In This Sanctuary

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The end of Matthew’s Gospel today references the presence of God that we experience when we are engaged in various forms of prayer.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

God dwells among us when we are gathered together as prayerful people – prayers of song and of speech, prayers of silence and of laughter.  Studying, worshipping, healing, serving.  God is always with us.  And when we are focused and receptive to God, wholly occupied with God, we experience a deeper aspect of God.

What Matthew is talking about is not a passive, “just show up to church and the magic will happen.”  Matthew’s words come from the Jewish understanding that God dwells where people are participating and engaging together in prayer, a particular form of God’s presence when we share the time and space to be in community together.

The Hebrew word for this is shekhinah. And Matthew, who was writing for a JewishShekhinah Hebrew community coming to know themselves as followers of Jesus, knew shekhinah to be the aspect of God which rests between and among people who are occupying themselves with the joyful adoration of God that happens in the midst of all that takes place in our lives… good, bad, hard times and easy times, our worries about friends and family in places of fire and flood and hurricanes, our grief and frustration about racism and deportation, and our joy in new births, deepening friendships, successful operations, and serving others… all of it.

The shekhinah comes to dwell as we open ourselves in joyful adoration in the worship of God.  And so it actually matters how we bring ourselves to one another, how we offer ourselves here… in our sanctuary.

IMG_20161221_132120369Today we return to our beloved St. John’s sanctuary after spending 2 months in our “summer chapel.”
This sanctuary that was reshaped to include a center aisle when the church was moved stone by stone from its location on Wall St in 1926.
This sanctuary that is graced by these amazing windows depicting the beauty of creation given in honor of people who lived well over 100 years ago.
This sanctuary that is decorated by the beautiful woodwork of George Huber, an immigrant to the United States, installed in the 1940’s during WWII.
This sanctuary where the baptismal font was moved from the private baptistry in the 1990’s so it could take its proper place in the public space of the church.
This sanctuary where people have been married and baptized, where we’ve cried and prayed and celebrated, where we’ve held funerals for our friends.

In this sanctuary, shekhinah has been with us, is with us, will remain with us – the spirit of God that flows among us as we sing the hymns of our tradition, as we speak the words of prayer, as we sit in silence, as we share the scripture, as we focus on God, as we bring ourselves fully to this place where we, as a community meet the living God with receptive, open hearts and minds.

In this sanctuary.  This home for the community of St. John’s.

This spirit of God, this shekhinah, is an angel that hovers sweetly as a mother… gently nudging, and sometimes pushing, helping the community along.  It listens and it speaks.  It hears what is on our hearts and whispers hope.

shekinahIt listens to our lives and brings us to new perspectives of what it means to Love each other.  It attends to our pain and cracks open doors of forgiveness and new life… always leading us to the Table of Reconciliation.

This shekhinah is the angel of this place, the angel of our community that dwells among us and, as we open to it, refreshes our souls in this sanctuary and longs to be carried with us as we leave this place and offer ourselves in ministry to the world.

We come to this sanctuary to hear the stories of our tradition, to listen deeply and connect them to our own lives.  To find meaning in our lives through the stories that have been handed down to us.

How does the story inform and instruct us?  How does the story challenge us?  Comfort us? How does the story invite us to the Table of Reconciliation at the center of our sanctuary?

When we hear Jesus today, through Matthew’s Gospel, talk about responsibility, what does the Angel of this Place have to offer you? As it hears what is on your heart, how is it informing you and instructing you?  How is it opening you up to the Table of Reconciliation?

Take a moment now and rest in the knowledge that this angel is here with us and rest deeply in these questions. Open your mind and your heart.  Rest yourselves in this Sanctuary and listen to the Angel of this Place.  Just listen. Let any remaining hisses of fear and division drift away.  And just listen… for the whispers of hope and of grace and of love.

Here’s a parsing of today’s lesson from the Gospel

Matthew is structured with 5 discourses; 5 sets of interactions that occur after major parts of the story, in which Jesus is speaking with the Disciples, with us, to instruct us.  If we consider it, Matthew’s technique is masterful.  He offers a story and then helps the readers interpret the events through Jesus direct interaction with us, the Disciples.

Today’s passage comes from the 4th discourse, on the communal responsibilities to one another.  In chapters 15 and 16, Jesus comes into conflict with the Jewish leadership – the Sadducees and Pharisees – and they have accused him of being evil.  He can see what’s coming.  They can all see what’s coming.  In last week’s Gospel, we know that Jesus understands his fate is one of great suffering in Jerusalem.  Peter objects to this and so he chastises Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”

And, knowing that he must take the opportunity now, he starts instructing them on how to carry on this movement that he’s started in his anticipated absence, first emphasizing humility earlier in Chapter 18.  This doesn’t come in our readings this year, but it’s worth reviewing:
‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He’s talking about the humility of one who is receptive, who is listening and learning, not to leave our brains at the door, but to allow our pride and our know-it-allness to take a back seat.

And he goes on to say, “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Mt 18:1-6)

 Take a moment again and tune in again: What does the Angel of this Place have for you today? How is this presence of God informing and instructing you?  How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?

The word “disciple” which is what we are as followers of Jesus, has the same root as “discipline”… discere, to learn.

After “humility,” Jesus talks about “responsibility” in today’s Gospel and in the readings for the next two weeks.  The responsibility we have for one another in building the church, the ekklesia (from the Greek) – those who are called out into mission.

I was speaking about this with someone earlier this week – the importance of pastoral care, of caring for one another because the larger task of mission is hard work.  So, to one another, we offer kindness and extend forgiveness.

And we engage in spiritual work so that we become more mindful of the ways in which we might become those stumbling blocks Jesus is talking about, those traps of unhelpful behaviors that are the ways of the world, not the ways of Christ.

This pastoral care is something we are all responsible for because it is how we are responsible to one another. It is the building up of the community, the lifting up of one another, extending the benefit of the doubt, offering mercy and tolerance and acceptance, disciplining ourselves because we are disciples…Be kind

Something I endeavor to remember: Be kind.  Everyone is going through a hard battle.

All the ways in which we make of ourselves a joyful offering so that the community and not get lost in the minutiae and the drama so that the community can become the Body of Christ broken for the world and live out the Easter command, the Great Commission given to us on Easter morning:  “Go to Galilee.  Go to Galilee where Jesus has already gone ahead of you.”

Humility and responsibility – the qualities necessary in a community named the ekklesia.  Two weeks ago we talked about this word that Matthew uses – ekklesia.  We translate that as “church.”  In the original Greek, the word means those who are called out by someone for something for a purpose.

Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this the Jesus Movement.  And when he became Presiding Bishops a few years ago, he spoke to the whole church in a video filmed in our own Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.  And here’s what Bishop Michael says:

 

“When Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.” “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.”  Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.  Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.  Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

 Coming our sanctuary every week is a homecoming.  Not just a homecoming to our physical space but to our own souls, remembering our own souls – the sanctuary that we carry with us, where God is always present.  The world can a wearying place.  We know this now more than ever.
And as people of faith, we find rest as we gather together here with the Angel of this Place who whispers to us as it nurtures our souls so that we can be agents of healing in and for the world.

Take a moment again:  What does the Angel of this Place have for you today?  How is this presence of God informing and instructing you?  How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?

As Bishop Michael finishes his talk to us in that video, he reflects on an interaction he had with a Mennonite pastor who had been sent by his church to organize a community of faith in the streets, a community without walls.

He said the Mennonite community asked him to do this because they believed that in this environment in which we live, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is. 

 

Bp. Michael continues: Now is our time to go.  To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ.  To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation.  To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

May it be so.

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I AM

You can click here to read this week’s scripture.

I am. I am.
How often do we make that statement? I am.

We all tend to use these words as a precursor to something else.
Our state of being: I am excited. I’m disappointed that it’s a rainy day. I am scared. I am sleepy, frustrated.
Or our current activity: I am writing a letter. I’m playing with my children. I’m going to the store.
A descriptor of some kind: I am gentle. I am not so gentle.Munch

We identify ourselves with how we feel, with what we do, with our experience of ourselves, as well as other people’s experience of us.
And, most definitely, we identify ourselves with our roles:
I am a mother. I am a father. I’m a daughter, a son. I’m a priest, I’m a nurse, a teacher, a musician, a waitress, a salesperson, an administrator… the parent of an honor roll student, as our bumper stickers say.
With our names and what they mean: I like mine, actually. I’m Michelle. It means God-like.

And, most especially in our culture, we identify ourselves with the products we use: I’m a Honda driver, a Costco shopper, an iphone user. We identify ourselves with organizations and causes we support: I’m an animal-rights activist, a democrat, a republican, a Yankees/Mets fan, a member of the ACLU.
By what we’re against: I’m anti-war, anti-big government, anti-abortion.

With our culture: American. Which gets conflated with religion: I’m a Christian… forgetting the fact that Americans are also Muslims and Jews. I’m Episcopalian, Roman Catholic.
Which can get conflated with race and ethnicity… I’m white, I’m African-American, I’m Latino, I’m Arab.
We identify with our body or our body image… I’m skinny, I’m tall, I’m short, I’m handicapped, I’m fit, I’m fat.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we heap on some incredibly negative identities: I’m a loser. I’m stupid. I’m worthless. I’m ugly. I’m wrong. I’m bad.

It’s astounding. We have so many competing identities, no wonder we forget who we really are.  Our mind is full, so busy articulating ourselves, defining ourselves, creating faces for ourselves, no wonder we fail to remember who we really belong to.

Without noticing, we separate ourselves from one another and we forget, seeing only what we want to see in the other and hoping that they will only see the faces we present.

So, we have Moses.
Moses – an Israelite in Egypt. Just few verses before today’s passage, Moses names his son Gershom. ‘Ger’ is Hebrew for ‘alien.’ He passes on this identity to his son and says, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

Here’s what we know about Moses. He survived genocide, we know this from last week’s reading. By order of the Pharaoh, the baby boys were supposed to be put to death and the midwives defied the law in order to see through God’s will, which is sometimes necessary.

Because Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the home of his enslaver and attempted murderer. When he grew up, Moses killed an Egyptian for beating his own Hebrew kinsfolk and became an outlaw, forced to hide in Midian.
While in hiding, Moses defended a group of women at a well and was taken in by a priest. He married Zipporah and fathered a son.

Moses had many, many faces. He was a survivor, a victim, a killer, an outlaw, an advocate, a son, a brother, a father, a man, an Israelite, an alien. Moses understood himself in a very particular way with a variety of identities. As we all do.

And one day, Moses, this alien, went looking. The scripture says he went beyond the wilderness (in scripture, the place of being lost), beyond the state of being lost, beyond the state of forgetting, beyond the identity-laden, confusing, day-to-day wilderness of who we take ourselves to be.  And Moses went to Horeb, to the mountain of God.

Moses had become curious, you see, longing to hear God call his name.

Have you ever experienced that? You just want to leave all you think you are and all you think you know behind because of a yearning to know something deeper, something truer about yourself?

Is there something else to this? Am I something bigger, something deeper, something more?

When we are really ready to experience the truth, God shows up.

For Moses, it was the voice of God calling to him out of some magical, unconsumed, burning bush.  And in the presence of the holy, the eternal, in the presence of the Almighty and everlasting God of all, the ground of our being in the presence of that awe, the identities we have taken such care to create, mean absolutely nothing.

And so, Moses hid his face. Moses hid his most identifiable feature, his worldly identity. Because he knew.Burning bush

All of these things that we think we are… all of these affiliations, identities, preferences, descriptors, all of these faces mean nothing to God.

No longer victim. No longer killer.  No longer advocate or husband or son or outlaw. No longer alien.

So, there is Moses… stripped of his identity, everything he thinks he knows about himself, everything he thinks he knows about God… gone.
And he asks, “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
God tells him, “I will be with you.”
In that one phrase, God is saying, “You are mine, Moses. That’s who you are. You belong to me.”

And there even in the presence of God, even hearing God tell him who he is, Moses in his glorious humanity, still can’t fully trust, still can’t fully believe this astounding, humbling, overwhelming truth.  That who he is, is enough.

Because he asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

And God responds with: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. I AM WHO I AM.

Now, when God names Godself, this is a big deal. After all, naming is a form of power. Being able to name, to define, to constrict another into an identity is a form of power over them.

Think about it. Isn’t it an infuriating thing when someone tells you who you are or what you’re feeling? When after spending just a few moments listening to you, someone puts a label on you and proceed to treat you in some particular way.

We do this all the time. We give people a name, a label.  We reduce other people to a simple identity to feel safe so we know how to deal with them. We turn people into known quantities, like characters.  We put them in a box on a shelf in our consciousness and refer to them by the identity that we have afforded them.  We narrow the field of our understanding to simple stereotypes, caricatures of people.

And here’s the thing, when we do that, we stop being curious. And this is how we stop loving people.

label-jars-not-peopleHow many times has it been easier to explain-away a confusing or a negative experience – they’re an idiot, a loser, a narcissist.
How often is it easier to make assumptions about people because of their weight or their gender? Their sexual orientation or their age?  The language they speak or their religion?  How often do we make assumptions about people because of the color of their skin or the way they dress or act or which street they happen to live on?

And just like that, we’ve traded love for power.  Because the way love is most genuinely, most often manifested as curiosity.

When homeless people are asked “what is the most dehumanizing thing about being homeless?” They reply that it is being ignored, as if they don’t exist. When their fellow humans demonstrate indifference, a lack of curiosity in them.

Curiosity.  Love.  This means that we are willing to put aside what we think we know about ourselves, about one another.
We choose to go beyond the wilderness of all the faces so that we might remember our true identity and in doing so remember theirs as well – which is something that cannot be contained by human thought or words, cannot be enslaved by human identities.
Because our identity rests in God, and in God alone.

EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. This identity isn’t easily defined.
On the contrary, it’s full of mystery.  EHYEH. I am.

What if we looked for this mystery in one another? What if we saw the Christ in one another, the spark of God that is the divine nature?  That is the “I am.” That’s what we bring to God – the part of ourselves that is difficult to define, that has nothing to do with the world.

What if we simply offered ourselves to one another in our authentic, raw, human truth. What if we found the courage to stand before someone without the need to present any identity and just say, “Here I am.”

Would we be able to drop our expectations of others and just see the divine mystery alive, waiting to be spoken? Like a baby does?

awe_childBabies are great for this, because they haven’t yet learned how to be shy, they haven’t yet learned how to protect themselves. They just keep shining. And they just keep expecting us to shine right back. And we do.

We may think we have to be something – good, or strong, or smart, or helpful, or loyal, or self-sacrificing to be loved by God.  But what God loves, is something so basic, so intrinsic to each of us that we have forgotten it because we have gotten lost in the wilderness.

EHYEH. It’s like breathing. It’s that basic.
It’s that intrinsic to us.

EHYEH, the Hebrew word for I am.

Moses, whose name, interestingly enough means “out of the water”, is an alien, a person without origin.  Moses approaches God and when God called him, he responded the only way he could in the presence of God, with the knowledge of his own true identity. “Here I am.” EHYEH

But as Moses demonstrates, so beautifully in this story, even when we get it once, we continue to get lost in the wilderness. Even when we’ve experienced the presence of God, we forget.  As we move through the Exodus story this fall, you’ll notice that Moses questions, worries, demands, denies. Just like us.  He’s tempted by the human need to define, to characterize, to label.

Douglas Let My People Go

Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas’ Let My People Go

 

Moses is the character who leads Israel out of slavery for this very reason. Because he has glimpsed the truth but is still confined by the world. He has tasted the liberation from the wilderness of identities. Moses has experienced the truth of who he is. EYEH. Like breath.

The ones who have experienced liberation on some level are the ones who are called to lead others to liberation.

This is what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Mt 16: 24-25

The part of ourselves that Jesus is calling us to deny is this persona we’ve created. These faces. This “life” that we have built based on the ways of the world. This need for the power to define, instead of the call to love.

He demands that we refuse the tempter both in our own voice and in the voice of our loved ones… “Get behind me, Satan.”  Instead, he’s calling us to remember. EHYEH
To remember who we are and whose we are.  To hear the call and to respond simply and clearly, “here I am.”  Taking our full place in relationship to God.

And we’ll forget because we do. We’ll find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ll sin. We’ll miss the mark as we continue to do.

But Jesus continues to call us back to the heart of God again and again.  The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we offer here is just that, a calling back, a remembering. This is why we come to church every week, to come to remember to show up at this Table and say, EHYEH, Here I am.2017-07-02 09.49.08b

The Table of Reconciliation is not just for us to reconcile with one another.  It’s also to reconcile with ourselves and to be able to bring ourselves fully to God. Because that’s who we belong to.

You are a mysterious child of God, full of the mystery of the divine, called good from the moment the universe sparked into being. Please don’t forget this.

You are.

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This Is Your Ministry

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

Click on the play button below to listen along as you read.

I watched a movie recently, called Thanks for Sharing.  The movie was about addiction and the miraculous work done by people in 12-step programs.  Miraculous because it changes lives.  Work because it’s not easy – it’s the hardest thing that these folks have ever done in their lives.

And, as I watched the movie, I realized that the significant part of the 12-step program, the most important thing… is that these people have surrendered any notion that they are in control of anything and are at the mercy of one another’s commitment to each other.

In their darkest places, they call on one another.  And, they are there for each other.  Answering the phone at all hours of the night, racing across town at a moment’s notice… to save their friend from slipping.  Because they know that, in helping someone else from slipping, they are saving themselves from the same fate.

As one of the characters, new to the program, remarked to her new friend after he had shown up for her in her dark moment, “Y’know, as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”

It’s transformational… to be that vulnerable and yet that powerful at the same time.  To be that invested in someone else’s liberation.  To know that we need one another so much and yet know that just showing up for one another is the most powerful, the most liberating act anyone in this world could ever do.

In today’s gospel reading, we have a strange and iconic encounter between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus asks the disciples, these people who have been following him and calling him rabbi, Jesus asks these followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Both titles, one a Hebrew title, the other a Roman title, are royal titles, describing a ruler or divine leader.  The Messiah, of course, meaning the anointed one.  And Jesus announces that his church will be built upon this foundation – the foundation of Peter’s faith.  And he will give that church the keys to the kingdom.

I think it’s important to understand that the definition of “church” here, is not how we define it 2000 years later.  It’s not this massive institution and it’s certainly not this building.  The word in Matthew’s gospel that is translated to the English “church” is the Greek word ekklesia, which is a word that means “those who are called out.”

 

It’s like that children’s rhyme – Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open up the door, here’s the people.

It’s the people part.  This is what Jesus meant when he was talking to Peter.  This is the Body of Christ.  This is ekklesia.  The people called out to do God’s work in the world.  God’s work of liberation.

It’s why we have a dismissal at the end of our worship, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.”   What we’re really saying is, let us go forth and get busy with God’s work of liberating one another.  Because this is what it means to be the church.

And, as a community, St. John’s has discerned a call to a particular mission – the Body of Christ moving in concert at this time, in this place, with these resources.  Now, I’m the first to say that Mission Statements are meaningless unless they give us a clear sense of what we are called to do as a group of people, unless we know them well enough that they inform our imagination of our congregation’s ministry.Mission Shirt

So, we have been saying a special Collect for Mission since the Feast of Pentecost to call upon God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us for this mission.  We have new t-shirts that reflect the 4 basic tenets of our mission – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving.  And the Mission Statement is printed in our bulletin every week.

We are called to know all our neighbors and be a bridge of God’s Love; connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving each other and the diverse community of Kingston.  We will do this by:

  • Sharing our physical space and resources
  • Being stewards of the arts
  • Advocating for social justice
  • Participating in inclusive and intergenerational worship
  • Affirming everyone has a place at God’s Table

And to be formed as the ekklesia, those who are called out, it matters that we come to church, that we have a place to be called out from.  It matters a lot – especially right now because there are forces at work in our culture that are truly evil and that, to be blunt, require exorcism.  Hate and bigotry have no place when God has formed us all in the very image of God.

But more than simply coming to church, I think it matters that we understand our directive “to be called out” from this place and we take it to heart.  I think it matters that we leave worship, we leave this place, and we remember our baptismal vows – to pray, to worship, to forgive and repent, to love, and to strive for justice.

I think it matters more that we truly grasp, that we read, mark, and inwardly digest the responsibility we have to one another.  To show up for one another, to liberate one another from the darkest places of our lives.

And Paul tells us today, in his letter to the Romans,  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

And Paul goes on to tell us that we have been empowered, not to be God but to surrender ourselves in service to God so that God may act through us.  Because we are called as Christians, to recognize our vulnerability and our power.  We are called as Christians, to show up for one another.

And here we are centuries later, the church.  The people who are called out.  Fire heartThe Body of Christ.  Who do we need to show up for?  Who are those who are experiencing their darkest moments?  In your heart, where are you being called?

  • Is it African American people, Jewish people, gay people, immigrants… anyone currently being targeted by hate groups across the country?
  • Is it Syrian refugees who are seeking asylum from the ongoing war like so many of our own ancestors came here?
  • The suicidal veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder?
  • The hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly girls, who are sold into slavery every year?
  • The young person, one of so many, who is addicted to readily-available opioids?
  • The homeless person? The bullied kid?  The bully?  The criminal in prison?

The list is endless, even in a culture as wealthy as ours… or, perhaps, because our culture is so wealthy… we have an endless list of “others” – those who are left out, an endless list of people who we believe are just on the short end of the stick.  Who just need to work harder.

But Paul tells us not to be formed by the culture but to be formed by the Gospel.

Whether it’s a belief in karma or the prosperity gospel, sometimes I think we believe if God wanted them to be better off, God would have made sure that happened.  And, so we leave it to God instead of taking a place in someone else’s life.

Or, worse, we believe that we are in control of our own destiny… and we have no responsibility to anyone in our lives but ourselves.  And, if these “others” could just take control of their own destiny, if they would just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they would also be doing ok.  That’s the cultural ethic, right?

And Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”

 In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus, the beginning of the Moses narrative – the midwives defied the law in order to serve God.  Sometimes that’s what’s required.

This is why 12-step programs are so miraculous.  Because these people have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, coming to recognize the liberation in surrendering their power and taking responsibility for one another.  Because these people know what truly dark places are.  Because these people know, “as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”

My point is this, my friends: We are Christians.  We believe that the Son of Man is the Son of God.  We believe the incarnation actually matters and the power we have to show up for one another as incarnate beings actually matters.  We believe that God works through us and that we are called out as the ekklesia, as the church, to be of service to one another.

I had a professor in seminary named John Kater.  He preached a sermon that still sticks with me.  He said our call as Christians, is to stand in the crossroads.  To stand where we can see both the broken state of the world and the blessed Reign of God – at the same time.  We are called to stand here and witness and to participate in reconciling the one with the other.

Because we have decided to follow a person named Jesus who commissioned his followers to be the Body of Christ broken for the world.  And we have willingly taken on the mantle of disciple.

So, we are called to actively participate in in the liberation of one another’s lives.  Jesus told us in the Gospel of John that we will do greater things than he ever did.  So, what are we waiting for?

It’s an enormous task, I know.  It’s an endless list, as you know.  And sometimes it’s all we can do to get through our own day.  But Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world…”

Because you are called to ministry as a baptized member of the Body of Christ.  You are called to carry on the work of Christ in this world, to make God’s mission of liberation a true possibility.  To show up for others in their darkest places.

So here it is: don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture of all of it, just focus on one thing as an individual person.  We have a mission as the community of St. John’s.  And we have leadership that will drive us through the living out of our common mission.

But as an individual, you are called to a particular ministry wherever your heart beats.  What is it that brings you to your knees?  The idea of working with prisoners, with refugees, with kids?

What is it that breaks your heart wide open?  The possibility of changing the way we view the mentally ill or the treatment of women or fighting white supremacy?

What would make you feel powerless if you were in someone else’s shoes?
This is where you start. Keith Haring
This is where liberation always starts – love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.
This is where you stand as a witness in the crossroads, where you can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.
And this is there you offer yourself to your brothers and sisters.
This is where you offer yourself as a sacrifice to God.
This is your ministry.

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Accountable to One Another

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

Author and speaker Brene Brown is an Episcopalian who works as a researcher in psychology and has written several books about shame and vulnerability.  She’s also done many presentations and videos that are posted all over the internet.

I bring her up because, as I was preparing to write this sermon this week, I stopped to watch a video of hers on Facebook where she talks about empathy and the importance of showing up for each other in the aftermath of Charlottesville and the continuing discussions about race as we listen to more stories than just the one about the history of our country.

In her work, Brene talks about being authentic in our relationships with one another and in community.  She also talks about accountability – how we are accountable to one another because we live in relationship to one another.

What does it mean to be accountable to others in a community?  What does it mean to hold each other accountable or to hold ourselves accountable to others?
Sometimes what this means is we help them in some physical way – feeding people, clothing people, assisting them with the everyday tasks of their lives.
Sometimes what this means is we stop telling our own story long enough to hear their story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what they’ve said.
But always, it means that we consider the repercussions of our actions on others and take responsibility for those repercussions, even if the results were unintended.  This means that we sometimes need to correct our behavior, even if we think we didn’t do anything wrong.

Because we don’t live in a vacuum.  We live in relationship.
As humans, we always live in community.

Our readings today point to this accountability we have to one another.

The tale of Joseph is a metaphor or a mythical story that helps us understand the larger narrative of the ancient Israelites.  Joseph is the youngest son of Jacob, who was renamed Israel because he wrestled with an angel of God.  This is a story about the nation of Israel.

 

Joseph Cartoon

The story of Joseph is also told as the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… sort of.

If you recall from last week, Joseph was hated by his brothers because he had prophetic dreams and they plotted to get rid of him, a few wanted to go so far as to kill him.  They finally decided upon selling him into slavery.  Then, they lied to their father about their deed, letting Israel think that wild animals killed his son.

 

8 chapters later (the story of Joseph is quite lengthy), we have today’s reading.  In those 8 chapters, a lot happened to Joseph but in the end, he rose to prominence in Egypt because of his prophetic dreams, eventually becoming the closest advisor to the king.

In his dreams, Joseph foresaw a famine and ensured that the king’s storehouses were packed with seed.  Once the famine started, people from neighboring nations came to Joseph asking for help, this included his own family who were still living as aliens in the land of Canaan.

Which is where we find ourselves in today’s story of reunion – Joseph’s brothers have come to ask for seed and Joseph knows he is accountable to them, even though he has reason not to help them because of what they did to him in the past.

Eventually, Jacob’s whole family, the whole nation of Israel, comes to live in Joseph’s house in Egypt, which is how the Israelites came to live in Egypt.  They received sanctuary from the very brother whom they had thought about killing, the brother they had sold into slavery.

Although this is a tale about the nation of Israel, it’s really a story about how we, as humans, are accountable to each other.  Responsible for each other.Libertarian Logo

And it’s also a critique on our culture.  We like to say “live and let live” in the US.  To each his/her own.  “I will do what I please and I’m sorry if you can’t deal with that.”  But we’re seeing the unintended consequences of that ideology played out to its extreme for us in living color.  What we do over here to feel safe, has an effect on people over there.  What we did or failed to do in the past, has a cumulative effect on the lives of whole populations of people.

We are responsible for our actions.  We are accountable to each other.  We do not live autonomously.

Covenanted Self BrueggemannOld Testament professor Walter Brueggemann talks about this as being covenanted.  In his book The Covenanted Self, he says this covenant is lived out through two things that happen simultaneously – the assertion of self and the abandonment of self.  And if they aren’t happening in relationship to one another as corrective forces, then we lose track of the covenant, and relationship and community are destroyed.

The assertion of self is when we are taking up space with our words or our property or our demands or our needs or our opinions or even our physical self.  When this is functioning well, we are showing up for each other in supportive, authentic ways.

But when it’s not balanced by the abandonment of self, we filter everything through our own lens and insist that the way we see things is the only way to see things and the rest of the world is there for us to use in some way.  We even end up insisting that God sees things the way we do (if we believe in God at all) and that we are the source of our own power devolving into what Brueggemann calls “praiseless autonomy” where there is no gratitude and “self-sufficiency becomes a law unto itself.”

The other edge, abandonment of self, is when we are willing to be taught, to learn, to give ourselves over to an idea or narrative other than our own, to consider that truth might be more complex than what we previously thought.  When this is functioning well, we are still showing up for each other, supporting one another, and our presence isn’t about our own needs.

But when it’s not balanced by the assertion of self, we give up our agency and allow everything to happen, looking the other way if things are difficult or challenging, accepting everything as God’s will, offering no grace to ourselves or to one another.  Brueggemann says that this devolves into “graceless obedience” in which we let the forces of the world have their way without confronting evil, correcting unjust systems, or seeking ways to heal the wounds that inevitably happen.

Brueggemann tells us that both edges are crucial for the covenant we have as God’s people.  Our lives as Christians are not solitary, singular existences.  We have inherited from our Jewish ancestors the understanding of covenant – we are in a covenanted relationship with God and with one another.

I will admit that reading the Hebrew Scriptures can be challenging sometimes.  God always seems to be angry about something.  But the reason God is upset is because people keep forgetting the covenant.  They keep trying to dominate others, keep trying to make themselves great, keep trying to deny that they are responsible to one another.

This is exactly why Jesus says that the whole thing boils down to love God, love your neighbor as yourself.  That is our covenant as Christians, given to us as sacrifice in the Eucharist.

We can neither give up our assertion of self, nor the abandonment of self.  The two must balance each other.  We have to show up for one another and act in this world and we have to realize that the world is not for our taking and we are not the sole arbiter of what is supposed to happen.

This is what living in community is.  This is what accountability is.
Our actions have an impact on others, but that doesn’t mean we stop acting.
It means we continue to learn about how our actions effect other people and we humbly make corrections whenever we can where they are needed.
It means we listen when someone says, “Wait a minute.  You’re treating me unjustly.  My life matters.”

Which is exactly what happens in Jesus’ meeting with the Canaanite woman.

Canaan was the land Israel lived in.  It was the land they took for their own, calling it the promised land and in the process of taking it, the Israelites sought to exterminate the Canaanites.

As a Jew, Jesus grew up around people who used the term Canaanite as a catch-all for anyone who was unworthy of notice, unworthy of treating justly, someone who had no rights in Jewish law, someone who was inferior.

Germain-Jean Drouais_Jesus and the Canaanite Woman_1784_LouvreWe like to think of Jesus as someone who was unblemished by his upbringing.  But it’s clear from this passage, that he was not.  He carried prejudice and brought it to bear in this interaction.  He called her a dog.

It’s important to understand just what kind of insult that was.  Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets.  They thought of dogs as mangy, disease-ridden, unwanted, filthy pests.  They thought of dogs as scum.  So, Jesus, our loving comforting messiah, is dismissing this woman, calling her scum.  Think about that for a moment.

He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Meaning that his healing, the nourishment he offers, is meant only for those who are viewed as the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob.

Her Canaanite life and the life of her daughter don’t matter.

And this woman, this piece of scum, says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that her life matters. BLM Face

And instead of feeling angry that this woman dared to challenge him, instead of being annoyed that she shoved her story in his face, instead of defending his first response or rationalizing his refusal as the fact of history, instead of listening to his disciples who just wanted him to ignore her… Jesus stopped in that moment and realized that he was accountable to this woman.

That he was responsible for her and her daughter and his behavior had an impact on them both.  And he healed them.

And he healed centuries and centuries of sin in that moment.

Jesus stopped telling his own story long enough to hear her story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what she said.  He made himself vulnerable by listening to her story and abandoning his self to a greater truth – the one that was kneeling before him.  At the same time, he asserted his self, acting in service to justice to heal the centuries of sin and hurt and division.

Leaving behind the prejudice of his heritage, refusing to be shackled to it and refusing to allow her and her daughter to be shackled to it any longer.

So, here’s what I believe:  If Jesus can stop to listen to someone besides himself, perhaps we can too.

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The Hope of Miracles

You can read this week’s scriptures by clicking here.

Click the play button below to listen along.

It starts with Peter.  It always seems to start with Peter.  Of all the disciples, Peter seems to be the one who epitomizes the humanity of Jesus’ followers.  He’s not particularly great.  He’s not wise, nor brave but neither is he stupid nor completely fearful.  He’s an average person trying to figure out this faith thing.  Sometimes he gets it.  Sometimes he fails miserably.

Perhaps that’s why he’s named as the head of the church universal.  Sometimes we get it.  Sometimes we fail.  But we are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

The Gospel story comes to us from Matthew.  Jesus and his disciples have just participated in a miracle together – feeding the multitudes.  And, instead of basking in a job well done, Jesus sends the disciples away: “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…” 

Immediately, Jesus sends them out into the unsafe sea where they are at the mercy of the winds and waves.  The sea is the symbol for chaos, where we are deeply uncomfortable, where we are in fear for our lives because the sea is not something we can control.  It’s unstable and, more than the earth, responds to forces beyond our control – wind, moon, air temperatures creating currents and riptides underneath the surface.  The sea is uncontrollable.

Meanwhile, Jesus sends the crowds away and goes to pray.  Later, he comes to find the disciples some distance from safety, being tossed about by the wind and the waves and in clear distress.  In the middle of the night, in the middle of chaos, the disciples are scared out of their wits.

They are so scared they don’t even recognize Jesus at first.  They don’t recognize the presence of God who is with them.  And Jesus responds with “Take heart!  Do not be afraid.”

Peter Walks on Water Coptic iconAnd that’s when Peter shows us why he’s the head of the church universal.  He gets it right and he gets it wrong at the same time.  His love, his devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.

And one might think that Jesus should tell Peter to get over himself – to stop thinking he has the power to do such a thing, to reign in his ego. But he doesn’t.  Jesus looks at Peter and says, “come.”  In the midst of the raging sea, Jesus sees Peter’s Love and says, “come.”

Of course, Peter gets scared and nervous when he’s shaken from his devotional trance and starts to slip into the drink.  But the point is that a part of Peter knew.  The indestructible part of Peter knew that he could survive the chaos and join Jesus in the midst of it.  Peter’s unbounded, eternal Soul led him to follow Jesus, follow our Emmanuel, in the face of death.

 

I opened a book on my vacation a few weeks ago and the first line of the intro said, “We live in turbulent times.”  Indeed.

We’ve been through quite a bit this summer as a congregation because people have decided to leave the community of St. John’s. As hard as that has been on me, I’m very mindful that it’s been just as hard if not harder on you.  It’s incredibly difficult when people decide to leave, regardless of the reason.  We feel rejected.  Sad.  Disappointed.  And we might question if we’re doing what we should be doing.

I’m deeply grateful for Sue’s excellent sermon last week. She helped us to all remember our sense of purpose and common voice, the Spirit that has been guiding St. John’s for nearly 200 years. This is something that theologian Walter Wink calls, the “angel” of a congregation, the communal consciousness who reminds us that we are here to serve God’s mission, not our own.  And God’s mission was here before us and will remain after we are gone.

So, our parish life has felt some turbulence recently.

And then, there’s the turbulence felt in the larger culture around us through the detestable saber-rattling between our government and North Korea, both militaries having the ability to launch nuclear strikes.  And the pastor from Texas who has announced that “God has given him the authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.”  This, by the way, is blasphemy.

All of this on top of the everyday fears and challenges of our lives… as we age, have health concerns, hurt by friends or family, as we try to see to the demands of everyday life, and some days we just need to rest.

So much turbulence.  It can be hard to find a sense of hope when all we can see is the raging sea.

On Friday evening, I started hearing reports about what was happening in Charlottesville – white supremacists marching with torches, surrounding a church where clergy and others were praying.  The white supremacists chanted “blood and soil” a racist ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on purity of blood and territory.  It’s a phrase that was used by the Nazis.

And then… even more devastating reports on Saturday.  The same white supremacist protestors armed with semi-automatic weapons, more hate-filled chanting, riots.  And death and traumatic injury as a car purposefully plowed into a group of peaceful counter-protestors.racism-text-straight

Some people are shocked at these events, that the white supremacist movement still exists.  Others are not shocked, but scared that it was so boldly expressed. But for those of us who are white, we must acknowledge that people of color have been telling us this for a long, long time. If we haven’t paid attention yet, it’s time to start.

Because the sin of racism targets our brothers and sisters.  We are all made of the same flesh, from the same earth.  The human race began as brown skinned and olive skinned and black skinned people in the Middle-East and Africa.  We are, in no way, disconnected from this violence born of hatred, fear, bigotry, and ignorance.  Our blood and flesh are bound to it.

So, where is hope to be found?
It starts with Peter, the head of the church… teaching us about faith.

His devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.  Demonstrating who the church can be and what the church can do in the midst of raging chaos:  We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

There is Jesus, standing in the chaos of the world, where he always is.  And Jesus encourages us to be faithful and to know that “faith” means we are to step out into the chaos of the wind and the waves and join him there – in the chaos.  And he reminds us that he is going to be there with us when we falter and lose our faith, when we forget that we are as strong and as good as we are.

Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that means “God is with us.”  Jesus didn’t come to prove that he alone is the most powerful healer.  That, too, is blasphemy.  Jesus came to help us understand that God is always with us, the ground of our being, the spark that is our indestructible Soul.

The point of the story is not that Jesus saves Peter.  The point of the story is that Peter offers us a beautiful example of faith in the midst of chaos.

In our fear, we cry out and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”
In our devotion, we look for Jesus and he calls to us, “Come.”

What are we called to do as the church in response to the evil of white supremacy?  How is the church complicit in this evil? And what can we do to transform it?

These are hard questions.  But Jesus is standing in the raging sea, patiently waiting for us.  Saying, “Don’t be afraid. Come.”

Because hope is not outside of us.  Hope is found within us and works through us.

There is no savior coming to save us.  Our Savior already came and he gave us very clear instructions.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  That we believe this and we live it – that is what it means when we say that Jesus saves.

Jesus tells us that Love of God and Love of neighbor is what all this is about… all the law and the prophets.  Everything that Moses was talking about.  All the justice that the prophets proclaimed.  Everything that’s in the Bible is all about love of God and love of neighbor.  Love in action.  And that Love will give us the power to walk the raging sea and reconcile us to one another again, to reconcile the world to God.

Because if it’s not about Love, it is not about God.

Peter walks out onto that water out of utter love and devotion to God. He’s not particularly great.  He’s an average person, like you and me, trying to figure out this faith thing.  Sometimes he gets it.  Sometimes he fails.

But what is remarkable in this story is that, for a moment, he forgets his smaller, fearful self.  For a moment, he forgets the possibility that the others in the boat might mock him or pressure him to stay inside the boat. He forgets, even, that the world is a raging sea around him.

Because he remembers the most important thing.  He loves God.  And when we love God, when we put that first in our lives, we become the hope that we seek because we can indeed perform miracles.cville-5-clergy-via-twitter

  • Hope is the counter-protestors in Charlottesville, many of whom were clergy, willing to stand arm in arm in prayer in the face of the white supremacists who came in riot gear armed with semi-automatic weapons.
  • Hope is the people who ministered at the scene and in the hospital when that car plowed into the crowd.Cvill TEC
  • Hope is every person who is now taking a deliberate oath to boldly stand up to white supremacy and the sin of racism wherever it rears its head.
  • Hope is the action that we take, in the place that we choose to stand in the middle of the raging sea.
  • Hope is the change of heart that comes.
  • Hope is this Table of Reconciliation.

The hope, you see, is us – you and me.

And I look at the people in this room and I know.  I know that we are willing to respond to Jesus’ call to love in action.  I know that we are capable of continuing to deepen our faith in the God of all life.  I know that we have the compassion and sense of justice to tend to the unbreakable connection we all have to one another, regardless of skin or shape or gender or orientation or ability or age or nationality or religion.

Our hope is in us, in our devotion to something greater than ourselves and our fears and opinions.  Our hope is in our devotion to God, in our commitment to love God and neighbor, and in our faith in the ability of that Love to carry us across the raging sea and reconcile us to one another once again.

We are the church.  We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

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The Transfiguration – Guest Post by Deacon Susan Bonsteel

Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration and our Deacon Susan Bonsteel preached this beautiful and deeply meaningful sermon for the life of our community.  She got some big AMENS afterwards.
You can find the readings for today by clicking here. 

Six years ago on my birthday, I climbed into a 1958 DeHavilland 7 – passenger plane and had a thrill of my life. On a beautiful and clear sunny September day, our Vietnam War-era fighter pilot flew us over the mountains of Denali National Park in Alaska and within 4 miles of the summit of Mt. McKinley. He mentioned that we were quite fortunate to have such great weather since there are few days each year that the summit could be seen so clearly. We wore headsets in order to communicate with one another and with the pilot, but I don’t recall a great deal of conversation other than an occasional “WOW!” We were enthralled by the majesty of what was below us and around us, as far as we could see. Huge and broad and snow-white covered peaks extended in every direction for miles. Looking down and outward from my window seat, I wondered if there was another soul out there or if were truly alone. And the thought was not at all frightening; indeed I wondered if heaven could compare to what was before my eyes. How could anything be more beautiful, more serene, more perfect? It was an intensely spiritual experience.

Seeing things in a different way can change us. How I viewed the world and my place in it was altered in those 2½ hours. I had been on commercial planes many times before but always surrounded by strangers, noise and the stresses that inevitably come with air travel. Flying had stopped being fun a long time ago. So I didn’t expect my flight that day in Denali to be transformative. At the very least, I had hoped it would be worth the hundreds of dollars we had paid. But looking back, I can say that my sense of self was greatly impacted – for I came to fully understand that I was just a tiny speck on an expansive and glorious planet. Seeing the world from such a place – that so few others get to experience – was humbling. And I could feel the warmth and the glow that emanated from me as we started to head back to the airport.

For me, this was a “mountaintop” experience – a spiritual high where things seemed to fall into place and I understood and experienced God in a way I hadn’t before. I had seen beautiful shorelines and canyons and mountains and forests but nothing quite as spectacular as Denali. Everything seemed to be good and right and meaningful. It was a time that I didn’t want to end. I felt this great desire to stay in that place and prolong those feelings of completeness and peace.

Perhaps my feelings were similar to those felt by the disciples in today’s gospel reading.  On this day we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus – that moment that Jesus’ true nature – his divinity and godliness – was revealed to Peter, John and James while Jesus still walked on earth. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God in some way. Luke describes how Jesus takes three of his dearest disciples up a mountain with him and is transfigured right before their eyes. As if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets. Yet the disciples don’t know what to do or say, it so far beyond their comprehension. Peter is compelled to offer to construct three dwellings – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Perhaps at some level he senses the holiness of it all and wonders if this is where all might dwell. But the Transfiguration story doesn’t end there. For a cloud appears and overshadows them all and from it God’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then, just like that, it’s all over and the disciples find themselves alone again with Jesus, heading down the mountain, with clear instructions not to speak yet of what they’ve just experienced. So we are left to wonder what James, John and Peter were thinking and feeling as they returned to their life on the ground. Were they overwhelmed and frightened by the experience? That would certainly be understandable. They had just had an intense and holy encounter – experiencing God in their friend and teacher Jesus in a way they had never before. Were they at all reluctant to return to the crowds who were waiting below for Jesus? Or did they yearn to remain longer on the mountaintop?

Anyone who has had a religious experience of any degree knows well the power it can have over us.  We don’t want the connection to God to end or our feelings of connectedness to the world around us to dissipate. We want to find a way to keep these feelings alive in us. We have been transformed and perhaps we want others to feel the way we do. We want to stay just where we are. But life isn’t like that.

Like many of you, I have been struggling with the sadness that is in our parish since several members have chosen to leave. Each of us here this morning arrived at St. John’s in a way unlike the person seated next to us. Perhaps we were baptized or received here; or our parents brought us here as children; maybe we were invited by a parishioner; perhaps we were going through a difficult time and were searching for a safe place to rest. Perhaps we simply were seeking God in the midst of community. Each one of us has our own story – and together – our stories form the Body of Christ here at St. John’s. No one’s story is more important than anyone else’s. Each one of us here possesses a gift that enriches us all; and we are called to use our gifts to build up and strengthen the body of Christ.

Healthy churches are made up of people who are eager to welcome others with diverse backgrounds and perhaps different but no less authentic ways of worshipping.  So it’s is unrealistic to think that one church can meet everyone’s needs, but all churches can strive to be welcoming places. Part of our mission is to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The church that goes off-track is the one that loses sight of its mission and becomes more like a club where only people just like themselves are invited in. Looking inward and finding those places where change is needed may be difficult for many; for we become quite comfortable in our routine and start to assume all feel the same way. It’s important for us to remember, however, that a church that serves only itself will never grow.

As we’ve discovered, change is more challenging for some of us than it is for others. A new hymn, a new prayer, shouldn’t throw us into a tizzy, as my grandmother liked to say. The hymn that is new to me may not be new to the person next to me. The prayer that I find rich and meaningful may not resonate with someone else. The beauty of any new experience is that it can transform us if we are open and willing.

I have no doubt all will be well. Churches all over are going through challenges like ours. Certainly the political atmosphere around us is charged with negativity and we can’t help but be affected by it. It doesn’t mean, however, that we Christians need to accept it as the norm in our dealings with one another. And so, my wish is that we would see this as an opportunity to look ahead in hope. Our faith isn’t static. Why then should our church be?

One our greatest strengths as a parish family has been our generosity. Our focus on community outreach and social justice issues over many decades has been a shining light to the community around us. The suggestion that we are focusing too much on social justice bewilders me. I’ve been in many churches where there is little connection to the issues of poverty, homelessness, literacy, and food security and wonder how Christian communities can isolate themselves from the needs around them. Our own ECW has had a long history of supporting programs that ministered to women and children, Native American and indigenous communities, literacy, and for the mentally ill. For years, the women of the ECW were leaders who guided us to new and important social programs.

All of these issues encouraged us to look beyond ourselves and into a broken and imperfect world we helped create. As Christians, we profess that we have a deep yearning for the perfect community – the communion of all humankind with God. And I believe that is why we continue to confront peace and justice issues on a daily basis.  St. John’s may be a small group of people in the grand scheme of things – but we have the ability to continue to do big things. So how would we ever measure how much of a commitment to social justice is enough?

 If you were around in 1992 to see Angel Food East open its doors to our neighbors living with AIDS, you might remember the resistance we felt from some in our own church. There were concerns about bringing AIDS to the midst of own community.  Some local area pastors claimed our ministry was not in keeping with their understanding of Scripture. Hateful phone messages and threatening letters were all too common. Yet St. John’s persisted.

If you were around when we began For Whom The Bells Toll, then you remember that there were some in our parish who would not pray for the men and women on death row. There were others who would not participate in the tolling of the bells on the day of an execution; who could not accept that the executed named in our Prayers of the People were also children of God. Yet St. John’s persisted.

The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek

Even the widely successful Carpenter’s Kids program had its resistors, folks who wondered aloud why we were engaged in efforts beyond our borders when there was great need within. Like Angel Food East and For Whom the Bell Tolls, patience, compassion and education were the keys to alleviating misinformation and anxiety. Our involvement with Carpenter’s Kids eventually connected us in a profound way to global mission.

And it will be the same for any mission effort to which we agree to commit ourselves in the future. Wherever God leads us, it is apparent that we are not a church that wants to stand still, simply admiring all that has gone on in the past. We are people who believe that the God we worship is a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing in our lives.  It’s why Jesus calls us to be disciples that follow, that don’t simply stand still. Jesus’ own life teaches us that by engaging with others, by living our faith in communion with the world, we can heal and transform the world. May our prayer be – that in the process of living our faith – we will also be healed and transformed.  Amen.

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Just Listen

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

 

I remember when I first arrived here a little less than a year and a half ago; it was the beginning of March.  I was excited to get to know you, the people I would be serving.  I wanted to know who you are and what you care about.  I was thankful that many of you took the opportunity to have a meal or coffee with me so I could learn more about your lives.

And I remain always thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts because I’m here to be your pastor and to help this congregation of St John’s grow into what God is calling it to become.  I’m here to help St John’s discern how to live out its mission of serving God by serving our neighbors.

SnowdropsSo, when I arrived here in early March, the ground was still frozen and most of the plants in the yard were dormant in some way – either brown or underground. Some small plants had just begun to pop their heads out, however – crocuses, snowdrops, the beginnings of all the tulips that Janet Vincent planted over 20 years ago.  It was a feast during those first couple of months.  I went out and walked around nearly everyday taking pictures, posting them to Facebook and Instagram.

As I got to know you and as the spring breezes warmed the air and the soil, all manner of things started growing.  Now, I love houseplants and I’m pretty good with things in containers.  But outdoor gardens are new to me simply because I’d always lived in an apartment – even as a child.

So, I watched as green things grew and I slowly started to realize that not everything was meant to be a part of the garden: some things were weeds and some things were “supposed” to be there.  However, by this point, everything in the garden was growing so fast and my attention was focused on you – still getting to know everyone, still getting my head around everything that happens in the life of St. John’s.Weeds and Not

So, I let the weeds grow.  As you might have noticed.  It’s a lot of space and a lot of garden for one person to manage. But still, it was only once things came to maturity that I could tell exactly what was happening.  Now, we could argue whether this is patience or procrastination on my part. But I think the lesson is important: when we only know a little bit about what’s happening, we really have to wait and see before we go uprooting things.

So, we watch and we listen.  And we wait patiently to see what will happen.

 

Celies Breakfast

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Color Purple is when Celie, a person of infinite patience, cooks breakfast for her cantankerous houseguest, Shug.  Another character named Albert tried to cook Shug’s breakfast and he did such a bad job that Shug threw the breakfast out the door of her bedroom so that the food ended up on the wall of the hallway.

 

So Celie cooks a scrumptious breakfast, slowly slides it into the bedroom and jumps back out of the way, saying “I just stand back and I wait to see what the wall goin look like.  See what kinda color Shug’s goina put on there now.”

We watch and we listen and we wait… until we have more information, until we can see a clear path, until we truly know the difference between the weeds and the wheat.

Wheat and WeedsThe parable of the weeds and the wheat, as articulated by the Gospeler Matthew, is an allegory, where each thing in the parable correlates directly to something else.  As you heard Sue say when she read the Gospel, what we know is: the wheat is good and the weeds are bad.  However, rather than jumping in too soon, it’s best to wait.

In order to preserve the wheat and gain the best possible harvest, it’s best to wait until things mature to discern the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, this is usually applied to people in a wholesale way – that a person is either good or bad.  We end up calling people “bad eggs” or we believe that there is no redemption for people who have done bad things.  That is, quite frankly, blasphemy.

It’s true that it’s hard for people to change, but they do.  It is possible for people to stop thinking in immature, selfish ways and realize the impact of their behaviors on others and to live in ways that uphold the two greatest commandments:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

But even besides all of that conjecture about people being able to change, God never gives up on anyone.  No one is ever beyond the love of God.  I’ve often said, whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side of it.  Every single time.

So, when it comes to interpreting this allegory, I believe the more truthful understanding is that we have both good and bad tendencies within us.  (Harry Potter fans will remember that Harry’s godfather Sirius said this exact thing to Harry… not that Harry Potter is the gospel…)

Or, to be more generous, we have both helpful and unhelpful tendencies within us.  Some days we are the weeds and some days and we are the wheat.

Much like the parable of the sower from last week, we always have the potential for goodness because we are inherently good.  The whole of Creation is inherently good. We always have, within us, the possibility for being good soil.  Often it comes down to the choice we make.  And to make a choice, we need to discern.

If we apply this understanding to this week’s parable that we have, within us, the ability to be both the wheat and the weeds, then it’s incumbent upon us to continue maturing in our spiritual life so that we can better discern which parts of us are the unhelpful, toxic weeds and which parts of us are the fruitful wheat, capable of feeding others as well as ourselves.

This means we continue our efforts to learn to see through the eyes of Christ, rather than solely through our perceptions and limited understandings because preferences and opinions are often full of weeds.  We never have the whole picture.  But when we wait and listen and watch with faith in Christ, we are often surprised at the result. Something happens that we would have never expected.

And I know we don’t like it, but yet, we are sometimes asked to move through uncomfortable situations or be in relationship with people we label as “irritating” or “stupid” and listen and watch and learn rather than react.  The situation always opens up.  The other person always offers something that we haven’t thought of.

This is discernment.  What do we do when things are unclear or uncomfortable?  What else do we need to see?  Who else do we need to listen to?

Rather than react out of fear or anger, how do we move thoughtfully, respectfully, and lovingly… holding the tension of a difficult situation?  How do we hold a generous space to see what else might arise in us and in the situation we are facing?  This is fruitful discernment.

Because while we are called to act in the world, we are called to listen more than speak.  We are asked to watch for acts of goodness and kindness in others and recognize that sometimes we are wrong in our assumptions because we don’t have the whole picture.  Not one of us has the whole picture.  Because not one of us is God alone.

Things happen that we don’t like.  People act in ways that feel hurtful and are disruptive to our sensibilities.  But how do we respond rather than react?  How do we hear a voice other than our own when we are truly lost, which is to say, when we are cloaked in our certainty?

There is a prayer in our prayer book on page 833.  It’s a prayer that is always attributed to St. Francis because, as he spoke to birds and listened to animals, St Francis was the very icon of listening and watching, and waiting and hoping.

St FrancisLord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

And, just to reiterate something that I said a few moments ago, because it’s deeply, deeply important:  I will always be thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts.  It’s a holy thing to listen to others.

This prayer that I just said… it’s not just words to me.  It’s how I try to live my life.  It’s how I strive to be with others because I believe that when we listen deeply, when we seek to understand, it offers something that we aren’t often given in our current context of tv news and political pundits and opinions and reactions and snarky comments on social media… and that is the invitation to go beyond the weeds, those places of opinions and preferences, to go deeper into our hearts so that our inmost concerns and fears and hopes might be spoken and held as sacred.Heart flame

 

How often are we given the space to be truly heard?

 

Being the priest means that I’m given the pulpit, that I’m called to teach and guide and continue to point to Christ but it’s never a one-sided conversation.  I am well-trained and have experience but offer what I have and who I am in profound humility because I don’t have all the answers and this is God’s Table, not mine.

Listening to you and what’s on your heart is, ultimately, the only way I can be of service to you.  So, just as I did when I first arrived here, I continue to welcome and cherish each opportunity to listen.  Because I’m here to be your pastor.  And I’m here to help guide this congregation of St John’s as we grow into what God is calling us to become.

May we all seek to understand.  May we all seek to console.
May we all strive to see through the eyes of Christ.

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Truth and Good Soil

For this week’s readings, click here.
I saw a movie this week called Beatriz at Dinner.  Ever since I saw the trailer for this movie several months ago, I’ve been waiting for its release.  It’s a powerful movie about money and privilege, oppression and racism, capitalism and the plight of the earth, our home.  So, there is a lot going on.

I was mildly annoyed at the end of the movie, however.  It didn’t have a typical Hollywood ending.  I won’t spoil it for you, should you wish to go and see it.  But I wasn’t alone in this. I read some reviews and spent time in conversation with others who had seen it and we were all kind of scratching our heads.

Some of us liked being left wondering.
Some of us stayed annoyed, preferring to have a story make sense so that we clearly know the lesson we’re supposed to learn and move on.
And some of us, just wanted to be entertained, not to think too hard.

It seems a common set of responses to a story:  we like to get the point of the story or we like to keep chewing on its meaning or we just want to be entertained.

We have the same problem with parables.  Often, they aren’t what we want them to be.
There are layers of meaning that we would rather not have to deal with because we want easy to digest lessons.

Now, I can appreciate that.  I’m learning to cook vegan dishes right now with a program called Purple Carrot.  I’m deeply grateful that the recipes aren’t written in parables.  There are no metaphors.  No poetry.  No imagery.  No wordiness.  The instructions are clear, concise, descriptive, and straightforward.  I am learning a lot as I execute these recipes.  They are written well and offer some explanation for the why behind what I’m doing.

Unfortunately, God isn’t as simple as that.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a little more involved than a vegan recipe. As a matter of fact, the nature of God is mysterious – like a lemon seed on a counter.  You can never quite grasp it because it slips from your fingers as you try.  You can see it.  You know it’s there.  But it’s illusive and slippery.

Another way to think of this is to recognize God’s nature as Truth – truth that is startling and bright.  Poet Emily Dickinson says that the best way to tell truth is to tell it on a slant.
She says:
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
… The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –“

The Gospel Truth is, indeed, a difficult truth to take in.
If it were easy, the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized, Christ would have come back again and this moral coil would be over. God’s peace would be reigning and there would be no oppression.  Everyone would be liberated and we would live in equanimity.

And so, to help us hear the Truth, our teacher Jesus uses parables.  He teaches people by using extended metaphors that are grounded in their every day life.  He’s not exactly talking to us, however.  He’s talking to first century, illiterate peasants who were being ruled by an occupying force – the Roman Empire.

Their everyday life was one of oppression under Roman rule.  This is an important piece to understand if we’re going to understand Jesus as Messiah, to truly know what it meant to these people that this person Jesus was going to lead them to liberation.

For us, we like to put Jesus in a purely spiritual box.  But the kingdom Jesus was talking about – God’s kingdom – was one of real life liberation from real life oppression.  God’s peace was much more practical than a mystical sense of peace, of feeling good.  It was a balancing of power.

That is not to say that there is no spiritual component to this.  Not at all.  Jesus taught us how to pray, how to confess, how to heal… how to be in relationship with God.  Because this is what leads us to care for one another rather than live a self-serving, isolated life.

And this is the real point of today’s parable: if leading a spiritual life is just about feeling good, then we’ve missed the point.

To help illustrate this, we might glean a little from the missing verses in today’s Gospel reading:  verses 10-17.  What we miss is the disciples questioning Jesus about his choice to use parables.  And Jesus responds saying:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.

Another WorldIn other words, he was trying to find another way to reach people because plain language was no longer going to work with them.  These were people who were tired and disheartened.  For nearly 100 years Rome had become a military presence in the area, gaining full control about 25 years before Jesus started teaching.  For nearly 100 years these people had been hoping that the Romans would leave, that someone would come to liberate them.  Many just gave in to despair, losing hope and accepting the circumstances.  Or finding a way to profit from them.

For nearly 100 years, the Jews had heard leader after leader, speech after speech, promise after promise.  None of them knew what life was like without Roman presence.  It had become the air they breathed.  So, Jesus used a different way of talking to them to get them to see that the way things were was not how they should be.

The “vast majority of the population, about 70 percent, were peasants who worked the land and lived in the towns and villages that dotted the countryside.”  That is to say, they provided the labor.  They didn’t own the land. They just went with the land, as animals of a farm might go with the farm should it be sold.  (Herzog, pgs 63-64)

The people to whom Jesus was speaking knew little else besides agrarian practices.  They didn’t know how to read or write.  They didn’t travel or have much leisure time.  They weren’t necessarily unintelligent.  But they were limited in their experiences.

Jesus used what they knew to teach them about how was trying to work through him – to liberate themselves from tyranny and oppression.

And his first lesson is a bit of a challenge to the listeners.  He’s asking them to place themselves on a continuum.
Where do you belong, he asks.  Which one are you?

  • Are you going to be the well-trodden path?  The kind of person who is so hardened against hope that your heart has no place for the Word of God to land?
  • Or are you going to be the rocky ground?  The kind of person who likes an easy fix but won’t be bothered to stick around when the Word of God asks too much of you?
  • Or are you going to be the thorny soil?  The kind of person who knows full well what the Word of God is saying but if it conflicts with self-interest, will refuse to act upon it?
  • Or are you going to be good soil?  The kind of person who hears the Word of God and allows themselves to be transformed by it?  To be liberated by it?

And here we are in 21st century New York.  Members of the Episcopal Church, sitting in an air conditioned room on a lovely summer day.

Some of us may garden, but we don’t need to.
Some of us work, but many of us no longer have to.
Some of us have experienced oppression, but most of us have never lived with bombs dropping around us or feared deportation or wondered if we were going to make it home at night if we were stopped by police.

Liberation.pngSo, if Jesus was speaking to oppressed, illiterate, Jewish farmers who spoke Hebrew or Aramean and lived about 2000 years ago halfway around the world… what could these words possibly mean to us today?

How are we supposed to be liberated by the Word of God?
How are we being asked to be transformed by it?

Consider that for a moment.
What kind of world is God asking you to imagine?  Not what do you want, that’s a trap that will just keep you confined.
What is God asking you to consider?  What is God asking you to give up so that you will be transformed?  What is the message God is trying to get you to hear?

And remember, it may be something that has never occurred to you before because we are so used to breathing the air of our circumstances – just like the Jews were so used to the Roman presence that they couldn’t imagine an existence without that.

What is the wildest thought that you think is impossible because you’re too conditioned by the world to imagine it might be the Word of God?  What is God’s hope that you are scared to let take root in your heart?

Now, here’s the Good News.

Parable of the Sower ShirtsWe are not one or the other… on Jesus’ list, we are not one or the other.
We are not either the hardened path with absolutely no hope or the rocky ground that just wants things to be easy.
We are not either the thorny overgrowth who is too self-interested or the good soil who finally gets it in some transformational ah-ha moment.

We are all of them.  At different points in our lives, we have been and will continue to be all of them.  And that’s Good News because there is good soil.
There is always good soil.

And God is always sowing seeds in us.  Always and forever.
Never giving up on us.
Never ceasing Her Love for us or His desire for us to hear the Word of God that is Christ.

But the challenge of this parable is always going to be there.
What kind of soil are we today?

ListeningAnd so I return to the questions: What is God asking of you right now?
What is the Truth that Jesus is asking you to consider, perhaps, for the first time in your life? What is God asking you to give up so that you will be transformed?

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Rest

You can find this week’s scripture readings by clicking here.
Something miraculous happened to me about two weeks ago:  I got a cpap machine.  (cpap=continuous positive airway pressure)

For the past 3 years or so, I’ve been in this seemingly endless cycle of feeling overwhelmed and never feeling like I had enough energy to attend to things.  All my attempts to improve my health just made things worse – more exhaustion, more weight gain, more feelings of being overwhelmed… and my blood pressure creeped up.  In March, I was finally able to schedule a physical with a new doctor here in town and I asked her to prescribe a sleep study.  And that’s what did it.Lion resting

There was nothing more I could *do* to feel better.  What I needed was rest.
What we all need… is rest.

So, I’m reading Jesus’ invitation with this deep appreciation now:
Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  (Matt. 11:28)

And it reminds me of a poem by William Wordsworth, echoing Jesus’ invitation to rest from the world that can make us so weary:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

It’s the “world” we humans create that both Jesus and Wordsworth are speaking to:
The distractions, the addictions, the stuff,
the wars, the fear, the power-mongering,
the judgment, the comparison, the disparity of wealth,
the pundits, the politics, the bombs, the money, the greed,
the unkindness and name-calling, the positions and controversy,
the self-righteous opinions, the gossip,
the hate, the borders, the walls,
the nations, the governments, the guns.

The things we think are right and the things we think are wrong and the belief that we alone have the authority to discern such things.

The world is too much with us, indeed.  We have given our hearts away.  And we are carrying heavy, heavy burdens.  We really think it’s all up to us – that we carry the judgment of God on our shoulders, deciding what is right and what is wrong.
Is it really any wonder we struggle to get through the day sometimes? Are we really surprised that we reach for some way to quiet the swell of panic or fear or pain that arises in us?  We keep trying to plug the holes when what we really need is rest.

Because in all of this, we can so easily forget our blessed nature.  We can forget that we are created and good.  That all of Creation was made from the same elements and God called it all good at the beginning of the beginning.

We are good.  We are holy.  We are the beloved children of God all formed of the same earth, breathing the same breath.  Jesus is asking us to remember this and attend to it.

Rest here benchCome to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matt. 11:28-30)

This yoke that Jesus talks about refers to spiritual discipline.  Not a discipline of doing, but of releasing.  To lay our burden down, the burden of trying to be God.  And, instead, remember ourselves and return to Love.

This word yoke is translated from the Greek word (d)zugos, refers to the heavy wooden bar that would join a pair of oxen in the field, enabling them to work together to pull a single plough.  So, in the minds of those who were listening to Jesus, they picture this wooden bar that they have lain on the necks of their beasts of burden, meant to join a pair together, to work together.

This is not a harsh yoke.  But it is a yoke, something that joins us with another.  He is asking us to accept a discipline, to be joined with Jesus in this discipline so that the work of being in the world is easier.  We don’t have to do it alone.  This discipline will bring rest to our souls.

Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans this week: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  (Rom. 7:15-25)

He’s talking about undisciplined behavior.  He’s talking about the ways in which we temporarily forget who we are and whose we are. We forget that we belong to God and we mistakenly think we belong to ourselves alone and that we have no need to rely upon God.

And we stop praying.  We stop listening.
And we surround ourselves with only those voices who agree with us, who reinforce what we already believe to be true.
This is far from discipline.  This is indulgence.  This is addiction.  And this is when substance abuse can kick in.

Most people think that addiction is all about the substance itself.  But ask anyone who has dealt with addiction, really dealt with addiction, they are actually dealing with the thoughts, emotions, beliefs, prejudices, and patterns that lead to reaching for the substance itself.

It’s why the 12-steps are not a checklist about removing temptations, but about learning how to respond differently to the world, how to form new habits of thought, new emotional patterns, how to find a sense of rest in the chaos of the world.  And it requires confession.  Steps 4-7 get directly to the point:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

It sounds a lot like our Confession.  I’ve spoken about the act of Confession before in sermons and in one on one conversations and other places.  Confession is not a part of our worship because the hierarchy of the church thinks we need to spend time feeling bad about ourselves.

prayer 2The purpose of confession is exactly the opposite, actually.  Its purpose is to offer rest.  Deep rest.  Think about where it is in our worship:  We have just heard the Word of God and then we pray for the world… offering our compassion, our hope, and our love for the world.

And then we have the Confession.
Before we share the Peace, we have Confession.
Before we come to the Table of Reconciliation, we have Confession.
Why?
Because we have to pray for ourselves.  We have to be at peace with ourselves before we can be at Peace with one another.
We have to spend time reconciling with ourselves before we can be at a Table of Reconciliation with everyone else.
This is the discipline that Jesus is talking about. This is the rest that Jesus offers to us.

He says, Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  prayer

Confession is the time we pray for ourselves and our own restoration. To acknowledge that we have missed the mark this week in our efforts to follow Jesus… and to be brave and be as specific as we can.  Did I speak badly about another person?  Did I treat people with respect?  Did I blame someone else for my reaction?  Did I act in anger?  Did I do what I could to help other people?  Did I respect myself?  Did I love myself?  Did I take care of myself?

Confession is the time in our worship when we rest deeply in God’s Love for us.  When we recognize that: I’m deserving of my own compassion.  I’m deserving of my own hope.  And I deserve to act in accord with God’s holy law.  Because I am God’s beloved, holy Creation.

Jesus doesn’t give us a set of laws – rules to keep us in line that we just use to keep other people in line.  Jesus gives us 2 commandments and trusts us to figure it out from there:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s not that we are called to do nothing, my friends.  On the contrary, the Gospel is very clear… we are called to mission, to be in the world.  This rest that Jesus offers us is not a perpetual vacation from the world… that’s addiction.  This rest that Jesus offers us is found in the discipline of continually laying our burdens down and returning to the Law of Love and then acting in the world from that place.

The place where we stop trying so hard to master the world and just rest in the heart of Christ.  Where we are freed from the burdens we’ve been carrying for so long.  The place that reminds us of who we are and whose we are.  Where we know a sense of peace without the ideas of right and wrong, where Love is the only thing that is real.

Keith HaringBecause we are only called to Love.  And to spread that Love to others.  It is from this place and this place alone that we humans discover our creations and our efforts are not burdensome nor wearisome, but are generative and productive.

Because we are doing our work in the world, not alone, but yoked by Jesus’ law of Love:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

May Love be our discipline.  May Christ be our home.  May we find rest.

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Offering Ourselves

Abraham must have been very certain about what he was doing to risk the blessing that God had given him.  He must have thought he was right.

Abraham was told that he would be the father of many nations.  God had said: “No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”  Abram and Sarai were very old when they were told they would be parents – long past the age of conceiving.  And then Abraham and Sarah had Isaac, a name that means laughter.  So Isaac was Abraham’s legacy – his progeny.  Abraham is referred to as blessed because of this.

It’s clear from the passage that God is testing Abraham… but why?  For what purpose?  Is it this test that gives Abraham the descriptor of “blessed” – he has passed the test so now he is blessed, he is deserving?  The scripture certainly does read that way.

A lot of ink has been spilled on interpreting this story – the Binding of Isaac.

  • Some scholars argue that Abraham was righteous, focused on God’s Will. Willing to sacrifice everything, even his legacy – his own flesh and blood – to obey God.
  • Others argue that he was a fool, stupid. Focused on his own salvation, on what he thought was God’s Will.  Blind to what he was actually doing, saved from himself only at the last minute by God’s angel.
  • Still others argue that this is a metaphor for Abraham’s willingness to surrender his dearest treasure, his son to God’s purpose. In essence, giving up his fatherhood, his rights over his son.

My question for Abraham is: “Why are you so certain about what God is telling you this time?”  I remember that it was Abraham who had questioned God about the destruction of Sodom… questioned God’s decision to destroy an entire city, the righteous and the sinful together.

So, I want to say to him: “Y stopped God from destroying a whole city and you’re going to surrender your son?  You’re not going to question God about this?  This relationship that means everything to you, that you cherish beyond measure… you would rather be right and destroy this relationship than to stop and question your own certainty?”

And I wonder, what is it that creates that certainty in us that we are willing to replace righteousness for relationship?  How often have we done something that indicates we’d rather be right than be in relationship?  Why are we so concerned with our own justification?  To make sure that we are deserving of God’s blessing upon us? And how do we know who is deserving of God’s blessing?  Because we say so based on our standards?

Depending on how we see ourselves and our relationship with God, we may be convinced that our trials in life are what make us deserving – the long-suffering servant from today’s psalm: How long, O Lord?  will you forget me for ever? how long will you hide your face from me? But I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
Or perhaps it’s our piety/faith makes us deserving.  If we do the right thing.
Or if we just believe hard enough, we will be blessed.

But what we fail to see so often is that we are already blessed.  We forget that God blessed all of creation when She made it.  When He formed us from the earth, God called us good.  We have already been given life.  Breath.  This flesh.  This incarnate, finite existence… to feel joy, love, to celebrate… to share with one another.  To bless one another as we have been blessed.

Today’s passage from Matthew is a part of a long set of instructions Jesus gives his disciples as he tells them to go out and preach.  To go from this place into Galilee and preach.  And since we are his disciples, we are called to listen too.  Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

In other words: Whoever welcomes you, effectively welcomes the Christ in you, which is to say, welcomes God.  Welcomes us as blessed people.  It’s the relationship we have as incarnate, finite human beings.  Enfleshed and created.  Called good by God from the very beginning.

Those who are truly hospitable to God, will be those who receive the disciples well.  Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and welcomes the one who sent me.

Granted, it’s not always easy to welcome the people who show up on your doorstep, who show up in your life.  Especially those who are unbidden, who interrupt us from the daydream we have of who we are, the people who challenge us in our lives.  We don’t want to be challenged.  We don’t want to be told that we’re wrong or mistaken about what we believe.  But we’re called to welcome them anyway as prophets.

Sometimes we become empassioned about our opinions and when people don’t agree we fold up our tent and go home.  We sacrifice again and again and again because the relationship is less important than being right.

 

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966

Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac

And so, we’re always standing there holding the knife, just like Abraham, willing to slay the very relationship that God has given us – the relationship that God called good because of the sharing of the incarnate breath.  Just to prove we are right?  Deserving?  Is that what being blessed is about?  That we get to say… “See?  I was right?  Sorry, that I failed to acknowledge your blessed nature, but I was right!”

 

 

 

Instead, what if we remembered ourselves.  What if, in that moment of sacrifice, we actually heard God’s angel saying to us:  Stop!  You silly human!  That’s not the way to honor God’s blessing.

Because if we saw ourselves as God’s beloved child, wouldn’t we be better able to receive without feeling the need to be deserving of it?  The need of prove our own righteousness?  The need for others to prove theirs?

Would we better understand that the innate blessedness of God’s creation, that God’s love that formed us in the womb is what makes us “deserving” in the first place?  Would we continue to demand that others are “deserving” of what they receive?

We have to look no further than this country’s debate over health care to realize that we have forgotten this truth.  I realize that it’s a contentious discussion about the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it.  But at the core of it is a very direct question about how we understand ourselves in relationship to God:  If we truly saw all people as God’s children, saw the entire creation as blessed and beloved (most especially ourselves) why wouldn’t we want to ensure everyone has access to good healthcare?  Our very bodies are made from the same earth by the same God.

Why would there be a need to say some are more deserving than others?  Healthcare in a tiered system.  You deserve this level.  You deserve this level and so on.

But, we all have the same incarnate flesh.  We all breathe the same air.
Why wouldn’t we want to offer what we have received? Is it because we think we need to deserve something in order to receive it so we need others to deserve it based on our standards?
Because those standards are arbitrary – different for every single person, country, system.  Are we afraid of losing it if we give it away? Do we forget that God has already called us good?

Here’s a different way of thinking about blessing:
If we start from the place of truly knowing that all of Creation is blessed and is therefore a blessing unto us… if we remembered that more often, it would enable us to be better hosts to the Christ in one another, better hosts to God in our midst.

Maybe, then, we would be less willing to fold up our tent and go home.  Less willing to lay Isaac down on the altar and sacrifice the relationship for the points we might score from being right.

When we realize that we are hosting God in the person we’ve been given that day is when the true blessing actually happens.  Because we are blessed when someone receives what we offer.  Not when we receive but when we are received.  We are seen.  When we offer love, offer kindness, offer compassion, offer ourselves as an audience.  And that is received.

We offer and we offer.  And then offer again.  This is the self-emptying we are called to do as Christians.

When we make of ourselves and offering and sacrifice to God… that’s not just a request to put money in the plate.  What we’re offering is ourselves at this Table of Reconciliation every week.  Ourselves in prayer.  Ourselves in connection, in relationship with one another. We are emptying ourselves.

And in doing so, we are host to God in Christ – if just for that moment every week and we practice this and eventually we remember to offer ourselves when we go out every week.  This is what Jesus is talking about when he calls us to go out and peach: Leave here with what you learn and go and do likewise out in the world.  To be a blessing is to receive a blessing.

This is what Jesus is saying when he says: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

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Guest Post – Deacon Sue Bonsteel

You can read the readings for Lent IV by clicking here.

img_20161029_165133434Every so often I am startled by how unaware I am of my surroundings. There have been times when I get behind the wheel of my car and wonder how I arrived at my destination safely. If you’ve experienced it (and I know many of you have), it’s unnerving.  There’s a name for it – it’s called a dissociative state – a split in awareness between the normal conscious mind and other thought processes. It can range from mild to extreme, from normal to seriously disruptive. An example is when we carry out a normal motor task absent-mindedly – anything from knitting to pulling weeds to driving. We operate on “auto pilot” until something snaps us out of it – a phone call, a neighbor shouting hello, a red light. Dissociative states are very common when highly practiced motor skills are involved. People who work on assembly lines, for example, can let their minds wander and yet complete the task. Have you ever gotten “lost” in a book or a movie; or found yourself daydreaming? These are all normal, short-lived processes. We just “lose touch” with our immediate surroundings.

There are other explanations as to how we distance ourselves from what is around us that have nothing to do with “spacing out,” as we like to call it. Over our lifetime we cultivate practices that enable us to become unseeing people.  The routines we create in our life involving school, work, chores, family responsibilities can cause us to develop tunnel-vision – a single-minded concentration on one thing while ignoring others. So we focus on the task at hand or what is going on in interior selves and lose sight of the world in all its richness. We stop being mindful of the colors and sounds of creation and the diversity around us. Our vision becomes clouded by the repetitiveness of our day.

The risk for each one of us is when we become comfortable in our blindness – when it becomes all we know – and like a cocoon – keeps us protected from the world around us. We withdraw and see little outside our chosen field of vision.

It’s not a great place to find ourselves if our desire is to live fully as God’s own. Just consider the story of the blind man.

Many in the walked passed the blind beggar over the years but apparently few truly saw him. It wasn’t because he wasn’t always there; they knew that he was blind from birth. But it was because those who passed him on their way stopped seeing him as a human being. Rushing off to their destinations, they became increasingly blind to his humanity. Perhaps there was once a time when the community did wonder about him; perhaps they occasionally glanced at him; but before long they developed tunnel-vision and simply stopped seeing him as nothing more than a nuisance.

The disciples saw him – but as a convenient person whose situation made for an interesting theological question to pose to Jesus. They wanted to know: whose fault was it that this beggar was born blind? They asked Jesus, was it is his fault or his parents? Their question comes from a long-held but mistaken assumption that misfortune and illness came into one’s life as a result of some sin. So their concern was not the well-being of this man; they saw him as nothing more than a teaching moment.

In demonstrating God’s power, Jesus healed the man and his sight returned. It was more than the community could handle and so they retreated to what they knew. It was far easier and less dangerous to cling to their own understanding of power and rules and boundaries over the truth before them. They simply refused to see what was right before their eyes.

We can understand this reaction because fear does that to all of us. When we are afraid, our own tunnel-vision keeps us from seeing a larger reality and from living a larger vision. We deny what is right before our eyes and retreat to our old ways of thinking. For the truth is, if we do choose to open our eyes, then we have to confront the blindness within us in all its manifestations. That’s daunting and it can feel overwhelming. Yet if we wish to see God and the richness of life and live with others fully then we must pay attention to what is going on within us. There’s no other way. True sight begins in the heart and not the eyes.

Each of us is the blind man in this story. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest and author, puts it this way: Our sight is not about the quality of our vision or even the condition of our eyes. It is not about the lack of light around us but rather the amount of darkness within us. How we see others, how we see the world, the way we see life is less about the objects and more about our hearts. Until our eyes are opened by Christ, our seeing is just a reflection of ourselves upon the world. These are words worth considering this Lent.

If we wish to see God and live life fully with others then we must look deeply at what is going on within us. And as soon as we begin to acknowledge and accept our own fears and beliefs that live within us, we can begin to understand how they have impaired and distorted our vision. Fear narrows our world view, closing our eyes like the mud Jesus’ places on the blind man’s eyes. And if we cling to our fear, we lose the opportunity for conversion in order to be the Light in a troubled and fractured world.

Let’s put it in the context of something going on in our world now: the past several months there has been a growing movement in our area to confront the cruel deportation of undocumented people from marginalized communities. It’s a fearful time for many of our brothers and sisters; they have reason to feel unsafe due to the harsh rhetoric coming from some of our elected leaders and the constant threats leveled at them. Undocumented people are under attack and are afraid to leave their homes. Latino churches are reporting low levels of attendance. Latino children are showing signs of anxiety disorders, afraid to go to school for fear their parents may not be home when they return. It’s a terrible time for many in our own neighborhoods. Families are being torn apart; many who have no record of criminality. We – the larger community – must not be blind to their suffering. Yet it seems too many of us are.

We’ve all heard these comments: “They are illegal. “ They broke the law.” “They deserve to be deported.”  Our eyes are blinded by our fear. We hear a story of a crime committed by an undocumented person and we begin to see all people of color as threats. The restaurant workers we once greeted with a smile, we begin to ignore. We start making generalizations about the men and women who harvest our food, tend our gardens, and provide cleaning services to our homes and offices and whose children attend school with ours. We become suspicious of all who entered here from our southern border. We have stopped living in God’s world where all are valued and loved and welcomed. Instead, we begin to live in a dark world that we have created in our minds and not our hearts.

It needn’t be this way. We can choose to be people of the Light, with a vision to resist evil in all its forms including racism, sexism, homophobism, Islamophobia and those institutionalized structures that target the vulnerable.

Faithful people everywhere are finding ways to challenge the injustices. There is a resurgence of a Sacred Sanctuary movement throughout the nation. You may have also heard it called Radical Hospitality. To some extent, it is a public reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. It’s a pledge to stand with anyone under attack and to resist the evil that oppresses them. There are degrees of involvement in Radical Hospitality but may include providing safe space, food, transportation, moral and financial support to aid those being targeted as well as those left behind.  It’s a movement modeled after the early Judeo-Christian concept of sanctuary, where persons fleeing persecution could find protection in religious houses. It is a movement also founded on the religious values of compassion and love for all people.

Of course some will find this too difficult, saying this is a political issue and should be addressed by the courts. They may not see it as their concern. But it is, of course, much greater than a political issue. It is a moral issue and people of faith are being called to be moral voices in the wilderness in which we now find ourselves.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs the community to live as children of light; to find out what pleases the Lord; and not to take part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather, to work to expose them. The church therefore is to act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large. This is the challenge all of us face today. These are difficult conversations to have but they need to happen, here in church and in our homes. Our eyes must be opened to the immoral and broken systems in our society that demean the dignity and preciousness of every individual. We need to do our best and perhaps it still may not be enough, but we must try. For if truly we are to be people of the Light, then we must be willing to be changed for the sake of faith. We must be willing to see things as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

This is our work of Lent: to cast off our blindness, and to turn from our old ways of seeing ,that we may help be the Light of Christ that shines in our world today and in the days to come.

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