Trusting Flesh

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021.  Read the day’s scripture here.  Click the play button above to listen along.

Today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus is revealing himself to the larger group of disciples, comes immediately after Luke’s telling of the Road to Emmaus, a story which we only hear every third year, when we are reading through Luke’s Gospel. 

On the Road to Emmaus, the disciples are walking along toward a town… interestingly enough, called Emmaus… discussing what had just happened in Jerusalem, how Jesus had died and how some of their friends – the women, actually – were talking about how he had risen from the dead. 

And as they were walking and talking, a person came along walking beside them, listening to their conversation. And this person started asking questions.  The disciples invited them to join them and stay with them for the night.

So when they were all sitting at dinner, this person broke bread and gave it to them, a gesture that reminded them of the last supper and the self-emptying love that Jesus shared with the whole world.  It was at this point, that the disciples suddenly realized… it was Christ who sat at their table.

They had offered hospitality to this stranger… a place to stay, some food to eat, tending to the needs of the flesh.  They had opened their hearts to this person so that they had become a guest amongst them.  And because of that, because they perceived with their heart and not their mind, when they broke bread together, they realized this stranger was Christ.

When these disciples returned to their friends in Jerusalem, they were telling the others about this miraculous moment in Emmaus. And that’s where today’s reading picks up.  Jesus appears again – this time, out of nowhere – and addresses them all with a greeting we know so well: “Peace be with you.”

But they were terrified of this knowledge, their minds could not make sense of it.  They were so terrified they refused to believe what they were seeing.  But Jesus says: No… look.  Look at my hands.  Look at my feet. See my flesh.  Touch my skin.  I am real.

But seeing isn’t enough.  Luke’s Gospel says, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.

And in response, Jesus asks them for food.  And they give him a piece of broiled fish.  And he ate it in their presence.  These people who had lived on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, many of them earning their living by providing fish for others, giving from their own yield to this person standing before them simply because he asked.  They shared themselves with him.  They opened their hearts to him and began to see him for who he was.  And who he is.

Today’s image on the front cover of the bulletin, comes from a cartoonist named Emily Flake and it appeared in the New Yorker the day after Easter.  In the second frame, Flake names so clearly what is, I think, a very common concern for so many of us.

As we become vaccinated and as we start to think about how to be with one another again physically, we’re all facing anxiety.  “How do I… people?”  How do I interact with people?  How do I talk to people?  How do I walk beside people? How do I do anything with people?  How do I function with people?

I chose this image today because this gospel passage is so much about physical reality – how we see each other, how we see ourselves, how we choose to interact with the people in our lives, how we determine what’s real and how we bring ourselves to that. Today’s gospel makes it very clear that Christ is not just an idea, but a physical reality.  Someone you can see.  Someone you can touch.  Someone you can smell.

And here we are after over a year of physical distancing. A time when we haven’t been able to touch other people.  We haven’t shared hugs or, as Flake describes in her cartoon, “put our faces into all the other faces” because we’re so happy to be able to touch one another again.  It’s like we’re rebuilding trust.  Rebuilding the belief that the presence of other people is not something to get anxious about.

I suspect it’s something like today’s gospel story: While in our joy we will also be disbelieving and still wondering.

I know I’ve spoken about this before that now when I watch movies or tv programs, I sometimes experience anxiety when the characters are in crowds or get to close to people they don’t know… even though they were filmed long before the pandemic. 

And I’ve noticed a new emotion crop up alongside the anxiety – jealousy.  And it’s not a jealousy of those people, it’s a jealousy of my former self.  And how I took for granted the ability to dance with others, or sit in a theatre and watch a play, or attend a crowded festival, or be in a packed church, or invite people over to dinner. 

I talk about this not as an opportunity to become maudlin, but because of the simple truth that flesh matters.  Our blood, our guts, our flesh, our breath is what God created along with all the other flesh of all the other creatures on our planet and every other planet in the entire universe.  It all matters.  Our physical presence matters.

You see, it wouldn’t have worked for Jesus to appear as he did in the Transfiguration – on top of a mountain with the pantheon of Jewish leadership, Moses and Elijah.  I think a part of us wishes it were that simple – to worship a far-off, remote god who lives in the sky.  It was Peter who wanted to erect buildings in the Transfiguration story… as if that were the point of Christ, the limits of Love.  As if that were the end, as if that was what God is about.

For the Resurrection to mean anything to us, to have any impact on our lives, it had to be much more personal, much more physical, much more human.  It had to have flesh.  It had to be real.  It had to be directly connected to who we are as human beings, creatures of God, who breathe and eat and sweat and give birth and die.

The risen Christ is not in a cloud on high. The risen Christ walks among us and is the essence of who we are as creatures of God – created to connect to one another and to care for one another.  In fact, created to Love.  When we open our heart to another, it is Christ who lives through us.  When, as a community, we come together to lift up the oppressed, it is Christ who lives through us.

This story from Luke’s Gospel demonstrates that the Resurrection is personal and communal.  That we are brought back to life, into the Resurrected life, when as individuals and as community, we open our hearts to the strangers among us and we care for them, not as an idea, but in real, tangible ways.

Because nothing is more real than this flesh that breathes and smells and has needs.  This flesh that feels awkward and anxious about being around other flesh sometimes.  This flesh that eats and drinks and laughs and cries.  This flesh that lives and dies.

Christ is alive because we are and because God has created us to love.  And this love is endless, truly endless.  There are no bounds to God’s love made alive through the risen Christ because this power to love has always been and will always be.

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

This is Love incarnate.  This is Christ.

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On Grief and New Life

This sermon was preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021.  Click here to read the day’s scripture.  Click the play button above to listen along.

Among the disciples, Thomas is like Peter, I think.  Peter, as you may recall, is the disciple who always seems to fall short in the gospel stories.  Always trying too hard or just not getting the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach, but so incredibly enthusiastic that he ends up being endearing.  Peter gives us a clear understanding that the disciples were not blameless, spiritually advanced people.  They did not have special knowledge or know how to do special things.  They were merely human.  Like us.

Self as Thomas by Francesco Clemente

Thomas, or “Doubting Thomas,” as we’ve come to know him, is like this.  He demonstrates in this story, an aspect of what it means to be human.  He’s not nearly as endearing as Peter, however.  As a matter of fact, we usually think of Thomas as a bit grumpy, if we’re honest.  Or, at least I do.  A bit of a downer, Thomas is, throwing water on the Resurrection party with his distrust and suspicion.  But then, Thomas is grieving.

Grieving the loss of his friend, of his teacher.  Grieving the loss of the movement he had been a part of.  Grieving the loss of Love.

We forget the grief of the disciples all too easily, I think.  In our hindsight as 21st century Christians, we jump ahead in the story, emotionally speaking.  We anticipate Pentecost – the moment when enough people came to believe so deeply in Love that they decided to come together and form the Body of Christ.  “Christ is risen.  We can move on and do “church” again.”

We jump ahead to the institution of the church and the testimony of the community before we really deal with what Resurrection means to us personally and how that is connected to our grief as humans.  It’s hard for humans, especially in our society, to admit to our grief.  I think we believe that grieving makes us… somehow… broken.

Yet, if we look at our society, it’s full of people grieving and not knowing how to deal with it – mass shootings, white supremacy, suicide, political tension, blame… even the refusal to wear a mask is a form of grief – grief for what some people believe is a loss of freedom.

And so we Christians take our cue from John’s Gospel and we disparage Thomas for doubting (his form of grief), for not believing like the rest of the disciples did, for not jumping on the bandwagon.  We say, “If only Thomas had faith.”

There is a tendency in human systems to create scapegoats out of people like Thomas.  The ones who are not in agreement about spoken or unspoken rules and beliefs and who are, therefore, not like us.  These are those who are cast out. And one of the things that has always troubled me about John’s Gospel, is John’s decision to cast Thomas as destructive to the disciples.  Within a week of his teacher Jesus getting crucified for doing the very same thing – challenging authority in the name of Love.

Instead, maybe we should look at Thomas as someone who is believing more deeply in the movement that Jesus started.  Except that his grieving is getting in his way.

Is it not Love, or a form of love, that brings Thomas to this point? 
So distraught over the loss of love that he lands in an emotional no-go zone, refusing to believe so that he doesn’t have to feel the pain again.  Refusing to participate, to love, so that he can protect himself from disappointment. 

It’s not the kind of Love that Jesus teaches us about – the self-giving love of surrendering completely to God’s Will for us.  But it’s human love that comes to express itself in grief.  This is what Thomas shows us in today’s reading, how we grieve.

And Jesus may have a few words to say to Thomas in today’s gospel, but notice… he takes the time to be with Thomas and show him, to honor his grief.  He takes the time to love Thomas back to life, back to belief, back to Love.  And this is what saves Thomas, what brings him back to community, what makes him an apostle. 

Where are the places of pain in your life? What needs to be grieved so that you can finally let go and allow new life?  Not to forget.  Letting go is not about forgetting.  New life comes because we remember.

It may not surprise you, but I’m going to use a gardening metaphor here to help illustrate this. A plant, any plant, cannot become new life unless is has some memory of the plant that gave it life.  Seeds all carry the necessary DNA for new life to arise and this DNA is a memory bank of what has come before. 

The same is true for us.  We have the capacity for new life because we remember, because we hope.  So letting go is not about forgetting.  But it is about Resurrection.

What have you lost that means a lot to you?  Who have you lost?  Perhaps a relationship has changed or someone has died. Perhaps, like everyone else on the planet, you’re grieving the loss of human touch and company in this pandemic – shaking hands, hugging people, sharing a secret in someone’s ear, or just singing alongside a friend at church.

And more importantly, will you allow yourself to grieve?  Will you?

Grieving is so different for each person.  It’s not always a simple 5 steps as psychology teaches us.  Sometimes it just takes time.  Sometimes it requires us to confront another person. But it always feels like a hole at first.  Something, someone, a part of us… is gone.  And instead of filling that hole with anger or distraction, perhaps we could let ourselves just experience the loss and see what comes.

Bishop Mary spoke about this in her sermon last week on Easter Sunday… how the women flee in fear at the end of Mark’s Gospel.  They didn’t want to stick around to see what comes next.

This is such an incredibly important reading to have right after Easter because Thomas is also a resurrection story, you see.  Thomas, whose grief took him down to the grave over his love for Jesus, is truly resurrected along with Jesus, just as we are.  Just as we always are.

We are given new life in the Resurrection, not because we believe what we are told to believe as Christians. That’s not what new life in the Resurrection is about.  We are given new life because we have experienced loss.  We’ve experienced the death of ourselves in some way and have come to such deep grief that we, perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the fiftieth time, go looking for Christ ourselves.

And always, always… where we find Love, we find Christ, waiting for us, to show us what’s real, inviting us to put our hands in and to bringing us back to life again.

So before we get to Pentecost, before we get to the institution of the church and what the church teaches us about Resurrection… let’s spend time during this Easter season to recognize, and to honor, and to name and to truly allow ourselves to experience the ways in which Christ saves us personally.  Not in the past tense – stories from the past – but in the present tense.  Right now. How is Christ saving us?

What are the ways in which Love is bringing you back? The ways in which God is showing up in your life when you are willing to be real, when you are willing to grieve and offer your so-called brokenness? 

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Covenanted Beings

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2021, to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. Click here for today’s scripture. Listen along by clicking the play button above.

We talk a lot about covenant in the church.  And, as we saw in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures last week, it all started w Noah. That story tells us God said, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you…”  and God promised Noah and his descendants and every living creature, that they would never again be cut off from God.  God said that the sign of the covenant would be a rainbow.

This week, the story of covenant continues. This week we have Abram.  God said to Abram, “As for me, this is my covenant with you…” and God promised to make Abram and Sarai the ancestors of many nations and to be the god of those nations in an “everlasting covenant.” God changed their names, giving them new identities – Abraham and Sarah. It seems from these stories that God’s covenants are about promise, and about hope.  They are about God saving us from ourselves –  from annihilation and from obscurity.

They are the stories we tell as Christians, to remind us of what we believe God wants for us.  They are where we find courage and a sense of confidence in our inherent goodness because we believe the Creator God has named us precious.  Worthy.  Beloved.

From Noah’s story, we come to believe our Creator has offered us salvation as abundance, giving us land to live on and blessing us with skill and ingenuity to save, not only ourselves, but all the creatures of the earth too.  If only we believed in our skill now.  If only we loved God that much now. From Abraham’s story, we come to believe our Creator loves us so much that She desires and blesses our continued and endless presence, growing into entire civilizations that belong to God, so that we will continue to know God and know ourselves and one another more completely through our mutual love for God and His blessings.

In both of these covenants, we are given a glimpse of our preciousness, our belovedness, as well as our responsibility to God and to one another.  These stories are a part of our larger story of salvation. We belong to God.  And we belong to one another. We are covenanted beings.  Given breath.  Given life.  Given to one another because we are all precious beloved creatures of God.

I’ve seen this quote posted on Facebook over the past couple of days: “God, forgive me for the times I’ve desired a seat at the table you would’ve flipped.” It’s a sentiment that reflects what happens when we lose track of our beloved nature.  When we lose track of being covenanted beings.

Because we know the story – Jesus flips the table in the temple where people of privilege sit at the expense of the most vulnerable, taking advantage of the poor and the exploited. The table at which people are not acting as their brother’s and sister’s keepers, not acting as covenanted beings.

Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymous Bosch

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have desired a seat at that table of privilege.  We have wanted to listen to the voices of our lesser angels, to take the easy way rather than the hard way. We’ve wanted to listen to Peter who rebukes us for giving ourselves in service to God.  Peter, who tells us to keep our heads down. Peter, who tells us to walk away. To forget the covenant we made by taking our first breath.

It is this desire that drives greed, that creates privilege… and gossips and complains and whispers in our ear like some grotesque figures in an Hieronymous Bosch painting (check out today’s cover). It is this desire to be at the table of privilege that wants to enact standards by which others should be measured in order to be given the right to have the most basic things – like healthcare, shelter, clean water, and food.

“God, forgive me for the times I’ve desired a seat at the table you would’ve flipped.”

Because every time I have, I have lost my covenant. I have forgotten you – the God of Life, the God who is Love, whose property is always to have mercy.

Today’s collect: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy…” The glory of God is not privilege: opulence and trumpets and whirlwinds and palaces.  The glory of God is mercy. Mercy.

We do get lost sometimes.  When we allow pain to own us, believing in it more than we believe in God.  And we lose hope.  This is what happened to Peter. In today’s gospel, after Jesus explains the task of the messiah, the task of suffering, rejection, and, most especially, a truly despicable death… after Jesus explains this, Peter gets angry and starts to scold Jesus. He scolds Jesus, not because he’s scared for his friend and wants to protect him.  No. Peter yells at Jesus because Peter believes the messiah is supposed to wage a war and conquer the enemy.  The messiah Peter wants is supposed to exact revenge.

Peter doesn’t want this wimpy messiah – one who will allow himself to be humiliated and rejected, one who will surrender to such a despicable death on the cross, the most shameful death imaginable. Peter wants what HE wants.  He wants a messiah who will bring a worldly triumph to bear upon the oppressors of Rome.  And Peter rebukes Jesus because Jesus won’t give him what he wants – victory over Rome so that Jews will triumph and the enemy will suffer.

Because Peter desires a place at the table of privilege.  Or, at least, he wants to create his own table of privilege.  Peter has forgotten his own beloved nature and believes, in this instant, that the temptation to use one’s privilege to walk away, is what Jesus needs to do.

And so Jesus responds with his own reprimand of Peter. “Get behind me Satan,” he says. For you are setting your mind not on God’s will but on your own.  You are setting your mind on human things. You are setting your mind on your own desires, rather than on the flourishing of all life. You are focusing on your fear, rather than on God’s plan. And in doing so, demonstrating no faith in God, no faith in God’s promise. And you are not living into God’s covenant with you.

God’s covenant calls us to have faith in God, to believe that God’s abundance is the truth and God’s justice is our future.  And we are called to act in ways that demonstrate this belief. To walk before God… blameless because we know we have done and are doing all we can to act in accordance with God’s will. God’s will that life will beget life.  That life, all of life, is of supreme importance.  And that justice is a form of Love.  Because life should flourish, not at the expense of other life, but in cooperation with other life.

This is what mercy is about and, more importantly, is the very essence of reconciliation – the Table of Reconciliation that we have as a central Christian practice. Jesus offered himself so that reconciliation might be possible rather than the endless cycle of warring privilege. So that we might learn that the most important thing is to know our own beloved nature so we may remember that we are covenanted beings.

And that covenant is a covenant of life, the flourishing of all life that comes from faith in God’s abundance, rather than our own perceived abundance of privilege, and trust in God’s future, rather than our own imagined one.

Because what matters is life, not preferences or inclinations. And because of that, sometimes we need to lay down what we believe is our individual salvation so that the whole of God’s creation may flourish.  And in the flourishing of God’s whole creation is our own salvation because our salvation is bound up with the salvation of all creation. In other words, we realize that the privilege of being able to walk away from the suffering of others is not only an insult to them, but it undermines our own salvation.

This is what a covenant is about – a promise to support life and take responsibility for the flourishing of the common life.

When Jesus instructs us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him, he’s talking about sacrificing our privilege. Jesus is calling us to deny the parts of ourselves that get in the way of our life, which is directly connected to the lives of everyone else. So that God’s covenant with us may be honored once more.

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Into the Wilderness

A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2021 to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. Click here for today’s scripture. Click the play button to listen along.

This story from the Gospel always makes me think of that old trope from morality plays: The angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  Jesus sitting there in the wilderness – devils and angels whispering to him.  It’s not exactly what happens in the Gospel story but it’s the same story – humans, in our finite nature, are self-oriented.

rosettaartists.weebly.com

And there is a battle for our soul going on whenever we are tempted: Will we choose the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Will we sell our soul for a sense of false security?  Or will we live an honest, humble life?

It seems the choices are simple.  But the problem is, they really aren’t. The tempting choices we face often don’t present themselves in such clear cut ways.  It’s not usually Satan that we’re facing. It’s usually ourselves that we’re facing – our lesser angels.

Today Jesus meets himself in the wilderness.  He faces the part of himself that wants to give in to a need for security, a desire for power and wealth.  He faces the part of himself that we all know. The part that says, “What’s in it for me?”

Or more, specifically, if I do what is being asked, if I live my life as if God matters to me, what will happen to me? As humans, it’s an understandable starting place – what will happen to me?  Will I be ok?  Will we be ok?  Will we have enough?  Will I get my needs met?  If I do this or if I trust in this – will it turn out the way I need it to?

The Temptation story is found in 3 of the 4 Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  All have a bit of a different take, but they all take place immediately after Jesus was baptized and immediately before his public ministry. The placement of the story is significant both because it explains that baptism alone is not going to save us and because it illuminates the struggle we all have when we are called to live our lives as if God matters to us.

Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was an event in which Jesus was called out as the Christ, the anointed one.  In each Gospel the words are used – “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus has already been given the title of the Christ. And yet, he’s still tempted.

We have these temptation stories because even after baptism, even after Jesus was anointed as the Christ, he was tempted.  Jesus faced himself.  And so do we… face ourselves in the wilderness.  We are tempted by that question – What will happen to me?  Will I have enough?  Will I be ok?

It comes down to what we believe.  Do we believe the dark stories of our lives – that we are not worthy, not loved, not good? That there is not enough? That we are not capable, not safe, and that we do not matter?

When we believe these wilderness stories, Jesus knew, we react by trying to get love in some way, to shore up our privilege and our ego, to make sure we are seen as good or powerful.  And we try to protect ourselves by building walls between ourselves and those whom we imagine will change our lives.

Or do we believe in a different story?  One that tells me I have an abundance to offer.  I am capable and worthy.  I am OK and I will be OK because what I offer will be replenished. I am good and I am loved and from that place I can do what is being asked in living my life as if God matters.  I can trust in the ground of my being.

On Ash Wednesday, we were invited to observe a holy Lent.  Joel’s words echoed to us from eons ago – “Rend your hearts, not your clothing.” Bring everything you have to God, bare your heart and make known all of who you are – all of it, every last bit.  The hope and the pain. The vulnerability and the strength.  The fear and the love.  All of it – bring it to God.

And today we have this story from Genesis that comes to us from the end of the Flood story – a part of the larger story of creation in the first part of Genesis.  We call this Noah’s Covenant, the promise that God makes to humanity that “all flesh shall never again be cut off” from God.  That God will be with us in the depths of our fears. God will be with us as we battle the voices of temptation. God will be with us.  Period.

As Christians, we’ve come to know this through our teacher, our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ.  The one who taught us to live by two commandments – Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus taught us that this is all that matters in the end.  Love.

Because we are made of dust and to dust we shall return and all of this life, this breath, this blood is lent to us for a time so that we may share life with one another and love one another.  The purpose of life is nothing more than this. We know this but we don’t always believe this.  Because the temptation is very, very real. It’s in our minds most of the time, if we’re honest.

What will happen to me?
What will happen to me… if I invite someone to share my life?
… if I make friends with someone who doesn’t think like me or look like me?
… if I let someone use my stuff?
… if I help someone who is in trouble and I break the law while doing it?
What will happen to me?

I can tell you what will happen: You will change. Relationship changes us.  It’s just that simple.

But, it is relationship that is life-giving.  It might not be the relationship we’ve always imagined for ourselves, but it’s the relationship we have been given.  I’m not talking about putting up with abuse – that’s not relationship, that’s oppression.  I’m talking about seeing the person right in front of us and opening up ourselves to being changed by them to be in relationship with them because the purpose of life is nothing more than to care for one another… because we all breathe.

Witnessing others, being moved by them, celebrating them.  When we do this, we not only offer a blessing, but we are blessed ourselves. And we all have a different path through the wilderness, different temptations that try to keep us bound in fear and pain.  Temptations that keep us from being in relationship with one another.  But, through the wilderness we must go if we are to live our life as if God matters to us, to live our lives as if we matter to each other.

In the story of Jesus’ temptation we see ourselves reflected.  When Jesus meets himself in the wilderness, he sees his own face, just as we are met with ourselves, our own lesser angels, when we are tempted to live our lives for ourselves alone.

Can we see Jesus in ourselves?  Do we believe the light of Christ shines through our own heart?  So that we can carry on his work in the world as the Body of Christ?

When we see Jesus in ourselves, when we are able to hold ourselves with compassion, we might just stop insisting that our world show up for us in the particular way that suits us.  And as we practice, we learn to identify the temptations we have and we get better at saying no to the story in the darkness and saying yes to the truth, saying yes to the light.

We turn away from our fears and say yes to the relationship that is awaiting us, that will surely change us.  When we are able to see the face of God in our own face, we can let go of the story that tells us we are not worthy, not loved, not safe – because we know that we are.  Reminding ourselves that God resides within us, helps us remember that we have everything we need and we are good and holy, precious children of God.  We are Beloved.  Beloved.  Beloved.

And we are able to withstand the temptation to shrink and become what God is calling us to be – Christ, whose heart is broken open for the world.  When we finally learn to see Jesus in ourselves, then we can begin to see Jesus in others.

This is the first task of Lent – to recognize and believe in the Christ in ourselves.

May it be so.

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Rend Your Hearts

A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY, February 17, 2021. Click here for the readings. Sorry no audio.

The 13th century mystic and poet Jalaladdin Rumi says:
“Come, come whoever you are.  Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.  It doesn’t matter.  Ours is not a caravan of despair.  Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come yet again.  Come.”

We are 11 months in.  It was about 11 months ago that we were ordered to quarantine, to cease our public activities – like concerts and coffee shops and church. Eleven months of shifting and re-shifting, knowing and not-knowing, being together but unable to touch each other.

11 months of this pandemic has brought us to our knees in so many ways.  We are tired.  We are waiting.  We are anxious.  We are hoping.  And we are grieving. 

To think that we can just muscle our way through this, just find a way to cope and keep everything on an even keel, to think that we can push through this difficult experience… is folly. And I think we’ve come to understand that.  If the pandemic hasn’t taught us that we are vulnerable creatures living in an unstable world, then the political and societal unrest surely has. 

We have learned that we cannot do this alone. We don’t even need the ashes this year to remind us of our mortality. We know.  We remember.

The prophet Joel speaks to us from the ancient past, from a time when Israel had grown sure of itself, too sure of itself, and came to see just how vulnerable it was as a plague infected their land. And Joel uses these words to call us back to God: “Blow the trumpet in Zion: sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of [God] is coming near… yet, even now, says [God], return to me with all your heart… rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Return to [God, who is] gracious and merciful.”

I used to think that these were the kinds of words only used, or rather, mis-used by the people who stood on street corners, preaching doom and gloom, anticipating an imagined end of the world scenario. But 11 months into this pandemic, I can see that these words apply directly to us.  Today.

Joel’s phrase gives us a beautiful, poetic image about the task of returning to God: “Rend your hearts, not your clothing” because ancient Israelites would rend their clothing as a demonstration of grief, ripping their clothing apart violently in anguish and rage.  And Joel is reminding us that the response to the anxiety and pain and grief we feel is to shift our inward orientation – to rend our hearts, instead of our clothing. To tear them open and lay open our whole self to God, to bare – to show God our pain, our anxiety, our exhaustion. 

Our stress. Our regret. Our blame. Our frustration, panic, and cynicism. To bring to God, our fear, our anger… And our hope.

We open our heart to God. Because, in so doing, we come to realize that the we cannot bear this alone.  A simple turning, re-turning.  A simple cry in the wilderness, brings us to God.  Emmanu-el, the Hebrew phrase for God is with us. To rend our hearts is to share our heart, our whole heart, with God. 

An invitation to leave behind the coping mechanism of “I’m ok”, along with whatever we have used to make this plight bearable, and we rend our heart by bringing the things we can no longer bear, the things we are most in need of bringing and, perhaps, most ashamed to share.

We bring the anger – over having to wear a mask and over those who flagrantly disregard this direction. The anger over mismanagement of the pandemic and mistreatment of our siblings of color.
We bring the pain over lost relationships and the shame that we carry. And the pain and grief of those who have died.
We bring the shame of white supremacy and all the ways we have benefitted from it or all the ways we have been beaten by it.
We bring our anxiety and our exhaustion from lying politicians, from a year of worry and the ever-changing landscape of a pandemic.
And we bring the loneliness and the despair, the things that we, perhaps, are most ashamed of.  The parts of ourselves that have glimpsed a pit from which we fear we may never return.  Our own wounded hearts.

We bring every single piece, every last disturbing thought, every single shred of every emotion that lies on our heart… we bring it all to God, the seat of mercy and compassion. The God of Life who waits for us. The God of Love who redeems our life from the grave and crowns us with mercy and loving-kindness.

For when we do, when we bring all of this to God, we can begin to let go of it all.  When we bring this to God, we can unbind our own hearts and we can begin our walk toward new life. When we do, we bring ourselves to a feast of love so abundant, so boundless, so beautiful, so free.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our Christian season of Lent and during this season, we traditionally use this time to repent – through fasting and spiritual practices we learn more about those things we are called to give up because they get in the way of our relationship with God. Things we may be addicted to, including people and activities. Ways of living that harm us spiritually… and more often than not, physically, mentally, and emotionally as well. 

This is what Lent is for us.  A time of renewal. There may be some practice that will help us along our way this Lent, some fasting may be in order.  But spiritual practices and fasting are just ways of helping us toward the same realization we always come to.  And that is, how deeply we have insisted that we can do this without God. 
That we do not need to pray to God. 
That we do not need to cry out to God. 
That we do not need to cry… at all.   

What is on your heart? 
What pain do you carry that you’re afraid to speak? 
What anxiety is there that you don’t want to name? 
What hope is there that you cannot express?

Come.  Rend your hearts, my beloveds, not your garments.
Come.  Bring your whole heart to God and lay it bare. 
Be fully reconciled to God and, in so doing, be reconciled to yourself. 
Come ye disconsolate, to the mercy seat.  Bring your wounded hearts.

Come, wanderer.
Come worshipper.
Come, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Though you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Just come.

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Healing On All the Levels

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany on February 7, 2021. Read today’s scripture here. Listen along by clicking the play button above.

The healing stories of Jesus are, I think, particularly poignant in the midst of a pandemic. The questions on most of our minds right now aren’t exactly about healing, however, but about how to stay safe from contact with the virus and when we can get a vaccination. But, for those of us who have loved ones who are sick with Covid, it’s an anxious path of daily reports about their long healing process while we have to remain physically distant.

Because of this, or because we may be going through some kind of physical healing of our own, I think our tendency may be that, when the Gospel talks about healing, our thoughts automatically move to the act of curing a physical ailment or fixing the problem present in an identified sick person. 

We’ve all been sick and wanted to be cured of the misery and pain, or wanted it for our loves ones.  And we’ve all experienced the death of someone we have loved after having prayed for their physical healing. But fixing the so-called problem, the ailment, isn’t the only kind of healing the Gospel is talking about in these stories.

First, let’s note there are varieties of illness – physical, mental, emotional.  So the healing of an individual can be about many different things.  Sometimes it’s not even diagnosable by someone with a medical degree, but rather a burden we’ve carried on our heart for too long that is in need of spiritual healing.

Second, it’s important to understand that there are social and communal consequences to physical sickness or even physical differences.  So there is a need for healing on those levels as well. Society puts labels on those who have different physical abilities, going so far as to suggest that something other than the label of “normal” is a sign of God’s judgment. 

We see evidence of this in the stories of scripture and, disturbingly enough, evidence of this in our own time as we witness the continued condemnation of people of color through the lens of whiteness.  We blame the person who can’t fit into standards of normalcy before we stop to look at what “normal” even means. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that anything in particular is “abnormal” or a form of “sickness” we should give ourselves pause to consider exactly what lens we are using to make that judgment. 

For example, it wasn’t that long ago that same-sex attraction was listed as a diagnosable illness in the DSM.  It was seen as something that needed to be fixed, something to be cured.  And scripture was erroneously used to support that narrative. 

It’s not the first time, scripture also used to be twisted to support slavery.  But same sex relationships are still seen by so many as sinful, as something needing to be fixed – mostly by those who profess a religious faith, causing continued pain and trauma. 

So, in this case, is it the gay or lesbian or transgendered person who is in need of “healing” to fix the problem? Or is it the society or the specific community or group that is in need of healing?

I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to know that myself and countless other religious leaders believe that the healing needs to be on a communal level.  For the most part, society is on a path of healing as more and more, those who identify as LGBTQ are recognized as full citizens. The passage of same-sex marriage rites went a long way to making that a reality.  So, the issue is more communal – various religious communities and groups who still contend that being gay is a sickness or a sin, worthy of the need of healing.

So, healing is a much larger, more complex phenomenon than fixing a physical issue or curing someone of a disease.  And in Mark’s Gospel the healing stories are intertwined with issues of power and authority in society, which helps to illuminate the understanding that systemic injustice is most certainly not anything new but it is something that is in deep need of healing. 

As we look more closely at the stories of Jesus’ healing in Mark’s Gospel, we see the truth of this because they have all the layers of healing – personal, communal, and societal. Now, we started Mark’s Gospel a few weeks ago in January. This is Year B in a 3-year cycle of scripture.  Year A is Matthew, Year B is Mark, Year C is Luke.  And then the cycle starts over again at the beginning of the liturgical year in the season of Advent. 

So we have read about the Baptism of Jesus, the first event in Mark’s Gospel.  And we’ve read about the calling of the disciples, as the fishermen left their nets and their boats behind to follow Jesus. 

And last week, we read about Jesus’ first miracle in Mark’s Gospel – the exorcism of a demon from a scribe in the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath, breaking Sabbath law, resulting in two things: Jesus is now seen as an outlaw in the eyes of the religious authorities and, as the scripture says, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surround region of Galilee.”  The first public appearance by Jesus and he’s already in the hot seat, challenging authority and pointing to what is in need of healing in that society.  That’s where last week’s Gospel left off.

Now, in today’s passage, Jesus goes immediately from public healing to personal healing, demonstrating the connection between the two.  “As soon as they left the synagogue…” Jesus and the disciples entered the house of one of his disciples – Simon Peter – where he is called upon to heal the disciple’s mother, as it says, “they told him about her at once.”  And then text says,

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  So, we have this private, personal healing story. But that’s not where the passage ends. 

Now, Mark’s language is economical so he doesn’t offer details unless it’s important to the story.  And Mark specifically tells us that AFTER the Sabbath was ended – when the sun went down – Jesus healed the ones they brought to him – “all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.” 

Communal healing – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual… all who were sick or possessed with demons.

And then early the next day, Jesus goes away “to a deserted place” to pray.  An important part of the Jesus stories – the retreat to pray and discern God’s will. But, almost surely excited by the success of his ministry thus far, his disciples came looking for him saying, “Everyone is searching for you.” But he doesn’t stay to cure more people. 

Instead, he says, let’s go to the next town… so we can spread the message, curing people and casting out demons in other towns. And this is significant.  It demonstrates that healing is not just personal, not just communal.  Otherwise, Jesus would stay in Capernaum and heal the community, everyone who came to him.  And they would come to him because they were already coming.

No, healing is not just personal, nor is it only communal.  Healing is societal too.

After Jesus offered healing, he prayed to God, to become quiet in a deserted place, to discern what God would have him do.  And Jesus chose to spread the message – to proclaim in the assemblies, the synagogues where the religious authorities reigned in the power – to proclaim the good news. 

The good news, the Gospel, that is Jesus the Christ.  The one sent to us by God so that we would return to God, not by way of the letter of the law, but by way of love – the commandments given to us by Jesus – Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself, a commandment that, essentially, means the same thing as loving God, as Jesus tells us in the 12th chapter of Mark.   

This is what Jesus chose after praying to God and he told his disciples, “for that is what I came out to do.”

Jesus has a bigger project than healing each person individually. Jesus’ project is to overturn the power of the authorities who aren’t caring for the vulnerable people, to rearrange our thinking and to expel our demons.  The demons that get in our way of seeing that we are here to care for one another. 

For in doing the work of healing on this level, we are all truly changed. Our communities are truly transformed.  We are all truly healed.

In doing so, Jesus demonstrates the precept from the Hebrew Scriptures, that we are, in fact, our brothers/sisters/siblings’ keeper. The illness of one belongs to all – the community and the society.  So this means true healing must take place on all levels and in all dimensions. 

Is healing personal?  Yes!  It is about relieving pain and helping to knit our split souls back together so that we can become whole again.  But it also has to be communal and societal. 

Because pain and illness are so often the result of thinking that life is expendable, excusing the horrendous truth that our systems and structures almost always result in collateral damage. Humanity must strive to be healed, to be cured from these misconceptions because, inevitably, my need to keep the system or structure in place at the expense of others, is a violent act. 

It is not only the victim who is in need of healing, it’s the perpetrator. It’s not only the most vulnerable who are in need of healing, but system that creates vulnerability in the first place.

But to do that, we have to be honest.  To truly be healed, we have to be willing to have the Gospel mean something in our lives.  Because salvation isn’t about being comfortable.  Salvation is about being free from the violence we inflict on others through the systems we participate in. 

This is how we come to live according to the law written on our hearts.  This is how we follow Jesus’ commandments – love God, love your neighbor as yourself.  Because everyone is our neighbor.  Everyone.

And sometimes when I observe discussions about public policy, I see this dilemma.  I see that we need healing on a societal level. Because we have become too consumed, for example, with the idea that healthcare is a privilege and not a right. And we get hung up in the discussions because, even if we wanted to, we can’t seem to create a perfect system. But then, no system is perfect because no system can be perfect. 

That doesn’t mean we abandon the project, this project that Jesus has given us to continue in his name.  It means we keep trying.  As disciples of Jesus, we keep listening to God’s Holy Spirit. We keep using our privileged platforms to speak to the inequities of the system. And, eventually, the tide turns.  Society shifts into seeing things differently.  And we are all liberated.  We are all transformed.  We are all healed. 

As a society.  As communities.  As people.

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Come and See Hope

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, in celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Read the scripture here.  Click the play button above to listen.

I was re-reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail – the open letter that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to several white clergy in the city of Birmingham, Alabama after he was arrested for being a part of the non-violent demonstration against segregationist practices and policies on Good Friday in 1963. This demonstration was organized by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  I highly recommend it to you, if you’ve never read it before. The letter is almost 60 years old but so much of it still applies today.

After the demonstrators were arrested and thrown in jail, 7 white clergy in Birmingham, many of whom were seen as progressive at the time, published a letter in the newspaper which they entitled “A Call for Unity.”  This letter condemned the demonstrations, calling them “unwise and untimely,” and attempted to undermine those who led it, calling them outsiders.  In short, the so-called unity these 7 men sought was a false peace, an effort to reduce tension and keep the status quo.

This now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was written by the Rev. Dr. King in his jail cell during his incarceration to respond to these white leaders.  And, as I re-read his letter, I was reminded of a time in my own life when I voiced a similar concern as these white leaders. A fear that the disruption of the status quo would lead to breaking a precarious peace and, therefore, wasn’t worth the cost.  And it was over the confirmation of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.

I was new to the Episcopal Church, had been going to Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend, OR for a few years and was getting more involved in the life of the church.  This was 2003 and the General Convention was scheduled to meet that summer and one of the items on the agenda was a vote on whether the consecration of Gene Robinson would move forward.  Our priest, Bill Ellis, was going to represent our diocese as a deputy, which means he would have been one of the people voting.

He and I were discussing the controversy surrounding the election of Bishop Robinson in the parish hall. You see, in 2003, the gay rights movement had done a lot of work in the effort to destigmatize the LGBTQ community.  Many Episcopalian leaders had been a part of that work and we had been ordaining openly gay and lesbian priests for a while. But the consecration of a gay bishop was different because the office of “bishop” is a significant one amongst the churches of the larger Anglican Communion.  For us to assent to his consecration would put us at odds with our sister churches all over the world who were not the beneficiaries of a gay rights movement, their societies still thinking of gay and lesbian people as illegal or even evil – deserving of death.

I was still identifying as straight but had always understood myself to be an advocate of gay rights.  So, perhaps it was because of the privilege I had, of never knowing what it was really like to have a part of who I was, something so core to who I am, be seen as a problem… Perhaps it was my privilege that led me to say to Bill: “I don’t understand why we can’t just wait until the rest of the world is ready for something like this.  Isn’t it better to stay together and move forward slowly rather than risking unity?”

And Bill’s response to me was kind but straight-forward.  He said, “Michelle, you can never have real unity on the backs of others’ oppression.” 

I was surprised by this gentle soul’s kind admonition of me but I’ve never forgotten this lesson. Because, as I would come to learn in the study of scripture during seminary, as I would come to learn after being tossed out of a job search because the parish wasn’t ready for a gay priest, and as I would come to learn through the continued painful unveiling of deeply entrenched racism of our own society… I would come to learn that none of us are liberated until we are all liberated.  Because, inevitably, we are all bound by the oppression, the violence we wage on others. 

In fact, if we are not working towards liberation, we are inevitably a part of the system of violence. 

And when we learn that, whenever we learn that, if we actually allow ourselves to open our hearts and learn that… what we come to understand is that we have a sacred duty, as human beings, as creatures of God, beloved by God, to work towards the liberation of all.  And as we do, we come to learn that God is with us in this work.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 – 1968) in the offices of the National Cathedral in Washington DC, 31st March 1968. He was assassinated four days later. (Photo by Morton Broffman/Getty Images)

Scripture echoes across time the call for liberation:

  • In the words of the prophet Micah who told us that our duty was… to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
  • In the words of the liberator of Israel Moses… Let my people go, Pharaoh. (Exodus 5:1) 
  • In the words of Mary in the Magnificat… you have scattered the proud in their conceit and has lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1:51-52) 
  • And in the words of Jesus the Christ… the Spirit of God is upon me because he anointed me to proclaim release to the captives, to set free those who are oppressed.  (Luke 4:18)

Scripture is telling us that when we decide to give up this false peace and step into the work of liberation, God is at work with us.

It’s essentially the same question in today’s story from John’s Gospel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus comes along and invites Philip to follow him – the invitation to walk in love, the invitation to a new life, in fact.  And Philip, all excited by this, goes to Nathanael saying – this is the one we’ve been waiting for.  This is the teacher who will lead us, who will liberate us.

And Nathanael counters with: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Can anything good come out of the non-violent protests?  Can anything good come out of the consecration of a gay bishop?

The answer is, “Come and see.” 

Come and see what God is doing. Come and see what liberation looks like.  Come and see how light shines in the darkness.

Because, as Jesus tells us in this passage from John’s Gospel, you will see greater things than simply someone with great ability and insight. You will come to know the true miracle of liberation.

The work of justice, the work of liberation requires that let go of what we of our false sense of peace and be willing to live into the tension long enough to trust that God is doing something new – in our lives and in the lives of others.  The work of liberation asks us to let go of our expectations of what will happen and “Come and see” how I may be called by God to participate in the inbreaking of God’s Reign on earth.

It’s never about keeping the status quo, agreeing to disagree with those who believe that hate speech is their right, that oppressive ideas and policy are just a difference of opinion. It’s never about tolerating the forces of intolerance for the sake of keeping the peace because in the end that’s a false peace. 

Intolerance always ends in physical violence because intolerance is violence, it is a violation of the soul, a violation of the dignity of others, a violation of God’s creation. Intolerance is in direct opposition with the liberating, life-giving God of love that our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry always talks about.

I know it sounds paradoxical but we cannot tolerate intolerance. 
We cannot tolerate hate.  We cannot tolerate oppression. 
For these forces are so much more than a difference of opinion, they are antithetical and damaging to life itself. 

The Rev. Dr. William Barber (center) leading a march as a part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a continuation of the work of MLK Jr. going on today.

And so, on this weekend when we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a person who not only understood the invitation to “come and see,” but moved thousands and thousands of people with the same invitation – “come and see” what we can do when we work together to overturn the “negative peace which is the absence of tension” and create instead a “positive peace which is the presence of justice…” On this Sunday, during a time of such great anxiety and division in our nation, a time of deep grief over the ongoing pandemic… let us take up Philip’s invitation to “come and see.” Because in this invitation, is hope.

Hope in the realization that we are not bound to the forces of intolerance and hate.  Hope in the sure knowledge that God is with us as we take up the work of racial justice. Hope in the vision that is God’s Reign of Love so that we, too, may follow our savior in the narrow way of Love and participate in the inbreaking of God’s love into this world – a world that sorely needs Love.

Let us hear this invitation as one of Hope and, in honor of the Rev. Dr. King, work to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

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Thresholds

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany transferred to January 3, 2021.  Read the scripture here.  Click the play button above to listen along.

This time of year is a threshold – a transition from one year into the next, from one place into another.  This time is both full of anticipation and plans and hope as well as full of anxiety and a little fear. It’s also a time when things feel a bit uneasy.  Like we’ve been taken out of our ordinary lives in ordinary time and sent to some kind of holding area.  Floating a bit between one place and another. The uneasiness comes from our need to know exactly where we are.  Or where we’re going to be.  So that we can get things done.

All thresholds have this kind of effect.  Entering a room for the first time, even if it’s something you’re looking forward to. Being carried over a threshold is a tradition that comes to mind. And there’s the big threshold, of course, into life and back out of it. People who work in hospice care know very well how difficult that place can be.  Groups called threshold choirs have developed in response, people who come and sing while a person is crossing over from life into death.

But if we pay attention, thresholds happen all the time. When we read something that changes us.  When we watch a movie that shifts our understanding.  When we meet someone who opens our heart or our mind. These are thresholds – moments when we transition from one self into a another self.  Something inside of us resonates and helps us come to rest.

There are thresholds that are longer than a moment too, whole spans of time when we cannot exactly see what transition is taking place until we wake up one day to realize that we have changed or shifted over time – how our bodies shift over time, how our thinking shifts about the world in which we live, how our speech shifts slightly by living amongst other people.

Of course, a threshold is not just something that marks movement from one place to the next.  It’s also a marker of tolerance. We have a threshold of pain, for example. A high threshold means that we can tolerate pain, a low one means that we cannot, that it bleeds over some imagined barrier into our worlds and we’re not immune to its influence.

Regardless of how this term is used, it signifies change in some way – a change affecting us, or us participating in some change either actively… or passively, simply because the world is shifting toward the sun and we move along with time and space.  And one of the reasons this time of year is filled with anticipation is that we can sometimes see change as a hopeful thing. Hope that is the growth of the lifeforce within us, a shift toward the light, just like plants do when they follow the sun’s movement through the day. We too can change direction, we can follow the light, when we pay attention to how we need to be nourished.

“Arise!  Shine!  For your light has come.”  The words from Isaiah beckon us from our sleep to cross the threshold of consciousness into awakening.  “Arise!  Shine!  Lift up your eyes and look around. Then you shall see and be radiant.  Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”

What is this?  This that begs our awakening? That calls to us in our sleep?  From our sleep?  We’ve all probably had that experience of some kind of noise that brings you out of your dreams into wakefulness.  The noise, somehow incorporated into the storyline of your dream until you cannot deny its presence any longer and you cross some threshold of awareness that lets you know you are no longer asleep, but awake.

What is this?  This story we have been given in scripture.  This star we have seen in our mind’s eye. This light that called us to follow it, summoning us from somewhere in the depths of our sleep to cross over a threshold into new awareness? 

Visit He Qi’s art at heqiart.com

It is nothing short of belief.  This awakening is belief itself.

The story of the magi is a story of belief.  A story of bringing ourselves over a new threshold to allow something new to be true.  Imperceptible on the outside at first, belief changes the inner landscape of our being as we cross this threshold.  How it works in us is nothing short of a miracle.

Of course, when belief first calls to us, like the magi in today’s story, we bring with us the gifts and the knowledge we have accumulated because that’s what we bring to every task.  Our cunning.  Our strategy.  Our will.  Our stories of power that give us some sense of safety in this world.  And we want our belief to fit with what we think we already know.  We don’t want to be changed, not initially.

But as we continue the journey to cross this particular threshold, this story that we have, we realize that belief in Love is not about any of these things.  What Love really wants from us is not our shiniest selves. What Love wants from us is our most vulnerable self, the part of us that we would rather leave behind the threshold in that other room, that other place of who we don’t want to be.  Perhaps who we wish we never were.  Or who we had to leave behind in order to get along in this world.

But this Love asks us to bring this tender self with us, the unhealed part.  Because whatever is unhealed in us will always keep us split between sleep and awareness if it is left behind. And it becomes our worst fears.  Our most painful stories. It’s not that we wear them on our jackets like some badge of honor, but when we bring them with us and offer them up to be healed, Love teaches us that everyone carries these kinds of stories. 

And, more importantly, Love teaches us to let go of them to believe in something else, to integrate them into the bigger story of who we are.

This is how belief changes our inner landscape: We make a choice to bring all of ourselves across the threshold, to lay down our worldly burdens at the foot of the manger and accept Love.  To Arise.  And to shine.  To lift up our eyes and learn how to radiate this love for others who need to find it.

The wise magi in today’s story were able to cross this threshold, to bring their full selves with them.  They brought their worldly gifts and burdens and laid them down at Love’s feet and, in so doing, teach us how to do the same.  Our other teacher is, of course, Herod – the one who could not make the journey, so tied to his worldly power.  And Herod will forever be this character for us who desires to be something other than he is, using his power to manipulate and control.  Instead of coming to the manger himself and crossing that threshold of love into belief.

Imperceptible at first, belief changes our inner landscape to believe in Love itself as a supreme value. And then, belief begins to shape our actions and our lives in ways that we could not have predicted.  In ways that only God understands because we cannot foresee the paths of those who we will meet in our lives, whose hearts we will come to know and be known by.  Belief in this Love, this Love that gives us so much… belief in this Love is a threshold kind of experience.  The same person but forever changed.

But it’s still a little anxiety-provoking because we don’t know where we’re going and we’re not sure we’re going to have what we need or even who we’ll be when we get there.  But we soon figure out that whatever we need will come.  And whoever shows up is who is supposed to be there with us.  And all the things we know and the skills we have accumulated, they come in handy but they aren’t what’s important.  What’s important is Love itself.

Every year, this time is a significant transition. But it seems to be a particularly powerful transition this year because we’ve been on this threshold for most of the year.  We are still grieving what we’ve lost and still coming to know this new space.  Grieving the loss of so much life and coming to know who we are on the other side.  Grieving the misunderstanding that we are independent from one another and coming to know our interdependence upon one another. Grieving the false power of the world and its ways and coming to know that the illusion we’ve all been laboring to uphold is founded upon the bedrock of white supremacy.  Grieving the false connection of power and coming to know the real connection of love.

So in this transition, my beloveds, as we cross this threshold, take some time.  Spend some time in the silence that only winter can provide under a blanket of snow.  Be gentle with your tender selves. Be patient with others as they find their way too. 

But know that the light has come. It shines for us now as it has for all of eternity, awakening us all, calling all from our sleep to believe.  To bring our full selves to cross the threshold and kneel at the manger where Love lies waiting to be adored inside our own hearts.

Arise!  Shine.  For your light has come.

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Some Celestial Event

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 27, 2020.  Read the scripture here.  Click the play button above to listen along.

In the beginning was the Word.  The Gospel of John echoes the book of Genesis, of course.  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light.”

In the beginning was the Word.  This word, this wind, this breath from God.  In the beginning the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through this Word and without it, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in this Word was life. And the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

It was some celestial event – this Word from God, this birth of Christ. A celestial event, the poetry of God, spoken into the void, that brought us all into being. Molecules crashed into each other through forces of gravity to become gaseous elements, and the combining and mixing of these elements as they became heavier and developed mass causing them to be thrown together by gravitational pulls resulting in the birth of stars.

This spoken word from God.  A wind.  A breath. A line of poetry – Let there be light.

And it is Christ that compels us to reckon with the question: What is all this about?  This existence, this life, this breath. This seemingly random happening in which molecules form elements which come together to become masses which create gravitational pulls that burst into stars from which are born planets that have become home to our precious flesh. What is all this about?

From the beginning, this Christ has always been present – the answer to the question, what is all this about?

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, tells us. He explains, “the law was our disciplinarian… but now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.” In one sense, having been a well-schooled Jewish man, Paul was referring to the law of the Jewish people, the core of which is the 10 commandments. 

So that we are able to continue to allow life to flourish, we need a law that helps us remember.   Because it’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to get lost in our own needs based on our own hurts and make the world smaller and smaller and smaller until we are the only one in it.  And we commit sin because we feel so disconnected from the incredible celestial event that brought breath to our lungs and life to our bodies.  Some celestial event that birthed love in our hearts.

Discipline, the law, helps us in times when we’re not fully connected to the truth of this Word. It helps us to care for one another and enable all life to flourish. But the law is not the same as faith, not the same as a direct knowing. This isn’t to say that Christianity is an improvement on Judaism. In truth, they are two branches of the same ancient tree of wisdom. Both faith traditions have different ways of articulating the same deeper truth, that God is Love.

So, what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians, is a faith that comes to us from knowing this deeper truth, a bigger love than our small, lost world where all we think about is what we don’t have. This faith is an awareness that reconnects us with that celestial event that brought all things into being – sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters; and every living thing.

And that we are a part of all of it. Not just a stray anomaly, adrift on our own. But a precious, essential piece of that celestial event. And even when that’s not the message we received when we were young, even when we were taught that we aren’t precious, our faith can lead us to this awareness. As our faith matures, we are not beholden to discipline because we have come to know God’s law as it is written on our hearts. Our hearts, the manger in which Christ is born in some celestial event.

And the only response to that awareness, the only response to that kind of love that is showered down upon us, is Love. To love God.  To love our neighbor as ourselves.

This celestial event, the reason this all came to be and the meaning of all of it, is love.  But not a personal salvation kind of love that is about what I believe – for that is no salvation at all but a way of dismissing the command of love.  Rather a love that is incarnate and real, tangible and takes action in the world.  For, as the Jewish Talmud tells us: “Do not be daunted by the world’s grief.  Do justly now.  Walk humbly now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

This love, this Christ, who is love incarnate, has been a part of this celestial event from the beginning.  The Alpha and the Omega. The thriving of life is the love of Christ, the self-emptying love of Christ. A love that does not require response in return. But a love that gives of itself because it sees that a decision made over here, enables life to thrive over there. That all my decisions are not about me alone, but have an impact on the lives around me and on the lives of those I’ve never even met before. 

Life cannot thrive without love.  Love is all that matters.

And so what we see here in this world, what we experience here – the absurdity of it, the loveliness of it, the pain of it… all of it – what faith helps us learn to look for, are the moments when we are called to be of service to Love.  In Love. Because each time we are, each time we come out of ourselves and our own little worlds and we learn to follow God’s law written on our hearts, we are living into our purpose and participating in some celestial event.  This is the poetry of God.  And we are a precious, integral part of it.

None of the rest of it really matters.  Not really.

The world truly comes into being through this Love that is Christ because, through this love, life comes to its true purpose.

What we celebrate at Christmas is this birth. The birth of love inside of us, the Word that was in the beginning. A light that shines in the darkness.  And the darkness does not overcome it. Because it is some celestial event.  We are some celestial event.

In the beginning was the Word, this breath that is God, this love that is life.

Come let us adore this.

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One Flesh

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Christmas Eve 2020.  You can read the scripture here.  Click on the play button above to listen along.

Merry Christmas!

Tonight’s worship is probably like no other you’ve ever attended. I know it’s like no other that I’ve ever presided over. Filming and editing video is not something they ever taught us to do in seminary but it’s something I’ve developed some menial skill for over the past month.  That and the nerve-wracking process of managing video and zoom at the same time. It’s not what Christmas looked like last year and it’s not, what I hope, Christmas will look like next year.  But it’s what we have for now. And I’ve learned a lot.

I think that’s the overall theme for this entire year, really. I’ve seen so many posts on social media that say something like: I can’t wait to see the end of 2020. It hasn’t been a very enjoyable year. For far too many, it’s been deadly and grim and heartbreaking. Planning, only to have our plans canceled. Anxiety over everyday activities.  Social unrest.  Turning on a dime to handle things differently because the rules have changed.  Divisive politics.  The inability to see our loved ones.  People dying.

And in all of it, there has been an undercurrent of: This is what it is. We hope it won’t be the same next year.  But, in the meantime, we’re learning a lot while we cope with the difference between our reality and our preference.

In the midst of this, I’ve seen our community of Kingston come together in incredible ways – the Kingston Mutual Aid Facebook page, the community refrigerators popping up all over Midtown, the community gatherings around Black Lives Matter, and various organizations feeding people and making sure people’s needs are tended to.  Including our own Angel Food East who shifted operations completely to make sure that every one of our volunteers stayed safe so that every one of our clients could continue to eat.

Because look what love does.

I’m not saying it’s good.  I’m not saying “Yay, 2020!”  I’m saying, what God is doing with it, is good.  This is what God always does, create blessing from the hardest of circumstances. 

God is Love and Love works through us to create goodness in the midst of despair. Love becomes incarnate in the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of life because Love is life. Life cannot thrive without Love – this connection we have with one another because we are born of the same earth, this interdependence we have because share the same breath. We are the same flesh. And God creates, love creates, so that life may thrive.

I offer this poem from Hafiz, a twelfth century Persian:

I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from humanity’s hands even of the height of their arc of anger because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound and it is His – Christ’s, our Beloved’s.

I have come into this world to see this: all creatures hold hands as we pass through this miraculous existence we share on the way to even a greater being of soul, a being of just ecstatic light, forever entwined and at play with God.

I have come into this world to hear this: every song the earth has sung since it was conceived in the Divine’s womb and began spinning from God’s wish, every song by wing and fin and hoof, every song by hill and field and tree and man and woman and child, every song of stream and rock, every song of tool and lyre and flute, every song of gold and emerald and fire, every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity to know itself as God; for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching – only imbibing in the glorious Sun will complete us.

I have come into the world to experience this: people so true to love they would rather die before speaking an unkind word, people so true their lives are God’s covenant – the promise of Hope.

I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from humanity’s hands even at the height of their arc of rage because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound.

My beloveds, we have no greater evidence of this truth, that we are all one flesh, than this past year. This year of 2020 that we would prefer to forget. But should we?  Should we forget how important love has been for us this year?  When we’ve learned so much about just how deadly selfishness actually is? When we’ve come to realize that to care for others is truly to care for self at the same time? 

Because there is only one flesh.  And all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching.

Now, more than ever, the message of Christmas is life-changing – that God creates blessing out of the worst of circumstances. God brings light in the midst of the deepest night. God creates a gift of love incarnate for the whole world – a man who would eventually sacrifice his life for others – this gift of love incarnate created in the womb of a poor woman who needed a place to stay on a dark night.

Last year, at Christmas time, someone asked me why we don’t put the baby in the manger at the altar when we celebrate Christmas.  And, I had never thought to explain this – of course!  What a great question! We have this story of a baby being born and laid in a manger so, where’s the baby?  Wouldn’t that be the very point of the story? 

Here’s why: Because my hope is that you’ll use this image of the manger for yourselves.  Because the love that is born in you, may not look exactly like a baby, even though it may be just as vulnerable and just as tender and need just as much nurturing.  This manger is yours because God is being born in your own heart, your own manger.

And love doesn’t always look like a baby. Sometimes it looks like justice or dignity or diversity or advocacy. But we celebrate these, all these, as a birth because we know how fragile love can be. Yet, it’s the very thing that brings worldly power to its knees because it’s about life itself. And none of us, not one of us, can escape the truth of that.  There is only one flesh.  And it is made of this earth.  And it breathes the same breath.

So it’s not exactly about a child being born, but about a love being born.  A love that is so powerful that it turns the whole world toward the light. A love so powerful that worldly power – wealth, political power, fancy things – all the worldly power is brought to its very knees by the power of this love.  A love so powerful that our life is changed forever.

What is in that manger for you?  What does this love look like in your heart that is changing your life forever?   What is that song Hafiz talks about when he says that he wants to “hear every song the heart should cry with magnificent dignity to know itself as God’s; for all other knowledge will leave us again in want and aching.”

For even in the darkest of times, in the darkest part of the year, Love is still born in our hearts when long to hear every song of the earth, when we become so true to love that we yearn to be kind, when we drop our sword even at the height of the art of anger. 

Even in the darkest of times, in the darkest season of the year, Love is still born in our hearts when we acknowledge the truth of our one flesh.

And that is quite a miracle.

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Mary Moments

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2020.  You can read today’s scripture here.  Click the play button below to listen along.

I was so moved by Deacon Sue’s sermon last week, bearing witness to her own journey of struggle with the call to prison ministry. As she realized that, in that one decision to reach out to a person on death row and write them letters, she knew her own life would never be the same.  She was giving herself over to something that God was calling her to. She was saying yes to the birth of Love in her heart and, in so doing, enabling a birth of love in Roddy’s heart – for Sue and, in accepting her love, a birth of love for himself as well.  And in her leadership here at St. John’s, stretching all of our hearts to include someone we probably would have, otherwise, never decided to care about.

The Annunciation, our story from Luke’s Gospel this week, is a story about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Who, because she was called to a task that she knew would change her life, we celebrate as the epitome of what the season of Advent is truly about. Mary didn’t know exactly what was coming her way in deciding to carry that particular child in her womb.  What she would be required to give. She didn’t know what kind of heartbreak she would experience as she watched her son risk himself, stand up to corruption and immorality, and then be murdered by the state, under the approving gaze of the religious authorities.

And she had no idea what all this would really mean to the millions and millions of people who would eventually come to learn about her child.  Who he was.  What he did.  How he opened our hearts to God. Even if we believe that Gabriel’s message was that detailed and complete, Mary really had no idea.  She only knew her life would change forever.

The fear that our lives will change is something that we all struggle with.  Even if we don’t particularly enjoy all aspects of our lives, the fear we feel at the prospect of our entire life being changed is a significant part of who we are as humans.

It’s built into our very flesh. The human body always seeks equilibrium – a sense of stasis. We feel more comfortable when we are doing habitual things – even if they are bad for us.  It’s why smokers have a hard time breaking the habit. It’s why our bodies hurt when we first start exercising, even though it’s good for us. It’s why we still crave sugar and junk food when we start eating healthier, even though the nutrients in vegetables are better for our bodies. It’s why we sleep in the same position every night and sometimes keep ourselves in relationships that are not healthy for us. And it’s a part of why we meet the question of opening our lives to someone who is very different from us with a “maybe” or a “no” rather than an enthusiastic “yes” most of the time.

The other part of the equation, in this case, is privilege. When we have the ability to say no to others, when we have the capacity to choose whether or not we will allow our lives to be affected by the suffering of others, or, in our financial comfort, to even allow them on our radar screen, that’s privilege.

Each one of us has had Mary moments – times in our lives when we were invited to say yes to something, someone, that would change our lives.  Not forced to say yes, for we had the full authority to say no. But we were invited to say yes. This is a Mary moment.

Not moments of self-improvement, like a new job or starting a new school… but moments where we knew that this decision was going to require a sacrifice of our comfort, a sacrifice of our preferences, a sacrifice of our privilege… in order to be there for someone else.

Because the first commandment is Love God. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. We love God by loving our neighbor – the flesh that is a child of God.

Mary moments seem like they are about us, personally. Something we choose to do based on our faith. But they also come to us as a society, as a people.

Moments when the people who have privilege decide that they are willing to put their own comfort at risk in order to make room for another, in order to make room for Love:  The toppling of the Berlin Wall in Germany in the 1980’s. The government of South Africa ending the cruel system of apartheid in the 1990’s. The granting of marriage rights to LGBTQ members of our society here in the US beginning in the early 2000’s.

In all these instances, we know that not everyone in the society was ready to embrace change. But, on the whole, a society comes to a point of awareness – and I say awareness because privilege enables us to be unaware of so much – a society comes to a point of awareness and it decides that it wants to be different, that the lives of all of us would be better if we made space for more people at the table.  So, it’s time to change. Eyes are opened and the angel Gabriel confronts us in some moment, enlightening us and announcing God’s call to us: It’s time to say yes. It’s time to take a step closer to Christ, to becoming the Beloved Community.

In December of 1865, 155 years ago this month, the United States proclaimed an end to chattel slavery in this country in the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. We know all too well that this decision was not embraced by every US citizen. We can believe that it was about economics, but that’s just a cover for the real issue.  And the real issue was, and still is, fear of the other.

Human beings simply cannot treat other human beings that cruelly unless they are firmly convinced that the “other” is not human. And, by 1865, the end of the Civil War, black people had become “othered” by people of privilege for several centuries, in the carefully crafted rhetoric of those privileged few who stood to gain from the slave trade, convincing just about every person of European decent that chattel slavery was just and, despicably enough, even righteous. Because, as the rhetoric said, they were creatures who were sub-human.

I say that the real issue “still is” fear of the other, because 155 years later, we are still dealing with the gruesome legacy of this sin in so many insidious and deadly ways.

In November, at our Diocesan Convention this year, we passed a resolution put forth by the Reparations Committee to designate either the third or fourth Sunday of Advent as a thanksgiving for the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865 that brought an end to chattel slavery, and as an invitation for us to look to Mary as our guide as we intentionally continue the work of antiracism. To continue to unwind ourselves from the evil of white supremacy. To continue to liberate ourselves from the unconscious grasp it has on our society. To say yes to God, expanding our own hearts and sacrificing our own comfort to make room for more people at the table.

So, today, as a part of the prayers, we will honor Mary by offering our thanksgiving for the work that has been done so far, as well as confessing our need for continued awareness and liberation from the sin of white supremacy. And then we will ask for healing from this and from all the other traumas and sorrows we carry so that we may make room for what God has in store for us.  To make room for the Love that is awaiting us.

May Mary inspire us to listen to Gabriel’s messages in all their forms. May we trust enough that God will be with us as we risk our comfort and make room at the table. And may Mary’s yes become our yes – the preparation we are called to make for the coming of Love in our midst.

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Repentance and Comfort

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent II, December 6, 2020. You can read the scripture here. Listen along by clicking the play button below.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

The sermon of St. John the Baptist by Peter Bruegel the Elder, a 16th century Flemish interpreation

Of all the things we could be reading about as we prepare for such a festival of joy, reading about sin and repentance seems like a harsh way to get ready for Christmas.  Especially this year.

The busyness of our own lives – all that we typically do to prepare for Christmas plus, making alternate plans to be with the people we love in some way – whether that’s a phone call, a zoom call, sending presents, or even visiting at a distance.  Plus navigating our work lives and, for some of us, school or parenting school children.  Or people we know are sick.  Or we’re scared of getting sick because of a situation we’ve been in.  Or we miss the people we love.

The world feels very chaotic right now.  Even with our national election over, we’re re-experiencing the pandemic and the rates of those who are infected soars beyond anything we’ve experienced thus far.  And our healthcare workers are exhausted and feeling utterly disrespected because some people still refuse to wear a mask.  The pandemic has created joblessness and homelessness around us, even as we are safe in our homes.  And our homes, safe though they are, can feel restrictive because, it seems, we’re not allowed to be anywhere else.

I saw a tree ornament on Facebook the other day, it was green dumpster with black lids.  One of the lids was open, revealing the inside where a big orange dumpster fire raged, glowing flames jumping out of the top.  On the front of the dumpster was the number 2020.  Inferring, of course, that the year 2020 has been one big dumpster fire, a metaphor for an utterly calamitous and mismanaged situation.  A disaster.

Given this past year, that we are called to repent is, I suspect, just about the last thing we want to hear. But the seemingly harsh call to repentance is not all we hear today in the scripture.  We also hear the words of Isaiah, the words we sang in our opening hymn –

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says God.  Speak tenderly.  Let Jerusalem know that the difficulty is coming to an end.  For every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places, a plain.” 

The chaos will come to an end.

It may help to remember the true meaning of the word repentance.  I know I’ve preached about this before but it bears repeating because the larger societal understanding of repentance is one that is negative and not comforting at all.

Repent means to simply “turn around.”  It’s not a chest-beating, penance-saying, state of self-abasement.  We aren’t meant to feel bad about ourselves.  We’re meant to stop and to turn around.  To see something different besides what we’re usually focused on.

But it’s a difficult command for us to hear.  We want to keep going.  In our fear and anxiety and anger, we want to keep filling our time and our lives with things to do to.  Perhaps, to keep the emptiness at bay.  Perhaps to keep from falling apart.  This isn’t anything new.  This is how most people are most of the time. It’s just more pronounced right now as we come to terms with what it means to celebrate Christmas in the middle of a pandemic.

So, this command, to “repent” or “turn around” is an invitation to realize something else is happening, someone else is speaking, something else is worth our attention. And that something else is God.  That something else is Love.

It’s easy to miss what God is doing because we’re so focused on what we’re doing or not doing or what that person over there doing or not doing. When we stop and turn around and refocus, we may see what God is doing.  We may hear how Love is responding.  We may learn how God is reorienting the world toward justice and peace.  And we may find ways to connect with that reorientation, to work for the reconciliation of the world.

And therein is the comfort for Jerusalem.  That Love still exists.  That Life still breathes.  That Hope still reigns.  That God still is.

And because of that, death is never the last word.  Love, Life, Hope… these are the last words.

It’s a matter of tuning our dials to a different frequency – to listen, to watch for, to welcome, to expect Love.

I always think there is a slight confusion during the season of Advent because Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Love that comes down at Christmas.  And the inference is that, if we don’t prepare, we won’t receive this Love. Almost like the list of naughty and nice that Santa keeps. Or that toy that a true masochist created, the Elf on the Shelf.

But I don’t believe that to be true.  I believe as Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes, that we are made for goodness, we are made for love.  Here’s a quote from a book he wrote with his daughter Mpho called Made for Goodness:

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

What’s important to understand is this: we are always being given Love.  Christ is always present.  The preparation we are going through at Advent is not so that God will love us, but so that we will become capable of receiving that Love.  The preparation is one of removing all the obstacles in our lives to fully accept Christ, to become fully aware of the Truth that is Love.

The repentance John calls us to is so that we can see God’s Truth, so that we can make better decisions, not necessarily popular decisions, but better decisions, not only for ourselves, but for all our human siblings and all the creatures in God’s Peaceable Kingdom.

The prophetic voice is not the voice of judgment, you see.  The prophetic voice is the voice of Love, the voice of comfort. To stop and to turn around and see something different besides what we’re usually focused on. It’s an invitation to realize something else is happening, someone else is speaking, something else is worth our attention.

And that something else is God.  That something else is Love.

The promise is that, when we find the space of quiet amidst the fear of what might not go right and the anxiety over what isn’t going right and the anger over what hasn’t gone right… when we find the space of quiet, we will find comfort.  We will know peace.  We will experience love.

So it’s not “the valleys will be lifted up and the mountains will be made low…”  But:
The valleys are being lifted up.  The mountains are being made low.
The rough places are being made plain.
Truth is springing from the earth.
And peace is already a pathway for our feet.
The chaos is coming to an end.
The reign of God is, indeed, breaking in upon us.

For we are made for goodness.  We are made for love.

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The Hope of a New Dawn

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent I, November 29, 2020. Read today’s scripture here. Sorry, no audio recording today.

God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life.

What are these works of darkness that today’s collect refers to? Are they schemes developed by villains, like the greedy banker from the old movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”?  A man who owned half the town and cared nothing about the people who lived there, except how much money he could make from them. Or the death eaters from the Harry Potter books?  A group of wizards so deeply bigoted and prejudiced that they followed a murderer in order to keep their power above those they deemed unworthy.  The Star Wars stories all refer to the dark side of the force.

Many movies and books are written with a clear dichotomy between good and bad, light and dark.  It’s usually easy to tell which is which when you’re reading or watching a work of fiction. Unfortunately, in the real world, I don’t think it’s always that easy to tell who is a villain and who isn’t, mostly because every human being has both things that are hidden in the shadows as well as bright, luminous glory inside of them.  No person is purely evil just as no person is always doing the right thing.

Give us grace, the collect says, to cast away the works of darkness and protect ourselves with the light.

But to live without darkness entirely, is a foolish notion and an unhealthy one.  For darkness is where we find what has been hidden from us. It is in the darkness of the womb that we begin our lives.  It is through darkness that we traverse every year during the shortest days, when the earth rests in the northern hemisphere.  It is across a dark sky that we can see the stars, which are hidden from our view in the brightness of the sun.

When we take the time to be with the darkness in our lives, to find our way around inside of it, we realize that there is a whole world that is sometimes unexplored.  Things, experiences, memories, emotions that have not been dealt with or considered, that have been lying in the shadows so that we trip over them even in the brightest of daylight. And as we travel this dim land, we begin to learn that it’s not ease that we find in darkness, but a luminous wisdom, whose light grows from within the darkness itself.

Each year during the season of Advent, as we light the Advent candles, we say these words from poet Jan Richardson, “This is the gift that God holds out to us in this season: to carry the light but also to see in the dark, and to find the shapes of things in the shadows.”

It’s not the darkness itself, that we ask for grace to avoid, but the works of darkness.  The parts of us that, if we aren’t willing to investigate the darkness, can become controlled by our lesser angels.  The parts of ourselves that live in shame or fear, the pieces of our lives where things remain hidden and seem to trip us up. 

These notions can creep up on us, eviscerating hope from our lives and convincing us to believe lies about our own goodness and the goodness of others.  These are the works of darkness. When we refuse to forgive.  When we will not contribute to the world.  When we only let someone in when they’ve proven themselves to us. When we can no longer breathe.

When hope has gone, the works of darkness have taken hold.

Give us grace, the collect says, to cast away the works of darkness and protect ourselves with the light.

Today’s image on the cover of the bulletin is a bright red painting by Marc Chagall, is called the Cockcrow.  A rendition of that stark and vivid experience of being woken from a deep sleep. 

Marc Chagall’s At Cockcrow

Chagall was a Jewish artist born in Russia but who had moved to France so that by 1940, when the Nazi regime invaded France, Chagall was there to witness and live through the horror of the Holocaust.  When Chagall created this painting in 1944, the brilliant red dawn being heralded by the rooster, the Nazi regime was finally crumbling as Paris was liberated by the Allied forces in August.  Thus, this painting expresses the hope of a new dawn, announced by one of God’s creatures who cannot help but greet the breaking light with their voice. Some new Hope is coming.

Mark’s Gospel also uses the cockcrow as a symbol for Hope, the announcement of a homecoming, a release from the captivity of our worst fears. This passage reminds us that the things that lurk in the shadows of our consciousness are, ultimately, of no consequence because we belong to God. Some new Hope is coming.

“Keep awake,” Jesus tells us, the master of the house will most definitely return.

But will we know God when they come to us?  Will we know Christ when he shows up on our doorstep in the rain without a place to sleep?  Or will we be so lost in our own needs that we refuse him or her entrance, seeing, instead, just another person who couldn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps? 

This is the question before us today:  Can we continue to prepare our hearts to make room for the Love that is coming to us?  Will we be able to see the Love that is on the doorstep before us?

You see, it is through our choice to reconcile ourselves with our own darkness, through our choice to stay awake rather than fall asleep to the more difficult parts of our lives, that we are finally able to come home to ourselves and come home to God.  The wisdom we receive comes because we have brought with us the light of Christ, the knowledge that we are loved and we are good and we are whole.  And nothing can change that truth.

When we start to understand what our hang-ups are and why we feel like we always need to protect ourselves, we can start to see the shapes of things in the shadows.  And, instead of being controlled by them, we can make a different choice.  We can choose Love.  In the Light that is Christ, we can choose Love.

And we can begin to follow Jesus’ teaching: When I was hungry you gave me something to eat.  When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink.  To respond to someone’s need, simply because they breathe. 

This is the hope of a new dawn, the coming of Light in the shadows of our soul.

God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life.

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The Pinnacle of Jesus’ Teaching: An Enlightened Heart

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY at the celebration of the Reign of Christ on November 22, 2020. Click here to read today’s scripture. Listen along by clicking the play button below.

I pray that the God of glory may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know God, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…What are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints? What is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe?

This is a prayer offered, a blessing given, by Paul to the people of Ephesus: May you receive the gift of wisdom and revelation so the eyes of your heart be will be enlightened and you will know the hope that is Christ. And that Christ holds more power than any rule or authority or power or dominion, above every name that is named, now and for ever. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ. It’s the end of our liturgical year, when we hear the pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings and we reflect on how we have come to be the church, a community gathered in the name of Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Annointed One. 

The Risen Lord by He Qi
heqiart,com

Our liturgical year begins in Advent, 4 weeks before Christmas. A time to prepare for the birth of God’s power in the world, which we have come to know as Love.  Love being born among us at Christmas. A love that changes the world, that shifts the world toward the Light. 

In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate this Love that we receive in the form of light, and we come to know it as Light for the whole world, one that warms the world, feeds the world, nourishes the world. 

Our liturgical year continues on Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our own humanity with the words ashes to ashes, dust to dust… and the season of Lent provokes us to come to terms with how far we can stray from this light and this love because we become fearful that it’s not real or that others will try to take it from us. 

We learn through the story of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion that this violence is not something that just happened to Jesus back in the first century, but that humanity does this all the time through greed and oppression, through a thirst for power and through judgment and disdain for those who we believe to be lesser than we are. 

And, through our penitence, we learn to see Jesus’ sacrifice as one that gives us new life because we come to recognize the violence we enact and we see that, once again, God is trying to bring us back to walk in Love. We are resurrected in Christ’s resurrection.

Then, at Pentecost, we commit to enacting this Love. We commit to being the church together to be a force for love and forgiveness in the world. And, through the long season after Pentecost, we grow in our faith as we grow in our love for one another and for the world we serve. 

As this season comes to an end, as it does every November, we celebrate the gift of all the saints who have carried this truth of God’s Love through the centuries. And that the work of Love in the world will not be completed in our own lifetime, but has been given to us so that we can hand it to those who come after us. 

Because, in the end, the world’s power will always come to an end, but the Love that is Christ, the love that is God incarnate, will never ever end as long as humanity continues returning to God, to the Source of Light, the creator of all, the ground of our being, as long as humanity continues serving the force of Love in this universe.

This Sunday, on which we celebrate the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, this Sunday is a day in which we celebrate a mature faith in Christ.  A faith that recognizes this power, this king-ship, is not the same as the world’s. It’s a faith that comes to us as wisdom and revelation – with the eyes of the heart enlightened – so we know what that hope is that we are called to.

This is also the time of year when we complete our reading of one Gospel – this year it’s Matthew – and we continue with another Gospel – next year it’s Mark.  The following year, Luke. Then we cycle back to Matthew as the cycle begins again.

So, this is the point in Matthew’s Gospel that we come to the pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings before Matthew finishes his Gospel with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.  And Jesus’ teaching is not some hard-to-understand parable. Jesus offers a very direct, very plain statement.

This is what Paul is referring to when he talks about enlightened hearts and the hope that God is calling us to.  This is what Paul is reminding us of so that we can know the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance among the saints. So that wen may step into the greatness of Christ’s power.

In its simplest form, Jesus’ teaching comes down to this:
I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

There’s no qualifiers to this. It’s not, I was hungry and I proved that I was worthy so you gave me something to eat.  It’s not, I was sick and I had the right insurance plan so you took care of me. It’s not I was a stranger but I looked like you and I acted like you so you welcomed me.

I was hungry and you gave me food.  Period.
I was sick and you took care of me.  Period.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  Period.

And the people respond to Jesus saying, but wait… that wasn’t you! And Jesus says, it was me because it was the least among you. It was me because it wasn’t the powerful, the people who could do something for you in return. It was me because we are all interconnected.

There is nothing more direct, more simple than this picture that Matthew gives us today.  The point of all of what we do as Christians, the absolute pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings is this: I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

It’s a simple thing.  But it’s not easy. I’m forever trying to realize my own blind spots. To see beyond my own judgments of people. When I stop to look at that judgment, I start to realize that I judge people because I judge myself. 

For example, when I think someone isn’t working hard enough, I realize it’s because I expect too much of myself and I overwork to prove my worthiness to other people. When I think someone isn’t deserving of my assistance because they don’t think like me, it’s because I go out of my way to agree with people so they will like me.

My judgment of other people is directly tied to my judgment of myself.  It’s odd, in those moments, to realize that self-compassion will help me the goodness in others.  Our blind spots are found in the mirror.  In loving ourselves, we are better able to love our neighbor.  And sometimes, in loving our neighbor, we realize that we are able to love ourselves too.

Because as I learn to stretch my heart to love and care for others, is that I have more room to truly love myself.  To be truly grateful for who I am and what I have.  And to let go of those things which no longer serve me, those ways in which I have been trying to gain approval, trying to gain worth, trying to be seen and be loved.  When I can let go of those old needs, I find the room to welcome the stranger.

Jesus didn’t just make this up.  He was schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He knew this passage from Ezekiel where God seeks the lost and brings back the strayed and binds up the injured and strengthens the weak.  He knew this Psalm that reminds us we belong to God – a merciful God made us and we are God’s beloved sheep.  He knew the words of all the prophets and understood the purpose of the law.  And he taught us all that, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.

When we stop doing violence to others, we stop doing violence to ourselves.  When we begin to truly love others, we begin to truly love ourselves. This is what it means to have the eyes of an enlightened heart.  We really do learn to love our neighbor as ourselves and, in so doing, love God.

The Reign of Christ, then, is something that happens in the here-and-now, in our own hearts when our perceptions shift and we lay down our burdens of power at the foot of the manger.  And in the world, as we work to advocate for others and overturn systems of injustice.

You see, it’s not a king with crowns that we worship but a person who embodied God’s love so completely, so powerfully, that he was able to change the world because he showed us the truth of ourselves through his death and the power of love through his resurrection.  It is God’s love incarnate that we worship and God’s love incarnate to which we offer ourselves in service.

It is to Love that we offer fealty. It is before Love that we bend our knee.

And along with all the Jewish people and the Muslim people and the Buddhist people and the Hindu people, along with all of the people of all the faiths and along with all the people who have no faith at all… it is along with all of the people of the world who also recognize the supreme power of Love, that we serve Love together.

May God give us the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that, with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we may know the hope that God has called us to in simple acts of Love.

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We Are Children of the Light

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2020. You can read the scriptures for today by clicking here. Listen along by clicking the play button below. And thanks for reading!

“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time, stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on…”  (A quote from the 2015 movie Spotlight)

To see, more clearly today’s gospel message, let’s begin at the end of Matthew Chapter 23, a few chapters before today’s reading.  In Chapter 23, Jesus stands up in the Temple and lets loose a series of scornful reprimands against the religious leadership – the scribes and pharisees. 

Over and over again, he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” 
You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. (v. 23)
You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead. (v. 27)
You clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (v. 25)

And Jesus finishes this rant with “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! … See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (Mt 23:37-38)

After he’s done, Jesus goes out with his disciples and foretells the coming destruction of the Temple.  He looks up at the Temple with them and says, “You see all these [buildings], do you not?  Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mt. 24:1-2)

We don’t often take the time to read this part of Matthew.  It’s not exactly uplifting to hear that, because of the corruption and abuse performed by religious leadership, the desire for money and wealth over justice, mercy, and faith… because of this, our beloved institutions crumble. 

We hear these stories.  And once we hear them, we cannot unhear them.  It’s as if a light suddenly gets turned on and we’re not stumbling around in the dark anymore.

The movie Spotlight, a movie that was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2015, this movie Spotlight is based on the true of story of how reporters uncovered a deeply entrenched system of child abuse in the Roman Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Boston.  This led to investigations all over the world that unearthed the same heartbreaking problem… that the religious leadership kept this covered up for decades, if not centuries.

And I bring this up, not because I revel in this story in any way.  I bring this up because this movie also depicts the ways in which the whole community refused to acknowledge the truth.  They didn’t want to see it.  They tried to discourage the work of the reporters.  They tried to threaten lawyers who were bringing cases against the Roman Catholic church.  They tried to discredit those who were working to shed light on the problem from within the church  They tried to blame the victims.

I bring this up because, in Matthew, Jesus is walking a similar path.  He’s trying to call attention to the corruption of his own religious leadership and, in so doing, he ends up facing a wall of opposition so obstinate and unmoving that they, in fact, demand his death.

We hear these stories and it’s important to pay attention to them so that we don’t fall asleep, we don’t fall into the trap of putting our own blinders on, just to make powerful people more comfortable.  Jesus was killed because he chose to stand up to corruption and call-out the powers that be.  And, in so doing, gave us a path of love that, sometimes, requires a lot of us.

The arc of the human story over time is one of great contradiction – both beautiful and terrible, both abusive and loving, sweet and painful, life-taking and life-giving.  Human nature runs the gamut between self-centered and self-giving, sometimes in the course of the same minute and we usually get caught somewhere in the middle, just trying to keep the peace.

But this is a false peace.  Because inevitably, it comes at the expense of love.  It’s a worldly peace that is brokered by offering too much to the powers that be… the “too much” being the lives of those who end up at the bottom of the heap, collateral damage for keeping things on an even keel.

As Jesus begins talking about the destruction of the Temple in Matthew’s Gospel, he tells his disciples that they are going to have to start making some hard choices in order to prepare themselves to take on the ministry that he started.  They will need to choose love over self-interest.  They will need to choose justice and mercy over the false peace of keeping the powerful happy.  And he says, “Keep awake”… prepare yourself for a big shift is about to take place.  It will feel like the end of the world.

Then Matthew gives us two parables – last week the parable of the bridesmaids and their lamps, where we had some wise woman and some foolish women, some who were preparing by tending to their light and some who didn’t tend to their light.

And today’s parable – the parable of the talents.  This is a passage with many interpretations. This version in Matthew differing in some significant ways from the same parable told in Luke’s Gospel. The one in Luke is a much more straight-forward story about not hiding your light. 

There is a lot of context here to unpack in Matthew –
First, we should understand that a talent is a truly enormous amount of money – perhaps $1-2 million by today’s standards. We should also understand that a householder from this region at this time was more akin to a venture capitalist, someone who makes their money by investing in the schemes and projects of other people. And the slaves depicted here were less like servants and more like investment brokers who received a commission from their dealings with their boss’s money.

This construct is documented in the Hammurabi Code.  People who behaved this way are actually following the law.

But the focus here is clearly on the third servant, the one who saw the corruption of his boss – reaping benefits from fields that were not his –  and refused to play along, even though he was afraid.

The Parable of the Talents by Glenn Strock

As Jesus begins this story, he doesn’t say, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this…”  He starts with “For it is as if…” It’s a story that is a metaphor for the world. 

For it is as if… power and wealth corrupt and people go along with it to keep the peace but when someone comes to blow the whistle on the whole thing, they will be tossed out or even killed. It’s a parable that reminds us that worldly peace is not God’s peace.  But as we know from being in the world, it can be really difficult to prioritize justice, mercy, and faith. 

We’re faced with dozens of choices every day that require us to do just that – to pay attention to how our food is grown, where our clothes are made, how much of ourselves to give to the causes and the people we love.

And those are just a few of the more personal choices. Not to mention, the choices we have to make to advocate for others as we live into our baptismal vow of striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being.

But this third servant, this whistle-blower, he’s a real downer.  If I were one of the other servants, I’d be really pretty angry with him.  Because this one, is willing to expose the system for what it is and that means that I suddenly have to see it. 

The light is on and we aren’t stumbling around in the dark anymore. I can’t un-see it once I’ve seen it.  I can’t go back to ignoring or excusing corrupt or immoral behavior and enjoying the benefits I receive from it. I can’t go back. 

I can’t go back.  I’m forced in this moment to admit that the jig is up.  And it feels a bit like the world has ended.  The light is on. Black Lives Matter. It’s time to make a choice. God’s Holy Spirit has pulled back the veil and shown me the truth of what my compliance has wrought in the world, the truth of what can happen if the powerful continue to abuse and the rest of the world just goes along with it to keep the peace.

Jesus keeps saying that this is the work we have to do, the choices we have to make and the time to make them is right now, because we never know how much time we have left to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

I finish with Paul’s words from his first letter to the Thessolonians today to remind us of who we are and who we are called to become as the Beloved Community:

But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love…”

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My Hope for Us: To Be the Beloved Community

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2020 – the Sunday after the 2020 election. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. Click the play button below to listen along.

A note: I started writing this as a letter when I learned the results of the election but I ended up adding more to it and realized I was writing this week’s sermon. But I kept it in letter form because it is just that – a letter to the people of St. John’s.

Dear Ones,

I write to you today during a break in our conversations “at” diocesan convention and in response to the announcement concerning the presidential election we’ve been slogging through this past week. This is a pastoral note to you, my beloveds of St. John’s. Let us take this moment to breathe together.

The divisions in our society/nation are stark and shocking and painful. We have been living in a climate of hate and fear that brings a deep and profound sadness. It has taken away our love for other people.  And made us fearful and critical of others. This ideological divide makes it easy to draw a line in the sand and claim victory or victim, especially now that the results of the election have finally been discerned.  

But our teacher Jesus gives us a different vision, a greater vision, that we, as Christians, call the Reign of God.  And who we are in that vision is the Beloved Community.  A people with a mission in the here and now, in this world that our cynical selves would say is irredeemable.  A mission to actively work towards the Reign of God, to have hope that the world is redeemable by becoming who we are called to be: The Beloved Community, a reconciling, loving community.

Reaching for reconciliation, however, does NOT mean that all opinions are equal or just; that we can agree to disagree and go about our business, hoping to avoid the hard conversations.  For we claim to worship a God of Love as made manifest in the person of Jesus the Christ, a person who very clearly and consistently challenged the powers-that-be and taught his disciples directly from the witness of God’s unbounded Love found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  As we know and, as I so often preach about, Jesus gave us, above all, two simple commandments – Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Thus, we are to cultivate a way of life founded upon those very commandments.  This translates into living lives in which we continually strive for the justice evidenced in the long arc of our scripture – scripture which tells us that God’s preference is for the marginalized and God’s Will is evidenced in the constant transformation of the world.  God is continually making all things new, turning the world on its head, so that all creation can live into its purpose because all of creation is created to be good.

The definition of the Beloved Community, at least the one given to us by the King Center, a group who carries on the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (and I concur), the definition of the Beloved Community is: “A global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.”

In the words of the prophet Amos: What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?  My beloveds, this is where true Joy is found! 

In this passage from Matthew, we are given this multi-layered parable about 10 women.  Now I’m not going to talk about ancient Israelite wedding practices because that really detracts from the focus of what Matthew is trying to help us understand about Jesus’ teaching.  So, we have these 10 women and 5 of them are called “wise” and 5 of them are called “foolish.”  We don’t have to discern that from clues in the text.  Matthew offers those labels right up front.

We could spend all day on this parable, but the main point is simply this:  We must to tend to the light we’ve been given by God because it is that light that guides us when we fall asleep to God’s dream for us. It is that light, that part of us, that helps us to find our way back to God when we get lost in the ways of the world.  Our light, the light that we talked about last week in the Revelation to John, this light is our birthright.  It is ours.  It is our connection to life, to Love.  It is our soul.  And our soul is where the image of God resides in us.

Devotees by Azim Khan Ronnie

And in that passage from the Revelation to John from last week, if you remember, this light is so bright it gleams.  So bright it outshines everything.  So bright it cannot be contained.  And it is our birthright simply because we breathe. This soul, this precious soul, is the very seat of God in our being. 

When we tend to it, we will never be lost for long.  And, as this parable tells us, when we do not tend to it, we quite easily lose our way.  Because the ways of the world demand that we incite violence against ourselves – the violence of leaving our soul behind in favor of the world’s fear and anxiety, drawing lines in the sand, turning the vulnerability of another person into an opportunity for our own gain.  To make a deal with the devil itself and choose to believe that in order for me to have what I need, someone else will inevitably suffer.  And that’s just the way it is.

And just like that, we’ve left our soul behind. We’ve decided that the light we were given is just not that important.

What does it mean to tend to our light? Quite simply, it means to surrender to Love. To love God enough to honor what She has created in all its forms and colors and shapes and languages and religions.  To love God enough to pray, to stop talking long enough to listen for God’s yearnings and His dreams for this world.

What does it mean to tend to our light?  To surrender to Love?  It means that we bring ourselves and our worldly ways to kneel at the foot of the manger and realize how susceptible we are to the ways of the world, how easy it is for us to get lost, to forget our flask of oil. It means, then, that we humble that part of us so that God, once again, might show us how we are called to deepen our love for our neighbor and ourselves.  And we move in mercy with tenderness to create justice.

We have work to do to become the Beloved Community, dear ones. The painful truth of racism in our society demonstrates that the evil that chattel slavery brought upon millions of African people is something that all of us are still chained to in some way.

As a white person in this society, I recognize and confess my own complicity in this system and the privilege I’ve been afforded. So that now it’s a daily decision to uncover my own unconscious racism as well as work actively to be an antiracist. And some days I fail.  And it feels bad for a moment because I’ve always prided myself on being “not-a-racist.” 

But that’s the thing – it’s not about me and my pride.  And being not-a-racist is not the same as being antiracist.

Becoming the Beloved Community is not easy. But it helps to know that transformation/healing never is easy.  So I know what I’m asking when I invite, beseech, and beg us all to do this work. Please know that it is in Love that I ask because it is with sincere love for you that I pray for our souls to open up to the unbounded joy that is possible.  Because I know that, as we do this work and we hold one another up in it with Love, we will most definitely find ourselves on the path to becoming the Beloved Community.

What more could I hope for as your priest?

The Good News in these lessons, my beloveds, the Good News comes to us from looking at this parable from Matthew through the Book of Wisdom.  Where we learn that Wisdom is an aspect of God – radiant and unfading, easily discerned by those who love her and found by those who seek her.  She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.

We’ve heard this echoed in Matthew chapter 7: “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For anyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.”  Mt 7:7-8

Continuing from the book of Wisdom: Wisdom… she will be found sitting at the gate of those who rise early (those who are prepared, in other words), and she graciously appears to people on their paths and meets them in every thought.

What a beautiful passage!

Perhaps, then, we can realize that what Matthew is describing in this parable, is a path.  It’s not a final judgment, a separating-out of who is worthy of God’s love and who is not.  It’s not a line drawn in the sand because that’s not how God works.  It’s a path.  And we are told that Wisdom will appear to us on our path.

The foolish women depicted in this passage, they aren’t bad people.  They are us, frankly.  They are the people who disagree with us.  And they are us.  The “foolish” women in this story have not failed to pass God’s test because God does not test.  There is no test in the Reign of God.  God just loves and loves and loves and loves and loves and loves. 

When we leave the path because we have become so entranced by the ways of the world or so damaged by the world’s violence, this is when we have lost our capacity to sense the path any longer.  And God is just waiting at the gate every morning for us to return to love, waiting for us to cultivate, for ourselves, the desire to know Wisdom, the desire to know God, the desire to experience Love. 

God is waiting for us to tend to our light and to join the gleaming, bright, dazzling multitude… that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, all joyfully gathered in praise of Love itself.

And the Good News here, is that when we are ready to seek… Wisdom, that is God, will graciously appear to us on our path and will meet us in every thought.

And so, my dear ones, this moment is not an opportunity for anyone to dance on any graves, not a time for cynicism or self-righteousness or rancor or harsh rhetoric; but an invitation. An invitation for us to tend to our light and recognize the joyful path before us, which is to continue to look forward in Love and become what we have been ordained to be from the beginning of time: the Beloved Community founded upon the Love of Christ Jesus, our redeemer and teacher.

In God’s love and mine always,
Rev. Michelle

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Revelation and Renovation

A sermon preached to the community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on All Saints Day, November 1, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. To listen along, click the play button below.

This past Friday, we began our weekly Bible Study. We met online at 9:00 am with coffee mugs in hand, a bunch of curious people who love God and genuinely want to know more about what our scripture actually says. 

We asked some really great questions as we took a look at this week’s readings.  Questions like: what does the collect mean by the phrase “mystical body”?  And what does Jesus mean when he says, “pure in heart”?  And what is the significance of palm branches? And we ended up spending a lot of time with this reading from the Revelation to John.  Its imagery is both beautiful and daunting. Its tone, definitely apocalyptic – about the end of time, the end of the world. 

Right now, with all that’s happening, the notion of apocalypse is particularly poignant. As we sit on the edge of an election during the most divided time in our nation’s history that I’ve ever known. The pandemic that still has a hold on us the continuing the end of “life-as-we-know-it,” at least temporarily as our holiday celebrations shift and our seasonal traditions altered over the winter. And there’s the winter, signaling the end of the growing season and a return to the earth of those parts of creation that have brought to us so much color, and aroma, and life.  This threshold in our yearly cycle where the light lessens and the cold increases can be a very difficult time for people.

I’m glad we spent so much time on this passage from Revelation. To really investigate it and envision, through its words, the dream of hope given to John. Helping us to understand that an apocalypse is not necessarily the disaster we think it is.  But it is a great ordeal, as the scripture says, requiring us to change, to give up ourselves in some way and become washed and new.  To go through an ordeal in the hope that God’s Reign will take hold once and for all.

As a matter of fact, that’s the phrase that so hooked us as we read: “they have washed their robes and made them white.”… stumbling on the word “white,” as we contemplate racial justice in our society. And we discovered that, the Greek here, and this is one of the books from our scripture that was originally written in Ancient Greek, the word translated here as “white” is “leukos” and it’s meaning is not strictly white, but it really means gleaming or bright. 

Immediately, the kid part of me thought, wouldn’t it be great, if for worship, I could wear some kind of iridescent robe that gleams and sparkles in the light, instead of this white one.  Alas, I don’t think that would work.

But what an image this passage offers us – “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing [there] in [gleaming, shiny, brightness],” crying out in joy and thanks as they worship God. That, because of their love for God… their brightness, their intensity, could not be contained.

This uncontained, eternal brightness is what we celebrate when we come together for All Saints Day.  This celebration, that comes when we are so deeply aware of the passage of time – naming those who have died, acknowledging the turn of the season and the lessening of light… this celebration is about the timelessness of something that cannot be contained – God’s love, God’s Light – that shines through us, that belongs to us, that is our birthright, as God’s Beloved and Holy Creation.

The ways of the world are wearying, even nations shift and change as they come and go over time. But the Love that is God shines for all eternity.  Nothing can dull its gleam.  Nothing can stifle its luminous beauty.   And Love’s sacrifice is how we come to know that personally.

But what is this sacrifice? What is this lamb that is spoken about in the Revelation to John? 

As Christians, we know this to be Jesus – the one who gave his own life in the name of love.  The one who, over 2 thousand years ago, gave us a path to follow. In taking a stand against the powers that be, he shook up the status quo by reminding the religious leadership that the point that the prophets were trying to make, the point of the law itself, was simple – Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Sometimes Love requires people to give their lives – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Malala Yousafzai (who miraculously survived). Ruby Sales, the civil rights justice worker, knows about this sacrifice. For a young seminarian gave his own life for hers when she was just a teenager as he stepped in front of a gun that was pointed at her by a white supremacist. His name was Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

But when Love is not asking us to give to that extreme, to forfeit our lives, what is this sacrifice then?  What is this lamb that washes us and makes us gleam and glow with uncontained brightness and vividness? 

And Ruby Sales wrote this on Twitter the other day, “It is easier to hate than to love because unlike hate, which is reckless and thoughtless, love requires a disciplined inner life, clear-headed analysis of ourselves and others, as well as the courage to renovate our lives.”

This sacrifice, then, if it is not to give our lives, it is to give up our right to hate, our right to the violence of the world that says in order for me to have what I need, someone else has to suffer. This sacrifice is to give up our right to the false power of intolerance and bullying.  This sacrifice is to give up our right to shaming others and denying the rights of others. This sacrifice, the sacrifice that Jesus taught us, is to give up our self-interest and, as Ruby Sales puts it, have the courage to renovate our lives.

To renovate our lives.  What if an apocalypse is just that – a renovation of our life?  A re-creation.  A moving around of the furniture.  An effort to live differently in the space of our lives. Reordering our life to follow the path that Jesus left for us.

Because this light, this gleaming brightness, is our birthright.  And if it’s not shining Love, then a renovation is called for.  Because this light is strong, just waiting there to be uncovered. 

Because it can be so easily hidden. Easily hidden by contempt for those who struggle in this world, including ourselves – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are deemed “meek,” the hungry and the merciful, the peacemakers and the pure in heart.

But to open our hearts to these vulnerable people, to stand with them in the face of power – to lay down our defenses and stand with the more vulnerable parts of ourselves, this is exactly how we uncover our own light. This is the sacrifice that Love requires of us. 

This is what the apocalypse in Revelation really is – a time of reckoning with ourselves so that we may come to understand that we are made of this light and, regardless of what the world claims, we belong to God and we are loved simply because we breathe. To lay down our burdens and our contempt, to transform our anger and our hate… is to cease being violent and welcome the light of Christ into our lives.  

This is how we love ourselves and this how we carry on the love of those who are gone from our lives. This is how the Communion of all the Saints continues through eternity.  And this is how Christ becomes real in this world, how Christ becomes the living God.

And so now, as we do on every All Saints Day, we take the time to renew our Baptismal Vows and consider again how to renovate our life. How to deepen our commitment to Christ and our love of God in order to tend to the Light that is there already shining from our souls.

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The Promised Land of Love

A sermon preached to the community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on October 25, 2020, the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost. If you’d like to read the scriptures, click here. To listen, click the play button below.

We’ve been following the story of Moses since the season after Pentecost started back in early June. Moses, who heard God’s call in the fire of the burning bush. Moses, the great prophet of the Jewish people, who led them out of slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea. Moses, who for 40 years, led these people through their wilderness, a time of scarcity and confusion. Moses, the unpopular leader, who came to know God face-to-face and was able to discern God’s will in the form of commandments at Mount Sinai; commandments that would enable life to flourish.

Four of the first five books of the Bible are about Moses – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy but most of our story so far has come from Exodus. Until today, when we are given this reading from the very end of Deuteronomy, the end of Moses’ life in the land of Moab.

And in this poignant end to Moses’ life, is a deeply important message for all of us.  That this world is not our true home.

Moses was tasked with leading the Jewish people to a place where they could find what they needed for their lives to flourish. A place where there would be enough for them to live peaceably with one another.  A place called “the Promised Land.”

But, as the story tells us in the forthcoming scripture lessons, this “promised land,” this worldly place, did not come peaceably.  As the story tells us, the Jewish people went to war with the occupants of this land – the Canaanites. We learn in next book, the book called Joshua, that this band of wanders Moses was leading, forcibly took possession of the land that would become their worldly home.  Killing and oppressing the current occupants.

Is this what is meant by the Promised Land?  Claiming God’s victory through war?  Claiming God’s favor through oppressing others? 

How did we ever come to the understanding that, in order for my life to flourish, it has to be at the expense of other lives being oppressed? And how did we ever come to believe that the need to oppress others is because they somehow deserve it?  That they are the sinful ones? How did we learn to claim victory in our privilege, to conflate it with God’s promise and call it God’s blessing?

How did we, who were deemed good by God in the womb of paradise… how did we lose sight of what that blessing actually meant and become able to enact such violence against our siblings and ourselves? 

The Diocese of New York has taken on a diocesan-wide read of a book by Dr. Ibram Kendi called How to Be an Antiracist.  This book has also been the community read in Kingston over the past few months.  I have read books on antiracism before, but I have to admit to being surprised by the depth and truth of this book. It’s not a book for just white people to help us get a clue, it’s a book for all people.  So, if you’ve missed the opportunity to read it along with others, I not only ask, but I beseech and plead that you read this book. 

Dr. Kendi talks about a step-ladder of sorts… a stepladder upon which, we all believe we exist.  A step-ladder that reveals our disbelief that we are inherently good, supported by the abundance of God’s Love. Because, in order to stay on this stepladder, there must be someone below us, someone lesser than us, someone who belongs less than I do and, therefore, entitles me to belong.

So he also talks about sexism and homophobia and classism as other ways of keeping ourselves on higher rungs on the ladder. In the process, he talks very candidly about his own journey of giving up his rungs on this stepladder, embracing his own humanity and the true power in being willing to be changed by the presence of others, in so doing declaring the interdependent nature of the Incarnation.

To be an antiracist then, is to be aware of this ladder and to deny its legitimacy so that we may create a world in which we stop blaming the victims of oppression for their oppression and truly embrace God’s glory in all of creation.

Now, Dr. Kendi doesn’t talk about God as he is a self-admitted agnostic (someone who is not in denial of the existence of God like an atheist, but is unsure of the existence of God).  So I added the God-stuff for you just now. But it’s a matter of language, really.

Because Dr. Kendi tells us that the source of racism is self-interest. Not education, but the immortality of self-interest.

And we know that self-interest is a sin.  It’s a sin that arises from the disbelief in our own inherent goodness and the belief that we have been forsaken by God, left here in the wilderness to fend for ourselves and that we must do what we need to do to survive, at the expense of others. 

Self-interest is inherently violent, towards others and towards ourselves as it encourages us to deny in ourselves our more vulnerable truths. And the antidote to self-interest, Dr. Kendi tells us, is confession.  An interesting stance for an agnostic. 

But he tells us that racism continues because of denial of its existence, and our compliance in it and reliance upon it to maintain the status quo. So the cure, then, is confession.  It doesn’t feel good to come to terms with it.  As a matter of fact, it’s painful.  But healing is never without pain.

I think it’s easier to believe in a theology of privilege.  As a matter of fact, we call it the “prosperity gospel.”  It’s a belief that worldly victory, worldly privilege, is evidence of God’s favor, and that it IS the Promised Land. 

But if we claim Jesus as our teacher, our Savior, we have to acknowledge that Jesus taught us that the meaning of all the law and all the prophets and all the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures… the meaning of all of this, is Love.  A Love that turns worldly wisdom on its head.  Love favors the oppressed and the marginalized and, so, is most definitely NOT about privilege. Our stories tell us that worldly privilege is called to kneel at the foot of the manger and pour out its wealth in the name of Love.

There are variations on this theology of privilege, of course.  Perhaps we have struggled or are struggling in the world and we need to hold onto whatever privilege we believe we’ve gained for ourselves. Perhaps we feel the struggle and violence of the world so keenly that we believe we have to ignore the world’s injustice in order to maintain our sanity.

But in all the variations of this theology of privilege, this prosperity gospel – denial and arrogance, anxiety and fear, or fragility and immaturity – we have believed the lie, the fundamental lie of humanity, that God has forsaken us.  That God is not with us. That it’s every person for him/herself.

To believe that God’s love comes to us as privilege, privilege over another, is to believe that God’s love is not inherently extended to me simply because I breathe. That life itself is not holy.  That breath itself is not sacred.  So I must have some kind of proof of worthiness, proof of value, proof of God’s love.

And, in this belief, is the violence of the whole world. The violence we sanction in indirect ways like voting for immoral policymakers… and the violence we do to others directly and to ourselves.

Because when Jesus tells us that all of the prophets and the law and the Hebrew scriptures are about Love – loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves – what he’s telling us is that we are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.  We are our siblings’ keepers.  We are here for each other, not for ourselves alone.  And someone else doesn’t need to get kicked down the ladder in order for me to belong.

The Shepherd by Shai Yossef

Because, you see, the Promised Land is not a worldly place free of worry and trouble.  The Promised Land is Love itself.  Love Incarnate, which is the Christ presence, that enables us to recognize and hold with gentleness the truth of our inescapable interdependence: And that truth is that my salvation is bound in the health and wellbeing of all creation, of all my brothers and sisters… even if it’s inconvenient sometimes.

Because the Promised Land is already here.  The abundance, the blessing, all we need to live peaceably is already here. 

And so we enter the Promised Land when we stop trying to get salvation by maintaining our own place on the ladder and realize that our salvation comes only in lifting one another up. 

We enter the Promised Land when we choose Love.

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Stories

A sermon preached to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on September 27, 2020 the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Today’s cover has on it a painting from the 19th century of a minstrel – a person who went around entertaining the nobility by reciting stories, and setting them to music. Notice the details in the painting that tell a story of its own – the way people are dressed.  The shade of their skin. The way they are physically positioned. Notice the elements of the scene – the stone street, the items thrown to the side on the left, the stone steps, the dark hallway in the background. The position of the wooden bench, drawing a line between the nobility and the minstrel.  What kind of a story is it telling you?

I’d like to talk about stories today.

What is your story? What do you say when someone says, “Tell me about yourself”? What is the story you tell to other people?  Is it different than the story you tell yourself?  Who are the main characters in your story?

And what is your story of God? How does that relate to the story we hear from scripture? 

Scripture, after all, is a collection of stories about God over time with a lot of different names for God.  A lot of different impressions of God. A lot of different relationships with God. And as we read scripture in its entirety, we are able to glimpse a larger story of God as, over time, people’s understanding of God deepened. As humans, we learn new things about how God’s creation works and how God’s presence manifests in it. Connecting us, making us interdependent and interconnected.

Someone once told me that a priest’s primary job is to open up the story of God so that people can connect with it. So that people can locate themselves in the story of God.  And find, for themselves, where or to whom they belong. To understand how this bigger story of God pertains to you.  To me.

For many of us here, worshipping together, whether we are in the sanctuary or online… we have heard the stories of scripture before.  Sometimes, many times. What have these stories given to you before? What are they giving you today?

Let’s focus on two of them – a part of the ongoing drama of the Exodus story and today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel.

Today, in Exodus, Moses is trying to lead people through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  But the Israelites only focus on how inconvenienced they are.  And, unable to put their fear aside, they come after Moses, who is so alarmed by their response, asks God to intervene. From Moses’ perspective, he’s doing what God has asked him to do – trying to help these people come home to God’s promise, come home to themselves. From the perspective of the Israelites, however, Moses is the bad guy – worse even than the Pharaoh – because he has made them uncomfortable, led them to struggle and, possibly, die in the wilderness.

What is God doing in this story? Take a moment to consider, who are you in this story? 

And in today’s Gospel from Matthew, the story that Jesus tells is a parable about two sons.  The first son tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard, but eventually changes his mind. The second son tells his father that he will go to work in the vineyard, but never shows up. 

When Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders, who did the will of his father, they respond with the correct answer – the first son.  But Jesus explains to them that the correct answer isn’t enough. That’s the point of the whole parable. 

You can’t just say “yes” and then not do what you say you’re going to do.  To say yes to God is to be transformed by Love – so much so that we show up in the vineyard, which is another way of saying “in the world” to tend to God’s creation. 

And Jesus goes on to say, “Those people who you call sinners, the ones you’ve always looked down upon… they may not have always had the right answers, but they have been transformed by Love.”

What is God doing in this story?  Who are you in this story?

These stories aren’t just stories from a long time ago. These are stories that are still taking place today. If we can remain open enough to listen, we may hear them anew. And we may hear what God is doing for us in our lives right now. In our own personal life and in the larger life of our society.

What is God doing right now?  How is God acting in the story of your life? How is God working in the story of our common lives today, in this place, at this time?

This time of pandemic, when we’re all exhausted by the changes and chances of this life and scared of contracting this virus and grieving those who have died. 
This time of societal and national upheaval, when we seem so deeply divided that we feel like we don’t even know our neighbor anymore, let alone trust them.
This time of racial justice reckoning that has been too long overdue yet, is still woefully absent in too many places.

What is God doing in the midst of this? How is God moving in Love? How is God’s justice coming to bear?

It may be a while before we know the full answers to these questions.  But what we do need to understand, is that we are integral to this story.  As the Talmud saying goes: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

And as you consider the story of your life and what is happening in it, the mistakes and the good things you have wrought, the struggles and the comfort you have known. 

Here’s what you need to know, to remember: God loves you.  Period.
That’s who you are in the story of God: God’s beloved. A creature wholly loved by God.  Loved so extravagantly, with so much passion, that in our limited understanding, we cannot even conceive of the kind of love we’re talking about.  And God is with you.

And today, we bring our story back to this Table. Because at this Table is an experience of God’s Love that is undeniable.  An experience of God’s presence that is real and tangible.  We are fed by this bread, fed by the mystery of God’s Love for us and changed by it.  So that we may become Christ in and for the world. At this Table we become intimately aware of and deeply attuned to how desperately God wants us to be transformed and learn once again who we are in Christ. 

As we lay down our burden and, as St. Augustine tells us in his invitation to the Eucharist: Behold what you are.  Become what you receive.

So, as you receive today, I invite you to reflect on your story. And ask yourself: How is God loving me into becoming? 

With all that is happening in my life, with all that is happening in the world,  who is God asking me to become? And what is God asking me to give up in order to do that?

Maybe your story is like the story from Exodus and God is offering us discomfort so that we can finally come home to a deeper truth. Or maybe it’s like the story Jesus tells and God is reminding us that the right answer doesn’t matter as much as whether or not we show up for one another. Or maybe it’s something else.

Whatever your story is, know that God is here.  With us, with you. Doing something in our lives that we cannot yet comprehend. 

So that one day, like the Psalmist says, “We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of God, and the wonderful works God has done.” 

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Hope In the Midst of Our Wilderness

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost on September 20, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Today we continue with the story of the Exodus. This part of the Exodus story is so easy for us to connect with because it’s the part where fear and scarcity take over and keep us immobilized, yearning for an easier time. Keeping us from hope.  Keeping us from trusting in God.

And I know it’s particularly difficult right now, that trust. These are extraordinary times.  Anything but easy.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has disrupted almost every aspect of our lives.  But more than that, so many people are more than just inconvenienced.  Almost a million people have died. Countless people have lost their jobs. Many might lose their homes due to eviction. And so many others are not safe in their own homes as the rates of domestic violence have increased.  

Meanwhile, we watch the wealthiest 1% get even richer as the basic cost of living for the rest of the 99% of us, soars due to work stoppages. But as long as profits are intact, this administration, that seems to redefine the words “corrupt” and “immoral” every day, continues to shrug off the voices of sanity and science, refusing to develop a cohesive plan to stop the death toll and suggesting, instead, that herd immunity is a viable choice. What’s a few hundred thousand more deaths to try and prove that theory true despite the fact that Sweden already tried it and realized it doesn’t work?

It’s an administration that refuses to acknowledge either white supremacy or climate change even though most of the white people in the US have woken up to the insidious truth of white supremacy as we remember the names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breona Taylor. And as fires have been ravaging the Western states, the devastating result of climate change that will only become worse.

And on Friday, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. A woman whose law career made it possible for women to have their own credit cards, buy their own homes, and be the decision maker in their own medical care. Her determination to stay on the Supreme Court in order to maintain the balance has been inspiring and legendary. All our lives have been made better by her tireless work. We all mourn this loss of a truly righteous giant in our society. 

It’s is, perhaps, a hopeful note that, if she was going to die, she did so on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.  Because according to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. Jewish tradition mourns the dead by saying, “May her memory be a blessing.” Many are, instead, saying, “May her memory be a revolution.”  Indeed.

Because, this is a watershed moment.  Make no mistake, we are crossing a wilderness of some kind right now.  And we don’t know when it will end.  We only know we don’t like it.  And we want to go back to the way it was.

We’ve been following the Exodus story for about a month now. From the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt to the calling of Moses at the burning bush to the Passover story, which Rabbi Yael helped us to see more deeply when she visited with us. And last week, we learned more about the courage of Nachshon who was the first to step into the Red Sea when Moses led the Israelites out of oppression into liberation.

Except, it seems in today’s reading, the Israelites haven’t completely gotten the message.  Because, in the middle of the wilderness, they find themselves lost, not found.  Complaining that it would have been better to stay “back there” and live out our miserable lives where, “at least, we had something to eat.” They have been taken over by fear and anxiety, wanting to go back to the way it was.

And here we are today.  Feeling scared and lost and anxious and exhausted.  Wanting to go back to the way it was. 

But watershed moments are never going to take us back to where we were.  The veil of our collective unawareness has been pulled back so far that we can clearly see the inequality and oppression of the system in which we have been living.  And though we may not like it, there is no going back. 

The ancient Israelites offer us a helpful metaphor, I think. There they were, free of Pharaoh.  Free of oppression. The only thing God was asking of them, was to trust the vision of a Promised Land.  To trust in a vision of God’s justice. But it can be hard even to hold onto that vision when you’re so focused on the physical comforts of the past.

We cannot go back to Egypt.  Nor should we.

And so the question is, can we trust that God is at work in this wilderness?  Can we trust what God has in store for us?  And more importantly, can we set aside our own desire to go back so that we can find, within us, the yearning for God’s Reign? A yearning so strong that we show up, like Nachshon did, at the edge of the Red Sea, and step into the depth of the water until we think we cannot go any further.

It’s often the fear of the unknown that keeps us enslaved, in a place of being unwilling to risk, unable to walk away from unhealthy and even abusive situations, incapable of bringing our full self and our gifts to others.  Nothing illustrates this better than this narrative from Exodus.

Because if we can only focus on what we’ve lost, then how can we possibly attune to the coming of God’s Reign?  How will we hear the whispers of Holy Spirit? How will we become the Body of Christ in and for the world as it is becoming if we only want the security of what we used to have?

This is the point of today’s episode from Exodus.  And God responds to the complaints of the Israelites with manna – food that cannot be saved for another day. Food that we have to trust will be there… IS there waiting for us. We have to trust there is, already, enough. That God’s reign IS already on its way, IS here, IS becoming.

So, what are we called to leave behind so that we may take up the mission of hope?

What are we called to lay down so that we can hear the Holy Spirit whispering to us? 

Because hope is being spoken. 

The Holy Spirit cannot be more plain in trying to tell us what the Reign of God looks like.  It’s something Jesus has been trying to tell us for centuries in this Gospel story today – the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. 

Of all the parables, this one has to be the one most aggravating to our senses. Why on earth would Jesus suggest that it’s ok to pay someone the exact same amount for an hour’s work as for an entire day’s work?

Jesus calls this the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God. But, how is that fair?

Well, it’s not.  At least, not by the definition we normally use.

Fairness is another name for the world’s “justice.” And fairness is always subjective, based upon our own personal interpretation and most certainly based on the system.  But we’re learning that there has been something wrong with the system for a long time.  We’re learning that the system we have, has resulted in corruption, immorality, greed, and oppression. 

We’re learning that fairness is not really fair.

God’s justice, on the other hand, is about grace. That’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s parable.  Grace.  Jesus is talking about God’s extravagantly wild, unbounded, outrageously foolish, unconditional, crazy love.  And the purpose of God’s justice, God’s grace, is always true equality, based on nothing but our own inherent worth – the beloved nature of all creation.

And if we practice gratitude, if we choose to give away what we believe to be precious, if we try to become more acquainted with what the cross actually means… we may begin to trust in that grace.  We may hear the whisper that tells us that it’s God’s Love that truly sustains us. 

We may begin to believe that manna is here waiting for us. 
We may be able to stop looking backwards and believe that if we step into the water’s depth, into a new reality, there will be enough to sustain us. 
We will be able to breathe again.

And the more we see a discrepancy between the two – between the justice of the world and the justice of God – the more we are called to do what we can to bridge the gap – to be a bridge of God’s love in the world, as our mission statement says.

Not to make God’s justice conform with the world’s, but to continue loving others as we are loved.  To break ourselves open again and again. To challenge ourselves and step into the depth of the water. To leave Egypt behind, once and for all, and watch for where the inbreaking of God’s Reign is already happening and rush, with all our energy and passion… with everything we are… rush… to Love God’s Reign into existence. 

You see, we are actually commanded to change the world. 
We are called to bring the world in line with God’s justice.

I know that sometimes we feel so bankrupt of love ourselves, so hurt that we become fearful or tired.  I know because I feel like I teeter on the brink every day.

But these are such extraordinary times that we must continue to choose hope, despite feelings of despair.  We must continue to choose Love even when we cannot feel its presence.  Because it’s there.  Waiting for us.

So, what are we called to lay down so that we can truly step into what is waiting for us – ahead of us?

Because God’s justice is arising in the midst of this wilderness and, although we cannot quite see it yet, we are called to step into the deep water, and to Love God’s Reign into existence.

During seminary, I was standing in line at a pizza place, about a block away from my dorm.  And as I looked down from the menu above our heads at the person in front of me, I read the most amazing quote on the back of her t-shirt.

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

What a beautiful way to express hope, I thought.  I snapped a photo of it and found the author of these beautiful words is Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy.  They come from a speech she gave to the World Social Forum back in 2003. 

I know I’ve shared it with you before.  And it’s become a rallying cry for those who work tirelessly for social justice, for those who yearn for a world in which God’s love reigns.

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

What are you called to leave behind to hear her breath?
What are you called to lay down to believe this?
Because it’s true.

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Standing On Holy Ground

A sermon preached to the online congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

I was joking with someone the other day… that now, when I watch a movie or a show on television, I get anxious when people who don’t know each other are too close together… breaking the rules of what we’ve come to know as “social distancing.”

And it made me realize the extent to which we’ve all been traumatized by this virus.  Intellectually, I know that this TV show was filmed well before the virus came along to imprison us in our homes and behind masks. Yet, my emotional response happens anyway. The anxiety is there before my mind can catch up with it and make sense out of what’s happening. 

And I find this so instructive about how the mind and emotions work together.  How they form a story about what’s happening in the world around us sometimes.  And how important it is that we learn how to take on the mind of Christ through spiritual practice and reflection.

Because when we respond to the world from our pain, when we don’t pause to reflect, when we can only see through the lens of trauma or struggle, we are missing so much. The gifts of creation.  The beauty of humanity. The joy of service and the sweetness of friendship. 

When we can only see through trauma and pain, we are missing so much Love.

But that’s the human condition.  We have these emotional responses that come from a part of our brain that is trained to identify trouble, leftover from an earlier time in our evolution, and employed by negative experiences when we were young. Even if we’re someone who doesn’t think of ourselves as emotional, even if we think we are a “logical” person, this part of our brain is still running the show most of the time.  It’s proven in science.

Our spiritual work, then, is learning to see our own personal version of how this happens, how our anxiety manifests, how we react unconsciously based on the pain.  It sounds like psychological work, I know.  And it is to a degree. 

But it’s spiritual work because this is where sin can begin – in our unconscious emotional reaction. In our need to control what’s going on around us so that our own anxiety is appeased, we easily forget that that Love is the supreme virtue. We all get trapped in this anxiety from time to time. 

And that’s not to diminish what we’re experiencing. We are living in a pandemic so concern and vigilance make sense. But anxiety is different.  It comes upon us, bringing along its companions – fear and judgment.  And it can keep us locked up in a prison more ruthless than the one the virus has supplied for us. Our spiritual work, then, is to know ourselves deeply so that we can walk away from the prison with God’s help.

Now, no one wants to be imprisoned.  But walking away from imprisonment is often more scary than the prison itself. It’s a transformation.  It’s uncharted territory. A re-birth.  A new life.  It is freedom. It is holy ground.

And it’s signified in today’s reading from Exodus where God appears as fire itself.  Fire, a transformative element, consuming one form of energy and turning it into light and heat. But this fire is a not a fire that consumes, we are told.  It doesn’t burn us up. It doesn’t deplete us. It is a fire that, nonetheless, is transformative.  

The Burning Bush by Paul Koli

And this dialogue that we witness in this reading – a back-and-forth between God and Moses is instructive.  There is Moses is minding his own business, guarding the flock. And God’s fire begins.  Moses investigates out of curiosity.  God calls Moses.  Moses responds, “Here I am.” God says, “Remove your sandals, for this is holy ground.”

This choice Moses made – to inquire with curiosity and then to stand gazing at God and say, “Here I am.”  This is the transformative moment.  This is holy ground.

And so it is that every time we choose to show up, every time we come and offer ourselves and say, “Here I am,” every time we choose to serve Love instead of anxiety or fear or judgment… Every time this happens, we’re standing on holy ground.

Because nowhere does it say that Moses wasn’t anxious or afraid.  As a matter of fact, as the story of Moses progresses, we learn of his human frailties and his fear.  In today’s reading we hear Moses saying, “Who am I that I should stand up to tyranny and free people from oppression?” 

Yet, Moses makes the choice to know himself more deeply and, therefore, be known more deeply by God.  Flaws and all.  God wants all of it.  God wants all of us.  Because God loves all of us.

If we pay attention in our daily lives, this dialogue with God is always a possibility.  Because we always have the choice to do the loving thing.  We always have the opportunity to stand on holy ground… to be known by God, to do what Love calls us to do. And every time we do, we are more and more formed by Love and our anxiety has less and less hold on us. 

But it’s never-ending, this dialogue because the anxiety never really goes away for good.  Through our entire lives our anxiety whispers to us, trying to get our attention. While at the same time Love is there, sometimes as loud as a flaming bush, yelling our name. 

But the more we practice Love, the more we stand on holy ground, the stronger we are in resisting anxiety’s sales pitch. And the more resilient we become, the more true our lives become, the more love we are able to offer to one another.

Jesus knew this.  In today’s reading from Matthew, he refuses the anxiety Peter offers him and, instead, chooses Love.  Even though he knows the path will be hard. Jesus chooses to be known for the sake of Love, even through he knows it will cost him his very life. 

For what is our life, if it is only about appeasing our anxiety? What is our life, if it is not about creating holy ground by responding to God’s call by saying, “Here I am?” What is our life, if it’s not about Love?

And I end today with these words from Paul, which I don’t often do.  But I think he says it pretty simply and elegantly here.  Still, I’ll paraphrase it slightly.

Let love be genuine.  Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection.  Be ardent, devoted in spirit and serve God. Rejoice in hope.  Be patient in suffering.  Persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of all.  Extend hospitality to strangers. Offer blessings, even on those who are challenging for you. Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another, especially with those who have less. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. Beloved, never avenge yourself. Live peaceably with all.  Overcome evil with good.

Beloveds, this is how we respond with Love.  This is how we stand on holy ground.

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Interdependence

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost on August 16, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scriptures, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Eggshells.  Apple cores.  Watermelon skins.  Dead leaves.  Avocado pits.  Wilted lettuce.  Banana peels without the little stickers on them. Coffee grounds.  Rotting vegetables.  Moldy fruit.

These are things we have no use for.  We might even call these items disgusting.  We’ve eaten the egg.  We’ve drunk the coffee. We’ve made guacamole and banana nut bread.  We don’t need these things.

Yet, they are exactly what a compost pile needs.  A compost pile takes organic garbage and turns it into nutrient-rich soil. As a matter of fact, most compost piles have nutrient-dense manure in their mix too.  These items literally enrich the soil, making it more able to support life – to give us ripe tomatoes and tasty basil, onions and pears and peppers and beans and cucumbers and cherries and peas and potatoes and apples… and us.

Because without soil, without good, rich soil, human life would cease to exist.

There is a movie called Martian that came out a few years ago.  

The main character, Mark Watney, ends up stranded on Mars. Thankfully, he has enough freeze dried food to last him about 400 days.  But it will take much longer than that for someone to come and rescue him. And then he remembers that the crew were given vacuum-packed food for a Thanksgiving dinner along with their rations.  And he finds potatoes. These potatoes are still alive, having not been freeze-dried. But, how to grow them?

The soil on Mars isn’t suitable for growth, lacking the nutrients from millennia upon millennia of vegetation rotting and dying so that it could become the rich and fertile soil we have on Earth. But he’s a botanist so he understands exactly what’s needed to amend the soil.  He understands that it’s what they have thrown away that will give the soil the nutrients it needs so he can grow food.  So he can survive.

My point is this:  That everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent. That our very life often depends on the things we throw away, the things we cast off, the people we dismiss as not important or not useful.  Expendable.  Those that don’t matter. And this is the message in today’s readings.

I’d like to help us recall the beginning of today’s story about Joseph from Genesis by giving you a recap of last week’s reading.  

Joseph, son of Israel, brother to the other children of Israel, is attacked by his brothers out of spite and jealousy and pride. They throw him in a pit and leave him to die.  But then they figure out that they can gain from the situation.  So they sell him into slavery.  And they never have to be inconvenienced by his presence again.  That’s the gist of what happened last week.

And Joseph, as a slave in Egypt, earns his way out of slavery through his gifts and gains access to power.  So that when the tribes of Israel are facing famine, and they come to Egypt for assistance, it ends up being Joseph who has the authority to help them.

Joseph, the one who was thrown away ends up being the one who will sustain life.

Now, I’m quite sure that my professor of Hebrew Scriptures would wonder about my comparison of compost to Joseph, as would many others. But, as the human race continues to live unsustainably in so many ways, the metaphor is appropriate. Because our unsustainability is directly related to our incapacity to understand how connected we all are, how interdependent, how much we need one another, and how we are called to the path of love.

It’s the core of the overall Gospel message and it’s certainly what Jesus is trying to teach in today’s reading.

In this story from Matthew, Jesus is defying tradition, explaining to Jewish people that what defiles them, what makes them unworthy to worship God is not what they eat or that they eat with unwashed hands, but how they treat one another, how they hold other humans in their heart. That’s what God cares about. 

In other words, ritual isn’t important if it doesn’t lead us to love and to justice.  Worship only means something in that it helps us to follow the path of love.

But, interestingly, that’s not where the Gospel story ends.  After Jesus teaches the disciples such an important lesson, he is confronted by a Canaanite woman… someone who didn’t matter to Jesus. 

She is expendable for 3 reasons: 
A woman, who had very few rights in that society;
A Canaanite, a non-Jewish person who lived in the area;
And the mother of a sick daughter, which at that time was a moral judgment on the parents.

And Jesus, the one who had just been teaching about how much more important it was to treat others with respect and dignity than to follow the rules… the one who had just criticized the Pharisees for caring more about religious law than about how people treated each other, responds with, “I’m only here for my fellow Jews.”

It’s an interesting side note, that the only times in the Gospels in which Jesus is taught something by another human… it’s always by a woman. 

So here’s Jesus the Christ, Love Incarnate, denying this woman access to healing because she is expendable. Her life isn’t supposed to matter to him. He even goes so far as to call her a dog. 

And dogs at that time were not the fluffy live-in pets that we have today.  Dogs were more like rats by today’s standards – filthy, pest-ridden, disease-carrying beasts who roamed the urban centers.  The inference Jesus is making is that she is filthy.  She is garbage.

So Jesus becomes his own object lesson, demonstrating that it’s so much easier to talk about love than to act in love.  It was what came out of his own mouth that defiled him. 

Yet, he is called to redemption by the Canaanite woman who refuses to let him off the hook.  She responds to his insult by reminding him that we are all connected, that the dog requires the same consideration as those who supposedly own the table. 

Because, in fact, everyone belongs at the Table in some way.  Everyone belongs to God.  All are welcome because God is the God of Love, the God of all life, in whom we all have our home, in whom is the ground of our very being.  This God provides for us all, heals us all, loves us all.

My friends, the interconnectedness of life is undeniable.  And this is Good News!  This is such Good News!  Because just as we are called to open our hearts to one another, just as we are called to offer compassion and treat others with dignity and respect – so are others called to treat us that way.  And, more importantly, so are we called to treat ourselves that way – with dignity and respect. 

And when that does not happen, when we miss the mark, we have the practice of forgiveness to help us move on and learn and heal.

You see, what is considered expendable by the world’s standards, is not expendable at all. And it is only at our own peril that we insist on thinking of people as expendable.  We need one another. Until we learn to see no stranger, to ensure the lives of people of color are held as sacred… until black lives actually matter, we cannot claim that all lives matter in this society.

What this requires of us is love and humility.  The kind of love and humility that Jesus demonstrates in this beautiful story from Matthew’s Gospel.  The kind of love that seeks justice. And the kind of humility where we listen to those who are oppressed so that our hearts are stretched until we are finally able to perceive the world through God’s eyes, instead of the limited eyes of tradition and comfort.

Because our very life often depends on that which we believe can be thrown away, the things we cast off, the people we dismiss as not important or not worthy. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is just how much we share the same breath, how much we truly need one another, how deeply we depend upon one another’s safety, upon one another’s life.

We cannot escape our interconnectedness, our interdependence.  Nor should we.  It’s our salvation. 

Today’s collect says it best.  May we drink this in as our deep prayer:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us an example of godly life: Give us grace to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Stepping Out Into Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 9, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

I was reading an essay the other day by a writer named Barry Lopez.  He said:

Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc—[environmental disaster], corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war—we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas—the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish—can have no future with us.

It is more important now to be in love than to be in power. It is more important to bring [love] into our daily conversations than it is to remain compliant in a time of extinction, ethnic cleansing, and rising seas. It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.

Barry Lopez has won awards for writing passionately about the environment from a humanitarian perspective.  But he talks about love as if he is Christian.  Because to say, “It is more important now to be in love than to be in power,” is to lift the Gospel right out of the pages of the Bible and apply them directly to this time and this place.

I often think about the lives of the people who followed Jesus, those who came to know him while he was alive and came to call him Rabbouni, came to call him teacher.  I think about what kind of world they were living in.  What was happening; the context for the stories we know as the Gospel witness. 

The disciples were Jewish people, of course – people who knew themselves as descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.  A people with an ancient lineage who had been through devastating civil wars and several invasions, who had survived exile and return.  A people who had known both oppression and power. A people who had traditions and connections to the land in which they lived, so much so that they called it the Promised Land, their inheritance from God.

And by the time Jesus was born, the land they knew to be home was, once again, occupied by a foreign invader – the Roman Empire.  Their land was governed by Roman leadership – Pontius Pilate and his pack of Centurion soldiers overseeing a series of Jewish leaders, like Herod, who were paid by the Roman governors to “manage the people.”

Religious life for Jewish people was deeply tied to their understanding of who they were as a people.  Their religious practices and their religious leaders were central to their lives as a nation, as the people of Israel.  The law wasn’t a civic law as much as it was the law of who they were as People of God.

The Roman Empire was similar, in a way, in that the religion of the Roman Empire was central to being a Roman citizen.  There was a significant difference, however.  While the people of Israel worshipped God, a being that exists beyond time and space, Roman citizens worshipped Caesar – the human leader of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire expanded steadily over several centuries, eventually conquering Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, 63 years before Jesus was born.  This was not a peaceful situation.  There were regular attempts to oust the Romans from Jerusalem; Jewish military leaders attempted rebellion after rebellion, each one the hoped-for messiah.

But the religious leaders had brokered a deal – they would do what they could to keep Jewish people calm and docile, if they could continue their own religious practices – worshipping God, instead of Caesar. 

It was in this unstable, pressured context that Jewish leadership devolved into judgmental, binary thinking – a this-or-that, either-or, right-or-wrong approach to common life; the instability creating a need for certainty, narrow definitions and judgments about right and wrong.  The leaders kept pressure on Jewish people to follow the law

This precarious arrangement was the world into which Jesus was born.  He wasn’t there when the Romans arrived, of course, he was born several generations later.  But he was able to see the layers of oppression that had built up and the corruption that had ensued; how many of the Jewish leaders, in an attempt to survive, had become authoritarian.  And how the deeper message of love found in the Hebrew Scriptures had become lost.

Jesus had studied the Hebrew scriptures and what he found was that the message of all the law and all the prophets, everything in the Hebrew Scriptures, points to Love.  A love so unbounded, so wide, so unyielding that nothing could keep us from its reaches. 

And so our real responsibility, then, if we are to truly love God, if we are to truly worship God and be the People of God, is to live into that love with one another.  To care for one another as if we actually mattered to each other.

This is what Jesus was teaching in the face of overwhelming anxiety, in the face of generations of occupation, in the face of an extremely tense situation in which many of his fellow Jews were calling for war, challenging the authority, desiring freedom from the occupation of Rome… Jesus was teaching Love. 

And not just a love that means I’m a nice person, but a love that is active, that seeks to undermine power and privilege because love has, at its core, a vision of justice – the Reign of God, the Kingdom of Heaven… where every one is cared for.  All are loved.  All are nourished.  All belong.

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry who talks about us as inheritors of the Jesus Movement, talks about it this way: If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.

This is a revolutionary love.  A love so powerful that it sees no stranger and softens the hardest hearts.  A love so strong that it upends the very temples of cultural and social power in order that all may have a place at the table.

A love so powerful that it inspires us, moves us, inviting us out of our places of safety and security and smack into the middle of the storm where we risk the comfort of our lives because we’ve come to understand that this Love, this radical love, is the very thing that gives our lives meaning.  We are saved by loving other people.  We are saved by working for justice.

The Gospel message is nothing more than this story from Matthew:  The disciples in the relative safety of a boat drifting far from the comfort of dry land who are asked by Love Incarnate to leave, even that relative safety, even in their fear, and risk everything for the sake of Love itself. 

Lopez says: We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas—the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish—can have no future with us.

Even in his fear, Peter is led by Love, willing to step into that deeper conversation.  And what a love like that is able to accomplish!  A love willing to risk everything.  A love willing to follow wherever Christ leads.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans – do not be concerned with who deserves what, but concern yourselves with what your heart leads you to do and risk everything for the sake of this Incarnate Love.  And Paul says, those who do profess Christ by surrendering ourselves to this love, will be saved.  Salvation is Love, in other words.  We are saved by becoming what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open for the world God has made.

I think we have been bamboozled in this society, we have been duped into believing that prosperity is an indicator of virtue.  And that comfort and ease are rewards of leading a good life.  There are even some who claim that this is the Christian message, but that is blasphemy!

But comfort and ease are not of God.  They are not what will save us. They never were. They are merely what the world offers in exchange for complicity. The world’s reward for maintaining the status quo and keeping power in place.  Real love invites us to a deeper conversation.

It is in times of anxiety, times of communal and societal stress, when the veils of privilege are pulled back so that we can see the results of our societal addiction to comfort and ease – unchecked power, vast inequality, widespread corruption, environmental destruction – all kept in place by those who remain either deliberately ignorant or stubbornly on the fence. 

It is in times very much like the one in which Jesus lived, very much like the one in which we are living right now, that Love’s capacity to save us is made plain. 

We are in the boat and being asked to step out. 
It is right now that Love’s call to us is present and real. 
It is right now that Love’s song, God’s Word, as Paul says, is near us, on our lips and in our heart, waiting only for our will to act on its behalf.

This is not a little thing which Love asks for: To leave behind the obstinate unwillingness to act and step into the sea where we believe we will have nothing under our feet.  To risk our comfort and choose a life of deeper meaning, one that seeks to co-create something greater – the Reign of God. 

Because God’s Reign is here, present among us, no longer out of sight but staring us right in the face.  Will we act on its behalf?  Will we, as Barry Lopez says, “step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and… actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans?” 

We must, you and I, step out of the boat we think will keep us safe until all this dies down, and step into God’s Reign where Love is all that matters.

This is what Christ is asking us to do.  It is what love requires of us.

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Food for the Journey

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 2, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

There are two definitions of “church” in today’s readings.  Not separate definitions, rather, they are two aspects of the one thing, much like none of us is just one thing.  We all have multiple aspects.  We are inhabiting multiple identities at one time, identities that are interrelated and interdependent upon one another.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we have Jacob wrestling with God. And from Matthew’s Gospel, we have the feeding of the multitudes.  Two different aspects of the church, intertwined and reliant upon one another.

Let’s look at the Gospel first.  We know this story well because it’s a foundational story in the Christian tradition. Jesus’ teaching has become popular.  So popular that a crowd gathers whenever he speaks and they follow him waiting for the next time he will impart wisdom. It reminds me of children who sometimes follow their parents or grandparents around, needing to be near them. Needing to be seen, hungry for a sense of belonging.

Jesus sees these people and knows they are hungry, not just for food, but for the word of God.  And he has compassion for them. 

Jesus argues with his disciples who want him to rest (or, perhaps, they just want to rest themselves), and he says, “They don’t need to go away. Give them something to eat.”

They respond, “But we only have this meager fare: five loaves and two fish.” And Jesus counters with, “Bring them to me.”

And he takes the food. And he blesses the food. And he breaks the food. And he shares the food.

Take.  Bless.  Break.  Share. 

I know it’s been quite a while since any of us has had Eucharist, but I do believe we recognize these 4 words, because they define our Eucharistic celebration.  We participate in Eucharist to remember how God nourishes us and how Jesus shared himself – emptying of self to be in service to others.

And from these acts, we understand the core of our Christian identity – to be in service to others.  To pay attention to our world and listen to the needs and act in response to those needs, including both caring for those in need and advocating for change to systemic injustice that creates need in the first place. 

We become what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open for the whole world.

And then we have the story of Jacob from Genesis. We’ve been following Jacob’s story this summer.  We might remember that he is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  And the son of Isaac and Rebekah.  And he was a twin to Esau, with whom he had a contentious relationship, so much so that he fell out of favor with his father and had to be saved from his brothers rage by his mother, who sent him away to a foreign land.  In this foreign land, he laid down his head upon a rock and had a dream where God told him, “I will never leave you.”

In today’s reading, Jacob is older with a family and a household.  The scripture says that he sent them all away along with everything he had, across the Jabbok, and he was left alone. 

And it was here, alone, apart from all his responsibilities and all his attachments and his loves… that he wrestled with a being until daybreak, until he received a blessing.  Various translations say that this was an angel, a divine entity of some kind. 

And everyone agrees that it was God Jacob was contending with. It was God that humbled Jacob by knocking Jacob’s hip out of joint. It was God that blessed Jacob, because Jacob asked him to. And it was God whose very name is blessing.

This story informs us because we are given the very definition of what it means to be Israel, what it means to be people of God. Jacob’s name becomes Israel in today’s reading because Israel means “the one who contended with God” or “the one who strives with God.” 

yisra (strives) and el (God)

Who we are as Christians arises out of this common understanding we have with Jewish people – the people of God, those who contend with, who profess, who withstand, who affirm, who declare… God. 

The Truth of God and the Love of God.

Because, just like Jacob, we need to hear God’s word. We need to argue with God.  We need to pray to God.  We need to know God is present with us, in this life with us, and will offer a blessing upon us.  We need this inner reflection, this spiritual practice, because this feeds us.  This gives us life.

The need for inner reflection brings us right back to today’s Gospel. Where, at the beginning, Jesus withdrew to a deserted place by himself (like Jacob withdrew from his family), giving us the example of retreat, the example of a spiritual practice of reflection and silence, of time away from the sometimes-overwhelming needs of the world around us. 

Reflection, learning, retreat, contemplation… these are not an escape from the world, not an indulgence.  But they are a Holy Sabbath, a time given to us as blessed from the beginning to renew and strengthen us for the work of God’s Holy Reign.

The Holy Reign of God hovers amongst us all the time and we often miss it.  We tend to see only the brokenness and not the potential for healing.

It is our time spent in retreat, our time spent in prayer, in contemplation, listening for God’s word, seeking God’s nourishment, that gives us the capacity to be co-creators of God’s Reign, to bring it into being, to make Love incarnate.

In spiritual practice, we learn how to tune ourselves to a different frequency so that we can hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit before we act so that we can be the healers that are needed.  This is necessary as Christians so that we can learn to hear God’s voice more distinctly and envision God’s Holy Reign more clearly.

As we learn to tune in, we come to find that we are responding to the hunger of the multitudes with the food each individual needs. Not what we want them to need, but what they actually need.  Because each person is more than just one thing, more than one identity.  And to truly listen to another, to know the truth of who they are, we get to know Christ. 

Do we get it right every time?  No.  Are we perfect in this?  Absolutely not. We are human.  We will make mistakes.  This is why forgiveness goes hand in hand with service. We are forgiven just as we forgive others. So we learn some more, and we listen more deeply.  And we try again.

Because service is about coming to know the heart of another person so that we can truly learn to empty ourselves.  So that, rather than tell them what they need based on the assumptions we make, we can learn to give them what they need if it is within us to give. 

This is how we become the Body of Christ, broken open for the world… by wrestling with God and having our assumptions and judgments removed, one by one, ever emptying ourselves in service.

Our food, our nourishment, symbolized in our Eucharistic feast, is this deeper communion with God that comes in the wrestling, in the reflection and spiritual practice, and in the self-emptying, in the service and forgiveness.  All of this is what brings us closer to God.  All of this is food for our own journey.

We are People of God.  We are followers of Jesus the Christ. 

May we become co-creators of God’s Holy Reign.

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Right Here. Right Now.

A sermon preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost on July 26, 2020 to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the link below.

The kingdom of heaven is like…

Today’s Gospel is this string of parables.  The kingdom of heaven is like…
A mustard seed that is the smallest of seeds but grows into something that provides shelter for many.
Yeast that reproduces itself over and over again, stretching the ingredients of the bread into a new form.
A treasure or a pearl of great price, something of value beyond our comprehension.
A net thrown into the sea that catches fish of every kind.

These parables offer us different ways of understanding the reign of God, different ways of entering into this idea that Jesus talks about again and again and again in the Gospels: The kingdom of heaven.  The reign of God. 

Jesus is not talking about what happens to us when we die when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus is talking about what life can be like in our lives right now.  Jesus is telling us that the reign of God is here, waiting for us. 

God’s peace, God’s promise, God’s love… is right here.  Right now.

And I spoken with all of you enough to know that we all realize it has been difficult to remember this truth.  Our lives have been turned upside down.  Most of us are experiencing adjustment fatigue from all the ways our normal routines have shifted and seem to continue shifting.  And we’re witnessing brutality on a daily basis if we watch the news.  And we don’t even feel safe in the grocery store.  For most of us, our work has become very different.  And many of our most beloved activities have been altered.  And we’re all sick of Zoom, even in our appreciation of it.

But the Christian hope never was that life would be easy.  The Christian hope is that God is with us in our joys as well as our sorrows.  God never leaves us.  That was the promise from last week’s lesson from Genesis, where we heard the story of Jacob’s dream.  Jacob who felt unloved and whose life was saved by being sent to a foreign land… God appeared in his dream and said: “I will never leave you.”

God’s Reign is here, in the midst of our lives.

We’ve been reading this summer from Paul’s letter to the Romans. 

Paul was, effectively, the first Christian theologian.  Paul wrote his letters just a few years after the death of Jesus, decades before the Gospels were written. 

It was through these letters that the Christian Church was developed as Paul journeyed from city to city to city, establishing churches amongst the Gentiles (or non-Jews), while Peter spread the news of Christ among Jews.  Paul wrote these letters to continue teaching and continue caring for them in his absence.

Paul is spoken about in the Acts of the Apostles – Starting out as Saul, a Jewish leader who “breathed threats and murder against the disciples,” Paul – literally – saw a light on the road to Damascus and was converted.  He spent time learning from the disciples and then started his ministry by going into the synagogues to proclaim Jesus.

We know from this that Paul saw that his task was to convert the world.  And Paul’s motivation, as I see it, was love.  That doesn’t mean he got it right all the time – his language is incredibly heavy-handed and he gets somewhat annoying. 

But Paul is always there, in every letter he wrote, telling the early Christians, telling us, to keep going. Helping us to see that resilience is holy.  And in that, I think, he got it right.

We get stuck.  We get overwhelmed.  We get disappointed. We get focused on how difficult our life is or on the state of the world. And I’m not suggesting that our pain doesn’t deserve our compassion. It most certainly does.  But that’s not all there is.  God is here too. 

The reign of God is always available to us.  In every moment, especially when it’s hard.

I had one of those moments this past week.  Maybe it was the heat and humidity combined with my endless hot flashes that put me over the edge, maybe it was the federal agents in Portland, maybe I was feeling the restrictions of the pandemic too keenly, or that too much is changing or maybe it was just an everyday occurrence.  It was probably all of the above. 

But I felt this deep wave of despair arrive in my chest.  It came slowly at first – little whispers that tried to push their way through my workday – and then finally arriving, full force on Wednesday afternoon.  Suddenly, the weight of the world felt like it was resting on my heart – all the pain, all the violence, all the fear, all the exhaustion – and I saw no end to it.  I felt so powerless, so unable to do anything to fix any of it. 

My resilience was gone and I just wanted to go to bed and hide under the covers.  But I had to lead centering prayer, which we have every Wednesday evening.

And, it was there I was given a gift.  I had chosen Psalm 42 a week prior as the reading.  And I heard the psalmist saying:

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?”

I pour out my soul when I think on these things: *
how I went with the multitude
and led them into the house of God,

With the voice of praise and thanksgiving, *
among those who keep holy-day.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, *
and why are you so disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God, *
for I will yet give thanks to the Holy One,

who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, *
and why are you so disquieted within me?

Indeed.  It feels like this sometimes.  We all have different versions of it, but our soul sometimes feels the heaviness of being human, the disquiet of living.  Especially now, right now. 

So, if you’re feeling this way, or if you’ve been feeling this way… just know that you’re not alone.  This place, this heaviness is such a universal human experience that it’s written about in the psalms. 

We know this place.  We all know this place.  Humans have always known this place.

And this is why Paul is so encouraging in his letters, because he knows that living a life with our eyes open to the pain of the world is hard.  Living our lives in service to Love, in service to others, means that we cannot escape into numbness and privilege for very long before we’re brought up short by the Gospel. 

I had an ethics professor, John Kater, who said it this way:  The life of a Christian is one in which we are called to stand at a crossroads – seeing both the reign of God and the state of the world at the same time and not losing sight of either.

So, there’s Paul.  Always encouraging, always reminding us to not lose heart.  Reminding us of holy resilience, even in our deepest grief. 

Paul says: The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Sighs too deep for words.  God knows us in our sighs, in our grief and meets us there because this is where our heart is finally breaking open, this where we our masks come off.  Where we can be seen, where we realize the truth is that we are vulnerable, tender creatures. This grief that we feel is real.  But it’s also where we can meet God. 

We meet God in the grief where we can, once again, find a light that will lead us home.  We meet God in the grief where we can learn to become a new creation simply by letting go of the need to not be grieving.  And those women who went to the tomb on that Easter morning… it was in their grief that they encountered God.

In this string of parables we get from Jesus today, the one that seems to apply the most, I think, is the metaphor of yeast.  Because yeast is one of the most prolific substances there is, giving birth to itself over and over and over again.  In the right conditions, it affects all the other ingredients around it making new bread possible.

And it’s in our grief where the Reign of God seems to find the right conditions.  Because it’s here where one thing… one light, one gesture, one note of music, one voice, one piece of beauty from God’s creation… starts a chain reaction, like yeast reproducing itself… resonating inside of us like a bell calling us home, reminding us of our belovedness and wholeness. 

In our grief, then, is where we find the courage and inspiration and the will to do the next good thing.  And that inspires someone else to do the next good thing.  And that inspires the next person to do the next good thing.  And before we know it, this grief has transformed into this yeast that is the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God incarnate.  It’s not about solving the world’s problems, it’s about doing the next good thing, the next life-giving thing.

And then it becomes something that grows and grows – until new bread is ready.
Jesus is telling us that the reign of God is here, waiting for us. 

God’s peace, God’s promise, God’s love… is right here.  Right now.

I finish with with these words of encouragement from Paul because I believe there is nothing more true in all of scripture:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ. 

Amen.

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Jacob’s Dream of Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost on July 19, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

As most of you know, I have become a gardener over the past couple of years.  At first, it was a few pots because I couldn’t get to all the weeds.  Then, when Ana and I were married, we managed to get the weeding under control and we introduced new flowers, some medicinal plants, and herbs.  Then, this year… vegetables. 

So, I can personally attest to how difficult it is to tell the difference between the weeds and the so-called wheat.  Between a weed and a desired or valuable plant.  Especially when they first start to appear above ground in the spring. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the garden, you have no choice but to let the plant grow until you can see what is where.  And, if you’re unfamiliar with the plant, you have to wait to see what it does and how it interacts with the rest of the garden.

In other words, it takes a trained eye.  Without that, it is hard to discern what is damaging and what is nourishing.  Even when we know the plants, we may not know the garden or the climate or the soil very well.  We may let things grow that shouldn’t or we pull things that would be a great help.  So we must observe, we must listen to learn what needs to happen.

This is, essentially, what Jesus is telling us in today’s parable.  When it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven… when it comes to Love, when it comes to the spiritual task of unbinding our souls… we are usually not as well-trained as we think we are.  Jesus tells us to let God do the sifting.

You see, as we continue to walk with God and deepen our prayer life, we start to realize that God knows us better than we know ourselves.  And what we think is a weed, because it’s not what we would prefer, may really be life-giving fruit.

This is, perhaps, one of the hardest things for us to learn as humans, that the things we think are wrong with us are the very things that are our gifts to offer.  That we are beloved and whole. Because we compare our lives to the lives of others all the time.  And we do this earnestly enough – to learn, to mimic, to discern how to get along in the world, to figure out who we want to have in our lives. 

But this becomes a dangerous activity… when we start comparing ourselves, when we start judging ourselves and others.  When we start needing the people in our lives to show up in a perfect way is exactly the moment we realize that we are holding ourselves to a higher standard too.  It’s the moment we’ve stepped in for God.  It’s the instant we have lost our connection to our own beloved nature.

This is so human, this judgment of self and others.  This is such a normal human activity that it becomes the very air we breathe. We actually think it’s normal to think so little of ourselves and of others.

The Christian theologian Augustine is best known for his notion of original sin – a belief that humanity is born into sin.  It’s a belief that Evangelical Christians and Fundamentalist Christians tend to subscribe to. 

But I believe that the only “sin” that all of humanity seems to participate in, is the belief that there is something wrong with us to begin with.  It creates all the other patterns of addiction and indulgence.  To think that there is something inherently wrong with us creates more anxiety, more pain, more hatred… than anything else.

When we do lose our connection to our own beloved nature, it becomes hard to see the difference between the weeds and the wheat. We think we may be pulling weeds, but we’re actually killing the wheat before it’s had a chance to mature.

So, what is our help in this?  What is our salvation if this is such a human tendency?

The life of Jacob is a significant story in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah. These are considered to be the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people.  Abraham and Sarah.  Isaac and Rebekah. So, of course Jacob’s story is a significant one.  It tells us how Israel came to be.

The backstory to today’s reading is that Jacob and his brother Esau have a contentious and competitive relationship.  This is not helped by their father’s favoritism of Esau. 

Jacob’s home, his upbringing, all that he knows, tells him that he is not worthy, something is wrong with him.  So Jacob learns deceit as a way of moving in the world, tricking his father into blessing him and angering his brother to the point of wanting retribution. Jacob is lost, not knowing how beloved he is. 

It’s only because his mother intervenes that he is sent away from the anger of his brother and the shaming of his father, away from home and all that he knows, into the safety of an alien land.

So, in today’s reading, Jacob finds himself an alien in a land called Haran, an unsettled place.  When he stops to make camp for the night, he lays his head on a rock to sleep.  And, in his dream, God tells Jacob that he is no longer an alien in this land, that the land is a gift to him.  And then God promises him that his offspring shall be like the dust of the earth.  And God says, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you.”

When Jacob awakens, he proclaims, “Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it!”  Then he anoints the stone, the place of this epiphany, and he calls it Beth-el, which means “The House of God.”

Jacob’s epiphany, his realization, is that he belongs, he is beloved. God says, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you.”

And Jacob is only able to come to this because he left behind what he knew.  He came to a new place, an alien land, and came to hear another voice – the voice of love, the voice of God. Who teaches him about himself so that he comes to know himself.  And he knows what home is because he knows, finally, God’s voice.

Jacob eventually takes the name Israel – a name which means the one who wrestles with God.  A name which has become for us a synonym for the People of God.

The help, you see, that we are looking for… the salvation that we seek is found in learning new stories about ourselves, dreaming new dreams about who we are and what God’s purpose is for us. 

We get stuck all the time, us humans.  We get stuck in only believing one thing about ourselves and we believe that it’s the thing that sustains us.  We believe it’s the wheat.  We believe we need to have it. But if we’re stuck, if we have no sense of inner freedom, no sense of inner peace, it’s usually because we have mistaken a weed as something nourishing.

What beliefs about yourself are you limited by?  What beliefs about yourself do you swear you could never, ever give up because believing them ensures that you are safe and protected? And what would happen if you believed something else?

Because Jacob’s dream belongs to all of us. We are the descendants of this dream, we are the descendants of Israel.  This dream is for each of us. 
We do belong.  We do have gifts.  God is with us.  And God will never leave us.

This knowledge, this belief is more important now than, perhaps, ever in your life because of all that is happening around us. It is now that we are called to believe deeply in the truth of God’s love because the world we know is opening up and changing dramatically. For some, this is terrifying.  But we are the inheritors of Jacob’s dream.  We are the descendants of Israel. 

So we must practice this love for ourselves so that we can take this knowledge of God’s love into the world with us and we anoint the world with God’s blessing.

Steven Charleston is a Bishop in the Episcopal Church, and a few days after George Floyd’s murder, knowing full well just how deeply torn the fabric of our lives had become, he wrote this:

Now is the moment for which a lifetime of faith has prepared you. All of those years of prayer and study, all of the worship services, all of the time devoted to a community of faith: it all comes down to this, this sorrowful moment when life seems chaotic and the anarchy of fear haunts the thin borders of reason.  Your faith has prepared you for this. It has given you the tools you need to respond: to proclaim justice while standing for peace.  Long ago the Spirit called you to commit your life to faith.  Now you know why. You are a source of strength for those who have lost hope. You are a voice of calm in the midst of chaos. You are a steady light in days of darkness. The time has come to be what you believe.     

May you know your belovedness so that you may become what you believe.

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Confession and Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

To say that these past few months have been difficult is a huge understatement.  As a matter of fact, the entire first half of this year has felt like one major catastrophe after another.  And still, there’s so much we don’t know about this pandemic.

I was talking to a friend of mine who said we’re all dealing with adjustment fatigue and ambiguous grief.  For most of us, we’ve lost something we can’t quite put our finger on – the ambiguous grief – and we’re exhausted from the constant adjustments to new forms of community, new ways of being together and getting things done – the adjustment fatigue. And I have to agree.  I’m exhausted.

So, Jesus’ invitation really feels personal right now:  Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

And yet, we are all being called to show up in very real ways right now.  Finally, our society seems to be at a tipping point regarding racial justice.  Finally, our society seems to be ready to examine the systems of privilege we perpetuate.  Finally, we seem to be hearing Frederick Douglas’ words from 1852 when he indicted a young nation saying, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”  Finally, the larger society is seeing the knee on the necks on so many of our siblings.

This work we are being called into, is the work of love because it’s the work of justice.  And to do the work of love, we must immerse ourselves in the practice of love, a spiritual discipline of love.  For love is what grants us the ability to see the humanity in one another and in ourselves.  Love is what enables us to feel empathy and is what kindles compassion for other people, because we learn to become compassionate with ourselves. And so, Love helps us understand exactly who we are, who we all are – beloved children of God.

We can so easily forget that we are created to be good. That all of Creation was made from the same elements and God called it all good at the beginning of the beginning. 

And we forget this because when we struggle, we blame ourselves.  Ergo, when someone else struggles, it must be because they are doing something wrong.  Judging oneself always leads to judging other people.

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

Jesus says, Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

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

And Jesus tells us that this joining is not designed to be harsh, but it is gentle.  But it is a yoke nonetheless, so we are no longer a solo act.  Jesus is asking us to accept a discipline, to be joined with this discipline so that the work of being in the world is easier. 

Jesus is referring to spiritual discipline of love. And this love is not a discipline of doing, but of releasing.  To lay our burden down, the burden of trying to be judge and jury of ourselves and of other people.  The burden of trying to be God.  And, instead, remember our beloved nature and show ourselves compassion. 

People that have no compassion for others, actually do not love themselves.  They have mistaken addiction to power and idolization of self for love. For only when we have compassion for ourselves will we be truly able to have compassion for other people.  This is why the commandment is Love your neighbor as yourself.  You cannot truly love yourself, unless you love your neighbor.  And you cannot love your neighbor, unless you truly love yourself.

But loving yourself is not an ideal to achieve.  This is not yet another reason to beat yourself up or pass judgement on others.  This is just the way we all miss the mark all the time.

The human tendency is to avoid thinking about this lack of love – for ourselves, for others.  And when we do this, we forget who we are and whose we are.  And in the vacuum, we begin to make excuses.  We begin to idolize ourselves and our own thoughts.  We become addicted to our emotional state. 

This is when we forget that we belong to God and we mistakenly think we belong to ourselves alone.  And we probably stop praying.  We definitely stop listening.  And we surround ourselves with only those voices who agree with us, who reinforce what we already believe to be true.

This is far from discipline.  This is indulgence.  This is addiction. And this is when substance abuse can kick in.  Most people think that addiction is all about the substance itself. 

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

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

Steps 4-7 get directly to the point: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

Most people don’t think of confession as a way to love ourselves.  But it is.  Confession is not a part of our worship because the hierarchy of the church thinks we need to spend time feeling badly about ourselves. The purpose of confession is exactly the opposite, actually. 

Its purpose is to offer rest.  Deep rest.

Confession is the time we pray for ourselves and our own restoration.  To acknowledge that we have missed the mark in our efforts to follow Jesus… and to be brave and be as specific as we can in the silent space before we say our corporate confession together.

Did I speak badly about another person?  Did I treat people with respect?  Did I blame someone else for my reaction?  Did I act in anger?  Did I do what I could to help other people?  Did I respect myself?  Did I love myself?  Did I take care of myself?

Confession is the time in our worship when we rest deeply in God’s Love for us, knowing that we can renewed and restored.  We can be reconciled to God’s love because it’s always there for us to come back to.

Confession is when we recognize that: I’m deserving of my own compassion.  I’m deserving of my own hope.  And I deserve to act in accord with God’s holy law of love because I am God’s beloved, holy Creation.

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

It’s not that we are called to do nothing, my friends.  On the contrary, we are called into the world to be Christ in and for the world.  So this rest that Jesus offers us is not a perpetual vacation from the world… that’s addiction.

This yoke, this rest that Jesus offers us is found in the discipline of continually laying our burdens down and returning to the Law of Love and then acting in the world from that place.

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

Because we are only called to Love.  And to spread that Love to others.  To strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being.

It is from this place and this place alone that we humans discover our efforts are not burdensome nor wearisome, but are generative and productive and have the capacity to rejuvenate us, to feed us, to nourish us.

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

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

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The Violence of Systems and the Sword of Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on June 21, 2020, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Today’s scripture passages are hard.  Many Christians like to avoid them.  Because if we believe, truly believe, that God is about Love, that God IS Love, then how can we possibly reconcile these scriptures? How do we see love in a passage about a slave woman being cast out of her home?  Or in Jesus’ pronouncement that he will split families apart?

We want our Jesus to walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death and bring us peace, not this sword of division.

There is a reason that these two passages – from Genesis and from Matthew’s Gospel – appear here together, just a few weeks after we celebrate the Day of Pentecost – that fiery Holy-Spirit-filled celebration when we remember that we not only have a place in the Body of Christ, but that having a place at the Table brings with it a responsibility to uphold and live out the ministry of Christ in the world.  This is not always an easy ministry.  Often, it makes us quite uncomfortable.

These are the kinds of passages that it helps us to spend a little time and open them up to examine them a bit.  Let’s take a look at the Genesis passage first.

Now, the story of Abraham and Sarah tells us that Abraham was totally devoted to God.  Abraham found God wherever he went, discovering that God did not belong in just one place or to just one people. And, because of that, God promised Abraham that his offspring would number as many as the stars in the sky – that one day, the Abrahamic lineage would be about teaching that the God of Love is the God of all Life.

And in this part of Abraham’s story, the most significant character is Sarah because, how can Abraham have offspring if Sarah is unable to give birth?  Sarah knows well her place in this system.  How could she not? For much of human history, a woman’s value has been based solely on her ability to bear children.  This is the violence of the patriarchal system.

And Sarah had produced no children.  So, as custom at that time necessitated, Abraham was allowed to use a servant of Sarah’s to produce an heir.  So Sarah chose the system and its violence.  She ordered the forced taking of her slave Hagar.  And Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Abrahams’ older child, who remains unnamed in today’s story.

The story doesn’t end there because eventually God gave Sarah a child.  Yet, so cynical and disillusioned, so betrayed by the violent system she believed in, was Sarah, that she laughed at the idea.  She laughed at God’s power.  Yet, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Abraham’s younger child in today’s story.

But the violent structure of patriarchy cannot and could not support the notion that both children belonged.  So, we have today’s episode, where we see the continued violence of the system of power.  The belief that blessings/rights/freedom are a zero-sum game and the fear that arises if I don’t do everything I can to hold onto my power… it’s the stuff soap operas are made of.  If I give more to you, that means I will have less. 

One son had to have more rights, more privilege, more dignity than the other.  Otherwise, how would we know who Abraham’s inheritance belonged to? 

And when we read that story, we usually say, “Well, it’s unfortunate but that’s the way it was.”  Or… that’s the way it is.

We may even blame Abraham for being immoral.  Or we may blame Sarah for being jealous… which is, I suppose, better than blaming her for being barren.  Or we may blame Hagar for being willing, but she was not. That is clear.

Because we believe the lie of systems of power, we want to make sin individual, make it about the failings of individual people.  But we don’t stop to ask the question, what is wrong with the system?  How does the system make victims of all of us? 

After all, when we read this, we believe that Abraham had a right to his wealth, his empire.  And therefore, had a right to pass it on.  The question that’s never asked, however, is why does property exist?  Why does wealth exist?  How did this come to be? 


And so, if we’re paying attention, this story becomes one of the first lessons for us, on the violence of worldly systems.  Because “property” is not of God.  Wealth is not of God.  God’s creation is one of utter abundance, where all life is loved and provided for.  This is the God of all life.  This is the God of Abraham. Yet, Abraham, himself, is corrupted by human systems of power and participates in it’s violence.

All the characters in this tragic drama from Genesis are pawns in the system, victims of its violence to a degree.  And they all have varying degrees of power within it.  Each one could have done something different to shift the power dynamics. 

All except Hagar, that is.  And the teachable moment in this episode is that this is who God saves – Hagar and her baby Ishmael.  Because that’s how God works – saving the victims of systemic violence.  Although, notice that God hears the cries of the boy, not of Hagar.  Because even the one telling the story is not immune to the influence of patriarchal systems.

So, let’s pull back a bit.  Because this story is instructive on different levels.  On a societal level, I hope you can see that systems of power are violent and so they corrupt even the most righteous of people.  And, in our attempt to have a place within those systems, we inevitably try to gain power at the expense of others.  So, power must be held mindfully and must always remain in service to those who have no power.

The story is also instructive for us as individuals.  Because we decided at a very, very young age, that a part of us wasn’t wanted.  And so, in order to get along in the family, we hid away a gift, a dream, a tender part of ourselves that we knew to be true but we knew wasn’t wanted.  We enacted violence against ourselves.

If we are lucky, if we experienced our upbringing as safe, we are sometimes able to retrieve this part of us when we grow older.  But if we remain entrenched in systems of power or if our security is shattered in some way when we’re young, it’s just easier to keep that tender part hidden, to continue being violent with ourselves.

Every human being, upon reflection, has had the experience of needing to hide an unwanted part of themselves away in order to survive their upbringing.  For some of us, it was merely painful.  For others, it was absolutely horrific.  And that forms us and informs who we take ourselves to be as we move out into the world.  We take that violence and we learn how to inflict it – either to continue inflicting it on ourselves or on others in our lives.

We become Hagar, hiding away Ishmael, unable to watch as the unwanted part of us dies.  Just as the black mother, tells her son, “Don’t ask why you were pulled over, just do whatever the officer says, because I don’t want to see you die.”

And Jesus, who studied the Hebrew Scriptures, knows the meaning of this story.  He may not have had the language we have – calling it a system of patriarchy.  But he knew violence when he saw it. 

And he saw the violence of systems of power: observing the religious authorities who know-towed to the Roman authorities in order to maintain the status quo.  One power linking arms with another power in order to keep their place in the hierarchy.  Groups of people claiming a solidarity with one another to maintain power.

Sarah, playing the role of good wife by ordering her slave to be used, and then forcing her out of the home with no support when her own place in the power structure is threatened… this is just one example, among the countless, endless examples of humans choosing to remain safe by throwing someone else “under the bus,” to coin a term. 

Why are there endless examples of this?  Because, we are so wounded by our experience of being Hagar, feeling tossed aside in some way, that we often fail to see how we are Sarah, someone who actually has power within a system but fails to use it because we have become the system’s victim and so we use its violence to protect our own self-interest.

This is exactly why, a few weeks ago, we saw a very smart young white woman in a NYC park who, upon being approached by a black man who simply asked her to leash her dog, knew exactly how to weaponize the violence of white supremacy.  She doesn’t even have to think about it.  She says, “I’m calling the cops… I’m going to tell them there is an African American man threatening my life.”

I’m not excusing her behavior at all, but she worked in NYC for a financial services firm.  I can’t imagine a more soul-crushing work environment than that.

And this is why Jesus challenges us in today’s Gospel passage. He says, “Don’t be afraid.  Instead, speak truth to power.  What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  Yes, your life may be threatened but they can only kill the body, not the soul.  And it’s your soul that I’m interested in. For if you listen to them, then you will surely be in hell, because they will take your body as well as your soul.  This part of you that knows the truth, this is the most valuable part of you.  Don’t hide it away again.”

And this is good, isn’t it?  It feels good, even if a little scary, to be told that a part of us that hasn’t been valued is, in fact, the most valuable part of us.  The very cornerstone rejected by the builders.

If we could imagine Jesus being able to talk to Sarah, he would be telling her:  I know you see it.  But you can use the power that you have in this violent system to do something different.

Jesus is inviting us all, the Sarah inside of each one of us, to leave the system behind and, instead, choose liberation.  Liberation for ourselves.  And, in so doing liberation for others.

Ana and I finally sat down to watch the movie Just Mercy on Friday.  It’s a true story, set in the 1980’s in Alabama.  A young, black, Harvard-educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson sets up a government funded program to offer legal representation to people on death row.  Because he knows from his experiences as an intern, that the people on death row rarely get good legal representation. 

Yet, many are innocent.  Or they are black and are receiving a drastically more severe sentences than people who are white and have committed the same crime.  Regardless, they are poor and, therefore, easily exploitable and easily expendable, just like Hagar.  And if they are black, they are easy targets because the violent system of white supremacy has always wanted to make sure that black people have no power.

Stevenson takes on a client who is innocent and the case against him was so flimsy that he is able to clearly see the corruption and violence.  The most pivotal moment comes when Stevenson speaks directly to the local DA who claims loyalty to the system, saying the system is justice. 

But instead of trying to prove him wrong, Stevenson appeals to his humanity saying, I know you can see it, that this system is corrupted by the violence of white supremacy.  And, finally, embarrassed by the words he hears himself utter in a TV interview, the DA recants, allowing all charges to be dropped, freeing the prisoner and freeing himself from the weight of upholding a violent system.

Because the DA in Alabama was willing to sacrifice those ties that made him comfortable, that got him elected, and gave him a sense of security… and because Stevenson was willing to sacrifice a career of power, acquiescing to white prvilege as a Harvard Law School graduate, they were both able to free other people.  And, in doing so, free themselves. 

This was not, on the surface, a peaceful move.  It created a lot of unrest and put people at enormous risk.  Lives were threatened.  But it was the only truly loving thing to do.

Cornel West, a famous black theologian, says: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

You and I, as Episcopalians, have taken a vow to strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being.  So it’s not enough for us to say, “It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is.”  Because some rush of violent wind has pulled back the veil and Jesus is looking at all of us and saying, I know you see it.  Now, you can choose to serve justice.  You can choose love.

You see, love is the sword that Jesus is talking about.  This love that seeks to undermine violent systems in order to bring about justice, this is what causes breaks.  And because so often alliances of power are masked as familial ties or tribal ties, Jesus tells us,

“… I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Love sometimes requires a lot from us.  More than we ever thought we might be asked to give.  Which means, we may experience it like a sword – cutting away our illusions of safety, cutting the ties that bind us to violence. 

But in the end, it’s so that that we may choose justice.  In the end, it’s so that we may choose love.



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The Creative Force of Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

I have days when I have a hard time remembering today’s lesson from Genesis – that God created humankind in the image of God.  And God called us good.

Genesis tells us that this goodness is inherent in all of creation.  Inherent in us. Good is something we are created to be.  Before we become worldly and we lose that connection to God, before we squander that blessing and choose self-comfort over love, the image of God, built into our very being, is the mark of God’s wild and extravagant Love. We are good. We are holy. We are sacred.

And that means, even when we do make mistakes, even when we forget the blessing, that goodness is there to return to and to remember. Because who we are created to be, this core, this image of God within us, is forever good. We are always holy. We are eternally sacred.

I believe this with every fiber of my being.  Even on the days when it’s hard to remember.  On days when it feels like the world is on fire.

I saw a pretty funny post on Facebook on Friday.

Dating in 2013: Is this a person that I want to sit on the couch and watch Netflix with?Dating in 2020: Is this a person that I want to witness the collapse of capitalism, fight next to during the revolution, and go through the apocalypse with?

The world feels like it’s on fire, because it is in some ways.  One of the lessons of Pentecost is that God’s Holy Spirit is not always a gentle dove. Many times, She’s the fire of transformation.

The world is on fire because the world is transforming, like the fire of metabolism that helps us to digest, like the fire of the sun nourishing us with heat and light. This is an evolution. And, I believe it to be good.

We are experiencing the collective realization of the depth of humanity’s mistakes, the extent of the systemic sin that has brought every single one of us to this place and at the cost of countless people who were also created in the imaged of God.

For us in this country, it’s been 400 years in the making. Since an English privateer named John Jope kidnapped hundreds of Kimbundu-speaking people from the kingdom of Ndongo who had been forced to march hundreds of miles to the shore on the continent of Africa whereupon he chained approximately 350 of them into the hull of a ship so they could barely move, and brought them to this continent where they were stolen or sold after about 150 of them died during the crossing.

But John Jope was one of many. And that ship was one of dozens and dozens and dozens that carried human cargo for hundreds of years.

This is not new information. And, although we have expressed regret for these evil acts and the entire history of slavery, it’s clear that we have yet to fully own the ramifications of keeping people enslaved so that company owners and land owners could turn a profit.

The result: Systemic inequality, Jim Crow laws, racial profiling, the school to prison pipeline, red-lining, police brutality against people of color.  A result bad enough that we actually have to be reminded that black lives matter.

All fed by a narrative insisting that whiteness is good and blackness is bad.  And that narrative is even utilized in the traditional interpretation of this beloved reading from Genesis, a way of reading the story from the perspective of light vs. dark. Good vs. evil. Order triumphing over chaos.

Forgetting that it’s the chaos itself that is the creative space God blesses with breath. The formless void. The rich, black, deep. This dark earth inside of which a seed is planted to grow and transform and become what it was always meant to be. The lush, nourishing womb of life.

I think we prefer to emphasize the so-called “order” of creation because, as humans, we have trouble tolerating the tension of the creative process itself. Order seems safer, like we have more control because we know the map, we know what to anticipate and how to keep ourselves in line.  No wonder we become addicted to substances that grant us freedom from the pain of our own self-oppression.

But creativity is less about knowing the right answer or the correct behavior… and more about listening for the next step.  Artists talk about letting go and allowing the work to create itself.  Sculptors, in particular, will take a piece of marble or wood or clay and will become a co-creator with it until the sculpture is released.  Michelangelo said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

When we embark on any creative process, we don’t quite know the outcome, we can’t quite control the result.  We have no ready-made map to something that doesn’t yet exist.

But we do know the way. I know we know the way.  Because we are created to be good.

And right now, in this fire, in this space of creation, it feels chaotic, I think, because we weren’t given God’s playbook.  But I do believe that what we are experiencing is the holy response to white supremacy and systemic racism.  I do believe we are experiencing evolution. Creation. Love.

For me, this means, that even though a part of me feels scared and anxious right now… I choose to stand in hope.  Even though a part of me would rather ignore everything and hang out in my garden and tend to my spinach and my peonies… I choose to preach about hope.  Even though a part of me is selfish enough to feel inconvenienced by all this tension… I choose to feel inspired by the courage of others to act in hope.

Hope is not a personal wish list, but it’s the Holy Hope, of choosing to trust in something besides ourselves.  Choosing to trust that God is speaking, blessing this chaos, and creating within its rich darkness. Believing that God is already calling it good.

To move with hope, to act in hope, is to trust in the power of Love.  That is, to trust in God’s power. That God is with us and God’s Love will prevail.

The Genesis narrative of creation is a perfect reading from the Hebrew Scriptures to highlight exactly what it is that Jesus is talking about when he says, “All Authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” because it is this inherent goodness of Creation that is the power of Christ.

Love is the authority that Christ wields. Christ is not worldly power. Christ is not a show of force in riot gear that knocks over elderly protestors or throws bombs of tear gas… not even for a photo op.Fayetteville

The authority that Christ wields is the line of protestors in Fayetteville NC in front of whom 60 police officers knelt in solidarity.
The authority that Christ wields is the young black woman kneeling hand in hand with the police officer on the FDR bridge outside of Poughkeepsie.
The authority that Christ wields is mayors and police chiefs and sheriffs walking alongside protestors… in Atlanta, in Denver, in New York, and here in Kingston.

Because all the worldly power eventually comes to kneel at the foot of the manger where the most vulnerable lies awaiting the space to breathe and live and grow and flourish.  So we know God is at work whenever empire is brought to its knees.  We know God is at work when the collective response is to finally understand how worthless and shameful and terrorizing worldly power actually is.  And that’s when real change can happen because Love is leading us, not fear. Compassion, instead of force, is the instrument we are choosing.

God creates in the darkness of the sacred void.  God redeems through bringing worldly power to its knees.  And God sustains this redemption through the fire of transformation.  This is the Trinity.

And when we show up at the manger on bended knee, that’s when the magic happens. When we make the decision to humble ourselves and stand with the most vulnerable, we become co-creators with God.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

When we are mesmerized by the world, we believe this means to conquer and terrorize and control and triumph.  We have to look no further than the systematic removal of the people who lived here for eons and the insistence that they are now, somehow, aliens only a couple of hundred years later.

But Jesus didn’t teach us how to conquer. He taught us how to love.  What Jesus commands is Love!  And not just a pat on the back, good-to-see-you-niceness… but an abiding love that offers itself in service, a surrender of power and privilege that listens to the heartbeat of the most vulnerable and asking, “what am I called to do next?”

We become co-creators with God when we obey the seemingly simple command to Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.  We become co-creators with God when we learn that love is not just an attitude of being nice, but it’s an active, justice-seeking love… as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminded us earlier this week.

When Jesus tells us to go and make disciples, he’s not telling us to force everyone to be Christian. Jesus wasn’t a Christian!  Jesus is telling us to make partnerships of love with others so that love, not power, becomes the supreme value.  Because good is something we were created to be.  The image of God, woven into our very being, is the mark of God’s wild and extravagant Love. We are good. We are holy. We are sacred.

So I ask you, I invite you, I beseech you… to join me in hope today.  And let us continue the holy work of co-creation through active, justice-seeking love.

And let us have faith in ourselves.  We do know the way. I know we know the way.  Because we are created to be good.

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A Rush of Violent Wind

A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost to the online community of St. John’s in Kingston, NY on May 31, 2020.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Yesterday, it was so good to be in our churchyard with others who came to garden and do some yardwork together. Even though we kept our distances and wore masks, and even though we weren’t allowed in the building to protect it for the Angel Food East volunteers, it was just good to see one another and chat a bit and do some work together and remember each other in person.

And it’s good to be with Ana and Deacon Sue and Terry today in the Sanctuary… leading together. Sharing the same space and, dare I say, breathing the same air.  Because it’s not the air that’s the problem right now… it’s the particles that travel in the air. Breath itself is life.  And we know that losing breath means losing life.

I remind those who come to Centering Prayer of the importance of breathing while we sit in silence. Because our breath is one of the most direct ways we experience God’s presence – our body takes a breath and we are immediately nourished.  Our lungs send the oxygen to our blood and our blood uses that oxygen to create the fire we know as metabolism, burning the fuel we consume and turning it into energy. To stop breathing, is to stop life as we know it.

This we know. We are human.  We know that when breath stops, life stops.
We know this.

The Feast of Pentecost is all about breath and air – how it feeds fire, how it lifts the dove, how it fills us with life, connecting us – one to another – because we all feed on it. We all receive it as nourishment.

We were all birthed by it in the beginning as God spoke creation into being, echoed today in Psalm 104. The breath, this Ruach started it all.  God’s breath, breathing on dust particles and molecules over centuries and millennia and eons until the star we know as the sun finally exploded and created this rock we call Earth.  God’s breath, breathing life into being. God’s breath. God’s love.

I saw a beautiful poem about breath last night, from Lynn Unger.

Breathe, said the wind

How can I breathe at a time like this,
when the air is full of the smoke
of burning tires, burning lives?

Just breathe, the wind insisted

Easy for you to say, if the weight of
injustice is not wrapped around your throat,
cutting off all air.

I need you to breathe.

I need you to breathe.

Don’t tell me to be calm
when there are so many reasons
to be angry, so much cause for despair!

I didn’t say to be calm, said the wind,
I said to breathe

We’re going to need a lot of air
to make this hurricane together

Today’s passage from John’s Gospel offers a beautifully intimate scene taken from the same day Mary and her friends had been to the tomb and witnessed its vacancy. The disciples were in lock-down together – protecting themselves from that which they feared – the religious authorities who had colluded with the state to make a sacrifice of Jesus.

And, it’s in this personal space that Jesus appears to them.  And he blesses them with the words, “Peace be with you.”  And he shows them his wounds.  And he says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.”

And he breathes on them. Just as God breathed creation into being,  Jesus breathes us into new life.  “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He says.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

And this gentle, intimate image of the disciples receiving God’s breath of new life is given to us alongside the reading from the Acts of the Apostles:  Once again, the disciples were all together in one room… and “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…” that filled the whole house. And “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…”

This breath. This fire. This lifeforce. This power.  This Holy Spirit anointing all of Jesus’ disciples everywhere.

How can the Holy Spirit be both this gentle breath of Jesus and this rush of violent wind? How can God’s Holy Spirit be this close, this intimate, this personal? And yet, be this universal and indiscriminate?

On Palm Sunday, I preached these words to you: We have learned… “how fragile our lives are because unexpected events unfold that are beyond our ability to influence.  And we are bound by them.  We are bound by them because we are bound to one another.  What happens to you, happens to me, happens to all of us.”

“What happens to you, happens to me, happens to all of us.”… is what I said. Because God’s breath is both personal and universal.  What is meant for me is meant for you is meant for us all.  Life is given to you, life is given to me, life is given to all of us.  That’s what I said.

What happens to George Floyd, happens to me, happens to all of us. What happens to Eric Garner and Armaud Arbery, happens to me, happens to all of us.  What happens to Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, happens to me, happens to all of us.

Except it doesn’t. Not really. I’m white. So it doesn’t happen to me.

But to suggest that it doesn’t have anything to do with me, is blasphemy because it contradicts the personal and universal Holy Spirit.  I am connected to George Floyd’s death.

A woman named Jane Elliot is a pretty well-known teacher of anti-racism.  I watched a video of hers recently, where he was speaking to a room full of mostly white college students and asked them this very direct question:

“I want every white person in this room who would be happy as this society in general treats our black citizens… if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment, please stand.”

 

No one does. So, she suggests that maybe they didn’t understand. And she rewords the question.

“If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand.”

And, again, nobody stands.

“That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”

What happens to some is not what happens to me.

Yet, we are all made of this earth. We all breathe.  We are all fed by the oxygen in our blood.  People of all walks of life, all colors, all shapes, all genders, all bodies, all abilities, all ages… all, all, all of the people were in Jerusalem as that rush of violent wind tore through the house and anointed the whole lot of them.  It is personal and universal.

But what happens to some is not what happens to me.  Because racism is what happens to some.

Yesterday, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry made a statement about George Floyd’s death:  “And perhaps the deeper pain of this is the fact that it’s not an isolated incident. The pain of this is that it’s a deep part of our life. It’s not just our history. It is American society today. We are not, however, slaves to our fate, unless we choose to do nothing.”

This is how I’m connected to George Floyd’s death.

George Floyd

George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”

I am white and I benefit from the system of white supremacy in this society. And I know I have not done all I can to prevent the deaths of black and brown human beings.  So, until I’ve spent my dying breath trying to change the society that gives my body more rights than it gives a black body or a brown body… then the onus is on me.  The responsibility is mine.

I share this with you today, something has shifted inside of me.  And I wonder if you’re having the same experience.

Because I’m asking myself:  Am I one of the people on the inside of that locked room receiving God’s breath? Or am I the person they locked the door against?  A religious person passively allowing state-sanctioned violence against the bodies who are black and brown?  Allowing Jesus to be crucified again. And again. And again for the sake of my own security?

I have been anointed, just like everyone else, to love God by loving my neighbor. This is the anointing I received at my birth when I breathed my first breath. That is the annointing you received when you breathed your first breath.  The same anointing George Floyd received when he first breathed.

I have been anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, through my participation in the Eucharist and in my Baptism, to be a member of Christ’s Body – taken, blessed, broken, and shared for the world.  But if I’m honest, I like the taken and blessed part. That feels good.  It’s the broken and shared part that scares me.

I have been called to into mission by my baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.  And I preach that this ministry of self-sacrifice is what saves us.  And it scares me to realize that I will probably be called to give up something I believe to be precious. But it’s not more precious than the life of George Floyd. Or the next black or brown person whose life is endangered by the system we’ve created.

But I can’t cry anymore and don’t want to be comforted. Sorrow doesn’t lead to anywhere new.

So on this day of Pentecost, I believe it’s the anger and the outrage that are being called upon to be channeled. This ruach may feel like a violent wind, but my fiery emotions don’t have to be calmed or dissipated by pointing fingers.  Instead, this fire, this hurricane, can be the energy that drives me.  By allowing God’s Holy Spirit to fill me in a way that I have no control over, perhaps I’m being asked to nurture something new that will lead me to stand where I’ve never stood before.

I didn’t say to be calm, said the wind,
I said to breathe

 We’re going to need a lot of air
to make this hurricane together

PB Michael Curry puts it this way in his missive to us about the death of George Floyd:  “Love, as Jesus teaches, is action… as well as attitude. It seeks the good, the well-being, and the welfare of others as well as one’s self. That way of real love is the only way there is.”

Because we have this breath.  We all have this breath and we share this life.  Breath itself is life.

So I ask you to join me today in our celebration.  I ask that you breathe deep with me – as deeply as you can.  And breathe more deeply again as God breathes upon us.  Breathe in that breath of God and receive God’s Holy Spirit.  We’re going to need a lot of wind to make this hurricane together.

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God Throws Stars Into New Skies

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2020.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.  You can listen along by clicking the play button below.

It is not over, this birthing.
There are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.
When we begin to think that we can predict the Advent of God, that we can box the Christ in a stable in Bethlehem, that just the time that God will be born in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God watch with their hearts and not their eyes, listening… always listening… for angel words.
(Ann Weems… from Kneeling in Bethlehem)

This is an Advent poem – meant for a season of anticipation in which we are reminded that what it is for which we are preparing, is likely not to be what we want or, even, what we expect.  “God will be born in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.”

It’s a poem that sits above my desk and I’ve seen it literally every single day since March 15… since the day we started worshipping here in Zoom… since the moment, it seemed, the world as we know it shifted and started a new journey.  Because that’s where church is taking place now.  I’m always sitting at my desk. And I keep looking up at its words:

“It’s not over, this birthing. There are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.”BetsyPorter Creation and the Divine Order

I picture God, in this description, like some farmer or gardener.  Straw hat and long sleeves. Carrying a basket on the hip, hand dipping in and out of it. It’s as good a description as any for God when you think about it.  Always throwing stars around. Always throwing seed.  Always nurturing life, creating life. Always loving us into being.

And even though this is an Advent poem, I can’t imagine a more perfect image for this time: Birthing.  We are birthing something new.
In the midst of this pandemic… we may just be waiting for this to be over… but the truth is, it’s going to be with us for a while.  Some aspects of our lives may return, but others may not – at least not in the same way. And so, we’re birthing something new.  Or, God is birthing something new in us.  Throwing stars into some new sky.

Stars are not just some decoration for our nighttime sky. They are central to life as we know it, for our Earth revolves around one and everything we have and are, are dependent upon its gaze.  It is one way we know God loves us. A really important way, actually.

Galaxies are made up of stars and, in between them, there are regions where gases and dust accumulate. This substance is called interstellar medium. One website describes it this way, “If the galaxy were a street, the houses would be stars and the interstellar medium would be the gardens in between.”  And it is in these gardens where the new stars are thrown.

As the dust and gas accumulate, it forms a very very very cold molecular cloud as the atoms, gas molecules, and dust are all drawn together by the force of gravity.  As these all start bumping into each other randomly like young children on a playground, the temperature begins to rise. If the activity grows to a certain point and becomes heavy and warm enough, that part of the cloud starts to collapse inward on itself.  If this happens, a pre-stellar core is formed.

And, then over the next 50,000 years or so, this core continues to contract, the same amount of matter, being compressed into a smaller and smaller space.  Until finally, the core starts to spin and flatten, ejecting excess matter out from its poles (which will eventually clump together and become planets revolving around it).  It takes about 1000 years for the disc to get rid of all the matter it doesn’t need until it is made entirely of gas.

Along the way, any gases that come near to it are drawn in by its gravity and it continues to grow. Until finally a nuclear reaction takes place and the disc becomes a star – giving off energy in the form of heat and light for about 10 billion years.

This is what God goes through just to throw a star into the sky.  So much love poured out into one star. One sun.

My beloved Ana has shingles, as most of you know.  It’s a miserable illness – pain, itching, more pain. And just when you think you might be turning a corner, another part of you erupts into more itching and more pain. You wonder when it will be over.  It reminds me of the poison ivy I had last year. It seemed endless.  I thought it was bad and then more wounds would show up on my arms and torso. And I remember in the middle of it, I wondered if it would ever stop itching. I wondered if it would ever heal.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but there is a part of me that desperately wants my life to be easy… like it always seemed to be on the Mary Tyler Moore Show or Friends. If I do face some kind of problem, I want solutions to come in 30 minutes or less. Or at least in two weeks, over two episodes.  And now, we don’t even have the patience for that kind of tension anymore, it seems, as we binge-watch shows so that we never have to live with the ambiguity of not knowing what’s going to happen… on the other side.

This part of me is just fine if there were no stars that have to go through 50,000 years and more of crushing and collapsing and exploding forces. But, when I think about it, that path, that wanting things to be easy, only leads to death.

Suffering is a fact of life because change is inherent in the incarnation. Buddhism recognizes that in the Four Noble Truths – the First Truth being that suffering is. Some suffering is subtle, other suffering is profound and traumatic.  There are some strains of Christianity that tell us we cause our own suffering. Well, to some degree that’s true. My life-long proclivity for chocolate chip cookies, for example, is a direct cause of the plantar fasciitis I’m starting to experience in my early 50’s.

But we certainly don’t cause all our suffering. We simply aren’t that powerful. We are finite creatures, made of atoms and molecules that combine and combust and fuse and explode… made new through all these chemical processes, this star-throwing that God does.  We’re bound to get hit by something in the process, that got hit by something else, that got hit by something else… and so on and so on.

And when we’re in the midst of suffering, it’s hard to remember that there is another side. Another side to poison ivy. Another side to an argument we may be having with another. Another side to the collapsing of elements that form a star. Another side to systems of injustice.  Another side to COVID-19.

But we are never the same on that other side. We are always changed. We can never go back to normal.

What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?
The words of Valerie Kaur, an American Sikh poet.
She continues… Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”
(You can listen to her words here: https://valariekaur.com/2016/11/a-sikh-prayer-for-america-on-november-9th-2016/ )

I preach about change often. And my invitation to us in the midst of change is always to surrender, to kneel at the manger, with all of our privilege and preferences, so that we may participate in the birth of Love Incarnate.

But surrender, I recognize is not really a helpful word because it comes with particular connotations.  I was given another word by a friend this week that I think is more helpful – tender. Because what I’m really talking about is becoming tender. Becoming softer and allowing the vulnerability we feel in the midst of whatever is happening.

We know this isn’t always possible.  But when it is, when we can become tender and open our heart to bear witness to some new miracle, some new star being thrown on some new sky… we are living into the Hope that God has given is.

And then we act from that tenderness. We push, as Kaur tells us, using our strength from a place of tenderness. From a place of love.

I’m pretty sure that Jesus didn’t know exactly how stars are made.  But I know he knew the cause of them is God’s Love.  Each little flower that opens, as the hymn from today tells us. Each little bird that sings. The mountains, the rivers, the freezing wind, and the blazing heat.  It all comes from this wildly extravagant Love, this unbounded, ever-flowing, sometimes crazy-making, always life-giving… Love.

If God creates entire suns through love, we can certainly find a way to reach out to another person in love.  We can find ways of shifting our systems in this place of love if we work together.  We could even eradicate poverty through the force of love.

Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  And that’s not a guilt trip – “if you love me you’ll do as I say.”  This is a statement on the nature of reality.  Jesus is telling us that the result of meeting the world with love, the effect of meeting suffering with tenderness, the outcome of loving… is Love.

And remember Jesus tells us earlier in John’s Gospel, from last week’s passage, as a matter of fact, Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.  (John 14:12-14)

Anything you ask in the name of Love, in other words, Christ will accomplish it.

This Love from which the universe arose is always birthing. God just keeps birthing stars because all God does is Love. All God does is pour Godself into the creation and become Love incarnate.  And we cannot predict it, nor can we contain it. But we can participate in it. We can find this place of tenderness and push from that place.

This is Christian hope, you see, this birthing that God continually offers. The Christian hope is not that everything is going to work out just like I want it to. The Christian hope is that God is with us in this world, suffering with us.  And when tragedy happens, God’s response is to offer something new… not to fix it to our liking, but to respond to that trauma with Love by creating something life-giving out of it.

What is Love speaking? What is Love showing us?
Who is Love calling us to become as Love gives birth once again?

Today’s collect says it this way:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire… Amen.

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Believing In Jesus

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2020.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.  

We are experiencing an enormous range of emotions every day as we reorganize our ways of doing just about everything and come to new understandings about what our lives will look like until a vaccine is created.

Every day we hear that people are dying while others are struggling financially and some people are not safe from the violence in their own homes. We’re staring in the face of vast inequalities as we continue to learn just how much our society values our economy over life itself. And every day, we are still confronted with the reality of white people killing black people with impunity.

“Believe in God…” Jesus says. And “believe also in me.”

During the Season of Easter, we talk a lot about belief and what it means to believe.  Now, we could ask, “What do you believe?” or “What are your beliefs?” And what we usually mean by that is, “What do you think is true?” An example is our creeds. Every week we say the words of our Christian belief – the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. These are formulaic concepts of God.

We also say that 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.

But there is another aspect of belief. And it has to do with relying on something, or leaning on something or someone. When, for example, we believe in someone else enough to let them guide us or lead us or share our lives with us. To hear someone say to us, “I believe in you.” is akin to hearing, “I love you.” It’s one of the most important things we can ever hear.

Today’s Gospel is from Jesus’ farewell discourse, his parting words to his disciples before he’s arrested and murdered by the powers that be.  And in that place of fear and anxiety, Jesus looks at his friends and he doesn’t say, “Aren’t any of you going to help me?” Instead, Love speaks through him, and says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

What is he saying? What is he asking of us, his disciples?

It is a creed? A concept we think to be true? A statement of where we stand amongst the many religions of the world?

Or is Jesus something or someone we rely on? Someone we lean on? Someone we love? And what does that even mean?

Some of you may have heard this story before…
Back in my mid-30’s, I wasn’t a Christian, but I was definitely searching. I began attending a local Episcopal Church, solely because I knew the priest and liked him. His name was Bill Ellis. If my memory serves me correctly, I met him within the first 6 months of moving to Bend, OR but it wasn’t until 4 years later that I decided to start going to hear him preach.

I went to Sunday worship off and on for about 2 years before I found myself going every Sunday. And I say, “I found myself going” because I don’t recall ever making a decision that I wanted to go to church. I just knew it felt good to be there. I liked the ritual and loved the sermons. But I resisted getting to know anybody else. As a matter of fact, that particular congregation has a tradition of asking guests and newcomers to stand up and introduce themselves. I never ever did.

But I bought a Bible and a book called Don’t Know Much About the Bible and started reading. I went to Bill’s Adult Education hours, which were always about scripture. And at the end of every service, when I went through the line out the door, he would tell me how glad he was to see me. And I could tell he meant it because Bill didn’t have the capacity for pretense. He wore his heart on his sleeve and it came out in his sermons. Which is why I started going in the first place. I believed in him.

So there I was, having grown up unchurched, having grown up viewing Christianity as hypocritical because I only knew what I saw on TV. There I was in my mid-30’s with a chip on my shoulder and too smart for my own good, going to church every week and not really knowing why. And as I let the words of the liturgy wash over me each week, my soul started to stir and my heart felt more and more at rest. But my mind was still fierce with, “I don’t know about this.”

About a year after I started attending regularly, I finally asked Bill if I could talk to him about some questions I had. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I do remember that my main question was something like this:  “I know I’m supposed to be here because I keep wanting to show up, but I have some real problems with some of the things we say every week.” He asked what parts? And I said, “The Nicene Creed and parts of the Eucharistic Prayer.” And after we talked for a few more minutes, he looked at me and said, “Michelle, how about you stop seeing things in only one way. Stop taking everything so literally.”

And that was it. My mind was freed from its own traps. I think that’s the moment I became a Christian. I still didn’t know exactly what I believed. But I believed something because I started to rely on something besides myself. And I started letting myself be known.

John’s Gospel begins with a reference to the Hebrew Scriptures – Genesis to be exact.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Genesis tells us that God speaks creation into being. God’s Word is the start of everything. God’s utterance. God’s sound. God’s exclamation. God’s expression. God’s offering. God’s love. And this Word, this precious Word God gives… is breath. God’s creation, this Love, is life itself. This Word is Love. This Word is Life. And this Love marked the beginning of all time. Because it is what started all time. God’s offering of Godself is creation. God’s Love present in it because it cannot be without God’s Love.

And this Love is brought to fruition in the form of a human being named Jesus whose sacrifice of self-emptying love saves us, not because of some blood ritual required by a vengeful god, but because of our belief that the answer to the death-dealing ways of the world is Love. The remedy for our own self-serving, fearful ways is Love.Sacred Heart of Jesus

“I am the Way,” Jesus says. “I am the Truth,” he says. “I am the Life.” This belief in Love, this sacrificing of ourselves for Love, is how we worship God. “If you know me,” Jesus says, “You will also know my Father” – you will know the one who brought me into being, in other words. You will know Love.

And Philip’s response is a demand to see God. And Jesus says, “You’ve been here all this time and you still do not know me?” You still do not believe in me? These words are not mine, Jesus says, because I have surrendered my life completely. These “are the words [of God]” speaking through me. Love is speaking through me.

Now, when I reflect on Jesus’ life and about the circumstances surrounding his death. I believe I would not have had the courage to do what he did.  I believe I would have said, “Ya know what, I’m outa here.” Because I do it every day. I choose my emotions, my thoughts, my needs… I choose my-self instead of Love over and over and over again. I see the world through my lens instead of the lens of Love.

And I believe this is what will save me but I am never saved by that choice.  I am always trapped by that choice. Until someone comes along and says, “Stop seeing things in only one way.” And that’s usually someone I trust. Someone I believe in. Until I can learn to see it for myself again.

So believing isn’t just a concept that we carry around in our heads about who Jesus is. Believing in Jesus is the choice we make to Love and be loved. Believing in Jesus is the self-sacrifice we offer to follow a different way. Believing in Jesus is coming home to the Truth of who we are – God’s beloved children, given form and breath and life, in order that we may Love.

And it’s not a journey of perfection. This, we know from our experience. We try and we miss the mark. And that’s ok. Jesus tells us there are many dwelling places. We can dwell in fear. We can dwell in anger. We can dwell in confusion. We can dwell in pride and in vanity and in greed. And in all of those dwellings, in all of those ways we get lost or feel disconnected from God, we’re never ever far from God. We are still in God’s house. We are always in God’s house. We still belong to God.

But believing in Jesus means that we give up the right to stay in those dwelling places. Believing in Jesus means that we know there’s another way – this place that Jesus prepares for us is a place where we are asked to sacrifice our lenses, our narrow ways of seeing things, so that we might live into this Love that is our birthright.

Because when we do, Jesus promises us this: That we will not only be able to offer the kind of miracles that he has done, but we will do greater works than even he did.

And this is a time that needs great works. We need miracles. This time in our common lives is extraordinary. There is plenty of reason to dwell in places of anger and anxiety and fear and avoidance. But those places are not our home.

During Easter season, I normally don’t ask us to participate in confession. But I think we need it as a way to come home. Confession is never about self-flagellation or a belief that we are bad. Confession is a way of seeking comfort, a way to ask for new light in these darkened places where we’ve been trapped by our lesser thoughts and emotions and behaviors.  We confess to help us believe again in Love – the Love that is our birthright. The Love through which all things came into being. The Love that is our true home.

So, let us to take a few minutes today to bring to mind those dwelling places we’ve found ourselves in. Fear. Anxiety. Confusion. Anger. Avoidance. And let us believe in Jesus so that we may empty ourselves into Love once more.

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So We Can Hear the Call of Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

I want to say it. And I want to acknowledge it: The main emotion I’ve been experiencing this week is grief.  And, as I have been reflecting on it, I have come to understand that this is a deep grief that belongs to something I can’t quite put my finger on.  But it has to do with the knowledge that we aren’t going to return to “normal.”

As we live our lives, we never stay the same. We experience little moments every day that change our lives in small or, sometimes, big ways. We meet someone who opens our heart. We read something that opens our mind. We learn and experience things every day.  People leave in various ways – they grow up, move away, or, sometimes, they die. All of this changes us.  There is no going back to “normal” to the person we were before.

But when we experience these changes, they are usually ours alone.  Or they belong to a relatively small group of people.  And our way of life doesn’t change dramatically.

And that’s why this is so hard to pinpoint, I think. It’s not that change never happens. It’s not that we never experience grief.  It’s that we don’t usually have everyone – literally every single person on the face of the earth – trying to navigate the same amount of change at the same time. Dealing with death and the fear of death so directly.

Our patterns of life don’t normally shift this much and for this undefined amount of time, determined by something over which we have no control. We have indeed lost many things we value, and we have no idea when or if we will get them back. This grief is bigger and, in some ways, more subtle than anything I’ve experienced before.

Mostly, during this time, people have been demonstratively kind.  We’ve seen new ways of being community as people perform spontaneous concerts in the middle of the street for their neighbors and people make masks or deliver groceries or reach out with phone calls and notes or join together with dozens of people from across the world on zoom calls to sing happy birthday to a friend.

And as we’ve come to understand exactly which jobs are essential for our lives, our society has expressed incredible gratitude for the people who do these jobs by writing notes in chalk on sidewalks, by ringing bells at 7pm each night, by donating food to shifts of workers, and by posting videos of thanks on the internet.  Such amazing shifts of collective awareness.

In the midst of this, we are faced with the reality that something as simple as grocery shopping has become infinitely more complex and exponentially more stressful. Most of us can’t see our loved ones.  We can’t offer a hug to a friend. We can’t shake a stranger’s hand.  We can’t go to school with our friends and hang out and grab a slice.  We won’t have graduation ceremonies.  And, people are sick. Many are dying.

It’s a very difficult time. This ongoing stress of not-knowing.  This ongoing of not going – anywhere.

And I think that we think we have to hold it together right now or just “get on with it.”  But just like wounds on our skin need to not be covered over in order to heal, we also need to give our losses the air to breathe so they will heal.  So, I invite you to spend time acknowledging the grief.  Not to the point that it takes over your life.  But to give ourselves permission to name it and see it for what it is.  To give voice to this pain and bring it out in the open so that it doesn’t have an unconscious hold on us.

So that we aren’t distracted by a faceless whisper of a voice.  So we can hear another voice, the voice of the one who will lead us home to ourselves again.good_shepherd_02b_close

The earliest image we have of Jesus is this one of the Good Shepherd. Not Christ the King. Not a miracle worker. But the Good Shepherd.  It comes from catacombs in Rome and dates to the third century.  Early Christians knew what resurrection meant.  In places of death, it’s the Good Shepherd who brings us back.  Because love will always restore us. Love will always lead us home.

The Good Shepherd is Love. Calling us of each by name when we are lost in the death dealing games of avoidance and fear, the dance of holding it together. Those thieves who steal away our very souls.  The Good Shepherd is calling us each by name so that we might find our way home once again.

We are being changed. This pandemic is having an enormous impact on us as individuals and on us as a society.  We are being changed. We are being re-formed.  One might say, we are being renewed.

And we have only to surrender to it. We have only to bring ourselves to God and kneel at the manger and ask: What does Love ask of us? What does Love need from us?

A report came out in mid-April from NYC Health that stated African Americans with COVID 19 in NYC were twice as likely to die as white people. Latinos are also dying at a much higher rate than white people.  In Louisiana, African Americans accounted for 70% of COVID-19 deaths, while comprising 33% of the population.  In Michigan, they accounted for 14% of the population and 40% of deaths. Experts tell us that this all is due mainly to the conditions of people’s lives – inadequate access to healthcare, mainly.

I received an email this week from the President of our House of Deputies. Her name is Gay Jennings and she lives outside of Akron, OH. The House of Deputies being one of the two houses that govern the Episcopal Church, the other being the House of Bishops.

Just a side note: The reason I received that email is because I’ve been elected to go to the General Convention as a deputy to join in other people from across the church in making decisions about the common life of the Episcopal Church. Sometimes, it turns out, Love asks us to do some strange things, like be a deputy to General Convention.

In her email, Gay said that “in the coming weeks and months, we will begin having “strategic conversations that will undoubtedly be hard, but will ultimately transform our mission and ministry.  And in order to emerge from this pandemic with a church that matters, [Gay said, she] believes that we must keep the injustices and systemic racism that the coronavirus virus has laid bare at the center of our conversations about who we will become.”

What does Love ask of us? What does Love need from us?

What I hope we see, my Beloveds, is that we have an opportunity here.
We, who are privileged enough to have a home – a place we can say is safe enough to stay while the pandemic rages outside our doors… we have an opportunity to ask ourselves, How do we want to be changed by this?

I know that our day-to-day lives are very challenging right now.

And as I continue to reach out to speak with you all, I know that you are facing the stress with as much humility, grace, and gratitude as you can muster. Still, many of us just want to be able to go to the grocery store without worrying how far away someone is or is not standing.  Or we ache to see our loved ones. Or we just want some time alone.  Or we want to plan a vacation. To a warm beach. In Puerto Rico.

All of that is true. This is a difficult and stressful time.

And what is also true, is that this pandemic is laying bare the vast inequalities inherent in our systems – our healthcare system, our banking system, our voting system, our educational system – all of it.

So, my friends, let us name our grief. Let us spend time in the coming week – either by ourselves or with our friends and family members – saying aloud those things for which we grieve.  Let us not allow this pain to block the voice of Love, especially when we are needed most.

The earliest Christians knew Jesus as the Good Shepherd because the Good Shepherd IS the miracle.  The Good Shepherd is the true ruler of our hearts.  And we have only to kneel at the manger and surrender ourselves to the voice of Love who would lead us home to ourselves and to one another, once again.

What does Love ask of me? What does Love need from me?

Who am I called to become?

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This Is the Miracle

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 26.  Click here to read today’s lessons.  Click the play button below to listen along.

On the same day that Mary and Mary went to the tomb and found it empty.
On the same day, that the disciples decided Marys’ revelation was an idle tale. All except for Peter, that is, who ran to the tomb to see for himself, and was amazed.
On the same day that Jesus appeared to the disciples in that locked room so that they would also believe as the women did.

On that “that same day”… when all the other miracles were taking place, this miracle story was also happening.  This story that we have come to call the Road to Emmaus – the 7-mile walk from the city of Jerusalem to a small village.  This healing journey from a place of pain and trauma to a place of hope and renewal. This is the Road to Emmaus.

Almost assuredly, the two people who left the city that day were leaving in disappointment, in panic, and in shame. Fleeing the scene of chaos and embarrassment because they weren’t able to deal with the fallout.  Using avoidance as a way to cope with the pain.Emmaus

It’s a typically human thing to do. We all have coping mechanisms, after all. And the disciples all displayed different ways of coping.  Most of them fell into denial and shock, freezing in place, trying to stay out of sight. Thomas, the doubter, however, needed proof to assuage his skeptical mind – and I’m sure he wasn’t alone in that.

And then we have Cleopas and his friend – skipping town to escape the disappointment of feeling stranded by their messiah and the anger at those who had him killed.  Escaping the anxiety caused by some of their friends who had started seeing things and the distress of watching their friends in deep grief.  Their community was shattered.  The movement that they were a part of was crushed.

Now, I suppose I could say… shame on them.  Shame on them for leaving their friends behind.  But the truth is, sometimes we do need to leave. Sometimes the most loving, most life-giving decision we can make is to leave.  So, this isn’t a story about sin.

This is a story about healing. It’s a story about Resurrection.  Not Jesus’ resurrection – but the miracle of our resurrection through Christ.Repairing Breach

One of my favorite Christian mystical poets is Ranier Maria Rilke. He wrote a poem in the late 1800’s called Go to the Limits of Your Longing

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.Online 1

Over the past several weeks, our Adult Inquirer’s Class has been meeting online on Saturday mornings. Finding community with one another as we learn together. Yesterday’s class was about belief.

And, I wish I had thought to say this in the class, but this is really the core of the lesson:  Belief is less about having the right concept of God and more about the qualities of resilience and strength.  To know that there is an other side to the pain we experience is how we live into the Resurrection. By living lives of faith, we demonstrate belief.

Jesus finds us in the midst of whatever coping mechanism we’ve chosen, wherever we are experiencing our pain and shock and disbelief… and says, “Give me your hand.”Healing 3

When we’ve risked ourselves, giving ourselves away, flaring up like a flame to make those big shadows… and then are hurt in some way, brought to disappointment, Christ finds us and says, “Don’t let yourself lose me.”

Jesus always finds us, whatever road we end up on… and falls in step with us – teaching us, feeding us, hosting us, holding us, staying with us – until we come back to ourselves, come back to the Christ within us, and find the strength to come back to one another… again.

God’s promise is that Love will always be the last word. Cleopas and his friend found themselves at their wits end, ready to lock themselves in the deathly tombs of confusion and fear… and Love found them.  Something happened. Someone happened.  Their eyes were opened and they were shown Love. Given Love.

In his book, Inside the Miracle, poet Mark Nepo says, “Going on without denying any aspect of the human drama is what strength is all about… We are carved by life into instruments that will release our song, if we can hold each other up to the carving.”

As much as we might try, we are not immune to this carving.  We cannot escape life and all that it gives us.  And, as we offer ourselves and our gifts as fully as possible to this life, it is Christ that nurtures us through times of hurt and pain and shows us the beautiful instrument that we have become so that God’s Holy Spirit can give us the breath to make it speak.Healing

The miracle is that we are given new life when we come to recognize that, as Rilke says, “No feeling is final.”  We come to believe in the Resurrection when we start to see how God turns all the world’s pain on its head.  And our deeper healing begins when we come to believe that this continual rebirth is Truth incarnate. That this miracle is real.

We are resurrected, with Christ, in Christ, and through Christ.

Belief is simply this: Knowing that this Road to Emmaus, this journey of healing, changes us into new instruments for God’s Holy Spirit.Healing 2

We are not the same as we were before we left.  Our very bodies have been renewed, the wounds scarred over.  Our cells have been rearranged and our thoughts realigned.  Our hearts have mended and opened more fully.  Our minds are more clear.  And our souls are, finally, at rest.

This is the miracle of the Resurrection.

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We Are the Feast of Love

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.  Click here to read today’s readings.  Click the play button below to listen along.

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

For those of you who have brought your computer to your table or your table to your computer… I invite you now to bless your food with the blessings provided for you in the bulletin. And in just a few moments, I’ll start sharing my homily with you.The Table

Over the past several weeks, I spent so much time trying to get my head around how we would do Easter Sunday without Eucharist.  Because, the Eucharistic meal is so much more than a reenactment of the last supper. The Eucharistic meal is Resurrection – the Body of Christ broken open for the world.  When we come to our Eucharistic Table, we come to a Table of Reconciliation. We bring our full selves – whatever we are and whatever we are experiencing – to a Table of Grace that welcomes us.

All of us. Every part of us.

The Eucharist is God’s hospitality, God’s Love on full display.  God welcomes us because God loves us deeply and completely.  And all God wants is for us to return, to come back, to fall in love with love once again. And become the person we were formed in the womb to be. Before the world was too much with us and we lost sight of the tender heart that is connected to all of creation.

The Eucharist is the Resurrection – the death of the worldly self, raised in the newness of life through Christ… through a meal. A simple meal, at that. A meal of wine and of bread. Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Shared.

So here we are. It’s Easter Sunday and we do not have Eucharist because the Body of Christ, as the community of St. John’s cannot be together.  Of course, the Eucharist continues as members of the Body meet across space and time. It is a never-ending feast, not bound by our time-keeping, because Christ has been present since the beginning of time.  The entire Creation is infused with God’s unbounded Love.  The Eucharist itself will never cease.

And, as a Christian, as someone who calls Jesus my Savior, I am constantly invited to reflect on what it means to be in this body in space and time. The immediacy of that. The intimacy of that. The sacred-and-the profane of being alive, breathing this air and proclaiming that Christ is risen!

One the one hand, it seems blasphemous to use my breath to speak the words – Alleluia! Christ is risen! – while so many people cannot even breathe to keep themselves alive right now.  But then, refusing to acknowledge the sacred nature of our physical bodies by proclaiming Christ’s Resurrection is, I think, the deeper blasphemy.

Those of us who are healthy or who are recovering, are experiencing grief in our physical bodies. We cannot share space, or share hugs. We cannot share a handshakes or even share the air we breathe… or share a table.

But then again, we can. Even in our grief over the physical absence of one another… we can share a table.  Because Christ is present wherever God’s love abides.

Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

I’ve asked you to bring your computer to your table today… or to bring your table to your computer… so that we could take this moment to consider how what we do in church at the Eucharistic Table is connected to what we do at every table every day where food is taken, blessed, broken, and shared.

This Resurrection that we dare to proclaim today in the face of this pandemic, is a celebration of our incarnation and how, as physical beings, we can be renewed, we can be reborn.  We are not bound to the tombs of the world.  Incarnation, itself, is a constant state of renewal.

And a fact of this incarnation is that we share it with others. This is something we cannot escape… trust me… as a raging introvert, I’ve tried. We know that God is the ground of all being and that each of us is a beloved child of God… at least that is what we claim.  Yet, we are all here in separate bodies, with unique physical attributes and preferences and skills and knowledge and emotions.  Never truly knowing another person and so, all experiencing ourselves as alone, at least in some way.

To sit down at a table and take food, bless it, break it, and share it… is a sacramental act of renewal.  We take this food – choosing it, preparing it.  We bless this food – calling God’s blessing and acknowledging God’s love for us.  We break this food – by portioning it out.  And we share this food – by offering this love to another and accepting this love when it’s offered to us.

Even if we eat alone, we are still eating with others if we acknowledge God’s presence.  This food is grown from the same earth from which we were created. The elements of this earth are in our very cells and we are renewed in a deeply physical way and reconciled to this earth. There is no “alone” in that.  God loves us especially through the food we eat.

To be at a table is a reckoning with our holy incarnation – the physical nature of our beings, the separate, yet communal nature of who we are, as God’s beloved children. It is a sacramental act of love because it is a recognition that we are blessed by God who is Love.

The Ancient Greeks had 7 words for love – now, that’s something you’re welcome to look up another time – but, of course, one of these seven is “agape.”  A word that expresses God’s love for Her Creation, God’s love for His children.  An unconditional love that comes to us simply because we are these incarnate beings.  Agape.

The agape meal is a love feast. A feast of love!

So, while the agape meal is typically shared on Maundy Thursday to remember the meal that Jesus shared in the Upper Room with his disciples, we can always share an agape meal with one another, if we choose to bring our awareness, if we choose to give space and perceive God’s love is already present in it.

It’s true, we don’t have a liturgy surrounding most of our meals… except we usually do have typical things we do… setting the table, cooking the food, washing our hands, sitting in our usual places… (so we do have a liturgy)… and God’s love is present.

The question, as it always is, is one of recognition on our parts. Of tuning our dial to a different frequency: Are we returning to God through this meal? Are we loving one another in this meal? Are we loving ourselves in this meal?

Every meal is a potential agape meal.  Every meal is a Love Feast in waiting.

And this meal, this love feast, may not be Sacrament as defined by the church… but it is sacramental. Because it is a means of grace.  Whenever we bring our awareness to God constant and abiding love, the very definition of abundance, we cannot help but experience God’s grace. God’s incarnate love.  We are the Love Feast: Taken. Blessed. Broken. Shared.

And that, my beloveds, is Resurrection.

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God’s Love Abides

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s in Kingston NY during the Great Vigil of Easter on April 11, 2020.  Click here to read the readings for this service.  Click the play button below to listen along.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Let me start a few days before tonight’s Gospel story takes place. As Matthew tells this story, after Jesus was murdered on the cross, that evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.  So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. (Matthew 27:57-66)

 So desperate were the powers that be… so threatened by what Jesus did and said and represented… so anxious to hang on to their privilege… they dispatched security and sealed the tomb.  But they could not keep Love subdued. Because Love is not bound by worldly bondage and oppression. Love will always conquer death.

The Easter message is that simple. Love will always conquer death.  That, in and of itself, is plenty. It’s an inspiring message.  Indeed, one that started a movement. And then, a whole religion arose from that hope.  Love will always conquer death because God’s Love abides.

It’s the message we receive through all of the salvation stories we tell in the vigil… God’s love provides this beautiful Creation in the story from Genesis.  God’s love promises new beginnings after tragedy, as in the story of Noah’s Ark.  God’s love delivers us from our own worst nightmares, as in the story of the exodus from Egypt.  And God’s love guides us, should we seek wisdom out by surrendering to her, as in the reading from Proverbs.

God’s love abides.

This movement that was started, this Jesus Movement that our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talks about all the time… is one that offers this simple message.  God’s Love abides – not just as a nice motto that makes us feel good, like a saying in front of a pretty background on Facebook – God’s Love abides, as a real, tangible, in-this-world experience.  In all the ways Jesus talks about from the Sermon on the Mount – feeding the hungry, comforting the dying and those who grieve, housing the homeless, befriending the stranger, seeking mercy and justice for the oppressed.

God’s Love Abides.

Learning to set aside the ways that we seek power and privilege in this world, stripping away one false assumption after another, after another, becoming ever more willing to follow Christ and not be afraid… and seeking to grow into God’s wisdom so that we may see past what we think will save us and learn to believe in what actually saves us – God’s love.

Jesus came to remind us that this is the core of all the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures – God loves us.  God loves us so much that God gave us Jesus to show us the way again when we got lost.  And so powerful was Jesus’ love that death… even death on a cross, the most scandalous death one could imagine… So powerful was Jesus’ love that even death could not keep it sealed in a tomb.

But what that means for us here… is that we are called to enact love. To be the women at the tomb and hear God telling us, “Don’t be afraid.” So that we can set Love in motion. And give birth to it and to nurture its development. We are called to offer loving acts and be loving, to ourselves, as well as to others.

In Nashville, musicians who, without a place to play right now, are performing for people who are shuttered in their homes via livestream.

Professional sports players are donating their salaries to help cover the salaries of the people who work in the arenas – those who take tickets and clean bathrooms and fill soda orders.

A group of high school students in Santa Barbara, CA set up a website to deliver groceries to elderly people and called it Zoomers to Boomers.

The CEO for Texas Roadhouse is giving up his own salary and his bonus (a little over $1 million) to pay his workers during this time.

Distilleries across the country are using their equipment to make hand sanitizer.

Doctors, who have to wear goggles and masks for protection, are wearing photos of themselves smiling so their patients won’t be so scared… because smiles reduce anxiety.

People all over the world are posting positive messages and messages of thanks in their windows.

Dolly Parton just donated $1 million dollars to Vanderbilt University who are making strides toward a corona virus vaccine.

Every night, the Eiffel Tower in Paris posts a message of thanks – Merci – as a tribute the healthcare workers, policemen, gendarmes, firefighters, civil servants, first-aid workers, paramedics, soldiers, cashiers, garbage collectors, shopkeepers, delivery employees, volunteers, caregivers.

And here in Kingston, the local Radio Kingston is focused on keeping people informed. And volunteers are still delivering meals to homebound people through Angel Food East and have begun delivering groceries to immigrants who have no income through UIDN.

God’s love abides.

We are made new through Christ’s Resurrection when we follow the example of Mary and Mary and resist the urge to let fear rule our hearts. Because then, we come to understand that it is through us, that God’s love abides. We are the Body of Christ… broken open for the world that God has made.

I know we feel bound by the limitations of staying at home, but that doesn’t mean we make our homes tombs of death, where we remain cut off from the world. Don’t be afraid, my beloveds.

Instead, find ways of breaking the seal to connect and share and help and love. Because, so powerful was Jesus’ love that even death could not keep it sealed in a tomb.

How will you love God by making more love in the world?

Let us renew our Baptismal Vows together.

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Expendable

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Kingston, NY on Good Friday (year A), April 10, 2020.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.  Click the play button below to listen along.

The past 4 weeks have been difficult. So many times, I’ve been frustrated or felt panicky or gotten angry or just felt helpless. I’ve offered judgment when I should have offered compassion. I’ve been selfish when I should have been more giving. Because my life isn’t being lived the way I prefer. But if I’m honest, really honest, my life is ok even if I am currently inconvenienced by COVID 19.

And when I stop to look long enough past my own inconveniences, I see that we don’t really need to have a special service to observe Good Friday. Because Good Friday is all around us right now. We’re living it.

The unjust system created by corporate greed is on full display in the midst of this pandemic. I know we may not think of ourselves as privileged, but we are. I am. Privilege allows many of us to stay safe.

And I’m grateful… of course we’re grateful… even in our loneliness and our disconnection, and the freedoms we’ve temporarily lost… we’re grateful that we have a home to be in. A shelter in the midst of this madness.  And we have a church community of friends and we’re all doing our best to look out for one another, grocery shopping or running errands for those who cannot go out, making phone calls and offering words of encouragement.

The virus itself doesn’t discriminate, as we know.  No one is immune from its destruction.

But our system does discriminate and it means that there are entire communities who are much more heavily affected, who have less access to healthcare, who are forced into ways of life that put them in closer proximity with others.

  • For example, the Michigan county I used to live in is 11% African American, yet African Americans make up 48% of all cases there.
  • Incarcerated people in prisons have no protection from the virus – 167 inmates at Riker’s Island and 137 guards – have all tested positive.
  • The virus is tearing through Native American Reservations and Orthodox Jewish communities.
  • The undocumented people who live alongside us here don’t dare bring attention to themselves by getting tested. And they certainly have no incomes right now because all the restaurants and service industries where they normally work, can’t afford them. We have no idea what the infection rates are amongst immigrants.
  • We probably don’t have accurate numbers among the homeless either.
  • And more than once, our older citizens have been deemed as expendable, by members of our own government.

People are dying. And the people who help them are dying too.  And we don’t know exactly when this will end.  This is Good Friday.

Good Friday shows us the disparity, the inequality, and the immorality of systems of power.  Good Friday is the experience of seeing that some people are actually considered expendable. Because Jesus himself was expendable.

The Gospel of John tells us, “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the leadership that it was better to have one person die for the people.”  Expendable.

A president who, instead of taking the time to offer comfort and hope, gets on his phone and cavalierly declares: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” because he’s too concerned about his own financial losses.

A Lt Governor in Texas who believes that older people should just get out there and work to save the economy for their grandchildren.

A lawyer in California who, in speaking about older adults, declares outright that we cannot “tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is 1) generally expensive to maintain, and 2) not productive.”

Imagine, believing so much in this economy that we cease to believe in life itself.  We don’t have to imagine it. Our system is built to support it.  Our government is in place to enforce it.  People in power deciding who is expendable. This is Good Friday.

People are dying. And the people who help them are dying too.

We feed into that narrative in our own minds, our own self-talk too.  I don’t know how many times I do more than I need to or refuse to take a break because I feel like I have to earn my keep.  How many times do we get ourselves twisted around an idea that we aren’t good enough or pretty enough or smart enough or that we have enough and we let that narrative take hold in our psyche until we become overly reliant on other people’s opinions of ourselves.  Because some part of us believes we are expendable.

And that part is the part that also believes God’s love is a zero-sum game.  That is the part that believes that my success has to be at the expense of yours – that my thriving has to be at the expense of yours – that my life has to be at the expense of yours.

And this is how we got here.  Healthcare is a privilege because some lives are not expendable.  Which, in a zero-sum game, means that some lives most certainly are.

Last week, when the infection count was only at just over 1 million worldwide (and now it’s closing in on 2 million), Arundhati Roy, an activist and writer said this:

“The tragedy is immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years… Hospital doors have too often been closed to the less fortunate citizens of the US. It hasn’t mattered how sick they’ve been, or how much they’ve suffered. At least not until now — because now, in the era of the virus, a poor person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health.

What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes.  In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses… Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could.

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture.  But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.

Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Jesus’ command was to love one another.  He said that to love one another is to love God, himself.  His hope for us was that we might, in fact, learn to love one another enough to change the system.  So that all life is beheld as sacred. All life is honored.  All lives are precious. No lives are expendable.

And because this was his command, he was killed.

People are dying. And the people who help them are dying too.

Imagine, believing so much in this economy that we cease to believe in life itself.

We don’t have to imagine. Here we are.

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Living Into Hope Amidst Darkness – A Palm Sunday Sermon

A sermon preached for Morning Prayer on Palm Sunday (Year A) on April 5, 2020 to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture for the day, click here.   If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

 

I used to bristle at the reading of the Passion.  Why?… I thought in my privilege and naivete… must we focus on the state execution of Jesus.  Why must we focus on this brutal death when God is about love?

Why, indeed? Especially now, when there is so much death so near to us. When there is so much to grieve about.

This pandemic has hit each of us differently – loss of activities, loss of income, loss of security, even the loss of friends or family. And the exhaustion of those who are working in hospitals or other essential industries without the supplies they need. On the verge of not having enough beds or ventilators to give all the patients who are fighting for their very lives.  It’s already been devastating, and the scientists predict that we haven’t seen the worst of it yet – especially in New York.

It’s a confusing time. We’re all on heightened alert. There is so much at stake in a simple trip to the grocery store.  And it seems very surreal.

The old adage: March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb…
Has been changed to: March comes in like a lion and goes out like a science fiction movie.

A science fiction movie.

The Gospel story tells us that the gathered community scattered when Jesus was taken in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Shocked and confused that their world had suddenly been torn apart.  The Gospel tells us that they watched from afar, if they watched at all, as their beloved teacher and leader was publicly tried and executed.

Many people, including those who had gone to welcome him at the gates of Jerusalem, only heard afterwards that he had been killed.  All of them feeling like they couldn’t have done anything to stop it, once the events started to unfold.

A bit like a science fiction story.  Something beyond our imagining… and beyond our control.

The story is helpful to us, to remind us. We get complacent in our secure lives, thinking that we have things figured out and under control.  But we don’t.

I know that the stories don’t equate: Jesus’ story is one of a state execution because he was threatening the powers that be. Overnight, everything that Jesus’ followers were working toward was destroyed.  And with us, we have been caught off-guard by a vicious, vicious pandemic. In less than a month – over night – everything we knew was going to happen in our lives, has been shattered.

But what we know in both the Gospel story and in what is happening now, is how easily and quickly confusion and fear become a part of our everyday lives when, it seems like just yesterday, we were planning to go to on vacation.

And what we learn is how fragile our lives are because unexpected events unfold that are beyond our ability to influence.  And we are bound by them.

We are bound by them because we are bound to one another.  What happens to you, happens to me, happens to all of us.  And the more we insist that we are separate, the more we try to make sure that me and mine are going to flourish at the expense of you… the more we will be brought up short, shattered, and overcome by the reality that we cannot escape our responsibilities to one another and to the whole creation.

Because, if nothing else, Jesus was trying to teach us that the God of Life commands us to love one another.  For it is in loving one another that we truly love God.

With Jesus, we know the end of the story.  We don’t yet know the end of the story we are living right now.  We don’t know exactly how long this will go on.  We don’t know how many people will be infected nor how many people will die. We don’t know how long it will take to find a vaccine.

What we know is that there is hope because we know God is with us.  And hope can be a beacon of light in the darkness of fear and confusion.Herran_Ratsastus_Jerusalemiin_Palm_Sunday_ride_to_Jerusalem_Hand-Painted_Byzantine_Icon_11

This parade that took place in Jerusalem to welcome Jesus was a movement of hope.  The people were welcoming the end of oppression.  Greeting a new way of life, a word of hope from the prophet Jesus of Nazareth.  And even when they couldn’t see it any longer because Jesus had been executed, hope remained true. The powers that be, were overturned.  Hope remains because God is always present.

And today, I’m asking for you to take some time this week to make room for hope. I ask that you create a place in your home where you can remember God’s presence.  At the end of the bulletin, you’ll find short, simple instructions on how to create an altar in your home, if you’ve never made one before.

We may not be able to be in the same building, sharing the same physical altar, but we can be together in our hearts and minds at one another’s altars. By creating an altar at home, you will help us all to be together during Holy Week and it will help you to remember God’s love is abiding. Always.

So, please, make an altar in your home and then take your branch, that we have blessed today, and lay it down in front of your altar or on your altar, to welcome Jesus, just like the Judeans did. Welcome Jesus and breathe life into our anxious worlds when we so desperately need to know what hope feels like.

When we make room for hope, God will work through us to bring love into the world, even in the darkest moments.

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Oh God, You Know

A sermon preached for Morning Prayer on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) on March 29, 2020 to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture for the day, click here.   If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

This passage from Ezekiel today is a favorite of mine. It’s beautiful storytelling and it’s one of the passages we usually read during the Great Vigil of Easter – the night we tell stories of God’s saving love for us and come to find that Christ is alive, because Love always conquers death.dry_bones

If you listen closely to this passage, you might picture the great valley full of bones as far as the eye can see.  You might feel yourself being plopped down in the middle of them alongside Ezekiel.  You might hear the clatter and crunch of the dry bones in your ears as we’re led around them. And you might smell the hot air, depleted of any fragrance of life, dusty and stale.

Ezekiel was a prophet who lived in exile – captured by Nebuchadnezzar 599 years before Jesus’ birth and sent with other Judean captives to live in Babylon. The Babylonian exile took people out of Jerusalem, apart from their homeland, apart from the earth they knew as home.

Exiling people was an act of war and still is. When an occupying force invades, they separate people from one another, from their homeland, as a way to destabilize a society and prevent rebellion.

What we’re experiencing is a little like being exiled.  We are feeling separated. We are feeling destabilized.  Our sense of community and security is gone.  If we go out at all right now, which we are not supposed to do, everywhere we turn, there are people in masks, avoiding contact with us, taking wide berths around us, complaining about being touched, or yelling at us to stay back.

There is a lot to grieve and it’s important, for our own mental health, that we acknowledge our grief. This is not a vacation. It’s not a Sabbath.

We are in exile in our own homes. I suppose, in some ways, it feels like we’re at war… with this virus, with one another, with boredom, with the authorities, with our fears, with depressive or anxious thoughts… and sometimes, with the worst voices in our own heads.  In exile, we begin to wonder if we will ever return, if we will be reconnected, if we will ever feel whole again.

 The hand of God came upon me, and God brought me out… and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O God, you know.”

Ezekiel saw the dry bones all around him, the whole house of Israel disconnected and scattered. Banished from the sources of life – far from home, far from the Temple, far from Jerusalem, far from one another.  And he heard the question – is there still life? “Mortal, can these bones live?”

And his response wasn’t to plan or to get busy. This wasn’t about fixing things.  His response wasn’t to complain or carry on. This wasn’t about emotional venting.  His response wasn’t to avoid or make jokes. This wasn’t about putting a positive spin on things.

His response was to pray. “O God, you know.”

Ezekiel’s prayer to God was a simple one.  A prayer for guidance, for hope, for salvation.

Especially in fearful times, anxious times… the response of prayer gives us a moment to do something other than react out of fear or lose ourselves in anxious thoughts or create walls by blaming others.  All of the things that inevitably kill life because they block the flow of love, they obstruct the breath of life.

Ezekiel’s response was to say, “Show me what you see, God.  Let my will be yours and tell me what to do.”

And look what happened. Life. Breath. Love.

“… as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them… I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

A vast multitude… community. A nation reborn.

The other day I saw a quote by a man named Malidoma Some.  He’s an elder and teacher from West Africa and he said this:

“Without community you cannot be yourself. The community is where we draw the strength needed to effect changes inside of us. What one acknowledges in the formation of the community is the possibility of doing together what is impossible to be done alone.”

So, you see, exile as a tactic of war is extremely useful because it has the effect of removing us from who we are because we are removed from community. And then we are left with our own thoughts which can become our own worst nightmares.

And we can be angry about that. We can be sad. We can be anxious. These are appropriate emotions considering what is happening.  And this is why prayer is so important right now.  Because those emotions, if we don’t pay attention and acknowledge them for what they are, can become the only lenses through which we see.

So we stop. And we pray: Oh God, you know.

And we come back to Christ. We find community in Christ – which is the presence of God’s Love that has been present since the beginning of time. Christ is the sinews for our dry bones.

And Christ is always present when we move in loving ways… as we reach out to one another, as we offer kindness, as we gather together in online community, as we forgive one another and ourselves for making mistakes during a stressful time, and as we tend to God’s earth, the home of our very own flesh.  And… when we offer ourselves compassion.  Because this is not an easy time… for any of us.

So, when we respond with prayer and ask “Show me what you see, God. Let my will be yours and tell me what to do”…  God’s response will always be one that leads us to love, leads us to Christ.

It is always Christ who brings us back to life, who knits us back together, and brings us home again.  It is always Christ who shows us the truth – we are beloved children of God.

And I know sometimes this just feels like words – a nice metaphor that makes us feel better for a few minutes.  But what I’m talking about is the most practical thing we can do.  Prayer works!  It’s like putting on your own oxygen mask in those plane emergency presentations. Pray first! And then respond.

Because, in our vulnerable moments, we may see people over-reacting and doing disappointing things. We may see death – dry bones as far as the eyes can see. We may see ourselves in our own worst image.  But those are emotional lenses, not the light of Christ.

So, we put on our own oxygen mask and pray.  If we take the time to take care of ourselves for a few moments and if we can ask God to show us what God sees, we will usually have our thoughts rearranged for us, if we are willing, that is.

And instead of seeing someone who is misbehaving, we may see someone who just lost their job or someone who is overworked or someone who is scared or someone who is really just doing the best that they can. Instead of seeing ourselves as unlovable, useless, unworthy… we may see ourselves as a grieving child of God… just doing the best we can.

At the very least, and this is the most important thing, if we stop and pray… and breathe this breath that Ezekiel prophesies about, we will be renewed. We will be able to breathe again.

And then, the prophesying we can offer is a word of love. Mercy. Kindness. Or sometimes, just listening.

And we can offer this to ourselves. Be more loving to ourselves. Offer mercy and kindness to ourselves. Listen, with compassion, to the deepest desires in our own heart.

Love, mercy, kindness… this is breath. This is how we are brought back to life.
This is what community is. And this is what will save us. Always.

 

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In Times Like These… Love

A sermon preached for Morning Prayer on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) on March 22, 2020 to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the day’s scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

The most often used phrase right now seems to be, “In times like these…” because we recognize just how crazy and strange this all is. Nothing is as it should be.  My work this week is testament to that – rethinking how we can do church together. Writing emails. Reading emails. Writing liturgies. Setting up zoom meetings. Posting on our website. Posting on Facebook.  Talking on the phone with parishioners and with my parents.  Sitting in virtual meetings over the internet.

Ana comes in once in a while to remind me to get up and walk around. In the evenings, I’ve tried to leave all my thoughts behind while we watch a Harry Potter movie in Spanish. But I can’t. I’m worried.  I haven’t been in the church building once. And I’m not there now.  Yet, here we are worshipping together.

Sometimes, I walk into our dining room where we have sown some seeds. They’re on shelves under special lamps – easy to walk by and look at.  And each day, it seems, there has been a new sprout. A new life begun. First it was the cherry tomatoes. Then the snapdragons. Then the cabbage and the heirloom tomatoes and the lavender and the chives and the echinacea.  We’re still waiting for the peppers. But the seed packet says they are late germinators.

It seems in all the chaos and craziness. In all the cancellations and changes. And fear and confusion. The tomatoes still germinate early and the peppers still germinate later. And every time I see a new sprout, my body’s tension lessens and I feel a flutter of hope in my chest.

On Friday, Lynn and Claudette, our wardens, stopped by the rectory to check on me. And as we were talking, I noticed a very small turtle on the pavement – no bigger than my thumb nail.  I picked it up and took it ‘round back. And I explained in my very bad and broken Spanish to our guest Evelio that mother turtles come up into the yard every year to lay eggs. He told me the Spanish word for turtle is tortuga.Tortuga

So… turtles still come to the rectory yard to lay eggs. Check.
The Spanish word for turtle is still tortuga. Check.
We can still learn from one another across language barriers.  Check.

For some reason, this knowledge calms me. It’s therapeutic to have conversations like these – about normal, everyday things – during a time that is so extraordinary. And to hear the peepers in the early spring nights. And watch the birds swoop into our bird feeders. These things are balms to my soul right now, at a time when I have to bring hand sanitizer with me to the grocery store.

We all feel so helpless, I know. On some level, we feel like there’s nothing we can do. We want to make plans but we can’t. We want to help but we’re told to stay home. We want to work but the businesses have been closed by the governor. We want to know when this will end but we cannot predict it. “In times like these…” nothing is as it should be.

Today’s story from John’s Gospel is multilayered. At first glance, it’s a simple story of healing someone born blind but the healing itself is only two verses. The consequences of the healing, however, take up 33 verses.  Why not just stop with the healing? What is so important about the rest of the story?

Frans Martin Claerhout Jesus Healing a Man Born Blind

Jesus Healing a Man Born Blind by Frans Martin Claerhout

Biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders tells us in her book, Written That You May Believe (pg 151), that the clue is in the healing itself – verses 6-7. Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”

This word, Siloam, which means “sent,” is where the healing actually took place. The pool of Siloam. An image that reminds us of the healing power of baptism and what baptism means to us – we become the Body of Christ in and for the world. We are sent through immersion in the love of God that is given to us in Jesus. We are sent through immersion in the healing power of community to become what God needs in the world.

So, this is not just a story about healing a physical malady, it’s a story about belief. It’s a story about removing those things which block our vision, those things which prevent us from truly listening for the voice of God’s love for us so that we may become who we are called to become.

The healing comes, not in the relief from pain or relief from anxiety or fear. The healing comes in allowing God to work through us. In the surrender of ourselves to something greater than ourselves, in the immersion of being sent, in the pool of Siloam.

And this requires belief that there is more than just me and you and our separate selves. Belief that something greater than us is carrying us. Some connective force keeps us in relationship. Some Love that binds us to one another. The healing comes in being sent to enact that love in the world. For the world.

As this healed person in today’s story is asked by the powers-that-be, not once but twice, about this miracle, he reports what he has experienced and marvels at their disbelief, saying: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?”

 Indeed. Why do we need to be told over and over and over again that God loves us? Because we are human. We listen to voices of habit instead of the Voice of Love. Especially “in times like these…”when we just want things to be normal again.

I remember when I first got involved in my church in Bend OR. I had been going off and on for about a year. First, I became a lector. Then, my priest talked me into becoming a lay Eucharistic minister and before I knew it, he was signing me up to go and visit people – to bring Eucharist to them.

I was completely intimidated by this. It was one thing to be up at the altar where I could be told what to do and the focus wasn’t on me. But to go out to others? What did I have to offer? Wasn’t I going to mess it up? What would I say to these people? I barely understood why I was at church and here I was being sent to visit other people and distribute communion.  I didn’t know what I was doing and I was completely uncomfortable.

The first person I visited on my own was a woman named Sarene who was no longer responding much to people around her. Her caretaker let me in and walked me toward a big picture window with two wing-backed chairs that sort-of faced each other and out the window at the same time.  Sarene was sitting in one of the chairs so I sat in the other.

I introduced myself and told her why I was there. She didn’t respond. I started telling her about the sermon we heard from our priest. She didn’t respond. I began to feel a little silly, but I started reading through the short service with her anyway. She didn’t respond.

And then I began the words of the 23rd psalm. And Sarene started speaking them with me. The cadence carrying her as if it gave her life.

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

At the end of today’s story from John, we understand finally that belief is the true consequence of healing. Finally letting go of what gets in our way, finally surrendering ourselves and allowing God to work through us to bring Christ’s light to the world.

The healing that we are looking for right now, what will help us the most, is belief. Belief in the God of Life. Belief in the God who is Love. Belief.

Because… life is not normal right now. It’s not going to be normal for quite a while. The world has changed. It’s not going to go back to the way it was. It’s not a comforting thought, I know. But it doesn’t mean anything except that we have a new path in front of us. And God is here with us. And God will never stop loving us.

There are sick people. How can we help? There are overwhelmed medical professionals. What can we do? There are people getting laid off. What do they need? There are people feeling disconnected. Who shall we call?

And the lesser voices in our heads, the voices of habit, may be whispering: But you’re not safe. But you have nothing to offer. But you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t listen to them.

Listen, instead, to the words of Love in the 23rd Psalm. You know them. They are imprinted on your heart, just like they were printed on Sarene’s heart as they moved her to speak in the wing-back chair at the window.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

This table spread before us: where tomato seeds still germinate early. And the Spanish word for turtle is still tortuga. And the peepers are still peeping in the early spring nights. This is our annointing.

This table spread before us: All the things that aren’t canceled: listening to music, reading, prayer, laughing, spending time with family, getting outdoors, singing, helping others, hope, love. This too is our annointing.

So, believe. Believe that God is moving through you. Because she is. Believe that God loves you. Because he does. Believe that God is with us. Because it’s true.  It’s the most profound truth there is – Love still carries us and always will.

“In times like these…” though they are not easy, we will find the comfort we seek and the strength we need when we listen to the voice of Love, when we are guided by the call of Love, when we give ourselves over to the mission of Love, and when we realize that we are all here together.

In times like these… Love.

 

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Encounters – Sermon from Deacon Sue Bonsteel

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent (year A) by the Rev. Deacon Sue Bonsteel to the online community of St. John’s on March 15, 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak.  If you’d like to read the day’s scripture click here.

 

Encounters, whether by chance or on purpose, have the power to change us and help us img_20161029_165133434grow. Most daily encounters we experience are fleeting, leaving little imprint upon us. We feel appreciative for the person who smiles and holds the door for us and so we smile back. The child who madly waves at us at the grocery store causes us to wave and perhaps laugh. The teenager who pauses long enough to help with directions and then waits to make sure we get on the right train reminds us that people can be good-hearted. But these moments pass quickly by. The man who held the door, the toddler who waved from the grocery cart, and the teenager who helped a lost tourist all come in…and then out of…our lives in seconds. They are sweet kindnesses in a “hurry-up and get to the next thing” world.

Psychologists tell us that these fleeting moments often have a positive impact on our general well-being because they occur when we least expect them…when we’re lost in our own little universe…fixated on our cellphones and mobile devices. They remind us that it’s difficult to stay grumpy or self-absorbed when a stranger takes the time to stop you on the street simply to compliment your outfit.

Yet we also know that chance meetings can be challenging. For they can startle us out of our complacency and bring us face to face with uncomfortable situations and people with whom we normally don’t interact. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves, who might these people be?

You may recall an encounter I mentioned a while back. I came upon a woman who was sitting alone on a wooden bench in the hallway of a local hospital.

She was getting up there in years and was dressed in a threadbare but rather colorful flowing dress that stood out against the blandness of the hospital walls. Her hair was jet black and very long, curling haphazardly around her face. There was something so striking about her appearance that I turned to look back at her as I passed by. It was then that I became aware that she was quietly weeping, a tissue held near her eyes, her shoulders visibly shaking. The hospital hallway was empty except for the two of us and my first instinct was to continue to walk past her. For I didn’t know this woman nor did I know what was causing her such sadness. Yet something pulled at me and, without any more thought, I turned around and walked back to where the woman sat. Leaning over, I asked if there was anything I could do for her.

The surprise and confusion on her face was apparent when she looked up at me. I repeated my question. She reached out for my hand and gently pulled me next to her onto the bench. And I recall her first words very clearly. “Why did you stop to speak to me? You are the only one who even noticed me sitting here.”

Now her question caught me off-guard for I didn’t really know yet why I had stopped. I think I told her that she seemed sad and I wondered if I could be of help.

I do remember that she smiled slightly as she squeezed my hand. “I have been sitting here for almost an hour and no one has said anything to me, not even hello. Sometimes…especially during difficult days…it’s hard to be alone.”

We spoke for another few minutes. Then she patted my hand and reassured me that she would be fine and thanked me again for stopping.

I reluctantly stood up, wished her well and left her there, sitting alone on the bench, waiting for her ride home. And walking back to my car, I couldn’t help but think about this encounter. How could it be that no one else had stopped to check on this aged woman?

All sorts of possible reasons came to mind.

  • Perhaps it was her obvious frailty and unkempt appearance that kept people at a distance.
  • Perhaps it was the visible emotion that caused others to look away, unwilling to be drawn into another person’s pain.
  • Perhaps it was simply discomfort, fear about not knowing what to say to a stranger in such a situation.
  • Perhaps people were concerned that they would be intruding into something private.
  • Perhaps they, too, were having a difficult time…worried about a loved one in the hospital.

Or perhaps it wasn’t any one of these reasons.

Could it have been that there was something about this woman – perhaps her race or age or gender or ethnicity or general appearance – that made her the “wrong” kind of person to approach and offer help?

At one time or another, haven’t we averted our eyes from the ones who needed our attention the most because we lacked the courage and compassion to cross some real or imagined boundary?

Haven’t we all been guilty of ignoring the suffering of a member of our human family rather than risking a moment of personal discomfort or rejection? I’ve done it and it’s a shocking revelation about my own compassion for which I’ve regretted.

So how is it then, that we say that we thirst for justice for all people when we too often are willing to walk past the ones who live with injustice every day of their lives?

There is always much that we can learn from the gospel story of the Samaritan woman and her encounter with Jesus. For it encourages us to look deep within and confront some of our own judgments, bias, fears, deeply held beliefs, as well as our own buried emotions.

Romero-de-Torres-Julio-1910-b The Samaritan Woman

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (1910) by Romeo de Torres Julio

Most of us know this story well. We know that the Jews and Samaritans had a long history of being bitter enemies. So great was their hostility that Jews would normally avoid travelling through Samaria. ANY interaction between them was deeply impacted by ethnic, geographic, and religious conflicts. So the rift between the two peoples was deep. It was no wonder, then, that the Samaritan woman, upon her encounter with Jesus, would be distrustful of him.

For not only was she a Samaritan, a member of a despised group, she was a Samaritan woman.

Her status was severely limited by her sex and so she was considered inferior to – and under the authority of – men. And she had been in relationships multiple times, with many different men, making her an outcast even among her own people. She would expect distrust and even hatred.

Yet Jesus did not treat her that way. In crossing the boundaries of their cultures, Jesus showed her God’s grace through his words and actions of compassion and acceptance and love.

By offering the Living Water and revealing himself as the Messiah to one of the “wrong” people, we too – like the Samaritan woman – come to understand that the grace of God is available to all.

All of us want to be needed and to be cared for. We don’t want to be ignored, to have people walk past us without even acknowledging our presence. We thirst for a deeper relationship with one another and with God. This is the time for us to rediscover our life in Christ and to be transformed by our encounters with Jesus, just as the Samaritan woman was.

We too can be changed when we are willing to knock the walls down that separate us, one from another.

  • When another person asks something of us that makes us uncomfortable, can we muster the compassion and courage to make a decision that we might prefer to avoid?
  • When a refugee or immigrant asks for sanctuary, can we offer protection when it goes against our anxiety and fears and suspicions?
  • When someone in prison asks us to correspond with her, are we willing to let of our assumptions and judgments?
  • When someone demands equality and points to the inequalities in our society, are we willing to work with them to knock down the barriers so that justice is achieved – even if it means giving up some of our own privilege in order to ensure fairness?
  • And when a stranger weeps alone, will we be willing to sit and listen and be open to recognizing the face of Jesus before us?

These encounters turn our ordinary days into not-so-ordinary opportunities to be changed and to change another person. Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman showed courage in their encounter. And we are called to do so, as well, especially during these difficult days when our nation faces a global pandemic. Fear, mistrust, confusion, and denial will only create more barriers that keep us from becoming more like Jesus and the woman.

The world we pray for – the perfect Kingdom of God where justice and love prevails – will only be realized when you and I welcome these encounters as moments of God’s grace. We have it within us to turn around and walk back to the ones who are ignored and feared. And when we do this, we become the vessel in which they receive the living water offered through Jesus. It is then that we truly become instruments for change. Amen.

Deacon Susan Bonsteel
March 15, 2020

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Listening for Grace

A sermon preached on Lent II (year A) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on March 8, 2020.  If you’d like to read the scripture for the day, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

I love this story from John’s Gospel. I love the symbolism and the storytelling. I love the tentative and vulnerable way Nicodemus opens up to the teaching of the Spirit. The way he begins to listen for God by listening to Jesus.

Scholars estimate that John wrote this Gospel around the year 90 – this is about 60 years after Jesus’ death, and about 20 years after the destruction of the Temple. So, people had been telling each other stories about Jesus in their communities for 60 years by the time John wrote this story down.

Listening to Jesus’ teachings of God’s unbounded love through stories of his ministry of healing and feeding those who were outcast by society. And listening to stories of his demonstrations against the powers that be, which resulted in his state-sanctioned death.

The destruction of the Temple by the Romans threw Jewish society into chaos because the Temple was the center of their lives. For them, it was God’s home amongst them. Its destruction created despair and confusion. And in the midst of this turmoil, some of Jewish people came to believe that this man Jesus was the messiah and, eventually, those communities came to call themselves Christians.  While other Jews believed the messiah had not yet come and developed a new way to worship God without a temple, what we know today as rabbinic Judaism.

The Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all wrote during this time of chaos. John wrote for a community of believers who were in open conflict with the more orthodox Jews in the area – kind of like different strains of Christianity today who have heated debates over ethics and scripture and sin.  John’s community was coming to terms with this difference. And, often, John criticizes the more orthodox Jews – calling them ignorant, unrighteous, rule-bound, even evil.

It can be hard to read John’s Gospel sometimes for this reason. Because over the centuries, this Gospel more than any other piece in Christian scripture has caused untold death and destruction. People who use scripture and religion against others, to vilify and condemn others in order to define who is “one of us” and who is not, who is to be held in suspicion, have used John’s Gospel as a rallying cry against Jews and the Jewish religion. The people who do this, we call religious extremists.

Extremism is an easy disease to catch because it plays on our fears and makes us believe that we, alone, are right. It polarizes us into camps and emboldens us to act out our fears in mobs and groups. Extremism hijacks our faith and turns messages of God’s love into rallying cries of hate. It annihilates our humanity and it extinguishes hope in favor of false certainty, false safety, and self-survival.

And it stops us from listening because it turns Jesus into a mirror image of ourselves. God commanded us to listen to Jesus, not to turn him into an idol of our own best intentions. “This is my beloved child, the one in whom I am pleased. Listen to him”… is what God said on the mountaintop that day, when Peter and James and John witnessed the Transfiguration.

“Listen to him,” is what God said. Don’t turn him into an idol to worship. Listen to him.

When we listen to Jesus through the story of Nicodemus, what do we hear?

In John’s Gospel, Nicodemus represents Jewish teaching and authority in John’s Gospel. He was a Pharisee, the most rule-bound of the Jewish sects. They were the extremists, scared in the aftermath of the trauma their society experienced, using religion to scapegoat others. They were the ones who insisted that the religious Law be followed to the letter to define who is one of us and who is not.

crijn-hendricksz-volmarijn_christ-and-nicodemus

Christ and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn

But notice that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. Night is symbolic for “secret.” He comes to Jesus in secret, in need of safety. He needs a space set apart from the world and its chaos and its extremist and polarizing voices. Where he can bring his most vulnerable self. Nicodemus needs a space where he can open his heart and listen to Jesus.

And, in that tender space of soft, nighttime defenselessness, is our invitation – to rest in this story. To lay down our armor from the daily battles we wage and rest in the same way we curl up in the safety of our own bed where we sink into that liminal space just before we drift off. It’s an invitation to lay down our burden.

This is the part that Jesus wants to talk to. This part that feels so vulnerable. This is the part that has stopped listening to God. It’s stopped listening because it’s the part of us that is scared or tired or unsure or angry. It’s the part of us who, in the chaos of the world, needs something to hang on to, something to bring a sense of comfort.

It’s hard to bring that to God. It’s easier to indulge its whims and needs and believe its message of judgment and fear. It’s easier to attend to its needs through worldly means – more money, more food, better clothes, better things… better self.

This is the Nicodemus inside of us – this part that believes it needs the world to calm its fears. This is who God is asking us to bring to this secret meeting with Jesus because this is who needs to listen to Jesus the most.

And in secret, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you…” the only way to know God, the only way to see God’s reign here in this life, in this reality… is to have been formed by God’s Spirit, to have been born anew with a new way of knowing.

Nicodemus struggles with this and Jesus realizes that Nicodemus is trying to listen so he continues teaching, “Very truly, I tell you…” you must be formed by God’s Spirit. Because the Reign of God is not of this world, it is not born of our fears and opinions and certainty.

The Reign of God is grace. The Reign of God is mercy. Compassion. Justice. Love. These are of God, the very ground of our being, which is so much bigger than our small worldview that we cannot even imagine its breadth and its power.

So you must listen through faith in the Spirit, Jesus says, and surrender your expectations to God’s Will. Because God’s Spirit will take you wherever it wants, regardless of our criteria and rules, even if these rules comfort us, even and especially if we think these rules are from God.

But Nicodemus, who has been raised to believe that rules and certainty and control will save him, is befuddled and confused. What might it mean if salvation rests on something besides these standards I hold myself to, these pursuits I immerse myself in, these ways I try to be worthy? What else is there?  And he asks simply, “How can these things be?”

And Jesus says, one more time, “Very truly, I tell you…” the gift from God, the Christ, is the Spirit of God that came from God. And it will be witnessed by the souls of all, not seen with the rule-bound mind.

My dear ones, what Jesus is whispering about to Nicodemus, what Nicodemus is trying to listen for, to wrap his mind around… is the message of God’s grace. The Reign of God that is born of the spirit is the experience of God’s grace. Undeserved because there’s nothing we can do to deserve it. It just is. It’s just there for us to rest in. Waiting for us to return to it.

And when we experience God’s grace, when we listen to its intelligence, we realize that God’s Love is not something that could ever be rule-bound, because God so deeply and extravagantly loves us that all the barriers and expectations that we could concoct in our minds mean absolutely nothing.

God’s Love welcomes all. God’s love liberates all. And God’s love redeems all.

God sends the Spirit to us – so that we might listen from the part of ourselves that is beyond the law of our minds, the part of ourselves that knows grace so intimately, so second-naturedly, that it instinctively, and extravagantly extends grace to others. So that we might be truly saved, not by anything we supposedly do in this world, but reaching out in love to offer grace, mercy, compassion, and justice.

And I have to say, I feel like Nicodemus most days. I’d like to say I believe, that I’m fully formed by the Spirit and can bear witness to the Reign of God in every waking moment. But the truth is, I still get befuddled and confused. I still need to ask my teacher Jesus, “How can these things be?”

How can God love us so much? How can God, who keeps loving us, who keeps offering us grace, who keeps sustaining us even when we mess things up completely… How does this work? How can it be? What does this mean?

I struggle like Nicodemus. I struggle with believing that God loves me. Believing that this world is redeemable. Believing that I am redeemable.

And so I stand up here preaching, not to you, but with you. A fellow traveler on this journey through Lent, who sees myself in Nicodemus… meeting Jesus in secret, in safety, bringing my vulnerable self to him in the darkness of the night. Trying to listen but not really knowing how to most of the time.

Because something in this lesson tells me that the only thing that really needs to change about us, the only thing that we are really being asked to give up every single year when Lent rolls around… is the belief that God’s Love is somehow limited. We are asked to give up the belief that we are somehow separated from God’s love.

But that kind of love can be the hardest thing to truly believe in. Because it means that there is nothing to protect. Nothing to judge. Nothing to defend. Nothing to save.

This story about Nicodemus is asking us to open our hearts and listen for God’s grace. To leave behind what we think we know and listen to him, listen to Jesus… so that we may be formed by God’s Spirit and liberated by God’s love.

This is what the Reign of God is about.

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Listen to Him

A sermon preached on the Last Sunday After Epiphany (A) on February 23, 2020 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you want to read the scripture for today, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Today’s readings are about a phenomenon called a theophany – a visible manifestation of God to humankind. A theophany is usually a mountaintop moment because meeting God face-to-face is a big deal.  We are awe-stricken, uplifted, filled and whole, feeling completely loved.John Guigliani Transfiguration of Jesus

I’ve been on enough retreats to have had some of those moments – those mountaintop moments of utter peace and joy. A-ha moments when I suddenly saw things anew.  And, I recall that my response was similar to Peter’s. Dropping to my knees followed by a desire to turn the experience into a one-size-fits-all answer. A solution to all my problems, all the world’s problems, really.  A belief that I now knew the truth and I needed to freeze it, build an institution around it, devote my life to it, and make sure that other people saw the truth that I saw.

I don’t want to belittle or ridicule these moments. They are important to us and shift our worldview. They shake the ground beneath us and open up a window for us to another reality, another understanding.  They are powerful moments that widen our faith and renew, for us, the experience of God’s Love for us.

But I wonder about mountaintop moments. About how they can become the thing we worship. Which is where Peter is beginning to go in his response to his experience, his need to set it in stone, quite literally, buildings of stone.

And I wonder about placing Jesus too concretely in the “fully divine” category and forgetting to recognize him as “fully human.”  I wonder about how easy it is to get caught up in the “Jesus is just as important as Moses and Elijah” -OMG!-thing.  And missing God’s exhortation to us, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Listen to him. Listen to him. Listen to him.

To listen, truly listen, is not as easy of a task as you might think. Because listening, on its deepest level, is ultimately a vehicle of transformation.  A pathway for change. Listening is surrender, an active form of faith that opens us up to becoming something new, someone new.  Listening is a spiritual practice that can lead us to become transfigured ourselves, becoming Christ for one another.

In your bulletin today is a print-out called the 4 Fields of Listening.  I ask that you take it with you and place it somewhere that you can easily see it during the season of Lent.  Our Lenten focus will be the spiritual practice of listening because God commands us: Listen to him. Listen to Jesus.

The 4 Fields of Listening comes from an MIT professor named Otto Scharmer who works in their school of management helping future leaders learn how to be more creative and more attentive to people and situations rather than to lead from past experiences, judgments, and established practices. In other words, he teaches people how to listen so that they can lead others into the future.

Scharmer’s model of listening helps us understand how transformational listening can be for us. To put it in Christian terms, this model of listening leads us to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, alive and active, present in the hearts, minds, and wills of God’s children.

Rather than coming into a situation with preconceived expectations or filters, which are usually based on our individual past disappointments and fears, we come to a situation open and ready to listen.  We come willing to be changed, rather than trying to fix or control.

We begin in the first Field, listening to confirm, or downloading. Which isn’t really listening at all. It’s more about finding ways to reinforce our own thoughts and opinions. Consider, for a moment, the friendships we have, who we choose to go to when we need advice.  I’m not saying that it’s bad to have friendships in which we feel seen and supported. Not at all. But are we willing to hear someone who challenges us?

Think about the news program you watch. Has watching the so-called news become a way to confirm our own thoughts? Downloading data to help shore up our opinions? Even Facebook and Twitter become echo chambers where we listen for the confirmation of what we think and feel.Scharmer Four Fields of Listening

The second field is a mark of an open mind. We have the willingness to take in new information and hear something that may challenge pre-conceived notions. Can we listen to a different or new set of evidence and allow that to change our concept of the world and how it works?  We allow our opinions to be changed when we learn that the way we have been seeing the world is not entirely accurate.

This is different than listening with an open heart or empathic listening, which is Field 3. Here, we are listening for someone else’s experience. We are willing to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and learn from their experience, like watching a film or reading a book about the lives of people who are different from us.  Or spending time with people of different backgrounds and listening to what they say without imposing ourselves into the conversation or trying to fix them in some way.  We may put aside our judgment about someone who disappoints us, for example, and remember that everyone is going through something.  This is when we are beginning to listen to Jesus.

And finally, we have generative listening, which is more of an active waiting really, a patience, a delay in decisions until the way forward is clearly discerned. We allow for something new to be born while we actively participate in collective discernment.  We offer ourselves fully into the conversation without being attached to its outcome as we watch ourselves and others being changed by the process. This is when Holy Spirit is moving and we are being led. This is when we are listening to Jesus and this is when we are acting as his disciples.

Where we are on this spectrum probably depends upon the time and day, upon how stressed we feel or how tired we are and upon who is speaking to us.  At least, that’s how it plays out for me. It seems, the more fearful I am, the more stress I’m experiencing, the more defensive I get and the more I need my environment to mirror my needs and opinions and feelings… the less I am able to listen. Perhaps this is your experience too.

It’s certainly the experience of Peter, James, and John.  Peter is so overwhelmed by the sight on this mountain, so filled with awe that he starts babbling really… “This is good! We should memorialize this moment, create dwellings for all of you here on this mountain where people can come and worship you…”

And Matthew is brilliant here. He demonstrates the utter uselessness of this sentiment by having God interrupt Peter.  As if God is saying no to the idea. Because God IS, in fact, saying no.

“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

In other words, what’s the point of a worship of adoration only? It reminds me of Isaiah’s words from a few weeks ago… when we read Chapter 58 from the Prophet Isaiah:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist…
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them…
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness…
and you shall be like a watered garden…
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…
you shall be called the repairer of the breach…

Remember that Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets… to fulfill them.  Not to make himself a new object of worship.

And God says,  “This one, this is the one with whom I am pleased. Listen to him.”

Listen to him. Be changed by him.  Be transformed… be transfigured by him.

And we know the challenge inherent in this. Most of the time we don’t want to change. And even when we do, we know our tendencies to remain entrenched in our opinions and needs.  We know how hard it can be to give up what we take to be so precious.

It’s the same with the disciples. As Matthew tells us, “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. Get up and do not be afraid.

The Transfiguration is not just some story that happened to Peter and James and John. If that were the case, it would mean that Peter wasn’t interrupted by God and Jesus said, “Three dwellings sounds like an outstanding idea, my friend!”

The Transfiguration is an event that continues happening across space and time. It’s a process that we participate in as we confess our sins and come to this Table of Reconciliation.

We bring ourselves and our entrenched fears each week, we offer them to God in the form of confession, and we ask to be changed. We ask to be transformed.  And at the Table of Reconciliation we are, indeed, changed.  We are transformed to be Christ in and for the world that God has made.

So that in those moments, when we are sorely needed, we become transfigured. We become the visible manifestation of God, visible to humankind.  We become the theophany for someone else, maybe just for a moment, maybe across the span of a life-giving relationship.  Offering hope and support where none existed before.  Becoming a source of Love where none was experienced before.

It may not be a mountaintop moment for us. On the contrary, we may feel quite inconvenienced by it, at least, at first… but for another person, it’s made all the difference.

And it begins with listening.
Listen to him, God says. Listen to Jesus.

Learn to move away from our own fixed and limited perspectives and practice listening more deeply, more generously and generatively, learning more about who we are called to serve.

Learn to follow Jesus. Learn to listen to Jesus.

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

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Shifting Fences

A sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (year A) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston on February 16, 2020.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

I like fences. Fences enable me to know where I am and who I am in a given place at a given time. How to orient myself in relationship to my world – where I can go and where I can’t.  Whether I’m in or whether I’m out. Where I can enter and, if I don’t like what I

Suzanne Francis Stables Near Germantown

Stables Near Germantown, Suzanne Francis

experience at the gate, choose not to enter. Or, maybe, I’m not supposed to enter at all.

Fences help me make sense of a sometimes-chaotic world, allowing me to make decisions and articulate a direction for myself.  Fences help me discern and say, “this is the path I choose.”

But fences are human made. One might say they are arbitrary, depending upon whim rather than having a higher purpose.  And when you think about it, from God’s perspective, this is absolutely true.

God’s creation is beyond our capacity to understand, although the development of science has given us such amazing insights that we are starting to see its interconnectedness and relationships in new ways.

  • The fish in the Hudson River are dependent upon the health of the waters that flow from the Catskill Mountains.
  • The number of trees that exist on one continent have an impact on oxygen levels and air temperatures on every other continent of the earth.Wolf and Deer
  • The existence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has an impact on deer who avoid riverbank areas where they can be easily trapped by wolves. So the vegetation along the riverbanks isn’t consumed which means the trees grow beyond the sapling stage giving birds and beavers more homes, and riverbank bushes keep the rivers from eroding the soil and reducing water flow so the fish population is healthy and, further down the river, other creatures are fed and life thrives, including human life.

God’s creation is filled with relationships and connections that have purposes beyond our reckoning. Yet, we grow used to perceiving it through lenses that are personal, to keep us safe and cared for.  And, in our efforts to navigate this home of ours, to make sense of it, we create definitions and articulations and characterizations and demarcations. We create fences.

These are metaphorical fences, of course.  And these fences are dependent upon the people who make use of them, so we know, together, what we believe, who we are, and how to navigate the wild creation around us.  They become collective agreements.

The phrase “blue sky” being a metaphor for something good.
The belief that bees are dangerous and should be killed.
or… People who believe in God go to church.
or… Marriage is between a man and a woman.

But then, what about people who cannot see the color blue, or see the sky itself? What about the beauty of a night sky or a sunset? What about the welcome dark sky in drought-sickened lands?

And the bees… what about the plants that are no longer pollinated when we kill all the bees?  What about people who are Muslim?  What about people who love someone of the same gender?

As our experience grows, we start to realize that fences can be unhelpful, even hurtful if we insist on our own fences.

Growing up, I loved my hometown of Meadville, PA. I loved that I could walk or ride my bike anywhere. That I could spend hours in the public library. That we had creeks and parks and could see movies downtown in an old Vaudeville theatre where my Gramma worked so I could get into the movies for free.

I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else. Why would I? Everything I wanted was there.

As you might imagine, I grew out of that. Sort of.  I came to realize it wasn’t Meadville that was important to me.  It was aspects of growing up there: being near water, easily accessing things I love to do, repurposed old buildings, and being part of community. I outgrew my fence. And my fence shifted.

All the fences we create eventually change because we change – if not in our own lives, then certainly over generations. As we learn and grow, as humanity utilizes new ways of understanding one another and our world, our fences shift because the ideas and definitions that used to help us and, even, comfort us… no longer serve us.

Or worse, the fences that once were necessary and safe, we come to find, are actually harming other people.

This is maturing. And this is the beginning of transformation.

I’m using this metaphor of fences today because this teaching device Jesus uses in today’s Gospel… this thing where he opens up the commandments for his disciples… is a rabbinical practice called “making a fence around the Torah.”

If you remember from last week, we’re in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ opening speech to the conference, if you will.  He’s been collecting disciples, dragging them all over Galilee, healing people through offering God’s Love in the immediacy of our human flesh – actually caring for the poor, actually feeding the hungry, actually housing the homeless.

And then he takes his disciples to the top of the “mount” and sits them down and says,  “Now here’s why we’re doing this: It’s because God wants us to. And you know how I know this? It’s because we were designed to love one another.”  And he says, “This isn’t anything new. This is what the law and the prophets tell us to do. I haven’t come to change that, I’ve come to fulfill it. And, more importantly, I’ve come to teach you how to fulfill it.”

And he starts to build the fence in today’s reading.

He refers back to the law and he builds a fence that helps the disciples navigate the landscape of their lives, their context, and apply God’s deeper wisdom to their experience.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…”

In other words, “If you think that this commandment is just about the act of murder itself, you are mistaken. It’s about harboring pain and anger in your heart and feeding on it so much that it consumes you. This is not life-giving.”

The fence Jesus offers us (in this case being angry or insulting) enables us to see the deeper truth of God’s commandment is to choose the life-giving path of forgiveness.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at [another] with lust has already committed adultery… in [their] heart…”

In other words, “If you think this commandment is about the act of cheating on your beloved, you are mistaken. It’s about believing that other people are only here for your self-satisfaction. This is not life-honoring.”

The fence Jesus offers us (in this case objectifying other people) enables us to see the deeper truth is that all lives are holy and, therefore, worthy of liberation from another’s self-serving use.

Truth never changes. But how truth is understood shifts and changes depending on who we are and where we live and when we live.  This is why fences are necessary. To navigate. To define.  To interpret the landscape in a way that makes sense to us… for a time… until we can see the deeper truth and live into God’s Love so that we can offer God’s wider justice.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro says that this practice of making fences around the Torah is to “Distinguish historical form from timeless Truth…” and he continues… “dare to change the first to uphold the second.”Fences and Torah

Dare to change the first to uphold the second.  Dare to change the historical form to uphold the timeless truth.  Dare to change the interpretation – the fence – to live into the deeper purpose – liberation, life, love.

Dare to redefine the historical form of marriage in order to uphold the timeless truth of the beauty of loving relationship where each person is honored and held as precious.

Dare to shift our perception from bees and wolves as dangerous creatures so that we can uphold the timeless truth that all life is sacred because it has a holy life-giving purpose beyond our understanding.

Dare to rethink poetic turns of phrase like “blue-sky” in order to uphold the timeless truth that God’s creation is wonderfully diverse and that is what we are called to celebrate through inclusive practices and expansive language so that everyone has the opportunity to remember their place at God’s Table.

Dare to open our hearts to the pain of Black experience in America so that we can shift our perception of what white privilege is and how racism operates as the deep wound of the legacy of slavery.

Because, inevitably, these fences we create are just ways of navigating the terrain. They aren’t the truths themselves.  And our proclivities for our fences, well-beloved though they are, only bind us to false understandings, less mature and out-dated modes of thinking and seeing and hearing and feeling and being.

Life, you see, is found in the timeless truth.  The wider mercy. The deeper wisdom.

This is where the seeds of liberation soak in and drink up their sustenance and their breath. Where the truth and immediacy of our flesh connect us all one-to-another in the fabric of life itself, and our desire for another’s flourishing becomes just as important as our own because we realize that no one is free until all are free.

And so liberation is tasted and felt when we seek to move beyond the preferred concepts or comforting phrases or familiar furniture, toward more inclusive language and accessible spaces that embrace the experiences of others and welcome the bodies of all.

Because Love is in that field… that field of transformation… where fences shift and where God has already set a place for us and is just waiting patiently for us to see what God sees: Who we are called to become.

Christ incarnate. Love incarnate.

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You Are the Salt of the Earth, the Light of the World

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (year A) on February 9, 2020 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, please click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.Kim Woong Coming of the Light

Today’s Gospel comes from Chapter 5, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  It’s one of the most significant set of verses in all of scripture. A definitive Christian teaching. It’s a teaching Jesus delivers to his disciples after his ministry has commenced, after Jesus has begun to define the ministry of Christ in the world as one of mercy and grace, after Jesus has started to reveal that God’s Love is real and immediate, not something that happens in the afterlife. Because Christ’s ministry is a ministry of Love.

Back in chapter 4, Matthew begins Jesus’ ministry, as you may recall, by returning him to Galilee after his baptism his baptism in the Jordan and after 40 days in the wilderness. And in Galilee, Jesus walks along the sea, gathering his first followers, his first disciples. First, Peter and Andrew and then James and John – all of whom were fishermen. And the text says, “Immediately Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed him.” “Immediately, James and John left their boat and their father and followed him.”

These people left their livelihoods, their property, and their families behind to follow Jesus, demonstrating the power and the immediacy of Christ.  No more do worldly things hold sway over them, things like security, wealth, and attachments. What matters is the ministry of Love, the ministry of Christ, that Jesus has come to enroll us in. Because it is we who need to be brought back to God when we’ve become lost in the world and its comforts. Christ is that which brings us back to Love when we’ve forgotten our way.

Then, Matthew tells us, Jesus and his disciples travel all through Galilee: teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming God’s Love, and healing God’s people. And the news of Jesus’ ministry spread throughout Syria and the Decapolis (non-Jewish lands that they knew about) throughout Jerusalem and Judea (both northern and southern kingdoms of Israel), and from beyond the Jordan (into the wilderness beyond the demarcation line of where the promised land starts).

In other words, Jesus’ ministry of Love reaches beyond the common boundaries, beyond our judgments of who is worthy and who is not. Who is in and who is out. Beyond national borders and familial edges. Jesus’ ministry cannot be defined by worldly standards because it’s about the Christ. It’s about Love – that which reconciles us to God. All of us. Every one of us. Because what reconciles us to God is living into Love.

So, after demonstrating God’s Love through healing people, through offering mercy and blessing, through extending God’s grace… Jesus sits his disciples down and offers them a theology to help them understand what they have been witnessing. And we come to the Sermon on the Mount.

One of the most significant and definitive Christian texts, the Sermon on the Mount clearly defines the ministry of Christ. It starts out with the familiar text of the Beatitudes:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Mt 5:3-12)Reversal

This blows apart our ideas of who is worthy and who is not. It turns the understanding of blessing on its head and completely subverts our expectations by describing to us how God’s Love breaks into the world.  And it’s not that Jesus is telling us anything new in this text. Jesus the Christ is reminding us of what God has already been telling us through the prophets. In this case, the prophet Isaiah.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet tells us the true fast, the true worship, is to live into God’s call to care for one another. And it’s deep care, not just words or prayers, but to actually share your bread with the hungry and to actually share your home with the homeless poor and not hide from your kin, your brothers and sisters, who are naked, but to cover them. And to loose the bonds of injustice.

And Isaiah tells us that, if we do this, if we satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then our light shall shine in the darkness and we will be called the repairers of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which people can actually live. This shall be our watered garden. This shall be the rebuilding of our ancient ruins.

twelve types of Sea SALT in square bowls

The Beatitudes reflect the prophet’s call to love one another. In today’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount continues. Jesus tells us very directly:  You are the salt of the earth but if you have lost the essence of who you are – your saltiness – then what good is that? You are the light of the world, but if you hide your light, then what good is that?

The salt of the earth and the light of the world… these two phrases give us the scope of this ministry – the whole earth and the entire world – and, perhaps more importantly, that this ministry happens right now, immediately. If we have lost this innate desire to care for one another, if we’ve lost this connection to one another’s flesh and become too entranced by the world and its politics and its comforts and its judgments, then we have lost our saltiness. And we have hidden our light.  Indeed, we have lost our very selves.  Because we have lost Love.

The call to remember our saltiness and our light and reclaim it immediately is what Jesus is talking about here. Just as Peter and Andrew and James and John left behind their lives… immediately. Because the kingdom of heaven is not something that we enter after we die, but through Christ, through Love, we experience the inbreaking of the reign of God, the inbreaking of Love, right here, and right now. And we always have the opportunity to enter because we always have the opportunity to Love.

In so doing, Christ becomes the repairer of the breach and the restorer of the streets, as Isaiah foretold. But it’s not just the person of Jesus, he’s calling us into this ministry of Love, calling the Christ within us to the actions of Love.

He says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” He’s telling us that we can become the repairers of the breach, if we so choose. But to do so, to be rebuilt, to become the watered garden, as promised in Isaiah, we are called to acknowledge and bless the presence of those around us and be blessed by their presence in our lives. We are called, my friends, to Love.

Because Love defines the God we worship. And Love is the only way to truly worship God. Love is the only way to fast, the only way to offer sacrifice. When we bring ourselves to the Table of Reconciliation every week, we are sacrificing ourselves at a Table of Love. We are offering ourselves into this Love that awaits us, this Love that is boundless, this Love that can encompass all of creation and breathe life into the spaces of our own molecules at the same time.Fire heart

Christ is the way of Love and Christ is the inbreaking of God into the world, not in some eschatological future. But right here. Right now. To love one another as God loves us, it is the way that Jesus teaches. And Love, my friends, is the only way.

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You Are Needed

A sermon preached on the third Sunday after Epiphany (A) on January 26, 2020 immediately before our Annual Meeting and Ministry Fair at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  To read today’s scripture, click here.

 

From today’s opening prayer: Give us grace, oh God, to answer readily the call.

As we have every year since 1986, we celebrated the holiday named for civil rights leader – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many people know of his ministry. Many people know parts of his speeches.  He was a self-giving, powerful leader who spoke profound truths, using scripture as his foundation.  Rev. King was certainly someone who answered the call.

We may have also heard of other civil rights leaders: John Lewis – who became a US congressperson from Georgia. Stokely Carmichael – who first coined the term Black Power. Rosa Parks – who refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger. To name just a few.

But have you ever heard of Georgia Gilmore?  I found out about Georgia from an NPR article I read the other day.  She was amazing.

Georgia was a cook and midwife from Montgomery, Alabama.  Georgia, basically, fed the civil rights movement.Georgia Gilmore

Cooking and selling chicken sandwiches at rallies and putting the profit back into the movement. Georgia organized others to make pound cakes and fried fish and sweet potato pies and greens and pork chops so that they could sell them and make money to fund the movement.  Georgia did this so that they could raise money without being noticed by the white establishment, so they would not be evicted or fired from their jobs for working for the civil rights movement.

She called this group of people The Club from Nowhere. Because the money came from nowhere.

I offer this story today as we come together for our Annual Meeting and Ministry Fair because I wanted to offer a story of ministry that wasn’t about the spotlight. I wanted to tell a story about ministry that was about the mundane, everyday things we do that are actually miracles.

Give us grace, oh God, to answer readily the call.

Georgia answered that call. She used her talent and her time to dedicate herself in service to Christ.  Her cooking. Her organizational skill. Her wisdom.  Georgia didn’t get up and give speeches, but she was surely a significant part of the ministry that was and continues to be the endeavor to achieve civil rights.

God equips every one of us. God gives us talents and skills that we sharpen and hone. God gives us these bodies and these minds to learn new skills and gain new wisdom.

God shapes us all for ministry and, by showing up – through worship and fellowship and learning, we continue to be formed for ministry.  So that a ministry that may have fit us as one time, may not fit us anymore.

This is true of each of us, as a person.  And this is true of every congregation.  Change is constant. But the Good News is that God is always there, giving us exactly what we need and exactly who we need to answer the call.

Who is God calling you to become? Who is God calling us to become?Steven Charleston

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston is an elder of the Choctaw Nation, former dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church. Reminds us of the call to ministry with these words:

Someone out there needs you. Someone out there, out in the world around you, near or far, known or unknown, is waiting for you because, for them, you will be just the right person at the right time to make an impact in their life, an impact great or small, intentional or unintentional, but when your lives touch, even for a moment, some connection will be made that creates positive change. How do I know all of this? Because it has happened to you before and will happen again. There is always someone we are destined to reach by word or deed, at just the right moment, in just the right way. So no matter how you may think of yourself, always remember: someone out there needs you.

Someone needed Georgia.  As a matter of fact, a whole lotta someones needed Georgia.  Just like someone needs you. Just like someone needs St. John’s.

So here we are, ready to begin a new year of ministry together as the congregation of St. John’s Kingston.

I expect you to take the time to read through the Annual Reports that were prepared (if not today, then in the coming days) and join in the celebration of amazing ministry we’ve been able to do this past year. We have been able to accomplish some beautiful things together.

And then, after brunch is over today, we’ll talk briefly about where our congregational focus will be in the coming year.

But more importantly, today is an opportunity for you to reflect on your ministry, how it has evolved and how it is continuing to evolve.  What is God calling you to? Something new?  A continuation of something you’ve been doing for a while?  Something that may seem mundane but is actually a miracle?  Like Georgia?

Whatever that is, please accept the invitation to visit the various tables at our Ministry Fair as a way of considering how you’re being called to serve. The Ministry Team leaders took the time to put together a snapshot of many of the ministries. This is your chance to ask questions and discern God’s call.

Because it matters that you’re here. It matters that God gave you life.  It matters that we are here together as the community of St. John’s in this place and this time with these resources.  We are the incarnation. We are the Body of Christ. And we are needed.

You are needed.

Give us grace, oh God, to answer readily the call.

 

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Come and See

A sermon preached on the second Sunday after the Epiphany (A) on January 19, 2020 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture for the day, click here.

People were searching. For something. That’s why they ended up coming to the banks of the Jordan River to see John.  They were seeking something. They didn’t know exactly what.  But they came and John baptized them.

The Jordan River was known to the Jewish people, as the boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land. Moses had led the people of Israel for 40 years through the desert and brought them to the very edge of the Jordan River.  Israel crossed over the Jordan into the land that would become their new home.

And so it was for centuries – through the rise of the monarchy and the rule of Saul and David and Solomon – though the building of the temple and its destruction and its rebuilding – though the split of the kingdoms and the wars and the infighting – until the Romans invaded and conquered Jerusalem.

And now, people were coming to see John to this place of transition, this place of promise, to renew themselves in the Jordan.  To remind themselves of God’s promise.  John knew they were searching for more… for a deeper way of living, a path that had a purpose.  A commitment to something bigger than what they knew.

John had seen who Jesus was – the one who embodies God’s Spirit, the one who lives with God’s spirit. This is the one who understands, the one who can teach others the ways of God.

Sometimes, I wonder how many others saw Jesus. I wonder how many other people heard John say those things about Jesus and did not choose to follow Jesus.

But these two people in today’s passage follow Jesus.  And Jesus turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?”  And they don’t really know.  They cannot even articulate what it is they want.  But they ask, “Where are you staying… where are you living?”

Jesus replies, almost mysteriously, “Come and see.”The First Two Disciples - John 1:35-42

Why does Jesus reply this way? It’s not a physical place where Jesus lives. For it is not the place that’s important any longer.  The promised land as they understand it, is no more. Centuries and centuries of fighting over land, splitting land, worrying about land… and now it belonged to the Romans.

Where is Jesus staying? Where is he living?

Jesus lives firmly in the heart of God – the spirit has descended and remained on Jesus.  Jesus knows whose he is, who he belongs to, calling God Abba, Papa.  This nearness to God, this intimacy with God expresses a love and a gratitude that is so deep and complete, there is only the choice to become God’s servant, God’s lamb.

Throughout scripture we hear the refrain: Before I was born, God knew me. It’s here in Isaiah’s words today: Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! God called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

 We often find ourselves at a place where we’re searching, wanting something but not knowing exactly what that is. It feels as if we’ve been launched on a journey by someone, something and not given a map or even an imagined idea of what it is we’re looking for.

Jesus invites us to “Come and see.” Come and see that we are God’s own beloved child… that we are precious and holy and needed… that we have always been beloved.   Jesus says, “Come and see.”

Jesus still invites us to join him there for our connection to God is deep. We are forged by love in flesh that is made from this earth.  We are forever bound to this earth and bound to all the creatures that have been formed of it. We might want to believe that we are somehow autonomous or separate from one another, from this deep connection we have, but it’s a foolish notion.

We cannot be independent because we are God’s.  We are created to be interdependent. In community.  Responsible for one another because we are all God’s children.

We are of this earth and we belong to one another just as we belong to God who formed us, formed all of life, through these meager universal elements and gave us this breath that we share.  Through this breath we are nourished, by this earth we are fed… all because God gave us all this life. We share this.

And even when we get lost, when we have staked our claim elsewhere, aligned our loyalties to the world and its ways, we are called back, by some deep need that is hard to articulate.  We only know that we want a different place to be our home.

And when we see someone who lives there, we want to live there too.  We want to know where Jesus stays. And he replies, “Come and see.”

We watch Jesus meet these, his two first disciples.  And Jesus doesn’t complain that they weren’t there earlier. He doesn’t chastise. Jesus doesn’t preach at them or force them through hurdles to prove their worthiness.

He invites. He welcomes. He says, “Come and see.”

Jesus invites them into a life lived in love and helps them to understand just how precious and how needed they are. How deeply they are connected to one another through God’s spark of life that comes blazing through the darkness.

This is what ministry is. It’s Jesus inviting us all to “come and see.”

We are here. We built for this, formed in the womb for life with one another. Created to be here and be with one another.  We start here in this community.  Here at St. John’s: caring for each other, showing up in ministry with and for one another, learning how to surrender ourselves to the God that breathed life into us so that we become the Body of Christ.

The ministry of worship and formation – coming to worship and celebrate God’s reconciling love together. And the ministries of worship leadership: reading scripture, singing hymns, preparing the space, serving communion, welcoming people, even printing and folding the bulletins.

The ministry of compassion – reaching out to our community to those who need care and support, advocating for societal change, providing pastoral care by visiting, sending notes, and calling, offering healing prayers, and praying for those who are in need.

The ministry of stewardship – maintaining the gifts we’ve been given and caring for our physical space and resources through committing our time, talent, and treasure – mowing the lawn, shoveling the sidewalk, tending the gardens, watching over our investments and our checkbook.

These are the ministries that support our life together. They are who we are as the community of St. John’s. This is how we live our life together. Because we’re here. We’re searching for something.

Jesus invites us with the words, “Come and see.”

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Don’t Fall Asleep

A sermon preached on the celebration of the Baptism of Christ (year A) on January 12, 2020 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture from today, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

The image on this week’s bulletin is a relief of the 3 magi, carved into the top of a column in the Autun Cathedral in central France in the 12th century by the artist Gilebertus.Giselbertus Dream of the Magi

The 3 magi are asleep, looking uncomfortable all squashed in one bed with their crowns on, and there is an angel tapping on the hand of one of them, who has, in response, opened one of his eyes. The other 2 remain asleep.

I’ve wondered about this image. What is the dream of the magi? Is it one that occurred before their trip to Bethlehem? Or, perhaps, it was after they got home from that journey.

Before they went, they had been preparing themselves to see something new, looking to the stars for guidance. And so they saw the star.  And they followed it. And they met Love incarnate. And they bowed to it. And they were filled with the Light of Christ. Then they went home.  But we never hear what happened next.

I wonder if this image might be after their journey, when they arrived home to life as it had been before with all the same things and all the same people.

Yes, they had an experience – one of those mountaintop moments of seeing God and seeing through God’s eyes. They journeyed far and they opened themselves to a new understanding.

But what happened afterwards? Did their lives change?  Did they make a difference in the world around them?

Christmas is a time of meeting Love incarnate, a time when we remind ourselves of our truest nature – to be in service to one another, to offer acts of loving-kindness to each other. The Epiphany revelation is meant to acknowledge that this Love is for the whole world and inspire us to carry this light with us.

Because, we are born of Love, it is our birthright to be bearers of this light.

When we have those mountaintop moments, those epiphanies… then what? How do we remain awake to it?  When the dishes still need to be done… when the sidewalk still needs to be shoveled… when the church budget still needs to be balanced… when homework still needs to be done…  How do we live into our birthright to be bearers of this light when our lives remain the same?

When it’s easier to stay comfortable and maintain the status quo.

I’m a self-confessed comfort-seeker. I like having everything in easily-accessible places. I like eating carbohydrates – comfort food.  I love soft yet supportive furniture and beautiful images and a remote in my hand so that I can just click the button instead of getting up to turn something on or off.

And my entire family can attest to this: I am the kind of person that finds it so easy to drift off back to sleep after I’ve woken up, that I’ve been known to hit my snooze button so many times that it eventually stops on its own.  I know how easy it is for the magi to fall back asleep.

In the 13th century, the Islamic mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (Rumi) wrote some of the world’s most beautiful poetry, used to this day by spiritual teachers in all religions. He wrote this:

The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!

 It’s the dawn of the year, the space of beginning again.  In the Christmas season, we were awoken to the presence of Love and we knelt at its feet. And our Epiphany realization is that the light of this star is for the whole world. What does that mean?

Do we know that it is we who are to carry this light?  Do we know how precious we are? How important we are?  How integral we are to what God is doing?

The Baptism of our Savior is always celebrated on the first Sunday after Epiphany, not because Jesus was baptized as a baby. He wouldn’t have been because he was Jewish and baptism wasn’t even a practice yet.  We celebrate the Baptism on the first Sunday after the Epiphany because epiphanies are just epiphanies. They are just mountaintop experiences. And the magi fall asleep.

We say our Baptismal Vows immediately after the Epiphany to remind us, to keep us awake to the breezes at the dawn of this new place.  Because it’s comfortable to return to life-as-normal.  We all want to move on from “the holidays” in many ways and we do so, most of the time, without fully realize the enormity of what we’ve been given in the event of the Incarnation and the opportunity before us to really change the world in which we live.

We’re not always going to have mountaintop moments.  But our vows, our promises we offer in the wake of this epiphany… these are what shape our lives and keep us awake.

Our vows contain 5 important questions for us:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

Worship and Pray:  Being the first question, it’s also the primary one – will come and worship? Worship is not a performance, it requires our full participation because it is the most formative experience of being a Christian – listening to the lessons, singing the hymns, confessing our mistakes, forgiving ourselves and forgiving others so that when we come to the Table, we are truly participating in the reconciliation offered there every week.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Forgive:  Knowing that we are not perfect, will you do your best to refrain from ways that take us away from God? Judgment, gossip, self-involvement, avoidance, arrogance, anxiety… And, when you catch yourself in the act, will you forgive yourself? More importantly, will you forgive others… realizing that most of the time people are really doing the best that they can?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Proclaim:  It’s usually the hardest one for Episcopalians. Because it’s a willingness to talk about our stories of faith and our walk with God. A commitment to live uncloseted. A willingness to feel uncomfortable on occasion, to go against the cynicism and skepticism of our society and dare to speak of joy.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Love:  This is the recognition that all creatures are children of God. All belong to God and, as such, we are called to loving care of them. Regardless of the laws we are subject to. This includes ourselves for we cannot love another if we have no idea how to love ourself.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Liberate:  Can we recognize that love is inherently about liberation? Can we make decisions that help to liberate ourselves and others? Can we work to make that a reality, even if it means that we are inconvenienced?

Why are these our vows? Because this is how Jesus lived his life.

In the book of Acts, Paul tells us today how important Jesus’ ministry was, how life-giving it was. How he prayed and forgave and proclaimed and loved and sought liberation for all – how it is his ministry that makes his death and resurrection the central event in Christianity.

He says: You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. (Acts 10: 36-38)

There are always going to be reasons to grieve, things that bring hurt, situations that cause pain. This is truly unavoidable.  But there is also always going to be God – here with us – Christ praying and listening for God’s wisdom, forgiving ourselves and one another, proclaiming God’s love to a world that doesn’t know it, loving people who may not “deserve” it, and doing what we can to liberate others from the oppression of the world.

Christ lives on through us, because Christ lives on through these vows.

It is not our mountaintop moments that save us. It is not the ah-ha moments, heart-opening… mind-bending… inspiring though they are, that offer us peace.  It is our daily choices to follow these vows, to truly commit to a way of life that asks us to be uncomfortable.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived for 87 years. And for most of her life, she was a nun, taking her vows when she was 27 while in India. When she turned 40, she founded the Missionaries of Charity. Until she died in 1997, the world knew her as the epitome of self-giving love, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and caring for people who were dying from HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis. Amazing person who literally changed the world.

What the world didn’t know, until her letters were released in 2007, is that she lived most of her life in a spiritual darkness. No ah-ha moments.  No epiphanies. No mountaintop experiences to shake her awake.

But even in that darkness, she didn’t fall asleep. What kept her going in the midst of her despair and doubt, were the vows she made.

Being a Christian is not meant to make us comfortable.  When we’re comfortable, we fall asleep.

The vows we say can be just words that we say together.  Or they could be something that you allow to shape your life.  They could be transformational promises to live your life with a little less comfort, a little more commitment.  It’s an internal decision – a choice that you make – to listen to the breezes at dawn, or to fall back asleep.

It’s the dawn of the year, the space of beginning again. We have been woken to the presence of Love and we have knelt at its feet. And we have realized that the light of this star is for the whole world.

Do you know how precious you are? How important you are? How integral you are to what God is doing right now?

It’s your turn to carry the light. Don’t fall asleep.

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Redeeming the Time with Love

A sermon preached in response to the historic 243rd Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York on the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (C) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  

NOTE: At this convention, the Diocese of New York took a resolution off the table from September 28, 1860 (the eve of the Civil War).  We voted unanimously to pass it.  In so doing, we have formally condemned chattel slavery.  Finally.

 

 

St. Paul’s writings have been used by some as words of judgment and condemnation. Some of his words have also been used, to much horror, as a defense of slavery. But Paul’s legacy, his gift to the church, is a message of endurance, a message of resilience.

In essence, it’s a message of forgiveness, of continuing to grow in love despite being disappointed in the behavior of others. Forgiving people their human frailty because we worship a God who is Love.

And love bids us to stretch our hearts to, what we believe, is their breaking point. Love is about going just a little bit further to include just a little bit more. This is Paul’s message. Because this is Jesus’ message.  Love redeems all.

In today’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul urges us to persevere, to forgive others their frailty and continue growing in love by doing what is right. He says, Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Redemption comes through offering our broken hearts to God so that Christ’s light can shine and we can find ourselves made new, even in the midst of our own darkness.  It is precisely because of our own darkness that we find it so hard to forgive our disappointment in others. Somewhere underneath the bitterness and resentment we harbor towards others is the fear that we are somehow at fault.

And we use darkness to shroud that fear, not wanting the light of Christ to come near it. Instead, humans are ingenious at creating ways to avoid feeling vulnerable.  This happens on an interpersonal level all the time – defending and deflecting in vulnerable situations. We can end up spreading our pain without even realizing it. The amazing thing is, the good news is, that Love will find a way into our hearts even when we try our hardest to keep them shut down.

But more pervasive and duplicitous, is how, as a society, we try to shroud painful realities in darkness, sometimes for centuries, avoiding opportunities to lift others out of oppression or changing unjust laws and institutions.

Society likes to maintain status quo in an unjust system simply because, as individuals, we’re invested in it, we’ve gained some measure of power or status, some measure of safety… so we want to hang onto it and we don’t want to admit how vulnerable this makes us feel.

Instead we say things like, “ordained by God” or “survival of the fittest” or “a merit based system” or, if you’re a fan of the movie Babe, “the way things are is the way things are.”

But Jesus comes in the midst of that to bring us the Good News. Jesus explains that God’s plan is nor our own. That God’s justice is not the world’s justice. That we are called to walk in love, not walk in power over others.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples were standing there admiring the temple, this place dedicated to God that had become poisoned by hypocrisy and corruption and it no longer represented love or health or healing.  They were reminiscing, musing on its solidity and its sturdiness and its beauty and how its very existence was a form of praise for God.

Jesus’ response to this wasn’t, “Yes, isn’t it magnificent?”  Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

We know we live in a time of great divisiveness. It’s a time in deep need of redemption, deep need of Love. Because the division is so deep that it seems it may never heal. We may never heal.  We’re harboring disappointment in other people, judgement of other people, outrage over the behavior of other people.  And we’re deeply self-satisfied in our positions, unwilling to display our vulnerability.

This division seems recent for many of us. But it has been present for a long, long, long time. Because it was born out of a great injustice that has been yearning for centuries to be healed.  For some of us, this division was hard to see because we are white. And white privilege only allows us to see from certain vantage points.  But the division has been there for centuries because it was born out of the evil of chattel slavery. Those wounds have never been fully healed.

We know this because the depth of racism in our society has been uncovered in recent years and we are reeling in the stench.  We have been shocked into awareness that those who exemplify, fund, and enkindle the twisted flame of white supremacy are sitting in many of the most powerful positions in our own government.

What does faith look like in this time of division?  How do we remember God’s promise when it feels like the world is falling apart?

Last weekend, clergy and lay representatives from the nearly 200 congregations in the Diocese of New York met together as we do every year with our bishops to discuss, to learn, to make decisions about our common life.

The Diocese of New York extends from the tip of Manhattan and Staten Island along both sides of the Hudson River, all the way to the edges of Ulster and Dutchess Counties. So, we are about as far north as you can get and still call the Cathedral of St. John the Divine your home.

Deacon Sue Bonsteel, our Warden Lynn Dennison, and myself all drove down to Tarrytown for this meeting. Our diocesan bishop, Andy Dietsche, spoke to us about redeeming the time.  He took his text from St. Paul, our patron saint of resilience and forgiveness, and his letter to the Ephesians chapter 5:

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them… everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ 15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of God is.

Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.

At this convention, we did something historic.  We took a significant step toward racial reconciliation.  A little history is in order here.

New York was one of the last northern states to end slavery through a series of laws that were enacted from 1799-1827, over about 30 years. They were complicated laws, however, keeping people indentured to their former enslavers.

For example, Sojourner Truth, who is held up as an example of strength and faith throughout our church and whose statue stands right over on the other side of Rondout Creek in the town of Port Ewen… Sojourner Truth had to run away in 1826 because her enslaver would not grant her freedom. He then sold her son to a southern farmer and she fought for her son’s freedom in our own Ulster County Courthouse in 1828, saying the sale was illegal because slavery had been abolished. And she won!

And even though the 1840 census listed no slaves in NYC, we know for a fact that financiers and business owners up and down the Hudson and in NYC were deeply invested in the slave trade – financing ships that sailed from NYC to Africa and carried with them the chains made by blacksmiths in NYC. The rector of St James on Madison Ave, Brenda Husson, spoke to us at great length last weekend about just how involved that parish was in the slave trade.

This is important because in the year 1860 – over 30 years after slavery had been legally abolished in NYS, the Diocese of New York had their annual convention in September. At that convention, a man named John Jay brought before the convention four resolutions – all of which requested the condemnation of slavery and the slave trade. They did not pass.  As a matter of fact, so controversial was this idea that the delegates filibustered, walked out of the proceedings, and eventually tabled the resolutions.

Now, imagine just how much money was involved and, therefore, just how unwilling those people were – both lay people and clergy people – to deny themselves that comfortable life and how they were willing to deceive themselves in order to have that. While it’s something we knew as a diocese, its kind of amazing how unwilling we still are to admit this and deal with it in any meaningful way… that Episcopal congregations in this diocese were built up from funds that came directly from the slave trade. It’s no wonder that the resolutions were tabled.  Seven months later, in April of 1861, the civil war broke out.

And the resolutions remained on the table for 159 years until this year’s diocesan convention. The historic thing we did was to pick up the resolutions off the table and vote on them. They passed unanimously.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the resolutions passed unanimously.  One might wonder, why would we even bother. Slavery is over.

Here’s why: Because we chose to shine the light of Christ into the darkness of our collective past to help illuminate the many ways in which we have failed to directly address the evil institution of chattel slavery and offer reparations to millions of enslaved African people and their descendants.

So, passing a resolution that was started 159 years ago isn’t the end. This is just the beginning. Because we are starting to see.

Bishop Andy has asked these nearly 200 congregations that worship along the lower and mid Hudson to make a formal apology, which we will do as a diocese at next year’s convention. However, in order to make an apology, we must understand exactly what it is we are apologizing for.

So as a part of this act of apology, each congregation has been asked to do some work in the next year, shining the light of Christ – learn more about our history, understanding our connection to slavery – good or bad (who knows, we may have had people who fought against slavery as members of St. John’s), own up to our responsibility – and stretch our own hearts just a little bit further to include a little bit more so that love may see fit to redeem this time in which we live.

This isn’t about feeling bad or wallowing in guilt. This is about taking the steps to redeem the time – all this time – all these 159 years – all these centuries that have brought us to the place we are now, where the sins of our forebears and the sins of our system are laid open for us to see.

We’ve been given tools – ways to look up names of slaveholders, connections to resources and ways to better understand our history.

St. John’s was chartered in 1832 – around the time that slavery was legally abolished and Sojourner Truth fought for her son’s freedom not a mile away from here. The people who planted this church were witness to those events – what inspired them to bring the Episcopal Church here to Kingston? Who were the laborers that built the church building? Who quarried the rock? Were they enslaved or free?

We will hear more about this in the coming year from Bishop Andy and the Reparations Committee and I hope you’ll join me and the rest of St. John’s in this loving task of research so that honestly look at our past and tell the full story of St. John’s.

Paul says, Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of God is.

As the Body of Christ, to redeem the time means to find God’s justice wherever it lies in wait, yearning to be given breath and brought to life should we only have the courage to speak it into existence.  To pick up the so-called baton and carry it beyond our fears, just a little bit further, to where love is waiting like a child on Christmas morning to shine joyfully onto the world.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us of God’s promise:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight… no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

May it be so.

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