rivalries were broiling under the surface all throughout Solomon’s reign. And when he died 40 years later, the race to grab the power of the throne ended up splitting the kingdom into 2 – The Northern Kingdom took the name Israel and the Southern Kingdom became known as Judah. Jerusalem and its Temple – the seats of power, were located in Judah.
Over the next 200 years, Israel (the Northern Kingdom) was broken apart piece by piece by invading nations. And after another 200 years, Judah fell to Babylon. The Babylonians razed Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the Temple. And, in a typical act of war – sent many of the Judeans into exile in the city of Babylon so that they couldn’t re-establish a base of power at home.
This is where Jeremiah comes in. Jeremiah is the prophet in exile as a Judeans in Babylon along the rest who have been taken from their homeland. The overarching theme of Jeremiah is the pain associated with the destruction of a way of life and how that way of life was idolized over and above God’s covenant: The desperate request for a king despite God’s urging them not to name one in Saul. The rampant bloodshed, debauchery, and quest for glory of King David. And the arrogance in claiming possession of the very seat of God by Solomon. None of this was in service to God, but was about the glory of a nation.
Jeremiah proclaims the end of Judah’s social system and venerable institutions, the end of their worship life and the end of their entitlement to the land of Canaan – or the Promised Land, the end of kingship, the end of glory.
The entire first half of Jeremiah – chapters 1-25 – has the prophet declaring that it was because of the systems and the institutions themselves, that the nation collapsed. In other words, it was their own fault for focusing on their own glory, for idolizing themselves rather than keeping God’s covenant. No wonder Jeremiah was unpopular. No wonder he felt persecuted. People did want to kill him. Because no one wants to hear that kind of truth.
And so many people stop here with Jeremiah because so many people know that nostalgic impulse – that sense of identity that comes from knowing where we’ve been and who we’ve been and to mourn it when it no longer seems to be the way things are. And so most people don’t read Jeremiah as a book of hope.
This overwhelming desire humans have to stay where we are and where we’ve been, is a theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. To keep ourselves in a place, connected to an identity associated a way of life that we’ve come to know, even when that way of life is no longer in service to God.
Moses led people in the wilderness for 40 years for a reason. It didn’t take them 40 years to find Canaan. It took them 40 years to be ready to enter Canaan because that’s approximately how long it took for most of those who left Egypt to die off. It was their offspring who were ready to enter the Promised Land. It was those who barely remembered Egypt who were able to enter the Promised Land. Because they had no sense of nostalgia. They had nothing to prevent them from seeing the Promised Land for what it was – a new home, a new way of life.
But where Jeremiah really gets interesting is right about here – today’s reading. The entire second half of the Book of Jeremiah talks about a new covenant. It talks about God’s promise being found, not in a glorified way of life, but in our very hearts.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah… And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord… The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel AND the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke… But this is the covenant that I will make… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they [need to teach about me… because they will know me.]
Our heart is the very seat of our identity, not a place or an institution or a way of life encoded in a list of rules or a social system. Our beating heart is who we are because God designed this center of intelligence to be the point of connection between people.
We know who we are because we are in relationship with one another – we come to know who we are in our interactions with the people in our lives. Without others, we would cease to know ourselves at all. Without a Thou, there is no I.
It’s why there are petitions tying to abolish the practice of solitary confinement in prisons. It’s why stories of feral children, who, from toddlerhood, are left alone, develop no sense of identity, no concept of self. Extreme isolation stops the connection and destroys the soul.
Our heart is where we discover that a “thou” exists. And as I connect to the Thou, I learn who I am. This is why scripture tells us that God’s covenant must be written on our hearts. Because our heart tells us who we are so it’s the location where the work of faith is most deeply engaged.
Not a blind faith in which we surrender our identity and sense of self unquestioningly. Not a faith that submits without will to lie down, taking no agency in a cruel world, taking no responsibility for the lives of others, shrugging our shoulders to say, “it must be the Will of God” without gratitude or care for the creation of which we are a part.
This faith that’s engaged in the heart acknowledges that we are God’s and we are separate from God. Moving between two points on a continuum, praising God in times of abundance and lamenting God’s absence in times of pain. And it can happen in different periods of our lives over years or it can happen in the space of a heartbeat.
It is this deep engagement with God, this wrestling with God that is required of us as the Body of Christ. Indeed, the name “Israel” means “to struggle with God, to wrestle with God.”
A covenant that is written on our hearts is one that is about identity, our whole identity – and our real identity, is that we belong to God. It’s that simple. We belong to God. We are God’s beloved, holy, children. Fully loved in all our brokenness and glory. This is Jeremiah’s hope – that we will know this and act in faith in response to it.
The Reign of God has no borders, no nations, no particular or comforting way of life, no institutions, no way of keeping score. The Reign of God is, what Martin Luther King Jr called, the Beloved Community:
In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. King said: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [human beings].”
This is the new covenant that is written on our hearts – where we know God so intimately that loving God and loving neighbor is really just one and the same. Because in loving God so completely, we learn to see with God’s eyes, the beauty and the exquisite, luminous, vulnerable truth that is one another. And when we see that, we see ourselves and our own luminous truth more clearly. Without the Thou, there is no I.
We stop putting up borders because we hear the call to open our heart over and over and over again. Our dream is no longer one of our own glory, our own preferences and needs, but we begin to dream God’s dream and we begin to live in service to that dream.
Our identity ceases to be one that is wrapped up in a place or a way of life that no longer serves God’s purpose and so our will to act falls in line with a higher purpose, a higher calling – that of the Beloved Community and its welfare.
From today’s collect: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name…that your Church may be dedicated to your dream of the Beloved Community. Amen.
You can read today’s scripture lessons by clicking here.
I was reading a post on FB the other day in which a friend of mine questioned the tendency amongst British clergy to use the term “dog collar” when referring to their clergy collar. He said, “doesn’t that seem demeaning?”
At first I thought about the dryness of British humor. But as I reflected on his question in the face of today’s readings, I realized there is so much more to this – primarily because so many people see this collar as a symbol of power. But today’s letter to Philemon helps us to realize that it’s actually about love.
Paul’s letter to Philemon a problematic text, for sure. For centuries (and still, by some today) this short piece of Christian scripture was used to justify the abhorrent institution of slavery as being, somehow, ordained by God. It’s proof, they say, that Paul supported slavery because he sent Philemon’s runaway slave (Onesimus) back to him. And therefore, there is scriptural precedent that tells us slavery is ok.
There are several ways of interpreting the relationship of Onesimus to Philemon depending upon how you literally you read the text. But the truth is, slavery was a very big part of life in the Roman Empire as it has been in every empire across the history of civilization. And so, it’s referenced frequently in scripture. Biblical scholars argue whether the authors of various scriptural texts actually mean servanthood of some kind when they refer to slavery or if it’s really the ownership of one person by another.
However, the long arc of Judeo-Christian scripture is a story of liberation, of freedom. It’s one that reminds us of our connection to one another and our call to love God by loving our neighbor. So, to me, the idea that slavery is a part of God’s plan is blasphemy and one of the most horrifying examples of an incredibly troubling tendency.
This tendency is humanity’s inclination to focus on the material things of the world, on our temporal existence, projecting what is important to us onto God and conflating what maintains the comfort of our lives with God’s dream for us.
And so, because slavery was important to the maintenance of the way things were in the founding of our beloved country, Christians argued that slavery must have been ordained by God. It’s just the way things have to be. It’s this very tendency to focus on our temporal existence that gets in the way of discipleship, however.
Jesus calls this out in today’s Gospel. He says (greatly paraphrased, of course) “When you want to build a tower, you’re so concerned with losing face that your pride takes precedence over faith in God’s abundance that what you need will be provided. And you’re so concerned with protecting what you think is yours, so concerned with winning that you only ask for peace when you know you can’t win. So, only if you can give up your possessions, will you actually be able to follow me.”
What he’s saying is that we weigh the cost of discipleship in worldly terms. As if we owned our lives and everything in them in the first place. How much can I give of myself but still maintain the life I’ve worked so hard to build, the things I own? How can I follow Jesus and still keep my life.
This, Jesus says, is not discipleship. Because Jesus is asking for our very lives.
Now, I realize stewardship season is fast approaching so I don’t want you to think that this is my way of asking you to give more money. But this is about stewardship. And this is where Paul’s letter to Philemon comes in.
Paul is in prison when he’s writing this letter. It’s clear that he’s writing to Philemon, the head of a house church. And we know from other sources that this church was in the city of Collosae, one of the largest cities in Asia Minor and a center for trade. Philemon is assumed to have been wealthy and the head of a large household with many servants, one of them being a man named Onesimus.
The letter explains that Onesimus hurt Philemon by leaving him – whether that’s in monetary terms or in personal loyalty we don’t quite know. And Paul asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus.
But more than that, to go beyond duty and take him back as a brother instead of a servant. It’s not just the restoration of the relationship, but the birth of a new relationship in Christ.
Paul says, “… though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love..” Paul points out that it is, indeed, our Christian duty to forgive one another. And when we are able to offer forgiveness, not from a sense of duty, but from a place of love, something deeper happens.
We loose one another from the bindings of shame and hurt and pain, not just restoring the relationship, but reconciling us to God through one another by becoming brothers and sisters.
Forgiving a debt can be hard to do. It can also be hard to accept such forgiveness. And not just money, but gifts and favors and simple gestures of love. We want payback, a return on our investment, tit-for-tat… or vengeance on those who wronged us.
Or, if we are conflict avoidant, we just get resentful until the score is even. And before we know it, we’ve created a transactional economy in our relationships. You take from me, I take from you. You give to me, I give to you.
But transactional economies are always about power – who’s indebted to whom and the mistaken belief that we own the resources we have and we must protect them. And, to some extent, this is valid… we cannot be everything for everyone so we must have some boundaries and we do have to be smart with how we use our resources and maintain a sense of equity in our relationships.
But, although we are called to be good stewards of our resources, we are just that… stewards, not owners. And stewardship is a very different thing than ownership.
Stewardship acknowledges that there is something bigger and wider and deeper than myself to which all of this belongs – all of this worldly goodness – the things we buy, the places we go, the air we breathe, the water we drink. To think that anyone actually owns any of it is folly.
As our Ash Wednesday service tells us, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Because there is no ownership, except in God. So, what exactly do we think we’re protecting when we shut ourselves down? What kind of power do we think we are exerting when we refuse to forgive?
This is why Paul talks about love over duty. It may be our Christian duty to forgive, but until we are able to release ourselves and that other person from the binding of that hurt, until we can surrender to love, we will never be truly free.
This is hard work but it is the most fruitful work we can ever do in our lives. And this is the cost of discipleship – to give up our hurts and our pain and all the ways in which we think we need to keep other people bound to us.
Setting ourselves free by setting other people free is what is means to be a disciple. And this begins in love. A love that is not localized but that flows through us – so that when this person hurts us, we still know we are loved and are able to love because that person loves us – and this knowledge gives us strength to offer love to this person despite being hurt by them.
And when we practice this, we start to realize that love extends even beyond this borrowed strength. That because we are wholly and ferociously loved by God, we are able to love ourselves enough so we can stop seeking to be loved in particular ways by other people.
We stop needing to be special or smart or good or stylish or well-off. We forgive ourselves for all the ways in which we think we are undeserving of love and we become released from the tyranny of our own lesser angels.
We begin to understand that love is not, nor was it ever something that can be contained or owned or enslaved, but it must be shared in order to be experienced at all.
And this is when we become a servant of love. This is when we, like Paul, become a prisoner of Jesus the Christ.
This opening of our heart is how we give our lives. It is the cost of our discipleship.
And so I return to the FB conversation about dog collars. This collar, to me, is an icon of love, not a symbol of power and so I find nothing demeaning about calling this collar a dog collar because I find nothing demeaning about being a servant of love.
On the contrary, if I could ever truly manage to surrender myself to the God of Love… I would be more free than I could ever imagine.
An aboriginal elder named Lilla Watson has worked toward reconciliation in her native Australia for decades helping to reclaim the culture of aborigines and working to restore their rights in the aftermath of British colonialism. She offers one of the most beautiful quotes about our entangled lives as God’s creatures:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
So often I hear hospitality used to describe something we offer to another for their benefit. Being hospitable seems to be synonymous with being gracious and kind to someone who is in need – perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of a sense of duty.
“We have much, so let us share our good fortune with those who are less fortunate.”
And this is valid. It has merit. So many of us do have a lot to be thankful for and, therefore, a lot to give… even, sometimes, when we don’t have a lot to share. And when we are generous, we are often rewarded with an equally gracious thank you and a warm feeling that we have just done good in the world, even if it’s a small thing. And for those of us who have been on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity, it can sometimes be embarrassing, but mostly it’s just overwhelming to be offered kindness when we are most in need. It can bring us to our knees.
But I think there is more to hospitality than this because hospitality is not simply about “giving.” Hospitality is about bring in real relationship with another, which is a very different thing than simply being generous. Hospitality isn’t about giving from our abundance so that others are cared for. Or about offering a comfortable Martha Stewart-like space.
Hospitality is about the willingness to be changed by another’s presence, the belief that just as I have something to offer to another, that person has something to offer me. Not as a transaction. No. But out of the belief in one another’s holiness.
Sometimes when I’m preparing a sermon, I walk around in my office in a form of prayer past the ridiculous number of books I have until my eyes land on something that, I hope, will give me insight into the passage. Yesterday when I was praying, I picked up a book called Living Gently in a Violent World. I sat down and opened it to a random page. Surprisingly, today’s passage from Luke was right there. That never happens so I took it as a sign that I was supposed to use it.
One of the book’s authors, Jean Vanier, is the founder of something called the L’Arche Community. L’Arche started in France, the word meaning “arch” in English. L’Arche communities in the United States“provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries.”
And in this book I picked up, Vanier claims that today’s Gospel is a foundational text for the L’Arche communities… because he believes this text gets to the essence of what it means to be in relationship to another – relationships that will transform society by transforming one another.
Luke’s Gospel is full of passages in which Jesus brings light to the shadows of our practices and institutions. A few weeks ago, I offered a portrait of Jesus as a rabble rouser, someone who went to Jerusalem to teach, gather crowds, create disorder and agitation as a means of shining light onto the unjust systems of power that marginalize and divide.
And here, Jesus brings this Christ light again and shines it on the elitism of the Jewish hierarchy.
Jesus is in the house of one of the Pharisees (the sect of Judaism most insistent on ritual laws and sanctity) and they are watching him closely (so he’s already irritated them and they’re just looking for a reason to call him out) and it’s the Sabbath.
What is missing from this passage (verses 2-6) is that Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath (in direct opposition to Jewish practice), challenging the Pharisees while doing so, to which they offer no reply, only silence.
And then Jesus shines light onto their table practices – practices of pride and superiority, of elitism and exclusivity – and offers a different understanding of what the Table is for:
“He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The Last Supper by Raoef Mamedov
In other words, invite those who you look down upon, who would give you nothing in return, who you would rather not acknowledge… invite, not so that you might feel good about yourself or even because it’s the right thing to do, but invite because you expect to be transformed by their presence.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine a Table like that? Can you imagine inviting the people who drive you crazy? The people who are least like you? The ones with no social status, no table manners, no home? Can you imagine inviting someone without the expectation of gratitude, without the desire for reciprocity?
From the homeless person who shows up in our garden, to the new family who joins us for
The Gentile Embrace by Johan Andersson
worship. From the Interim Music Director who comes to help us for a time, to the person who speaks too harshly to the person who is always kind to the friend who has moved away. From the parts of ourselves we most want others to know to the parts of ourselves we never want anyone else to find out about.
Last Supper by Bohdan Piasecki
From all the parts of God’s creation we enjoy and revel in most to the pieces of God’s creation we fear and would rather not acknowledge… the Table of Reconciliation insists that it all belongs.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
This is the essence of hospitality – about seeing the other person as holy, not disadvantaged. About anticipating friendship instead of anticipating need. About welcoming transformation rather than fearing change.
Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today says: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
Behind this instruction is the assurance that the boundaries we create between ourselves and the other are false boundaries – that when one person is in prison a part of us is in prison, when one person is being tortured, a part of us is being tortured.
And this mutual love comes through hospitality, the willingness to be changed by another to be responsible for one another. These angels we entertain are those who bless us in some way with their presence when we open our hearts to be in relationship with them, to be changed by them.
So, when we see another who we deem as needy, who we have determined is somehow disadvantaged… the reason we offer hospitality is not, “there but for the grace of God go I”… the reason we offer hospitality is because, as Lilla Watson says, our liberation is bound up together.
This is what Jean Vanier and the L’Arche Communities across the world teach us – that mutuality is key in our care for one another because this is the essence of friendship.
And this is what it means to come to the Table together – that all of Creation is reconciled to one another in mutuality, that nothing and no one is left out. Everything belongs.
Hospitality isn’t about being nice. Hospitality is about being open to transformation. It’s about choosing love despite the sometimes very real experience of fear, and offering that love as an opening to new life through a new relationship.
The Table of Reconciliation that Jesus offers us in the Gospel, indeed, this Table of Reconciliation where we gather every week, is a place where everyone and everything belongs.
All of our fears and hopes. All of our homelessness and disease.
All of our faults and gifts. All of our selves and all of our neighbors.
All. All. All.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
You can read today’s scripture passages by clicking here.
Sometimes hope isn’t all that comforting. Believe it or not, Jesus, in his pronouncement of division and fire, is offering hope.
When we get to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for quite a while. Although the city was subsumed in the enormity of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem was the seat of power among the Jews. It had been for centuries – since King Solomon took the Ark of the Covenant and entombed it in the first Temple. But several centuries later, when Jesus was living, what remained was a Jewish hierarchy who was kowtowing to the Roman oppressors to maintain their own power while the Jewish people remained subjugated. It was an unjust system.
And Jesus went to Jerusalem, knowing that to bring his teaching in the midst of the hierarchy, would be confronting systemic power. All the Gospel writers talk about his trip to Jerusalem in one way or another, recognizing it as a politically subversive act.
His teachings came out of the Hebrew Scriptures – writings filled with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Hosea and Amos and, like today’s, Isaiah. And these prophets had been constant critics of the powers that be – reminding the Israelite leadership of their responsibility for the weak and the oppressed and how disappointed God was because they failed to live out God’s covenant, becoming too invested in maintaining the system of power at the expense of those it subjugated.
Centuries later, Jesus saw the same thing happening in his time – the Jewish leadership and Roman overlords, who were responsible for looking after the good of the people, were more interested in maintaining power than in caring for the whole. So he went to challenge the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, which he knew would also upset the Roman governor. And he also knew he was taking his life in his hands in doing so.
While he was there, he taught and gathered crowds, creating disorder and agitation and he broke Jewish laws, flouting the Jewish authority. Jesus and his disciples were, to put it bluntly, rabble rousers. And he was executed for it.
So when we have Jesus in today’s Gospel, talking about division and fire, it’s important to understand the context. He was talking about exposing and tearing apart the existing human system because it had become oppressive. It had become sinful.
For those who were invested in the system, this didn’t sound like hope. It sounded like division and so he named it as such. Human systems are a natural part of our functioning because we are inherently social creatures. Clubs, social groups, networks, teams, workgroups, communities. Remember the 80’s television show Cheers, about a place where “everybody knows your name.”
We feel supported by these communities and circles of friends. We feel cared for and invited and we have a sense of group identity. It’s human nature to form tribes, to form cohesive groups where we can feel safe, feel seen, feel as though we belong. And these tribes develop rules of behavior, whether they are written or unwritten, patterns that order the society of the group that help us to know how to act.
More often than not, however, this desire for systemic community can develop into a tribalism, a need to protect and defend the tribe from influence that seems foreign or that seems to threaten the status quo in some way.
Inevitably, the system starts to function at the expense of others – people are stifled or left out, seen as expendable in some way, even treated with disdain, oppressed or killed.
Even still, the rules of the tribe become an entrenched pattern that is unquestioned – the air in which we breathe. We just accept the rules of institutions and the laws of governments and the cultural expectations of society and they become so much a part of the way things are that, over time, we are unable to see that there is anything but this way of being.
But those with the privilege of belonging usually aren’t going to risk upsetting the tribal rules that order the community even if they were able to see what it does to others. Because the way things are is just the way things are.
There’s a movie called Babe. One of my very favorite movies. It’s about life on a small sheep farm. The creatures on this farm have all learned the deal – they know their purpose and have ordered life accordingly.
Only dogs and cats are allowed in the house.
The dogs think the sheep are stupid and the sheep think the dogs are bullies.
Farmer Hogget and his wife are the bosses of the whole thing.
And, of course, some animals are meant to be eaten.
And then a young pig named Babe comes along. The mama dog named Fly takes Babe under her care and Babe begins to learn what it’s like to be a sheepdog, which is unusual because pigs don’t hang out with sheepdogs and they certainly aren’t supposed sleep in the barn or go in the house. And Babe comes to find a place in the life of the farm, despite the system that says pigs are meant to be eaten.
But the wheels begin to come off the wagon when Farmer Hogget starts to see Babe acting like, well, like a sheep pig. Babe begins to look after the sheep like a sheepdog would and, with a little coaching from Fly, learns how to help Farmer Hogget with his sheep.
Babe is no longer Christmas dinner. Babe is a sheep pig.
Well, the idea of a sheep pig sends the farm into chaos – the cat gets jealous and whispers words of fear, the older dog gets angry because he’s lost his place as the boss’s trusted sidekick and he starts to attack, the sheep get a little confused but are ultimately happier because Babe doesn’t bully them the way the dogs do, and Mrs. Hogget starts to think her husband is deeply disturbed and becomes embarrassed among her friends.
This story, this parable, if you will, is a much gentler version of our readings today. Because it’s about how when we unveil an unjust system for what it is, it can feel as though the wheels are falling off the wagon. Even though it’s hopeful, it can feel like division.
From Isaiah: When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Isaiah is saying God will remove favor and let Israel destroy itself because Israel offered bloodshed instead of justice and suffering instead of righteousness.
The prophets believed that the ancient Israelites had incurred God’s wrath because they had failed God by failing the covenant they made with God to care for the whole of God’s people. Power was used to maintain the system of privilege in Israelite society instead of honoring the God of life by caring for the alien and the neighbor, which is explicitly called for in Jewish law.
In his book called Reality, Grief, and Hope, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says: “The prophets expose the ideology-enthralled regime of Jerusalem as failing in covenantal, neighborly practice… [this involves] both an indictment and a sentence. It will not surprise that the indictment basically concerns two matters, the abuse of neighbors, especially vulnerable neighbors, and the dishonoring of God.”
His point is, that in Israel’s understanding of itself as God’s chosen people, it has created a human system in which “the dominant culture [had], in its chosenness, failed to love neighbor and so has failed to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.” (pgs 19-20)
And when this is pointed out… when the system is exposed for its tribalism, its sin, its failure to uphold the covenant, the wheels fall off the wagon. Just like they did on Farmer Hogget’s farm.
People get jealous and whisper words of fear.
People get angry and attack the perceived problematic element.
People get confused and unsure how to handle the shifts and changes, even if they benefit from them.
And people become embarrassed to be associated with the person who is willing to take the risk.
It feels like division… like: Father against son and son against father Mother against daughter and daughter against mother…
But really… it’s a form of unveiling. And, ultimately, it’s hope.
The veil is being pulled back as problems with the system are revealed. And this is what Jesus had come to Jerusalem to expose.
He’s shining the light of Christ on the shadow of the system.
He’s telling us that the Gospel, the Good News, is that the Christ light that shines through the darkness of the world, the darkness generated by the very systems we created and in our blindness and, sometimes, willful ignorance, perpetuate to ensure our own power, our own status quo remains intact.
This is a hard, hard thing to understand and tolerate and even harder to appreciate and welcome. Because for the people of privilege, for the people who have never had to tolerate oppression or marginalization by the power structures, it feels like loss. It feels like all the values we’ve ever held dear are now being dishonored. And we feel dishonored and threatened.
And even for the people of no privilege, it feels confusing and risky… almost like “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” And we know we’ll be blamed for the resulting chaos on Hogget’s Farm.
But the Gospel is very clear that Jesus came to liberate, to expose and overturn unjust systems.
From Mother Mary’s announcement of her pregnancy in Luke’s Gospel in which she understands her role as the lowly servant who has been asked to bear such a honor, saying “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and… brought down the powerful from their thrones.” (Luke 1:46-55)
To the Beatitudes in which Jesus claims the weak, the poor, the oppressed… are blessed along with those who seek peace and offer mercy. (Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26)
To Jesus’ insistence on flouting the Jewish rules against eating with the outcasts and consorting with lepers. (Luke 5: 27-32; 7:36-50; 14: 12-14; 17:11-19; 19:7-10)
All the way to his death, a highly political death in which the powers that be were attempting to keep the rabble rousers in their place by executing the one who risked his life because he exposed the sin of the system. (Luke Chapter 23)
Jesus, our savior and messiah, taught us that the light Christ shines in the world, shines so that we might see the dark shadows of our own systems… and see through our own jealousy and anger and confusion and embarrassment. Christ’s light shines so that we can bring our fears into the light and see a new way – a way we might reform the system or, even, let the system die.
And, as disquieting as it is, Jesus is reminding us of our own hypocrisy, noting our preference to remain comfortable rather than interpret what’s happening as a call to our own transformation.
A few weeks ago, I reminded you all that we are the hope – the Body of Christ who so earnestly seeks to find the image of God in one another. Hope lies in our hands and feet and hearts and minds.
What is being unveiled right now? What are the signs we’re being called to interpret? Where is Christ’s light shining on the shadows of our unjust human systems?
Because Jesus reminds us today that hope isn’t about our own comfort, our individual desires and the things we want out of life.
Today’s story from Luke is a bit tricky. Jesus is asked by “someone in the crowd” to be the arbiter in a brotherly dispute over inheritance. It’s a prayer, really.
There’s a saying in the church – Lex orandi, lex credendi.
It’s Latin. And it roughly translates to: how we pray, is how we believe.
It points to the importance of worship and prayer in forming what we believe about God.
And here we have a man in the crowd who is, essentially, praying to Jesus. And so, this is a bit of a tricky passage.
On the one hand, we can understand the plight of the one who cries out for help… wouldn’t we feel the same if we were cut out of the family inheritance? Wouldn’t we want to see justice done? Wouldn’t we want to appeal to a wise judge to get what we believe to be fair? And don’t we expect Jesus to be just that kind of judge – someone who preaches “love your neighbor as yourself”? Wouldn’t we expect him to be that kind of savior? That kind of messiah? The one who will save us by doing our bidding?
But he doesn’t take it on. Jesus resists the role of champion to this man’s plea. He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” He tells the man, “no.”
This passage is clearly about greed and about how we can all get sidetracked by the trappings of the culture around us, so much so that we put more faith in the things that will make our lives feel easier so we can “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” than putting our faith in God.
And we do this to such an extent sometimes that our prayers look kind of like this man’s who yells from the crowd: “God, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But this passage is about more than just greed. It’s about how we try to conform the world to our desires, our needs, our expectations.
Lex orandi. Lex credendi. How we pray is how we believe.
Jesus refuses because he perceives this man has a skewed understanding of life – that it’s not about what we can obtain, but is about what we are already given. It’s not about making the world conform to our own needs and desires, it’s about opening up to how we can help one another in our lives together.
It’s about the Reign of God.
How do we pray? What do we pray for?
Do we pray? Do we offer prayers?
And how does this practice of prayer reflect or inform our belief about God?
It’s curious, the things we expect God to provide us. The things we expect God to do for us. The things we expect God to be for us.
What we don’t often realize about ourselves, is that we are theologians. All of us are theologians. Because we all have a way in which we’ve defined God, defined our relationship with God. Sometimes, however, we aren’t given too much opportunity to reflect on it and put words to it. So, I’m going to ask you to do that now.
Take a few moments and reflect… What are your expectations of God?
When you pray, what do you pray for?
How do you participate in that prayer?
You don’t have to share this reflection with anyone. Just try to be as honest as you can with yourself.
What do you expect in your relationship with God?
How do you expect God to treat you? How do you expect God to treat others? How do you pray?
Now, take a few more moments and consider how this shapes your belief in God. What does your prayer life tell you about what you believe about your relationship with God?
This is the work of theology. Whenever we take the time to reflect on our relationship with God. When we take the time to name it and express it… we are being theologians.
It’s not always easy to accurately describe our relationship with God – God is hard to define and, is therefore a mystery to us in many ways. And it’s also not always easy to admit our deepest beliefs. But it’s important to reflect on our own theology for three reasons:
So that we can be more clear with ourselves about our relationship with God. Taking the time to reflect on and articulate our theology is integral to our faith. And know that it’s not a done deal. As we learn and grow as human beings, God expects us to continue to grow and mature in our own faith.
So that we come to be more appreciative of this process in others, knowing that not everyone is going to believe the same things about God that we do. And, most importantly, the fact that someone believes something else doesn’t diminish our own faith.
So that we can give voice to our beliefs and talk about our faith with others and come to understand one another more deeply. Not trying to get them to conform to your expectations, but, instead, wondering what can you learn from them and how we can accompany each other on our journey in faith.
None of this is easy. Because all of this is deeply personal. And it can make us feel anxious to share it because sharing our faith is a vulnerable thing.
I was speaking to a woman who is a therapist here in Kingston the other day. She was telling me that she’s witnessing a dramatic rise in anxiety right now. She sees it in the organizations she works with and in the stories she hears from individuals and how they are interacting in their families and at their workplaces and in relationships with one another. I don’t know if you can feel it too. I know I can.
And when we feel anxious, we tend to pull inward with concern for our own needs and desires. And we look for other people who have the same needs and desires, like-minded people. We try to get others on our side and end up creating division as we look for the people or the person to blame for our anxiety.
And right now, our national political climate is pretty toxic. We listen to news reports and all we hear is that our country is divided or we see things changing that make us uneasy or we get discouraged from too much action or a lack of action. This heightened anxiety is effecting just about everything right now.
Jesus’ refusal in today’s Gospel reading is a helpful reminder about this anxiety. Because it makes us more aware of how and when we do this ourselves – how and when we try to make the world conform to our own needs and desires. How, sometimes, we let anxiety get the better of us.
He goes on to say, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ And this is exactly what happens. When anxiety is pulling us inward and we start making demands that the world conform to our own personal needs and desires, our very soul is on the line. Our life is being demanded of us.
And it’s why taking the time to be reflective is important. It’s why worshipping in community helps. It’s why bringing yourself to the Table of Reconciliation is crucial.
It opens us up when we feel scared. It restores our unity with one another when we feel divided. It returns us to God. Because how we pray is how we believe.
We belong to a church – the Episcopal Church – that not only tolerates but embraces a wide range of theology. And we honor these differences in one another, learning from one another and coming to know God more deeply as our own personal faith changes and matures. As a community, we extend graciousness to one another rather than expecting others to conform.
This isn’t a church that tells you what you are supposed to believe. This is a church that helps you ask and reflect on your own questions about God so that you might deepen your own faith as a member of a diverse community.
And I love to have conversations with people about what they believe, not so I can convince them to believe what I believe. That would be folly. The reason I love to have those conversations is because it is my sincere joy to help people find the next question on their journey of faith. To help people deepen their faith so that their lives are less and less governed by fear – the fear that leads us to try to make the world conform to our needs and expectations… and more and more opened by love.
So that we might glimpse the Reign of God.
But really… I love to have these conversations because I learn from you. My faith is deepened and challenged and opened up. My relationship with God is clarified and obscured at the same time. I am always changed by conversations about faith.
So, even though these conversations make us feel vulnerable and anxious, if we remember that the Reign of God is wider, more inclusive than anything we could imagine, we might be able to walk alongside one another instead of needing to have our desires met.
Our unity is not found in thinking alike.
Our unity is found in diversity coming to the Table of Reconciliation together.
Because what divides us is not the fact that we all have different ways of seeing things. What divides us is not that we all have different theologies and different needs and desires. What divides us is not that we look differently and love differently and live differently.
What divides us is when we see division where none truly exists. There is no other in the Reign of God. Everyone belongs. Everyone belongs. How we pray is how we believe
Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
In our story, Jesus has arrived at the tomb of his beloved friend Lazarus. He’s visibly shaken, weeping. His friends Mary and Martha are upset. Mary, blaming him for not being there in time. Martha, intractable and calmly fixed on the fact of death. A scene from any family when death claims a member.
But it gets weird. Even for the Bible, it gets weird. Because Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And this is where people try, desperately, to make sense of what Jesus does – focusing on Jesus instead of what Jesus is revealing to us. Which is what usually happens with miracle stories – we get focused on the question of, “how did he do that?” instead of the question, “what does it mean?” So, what is John trying to help us understand in this story? There are a few things about this scene that I think might help us.
First, Jesus and Lazarus are not alone. So, this isn’t about Jesus and Lazarus. Not only are Martha and Mary present, but the community of Jews is with them. And they are not just bystanders in this drama, they are players. They came out to greet Jesus with Mary. They are weeping. They lead Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb. They share opinions about why Jesus weeps. They take away the stone. And they unbind Lazarus.
Another noteworthy piece is that Lazarus isn’t resurrected because of his faith. Lazarus is resurrected because of the community’s faith, as articulated by Martha earlier on in the chapter. “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” Jesus doesn’t come to the tomb because of Lazarus’ faith. He comes because the community believes and seeks his help. And Lazarus is healed, he is brought back to the community, because of the faith of the community, not because of anything Lazarus has done or said.
Finally, Jesus isn’t claiming credit here. After the tomb is opened, Jesus prays to God. Jesus thanks God, he praises God. And he says, “I want them to believe that you sent me.” Jesus wants them to believe so they know that this is about God, not him.
It’s the community. And it’s God. Jesus’ role here is to reveal the power of both – the power of believing and the power that is the glory of God.
Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
What does it mean to “believe?” Does it mean that if we truly believe, Jesus will save us? If we truly believe, we’ll get into heaven when we die? If we truly believe, God will give us what we want? What does it mean to believe?
Belief is a tricky word. It can refer to a statement or a doctrine – a belief we have or profess, such as a creed – the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, or a little later when we renew our baptismal vows we will say corporately what it is we believe. These are statements or affirmations of what we take to be true about how God works in our lives. So, they are about what we acknowledge as truth.
Which is close to another definition of belief – assertions of that which we know to be real or known to us in some way. We believe in the existence of something or in the power of something to have an impact in our lives. I believe in love. I believe in Santa Claus. I believe I shall have some more chocolate. Belief is a way of hoping, of anticipating an experience of something or someone.
There’s still another definition of “belief” and it has to do with Glory. Have you ever said to someone else, “I believe in you.”? Or has someone else said that to you? “I believe in you.” It’s a powerful thing to say and it’s a powerful thing to hear someone saying it to you.
“I believe in you.”
It fills the hearer with a confidence, a poise. When someone says that to us, we feel connected to another. We don’t feel alone anymore. We feel a part of something. We belong because someone sees us. Someone has taken the time to know us.
Aside from the words, “I love you.” the words, “I believe in you.” might be the most important we could ever hear from another.
So, what are we saying when we say, “I believe in you.”?
It’s more than trust. It’s more than confidence in getting something done.
It’s about recognizing someone’s belovedness, someone’s Glory, asserting someone’s inherent magnificence. And when we do so, we’re recognizing God’s Glory as manifest in this beautiful person in front of us, affirming this person as a beloved child of God.
It’s similar to the Hindu greeting, “Namaste”, which roughly translated means “The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you.” Glory acknowledges Glory. It’s a way of praising God and the word of God in this child of God.
And it’s a way of conquering death. When we recognize someone’s inherent Glory, it’s as if they borrow our belief in them. They believe in themselves and take themselves to be real. And they begin to move and think from a place of their own goodness and their own wholeness and they recognize the goodness and wholeness of others, inviting them to see God’s Glory too. And we become one another’s saints – living beyond our own death.
Take a moment. Think about a time when you were really seen for who you are. Think about that person who told you that they believed in you… even if they didn’t use the exact words, “I believe in you” but you knew from what they did and what they said that they did believe in you, possibly when you needed to hear it most. Think about them for a few moments.
This person will never die. Their belief in you will never die because it is the very part of them that animated you, that brought you to life. You carry that life and you pass that life along by believing in another. This how we bear witness to the Glory of God. This is the Communion of Saints.
Jesus doesn’t raise Lazarus so that Lazarus will live in his physical body forever. Lazarus will die again. His body will cease to breathe. His heart will cease to beat. Just like every other body – including Jesus’.
Jesus raises Lazarus so that the community might come to understand God’s Glory in the incarnate creation. And this Glory comes through the Love of the community who bring God’s presence to Lazarus. These people love Lazarus. Jesus loves Lazarus because God loves Lazarus.
It is because this community loves that it knows eternal life.
It is because this community believes in one another that it calls forth God’s Glory in one another.
It is because this community lives, truly lives, that God’s Hope is made manifest and the Incarnation is real.
When Marianne Williamson says , “Your playing small does not serve the world.” it’s not some happy-clappy, boost in the arm to make us feel better, like that Saturday Night Live sketch with Stewart Smalley where he says in the mirror, “I’m good enough and doggone it, people like me.” It’s not that because you can tell that the character doesn’t really know his true Glory. He’s grasping, as if he’s trying not to die.
When Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world,” she is making a profound theological statement – perhaps the most important piece of Christian theology and, therefore, one of the most central Christian lessons we could ever hope to impart.
And that is: You are a beloved child of God created and designed for no other reason than to show forth God’s Glory. You are God’s holy creation. The Incarnation is real.
When we say “I believe in you,” when we offer that to one another, when we believe in one another, when we show that belief…
We offer the freedom of eternal life because we remind one another that no matter what we have done or how bad or wrong or useless or helpless we think we are, there are no boundaries to God’s Love.
There are no borders that Jesus cannot cross. There is no way to contain God’s Holy Spirit. We are, quite simply, bearers of God’s Glory. We are luminous, beloved creatures who belong wholly to God.
This, more than anything else, is the mark of Christian community. This love, this belief, this freedom is what makes us Christian and it’s what makes us saints – a Communion of Saints. Jesus is already always present in the community that loves and calls forth God’s Glory in one another.
And we need this community because we get lost from time to time. We get lost in our own pain. We get caught in the snare of our own false belief of unworthiness. We get bound up in our own disdain and fear. We forget our Glory and the Glory of others.
And so we do as Jesus commands in the midst of that community.
We remove the stone, the barriers to life, and we unbind them.
Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” “Unbind her, and let her go.”
I love this gospel story. I really love it. But sometimes I think it’s troublesome because we deflect the miracle onto Jesus rather than understand that Jesus is revealing the miracle of belief.
We tend to focus on Jesus as the “do-er” and the miracle maker. We think so much of Jesus that we believe God’s Glory is only limited to his embodiment, his person. But what Jesus is always trying to teach us is that we are integral to the story we tell about God’s Reign. We are the Body of Christ.
We have the power to remind one another. We have the authority to say, “I believe in you.” We have the responsibility to liberate one another, to unbind one another. And we do this by acknowledging and honoring God’s Glory made manifest in ourselves and in one another.
This is what it means to be a saint – to believe in the Incarnation. And offer the miracle of saying, “I believe in you.”
And so Jesus is talking to us just as much as he’s talking to Martha when he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
In gratitude for #blacklivesmatter preached at St Paul’s in Brighton, MI on September 6, 2015. The gospel was Mark 7:24-37.
Jesus entered the region of Tyre. To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory. The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region.
These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with. The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.
And Jesus, for some reason, crosses the border into the region of Tyre. From safety and familiarity into a place of danger and risk in the face of the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them. He was conditioned to fear them.
In the narrative of Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles. We’re halfway through Mark’s story and this is his first time meeting someone who doesn’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.
Why does he do this? Why should he do this? Why should he bother with these people? He’s a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about when he challenges the Jewish hierarchy. His healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation. He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.
Why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing? It’s clear how he feels about this endeavor because the first person he meets, he insults. He encounters a shameless woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.
And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”
A dog. This is a huge insult. Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals. They were not kept as pets or even as working animals. They were scourges and scavengers. They were scum.
Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is scum.
Think about what Jesus is doing here.
Think about how Mark is telling this story.
Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog. He’s calling her scum.
Without thinking, he dismisses her out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God. He doesn’t see her humanity. Her life doesn’t matter.
And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Even my Syrophoenician life matters.”
“My life matters.”
The fear of “the other” comes upon us humans easily and unbidden – when we think someone we love is in danger, when we think we are in danger, when something has gone horribly wrong and we need someone to blame, when we are afraid of losing our way of life, when we feel threatened – whether that threat is real or the result of media buildup.
When we’re scared, suddenly, we find we are nervous around people who don’t look like us, don’t act like us, don’t speak like us. We end up marginalizing others without even realizing we’re doing it. And for people who are marginalized, who have no power, whose lives don’t appear to matter… it’s not only hard, it’s dangerous and brutal and depressing and dehumanizing.
I think about the mass migration of peoples – leaving their family behind, fleeing their own beloved homeland because it’s being torn apart by war as in Syria or extreme poverty as in parts of Latin America. How migration on such an epic scale is never about seeking riches, but about the choice people make to say, “our lives matter” even when they will be strangers in a new land.
And I think about slavery and the buying and selling of human life – the centuries of African slavery that we have yet to recover from, and the slavery of women and children in the sex trade. How we collectively tell people their lives don’t matter by ignoring the situation, ignoring the healing that has yet to take place.
And I think about how our context conditions us, just like Jesus’ did. How our media informs us – that when Trayvon Martin was murdered, the media showed him looking serious in a hoodie instead of standing in front of a propeller plane, beaming with pride when we attended space camp. That when Michael Brown was murdered, the media told us he deserved it because he had stolen a pack of cigars from a convenience store. How the culture tells people their lives don’t matter.
I think about how racism is institutionalized in the criminal justice system and how we are finding more and more evidence of how racism has become entrenched in the cultures of some law enforcement organizations. And how we can become polarized when we talk about this because there are so many good people who are police officers. But if we don’t talk about the problem, it’s really another way of saying, only certain lives matter.
I think about all this – migrations of desperate people, buying and selling of human life, media hype, institutionalized racism, oppressive systems – all of these ways in which one group of people is telling another group of people, “It is not fair for you to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “You are a dog. You don’t matter.”
And here we are in a moment in time in a place, when people who have been shackled and marginalized and dehumanized are standing up and saying “we do matter.” People are saying “black lives matter.” Just like the woman begging Jesus for her daughter’s life.
Jesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human. He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so weighed down by expectations and cultural conditioning.
Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman. And he calls her a dog.
And the Syrophoenician woman says, “But my life matters.” And people are screaming, “But our lives matter!”
The lesson of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorites in the gospel stories because Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is humbled by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders. And it’s what opens him up.
Jesus is never more real to me than in this story. And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing. For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.
You see, something inside of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman. Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him. Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl. When he saw a new reality. When he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear. Both became free.
Can I be that vulnerable? As a white person in this culture, can I be that vulnerable? Can my ears be opened to hear someone telling me “my life matters?” I think what scares me is that no matter how much I learn and how much I think I know there is always going to be something I’m not capable of seeing. There is always going to be a way in which the Holy Spirit is trying to show me something new. Will I be able to respond in compassion? Or will I say “no, your life doesn’t matter”?
The implication here is a challenging one for us to bear because it requires us to be as vulnerable as Jesus was in that moment. It asks us to recognize that we are usually wrong in our certainty.
The implication is that we need one another. It’s that simple.
We need one another. If liberation is God’s desire for us (which I think it is), then either we are all liberated or no one is liberated. Because when I fail to see how another is shackled, when I avert my eyes or refuse to listen to their story because I think I have a better understanding of what’s happening. When I try to tell oppressed and marginalized people how things are, I’m saying to them, “You don’t matter.” “Your life doesn’t matter.” “Only my opinion matters.”
Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberation. Jesus learns that in order for anyone to be liberated, all must be liberated, even and especially those we hold in contempt.
For it is because of this brave woman who humbled him by kneeling before him and claiming that her life matters that Jesus becomes truly free himself. Free of the hatred and fear bred into him by his family and his culture. Free to know the true Love of God that is boundless and borderless.
We need one another. We need people to point to our blind spots and be willing to come to the Table and teach us when we haven’t been paying attention. As a white person, I need to hear what people of color have to say and to learn how to be their ally. I need movements like “black lives matter” to call our attention to my inattentiveness and my fear, my dismissive nature and my privilege.
Because Jesus comes to know, in that moment, that liberation includes all – absolutely everyone. He knows that the messiah is for every life. He knows this because the Syrophoenician woman teaches him that her life matters and he knows he must listen.
In my late 20’s, when I had begun to fall in love with God again, I remember reading Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden. Sagan offers a profound story about our relationship with God and our relationship with one another in his theory of the evolution of intelligence, which I interpret as our way of understanding God’s presence in our lives.
Chapter 1 is called The Cosmic Calendar because it offers a notable series of charts – an attempt to help us grasp the timeline of the universe determined thus far by scientists. If the Big Bang happened on January 1, then the Milky Way began to form on May 1, the Earth formed on September 14, and so on. The most impressive part of this for me is that the first humans don’t appear until around 10:30pm on December 31. Humans are just a small part of the whole thing. Humanity is simply a part of God’s holy creation, not the center of it.
But in our hubris, most humans have read the story of the universe through our own eyes, believing ourselves to be the center of it. This is understandable – we can only tell our own story after all. But there have been and still are faiths and perspectives which have a deeper reverence for the earth, offering a countercultural story to the human inclination toward domination and control brought about by our own fears and desires.
Rather than bemoan our sin of extreme anthropocentrism, focusing on humanity yet again, I wonder what God is doing. Rather than shake my finger at humanity’s vain and hopeless schemes to lay waste to our planet home, I want to know how deepen my reverence for God’s whole creation. Because it is in this that I find hope. It is in finding and experiencing this connection to my own origins in the very elements of this planet, that I am truly able to connect to Christ and empty myself of my own fears and desires.
What it boils down to is this: How might I move more in concert with the whole of creation as if I were a part of it, accepting and trusting in God’s Reign of abundance and grace, rather than believing in scarcity as the inevitable outcome of sin. In other words, can I really believe in the Resurrection?
The Resurrection is the center of our salvation story, as Christians. Because of the Resurrection, we believe (in varying ways) Grace is the final word, not sin. We believe life conquers death. When I ask the question, “What is God doing?” the answer I come to on my better days is, “God is doing life.” I come to this answer because of my Christian beliefs and because of that chart given to me by Carl Sagan. The force of God is always going to be seeking ways for life to thrive because God is the life-force. And while God cares deeply for all of creation, I don’t think God will hesitate to work around humanity’s careless sin. Resurrection happens, despite our best efforts at sin. In the end, God’s will be done.
I find this hopeful. I have faith that God will do whatever needs to be done to ensure that life will continue. And because I see this is what God is doing, I am called to respond. In fact, I am called to repent. If God is the life-force, employing the whole creation, then my response is to know my place in this creation – my part in the Paschal mystery, the bigger mystery of life. Science helps me with this (thank you, Carl Sagan), but so does our tradition.
We have to look no further than our own liturgical year to find a map for this. An intrinsic understanding of and love for God’s cycle of abundance is embedded in how we worship. Liturgy, at its best, is an action that helps us understand God, experience a deeper connection to one another, and offer a way for us to respond to both. As Christians, our most common experience of this is Sunday liturgy – whether that be Eucharist or Morning Prayer or the forms our ecumenical brothers and sisters use.
What if we moved even more deeply into our tradition? We tend to focus on the rest of creation only in the spring when it’s time for planting, when it’s time to use the earth for our benefit. But what if we took advantage of the whole liturgical year to re-mind ourselves of the greater creation? Because, although each Sunday we celebrate our reconciliation with God through Christ, focusing on a single Sunday at a time can get as myopic and unfocused as focusing on humanity as the center of creation.
Our tradition is not devoid of reverence for the whole of God’s creation. Our tradition is much, much bigger than that. It is embedded in an understanding of God that goes far beyond the human story. It begins each year at the Easter Vigil with fire and water, air and earth, as we tell the story of creation and our place in it. And, if we’re attentive, it continues – moving us toward and re-minding us of our connection to the life of the whole planet, indeed the entire universe. Our tradition, our liturgical year, is a map for the Paschal mystery – the reconciliation of the whole creation to God.
Michelle Meech currently lives in Ypsilanti, MI with her dog Bella. She leads meditation retreats, teaches the Enneagram, spends too much time on Facebook, and writes her sermons while listening to trip hop music (easy listening for post-moderns). Michelle is also an Episcopal priest and is humbled to serve as the Ministry Developer in the Diocese of Michigan. You can find her blogging at www.foldedandunfolding.wordpress.com.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”
God speaks and creation responds.
And by some strange coincidence, the sense of hearing is the first sense that develops in us. Sound is the first thing we learn to attend to as we are being formed. It’s the first thing that piques our curiosity.
God speaks and we are called to awaken, to wonder, to behold God.
Chanticleer, the rooster in this lovely painting by James Mangum, calls us awake from our sleep to behold the light, just as every rooster has ever done from the beginning. The sound of the rooster is the sound of the sun rising, a new day, dawn after a long night.
This painting takes its name from a character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Chanticleer is a prideful rooster, convinced of his own virtue, that the sun rises for him. One night, he dreams that a fox will be his downfall and, in his typically self-centered way, goes to his hens for reassurance.
Used to his obnoxious outbursts, they dismiss his dream, soothing him with words of comfort. When he wakes the next day and begins his swagger around the barnyard, a fox is awaiting him. Knowing that phrases of flattery will appeal to the rooster’s vanity, the fox convinces Chanticleer to really perform – to sing the new day into being by throwing his head back, and closing his eyes. Which, Chanticleer does with great delight and self-satisfaction.
And, as you might expect, the fox snatches him, mid-crow, in his mouth. However, as the fox is trotting out of the barnyard with the foolish Chanticleer in his jaw, his own arrogance gets the better of him. Forgetting that his mouth is otherwise occupied, he opens his mouth to taunt the other animals with words of ridicule and derision. And our rooster escapes to a tree branch, out of the fox’s reach.
The story of Chanticleer is poetic, if not ironic, because here we have a rooster who is asleep. The one who is supposed to be waking us all up to behold God’s gift of a new day is the one who is so prideful, so convinced of his own virtue, that he can barely stay alive himself.
How are we so convinced of our own virtue, that we have become deaf to the impact we have on others?
How are we so focused on how someone else is missing the mark, entranced by the voices of our own stories, that we are missing God’s creation of a new day in our own lives?
How are we, instead, called to hear God’s incarnate Word among us? For us?
What is being birthed in us? What are we birthing in ourselves?
The words of Matthew’s Gospel today sound foreboding: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Matthew wrote well after Jesus’ death and after Roman forces had destroyed the Temple. By this time, Paul had done his evangelism and there were pockets of Christ followers all over Asia Minor. But Matthew wasn’t writing to these recently converted Gentiles.
Matthew was writing to a group of Jews who had come to believe Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah they had been waiting for. And that his death had marked the beginning of the end of the world.
They anticipated freedom from this world through their own death or, more precisely, their own entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. They believed that the coming of the Son of Man would be marked by the sun, moon, and stars going dark, and announced by the trumpeting sounds of angels.
This is why Matthew’s words sound so foreboding. Because Matthew and the community of Jews he wrote for, believed the end of the world was approaching.
And… what we know is that the world did not end with the destruction of the Temple. Nor did the world end with the death of Jesus.
Creation did not cease to exist.
The sun rose the next day and has risen every day since.
But just because Matthew’s intended meaning did not come to pass, it doesn’t mean that the Gospel means nothing to us. On the contrary, it means a great deal more to us because creation never ceases to exist.
It means that God’s promise is infinitely more than we have imagined.
It means that God’s hope, for us, is that we hear the call and awaken to this truth – that creation itself is holy and blessed because God is with us, incarnate among us.
Jesus was one of many messiah figures that lived in Palestine in the first century. He developed a following like all the others because he preached about freedom and challenged the Jewish and Roman authorities. But he was different and people were wholly unprepared for the kind of messiah he was.
They wanted him to be a warrior. But, instead, he spoke of love.
They wanted him to raise an army and conquer the oppressor.
But, instead, he healed people with his words.
So, for most Christians, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel has come to mean something other than the literal ending of creation. We have come to understand that the Son of Man Matthew talks about is someone who taught us that the path to salvation is not through worldly means of winning an argument or conquering a foe… but through a spiritual practice of awakening to a new birth inside our own hearts.
We have come to realize that our freedom, the freedom that our Messiah has given us, is one that has nothing to do with political boundaries or beloved buildings or ways of life that we hold dear. Freedom comes to us as we realize the truth of the Incarnation – that creation itself is holy and blessed.
This is why we carry the stories about Mary the God-bearer.
This is how we know God becomes human, and is incarnate among us.
This is why we believe that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega; both before, and always.
The coming of the Son of Man is a promise, not a foreboding threat, a promise that God has blessed the whole creation and we are called to the spiritual practice of expectation, the practice of curiosity – of listening – for new teachings that will help us to become even more deeply present to God’s love.
We are all called to carry Christ and become midwives to new birth in our heart, because we are always becoming, never complete.
When we hear the sound of Chanticleer, our awakening is a call to be more present, more curious to what God is doing, more alive as a part of the blessed creation.
To listen for God’s voice. To be quiet enough, silent enough in this age of cacophony, to attune ourselves to a different frequency. We are called to wake up and look East toward the light that comes unbidden every day – as a gift from God.
God’s promise is a simple one: God speaks and creation responds.
From the beginning of time, the sound of God’s hope and promise for all of creation, forever, is the sound of God’s Spirit moving over the deep and calling all things into being – sun, moon, and stars, earth, winds, and waters; all living things.
Chanticleer and Matthew both tell us that we are always in that moment where we are given a choice to be awake – not to expect others to be awake, but to awaken ourselves, that we may hear the whispers of God’s Spirit and choose them over the stories of pain and fear; that we may listen for the voice of love and respond.
Sue Bonsteel, our deacon at St. John’s, preached on the Sunday after this year’s presidential election. It’s posted as a guest post here because it’s an important piece of preaching. Thank you, Sue, for your witness and your ministry. You can read the lections for the day here.
I learned this week that sermons should never be written when you’re upset. And I confess that I was – and remain – saddened and more than a little worried about the outlook for our country. It took me three tries before settling on these words.
I think we can all agree this is a very trying time for our nation. The future seems bleak at the moment for so many. However we marked our ballots last Tuesday, most aren’t insensitive to the pain around us. It is a time unlike any other in our collective memory. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” seems to be the best advice these days.
I’m aware that there will be some who will hear this sermon as “political.” I’m not sure why “political” is a term ever used to describe a sermon but I suspect it’s because what is preached at times may make some of us anxious or uncomfortable, the way politics can. We hope for sermons that will be thoughtful and scriptural (which they certainly should be). And perhaps we desire sermons that don’t challenge our long-held beliefs. We want to be reminded only of God’s enduring love and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. In difficult times, we want to be reassured that all will be well. I understand. I feel the same way. Yet, I also can’t help but wonder how we often listen to the Gospel on Sundays and still overlook the connection between the important lessons we are being taught and how to live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. The tenets of our faith aren’t debatable. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Looking around our nation these past few days, I think we can agree that few of us have that down perfectly.
A spiritual director once reminded me that faith is not static; it is a living thing; it is dynamic…it’s always in need of strengthening and growth. He suggested that dark times may actually help deepen our understanding of our relationship to God and to one another. The challenge, he said, is to not turn away in fear – or worse, because we don’t care enough – but to welcome the opportunity to grow closer to God and to one another. Perhaps a commitment to a deeper, more mature faith may help us in the days ahead to stand up to those who have distorted the teachings of Christ – those who mistakenly believe they now have permission to denigrate, harass, abuse and defile others.
During turbulent times, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the Son of God was himself seen as a first century political revolutionary. He encouraged his disciples to get riled-up in order to take on societal injustices and to challenge the powers that be. One of the most familiar images we have is of a furious Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, tossing over the tables of the moneychangers. Perhaps, my dear friends, it’s time again for you and I to turn some tables over and raise our voices, just as Jesus did, to be heard above the false prophets around us.
As I struggled with this sermon, I realized that if I didn’t get “political”, it would mean ignoring the pain of millions of our brothers and sisters. Rather than diminish what just happened to our country…to gloss over it with religious platitudes and “feel good” messages, I must speak as a deacon is called to do. And, if there remain any skeptics out there about the appropriateness of this, please check out my job description on page 343 in our Book of Common Prayer. It’s in the ordination rite and reminds the Church that deacons always have one foot in the Church and one foot out in the world, bringing the needs and concerns of the world to the people of God.
You and I don’t live in a bubble and the Church does not want us to. We don’t come to St. John’s to be sheltered from the world around us. We come to St. John’s to worship God and to learn how to live fully as Christian people in the broken world around us. You and I are called to change the wrongs we see and to work with love and compassion and hope in order to create a fair and just world for every one of God’s people. We are the Body of Christ and all shall always be welcome through these doors. ALL. Today it happens to be my job to remind us of this.
In 2001, just days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, I preached from this pulpit about the awful devastation and pain felt by our nation. I remember saying that it was probably too soon for us to be speaking about routine things such as vestry meetings, pledge cards and parish activities. Our country was in shock and the horror of that September day was just beginning to be felt by all of us. I remember speaking about ways we might come together through our prayers and love and support for one another and for our country. I’m sure you recall how people rose to the challenge. We expressed our unity through the hanging of flags on our homes, by donating to special concerts which raised money for the families of those killed, and by seeking out houses of worship as we sought comfort and peace in community as we reeled from the unexpected and horrific event. We needed to be constantly reminded that God was still in our midst. Our relationships to one another were stronger than the terrorists’ desire to tear us apart.
Certainly the election that took place on Tuesday does not compare to the September 11th tragedy. But I discovered this week that the depth of the emotions felt by so many people was as visceral and heartfelt as it was back then. There is real suffering in the lives of our brothers and sisters who now sense a physical and spiritual threat to their very existence. We have already seen shocking post-election images of gay men being beaten on the streets of our cities, parades being organized by the Ku Klux Klan, Muslim college students attacked on their way to classes, graffiti written on walls taunting our African-American brothers and sisters with hateful messages about returning to Africa, high school students in Pennsylvania marching down the hallways carrying political signs and yelling “White Power.” Folks I‘ve spoken to the past few days are inconsolable at the outcome of the election after a cruel and divisive campaign. The hateful and explicit language by a Presidential candidate, the attacks on Muslims, the disabled, Latinos, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, women and African Americans are shameful and as members of the Church, we must publicly denounce them. Yet somehow…someway…enough of us felt that a national leader could still be worthy of the highest office in our land despite his outright racism, coarse and misogynistic language and incendiary threats and lies repeated over and over again. Many Americans went to the polls and chose to look past this for reasons still difficult for so many others to fathom.
One of the most disturbing things about where we find ourselves now is the effect this campaign and election is having on our children. On the morning after the election my daughter sent an email that read, in part: Thomas (who is 8) woke up to the news that we had a new President this morning and asked if I was kidding when I told him who was elected. He had tears in his eyes and said “but he’s mean to women. Is something going to happen to you and Grandma?” Later, at the bus stop, our Muslim neighbors came over with their young son and said “We all need to pray.”
Perhaps you’ve heard similar disturbing statements from the children in your life. Little ones frightened by the rhetoric we adults allowed to continue and – in some cases – laughed at and shared on social media. It’s too late to take it back. But we must take responsibility for it and help reassure our children that they are loved and will be protected from harm, real or imagined. It will take a village to bind up the hurts felt by so many during this contentious election.
And this is where we need to focus our efforts as professed followers of the King of Peace. For we find ourselves in a crucial time to live like we are truly disciples of Christ. We CAN make this better. We HAVE to make this better.
In 2004, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a wonderful book called God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time.” In it he writes that God depends on us always to be our best selves – to be carriers of justice, healing and wholeness in a world that is twisted and torn by hatred, divisiveness, and violence. His own country’s painful experience with apartheid helped shape his understanding of how God can lead humanity to create order out of disorder, peace out of chaos. He refers to the African ideal of ubuntu, (uu-boon-too) which acknowledges that our own well-being is contingent on the health and happiness of those around us. It’s a philosophy that emphasizes a universal bond of sharing that connects all people. Ubuntu (uu-boon-tu) speaks particularly about the fact that we can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It reminds us of our interconnectedness. In other words, I can’t be human all by myself – you can’t be human all by yourself. Tutu suggests that we think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another. But this is simply not true. We are connected and what we do actually affects the whole world. When we do well, it spreads out; it becomes a ripple effect of goodness and generosity and love that is for the whole of humanity. Only then is there hope for a better tomorrow.
The Good Bishop challenges us to work as “God’s rainbow people” and see our suffering neighbors and even strangers around us as part of our family. He asks, “Would we let a member of our brother’s or sister’s family – our relatives – eke out a miserable existence in poverty? Would we let them go hungry or homeless?” Yet, in reality, every 4 seconds someone dies of hunger and three-quarters of these are children under the age of 5. Bishop Tutu argues that if we truly realized that we are family, we would not let this cruelty happen to our brothers and sisters. To see others who may be marginalized in our society as members of our family…makes it much more difficult to turn aside when they are suffering from discrimination, religious intolerance, verbal abuse, physical violence and economic inequality.
Our own Bishops Dietsche, Shin and Glasspool issued a pastoral letter on Thursday which reads in part: “Our election on Tuesday was not what was expected, or at least not what we were led to expect. We discover now the depth and breadth of the rift that divides and separates Americans one from another…these differences, this divide cannot and must not be smoothed over in false hope of an easy reconciliation…the much harder task before…us…is to really listen to one another, to hear another’s pain and fear, to understand one another, and by the God’s grace to find together the deeper hopes and dreams which we all share…this task may be our most urgent work now as a church.”
You and I are God’s agents of transformation in this world. As Bishop Tutu writes: “Without us, God has no eyes; without us, God has no ears; without us, God has no arms. God waits upon us, and relies on us.” Let me say that once more. God relies on us. That’s a big job on good days; it seems overwhelming at a time like this. But being a disciple of Jesus Christ means we have to work harder; to more fully commit ourselves to justice and to peace. For when one member of our family suffers, the entire family suffers.
In the days ahead we have to be willing to be uncomfortable…to be political…to be courageous. To stand with the stranger. To defend those who are made scapegoats. To speak for those without a voice. To protect the innocent. To name the evil for what it is. For once we do that, once we decide to risk it all, we will have finally chosen to leave the darkness of these days behind us and live in the Light.
What is faith?
In today’s gospel, we have the disciples asking Jesus to “increase our faith!”
How often do we find ourselves in that place of needing more faith, needing someone to come along and help boost our moral, give us hope in God, hope in one another?
Taken from the context of today’s readings, we have this poem, this song from the book of Lamentations, which is a bleak lament over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire.
The name Zion is another name for Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the holy of holies, the Temple of God, God’s home on earth. The belief was that when Jerusalem was destroyed or, more specifically, when the Temple was destroyed, so was God’s home. God has left God’s people behind.
It’s a very human experience, to lose a sense of faith. When this is where you find yourself, when you believe that God has left you behind… indeed, where can faith be found?
But what is faith? What is it we’re talking about when we use the word “faith?”
Sometimes we use the word “faith” to describe our set of beliefs. We ask, “To what faith do you belong?” Or we say, “Our faith is outlined in the creed.” But belief is different than faith. Belief is about concepts – like the concept that God’s home is the Temple. Or that God came to live among us in the human form of Jesus the Christ. These are beliefs.
Faith is something much more embodied. It’s an engagement, an assent, an experience of participating in the world. It’s an active curiosity in what God is up to and, so goes beyond anything we could conceptualize, anything we could think of, anything we could imagine in the limited views of our minds.
And this isn’t because our minds are feeble. This is because humans are designed to understand the world through concepts and these concepts are a result of our own context – from the life we’ve lived, from the things around us, from our families and friends, from our work and specific location on this earth.
Faith takes us beyond what we know, beyond what we believe.
So if faith is about things we cannot conceptualize, things we cannot imagine… of course it’s hard. Of course it’s something we need help with. And this is why prayer is so important, why worship in community is important. Worship is a way of opening ourselves up to something new. Asking, what is it God is doing now? Asking, what would God have me do? These are questions of faith.
It’s a sense of risk because we know we are being asked to imagine something new – a new understanding of ourselves, a new understanding of another, a new understanding of God. Faith is a curiosity in God.
What must it have been like for the Israelites to experience that kind of devastation? The destruction of their beloved Jerusalem and the forced exile of Israelites to foreign lands? They believed that they were God’s chosen people and were given this land by God. And this was a deeply held belief in who God is and how God works. The military takeover and the destruction of their holy of holies was utterly devastating.
It’s easy to imagine, actually. If we were invaded by another country and our capital city destroyed, I imagine we would feel as if God deserted us too. It might even shatter our belief in God.
And this is why faith and belief are not the same thing.
It’s why faith is a harder path.
But it’s also why faith always takes us a step further than belief. It’s why faith is ongoing, while belief is often a temporary state.
Faith is the decision to see something else, the decision to expect something new, the decision to set aside our own needs and definitions and concepts, these beliefs that we have, and open ourselves up to see what God is doing in our midst.
I’m not saying that God creates devastation in order to teach us lessons. Devastation happens. Evil exists in this world. But in the midst of our devastation, indeed, even in the midst of our joy… God is always up to something new. And faith is what enables us to follow God’s call into something new.
Because the God of Life is one that will never stagnate, will never die. The God of Life, the God that we worship, always finds a way rise, to grow, to breathe. The God of Life seeks to inspire us to new understandings and new ways of being and in the process can make us mighty uncomfortable.
The long arc of Judeo-Christian scripture is one that demonstrates God’s preference for those who are marginalized by society’s limited beliefs. We are always being asked to see beyond who we think God is, to imagine a different way God may be speaking to us in our own lives.
The God of Life that is spoken about throughout the scriptures is one that is boundless, not limited to temples or national boundaries or governments or churches or religions or beliefs or traditions. Always asking us to be faithful, to be willing to surrender who we take ourselves to be to become who God is calling us to become.
This God of Life reminds us of our call to love because though love growth is nurtured. And this God of Life is one that opens us, that feeds us through our breath. Because breath is life.
Our scriptures tell us just how integral breath is to life. From Genesis: in the beginning God spoke, “Let there be light!” Then God formed humanity from the elements of the earth and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life. Speaking, breathing. The Word of God is not just this written word, it is the incarnate expression of God’s life-giving breath. The Spirit of God – inspiring us as we breathe in this breath of life.
Using our voices in prayer is a way of ensuring we use our breath. Giving voice to the things we care about gives them a life outside of our head, outside of our conceptual understanding of them. It makes them incarnate. Intentional breathing is the most basic, most profoundly nourishing form of prayer because it invites God’s spirit to fill us with new life, new understandings, a renewed faith that helps us see beyond our own limited views of how we think the world works.
How many times are we told by doctors and care workers to take a deep breath? Even if it’s only to assess our lungs and our heartbeat. How often are we told that breathing is a tool for relaxation, that breathing deeply will help to calm us?
Buddhists and Hindus focus on the breath as they meditate and pray. Many Jews believe the word for God – Yahweh – is a word for the breath itself. And one of our members of the Holy Trinity is the Holy Spirit, the word “spirit” having the same root as “inspiration”, both having as its base, the word for breathing – spirare – to breathe.
This breath of God is so intrinsic to our life that, unless we’ve ever had difficulty breathing, we usually take it for granted. And when breathing is only automatic, we become passive in our engagement with it. This air that we breathe gives us the nourishment to live and move and have our being. But more than that, this breathing is prayer, the most important prayer that we have because simply breathing deeply brings new life into our cells. It oxygenates our blood. It calms our fears and literally inspires us.
And it’s why speaking and singing are so vital to our worship of God… because it requires us to breathe more deeply, to take more air into our lungs and stir us. It shifts our breath from passive to active.
I’ve often thought that, perhaps, this is one of the reasons we have had a decline in our religious participation… we’ve increasingly removed ourselves from labor, which requires us to breathe deeply. We don’t walk as much as we used to. We don’t garden as much as we used to. We don’t talk to each other as much as we used to. Instead we use cars and eat prepared foods and communicate through text and email messages. I’m not shaming us for this lifestyle, but I do notice that we can so easily become disconnected from our breath that, when we are asked to breathe deeply we sometimes experience it as an inconvenience rather than a life-giving, heart-nourishing interaction with God.
But this breath is inspiration. This breath is God’s nourishment for us. This breath is God’s Spirit giving us life and offering to us faith in the midst of our own concepts and fears and limitations. Faith is found, not outside of ourselves in leaders and loved ones who please us, but in our active engagement with God’s Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life – breathing deeply in the midst of both devastation and joy to seek out inspiration in our prayers.
Breathing, speaking, singing, inhaling and exhaling, exclaiming and crying, humming and chanting… living. The experience of faith is one that breathes us just as we breathe this life into our blood.
And so, I return to my question – what is faith?
Faith is the experience that God is in the next breath. And so we take the next breath… no matter how risky it seems. We take the next breath. And the next one. And when we do this intentionally, mindfully, deeply, it’s prayer… it’s worship.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.
Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.