In Service to Love

You can read today’s scripture lessons by clicking here.

I was reading a post on FB the other day in which a friend of mine questioned the tendency amongst British clergy to use the term “dog collar” when referring to their clergy collar.  He said, “doesn’t that seem demeaning?”

At first I thought about the dryness of British humor. But as I reflected on his question in the face of today’s readings, I realized there is so much more to this – primarily because so many people see this collar as a symbol of power.  But today’s letter to Philemon helps us to realize that it’s actually about love.

Paul’s letter to Philemon a problematic text, for sure.  For centuries (and still, by some today) this short piece of Christian scripture was used to justify the abhorrent institution of slavery as being, somehow, ordained by God.  It’s proof, they say, that Paul supported slavery because he sent Philemon’s runaway slave (Onesimus) back to him.  And therefore, there is scriptural precedent that tells us slavery is ok.

There are several ways of interpreting the relationship of Onesimus to Philemon depending upon how you literally you read the text.  But the truth is, slavery was a very big part of life in the Roman Empire as it has been in every empire across the history of civilization.  And so, it’s referenced frequently in scripture.  Biblical scholars argue whether the authors of various scriptural texts actually mean servanthood of some kind when they refer to slavery or if it’s really the ownership of one person by another.

However, the long arc of Judeo-Christian scripture is a story of liberation, of freedom.  It’s one that reminds us of our connection to one another and our call to love God by loving our neighbor.  So, to me, the idea that slavery is a part of God’s plan is blasphemy and one of the most horrifying examples of an incredibly troubling tendency.

This tendency is humanity’s inclination to focus on the material things of the world, on our temporal existence, projecting what is important to us onto God and conflating what maintains the comfort of our lives with God’s dream for us.

And so, because slavery was important to the maintenance of the way things were in the founding of our beloved country, Christians argued that slavery must have been ordained by God.  It’s just the way things have to be.  It’s this very tendency to focus on our temporal existence that gets in the way of discipleship, however.

Jesus calls this out in today’s Gospel.  He says (greatly paraphrased, of course) “When you want to build a tower, you’re so concerned with losing face that your pride takes precedence over faith in God’s abundance that what you need will be provided.  And you’re so concerned with protecting what you think is yours, so concerned with winning that you only ask for peace when you know you can’t win.  So, only if you can give up your possessions, will you actually be able to follow me.”Buddy-Jesus

What he’s saying is that we weigh the cost of discipleship in worldly terms.  As if we owned our lives and everything in them in the first place.  How much can I give of myself but still maintain the life I’ve worked so hard to build, the things I own?  How can I follow Jesus and still keep my life.

This, Jesus says, is not discipleship.  Because Jesus is asking for our very lives.

Now, I realize stewardship season is fast approaching so I don’t want you to think that this is my way of asking you to give more money.  But this is about stewardship.  And this is where Paul’s letter to Philemon comes in.

Paul is in prison when he’s writing this letter.  It’s clear that he’s writing to Philemon, the head of a house church.  And we know from other sources that this church was in the city of Collosae, one of the largest cities in Asia Minor and a center for trade.  Philemon is assumed to have been wealthy and the head of a large household with many servants, one of them being a man named Onesimus.

The letter explains that Onesimus hurt Philemon by leaving him – whether that’s in monetary terms or in personal loyalty we don’t quite know.  And Paul asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus.Gita forgiveness

But more than that, to go beyond duty and take him back as a brother instead of a servant.  It’s not just the restoration of the relationship, but the birth of a new relationship in Christ.

Paul says, “… though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love..” Paul points out that it is, indeed, our Christian duty to forgive one another.  And when we are able to offer forgiveness, not from a sense of duty, but from a place of love, something deeper happens.

We loose one another from the bindings of shame and hurt and pain, not just restoring the relationship, but reconciling us to God through one another by becoming brothers and sisters.

Forgiving a debt can be hard to do.  It can also be hard to accept such forgiveness.  And not just money, but gifts and favors and simple gestures of love.  We want payback, a return on our investment, tit-for-tat… or vengeance on those who wronged us.Forgiveness Islam

Or, if we are conflict avoidant, we just get resentful until the score is even.  And before we know it, we’ve created a transactional economy in our relationships.  You take from me, I take from you.  You give to me, I give to you.

But transactional economies are always about power – who’s indebted to whom and the mistaken belief that we own the resources we have and we must protect them.  And, to some extent, this is valid… we cannot be everything for everyone so we must have some boundaries and we do have to be smart with how we use our resources and maintain a sense of equity in our relationships.

But, although we are called to be good stewards of our resources, we are just that… stewards, not owners.  And stewardship is a very different thing than ownership.

Stewardship acknowledges that there is something bigger and wider and deeper than myself to which all of this belongs – all of this worldly goodness – the things we buy, the places we go, the air we breathe, the water we drink.  To think that anyone actually owns any of it is folly.

As our Ash Wednesday service tells us, we are dust and to dust we shall return.  Because there is no ownership, except in God.  So, what exactly do we think we’re protecting when we shut ourselves down?  What kind of power do we think we are exerting when we refuse to forgive?

This is why Paul talks about love over duty.  It may be our Christian duty to forgive, but until we are able to release ourselves and that other person from the binding of that hurt, until we can surrender to love, we will never be truly free.Winter Forgiveness

This is hard work but it is the most fruitful work we can ever do in our lives.  And this is the cost of discipleship – to give up our hurts and our pain and all the ways in which we think we need to keep other people bound to us.

Setting ourselves free by setting other people free is what is means to be a disciple.  And this begins in love.  A love that is not localized but that flows through us – so that when this person hurts us, we still know we are loved and are able to love because that person loves us – and this knowledge gives us strength to offer love to this person despite being hurt by them.

And when we practice this, we start to realize that love extends even beyond this borrowed strength.  That because we are wholly and ferociously loved by God, we are able to love ourselves enough so we can stop seeking to be loved in particular ways by other people.

We stop needing to be special or smart or good or stylish or well-off.  We forgive ourselves for all the ways in which we think we are undeserving of love and we become released from the tyranny of our own lesser angels.

We begin to understand that love is not, nor was it ever something that can be contained or owned or enslaved, but it must be shared in order to be experienced at all.

And this is when we become a servant of love.  This is when we, like Paul, become a prisoner of Jesus the Christ.

This opening of our heart is how we give our lives.  It is the cost of our discipleship.

And so I return to the FB conversation about dog collars.  This collar, to me, is an icon of love, not a symbol of power and so I find nothing demeaning about calling this collar a dog collar because I find nothing demeaning about being a servant of love.

On the contrary, if I could ever truly manage to surrender myself to the God of Love… I would be more free than I could ever imagine.

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On Hospitality

You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.

An aboriginal elder named Lilla Watson has worked toward reconciliation in her native Australia for decades helping to reclaim the culture of aborigines and working to restore their rights in the aftermath of British colonialism.  She offers one of the most beautiful quotes about our entangled lives as God’s creatures:LWatson2

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

 So often I hear hospitality used to describe something we offer to another for their benefit.  Being hospitable seems to be synonymous with being gracious and kind to someone who is in need – perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of a sense of duty.
“We have much, so let us share our good fortune with those who are less fortunate.”

And this is valid.  It has merit.  So many of us do have a lot to be thankful for and, therefore, a lot to give… even, sometimes, when we don’t have a lot to share.  And when we are generous, we are often rewarded with an equally gracious thank you and a warm feeling that we have just done good in the world, even if it’s a small thing.  And for those of us who have been on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity, it can sometimes be embarrassing, but mostly it’s just overwhelming to be offered kindness when we are most in need.  It can bring us to our knees.

But I think there is more to hospitality than this because hospitality is not simply about “giving.”  Hospitality is about bring in real relationship with another, which is a very different thing than simply being generous.  Hospitality isn’t about giving from our abundance so that others are cared for.  Or about offering a comfortable Martha Stewart-like space.

Hospitality is about the willingness to be changed by another’s presence, the belief that just as I have something to offer to another, that person has something to offer me.  Not as a transaction.  No.  But out of the belief in one another’s holiness.Vanier Hauerwas

Sometimes when I’m preparing a sermon, I walk around in my office in a form of prayer past the ridiculous number of books I have until my eyes land on something that, I hope, will give me insight into the passage.  Yesterday when I was praying, I picked up a book called Living Gently in a Violent World.  I sat down and opened it to a random page.  Surprisingly, today’s passage from Luke was right there.  That never happens so I took it as a sign that I was supposed to use it.

One of the book’s authors, Jean Vanier, is the founder of something called the L’Arche Community.  L’Arche started in France, the word meaning “arch” in English.  L’Arche communities in the United States “provide homes and workplaces where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together as peers; create inclusive communities of faith and friendship; and transform society through relationships that cross social boundaries.”

And in this book I picked up, Vanier claims that today’s Gospel is a foundational text for the L’Arche communities… because he believes this text gets to the essence of what it means to be in relationship to another – relationships that will transform society by transforming one another.

Luke’s Gospel is full of passages in which Jesus brings light to the shadows of our practices and institutions.  A few weeks ago, I offered a portrait of Jesus as a rabble rouser, someone who went to Jerusalem to teach, gather crowds, create disorder and agitation as a means of shining light onto the unjust systems of power that marginalize and divide.

And here, Jesus brings this Christ light again and shines it on the elitism of the Jewish hierarchy.

Jesus is in the house of one of the Pharisees (the sect of Judaism most insistent on ritual laws and sanctity) and they are watching him closely (so he’s already irritated them and they’re just looking for a reason to call him out) and it’s the Sabbath.

What is missing from this passage (verses 2-6) is that Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath (in direct opposition to Jewish practice), challenging the Pharisees while doing so, to which they offer no reply, only silence.

And then Jesus shines light onto their table practices – practices of pride and superiority, of elitism and exclusivity – and offers a different understanding of what the Table is for:

“He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The Last Supper by Raoef Mamedov

The Last Supper by Raoef Mamedov

In other words, invite those who you look down upon, who would give you nothing in return, who you would rather not acknowledge… invite, not so that you might feel good about yourself or even because it’s the right thing to do, but invite because you expect to be transformed by their presence.Mamedov.png

Can you imagine?  Can you imagine a Table like that?  Can you imagine inviting the people who drive you crazy?  The people who are least like you? The ones with no social status, no table manners, no home?  Can you imagine inviting someone without the expectation of gratitude, without the desire for reciprocity?

From the homeless person who shows up in our garden, to the new family who joins us for

The Gentile Embrace by Johan Andersson

The Gentile Embrace by Johan Andersson

worship.  From the Interim Music Director who comes to help us for a time, to the person who speaks too harshly to the person who is always kind to the friend who has moved away.  From the parts of ourselves we most want others to know to the parts of ourselves we never want anyone else to find out about.

Piasecki

Last Supper by Bohdan Piasecki

From all the parts of God’s creation we enjoy and revel in most to the pieces of God’s creation we fear and would rather not acknowledge… the Table of Reconciliation insists that it all belongs.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This is the essence of hospitality – about seeing the other person as holy, not disadvantaged.  About anticipating friendship instead of anticipating need.  About welcoming transformation rather than fearing change.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today says:
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Behind this instruction is the assurance that the boundaries we create between ourselves and the other are false boundaries – that when one person is in prison a part of us is in prison, when one person is being tortured, a part of us is being tortured.

And this mutual love comes through hospitality, the willingness to be changed by another to be responsible for one another.  These angels we entertain are those who bless us in some way with their presence when we open our hearts to be in relationship with them, to be changed by them.

So, when we see another who we deem as needy, who we have determined is somehow disadvantaged… the reason we offer hospitality is not, “there but for the grace of God go I”… the reason we offer hospitality is because, as Lilla Watson says, our liberation is bound up together.

This is what Jean Vanier and the L’Arche Communities across the world teach us – that mutuality is key in our care for one another because this is the essence of friendship.
And this is what it means to come to the Table together – that all of Creation is reconciled to one another in mutuality, that nothing and no one is left out.  Everything belongs.

Hospitality isn’t about being nice.  Hospitality is about being open to transformation.  It’s about choosing love despite the sometimes very real experience of fear, and offering that love as an opening to new life through a new relationship.

The Table of Reconciliation that Jesus offers us in the Gospel, indeed, this Table of Reconciliation where we gather every week, is a place where everyone and everything belongs.
All of our fears and hopes.  All of our homelessness and disease.
All of our faults and gifts.  All of our selves and all of our neighbors.
All.  All.  All.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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The Discomfort of Hope

You can read today’s scripture passages by clicking here.
Sometimes hope isn’t all that comforting.  Believe it or not, Jesus, in his pronouncement of division and fire, is offering hope.
When we get to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for quite a while.  Although the city was subsumed in the enormity of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem was the seat of power among the Jews.  It had been for centuries – since King Solomon took the Ark of the Covenant and entombed it in the first Temple.  But several centuries later, when Jesus was living, what remained was a Jewish hierarchy who was kowtowing to the Roman oppressors to maintain their own power while the Jewish people remained subjugated.  It was an unjust system.
And Jesus went to Jerusalem, knowing that to bring his teaching in the midst of the hierarchy, would be confronting systemic power.  All the Gospel writers talk about his trip to Jerusalem in one way or another, recognizing it as a politically subversive act.
His teachings came out of the Hebrew Scriptures – writings filled with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Hosea and Amos and, like today’s, Isaiah.  And these prophets had been constant critics of the powers that be – reminding the Israelite leadership of their responsibility for the weak and the oppressed and how disappointed God was because they failed to live out God’s covenant, becoming too invested in maintaining the system of power at the expense of those it subjugated.
Centuries later, Jesus saw the same thing happening in his time – the Jewish leadership and Roman overlords, who were responsible for looking after the good of the people, were more interested in maintaining power than in caring for the whole.  So he went to challenge the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, which he knew would also upset the Roman governor.  And he also knew he was taking his life in his hands in doing so.
While he was there, he taught and gathered crowds, creating disorder and agitation and he broke Jewish laws, flouting the Jewish authority.  Jesus and his disciples were, to put it bluntly, rabble rousers.  And he was executed for it.
So when we have Jesus in today’s Gospel, talking about division and fire, it’s important to understand the context.  He was talking about exposing and tearing apart the existing human system because it had become oppressive.  It had become sinful.
For those who were invested in the system, this didn’t sound like hope.  It sounded like division and so he named it as such.  Human systems are a natural part of our functioning because we are inherently social creatures.  Clubs, social groups, networks, teams, workgroups, communities.  Remember the 80’s television show Cheers, about a place where “everybody knows your name.”
We feel supported by these communities and circles of friends.  We feel cared for and invited and we have a sense of group identity.  It’s human nature to form tribes, to form cohesive groups where we can feel safe, feel seen, feel as though we belong.  And these tribes develop rules of behavior, whether they are written or unwritten, patterns that order the society of the group that help us to know how to act.
More often than not, however, this desire for systemic community can develop into a tribalism, a need to protect and defend the tribe from influence that seems foreign or that seems to threaten the status quo in some way.
Inevitably, the system starts to function at the expense of others – people are stifled or left out, seen as expendable in some way, even treated with disdain, oppressed or killed.
Even still, the rules of the tribe become an entrenched pattern that is unquestioned – the air in which we breathe.  We just accept the rules of institutions and the laws of governments and the cultural expectations of society and they become so much a part of the way things are that, over time, we are unable to see that there is anything but this way of being.
But those with the privilege of belonging usually aren’t going to risk upsetting the tribal rules that order the community even if they were able to see what it does to others.  Because the way things are is just the way things are.
BabeThere’s a movie called Babe.  One of my very favorite movies.  It’s about life on a small sheep farm.  The creatures on this farm have all learned the deal – they know their purpose and have ordered life accordingly.
  • Only dogs and cats are allowed in the house.
  • The dogs think the sheep are stupid and the sheep think the dogs are bullies.
  • Farmer Hogget and his wife are the bosses of the whole thing.
  • And, of course, some animals are meant to be eaten.
And then a young pig named Babe comes along.  The mama dog named Fly takes Babe under her care and Babe begins to learn what it’s like to be a sheepdog, which is unusual because pigs don’t hang out with sheepdogs and they certainly aren’t supposed sleep in the barn or go in the house.  And Babe comes to find a place in the life of the farm, despite the system that says pigs are meant to be eaten.
But the wheels begin to come off the wagon when Farmer Hogget starts to see Babe acting like, well, like a sheep pig.  Babe begins to look after the sheep like a sheepdog would and, with a little coaching from Fly, learns how to help Farmer Hogget with his sheep.
Babe is no longer Christmas dinner.  Babe is a sheep pig.
Well, the idea of a sheep pig sends the farm into chaos – the cat gets jealous and whispers words of fear, the older dog gets angry because he’s lost his place as the boss’s trusted sidekick and he starts to attack, the sheep get a little confused but are ultimately happier because Babe doesn’t bully them the way the dogs do, and Mrs. Hogget starts to think her husband is deeply disturbed and becomes embarrassed among her friends.
This story, this parable, if you will, is a much gentler version of our readings today.  Because it’s about how when we unveil an unjust system for what it is, it can feel as though the wheels are falling off the wagon.  Even though it’s hopeful, it can feel like division.
From Isaiah:
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!
Isaiah is saying God will remove favor and let Israel destroy itself because Israel offered bloodshed instead of justice and suffering instead of righteousness.
The prophets believed that the ancient Israelites had incurred God’s wrath because they had failed God by failing the covenant they made with God to care for the whole of God’s people.  Power was used to maintain the system of privilege in Israelite society instead of honoring the God of life by caring for the alien and the neighbor, which is explicitly called for in Jewish law.
In his book called Reality, Grief, and Hope, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says:
“The prophets expose the ideology-enthralled regime of Jerusalem as failing in covenantal, neighborly practice… [this involves] both an indictment and a sentence.  It will not surprise that the indictment basically concerns two matters, the abuse of neighbors, especially vulnerable neighbors, and the dishonoring of God.”
His point is, that in Israel’s understanding of itself as God’s chosen people, it has created a human system in which “the dominant culture [had], in its chosenness, failed to love neighbor and so has failed to regard the weak, poor, and vulnerable as legitimate members of the community.”  (pgs 19-20)
And when this is pointed out… when the system is exposed for its tribalism, its sin, its failure to uphold the covenant, the wheels fall off the wagon.  Just like they did on Farmer Hogget’s farm.
People get jealous and whisper words of fear.
People get angry and attack the perceived problematic element.
People get confused and unsure how to handle the shifts and changes, even if they benefit from them.
And people become embarrassed to be associated with the person who is willing to take the risk.
It feels like division… like:
Father against son and son against father
Mother against daughter and daughter against mother…

But really… it’s a form of unveiling.  And, ultimately, it’s hope.

Opening Curtains

The veil is being pulled back as problems with the system are revealed.  And this is what Jesus had come to Jerusalem to expose.
He’s shining the light of Christ on the shadow of the system.
He’s telling us that the Gospel, the Good News, is that the Christ light that shines through the darkness of the world, the darkness generated by the very systems we created and in our blindness and, sometimes, willful ignorance, perpetuate to ensure our own power, our own status quo remains intact.
This is a hard, hard thing to understand and tolerate and even harder to appreciate and welcome.  Because for the people of privilege, for the people who have never had to tolerate oppression or marginalization by the power structures, it feels like loss.  It feels like all the values we’ve ever held dear are now being dishonored.  And we feel dishonored and threatened.
And even for the people of no privilege, it feels confusing and risky… almost like “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  And we know we’ll be blamed for the resulting chaos on Hogget’s Farm.
But the Gospel is very clear that Jesus came to liberate, to expose and overturn unjust systems.
  • From Mother Mary’s announcement of her pregnancy in Luke’s Gospel in which she understands her role as the lowly servant who has been asked to bear such a honor, saying “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and… brought down the powerful from their thrones.”  (Luke 1:46-55)
  • To the Beatitudes in which Jesus claims the weak, the poor, the oppressed… are blessed along with those who seek peace and offer mercy.  (Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26)
  • To Jesus’ insistence on flouting the Jewish rules against eating with the outcasts and consorting with lepers. (Luke 5: 27-32; 7:36-50; 14: 12-14; 17:11-19; 19:7-10)
  • All the way to his death, a highly political death in which the powers that be were attempting to keep the rabble rousers in their place by executing the one who risked his life because he exposed the sin of the system.  (Luke Chapter 23)
Jesus, our savior and messiah, taught us that the light Christ shines in the world, shines so that we might see the dark shadows of our own systems… and see through our own jealousy and anger and confusion and embarrassment.  Christ’s light shines so that we can bring our fears into the light and see a new way – a way we might reform the system or, even, let the system die.
And, as disquieting as it is, Jesus is reminding us of our own hypocrisy, noting our preference to remain comfortable rather than interpret what’s happening as a call to our own transformation.
A few weeks ago, I reminded you all that we are the hope – the Body of Christ who so earnestly seeks to find the image of God in one another.  Hope lies in our hands and feet and hearts and minds.
What is being unveiled right now?  What are the signs we’re being called to interpret?  Where is Christ’s light shining on the shadows of our unjust human systems?
Because Jesus reminds us today that hope isn’t about our own comfort, our individual desires and the things we want out of life.
Hope is about God’s Reign of justice and love.
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Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

You can find today’s readings by clicking here.

Today’s story from Luke is a bit tricky. Jesus is asked by “someone in the crowd” to be the arbiter in a brotherly dispute over inheritance.  It’s a prayer, really.Lex tshirt
There’s a saying in the church – Lex orandi, lex credendi.
It’s Latin.  And it roughly translates to: how we pray, is how we believe.
It points to the importance of worship and prayer in forming what we believe about God.

And here we have a man in the crowd who is, essentially, praying to Jesus.  And so, this is a bit of a tricky passage.
On the one hand, we can understand the plight of the one who cries out for help… wouldn’t we feel the same if we were cut out of the family inheritance?  Wouldn’t we want to see justice done?  Wouldn’t we want to appeal to a wise judge to get what we believe to be fair?  And don’t we expect Jesus to be just that kind of judge – someone who preaches “love your neighbor as yourself”?  Wouldn’t we expect him to be that kind of savior?  That kind of messiah?  The one who will save us by doing our bidding?

But he doesn’t take it on.  Jesus resists the role of champion to this man’s plea.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  He tells the man, “no.”
This passage is clearly about greed and about how we can all get sidetracked by the trappings of the culture around us, so much so that we put more faith in the things that will make our lives feel easier so we can “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” than putting our faith in God.

And we do this to such an extent sometimes that our prayers look kind of like this man’s who yells from the crowd: “God, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
But this passage is about more than just greed.  It’s about how we try to conform the world to our desires, our needs, our expectations.

Lex orandi.  Lex credendi.  How we pray is how we believe.

Jesus refuses because he perceives this man has a skewed understanding of life – that it’s not about what we can obtain, but is about what we are already given.  It’s not about making the world conform to our own needs and desires, it’s about opening up to how we can help one another in our lives together.

It’s about the Reign of God.

How do we pray?  What do we pray for?
Do we pray?  Do we offer prayers?
And how does this practice of prayer reflect or inform our belief about God?

It’s curious, the things we expect God to provide us.  The things we expect God to do for us.  The things we expect God to be for us.

What we don’t often realize about ourselves, is that we are theologians.  All of us are theologians.  Because we all have a way in which we’ve defined God, defined our relationship with God.  Sometimes, however, we aren’t given too much opportunity to reflect on it and put words to it.  So, I’m going to ask you to do that now.

Take a few moments and reflect… What are your expectations of God?
When you pray, what do you pray for?
How do you participate in that prayer?
You don’t have to share this reflection with anyone.  Just try to be as honest as you can with yourself.
What do you expect in your relationship with God?
How do you expect God to treat you?  How do you expect God to treat others?  How do you pray?

Now, take a few more moments and consider how this shapes your belief in God.  What does your prayer life tell you about what you believe about your relationship with God?

This is the work of theology.  Whenever we take the time to reflect on our relationship with God.  When we take the time to name it and express it… we are being theologians.

It’s not always easy to accurately describe our relationship with God – God is hard to define and, is therefore a mystery to us in many ways.  And it’s also not always easy to admit our deepest beliefs.  But it’s important to reflect on our own theology for three reasons:

  • So that we can be more clear with ourselves about our relationship with God. Taking the time to reflect on and articulate our theology is integral to our faith.  And know that it’s not a done deal.  As we learn and grow as human beings, God expects us to continue to grow and mature in our own faith.
  • So that we come to be more appreciative of this process in others, knowing that not everyone is going to believe the same things about God that we do.  And, most importantly, the fact that someone believes something else doesn’t diminish our own faith.
  • So that we can give voice to our beliefs and talk about our faith with others and come to understand one another more deeply.  Not trying to get them to conform to your expectations, but, instead, wondering what can you learn from them and how we can accompany each other on our journey in faith.

None of this is easy.  Because all of this is deeply personal.  And it can make us feel anxious to share it because sharing our faith is a vulnerable thing.

I was speaking to a woman who is a therapist here in Kingston the other day.  She was telling me that she’s witnessing a dramatic rise in anxiety right now.  She sees it in the organizations she works with and in the stories she hears from individuals and how they are interacting in their families and at their workplaces and in relationships with one another.  I don’t know if you can feel it too.  I know I can.

And when we feel anxious, we tend to pull inward with concern for our own needs and desires.  And we look for other people who have the same needs and desires, like-minded people.  We try to get others on our side and end up creating division as we look for the people or the person to blame for our anxiety.

And right now, our national political climate is pretty toxic.  We listen to news reports and all we hear is that our country is divided or we see things changing that make us uneasy or we get discouraged from too much action or a lack of action.  This heightened anxiety is effecting just about everything right now.

Jesus’ refusal in today’s Gospel reading is a helpful reminder about this anxiety.  Because it makes us more aware of how and when we do this ourselves – how and when we try to make the world conform to our own needs and desires.  How, sometimes, we let anxiety get the better of us.

He goes on to say, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  And this is exactly what happens.  When anxiety is pulling us inward and we start making demands that the world conform to our own personal needs and desires, our very soul is on the line.  Our life is being demanded of us.

And it’s why taking the time to be reflective is important.  It’s why worshipping in community helps.  It’s why bringing yourself to the Table of Reconciliation is crucial.

It opens us up when we feel scared.  It restores our unity with one another when we feel divided.  It returns us to God.  Because how we pray is how we believe.

We belong to a church – the Episcopal Church – that not only tolerates but embraces a wide range of theology.  And we honor these differences in one another, learning from one another and coming to know God more deeply as our own personal faith changes and matures.  As a community, we extend graciousness to one another rather than expecting others to conform.

This isn’t a church that tells you what you are supposed to believe.  This is a church that helps you ask and reflect on your own questions about God so that you might deepen your own faith as a member of a diverse community.

And I love to have conversations with people about what they believe, not so I can convince them to believe what I believe.  That would be folly.  The reason I love to have those conversations is because it is my sincere joy to help people find the next question on their journey of faith.  To help people deepen their faith so that their lives are less and less governed by fear – the fear that leads us to try to make the world conform to our needs and expectations… and more and more opened by love.

So that we might glimpse the Reign of God.

But really… I love to have these conversations because I learn from you.  My faith is deepened and challenged and opened up.  My relationship with God is clarified and obscured at the same time.  I am always changed by conversations about faith.

So, even though these conversations make us feel vulnerable and anxious, if we remember that the Reign of God is wider, more inclusive than anything we could imagine, we might be able to walk alongside one another instead of needing to have our desires met.

Our unity is not found in thinking alike.
Our unity is found in diversity coming to the Table of Reconciliation together.

Because what divides us is not the fact that we all have different ways of seeing things.  What divides us is not that we all have different theologies and different needs and desires.  What divides us is not that we look differently and love differently and live differently.

What divides us is when we see division where none truly exists.  There is no other in the Reign of God.  Everyone belongs.  Everyone belongs.  How we pray is how we believe

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I’ll Meet You There

Click here for today’s readings.
You can listen to the sermon here as you read:

The book of Exodus describes how the Israelites were led out of slavery into the promised land of freedom.  In response, Israel enters into a covenant with YHWH who gives them their laws and guidelines for worship.

IJ ArkChapter 25 of the Book of Exodus provides very detailed instructions about building the Ark of the Covenant – a kind of container.  In it, the wandering Israelites would carry the stone tablets of the 10 commandments, the heart of the covenant between YHWH and Israel.

The Israelites were also instructed to fashion an elaborate cover for this ark – made of gold, decorated with cherubs on either end that faced each other.  This cover was called the Mercy Seat.

And in verse 22, YHWH says, “There I will meet you.”ocean field
God tells His followers, “I will meet you there, in the Mercy Seat.”
“I will meet you there.”

In today’s collect, we ask for God’s mercy.  We’re asking God to “increase and multiply upon us God’s mercy.”
What does that mean to you?  And what does it mean to receive mercy from God?  What does it mean to ask for mercy from God? Or from another?  And what might it mean for you to offer mercy to another?

The idea of mercy is relatively simple, yet it’s a hard one to grasp because mercy is something humans find very hard to receive, to accept for themselves.  And, therefore, very hard to offer one another.

MercyMercy is sort of like the continuous offering of a free pass.
Mercy acknowledges the brokenness of the world and offers no judgment, only compassion and love.
Mercy accepts the mistaken actions and horrible deeds and yet demands no punishment, no payment, no retribution.

Mercy never insists on an apology but is always open, always ready to receive our brokenness, just as it is, because there is nothing wrong, nothing needing to be fixed or changed.

We’re always asking God for mercy during worship.  In our confession during the summer, we pray to the “God of all mercy” and then I say the absolution, “Almighty God have mercy on you…”

Mercy is the relentless belief that we’re all just doing the best that we can.  It’s a refusal to label others as evil, despite what they may do.
It’s a refusal of the idea that people must be deserving of God’s generosity and love.
It’s a part of the Exodus story because it’s about the movement from slavery to freedom.

But this idea is an affront to our understanding of what is appropriate and what makes people “good.”
Because mercy is the incessant believe that no one is outside the Reign of God.  Everyone belongs.  Absolutely everyone.

It’s no coincidence that the Mercy Seat is placed on top of the 10 Commandments.  We are asked to follow guidelines and laws so that we might care for one another in community, but they are not what define us as human beings.  They are not what characterizes our relationship with God.mercy-seat-2

What characterizes our relationship with God is our willingness to meet God in the Mercy Seat, where God is always waiting for us.
This Mercy Seat is a place set apart from the temporal world where we carry hurts and pain.  A place set apart from time and space.
It’s a place where our hearts open to God and our souls are healed of the wounds we carry.
The Mercy Seat is the eternal place where God meets us.  And sometimes, where we are able to meet one another.  Sometimes, even, where we are able to meet ourselves.

“Show us your mercy, Lord.  And grant us your salvation.”

Today’s reading from Hosea demonstrates what we typically believe about our relationship with God.  Hosea contains some of the worst passages in the whole of the Bible, starting with a particularly brutal metaphor that has resulted in a deeply misogynistic understanding of God.
We don’t read it very often with good reason.

This man Hosea uses his own broken marriage as a representation of Israel’s broken relationship with God – hence the reference “children of whoredom.”
Who are called:

  1. Jezreel (the physical location where, after Solomon died, the line of kings was first broken through an unholy alliance)
  2. Lo-ruhamah (means, literally, “not loved” to articulate the belief that we are capable of losing God’s love)
  3. Lo-ammi (means, literally, “you are not my people” to articulate the belief that God walked away from the covenant)

The children are the metaphorical fruits our transgressions.  And we truly believe this is the relationship we have with God:

  1. we do something stupid
  2. God stops loving us
  3. we no longer belong to God

It’s this belief that keeps us locked in pain, locked in the temporal world of trying to do whatever we can do get back in God’s good graces.  Or, judge other people of being worse than we are so we feel better about ourselves.

This is why mercy is one of the hardest things to implement, to experience in our day to day lives, our temporal existence.

boundThe daily judgments we make.  The daily hurts and slights we feel.
The ways in which we become transfixed by our expectations of others and how they make us angry or sad.
How we tell ourselves our own story over and over again:  I’m the one who is strong.  I’m the one who is left out.  I’m the one who can fix people.  I’m the one who won’t be tricked.  I’m the one who is smart.  I’m the one who’s stupid.  I’m the one who can’t sing.  I’m the one who needs people to help me.  I’m the one who never needs any help.  I’m the one who can help.

Whatever our story is… this is what guides and shapes and determines our temporal life.  It’s a trance that keeps us locked in the belief that we:

  1. Have done something stupid
  2. God has stopped loving us
  3. And so, we no longer belong

So we feel as if we need to do something to curry God’s favor again, something to prove we are worthy of belonging again.

I bet if I asked you to, you could list at least 5 things you believe are wrong with you.  5 things about yourself that you believe need to be corrected.  5 things that you believe are reasons that you aren’t deserving of love.Brown Story

Perhaps it has to do with your appearance.  Perhaps it has to do with how you live your life.  The family you come from.  The job you do.  Your skills and abilities or your perceived lack of skill or ability.  Perhaps it has to do with something that’s happened in your life.  The death of a loved one.  Something that happened to you.  Something you did.

All of this is a way to keep ourselves locked in slavery – slavery to a notion of pain and fear.  Because when we stop to think about it, we spend most of our lives trying to prove to ourselves how worthy or lovable or deserving or good we are.

We spend most of our lives trying to recover some sense of righteousness, or belovedness, or likeability, or specialness.  Some sense of value.

And when we get really scared, we listen to anyone who sounds more sure of things than we are.  And we blame and rant and scoff and build walls and make claims and become more entrenched in a battle stance, completely convinced that the evil over there needs to be eradicated.

And we keep the wheel turning, demanding that others fit a certain mold or expectation because we’ve forced ourselves into standards, further binding ourselves and one another.
And if they don’t fit our expectations, then we feel hurt or unacknowledged or disrespected.  Or we label them as mean or stupid or selfish.
And we convince ourselves that the other person deserves our judgment.  And then we go a step further and convince ourselves that the other person deserves God’s judgment.

We believe Hosea’s prophecy…

  1. that because we’ve/they’ve done wrong
  2. we/they deserve God’s anger instead of God’s love
  3. and we/they no longer belong

And that, is the very height of arrogance, to assign God the same judgments we have.

Because God doesn’t care about any of that.  God cares about us, yes.  But God isn’t interested in how we need to prove ourselves or punish ourselves or other people.

God doesn’t care about any of that because God is just waiting to offer us mercy so that we might offer it to one another.
How do I know that?  Because Jesus teaches us this in today’s lesson from Luke.
His disciples ask him how we’re supposed to pray and it’s simple: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We pray this all the time… right after we’ve broken the bread at the Table of Reconciliation.  We pray this all the time.

And we’re told:
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone – EVERYONE – who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and everyone who knocks the door will be opened.

It’s just that simple.  God has promised She’ll meet us there – in the Mercy Seat, where freedom can be found.

“Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”

Mercy starts with ourselves.  It starts with letting ourselves off the hook.
Because here’s the truth:
You can never do anything to make God stop loving you.
You have always belonged.

Mercy is the relentless belief that we’re all doing the best that we can.
Mercy is the incessant recognition that everyone belongs.
When we begin to believe that, we can start to help other people remember that too.  And then, the Reign of God starts to manifest before our eyes.

There is a Persian poet that many people know about.Rumi
His name is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī… or Rumi for short.

Rumi is the Islamic counterpart of our St John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich or the Venerable Bede. The mystic poets of our respective religions – the spiritual centers where there is no extremism.

Rumi would spin as a form of prayer, meditating in motion as the temporal world and all its traps and hurts and expectations blurred around the still, silent center where he would hear God speaking.

And one of Rumi’s poems is his experience of meeting God in the Mercy Seat.

He says:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

“Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”

The Field2

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Imago Dei

The readings for today can be found here.

Click here to listen to a recording as you read.

There’s a brilliant movie called Groundhog Day – a comedy that stars Bill Murray as a TV weatherman in Pittsburgh who is asked to go and film a segment on the famous weather predictor, Punxsutawney Phil.Groundhog Day

Now, for those who didn’t grow up in Western PA like I did or perhaps don’t know about this legendary icon, Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog who is dragged every February 2 from a little home they’ve built for him and he is supposed to predict how much longer winter is going to last based on whether or not he sees his shadow.
It’s a charming tradition about hope – hope for transformation into spring.
And the tradition speaks to the theme of the movie – hope for transformation.

Because Bill Murray’s character, who only cares about his own needs and treats everyone else as if they are mere objects in his world finds himself in a loop:
He wakes up each morning to the same Sonny and Cher song on the clock radio in the same B&B in Punxsutawney and runs into the same people doing the same things.  He repeats the same day over and over and over and over again, only he’s the only one who experiences this loop.

It’s quite funny for a while, as you might expect.  But eventually the story takes a dark turn as this obnoxious man becomes utterly hopeless.  Hopeless that he will never ever see the next day, that no matter what he does he will always wake up to the same day, see the same people, having no real agency in his life to truly change anything.
It becomes a kind of hell. There is no hope.  Spring will never come.  Transformation will never occur.

I start here today because I feel like we’re in a hellish loop, only there’s nothing funny about it…. I can feel myself slowly becoming more hopeless with each killing, that spring will ever come.
The events of this past week seem to prove that, as a society, we haven’t solved anything.  It’s just gotten worse.

Today’s parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable about racism. It’s a parable we hear every three years because that’s how often the lessons cycle through.  And it’s a key story in the Christian tradition.  And the trope of the “good Samaritan” is used so often (hospitals, churches, organizations) that you would think we would learn the lesson Jesus is trying to teach us.

Jesus is, of course, talking to his fellow Jews when he tells this parable.  And he knows the Samaritans were hated by the Jews because they were of another race.  He makes a very specific point in this parable:  There is no “other” in the kingdom of God.  Mercy is the only mark of the neighbor.  The person who offers mercy is the neighbor.

And this precept is not just taught in Christianity.  It’s a main theme in all the major religions:  Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
All of them teach mercy.  All of them teach that being in service to your neighbor is the highest calling.
And here’s where I feel the loop happening:  We have all of these teachings and yet we still seem to have extreme difficulty in understanding who our neighbors are and how to be a neighbor to another.  Where is our hope if it isn’t in these profound teachings?

Jesus believed deeply in a fundamental Jewish understanding about the relationship between God and humanity – that we are made in the image of God, that we all carry the image of God – the Imago Dei.Imago Dei Icon
Ancient Jewish stories, like those found in Genesis, are infused with this understanding.  The story of creation doesn’t label humanity as inherently evil or bad.  As a matter of fact, the story goes out of its way to express the deep connection between God and all of creation.
This understanding is echoed at the beginning of John’s Gospel:  In the beginning was the Word – that which was breathed into being by the God of all life – the creation of God, the voice of God, the image of God.  We are all wonderfully made in the Image of God.

And Jesus’ ministry was infused with examples of proving this despite rules to the contrary: healing outcasts, breeching boundaries, and upsetting self-righteous, rule-bound hypocrites, reminding people that the only things that really matter are: love God; love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments all of the law – the endless minutiae in Deuteronomy and Leviticus – all of the law is built on these two commandments.  And from these two commandments all the Hebrew prophets are preaching their warnings to Israel and Judah.

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke tells us that this is the way to life.
This is the way to life!
Because here’s the thing – to love your neighbor is to love God because we are all made in the image of God.  We are all, what we like to call Imago Dei.
There can be no other in the Kingdom of God because there is nothing except the Image of God in all of creation.
Therefore, mercy is the only response.

Now, this is hard to see.  I know this is hard to see because I have trouble seeing it myself most of the time:
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when people who are connected to a group named ISIS are killing my brothers and sisters all over the world, mostly in other primarily Islamic countries.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when I hear stories of child abuse and neglect.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when the church is more concerned about maintaining the institution than it is about taking care of people and preaching the Gospel.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when politicians incite frustrated people by making racist, sexist, and other demeaning comments in an effort to win votes.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when I hear the owner of a local restaurant say that we should just blow all the savages away, that will solve the problem.
I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when police officers admit to targeting vulnerable communities and yet so many police departments refuse to acknowledge this as a problem.
And I have trouble seeing the Imago Dei when a sniper assassinates 5 police officers and wounds 7 more… who are simply doing their job by accompanying a peaceful protest to protect them and keep the peace.

In these moments… I want to name the other as enemy.
I want to name the other as evil.  I want to insist that these individuals deserve retribution for their sins.
And I can get incredibly grandiose in my self-righteousness.
Those people are bad and we need to stop them by whatever means necessary.

Except, that this is not what I claim to believe.  I claim to believe in the Imago Dei and so as soon as I cast someone else as the one to blame, as soon as I draw that line in the sand, I stand convicted by the person I call my Savior – Jesus.
It’s the hardest spiritual practice I know of, to offer mercy where I believe none is deserved.
Because it’s easier and more satisfying to self-righteously scapegoat someone else, rather than doing the long, hard work of reconciliation.  Because I know that reconciliation will require me to change in some way.

One of my seminary professors once said something in a sermon that I’ll never forget.  John Kater was my ethics professor and he said, that our call as Christians is to stand in the crossroads where we can see the kingdom of God and the brokenness of the world at the same time – never losing sight of either, no matter how much we may be tempted.
Never losing sight of the world, even when it’s painful to see.
And never losing sight of the kingdom of God even when we’d rather just sit in judgment of the world than offer mercy.
Because to stand in the crossroads is what it means to gather around a Table of Reconciliation every week.

And so I read the Gospel and I stand up here on Sundays and do my best to offer an interpretation of it that speaks to what we experience here in this world of Kingston, this place I’m coming to know.
And to this community of St John’s… this amazing group of caring, smart, engaged people who I’m coming to know.
You who visit and feed your friends and your neighbors… who deeply love your community and its history… who have experienced heartbreak and hard economic times.
You who help people learn to read and care deeply for this wonderful property… who offer opportunities for music and gathering… who pray for prisoners and all those who suffer… who care enough to connect to people in other countries like Tanzania and Haiti.

It is you are the hope.  You are the way out of the loop.  You, who see the Imago Dei so readily in one another, are the hope for transformation.  Because you practice this love of neighbor with one another so skillfully.

How are we being called into deeper service right now?
How do we help people to see the Image of God in one another?
How do we currently embrace our ministry as reconcilers in the world and for the world?
And how are we called to expand that ministry and move into even deeper relationships with people?
How are we being called into mission with our neighbors – all our neighbors?
Because we are needed, my beloved friends.  We are needed.

And here’s where I give away the ending to the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day.  Bill’s character only gets out of the loop when he stops thinking about serving his own needs and, instead, finds true joy in offering himself in service to others.
He learns to love his neighbor as himself.
He becomes merciful, a reconciler in the world.

I want to encourage you to attend two events that may help us all start to make sense of what’s happened this week and find a way to respond from our Christian faith:
First, there is a vigil this evening at Fair Street Reformed Church at 6:30.  Pray with your neighbors, meet them, mourn with them.
Second, there is a community forum tomorrow evening at New Progressive Baptist Church at 6:30.  Meet with your neighbors, listen to their stories, learn more about the experiences people have in this wonderful city of Kingston.

May we be intent on stopping the loop, the endless violence and racism and scapegoating that keeps us locked in fear of the other.
And may we hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper speak to us of God’s dream for this place we love so that we may be neighbors, reconcilers in and for the world.

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Another World

Todays’ readings can be found here:  http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearC_RCL/Pentecost/CProp7_RCL.html

Click here to listen as you read:

There’s an Indian writer and social activist named Arundhati Roy.  She penned one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever heard for a speech she gave in 2003 called Confronting Empire.  She wrote:  “Another world is not only possible.  She is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.  She is on her way.Another World

I was hoping we’d have a longer “getting to know you” period than this… before I had to stand up here and preach in the aftermath of another national tragedy.  Yet, here were are, about 3 months into our journey together.  And my heart is broken.  Again.

But I’m preaching to you today, not just from a place of grief, but also of love – from the love I have for you already and from the love for you that will grow in my heart as we continue to journey together.  You’ve asked me to come here and be your teacher and your pastor and that requires the development of trust between us.  And yet, we’re still getting to know each other.  So preaching to you with a broken heart is not an easy thing to do.

But it’s not the first time I’ve preached after a massacre.  Which horrifies me when I stop to think about it.  I’ve not yet hit my sixth year of ordination.  Less than 6 years… and I have already preached after violent massacres several times.  I could list them but I’d rather not.  49 people in Orlando is enough.  49 people in Orlando is sickening, actually.

Because to continue to hear stories about mass shootings – about how someone has planned to and then obtains the means to take lives on such a large scale – to continue to hear these stories is increasingly beyond my capacity to hold.

It’s like the psalm from today:
As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.
My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long they say to me, “where now is your God?”

For me, it would be easier to shut down, to give up and surrender to the notion that “this is just the world we live in now.”

But that’s not the Gospel’s truth.  And it’s not the truth I believe in.  The God I worship and serve refuses to let me forget the truth, even in my darkest moments.  And so I refuse to surrender to that kind of terror.  Because the truth our God gives me in the message of the Resurrection is that there is something else besides terror and fear and violence.

I know there is something else.  There is another world.

We throw the phrase Kingdom of God around a lot in the Christian tradition.  The Kingdom of God is not only something you experience after a physical death.  It’s so much more than that.  God’s kingdom is always waiting to be realized in the here and now.
The Kingdom of God happens when we believe enough in love that we refuse to let violence have any impact on us.

It happens when we have decided to stop living in a world where we have surrendered to the demonic concept that violence reigns.  When we start believing in a world where love reigns… and then acting to bring that about in very real, very tangible ways.

And that is a radical notion in a world that so desperately wants to believe in violence.

Because there’s plenty of proof available for us to believe in violence as the way of the world.  And it’s so easy to respond by participating in the cycle of violence in some way.  And it’s easy and understandable to be so overwhelmed and scared by the rising death toll that we shut it out of our minds and don’t do anything.

So, to believe that love will triumph over violence feels radical, if not completely pathetic and utterly irrational.

But the Resurrection story we tell as Christians, is the insistence that violence is not the last word.  It is the central story of our faith, it’s the whole point of all the Gospel… that there is something more than death and destruction and fear and pain.

There is another world besides the one that is dripping in violence.
There is another world and she’s on her way.

But in order for that world to come into being, in order for that world to become real, to become incarnate… we, as the Body of Christ, must participate.  We must act on the belief that love is the final word.  That love will always be the final word.

This love is not a feeling.  It’s an action.  It’s a way of being in the world that takes this Table of Reconciliation out into a world in desperate need of healing.  It’s a refusal of violence and an insistence on love… a love that extends to everyone – regardless of skin color, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, religion, physical appearance.
Not just the people we feel safe with, but everyone.

This love is foolish?… maybe to some.  But those are the voices that want us to believe in violence.

We’re hearing the story of Elijah in our Old Testament readings these past several weeks.  You may have gleaned that Elijah wasn’t exactly popular as a prophet.  God sent Elijah to advise Ahab because Ahab, along with his wife Jezebel, were tyrants and were worshipping another god.

In today’s installment, Elijah is threatened by Jezebel, the person who has ordered the deaths of hundreds of prophets before him.  It seems Ahab and Jezebel weren’t taking kindly to being told they were wrong so their response was to simply get rid of those who were challenging them.  To remove their credentials by killing them.  Ahab and Jezebel believed the voices of violence and became violent themselves.

Not surprisingly, Elijah gets scared enough that he tries to flee from his call as prophet and asks God to take his life.  Elijah listened to the voices of violence.

Elijah and silenceBut an angel finds Elijah sleeping and tells him to eat – to come alive again.  And instructs him to go and listen for God on the mountain.  And Elijah listens for God in the wind.  And Elijah listens for God in the earthquake.  And Elijah listens for God in the fire. And Elijah finally hears God… where?  In the sheer silence.

He hears God in the sheer silence.  And God tells Elijah to go back and do the hard thing… to risk his life by continuing to prophesy to Ahab.  God reminds Elijah to believe in something other than violence because violence is never the last word.

God – Life – Love.  These are the last words.

So, how do we act in love right now?  In 21st century America, in the midst of this madness… how do we act in love?

What I’ve observed, my friends, is that we are all scared.  We may be scared for different reasons, but fear is the common denominator behind all of the theories and rants and arguments.  And fear makes us feel powerless.  It makes us want to listen to the voices of violence and find a stance so that we can become self-righteous, so that we can become right.

But this… whatever this is we’re doing now… it’s not working.
We haven’t stopped massacres from happening.  They have, instead, increased.  I know we can’t agree on the cause or the solution.  But it feels as if we haven’t done anything.

So maybe the way to begin is to stop listening to the voices of violence that fill our TVs and our Facebook feeds and our online articles and our Twitter feeds… all of it.  The voices of pundits and “experts” and political advisors…

I know that sometimes it makes us feel better to listen to someone else who’s scared, who sounds more sure about the cause and the solution.

But when is the last time you talked to God about this violence?  And I don’t mean, just a couple of words, asking God to do something; I mean, asking God for guidance on how you, as a Christian, are called to act on behalf of your faith.
Asking God for guidance on how we, as the Body of Christ, are called to act as if love were the final word?

Ask yourself: when’s the last time I sat in silence… even just for a minute… and asked God to fill my mind with love?  Asked our God of life to calm my fears so that I might be able to hear that voice?  So that I might remember that the Resurrection teaches me that love is the final word.

My friends, I’m asking that we turn the volume down… on ourselves and on the voices that beg us to believe in violence, the ones that tell us we are foolish to believe in love.  And, instead, spend time in active prayer.  If we do this, we might just hear God in the sheer silence.

For if we believe in the Resurrection, if we believe that something else is possible, then we are compelled by our faith to act on that belief – to be foolish and irrational and act as if love is the final word.
To listen, really listen to one another… beyond the arguments and the rants and the fear.  We might find a new way.  We might realize another world.

Elijah didn’t hear God in the wind.  And Elijah didn’t hear God in the earthquake.  And Elijah didn’t hear God in the fire.  God is heard in the sheer silence.

When we stop the noise and we quiet our anxious minds long enough to acknowledge that we are scared.  When we remember that the person on the other side of the argument is a beating heart and is scared too.  When we remember that we are both breathing the same air.

This is when we hear the voice of God.  This is when we hear the voice of love.  This is when we hear the Reign of God approaching.

“Another world is not only possible.  She is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.  She is on her way.”

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Ours Is the God of Love

Preached in response to the Paris attacks on Mark 13:1-8.
You can listen here: Sermon 111515

Today in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives a very specific warning to his disciples, to us.  He says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”

“Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”

This story from Mark’s Gospel, as is true of all stories about Jesus, takes place during a very fearful time.  Jewish people had been living under an occupying force – the Roman Empire.  And they were desperate for a warrior messiah – one who would conquer the enemy, expel them from Jewish lands, and reign as king of the Jewish state so that Jews could be free from oppression.

When we read historical accounts of first century Palestine (or, rather, what would come to be known as Palestine), we learn that there were other people claiming to be the messiah at the same time as when Jesus was teaching and gathering followers.  There were many others ready to take up the call to build a Jewish army and lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire.  There were many others who were willing to conquer the world by worldly means – nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom; generating war and famine and death.

This is important to understand because it was a desperate time.  And during desperate times, it’s a very human response to seek vengeance, to react out of a fearful place and exact pain, impose death, to meet violence with violence.  It’s a very human response to erect borders and draw lines in the sand.

But Jesus, instead of trying to lead an armed rebellion against the occupying force goes out and heals both Jews and Gentiles, feeds both Jews and Gentiles, and teaches both Jews and Gentiles.  Jesus teaches people that we are to love God and love our neighbor as our self.  Instead of responding to fear and desperation by building walls and drawing lines in the sand, Jesus crosses borders.spm

And Jesus says, “Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”

In times of despair, we are called to pay attention to what Jesus did, to how he responded and how he ministered because in this teaching we learn that our God is not a god of vengeance.  Our god is the God of Love.

If we don’t remember that, we are likely to be led astray.  We are likely to follow a false messiah, a misguided savior.  We must remember because we must be willing to follow our true messiah and cross those borders with Jesus, rather than draw lines in the sand.

Human

Click on picture for a link to the video clip.

I saw a video the other day.  It came across my Facebook feed.  It was a clip from a new documentary called Human.  And in the clip, you see the head of a human being against a pitch black background – no context, no scenery.  Just the face of a human being.

This clip contained the story of an African American man, probably in his 30’s or 40’s – the kind of face that wasn’t aged but had definitely seen more than a couple of decades of life.  And he began to speak – slowly and clearly, deliberately choosing his words.  He started by telling about how he was abused by his stepfather as a child – being hit with different implements of punishment – and at the end of each beating, the stepfather would say, “I do this because I love you.”

The man in the video proceeded to talk about how, once he had grown up he believed that the degree of love someone felt for him was directly related to how much pain someone could tolerate from him.  This continued until he killed a woman and her child.  Crimes, for which, he was sent to prison.

While he was in prison, he said, he met a woman named Agnes – the mother of the woman he killed.  The grandmother of the child he killed.  He talked about how Agnes and he had been on a journey together, that she saw past his condition.

He said, “by all rights, she should hate me.”  And, unable to contain himself any longer, huge tears rolled down his long brown face and he fell silent as he tried to gather his strength, regain his composure.  And he said, “she showed me what love is about.”

“She saw past my condition and she showed me what love is about.”

And you knew in that moment, that the love of this woman Agnes was exactly what unbound him from the pain and self-hate he had been carrying for most of his life.  You knew in that moment that he was no longer a violent man.  You knew in that moment that it was love that turned his world upside down.

It was Ages who liberated him from the prison he had made for himself to protect him from the world.  It was this unconditional love offered to him in his most despicable place that gave him any kind of hope

I’m not sure I could ever, ever muster that kind of love.  But that’s the task, isn’t it?  That’s how Jesus is leading us, isn’t it?  When society wants to seek revenge, Jesus tells us to love, to forgive, and to heal one another.  When the culture says to make a profit, we are called to make sure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  When the self-important and conceited run the system at the expense of the poor, Jesus explains the system must be thrown down.

Click on picture for a link to a video of Bp Michael's sermon.

Click on picture for a link to a video of Bp Michael’s sermon.

Our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, spoke about this at his installation a few weeks ago.  Bp Michael talks alot about the Jesus Movement and in this sermon he said,
“Jesus did not come into this world to found a religion… Nor did he come here to establish an institution or an organization.  Jesus came to inaugurate, to begin, to catalyze a movement to change, to transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends for all of us.” 

And in the midst of troubled times we will be confused and afraid.  When 127 people die in coordinated attacks in Paris, we will want to cling to security and receive easy teachings.  We will want a merciless warrior to exact revenge.  And we will hear other leaders who will claim to come in the name of Jesus.

But if they are not teaching the way of Jesus, if they are not crossing borders and teaching forgiveness, if they are not healing and feeding hungry people, if they are not proclaiming love… these will be false teachers, misguided messiahs.

Because what we do as the Body of Christ, my friends, is not about the maintenance of the institution, it’s about living the way of Jesus.  It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.  It’s not a debate over the right theological understanding about the nature of Christ or the purity codes of a society that are ever-changing  or which songs we sing during communion or how many kids we have in the youth group or whether or not a coffee cup has the words Merry Christmas on it.

Jesus is telling us that in the midst of the world and all its ups and downs and changes and chances beginnings and endings… in the midst of all the fear-mongering and the vengeance-seeking and the line drawing, our messiah, our true messiah is found in a very simple teaching, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Bp Michael says it, “On these two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets.  Everything Moses was talking about, all the justice that the prophets proclaimed, everything that’s in the Bible, it’s all about love of God and love of neighbor.  That love will turn this world upside down.  And if it’s not about love it is not about God.”

Agnes probably struggled a lot when her daughter was murdered.  She was probably inconsolable when she found out her grandchild had been killed.  There may have been a time in her life when she wanted that man dead.

I’m willing to bet that Agnes angered the rest of her family when she chose to love this man in prison.  Even more, I bet there are members of Agnes’ family that no longer talk to her and think of her as a traitor, failing to understand how she could betray the family and the memory of their loved ones by giving this killer her time or her love.  How could she?

Indeed.  How dare she risk everything she knows, her family and friends, and choose a path of love over a path of vengeance.  It’s not always easy to love in the face of terror, in the face of hate, in the face of bigotry and fear and violence.

But if we don’t try, if we don’t commit to walking the way of Jesus, we risk losing ourselves to the God of hate.  Because our messiah has told us in no uncertain terms, ours is the God of Love.

Ours is the God of Love.

 

 

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I Believe In You

Preached at St Paul’s in Brighton, MI on the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2015.  The Gospel was John 11:32-44 and we used Marianne Williamson’s famous quote from A Return to Love as one of the readings.


Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

In our story, Jesus has arrived at the tomb of his beloved friend Lazarus.  He’s visibly shaken, weeping.  His friends Mary and Martha are upset.  Mary, blaming him for not being there in time.  Martha, intractable and calmly fixed on the fact of death.  A scene from any family when death claims a member.lazarus

But it gets weird.  Even for the Bible, it gets weird.  Because Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  And this is where people try, desperately, to make sense of what Jesus does – focusing on Jesus instead of what Jesus is revealing to us.  Which is what usually happens with miracle stories – we get focused on the question of, “how did he do that?” instead of the question, “what does it mean?”   So, what is John trying to help us understand in this story?  There are a few things about this scene that I think might help us.

First, Jesus and Lazarus are not alone.  So, this isn’t about Jesus and Lazarus.  Not only are Martha and Mary present, but the community of Jews is with them.  And they are not just bystanders in this drama, they are players.  They came out to greet Jesus with Mary.  They are weeping.  They lead Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb.  They share opinions about why Jesus weeps.  They take away the stone.  And they unbind Lazarus.

Another noteworthy piece is that Lazarus isn’t resurrected because of his faith.  Lazarus is resurrected because of the community’s faith, as articulated by Martha earlier on in the chapter.  “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”  Jesus doesn’t come to the tomb because of Lazarus’ faith.  He comes because the community believes and seeks his help.  And Lazarus is healed, he is brought back to the community, because of the faith of the community, not because of anything Lazarus has done or said.

Finally, Jesus isn’t claiming credit here.  After the tomb is opened, Jesus prays to God.  Jesus thanks God, he praises God.  And he says, “I want them to believe that you sent me.”  Jesus wants them to believe so they know that this is about God, not him.

It’s the community.  And it’s God.  Jesus’ role here is to reveal the power of both – the power of believing and the power that is the glory of God.

Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

What does it mean to “believe?”  Does it mean that if we truly believe, Jesus will save us?  If we truly believe, we’ll get into heaven when we die?  If we truly believe, God will give us what we want?  What does it mean to believe?

Belief is a tricky word.  It can refer to a statement or a doctrine – a belief we have or profess, such as a creed – the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, or a little later when we renew our baptismal vows we will say corporately what it is we believe.  These are statements or affirmations of what we take to be true about how God works in our lives.  So, they are about what we acknowledge as truth.

Which is close to another definition of belief – assertions of that which we know to be real or known to us in some way.  We believe in the existence of something or in the power of something to have an impact in our lives.  I believe in love.  I believe in Santa Claus.  I believe I shall have some more chocolate.  Belief is a way of hoping, of anticipating an experience of something or someone.

There’s still another definition of “belief” and it has to do with Glory.  Have you ever said to someone else, “I believe in you.”?  Or has someone else said that to you?  “I believe in you.”  It’s a powerful thing to say and it’s a powerful thing to hear someone saying it to you.

“I believe in you.”
It fills the hearer with a confidence, a poise.  When someone says that to us, we feel connected to another.  We don’t feel alone anymore.  We feel a part of something.  We belong because someone sees us.  Someone has taken the time to know us.

i_believe_in_youAside from the words, “I love you.”  the words, “I believe in you.” might be the most important we could ever hear from another.

So, what are we saying when we say, “I believe in you.”?
It’s more than trust.  It’s more than confidence in getting something done.

It’s about recognizing someone’s belovedness, someone’s Glory, asserting someone’s inherent magnificence.  And when we do so, we’re recognizing God’s Glory as manifest in this beautiful person in front of us, affirming this person as a beloved child of God.

It’s similar to the Hindu greeting, “Namaste”, which roughly translated means “The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you.”  Glory acknowledges Glory.  It’s a way of praising God and the word of God in this child of God.

And it’s a way of conquering death.  When we recognize someone’s inherent Glory, it’s as if they borrow our belief in them.  They believe in themselves and take themselves to be real.  And they begin to move and think from a place of their own goodness and their own wholeness and they recognize the goodness and wholeness of others, inviting them to see God’s Glory too.  And we become one another’s saints – living beyond our own death.

Take a moment.  Think about a time when you were really seen for who you are.  Think about that person who told you that they believed in you… even if they didn’t use the exact words, “I believe in you” but you knew from what they did and what they said that they did believe in you, possibly when you needed to hear it most.  Think about them for a few moments.

This person will never die.  Their belief in you will never die because it is the very part of them that animated you, that brought you to life.  You carry that life and you pass that life along by believing in another.  This how we bear witness to the Glory of God.  This is the Communion of Saints.

Jesus doesn’t raise Lazarus so that Lazarus will live in his physical body forever.  Lazarus will die again.  His body will cease to breathe.  His heart will cease to beat.  Just like every other body – including Jesus’.

Jesus raises Lazarus so that the community might come to understand God’s Glory in the incarnate creation.  And this Glory comes through the Love of the community who bring God’s presence to Lazarus.  These people love Lazarus.  Jesus loves Lazarus because God loves Lazarus.

It is because this community loves that it knows eternal life.
It is because this community believes in one another that it calls forth God’s Glory in one another.
It is because this community lives, truly lives, that God’s Hope is made manifest and the Incarnation is real.

When Marianne Williamson says , “Your playing small does not serve the world.” it’s not some happy-clappy, boost in the arm to make us feel better, like that Saturday Night Live sketch with Stewart Smalley where he says in the mirror, “I’m good enough and doggone it, people like me.”  It’s not that because you can tell that the character doesn’t really know his true Glory.  He’s grasping, as if he’s trying not to die.

When Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world,” she is making a profound theological statement – perhaps the most important piece of Christian theology and, therefore, one of the most central Christian lessons we could ever hope to impart.

And that is:  You are a beloved child of God created and designed for no other reason than to show forth God’s Glory.  You are God’s holy creation.  The Incarnation is real.

When we say “I believe in you,” when we offer that to one another, when we believe in one another, when we show that belief…Dr Suess
We offer the freedom of eternal life because we remind one another that no matter what we have done or how bad or wrong or useless or helpless we think we are, there are no boundaries to God’s Love.

There are no borders that Jesus cannot cross.  There is no way to contain God’s Holy Spirit.  We are, quite simply, bearers of God’s Glory.  We are luminous, beloved creatures who belong wholly to God.

This, more than anything else, is the mark of Christian community.  This love, this belief, this freedom is what makes us Christian and it’s what makes us saints – a Communion of Saints.  Jesus is already always present in the community that loves and calls forth God’s Glory in one another.

And we need this community because we get lost from time to time.  We get lost in our own pain.  We get caught in the snare of our own false belief of unworthiness.  We get bound up in our own disdain and fear.  We forget our Glory and the Glory of others.

And so we do as Jesus commands in the midst of that community.
We remove the stone, the barriers to life, and we unbind them.
Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  “Unbind her, and let her go.”

I love this gospel story.  I really love it.  But sometimes I think it’s troublesome because we deflect the miracle onto Jesus rather than understand that Jesus is revealing the miracle of belief.

We tend to focus on Jesus as the “do-er” and the miracle maker.  We think so much of Jesus that we believe God’s Glory is only limited to his embodiment, his person.  But what Jesus is always trying to teach us is that we are integral to the story we tell about God’s Reign.  We are the Body of Christ.

We have the power to remind one another.
We have the authority to say, “I believe in you.”
We have the responsibility to liberate one another, to unbind one another.  And we do this by acknowledging and honoring God’s Glory made manifest in ourselves and in one another.

This is what it means to be a saint – to believe in the Incarnation.  And offer the miracle of saying, “I believe in you.”

And so Jesus is talking to us just as much as he’s talking to Martha when he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

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My Life Matters

In gratitude for #blacklivesmatter preached at St Paul’s in Brighton, MI on September 6, 2015.  The gospel was Mark 7:24-37.

Jesus entered the region of Tyre.  To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory.  The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region.

These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with.  The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.

And Jesus, for some reason, crosses the border into the region of Tyre.  From safety and familiarity into a place of danger and risk in the face of the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them.  He was conditioned to fear them.

In the narrative of Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles.  We’re halfway through Mark’s story and this is his first time meeting someone who doesn’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.

Why does he do this?  Why should he do this?  Why should he bother with these people?  He’s a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about when he challenges the Jewish hierarchy.  His healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation.  He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.

Why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing?  It’s clear how he feels about this endeavor because the first person he meets, he insults.  He encounters a shameless woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.

And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”

A dog.  This is a huge insult.  Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals.  They were not kept as pets or even as working animals.  They were scourges and scavengers.  They were scum.

Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is scum.
Think about what Jesus is doing here.
Think about how Mark is telling this story.

Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog.  He’s calling her scum.

Without thinking, he dismisses her out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God.  He doesn’t see her humanity.  Her life doesn’t matter.Syrophoenician Lives

And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.  Even my Syrophoenician life matters.”

“My life matters.”

The fear of “the other” comes upon us humans easily and unbidden – when we think someone we love is in danger, when we think we are in danger, when something has gone horribly wrong and we need someone to blame, when we are afraid of losing our way of life, when we feel threatened – whether that threat is real or the result of media buildup.

When we’re scared, suddenly, we find we are nervous around people who don’t look like us, don’t act like us, don’t speak like us.  We end up marginalizing others without even realizing we’re doing it.  And for people who are marginalized, who have no power, whose lives don’t appear to matter… it’s not only hard, it’s dangerous and brutal and depressing and dehumanizing.

I think about the mass migration of peoples – leaving their family behind, fleeing their own beloved homeland because it’s being torn apart by war as in Syria or extreme poverty as in parts of Latin America.  How migration on such an epic scale is never about seeking riches, but about the choice people make to say, “our lives matter” even when they will be strangers in a new land.

And I think about slavery and the buying and selling of human life – the centuries of African slavery that we have yet to recover from, and the slavery of women and children in the sex trade.  How we collectively tell people their lives don’t matter by ignoring the situation, ignoring the healing that has yet to take place.

And I think about how our context conditions us, just like Jesus’ did.  How our media informs us – that when Trayvon Martin was murdered, the media showed him looking serious in a hoodie instead of standing in front of a propeller plane, beaming with pride when we attended space camp.  That when Michael Brown was murdered, the media told us he deserved it because he had stolen a pack of cigars from a convenience store.  How the culture tells people their lives don’t matter.

I think about how racism is institutionalized in the criminal justice system and how we are finding more and more evidence of how racism has become entrenched in the cultures of some law enforcement organizations.  And how we can become polarized when we talk about this because there are so many good people who are police officers.  But if we don’t talk about the problem, it’s really another way of saying, only certain lives matter.

I think about all this – migrations of desperate people, buying and selling of human life, media hype, institutionalized racism, oppressive systems – all of these ways in which one group of people is telling another group of people, “It is not fair for you to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  “You are a dog.  You don’t matter.”

And here we are in a moment in time in a place, when people who have been shackled and marginalized and dehumanized are standing up and saying “we do matter.”  People are saying “black lives matter.”  Just like the woman begging Jesus for her daughter’s life.

Jesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human.  He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so weighed down by expectations and cultural conditioning.

Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman.  And he calls her a dog.
And the Syrophoenician woman says, “But my life matters.”
And people are screaming, “But our lives matter!”

The lesson of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorites in the gospel stories because Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman.  Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is humbled by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders.  And it’s what opens him up.

Jesus is never more real to me than in this story.  And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing.  For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.

You see, something inside of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman.  Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him.  Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl.  When he saw a new reality.  When he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear.  Both became free.

Can I be that vulnerable?  As a white person in this culture, can I be that vulnerable?  Can my ears be opened to hear someone telling me “my life matters?”  I think what scares me is that no matter how much I learn and how much I think I know there is always going to be something I’m not capable of seeing.  There is always going to be a way in which the Holy Spirit is trying to show me something new.  Will I be able to respond in compassion?  Or will I say “no, your life doesn’t matter”?

The implication here is a challenging one for us to bear because it requires us to be as vulnerable as Jesus was in that moment.  It asks us to recognize that we are usually wrong in our certainty.

The implication is that we need one another.  It’s that simple.blacklivesmatter

We need one another.  If liberation is God’s desire for us (which I think it is), then either we are all liberated or no one is liberated.  Because when I fail to see how another is shackled, when I avert my eyes or refuse to listen to their story because I think I have a better understanding of what’s happening.  When I try to tell oppressed and marginalized people how things are, I’m saying to them, “You don’t matter.”  “Your life doesn’t matter.”  “Only my opinion matters.”

Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberation.  Jesus learns that in order for anyone to be liberated, all must be liberated, even and especially those we hold in contempt.

For it is because of this brave woman who humbled him by kneeling before him and claiming that her life matters that Jesus becomes truly free himself.  Free of the hatred and fear bred into him by his family and his culture.  Free to know the true Love of God that is boundless and borderless.

We need one another.  We need people to point to our blind spots and be willing to come to the Table and teach us when we haven’t been paying attention.  As a white person, I need to hear what people of color have to say and to learn how to be their ally.  I need movements like “black lives matter” to call our attention to my inattentiveness and my fear, my dismissive nature and my privilege.

Because Jesus comes to know, in that moment, that liberation includes all – absolutely everyone.  He knows that the messiah is for every life.  He knows this because the Syrophoenician woman teaches him that her life matters and he knows he must listen.

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Is God Leaving the Church Behind?

Preached at St Anne's Episcopal Church in Walled Lake, MI on the Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost.  Matthew 21:23-32

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

This is the question the chief priests and elders of the people ask Jesus.
It’s a jealous question, when you think about it.  It arises from a fear of loss – a loss of privilege, a loss of status.  A loss of power and wealth.  A loss of glory.

When we have these things, when we are sitting in the seat of privilege and power, basking in the glow of glory, it’s easy to become jealous.  It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to want to keep the status quo in place and make sacred that which has given us this status and this glory.  And this authority.

And religion is fraught with this problem.  Religious institutions are, quite possibly, the worst when it comes to jealously guarding things like authority and power.  Because, after all, it is perhaps the most powerful thing to claim that we’re speaking on behalf of God.

When someone has recognized us as having that power, it’s hard to let go of it and it’s hard to recognize that others may have that power, that others may be speaking on behalf of God.  Even if they don’t realize it themselves.

And I’m not speaking about the clergy, although there are many clergy who jealously guard authority.  Who feel that they alone should be the mouthpieces of the church.  These are often the same clergy whose congregations grow smaller and smaller as they keep a tight grip on the power, never empowering lay people to take their proper place as baptized ministers of the church.

What I’m really talking about is the church itself – the church universal – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics… all of us.  We all claim to be speaking on behalf of God.  We have been claiming this for centuries.  We are the voice of God, the presence of God.  We are God’s representatives, God’s chosen people.  Aren’t we?

But more and more, I have to wonder if we aren’t just hanging on to some sense of power.  I have to wonder if we, as the church, are really more interested in maintaining the institution, than we are in truly listening to God’s Holy Spirit to find out what God wants us to be doing in this world.  I have to wonder if we, as the church, aren’t the chief priests and the elders who jealously guard the God-seat.

Climate March III wonder this because I see all of these people who are doing amazing things to care for God’s creation.  I see all of these people who are planting sustainable farms, advocating against the use of fossil fuels, choosing foods from local suppliers, fighting for public transit, composting their scraps, leading recycling efforts.  And lobbying government officials and whipping up support for these efforts.  Some of them are doing it on behalf of the church, but most are not.

Yet, these are the people who are standing up and saying that we must do a better job of caring for this earth, our island home – this place we call God’s creation.  And I see all of these people doing all of these things and I wonder where the church is.

We speak for God, don’t we?  It’s our Bible that pronounces creation to be good.  Our belief that we have been formed out of its very elements.  Our Eucharistic prayers that remind us we are called to be stewards of creation.

So, if we believe that we are God’s chosen, given authority to proclaim these things, then why aren’t we at the forefront of the effort to bring about environmental justice?  Why aren’t we the ones who are advocating for the renewal of the earth, teaching the world about the beauty and the preciousness of God’s creation, explaining just how interconnected we actually are with the rest of the life of this planet?Climate March IV

I could talk about our past teachings and how we have conflated the idea of subduing and conquering “the wild” with God’s command that we have dominion over the earth and all its creatures.  But we know better.  We know better.

Last weekend, in New York City, there was a massive demonstration – the People’s Climate March.  It was a part of a global effort that happened in over 150 countries.  Nearly ½ million people lined the streets of New York City to draw attention to the ever-growing problem of climate change.  This happened immediately before the United Nations Climate Summit started to assist in drawing more attention to the meeting of global leaders.

And I honestly have to wonder, are these the people who are actually speaking on behalf of God now?

Many of the people who attended the march have no religious affiliation.  And, although there was a place for faith-based organizations to participate, most of the people who showed up were not there on behalf of their religion.

But, the question is… were they there on behalf of God?  Even if they didn’t realize it?

Is God so distraught with those who call themselves God’s church, that He’s chosen others to accomplish his mission of renewing this beloved creation He’s given us?  Has God found another way to inspire people, one that doesn’t involve the church?  Is God using scientists as Her prophets now?  Because the church is too busy worrying about why no one comes to Sunday services anymore?

Have we become too focused on ourselves and our power and our authority as God’s representatives?  Have we become too complacent in our God-seat that we cannot hear the call of God’s Holy Spirit unless it fits our preconceived notions of what She’s supposed to be saying to us?

Cimate March IIIHas God left the church behind?

In reading today’s gospel, that’s the interpretation, isn’t it?  God has found a new way, in this man named Jesus.  The Jewish authorities were upset because Jesus was preaching and teaching the Jews about a new way.  He was bold in his speech.  He was defiant in his actions.  And people were beginning to follow him.  This made the chief priests and the elders jealous – fearful that they would lose their power, their influence over the Jews.  They were so concerned with their power and the survival of their institution, that they forgot why they were called to follow God in the first place.

And because we are followers of Jesus, we read this story as Jesus being the one who truly heard God’s call.  Jesus is the one who demonstrated to the authorities that they were off the mark, missing God’s call.  That, perhaps, God was leaving them behind as the vehicle through which God’s mission was accomplished.

Well, what if this is happening again?
What if these people who are so passionate about what we call God’s creation, are God’s prophets in our midst and we, the church universal, are the chief priests and the elders who jealously guard our perceived God-given authority to speak for God?  And because of that, we refuse to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, calling us to a new way.  We are jealously guarding God’s glory.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus offers us this parable.
That there are two kinds of children – those who, even though defiant, will do God’s will.  And those who claim to follow God’s will but really don’t.
And to further make his point, Jesus says, even the tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God first.  Even the most despicable members of society will go ahead of the chief priests and the elders.  Because they listen and they believe.

Jesus is telling us, it’s one thing to say you believe.  But if that doesn’t mean you’re following God’s will, if that proclamation of belief is just for show, just the password to get into the club…  if that belief is not something that leads you into the way of righteousness, then it means nothing.

There is a cost to following God’s will.  There is a cost to being a disciple of Jesus.  And that cost is one that compels us to move beyond faith as a convenience, beyond religion as a club we join to feel like we belong.  The cost of discipleship calls us into deep engagement with the world around us.  It reminds us that we are God’s children and we are obliged to care for one another and care for this creation we were given – this Eden that we have systematically destroyed in the name of production and economic progress.

Because the truth is that environmental justice is intimately tied to economic justice.  Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous communities are those who are most dramatically affected right now.  There is a country called Tuvalu, a Polynesian nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii, where right now the water is rising over their sands so rapidly that scientists expect the entire country to be washed away within 50 years.  50 years.

And so what?  So what if Tuvalu is swallowed up by the Pacific?
Well, here’s the so-what: we are all connected.  God made us that way.  We are all tied to this earth because we are made of this earth.  We all need to breathe the air, to drink the water, to have a dry place to sleep at night, to eat food from this soil.

These are our basic needs, us – the human race, these are our basic needs.  And, our culture is so consumed with Climate March Iconsuming that we have tipped the balance and are now denying the basic needs to our brothers and sisters by virtue of our demanding lifestyle.  And we will do everything in our power to jealously guard our lifestyle, our power.  And then we have the audacity to claim the God-seat.

But what if we’re truly interested in hearing the call?  What can we do?  You and me, what can we do?  After all, we are just caught in a system that is so much bigger than any of us.  Most of the time, I’m so concerned with making ends meet and trying to pay attention to all my duties that I struggle, even with recycling.

So, how do we start?  What can we do?
Here are 4 simple things:

  1. Eat organic.  Chose organic produce as much as possible instead of conventional produce because most conventional produce is grown on industrial farms.  Organic produce is not only better for you, but organic farms use 30-50% less fossil fuel energy than industrial farms.  And if organic isn’t an option, choose locally grown produce to reduce the transportation and support local farmers.
  2. Stop throwing food away.  Did you know that Americans threw out about 35 million tons of food in 2012?  That’s double the amount that was tossed in 1990.  There are organizations that will go to stores and restaurants to redistribute this food to people in need – like Food Gatherers in Washtenaw County.
  3. Compost.  What if your congregation had a compost pile?  Or what if your neighborhoods had compost piles?  Using organic scraps and turning them into soil for local gardens.  Developing an awareness of sustainable practices instead of just adding to the landfills that are so plentiful in this area of the country.
  4. Advocacy.  Contact your local representatives and let them know how important climate action is to you, the person they serve in making public policy.  Don’t be afraid to be political.  And while you’re at it, be sure to push hard on the members of House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.  Because if they are not choosing to be woefully ignorant on purpose, then most of them desperately need remedial science classes.

There are more ways to follow this call.  But these are simple, focused ways to start.

Because I honestly don’t know how much more God needs to scream at us before we’re going to choose to do something.  The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories about how God’s people didn’t listen, even when the prophets gave them plenty of warning.  Are we going to listen?  Or is God going to leave the church behind and use others to accomplish this mission?

God is calling us to hear the Holy Spirit through the efforts of those who are working towards environmental justice.  So, let’s not challenge their authority.  Instead, let’s live in the fullness of God’s love for us.  Let us follow this call to care for and live in the abundant creation as God’s children.

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Martha Stewart and the Hospitality of Awe

Preached at St Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, MI on July 21, 2013.  Proper 11.  Luke 10:38-42.

I think today’s gospel story seems fairly straight-forward.  Jesus is teaching a lesson about the value of listening to the Word of God, and how this practice, this form of worship, is primary.  It is more important than the service work because the Word of God is what informs and inspires our service work, especially when this work becomes a distraction for us.  When we lose sight of why we are serving others. When we get so lost in our need to “do” that we are in danger of using it as a weapon of self-righteousness.

I’m sure many of you know folks who are good at this form of doing our ministry.  And perhaps you are someone who, like me, gets lost in the doing of ministry and forgets that prayer and silence always and should be more central to my life so I can hear the Voice of God.

Especially in a world of social media where we always have our smartphones with us so we can stay connected to our email and our text messaging and our Facebook and our Google hangout and our voicemail.  And we can download apps to stay connected to other websites and news outlets and music. And we have tablets where we can watch TV shows or play video games.  And we use all these devices and programs to help us do our ministry and stay connected, in some way, to one another.

We most definitely live in an age where this kind of cacophony has a hold on our attention.  And we can kid ourselves into thinking that it’s ok because we are, after all, ministers of the Body of Christ.  We are doing this to care for one another.  But rather than speak to you about the problems of technology, I’d rather talk about Martha Stewart.

Many of you probably know who Martha Stewart is.  If you do, please allow me just a brief explanation to help frame our discussion and, perhaps, catch up those who might be less familiar with her.martha-stewart

Martha Stewart came to the attention of many Americans in the 1980’s through books about entertaining and cooking.  With titles like: Martha Stewart’s Hors D’oeuvre, Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts, Martha Stewart’s Wedding Planner, Martha Stewart’s Christmas.

Martha became synonymous w stylish, quality homemaking in America.  She took it up a notch and became a professional homemaker.  She wrote newspaper articles, appeared on Oprah Winfrey and, in the early 90’s started publishing her own magazine and launched a TV show – both of which were titled “Martha Stewart Living.”

Martha turned this into a media empire and her company soon developed divisions that design things like dishes and sheets, and placemats and paint. There is always a higher price tag associated with these items – they are stylish, well-designed for their purpose, and are made of, typically, mid-high quality materials.

Martha knows how to create an aesthetically pleasing space.  She knows how to entertain her guests.  She definitely knows how to run a business (although some of us might disagree w that as her ethics were thrown into question when she was convicted of insider trading in 2004). And Martha knows how to present herself and everything associated with her as something of substance. Worthy of noticing.  Worthy of whatever it costs. There is a sense of extravagance to her image, a luxuriousness. And this extends to her products.

If you remember her little catchphrase… “it’s a good thing.”

And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped you that she carries the same name and, essentially, plays the same role as our Martha in today’s gospel.  A person who understands her worth as being connected to the things she does – entertaining, hosting her guests, using extravagant gestures of welcome.  And I’m quite sure I’m not doing anything particularly brilliant by associating America’s most famous “Martha” with the Bible’s most famous “Martha.”  The parallel has likely been drawn by many, many others before me.  But I think this connection is a helpful lens through which we might look at what ‘hospitality’ means.  And what ‘love’ is.

When I look at Martha Stewart, I see someone whose sense of hospitality is an extension of herself.  Her abilities and standards of homemaking and entertaining those who came into her home were and are a part of who she is.  She has always taken them seriously and she encouraged us to take them seriously.

Even before she became a brand name in America, she had this fervor to do things to a certain standard.  To create these good things because she wanted to impress, and help us to impress our guests with a sense of graciousness and homemaking that had an air of beauty and extravagance – no matter the cost.  Her name is synonymous with this now.  And it’s stamped on everything that she’s associated with.

But I think what is important for us to understand here is that Martha Stewart’s sense of hospitality is more about her, than about her guests.  In making a name for herself – a brand name that we have come to know and, in some cases, love – she has been very attentive to how she is perceived.  She is the gracious host and she wants to make sure we see her that way so we buy her product.  Which is to say, we buy her image.

And although we can say, “Well of course it’s about her image.  That’s what good marketing does.  We buy the image.”  But I think we do the same thing on a lesser scale.  Because we, too need to be seen.  We might not be like Martha, and be seen as the caretaker, the entertainer, the gracious host… but we all have an identity that we want the people in our world to acknowledge.

Sometimes this identity is about needing to feel useful or have a sense of purpose and sometimes is about needing people to see us for some character trait we value, even if we don’t possess it.  And sometimes the need to have this identity seen becomes very desperate.

Perhaps we need to be seen as:
Smart.  Well-read.  Capable.  Strong.  Unique.  Loving.  Or right/correct, beyond the reproach or correction of others.
Maybe we want others to see us as beautiful or sexy or put-together.
It might be a particular role – like good parent or good friend or even the one who won’t bow to authority or the one who won’t be tied down to anything as mundane as suburban American family life.
It could even be a need NOT to be seen.  A need to blend in.  To be nobody special.

And we all do this.  We are human.  We all have an identity that we need to have acknowledged somehow.  But, what does this ‘need to be seen’, this need to have our identity acknowledged, have to do with understanding hospitality?  And here’s where we come to what I honestly think Luke’s Jesus was getting to in this story.

When we are too engaged with the need to be seen, we have cut off our ability to be truly hospitable, to be truly welcoming.
When we get offended because someone doesn’t appreciate us or what we’ve given… or we get angry because someone doesn’t see us for who we need to be, we have forgotten how much God loves us simply because God created us.  And in that forgetting, we have separated our self from our ability to love one another because we have isolated ourselves from God’s unbounded Love.
When I care more about how I’m coming across to you, when I care more about how you are seeing me… you have become nothing more than an object in my world from whom I get what I need.  And that is what stops me from truly meeting you, from seeing who you are.  That prevents me from extending true hospitality to you, from listening to you because I’m waiting for some sign that you’ve seen me.

If you are only an object in my world, then how can I possibly see your heart?  How can I even begin to acknowledge your true nature as a holy and beloved child of God?

And when we extrapolate this to our larger society, it is at the heart of every prejudice we have – racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, classism, regionalism, ableism, sizeism…
The inability to see our neighbor, to truly see the loveliness, the holiness, the belovedness of their embodiment, the inherent worth that is their birthright, the significance and value they are simply because they breathe, the connection that they have to us because they come from the same earth, the same soil, the same adamah over which God breathed the Word into being…
Our inability to see that, to know that, to feel that is what enables us to see “otherness”.  It is the first step to looking for some reason for me to be “OK” and you to not be “OK”.

Martha (whichever one we’re talking about) desperately needs to be seen as OK.  As worthy.  So much so that she asks this guest, this teacher to condemn someone who has chosen another way.  So desperate is she that she will ask for her own sister, her own blood, to be condemned.  What we miss in this… is that by condemning our own sister, we are condemning our self.

And we all do this when we forget.  And so we confess when we come together to worship God.  This is the “unworthiness” we talk about in today’s collect – it is the unwillingness we have to see ourselves as beloved and see God’s whole creation as holy and good.

awe_childThe foil, the contrast to this in Luke’s Gospel, is Mary.  And this is why Jesus calls it the better part.  Mary, who sits in adoration of the Word of God – manifested in this story as Jesus the Christ, manifested all around us in the glorious creation given birth by the breath of God, manifested in our own selves as beloved children of God.  Jesus reminds us that this awe that Mary displays, this adoration of God Word is what true hospitality is all about.

Hospitality is tapping into our own belovedness so that we might really behold another.  It’s knowing that we, ourselves, are holy and loved so that we can extend ourselves in love to our sister and our brother.

Hospitality comes from a place inside of us that trusts (even in moments of fear) that we are God’s precious child.  And trusts in that so deeply that we cannot help but see our brothers and sisters through God’s eyes.  And therefore see them, not as threats or objects from whom we need acknowledgement, but see them simply as precious and loved and holy.

And then, all of a sudden something really cool happens… we want to know them more than we care about them seeing our efforts or acknowledge our purpose.  We want to see their hearts open before our eyes.  And we stop worrying so much about ourselves.  Because we behold this amazing creation of God before us and we want this lovely creature of God to become, not who we need them to be – which is usually some reflection of ourselves – but who they are called to be.  And we sit in awe-filled hospitality, in love w God’s Word.

And this, my friends, is what the Body of Christ is all about.

We are called into ministry to manifest that kind of hospitality, to be the embodiment of that degree of lavish Love.  Not a love with conditions, that demands the other see us as some role or identity or collection of traits or abilities.  And once they see us as worthy, then they are worthy of our love.

But a love that is invites the soul forth – our own soul and the soul of each one of our brothers and sisters.  A welcome that is so radically abundant we begin to envision what the Reign of God actually means… that our salvation is tied to each and every part of God’s creation, that none of us are truly free until each one of us is free.

When we serve another, whether that is a homeless person who comes to the food pantry or a wealthy parishioner who is struggling with the ethics of running a company or a rowdy teenaged boy wearing a hoodie… we are called to see the Word of God in this person and love them.

Love them with a Love that sits in wait with a patient curiosity asking, “How will God’s Holy Spirit shine through this amazing person today?”  A Love that listens closely to the guest in our midst, witnessing their heart… not so that they will remain a guest because we need somebody to love… but so that they will know that they too are called  to join in the dance of inviting others by extending such abundant hospitality.

We are called to this kind of Love.  We are called to this better part.
May it be so.

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Love and Transformation – Buffy Style

Preached on Easter VI at St Alban’s in Albany,CA  Click here to read the day’s scripture.

“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”  – Acts 10:45

They were astounded.
Why are we always so surprised when the Holy Spirit has transformed someone?
Why is it that we struggle to love one another in a way that invites and encourages this transformation?

It is a tricky thing.  For when we look for transformation in people, we can make the mistake of entangling our own needs.  Our hope for them becomes expectation when we need someone to “transform” in a way that will make us feel better about them, to change in a way that will conform to what we need them to be in our lives.  Inevitably, we are disappointed because we don’t get what we want out of people.  This is not love.

So, we adjust.  We lower our expectations and resign ourselves to keep expecting people to show up the same way they always do.  We decide to tolerate the things that disappoint us, even the things that might harm us, just so we can feel loved and needed in some way.  And perhaps we deaden a part of ourselves and decide to stick it out, doing what we can to keep the relationship in balance.  We may even get mad if the other person does change because it ruins our effort to maintain a fragile stasis.  And while some may call this love, I would disagree.  This is not love.

And let’s face it… some of us have a need to be that transformational element in someone else’s life.  I know I’ve wanted to be that before. We want our love to change them.  We believe that all a person needs is someone to believe in them and we desperately want to be that person.  But this is not love either.

Love is a patient curiosity.  Love is a wondering anticipation.  Love is never astounded and never surprised because it is that which is able to see the Truth that has always been there.  It is that which sees Christ in one another, sees God alive in creation.  And it is merely waiting for you to see it too.

Love happens when that undefended, vulnerable place in me sees that undefended, vulnerable place in you and says, “Oh, there you are!”  And those places are strengthened when they see one another.

And then, Love continues its patient watchfulness, awaiting the next opening, the next opportunity for connection.  Very simply, Love is God looking through our eyes.

On occasion, I’ve indulged myself up here by talked about one of my favorite TV shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Now, I apologize if you’re disappointed in the fact that I’m about to do it again.

One of the reasons I love this series so much is because a few of the characters go through incredibly profound transformations.  This is a bold risk in a television series because the whole reason people keep watching a TV show is that they identify with the characters in some way, they connect to them – either “loving” them or “loving” to hate them.  So, when a screenwriter decides to have a character undergo a transformation, they run the risk of alienating the audience.

And if you think about it, that’s not much different than real life.  We’re often afraid that if we make a change in our lives, if we really live our life fully and become a new creation, we will lose connection with the people that matter the most to us.  In some cases, unfortunately, that might actually be true.

So, back to Buffy.  As you might imagine, Buffy is our heroine.  And, based on the title of the show, you’ve probably also guessed that she is a vampire slayer.  However, as we advance through the series, we find that she slays more than just vampires.  She defends human life against all manner of evil.  And one of the more evil characters is a vampire named Spike.  When he first arrives in the story it’s early on – Season 2 of a 7 season series… and I have watched all 7 seasons at least 3 times.

Spike is Buffy’s nemesis.  And he is dangerous.  He has killed 2 slayers before and vows to kill her.  And we love to hate Spike (who, by the way, is so named because of his chosen method of torturing his victims with a railroad spike) and we just want Buffy to “dust” him (because, you see, vampires turn to dust when you slay them).  And Buffy does her best to take him out but he always proves just a little too cunning, as does she prove to be too good of a slayer for him to kill.  It’s a well-written tension in the plot that keeps the audience interested.

Over the course of the seven seasons, both Buffy and Spike change in significant ways.  They change so profoundly, in fact, that none of the other characters on the show are really willing to fully accept their transformations.  Even though the other characters love Buffy, nearly all of them are unable to see her anew.  And none of them are able to accept the change in Spike.  Now, I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you by telling you everything that happens, should you ever choose to watch the series, which I highly recommend.  

But I will say this: the transformation in these characters only becomes integrated when the other bears witness to it, when the transformation is somehow fully seen and accepted by another.  Let me say that again – transformation is only integrated into our being when someone Loves us enough to bear witness to this new creation.

When Buffy acknowledges, honors, and chooses to trust in Spike’s change of heart.  When Spike witnesses, affirms, and defends the change in Buffy’s very being.  This is Love, my friends.

This is Love, not because it meets with some sentimentalized version of romance.  But rather, this is Love because these characters are willing to surrender their version of reality, willing to let go of their needs, their grudges, their identities and in a sense, lay down their lives… in order to see the Truth that stands before them.

They are willing to bear witness to a new creation.
As a Christian, I would say they are willing to let God see through their eyes.

If we think about it, what happens to us when something new occurs to us?  A shift in our worldview, a new understanding of ourselves that gives us a sense of freedom, a sense of connection, a sense of awe, or even a sense of capacity?  I’m willing to bet that you have all experienced something like this in your lives.

Perhaps when you were young, you learned a new skill and couldn’t wait to show someone.  Or you might have had a life-changing experience that gave you a new understanding of God and you desperately needed to talk to someone about it.  Or, perhaps we are in relationship with someone who refuses to see a change in us: a parent who cannot see us as an adult, a partner who holds on to a mistake we’ve made in the past, a work colleague or manager who has formed an opinion of us based on someone else’s evaluation of our work.

How does it feel when the people in our lives are unwilling or unable to be curious about us?  How does it feel when no one will bear witness to our transformation?  How does it feel when people put you in a box that is convenient for them?

It is a form of death.  It is a kind of killing.  And our culture is so proficient at issuing death sentences.  We seem to demand that people never sway from what they stand for, or believe in.  We seem to need people to sit tight in a file box we keep well labeled and we stand at the ready to demonize them should they choose to step out of it.  And we are astounded when someone has a change of heart.

Do we really think that little of God that we are astounded when the Holy Spirit births a new creation in our midst?

Peter was a disciple of Jesus.  He was there when Jesus gave the commandment to love one another just as Jesus had loved them.  And here is Peter’s first chance to put the rubber to the road after receiving that wacky vision that he is not the authority to choose what is holy and what is profane.  Peter is given the opportunity to witnesses the Holy Spirit at work to see transformation in people.

When “the gift of the Holy Spirit [pours] out even on the Gentiles,” what Peter is called to do is beyond acceptance, beyond tolerance, beyond his own definition of what transformation should look like.  And he is called to witness, to affirm.  Peter is called to Love in a new way.  To look upon these people with the eyes of God.  To Love as Jesus Loved him.

Peter, this man who was always questioning and worried, always just a little nervous.
Who wanted to build tents for Elijah, Moses and Jesus when Jesus was transfigured before his eyes because he didn’t quite understand what was happening.
Who got so confused because Jesus wanted to wash his feet.
Who denied Jesus 3 times on the day of his torment and death.
Peter, whom Jesus always Loved with a patient curiosity, using the eyes of God to see the Truth.
This man Simon Peter is called to Love as Jesus Loved him.

And so he stands… willing to bear witness to a new creation
Opening himself to the Love that is God looking through our eyes.

And when that happens, our questions and anxiety disappear, our confusion evaporates, our defenses drop.  And just like Peter, we simply Love one another and we automatically embody that patient curiosity for one another that is simply waiting to greet our friend, “Oh, hey! There you are.”

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