That They May Be One As We Are One

A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 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 celebrate the last Sunday of Easter. We’ve spent the past 43 days reading about the Resurrection – from various Gospels and from the Acts of the Apostles.  Next week, on the 50th day, we will celebrate Pentecost – one of the major feasts in our church and the season will shift into the season of the Spirit, the long Season after Pentecost.

Six weeks ago we celebrated Easter and read Matthew’s version of what happened that day at the tomb, which is similar to Luke’s.  Mary and a few other women go to the tomb.  The stone is rolled back (either before or while they are there).  And someone in white appears to explain what’s happened to them.  In Matthew, it’s one angel. In Luke, it’s two men. Then the women are sent to tell the others, making them the first apostles, the first to go and tell. The first to proclaim.Giotto The Ascension

Now, in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have two men in white again.  Scholars all agree that the author of Luke’s Gospel is the author of the Acts of the Apostles, that Acts is a continuation of Luke. And we have these two men as kind of bookends – to the Resurrection and, consequently, to our Easter Season.

The two men in white mark the beginning of the resurrection and the beginning of the Ascension. We’ve interpreted that these two men are angels of God. Messengers doing what they always do: point us in the right direction.

And here’s what they say to the women at the tomb: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ (Luke 24:5)

Which is similar to what they say to the rest of the apostles as Jesus ascends and leaves them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

The events are different, but the message is the same: God has indeed done wonders in this person Jesus. God has shown us Christ, given us a Son. But don’t stand here gaping. Go and join Christ in the world.  Go and find Christ in your human siblings, in the vast creation that you have been given to steward. Go and serve Christ there. Go and serve life through love.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Christ is not among the dead.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Christ is not in heaven.

Christ lives. Here. With us. Amongst us.  In us and through us. Christ is alive.

The Feast of the Ascension was celebrated this past Thursday – 40 days after Easter, which is what these readings are referencing. Jesus, who has been walking the earth as the resurrected Christ, finally ascends to heaven to be seated at the right hand of God.InflatableJesus

The skeptic in me tells me that this was a story created to explain why Jesus no longer walks the earth. But the believer in me, the mystic, looks for a deeper meaning – What is the ascension about?

I think the key is in the first part of today’s reading from Acts:
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:6-8)

“Lord is this the time…?” The disciples are still looking to Jesus to lead them in a worldly battle. The disciples are still, after all this time – the crucifixion and resurrection, and all the miracles, all the teachings, all the healings – the disciples are still unable to fully acknowledge why Jesus was sent and what God is really about.  They still have plans for God, a wish list for God to fulfill.  As if God is Santa Claus or a vending machine.

They want worldly power and worldly comfort. They want Israel restored to its former glory. They want their enemies to be vanquished. They want the world to be the way they want it and they want God to provide that for them on their timeline.

It makes one wonder if they have learned anything at all from Jesus.  But then, that’s usually what we witness in the disciples.  They follow but they don’t learn.  They say the right things, but they aren’t transformed.

And Jesus tells them: “It’s not for you to decide what’s going to happen or when. This is up to God. But the Holy Spirit is coming and She will give you power and wisdom. Then, perhaps you’ll get it.  When you, yourself, have been filled with Love and inspired by Love, then you’ll bear witness to Love, you will become that Love all the way to the ends of the earth.”

Then, as Jesus says, “they may be one, as we are one.”

This may seem incredibly mystical. I can’t imagine anything more mystical than the Ascension, actually. But the Ascension is also one of the most pragmatic, one of the most practical things God has ever done.ascension-icon

Because God understands human nature. In order for humanity to be able to focus on Love and live into becoming Love’s messengers ourselves, we must be able to remove our gaze from the person of Jesus and look into the eyes of our siblings around us. If we are to change the world through Love, we have to stop waiting for Jesus to lead us.  And we have to BE Christ in and for the world.

Jesus told us that whomever believed in him would do “even greater things than” he did, in the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel. But this requires something of us. It requires us to choose love over empire, over our comfort. It requires us to choose life over the economy.  It invites us to give of ourselves, to empty ourselves, until only Christ – only Christ – resides in our hearts.

And this is not some feel-good spiritual joyride, this is the everyday hard work of showing up for others and being willing to be changed by their presence. This is what ministry is.  Is it convenient? No. Not usually.  Is it easy? Sometimes, not always.  Is it rewarding? Yes, it often is.  Is it joyful? Yes. Every single time. Yes.

And being a member of a congregation is like boot camp, honestly.  It’s a training ground for ministry. We learn to be there for one another, to give of ourselves for one another so that we gain confidence and skill to take that Love out into the world, beyond the walls of the church building.

We learn to love one another around a Table of Reconciliation where in thanksgiving, the Body of Christ is taken, blessed, broken, and shared. And we do this so that we may become what we receive – the Body of Christ, taken, blessed, broken, and shared.Liturgy 3

In our celebration next week, we will celebrate that sharing, that “being sent by the Holy Spirit”, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.  But there is this in-between time. This time of waiting. Between the Ascension and its promise and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  This time of waiting, much like our lives are like right now… during which, we are called to hold onto Christ in our hearts so that we can seek out and serve Christ in the world around us.

This time of waiting when we are called to continue breathing, continue paying attention, continue praying… so that when we are able to act, when it has been revealed to us what is needed, we know what to do.

The world is changing, my friends. We see this and many of us have hoped for this and celebrated this.  So now, how are we called to respond?  How are we called to share our space and resources?  How are we called to steward the arts and advocate for social justice? How are we called to inclusive and intergenerational worship and communal life?

The things we expect, our own wish-list that we want God to fulfill, may just need to change. So, are we ready to really embrace that?  “Why do you look for Jesus among the dead?”

I was watching the CDSP graduation this past Saturday since it was livestreamed and I was blessed to hear my professor and mentor Susanna Singer offer these beautiful words, which are so appropriate for this moment in our communal lives:

She said, even though we cannot share the Eucharist, we are called to continue “living Eucharistically. That is, thankfully. Offering ourselves into God’s hands to be taken, blessed, broken and shared.”

And then, she offered this prayer:
From where we are now to where you need us. Jesus, now lead on.
From the security of what we know to the adventure of what you will reveal. Jesus, now lead on.
To refashion the fabric of this world until it resembles the shape of your kingdom. Jesus, now lead on.
Because good things have been prepared for those who love God. Jesus, now lead on.
And the blessing of the Enteral Majesty, the Incarnate Word, and the Abiding Spirit, one God…” now, lead on.

Let us prepare to celebrate the Season of the Spirit. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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?

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.”

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

We Are the Incarnation

A sermon preached on December 29, 2019 the first Sunday after Christmas (A) at 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.

 

Outside of the Psalms, the beginning of John’s Gospel is perhaps the most poetic text in all of scripture.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.Omega Nebula

Hearkening back to the story of creation in Genesis, when God speaks Creation into being, John’s Gospel illuminates the salvific teachings of Jesus by helping us understand that the love Jesus teaches is the very heart of the entire universe.  This Word, present at the beginning with God, is the Christ light.  And it becomes flesh, spoken through the personal pronoun “he.”

It’s not about gender, but about the nearness we have to this Word and the immediacy of this Word for us. God said “Let there be light…” and this Word becomes the Incarnation… the vast expanse of the universe in a living, breathing creation.

A person, perhaps… a human being with whom we can connect.  A creature that we could offer ourselves in service to, but a creature that is here with us. Skin, bone, blood, muscle. Breathing the same air, feeling the warmth of the same sun, walking on the same earth.

She isn’t metaphorical or rhetorical, this Word. He isn’t something that exists only in the heavenly realms. This Word is enfleshed, like us, with us. Tangible. Real. Heart-beating. Alive. 

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.Star Earth

This is gorgeous poetic imagery. Life blazing into existence in the midst of darkness, so powerfully that malevolent forces could not oppress it or weaken it. Through it we are offered an image we can wrap our minds around – a being, like us, but of absolute light.  Someone whom the malevolent forces cannot touch. Innocence returned.  This is God’s Love in flesh before our eyes.

At Christmas we celebrate this Incarnation by celebrating God’s gift to us of this teacher named Jesus who taught us that God’s dream for us is Love – Love for God and Love for one another. And he taught us this through parables, through befriending the marginalized and unloved, through his example of prayer and service, and through his sacrifice of love.

Jesus helps us to see that this life we have been given, this Incarnation of which we are a part, is one that is shared with others. It is not our own and we are not alone in it. Life flows through us and we are connected to one another.

But when we have lost our innocence, and all of us have in some way and to varying degrees, it feels like we are alone.  It feels like we have to protect ourselves. John tells us this:

[This Word of God] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his people did not accept him.

Yesterday was the day in which the larger church commemorates the Holy Innocents, a remembrance of Herod’s attempt to maintain control in his fear of losing the throne. Because of the rumor that he would be unseated by an infant king, Herod ordered the killing of all male babies in Bethlehem under the age of two.Holy Innocents Icon

Just three days after we celebrate the birth of a love so innocent that all it knows is God, we remember just how ruthless and cruel the world can be.

I think it’s terribly important to continue commemorating this event so that we can remember how it’s our own loss of innocence that hardens our heart and prevents us from entering into compassion – for others and for ourselves. How we experience a distance us from the divine life we are promised in the Incarnation. How we learn to think of ourselves as bad or unworthy or wrong… the list goes on.

I saw a post on FB yesterday along this theme.  It said:
“Be the person who breaks the cycle. If you were judged, choose acceptance. If you
were shamed, choose compassion. Be the person you needed when you were
hurting, not the person who hurt you. Vow to be better than what broke you – to
heal instead of becoming bitter so you can act from your heart, not your pain.”

It is our fears that keep us locked in self-involved behaviors. It is our fears that keep us from becoming what we are called to become. It is our fears that keep us from showing up or keep us from relinquishing control.

But this love, God’s Love, is something that actually saves us from this prison. This Love is born inside of us again and again and again, as often as is needed, so that we can be saved from the hell of being a jumble of fears in a bag of flesh… so that we are given the power to become children of God, which is our birthright.

Johannine scholar Sandra Schneiders tells us that John’s Gospel spells this truth out for us: “The purpose of Jesus’ life and paschal mystery is… to give divine life as children of God to human beings.” (Written That You May Believe, Pg 28)

This divine life Schneiders talks about is the return of what our loss of innocence took from us – to know God’s wild and extravagant love for us, personally. To learn courage so that we can set aside the voices that offer criticism of us and realize that we are beloved creatures of God, essential and precious parts of this wondrous incarnation.

This divine life is given to us in the here and now so that we can be Christ’s body broken open for the world. To learn courage so that we can set aside our own needs and wants, which are reflections of our fears. To get out of our own way and surrender ourselves at the manger in service to the most vulnerable among us. Jesus comes us to in this way to break open our hearts of stone and learn to see the world anew again.

It matters not to God that we have struggled or that we are still struggling or that we are late to learn this or that we will need to learn it again and again and again.

Because we have not fallen, we only believe that we have because we have learned to steel our hearts to get along in the world.  But, in this Word, this light of Christ, we have already received grace.  We are already “in.” We are already beloved. We already belong.

The question we ask of ourselves is a simple one, but to answer it demands, from us, a courageous heart. Who is in need? How can I help? Who else needs to be brought in from their own loss of innocence?

In other words, how can I move through my fears so that I may truly be of service today? How can I lay aside the discouraging thoughts that cause me discomfort long enough to help someone else who really needs me to show up?

Paul tells us today from his letter to the Galatians: So, you are no longer a slave (a slave to our fears that need to be monitored by rules and discipline) but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God.Liberation

We are the Word made flesh – you and me. We receive Communion every week as nourishment to be Christ’s Body for the world God has made.  Our birthright is to be the Incarnation, to be Christ’s light for one another in this world that so easily and willingly takes our innocence.

I offer you this beautiful blessing from my friend Brian Baker* :

The world now is too dangerous
and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
May your hands be so blessed
that everything you touch is a sacrament.
Your lips, so that you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run
to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened,
so set on fire, that your love,
your love, changes everything.

 

*Brian Baker is an Episcopal priest who spends time in the late summer every year with the temporary community called Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.  This is a blessing he offers to them and is a part of the “Black Rock Prayer Book.”  You can read more about Brian’s adventures here: https://www.deanbaker.org/

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

This Is Where We Find Love

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture, please click here.  If you’d like to listen along, please click the play button below.  And Merry Christmas!

Star Sky

During this time of year (at least in the northern hemisphere), the earth seems to be asleep, under the snow. But beneath the surface, where we cannot see, the energy of Creation is there bursting forth even before we can see it or know it. Hearing the voice that calls it to become. The axis has tilted. The light is growing again.

I’ve often heard the Christmas season described as a thin time – when the veil is less dense, the boundaries we have are more delicate. So, it’s a time when strange things happen and people’s energy seems to be uneven.

My observations tell me that this is true. It can seem like we’re a bunch of charged molecules bumping into each other. Unconscious things are closer to the surface, strong memories full of emotion – love, disappointment, excitement, grief, joy, fear, awe – they all seem to be there fighting for the front seat in our minds this time of year.

The world is so much with us. The world is always the context we have. The worldly ways of control and power that deceive us into believing that life is about getting all the toys we want. This is always the context we have.

This is why God comes to us as the most vulnerable. To melt our hearts once again, the hearts we’ve tried to protect. So that we might turn towards God, towards light, towards Love… and re-mind ourselves that our need for power is really calling for us to bring tenderness. Our need for control is really an invitation to accept. Our desire to judge is really a request to forgive. The difference between the two is a thin space.

Matthew and Luke are the gospel writers who offer us the story of Jesus’ birth. The details, the scene, Luke gives are important because the world is always the context we have: oppressive occupying government, the registering of immigrants, illegitimate pregnancy, poverty, fear of foreigners, homelessness.

The scene is filled with nearly all the ways in which the world exerts power over others because these are all the situations we try to avoid if we are middle class, if we have any means at all.

With every sentence in Luke’s description, we are invited to understand the ways in which the worldly drive for power and control are ultimately marginalizing and life-draining.

And yet, in the midst of all this suffering, the message of the manger is clear: God is with us. God’s arrival will not be stopped because the ways of the world are ultimately of no consequence to God. God comes anyway. Always.

Even if you don’t believe in the Virgin birth, even if you don’t believe this story at all… it doesn’t matter. Because what we know is that Jesus was a teacher who taught people to love and the love that he taught us was a love of self-sacrifice, a love that gives, a love that rearranges its own needs and wants, because life is what we share.

Jesus’ message is clear: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Because it is in the face of your neighbor, that you will find Jesus. It is in God’s Creation – lowly and vulnerable and needy and broken… in the incarnation, not outside of it on some heavenly plane. In the midst of life, in the midst of this worldly context, that you will always find Christ.

And this life requires tending sometimes. Because not everyone has means. Not everyone has bootstraps. We’re not always at our best.

This is the love that comes down at Christmas. This teaching. This is the joy that we share. This is the salvation that we claim. This is when the people who have walked in darkness (as Isaiah prophesies) have seen a great light.

Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
Sing to God’s and bless God’s Name;
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare God’s glory among the nations
and her wonders among all peoples.  (Psalm 96: 1-3)

This is the peace that we come to know… making peace within ourselves as we find the thin places in us, where the veil is drawn back just far enough that we can stop believing that we are bound to the ways of the world and believe, instead, believe that we are born of a boundless Love.

And this is the great Hope. The greatest hope. That we are capable of this Love, as capable as Jesus was. To be God’s bread broken open for the whole world.

So on this night, we celebrate that God has given us this love in this person, this teacher, called Jesus. Because it was Jesus who re-minded us in his ministry and still re-minds us today that worldly power ultimately has no power over God. God will bring the powerful to its knees every time, to the foot of the manger where the most vulnerable lies in need of tending.

In the birth of an immigrant child whose parents aren’t following the society’s rules and so she is born in a smelly barn in the midst of animals. Luke tells us that this… this is where we find God. This is where we find the Love that turns us toward itself, beckoning us to join its undertaking: to bring us all to our knees.

It is a thin time. Where we find God who is Love, the source of our life, like a newborn awaiting our gaze. Come to the manger where God is waiting.  This is where we find Love.

 

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Hope and Darkness

A sermon preached on December 22, 2019 (Advent IV A) at 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 play button below.

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation… [so that there will be a mansion prepared for Christ to make a home in our hearts.]”  (today’s collect)

Ahaz was a young king – 20 when he became the ruler of Judah, the southern kingdom. He is not regarded as a wise king nor is he regarded as an observant Jew. Ahaz is the kind of ruler that the prophets talk about when they say things like, “Israel wasn’t faithful to God.” Here is why:

When he ascended the throne, Ahaz was invited to join a coalition of friendly nations against the aggressive nation of Assyria. One of these nations was Judah’s sister, the Northern Kingdom – Israel.

Instead, Ahaz decided to strike deals with Assyria, offering bribes of service and property and payments to the Assyrian government to keep him safe and in power.  But his power was dependent upon Assyria’s indulgence and tolerance.  They kept him in their pocket.

Ahaz’s betrayal is recognized as the most significant factor in the capture of Judah’s sister nation of Israel. And, if it’s possible, more troublesome than that, is Ahaz’s worship of Assyrian gods – a practice which he brought back to Jerusalem, making changes to the Temple to accommodate it.  His successor Hezekiah spent most of his reign undoing the damage Ahaz had done. Ahaz is considered to be a disastrous ruler.

Isaiah’s words of prophecy, which we hear today, come to us from this context. Before the betrayal happens, Isaiah is advising Ahaz, trying to talk him down out of his fearful state. Ahaz is fearful because two other leaders were challenging his authority.

Isaiah says, “Trust God’s promise that all will be ok and that you won’t have to betray your own people in order to survive these challenges. If you don’t believe me… ask God for a sign. Any sign! Ask for the moon, if you want.”

But Ahaz is a fearful person who is self-absorbed enough to believe that staying in power is all that matters. He can’t see past his own position, can’t understand how he is a part of the larger picture.

He wants to control his own destiny and self-righteously says, “I’m not going to put God to the test!”

So our long-suffering prophet Isaiah tries another approach. He says, “Look, do you see that young woman? She will get pregnant and will have a son she will call Emmanuel (God is with us). By the time he’s old enough to make moral decisions (within the span of 12 years), the threat will be over.”

Isaiah is saying: Wait. Hold on to yourself. Don’t let your fear get away with you. God is with you. God is always with you.Wait

This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult spiritual practices for any human – the practice of hope in the midst of fear.  We’ve all experienced a place of such fear that the only thought that keeps running through our head is: if I don’t do something right now… the world will cave in and everything will be lost.

This is why we leave before we’re supposed to.
This is why we gossip and complain about other people.
This is why we get addicted.
This is why we become controlling.
This is why we try to manipulate others.
This is why we engage in war.
This is why we despair.

In psychological terms, we are trying to relieve anxiety.

But through the lens of this story about a disastrous ruler who failed to have faith, we hear the words: Wait. Hold on to yourself. Don’t let your fear get the best of you. God is with you. God is always with you.

Meeting our fear, going into the shadows, however, is never easy.  We avoid them for good reason – we don’t know what they hold for us.  We cannot see anything in the dark.  We aren’t sure what we’ll find. So we don’t want to stay there for long.  We don’t want to see the shapes of things in the shadows.

But Isaiah reminds us that, when we’re having fearful thoughts, when we are at our wits end, when we feel like the world is about to cave in… God is here. God is always here.  Our practice, then, our response, is simply to wait. Nothing more.  The practice of waiting is the practice of hope.

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation… [so that there will be a mansion prepared for Christ to make a home in our hearts.]”

In Matthew’s gospel, we see the same tendency in Joseph that we saw in Ahaz – the impulse to do something, to control the situation, to excuse himself from social embarrassment, keep his power.

And the angel says: Wait. Don’t let your fear get the best of you.  God is here. Something is happening that you cannot see.

I think what we sometimes miss in times of darkness is the invitation for growth, the encouragement to become something new.  We are so anxious to get to the light that we miss the gift of the darkness.

Seeds are planted beneath the surface. Babies grow in wombs.  Dreams flow when our eyes are closed.  In times of darkness, we are summoned, beckoned to deepen our faith, to wait just a few minutes longer, just one more day.

This practice of waiting reminds me of the children’s book – The Monster at the End of This Book. Where Grover is talking directly to us, the person reading this book and he does everything possible to get us to stop turning pages because he’s terrified of monsters.  He builds brick walls. He pleads and begs. But of course we still turn the page until we get to the end of the book and Grover discovers that the monster is just him. He’s the monster at the end of the book.

Sometimes we are our own monster – our fearful thoughts running away with us.

And sometimes, the darkness is a time of deep pain and loss.  A loss of love. A loss of innocence. A loss of wholeness.  In these moments, the words “God is with you” can sound like a meaningless platitude.  Even though it’s true – God IS with us – we are still too bruised to offer ourselves to hope.

Poet Jan Richardson* offers this:
I do not know
what these shadows
ask of you,
what they might hold
that means you good
or ill.
It is not for me
to reckon
whether you should linger
or you should leave.

But this is what
I can ask for you:
That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.

This Love waits on us.  This Love always waits on us because this Love is God.  It is Love that feeds us in these moments.  Love that moves us when we are lost.

It’s not that hope is comfortable – on the contrary, hope is supremely uncomfortable. It asks us to sit somewhere in between numbness and despair, between detachment and cynicism.  Hope demands that we offer ourselves to a practice of not-knowing that is wholly unnerving.  Waiting in the dark enables us to find other ways of being, to develop other senses and skills.

If you’re a child on Christmas Eve, it usually feels like excitement.  If you’re an adult who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, it often feels like anxiety.

This is the practice of hope.  When we wait in the dark, we start to see the shapes of things in the shadows. And, if we look up, we see the stars bursting forth their radiance in the velvet blanket of the night sky.  Love shining back its adoration for us.

And waiting in the dark slowly turns to hope for something unseen.  Hope for something we cannot fathom.  And a devotion to its birth in the world.

so…
this is what
I can ask for you:
That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.

 

* You can find Jan Richardson’s work here: https://www.janrichardson.com/
Please visit her website because her work is just amazing.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Garden of Hope

A sermon preached on Advent III year A, December 15, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture for the day, click here.

From James’ letter: Be patient, therefore, beloved… Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of God is near.

When I first came to St. John’s in 2016 – nearly 4 years ago – I was excited for many reasons. To come and minister among you all and be your partner in service to Kingston, mostly.  But I was also looking forward to a garden. I love gardens and love the process of watching God’s creation grow and develop.  But I’d never had a garden before.Dahlia

It took a while before I was able to do any gardening because other things needed my attention – getting to know the people of St. John’s, learning more about Kingston and the people of this diocese, figuring out how to minister to you all and with you all.

There were also several things that happened during that first year that pulled my attention even more: our organist (Andrew) resigned and moved on so that he could attend seminary, we learned that we had taken a significant hit on our endowment, creating insecurity in our finances, and in the fall, of course, we suffered the divisive presidential election as a society.  There were other things to tend to that year.

Still… the next spring, and then the next and the next, I was delighted to watch the flowers bloom and see the changes to the garden over the seasons. Cathy Whittaker would just show up every so often to plant things in the front beds and care for them.

I waivered between embarrassment that I had let it get so out of hand… that I couldn’t get it together enough to do it myself… and deep gratitude that someone came to offer ministry in such a lovely and self-giving way.

I offer this story because the season of Advent is the season of hope.  All of these things I just spoke about – people leaving, financial insecurity, political and societal tensions, receiving help from others – these things are the nature of our common life together.  We move through periods of difficulty… as a society, as a community, as families, and as individuals.

In response, we’re sometimes disappointed. Disappointed in the actions and attitudes of other people. Disappointed in ourselves.  We steel ourselves against hope so that we can protect our hearts.  We may even get angry or embarrassed over our circumstances, wishing we had an easier life or thinking we should be doing better.  So we sometimes lose hope.

But hope is not fickle. Hope doesn’t rely upon us because it’s born of God. Hope remains true even when we waiver.  If we have an eye to see and ears to hear… if we’re not too focused on what we’ve lost, regardless of our fondness for it… and if we’re able to bring a sense of curiosity to what might happen in the space that has arisen, we can often find ourselves heartened.  We might find that we’re already carrying hope within us – pregnant with its pulse and lifeblood.

Because, in the midst of all of these things that seemed troubling or overwhelming in my first year and even in the following years… God was at work, doing things that I would not have expected and could not fathom.

Last year, Ana and I were married and she moved into the rectory.  And we began to plan our garden over the winter. Watching every episode of Monty Don on Netflix.  Learning more about each other as we discerned what to plant, where to plant, and how to create a space we both loved.  We were excited to begin as we grew closer to spring’s thaw.

And then, when my brother died and my gall bladder sent me to the emergency room within the same week, a garden was the last thing on my mind.

But one day in early March, I was amazed to find myself outside on a cold, sunny day… clearing the beds in the backyard. It took a whole day to clear just one bed because they had all become so overgrown over 3 years.  I was thankful that I had a space to move and cry and yell and pray as I grieved.

Removing all the rose of Sharon sprouts that had volunteered, digging up the enormous pokeweed roots, pulling endless weeds, cutting back sumac, clearing grass that had overgrown onto the stone walk… this is how I spent most of my extra time last spring.

And it was exactly what I needed to do – go into the garden to dig, clear things that didn’t belong, and carry away the refuse so I could give it back to God.

My father came to visit and he and Ana spent several days getting to know each other better as they worked together clearing space and planting. Adam Hendricks came one day and helped us plant the Angel Food East herb garden… which really thrived this year because Monty Don was consistent in his message that compost is a good thing.  Ana’s friend Savannah came, who works as a landscape gardener, and she helped us clear the worst bed.

During one of our trips to Adams, Ana started telling me about dahlias, how amazing and beautiful they were. I saw the package and said, sure… let’s try one, since this was our first year and we were trying to figure out what would work best.  We planted the bulb in the late spring in a random space where it would get plenty of sun and waited.

And then one June day, I decided to clear out the last bed and I felt triumphant when it was finished. It took a few days for me to realize, that I had just discovered exactly where the poison ivy was.  Steroids and a skin calming regimen took up all my free time for the next 4 weeks which slowly morphed into preparing for gall bladder surgery.  Once again, my work in the garden was set aside so that I could tend to something else – myself.

And, despite Ana’s claims, the dahlia seemed pretty disappointing. It hadn’t grown much. It resembled a weed, frankly. Rough, thick stalk and pointy, thick leaves. Still, I thought, perhaps we just planted it too late. Maybe it will bloom next year.

It was around the time of our block party in mid-September that I noticed it. A bud had appeared on the dahlia plant.  I thought – great! We got one flower in the first year. Not bad.  And it was a beautiful flower – huge, stunning, dinner-plate sized.  Lots of petals. White with purple edges.  I promptly cut it off and put it in a vase on our table.

It was about week before I noticed another bud. And then, another. And another. And another. We ended up with whole bouquets of huge white and purple dahlias while more kept coming… right up until the first frost in early November.

When it was time to put our garden to rest for the winter, to protect it, we removed the dahlia bulb from the ground. It was huge now, from its season of growth.  All those times when I thought it wasn’t doing much or thought I had planted it at the wrong time or tended to it incorrectly… it seems, it was just growing in ways that I couldn’t see. Hope remained true.

It’s beautifully strange how God works, how God teaches us, how God provides. This dahlia – this whole garden is such a beautiful lesson. Perhaps its an overwrought metaphor… the garden as a metaphor for hope. But there it is.

There are times when it’s our time to jump in and just work the soil, and there are times when our attention is called to tend to other things, and there are times when other people come to help or even partner with you in your vision, and there are times when we think growth should be happening in one way, but it’s actually happening in another.

In all of it, there is always something on the verge, getting ready, something just about to become… because God is ever-present. So life is ever-present. This means that hope is ever-present. We might not always be able to see it so James asks us to strengthen our hearts until we can. As much as this is true of gardens, it’s even more true of people.

Jesus tells us about hope today. He reminds us that it’s not going to be in soft robes in the royal palaces. He tells is that it’s in the places where we may think we’ll only see a reed shaken by the wind.

That’s where we may, in fact, find a prophet… a word, a flower of hope, one who points to the true relief and comfort and cleansing, one who offers us the balm of peace and blessing, the experience of beauty and wholeness.

What if we started looking for Christ’s light to shine through the hearts of others? What if, instead of steeling ourselves for disappointment, we patiently waited to see the reign of heaven break in upon us?

What if we believed in hope?

Because hope remains. It is the nature of God – this God of Love, this God of Life whom we worship. God’s very nature is hope.

And hope is not fickle because God is not fickle. Hope remains true. Sometimes, it only asks that we wait for it to show itself to us, that we are patient for its full birth into the world.

Be patient, therefore, beloved… Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of God is near.

 

Posted in Preaching, Rambling | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hope, If You Want

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, year A, on December 8, 2019 at 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, please click the play button below.

St. John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz) whose feast day is this coming Saturday, Dec 14, was a 14th century mystic, poet, and teacher who lived in Spain. He wrote this beautiful Advent poem.

If You Want

If you want
the Virgin will come
walking down the road
pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night,heart-manger
please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us
is the midwife of God,
each of us.
Yet there,
under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us isshekinah
[God’s] beloved servant never far.
If you want,
the Virgin will come
walking down the street pregnant
with Light and sing.
(Trans. By Coleman Barks)

John the Baptist speaks to us today from the banks of the River Jordan. Even through his angry, finger-shaking speech, John is the messenger of Israel’s larger story of hope.  Matthew’s beautiful description of this scene draws us into the narrative of Israel’s hope with the first sentence from chapter 3 –

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” (3:1)

Judea is another name for Judah – the Southern Kingdom – where Jerusalem was the capital. The wilderness referring to the nature of being lost, disconnected from family and friends, disconnected from help, disconnected from God. Matthew is telling us that the people of Israel had drifted far from their home, far from God.

The scene finds John at the River Jordan, a place of deep meaning for the people of Israel. The Jordan River is the boundary between searching and finding, where the people who had been led by Moses in the desert would finally cross over into the promised land, a land of hope, the place that would become their home.

Here, at this border, is John, in the middle of the water, halfway between searching and finding, baptizing people into hope. Inviting people to remember, if they want, the hope of coming home, finally, after being lost for so long.

And his words are: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (3:2) Or another version says it this way: “Change your hearts and minds, for the reign of heaven is about to break in upon you.” (Inclusive Version)

“The reign of heaven is about to break in upon you.”  How beautiful is that?

The invitation to repent, to come back tells us that, if we want, we can open ourselves up and change our hearts and minds. It is the invitation to be vulnerable and bare ourselves before God. And it comes with it the promise that the reign of heaven is about to break into your world and right everything again.

John the Baptist first appeared in the midst of people who believed themselves to be people of God but had experienced a sense of lost-ness. Because they had, indeed, become lost. And he reminds them of God’s promise. And he dares to speak about hope.

Because it is a daring thing to do – to speak about hope, to have hope, to imagine hope at times when it seems foolish to be hopeful. Humans have a tendency to believe that being skeptical or pessimistic is the same thing as being smart. A “you won’t catch me off my guard” kind of approach to the world.

Cynicism becomes its own religion and it seems there is no end to it. It is a life-draining endeavor to be a cynic. And it changes nothing. It saves no one.

Even still, despair itself seems to be the appropriate response at times – a global ecological crisis, a gun-violence epidemic, war, white supremacists holding federal government offices, human beings in cages at the border, an opioid epidemic. And that doesn’t even touch our own personal physical, financial, emotional, and relational concerns… although they are almost assuredly connected.

But to live into hope – this is the invitation of Advent. To believe, if you want, that the reign of heaven is about to break in upon you.

To believe that love is real.
To believe that peace is possible.
To believe that who we are is already enough.
To believe that we belong in the promised land.
To believe that spring will come again.
To believe that there is a seed in the ground just waiting for the thaw.
To believe that blessing is our birthright.
To believe that rest is forthcoming.
To believe that we are made for goodness.

The season of Advent is the sparking of hope in our hearts. But, more than just a thought or an idea or a wish, this hope becomes a lived experience of anticipation, if we want. And that anticipation shifts our being, enkindles our soul, so that we begin to act as if this hope is already the reality.

We act as if we are in the promised land. We act as if we are the blessing. We act as if the reign of heaven is breaking in upon us.

We act as if Christ has already taken up residence in the manger of our hearts and, in the mystery that is God, we become immersed in the Incarnation – the living, breathing body of Christ. We become midwives, helping to give birth to hope in this world.

This River Jordan scene given to us by Matthew is one of defiant hope. Hopeful because John and those who go out to the river to immerse themselves are acting in anticipation of a dream that they have come to believe is God’s promise. Defiant because of their refusal to succumb to the fearful, cynical, life-draining ways of the world.

The season of Advent is our time to prepare for the absolute truth of God’s wild and extravagant love that knows no bounds. A love that encourages us to turn away from the ways of the world and rest from the unwinnable contest of trying to prove ourselves worthy every day. To turn towards God and towards one another in love and mercy.

This absolute truth is demonstrated to us with the seemingly shameful birth of Jesus – born as an immigrant child in a foreign land to poor parents who had no place to sleep except in the filth of an animal barn… this powerless, vulnerable, poor, immigrant child is the savior of the whole world.

A birth that defies the world and its prestige and privilege. A birth that offers love as the light that saves us. Love is the reign of heaven that breaks in upon us, if we want. Love for God. Love for one another.

The question we are offered during Advent is this: What are the things that weigh you down? What are the painful notions of yourself that you carry? What are the situations in this world that feel immovable? Intractable?

And the invitation from John is: Do not despair. Do not despair.

But heed John’s trumpet call, if you want, and come to the River Jordan to be baptized into hope: “Change your hearts and minds, for the reign of heaven is about to break in upon you.”

Again, from Juan de la Cruz:

If you want the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant never far.

If you want,
the Virgin will come
walking down the street pregnant
with Light and sing.

In the words of St. Paul:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Redeeming the Time

A sermon preached on Sunday, November 17, 2019 (Proper 28C) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.

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. This is how love redeems – bringing the pain and disappointment from the shadows into the light of Christ.

It is precisely because of our own darkness that, I think, 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 I think 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, “this injustice is simply ordained by God” or “it’s survival of the fittest” or “we have a merit based system” or, if you’re a fan of the movie Babe (like I am!), “the way things are is just the way things are.”

But Jesus comes in the midst of all of our denial and our fear to bring us the Good News. Jesus explains that God’s plan is not our own plan. That God’s justice is not the world’s justice. That we are called to walk in love, not walk in power over others. This means that sometimes, the thing that we’ve invested ourselves in, the unjust system that we have learned how to benefit from, is destroyed. This is how Love redeems.

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.” (Luke 21:6)

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. In many ways, they have never been given enough space to even begin healing.

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. This is our diocesan convention.

To give you some context, the Diocese of New York is not the whole state. It 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 in NYC 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:

13Take 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 will help you to understand exactly what happened and why this is such a hopeful moment.

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 black 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 in NYC, 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 this denial is something we knew existed in this 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 then.

Seven months later, after this convention, 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.

Now, 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. Love is beginning to redeem this time of divisiveness.

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, 15Be 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. (Eph 5:15-17)

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 in today’s reading 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. (Is 65:17-18, 19b)

May it be so.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Divine Reversal and Human Suffering

A sermon preached on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25C) on October 27, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  Click here to read today’s scripture.  Click the play button below to listen along.

About 20 years ago and book and DVD came out called The Secret.  The author proposed that good things would come your way if only you remained positive and set your intention to have the things that you want. The inference, of course, being that if you don’t have the things you want, if you aren’t healthy and happy, then you must be doing it wrong.

Now, this is not a new idea at all. For as long as humans have been humans, we have been making up reasons why we’re unhappy and solutions to how we can be happy.

Religion, of course, has been a part of this. There are strains of every major religion that try to make the case for: “If you do this right, you will be happy.” If you pray the right way. If you think positive thoughts.  If you give of yourself… you will be happy.

In Christianity, this is called the prosperity gospel. TV evangelists are fond of touting this philosophy (I call it blasphemy) because they want you to feel good, knowing that if you feel good, you’ll send them money. “You will prosper, the more you give.”

While there is a kernel of truth in this, it’s a philosophy that has been twisted by human ego. We know this isn’t true.

We know that an illness can befall the most giving person.  We know that a tornado can wipe out the home of someone who prays regularly. We know that financial problems are most typically a result of a system that keeps poor people poor.  And we know that death, sometimes tragic death, takes someone we love and can make us question the very existence of God.

Life is much more complicated than, “if you’re doing it right, you’ll get what you want.” And this begs the question, “Why bother doing it right then?” Why bother praying? Why bother worshipping God in church or in another faith community? Why bother being kind?  Why bother loving our neighbor as ourself? Why bother being unselfish and allowing our hearts to be broken open by the world?

As Christians, these actions are spiritual practices given to us by our Savior who knew that, through them, we are saved from our own misery – misery brought about by the anxiety over wanting our lives to be a certain way and the inevitable disappointment that comes with not getting what we want.

Because no matter how well we “do” our religion, no matter how pious or prayerful we are, things still happen to us. The difference is, if we have a spiritual practice through which we learn to surrender our control, we are better equipped to carry the peace of Christ with us in the midst of the changes and chances of this life.

This is the point of today’s Gospel. And what Deacon Sue talked about so eloquently in her sermon last week:  God is with us in our suffering.

This is what Christian theologians call “divine reversal.” Instead of thinking that God rewards the good people with good things and suffering is a punishment from God, as Christians, we believe that God is always with those who suffer.

And, when this suffering is caused by systemic oppression, God works through us to overturn the powers-that-be. Our Christian story tells us that Jesus was born to a poor, unmarried woman as a member of a marginalized community in a barn amongst the dirt of animals.  We’ve come to understand that God’s Hope is found in the margins, the most vulnerable – of society and of ourselves.

It’s clear from this parable today that Jesus is pointing to the self-righteous Pharisee as the one who exalted themselves and, therefore, the one who is furthest from God in their heart and mind.  Meanwhile, the tax collector, the one who was detested and berated, is the one who is suffering and is the one who has surrendered to God, asking for mercy.

As humans, we all have the tendency to believe that our weakest aspects are the parts of ourselves that deserve to be hidden and judged. In our shame, we hide them… from others, from ourselves.  And we suffer, thinking we are alone.  And we heap more shame upon ourselves. Perhaps we want to avoid being pitied or displays of sympathy from others… whatever the reason, we stop short of bringing this part of ourselves to God and to one another.  And we end up stopping short of bringing our full selves to God’s Table.

In this month’s newsletter, which will go out to everyone next week, my pastoral letter to you all is about my own grief over my brother’s death this past February. I talk about grief being a long walk, because it is.  And I talk about how my brother died, of suicide, which is always difficult to talk about.

I think it’s hard because death by suicide and, even suicidal attempts, are whispered about as if they are something to be ashamed of. And it brings us back to the belief that God is with those who have all their ducks in a row, God is with those who are “doing it right.”

This is not what Jesus teaches us. I know this. It’s where my faith lies. But even still, I can feel the urge to keep things quiet.  Upon reflection, I realize that’s about my own fear – where did I fail him as his sibling? I’m a priest, shouldn’t I be able to know when someone in a place of desperation?

I offer this today, not because I desire pity or sympathy.  But because I think if I ask you to bring your whole self to this Table to ask for mercy, as well as to celebrate God’s Love… then it’s helpful if, as your teacher and priest, I am transparent with bringing my whole self to this Table… to ask for mercy, like the tax collector, and be renewed in God’s Love once again.  Over and over again, as often as necessary.

Because we all wrestle with so many complex situations in our lives.  And there are never any easy answers. But on my better days, I know that I’m not alone. I know God is with me in all of it… especially the darker moments when life isn’t the way I want it to be.

Can we pray to God for the things we want? Sure. But we do well to remember that God is not a vending machine and so prayer works better when it’s a practice of surrender, when we withdraw our wants and open ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit, which is always present within us – has always been present within us.

And this is part of what it means to bring the power of the world to kneel at the feet of the most vulnerable in the manger. Through spiritual practice, we cultivate humility, compassion, and peace at the same time.  We come to understand that our perspective about the way the world should be is sometimes deeply selfish.

And we come to learn that God is with us in our most vulnerable, most painful moments. In these we find Christ, the Prince of Peace, awaiting us. Peace is the gift we always receive.

May you find peace, may you experience God’s love, today and always at God’s Table.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Seeing God’s Bigger Vision

A sermon preached on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23C) on October 13, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  For today’s scripture, click here.

 

The Gospels have many stories where Jesus is in the borderlands and crossing back and forth over borders. And many stories about lepers.  As a matter of fact, throughout scripture we are given the lesson that both borders and lepers things to be avoided.  There were societal and religious sanctions against both of them.  Yet, Jesus, the one who sees as God sees, never avoids them.

In today’s Gospel, Luke places Jesus on the border between two lands, between two identities. Specifically, Jesus is between Samaria and Galilee, the space between Samaritan and Jew.  And Luke tells us a story in which Jesus sees the distinctions between people, but doesn’t seem to care.

Jesus sees as God sees.  And through him, we learn to see the bigger vision. This is our salvation.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, knowing full well that he is headed for certain death as he moves toward his confrontation with the corrupt religious authorities.  And he purposefully passes through a land inhabited by both those who are accepted – Jews – and those who are ostracized – Samaritans.

The background story here is that the Jews and Samaritans are the really the same people, descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel. Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom after the nation of Israel split into two.  But after a few centuries of separation and hard feelings, their worship practices and beliefs developed differences and enmity developed.

Today some Jewish religious authorities consider Samaritanism to be a branch of Judaism. Yet, at that time, the existence of both Jews and Samaritans in the same place, reinforced the trauma of that original rupture when the two kingdoms split.

For the people listening to this story in Luke’s audience in the first century, this borderland between Galilee and Samaria was an open wound, like one in which someone close to you has betrayed you.  And, because you were formerly close, because there used to be trust, because you used to be able to drop your defenses and be vulnerable in their presence, forgiving the violation is so much harder.

Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover   billhooverart.com

And Jesus travels into this borderland, this open wound where lepers find him and ask for mercy.

Theologian John Dominic Crosson speaks about lepers in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. He tells us that leprosy, as it’s used in our scriptures, is not exactly the same as the disease we know of today to be leprosy.  Rather, a leper was someone who had any number of skin diseases.  That is, a person who had openings or breaks in the most personal and intimate border we have – our skin.

People with open wounds, in a place that is an open wound.

Now, if you’re feeling a bit squeamish as I describe this, you’re not alone. Sometimes even viewing a picture of a wound, creates in us a traumatic response. We recoil and avoid.  But for Luke’s audience, this story had an even more disturbing implication than even visions of people with torn flesh.

As Crosson says, “The leprous person is not a social threat because of medical contagion, threatening infection or epidemic, as we might imagine, but because of symbolic contamination, threatening [in a symbolic way] the very identity, integrity, and security of society at large.”

What Crosson is getting at is that lepers were treated with superstitious malice.  Blind anger and hatred were aimed at these people for no other reason than their wounds reminded people of their own fears.

For sure, they weren’t allowed to live in places that were considered “safe.” Borders and walls weren’t erected to protect them from others because they were the others. They were the most vulnerable, yet they were forced to the margins, the outskirts, the ghettos, the unprotected edges.

These people were rejected, ostracized, and treated with contempt. Scapegoated and blamed for the downfall of a selfish and fearful society when their very wounds were evidence of the violence enacted upon them by that society.

I remember 4 years ago when I was looking at the profile for this parish, the story that opened my heart and prompted me to apply to come and be your priest, was the story of Angel Food East.

Angel Food East began as a response to the AIDS crisis in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Back when we still had a very limited understanding of the disease and very few ideas about how it spread, AIDS patients were ostracized, hated, and treated like lepers. They were scapegoated and blamed for the downfall of a selfish and fearful society when their very wounds were evidence of the violence imposed upon them by that society.

Yet, 3 people from St. John’s defied societal rules and decided to help AIDS patients by going into those borderlands to bring the most vulnerable and wounded people groceries. Soon, they had a group of people delivering groceries into the borderlands. Eventually, they decided to cook them meals and deliver them a few days a week. Now, that’s a big table!  And, at that bigger table, Angel Food East was born.

Crosson continues, “Jesus… healed the [leper’s] illness… by refusing to accept traditional and official sanctions against the diseased person.”

By going into the borderlands, by walking directly into the open wound of religious and societal oppression, and seeing, not with the eyes of fear but with the eyes of God, Jesus heals lepers by offering us a bigger vision of what the Reign of God looks like.  Jesus reconciles the world to God by re-minding us that we belong to each other – us and the lepers, us and the other.

Jesus sees as God sees.  And through him, we learn to see that bigger vision that is God’s.

But it’s not enough to have a bigger vision of God’s Table.  Our healing requires something of us.  Every one of us is a beloved child of God and nothing can separate us from the Love that is God. Grace is given regardless of our response.  To truly experience healing, however, we must respond.

Jesus says, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
He looks at the one and says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

It is faith that makes us well. Because faith isn’t belief. Faith is response. Coming to this Table of Reconciliation, I hope, inspires us to respond.  We can only fully experience reconciliation with God when we surrender and allow God’s grace to change our hearts and minds and respond to love with love.

Crosson says, “By healing the illness without curing the disease, Jesus acted as an alternative boundary keeper in a way subversive to the established procedures of his society. Such an interpretation may seem to destroy the miracle. But miracles are not changes in the physical world so much as changes in the social world… We ourselves can already make the physical world totally uninhabitable; the question is whether we can make the social world humanly habitable.”

I’m not willing to say that physical healing does not take place, nor am I willing to say that Jesus did not cure the lepers of their disease.  What I do know is that those who delivered food to AIDS patients who had been ostracized and hated and feared… those drivers and cooks didn’t cure the disease. But they most certainly offered healing.

Think about it. When have you felt the lowest?  When have you felt the worst you’ve ever felt?  The most friendless, the most tortured, the most lonely?

What is it that usually turns our experience around?  Isn’t it when someone sees you?  Really sees you… and offers you a smile or a kind word or a hug or reaches out in some way?  When someone re-minds you that you’re human and you belong?

This healing thing, it’s not about fixing other people, it’s not about curing the disease itself. Because, inevitably, if we’re honest, when we try to cure other people, we end up thinking that anyone who isn’t like us is in need of fixing, in need of being cured. That’s just us trying to be God.

Healing is about reminding people that, regardless of what has happened to them, they still belong at God’s Table.  Regardless of whatever borderland of marginalization they find themselves in, they still matter at God’s Table.  They are still a beloved child of God who has a place at God’s Table.

This is the bigger vision that Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel.  And this is our salvation.

May we respond to that vision with Love.  May we welcome all to God’s Table.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wider Vision, A Bigger Table

A sermon preached on September 29, the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C) at St. John’s in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture from today, click here.

The back of today’s bulletin has an image, as It always does. Today’s work of art comes from the artist Albrecht Durer called The Knight, Death, and the Devil. It expresses what today’s passage from the letter to Timothy is talking about: Fight the good fight of faith.

Knight, Death, and the Devil
by Albrecht Durer

It’s a depiction of the determination and resilience to continue on despite the pain that the world can sometimes bring, knowing that death is always there taunting us from the corner of our eye, telling us that our time is running out, and the devil is always in pursuit, just waiting for us to fail so we hear the lying voices that tell us we’re worthless.

Yet, the knight on the horse rides on in the midst of all of it with his eyes firmly fixed on another vision ahead of him.  A vision bigger than what he knows, what is familiar to him.

Today’s reading from Jeremiah is set after the nation of Israel split in two. The scene is Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, which is the southern kingdom. Israel, the northern kingdom, had fallen to the Assyrians about 150 years before. And now, Judah is about to fall. Jerusalem is ground zero for the final battle. Decimation, death. The end of God’s people.

Yet, in the midst of the destruction, in the midst of the fear and panic, in the midst of the death… Jeremiah, our prophet, does something hopeful.  He buys land. And he does so publicly, for people to see and take note. To us, it might seem foolish, even insane to do this.  He’s about to lose his shirt. In his lifetime, he will not see a return on his investment.

And he knows this! Because he’s asked for the deeds to be put into a safe place, an earthenware jar, where the papyrus will not succumb to the elements. He’s just thrown his money into a grave.

Jeremiah, it seems, is similar to our knight who rides on past death and the devil. Despite the temptation to believe in the ways of the world, Jeremiah demonstrates faith in a vision that is bigger, more expansive.  A vision of returning life, thriving life… because he knows God to be faithful. Because God’s power is Love.

War, on the other hand, is always about worldly power. One entity/kingdom/nation/government… wants what another entity/kingdom/nation/government has.  Even in the case of civil war, it occurs because of injustice, which is a result of those who are powerful forcing those who are vulnerable into oppression.

This was last week’s lesson – Jesus tells us that you cannot serve God and wealth. In other words, Jesus wants us to realize that relationships mediated by power and money are bankrupt.  Relationships must be founded on the love of God and he gives us 2 commandments: love God, love your neighbor as yourself.  These two commandments are meant to prevent us from falling into relationships based on wealth, where the powerful take advantage of the vulnerable… and instead, cultivate relationships based in love.

Today’s Gospel is a continuation of this lesson because it takes us deeper into the poverty of wealth. The story Jesus tells, is of a rich man and a poor man who are neighbors. They are neighbors.  One lives very well, dressing in fine clothes, eating plenty of fine food, and   living in a fine house with a gate.  His neighbor, the poor man, lived on the street outside the gate and was offered nothing from the rich man’s abundance.

In contrast to Jeremiah, the person with the expansive vision, the rich man had a narrow vision.  To help people understand just how narrow, Luke uses Hades – the Greek mythological land of the dead.  Jeremiah’s act brings life. The rich man’s acts bring death.  And this is the inevitable end of a narrow vision that fails to see the vulnerable lying at the gate. The deeper poverty of wealth is the attachment to this narrow vision.

On Friday, I spent time reflecting on this week’s readings with a group who gathers regularly for reflection. I listened as the reflection on poverty and wealth quickly turned to the climate crisis.  The parable Jesus gives us is a clear metaphor for it:  Powerful people making money and refusing to acknowledge the condition of the vulnerable poor at their own gate.

Then, I had the opportunity to hear our Bp Andy Dietsche preach yesterday. He too reflected on the climate crisis, wondering why people are unwilling to act.  He spoke about the recent NYT article in which scientists report that we’ve lost 29% of the bird population in the US and Canada since 1970 – that’s almost 3 billion birds in just 50 years.  He wondered if people are in a form of denial, not able to admit… to see… that the world we love is dying before our very eyes.

The reality is that right now the climate crisis most directly effects people who are most vulnerable – poor people, people of color, marginalized groups.

  • Theirs are the neighborhoods where the toxic waste is dumped and where people are poisoned by lead in the water.
  • Theirs are the communities where the devastation of natural habitats means that the wild animals who live there and upon which these people depend, are dying off.
  • Theirs are the countries where food insecurity means that people starve to death because the soil is eroding at a faster rate as forests are being burned to the ground by industry, weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable, and natural disasters are happening at a higher rate.
  • Theirs are the countries that are literally under water because the ocean water has risen.

These are the new Jerusalems – lands devastated by a form of war that disguises itself as economic progress.

All of the things that we have to pray about – gun violence, misogyny, abuse, bullying, white supremacy, drug abuse…
And all the painful and devastating truths of our own lives:  Death, trauma, money woes, health crises, feelings of insignificance and loneliness.
In the midst of all these war-torn lands, these new Jerusalems where we feel so powerless… What can we do?

I’m not up here shaking my finger because I’m complicit in this too.  What can I do?Today’s Psalm:
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, *
whose hope is in their God…
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed *
and food to those who hunger.
God sets the prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind; *

And so I pray:
God, open my eyes! For I am blind.
I am a prisoner to my fears and my ignorance.
Grant me a vision that is bigger than I can imagine.
And give me the strength to keep moving towards it.

I’ve been talking about the significance of the Table lately.  Of our utter dependence on it as a place where we practice a transformational sacrament – the Eucharist.  I speak about the Table often because, as I said a few weeks ago: My role as your priest is to extend God’s welcome to this Table by teaching and guiding this community in the ways of God’s Love in the Christian tradition. As such, Table fellowship is my first priority.  It’s something I take very seriously.

More than anything else we do at worship, we are formed as Christians by how we understand our relationship to this Table. Because our relationship to it, determines how we envision it and, therefore, how we understand our relationship to God and to our neighbors.

It’s here, at the Table, if nowhere else, that we are invited to lay down our burdens and open our hearts.  It’s here, if nowhere else, that we share a meal with people we may never wish to otherwise associate with.  It’s here, if nowhere else, that we are asked to bring our whole selves to God.  And so, it’s here, if nowhere else, that we experience reconciliation with God… which means, we also experience reconciliation with our neighbors.

So, what is our vision of this reconciliation?  What is our vision of this Table?
In other words, what is the vision we have of justice?  What is the vision we have of gentleness?  What is our vision of love?

And, more importantly: Who is in our vision?  Who are we including when we envision the Table of Reconciliation?  The Table we gather at each week? Who do we envision at this Table?

Like the knight in today’s work of art, I think, we have to start with the vision.  And challenge ourself by really asking God, is this vision big enough?

This is where our hope lies.
Through faith, then, we make our way towards it, with the determination and resilience to continue on despite the pain that the world can sometimes bring, keeping that vision of the expansive Table ever in our sight, as our guide.

I think Josie Farmer said it best a few weeks ago when we had our side lawn filled with people from all over Kingston:   “This is what heaven is like – one big block party.”

Now, that’s a wider vision. That’s a Bigger Table.

All are welcome at God’s Table.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holy Stewardship: On Bended Knee in the Manger

A sermon preached on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20 C) on September 22, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture, please click here.

 

Today’s readings are not fun readings. They aren’t comfortable readings. They don’t exist to make us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside.  Today’s readings are meant to challenge us.

The focal point being this reading from the Gospel of Luke, which offers a curious parable – the Parable of the Unjust Steward.  Now, just the title alone is a judgement. We are set up to think badly of the steward. So, let’s open this up a bit.

A steward (an estate manager) is fired. Why? His employer has been receiving complaints. The text tells us that he has no other way of earning a living, so he decides to find a way to ensure his survival – he gets friendly with the debtors by helping them to cheat his employer.  For this, he is not chastised, as we might expect, but commended by his former employer for “acting so shrewdly.”

Jesus then tells us that those who are distrustful in a little will be distrustful in much and those who are trustworthy in a little are trustworthy in much. The common reading in Western scholarship is to judge the steward by this standard – The steward acts distrustfully and, therefore, cannot be trusted with the true riches.

But Biblical scholars William Herzog and James Scott open up the parable for us, helping us to see this a different way. The larger issue is that the whole system is set up to take advantage of the vulnerable – the steward being the first among them. The whole system is corrupt.

The absent landowner who cares nothing about those who live on his land, manages his relationships with them through a third party – the steward. The steward isn’t paid much because it is expected that he will take a cut from the rents and moneys he collects.

The peasants who live on the land become angry enough that they rise up and complain to the landowner. The landowner fires the steward because, well let’s face it… the steward is a scapegoat in the story. We know that the landowner has no moral issue with the steward because he ends up commending him for cheating him out of money… saying that he “acted shrewdly.”

It’s not the steward who is the focus. It’s the system that created the steward. The whole system is set up based on wealth so that money is the medium through which the relationships are managed.  This is serving wealth, not serving God. This is not holy stewardship.

Holy stewardship begins at the manger, when we bring our power and our privilege and our wealth to kneel at the foot of the most vulnerable.  When we use those worldly things in service to those who are marginalized and oppressed and we work to upend the system that created such inequality even though we might be one of the people who is a beneficiary of it.

When we become a disciple of Jesus, we are commanded 2 things: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus is clear when he gives us these commandments, that they are not separate commandments – the second one is like the first – they are interconnected. Because to love your neighbor is to love God.  And to love God is to love your neighbor.

God, not wealth, must be the medium through which we understand our relationship with one another. If we attend to our relationships as though the people don’t matter but wealth does, we’re participating in a system of oppression. To serve wealth is to serve our own narrow self-interest.

But to serve God, means that we are stewards of this life, this breath that is connected to all of creation. This life force. We are called to be stewards of one another, especially when we are in positions of power.  How do we use that power to life another up? How do we offer our riches in service to God, which is to say, in service to our neighbors?  In service to the strangers in our midst? The poor, the outcasts?

Jesus wasn’t the first to say this. Jesus was trying to remind his fellow Jews of these core Jewish tenants. The whole of the Hebrew scriptures is a story about how people get lost and how God calls them back again and again, sometimes, in the imagination of the writers, getting pretty angry with the whole lot of us.

From our Eucharistic Prayer:
You made us in your image and taught us to walk in your ways. But we rebelled against you and wandered far away. And yet, as a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us. Time and again you called us to live in the fullness of your love.

What has been striking to me, as I renew my study of Jeremiah, is how similar the ministries of Jeremiah and Jesus were.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt van Rijn

  • Both were messengers from God who prophesied the destruction of the Temple – Jeremiah, the first Temple (Solomon’s Temple), and Jesus, the second Temple.
  • Both people called attention to the ways in which the worldly systems – the institutions and the society – had created oppression through greed and fear-based, xenophobic practices, causing widespread misery and the destruction of the very people they were supposed to be sustaining.
  • Both of them faced public ridicule and ostracization because they caused people to think about the decisions they made in everyday life, which means people were inconvenienced by the challenge to their assumptions.
  • They both loved the world so wildly and with such deep devotion to God, that they risked their own lives speaking truth to power. Their desire was repentance, turning around… transformation of the world. To our knowledge, Jeremiah was not killed for doing this, although his life was threatened. But we do know that Jesus was killed for this reason.

And we call Jesus the savior of the world for a reason. Not because everyone needs to be a Christian. But because Jesus is always leading us to see past our self-interest and inviting us to consider ways in which we are called to change the world by adjusting our worldview.  To see more like God sees, to bend our will to God’s Will, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Jesus says, you cannot serve God and wealth. In other words, when you start to see how any human system takes advantage of the vulnerable in favor of the powerful, you’ll start to find it harder and harder to reconcile it with your call to be a disciple.

An example is Constantine. Constantine is often credited with the spread of Christianity in Europe because, as emperor of Rome, he converted to Christianity and helped to establish it as a state religion, turning the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire.  But, because he found the demands of discipleship to be so difficult, he refused to be baptized until he was on his deathbed. He knew that he could not reconcile how he lived with the teachings of Jesus.

We – that is, you and I – might not be making the corporate decisions at the top of the food chain, but we buy into the worldly system.  When we’re at a certain socioeconomic level, we’re completely bound to it, enslaved by it. To survive in it, we often become like the steward in our story today.

Even when we have privilege in the worldly system, we still feel bound to it, not wanting to risk being ostracized, not wanting to lose whatever privilege we may have.  And so, we tend to react negatively when a Jeremiah comes to us with words of judgment. And we treat Jeremiah as the problem.  Because, after all, sometimes we’re all just trying to get by, trying to keep up with our responsibilities in this system.

So what’s the good news in all of this? I said at the beginning that these were difficult readings, not warm and fuzzy. So, what’s the good news? That depends on where we choose to listen and how we choose to respond.

Unsurprisingly, Greta has been attacked on Fox News and mocked on Twitter by the current US President this week.

The Good News is Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old young woman from Sweden who has traveled to the US to speak and to testify before Congress about the climate crisis. Are we listening?

The Good News is David Hogg, a 19 year old who survived the Parkland FL massacre and has been leading a nationwide gun reform campaign despite 7 attempts on his life. Are we willing to change?

The Good News is that we were given a Savior who broke all those laws and prophets down into two simple, yet profoundly powerful commandments – Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

The Good News is that God has never and will never give up on us. God will always send us prophets… like Greta, like David… to tell us when we’ve gotten lost in the worldly system. Not so that we can admire them and put them on a pedestal, but so that we might listen and bring ourselves and our worldly wealth again to the manger.

To bend our will to God’s. To open our hearts to Love.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Radical Hospitality of God’s Table

A sermon preached on the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17 C) on September 1, 2019 at 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 play button below.

I suspect that most all of us have been to meal at someone’s table before – an invite to lunch or dinner; at a friend’s home or a banquet, or a church. Imagine yourself invited to dinner by a gracious host. What is that like?  How do you approach the table?

Perhaps we are someone who looks to see where other people sit first.  Or perhaps we are someone who likes to choose their spot and everyone else can fend for themselves. Perhaps we like to sit to the side and out of the way, or near the kitchen so we can help, or at the head of the table, or just near someone we feel comfortable with or want to get to know better.  Perhaps we are a person who notices how the table is set or wonders if I will like the food or wondering why we were invited to begin with.

Our Altar Guild lovingly readies this Table every week. And Sue, our deacon, sets our Table.

My role as your priest is to extend God’s welcome to this Table by teaching and guiding this community in the ways of God’s Love in the Christian tradition. As such, Table fellowship is my first priority. It’s something I take very seriously. More than anything else we do at worship, we are formed as Christians by how we understand our relationship to this Table.

Mindi Oaten Come_to_the_Table_crop_grande

Come to the Table by Mindi Oaten  mindioaten.com

 

It’s here, if nowhere else, that we are invited to lay down our burdens and open our hearts.  It’s here, if nowhere else, that we share a meal with people we may never wish to otherwise associate with.  It’s here, if nowhere else, that we are asked to bring our whole selves to God.

And so, it’s here, if nowhere else, that we experience reconciliation with God.  The gifts of God for the people of God. All are welcome at God’s Table.

This story from Luke alongside all of today’s accompanying scripture is unambiguous in the consistent Biblical imperative that we honor and care for all who come into our midst regardless of what we think of them, all who come to any table we set, whether metaphorical or literal. We are called to welcome the stranger in our midst.

And when we become overly self-centered and deny others the abundance that we’ve been given, when we seek to exalt ourselves and our own needs at the expense of others, God will act to overturn the injustice and oppression that has been created.  Christ always returns to bring about God’s Kingdom.

When we talk about the return of Christ and the coming of God’s Kingdom, I think we think of these things in large, sweeping, earth-shattering acts. And they are, on occasion.  But the over-turning of oppression and marginalization begin in our own hearts where Christ’s return happens in smaller, but no less significant, ways.2017-07-02 09.49.08b

And it begins here, at God’s Table, where our hearts are fed by God’s Word and opened by God’s unbounded Love. Here, at God’s Table, where all are welcomed.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a somewhat troublesome piece of scripture. Those of you who attended the Rector’s Forum last March on Anti-Semitism in Christian scripture may recall that Hebrews was written by an unknown author in the last quarter of the first century after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE.

And it’s written to Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem, many of whom were considering giving up this new set of beliefs in Christ to return to an identification with Judaism in order to avoid persecution. Perhaps the only time in history when it was safer to be a Jew than a Christian.

Therefore, the language is decidedly slanted in its portrayal of Judaism because it was trying to convince people that belief in Christ was a better path. Yet, it’s one of the more beautifully written books in the Christian new testament.  And it certainly echoes the teachings on radical hospitality that we find throughout the Gospels; Jewish teachings revealed and emphasized by the rabbi named Jesus.

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

From Luke:
… when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Both of these readings get to the core of why God calls us to this Table in the first place. Why does worthiness matter to us when it comes to who has a place at which table? Why do we get lost in the belief that worth must be proven?

Luke’s Gospel shows us the human desire to be seen and known as worthy. The human tendency to make sure we get the seat we think we deserve. And this is always at the expense of the other.

Because the belief is that love (power/prestige/wealth) is a zero-sum game. There is only so much to go around so I will get mine or I will be bitter that someone else has what should be mine… or I will twist that and believe I was never worthy to begin with so I stop showing up.

It’s as if we believe that life is some big game of musical chairs.
Never enough chairs when the music stops.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that that this person, whom we may call a stranger or deem unworthy, is, in fact, a gift to us.  Rather than recognize that, however, we can get lost in the belief that this person is at best an inconvenience or at worst a criminal who deserves to be locked up in a cage on the border.

Because humans get lost in this tendency is exactly why this is instruction to care for the stranger in our midst is given to us over and over again throughout scripture, in many different ways through many different stories.

We get lost, I think, because inside of us, we’re playing out this worthiness game on ourselves all the time. All of us have aspects of ourselves that we are ashamed of, ways in which we believe we are unworthy. Things that we try to hide from even ourselves. Acts or thoughts or even beliefs that live in the shadowlands of our souls.

And sometimes our lesser angels hold sway and we succumb to these thoughts or feelings – believing things about ourselves or other people that we would never want others to know. Or doing things that bring a wave of shame through our consciousness.

And so many times, we take these parts of ourselves and fold them up tight and tuck Heart w Roomsthem away in the back of our heart where we have a wall that protects us from feeling them and thinking about them.  Until a bad day brings them all back into our consciousness and we become utterly convinced that we are the most unlovable or the weakest or the most fake or the least sane or the most tainted or whatever other story of unworthiness we have.

When we are locked in this cycle, we are also bound to the world for positive regard, needing approval or needing privilege or wealth or power… to counter those stories, to somehow prove our worthiness to ourselves. And we get into the “life is a game a musical chairs” thing all over again… believing there’s only so much love to go around.

And herein lies the power of the Table that Jesus has given us.  It is here, where we are invited to realize that the worst things about us do not determine who we are. For who we are, who you are, is a beloved child of God. And that’s all that matters.

Those pieces of ourselves that we’ve folded up tight and tucked behind a wall mean nothing to God who loves you wildly and passionately because nothing you could do will ever separate you from the love of God.

fuster-communion

Communion by Jose Fuster (Cuba)

That is the radical love, the radical hospitality of God. So when I say that all are welcome at God’s Table, I’m not just talking about every person is welcome here. I’m talking about every single part of me and every single part of you is welcome here.

There is light here enough for all the shadowy, folded places.
There is food here enough for all.
There is love here that is inexhaustible and outrageously lavish and there is no wall that blocks your way. No need to prove worthiness.

We experience separation from God only because we’ve put a part of ourselves behind a wall. The invitation to confession, is not so that we think badly of ourselves, it’s so that we unburden ourselves before God. We renew ourselves through confession. It is our invitation to allow God into those folded parts, behind that wall we’ve constructed. So that, hopefully, brick by brick, that wall is torn down completely and forever.

When we experience that freedom, that truly shameless belovedness… that’s when we really truly get it. Not just on an intellectual level, as an ideal to be achieved, but on a cellular level. It’s true forgiveness. An unburdening that we want to extend to others as we reach out to our neighbors during the Peace.

This communal reconciliation is God incarnate – the Body of Christ, living and breathing and celebrating God’s unbounded love around this Table where we affirm God’s love and receive it as the sweet food that it is.  A food that nourishes us to go forth from this place and offer this forgiveness, this freedom to everyone – but especially to the strangers in our midst who, we know from feeling like we are strangers and outsiders ourselves, is a particularly painful and dangerous place to be because there are others who will take advantage of their vulnerability.

So we offer God’s Love as an extension of the reconciliation we have become a part of, having healed the folded up parts of ourselves.

Does it stick once we experience it? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. That’s why we keep coming back to this Table. To practice and learn and open and see ourselves and the world anew.

Now, more than ever, the world needs us to come to the Table.
The Latino mother in the cage at the border needs us to keep coming back to this Table. The poverty-stricken child being denied medical care needs us to practice our Table fellowship. The young black woman being beaten in a jail cell needs us to keep coming back. The man in the crosshairs of a white supremacist’s gun needs us to keep opening ourselves to God’s love at the Table. The gay and transgender teenagers need us to be at this Table as much as we can.

We come to be reconciled to God so that we may extend that lavish, radical hospitality to those who are most in need of it. We come to be fed so that we might feed the world.

All of us belongs at God’s Table.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Repairers of the Breach

A sermon preached on the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16C on August 25, 2019 at 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, please click the play button below.

This past week, the Centering Prayer group got into a discussion about “Salvation.” What is it, exactly? The Greek word here is “soteria”, which can be translated as “abundant health.” It can also mean a sense of safety, or protection. Deliverance.Repairing Breach

This Gospel story is about salvation – “Woman, you are free from your ailment.”… is what Jesus proclaims. An ailment that had left this person bent over and unable to stand up straight for nearly 2 decades… gone just like that. Deliverance. Abundant health.

But what are we being saved from? Is salvation only reserved for those who are in physical pain? What about emotional pain that can torture us for the better part of our lives?

And what are we being saved for? This, I think, is a more interesting question.

Bound HeartWe tend to think of healing as fixing a part of ourselves that is broken.  And this Gospel story from today certainly reinforces that understanding. The woman is “unable to stand up straight.” Most of the commentary I’ve read on this story describes a physical healing – a fixing of this woman’s crippled spine so that she could physically stand up straight. Further, it lays the blame for this physical ailment on “a spirit” – the work of a demon.

Now, however you feel about this miraculous physical healing and whatever you might think about the existence of demons – whether you hear this story as metaphor or as a literal physical healing – the story depicts a woman being freed from the oppression of whatever has been weighing her down… so that she might come to know God and offer praise. So that she might discern her call as a rejoined member of that community, free from that which has kept her crippled for so long. A New life. A resurrection.

Open to LoveWhen we stop to think about the things that are weighing us down, when we consider that which is getting in the way of a deeper connection with God, it may be a physical ailment. But it’s more likely something else. A wound unseen by the world that we carry in our hearts. A belief that we need to be other than what we are to be valued or loved or useful. A desire to be fixed in some way so that we can feel whole.

The Good News, my friends, is that while our wound is real, God is with us in it. And this wound does not determine who we are, nor who we are called to be by God. The Good News is that we are already exactly who we need to be and God is calling us to accept ourselves just as God accepts and loves us. You are already perfect. The Good News is there is nothing to be fixed in a beloved child of God because we are already whole. We are already blessed and a blessing, having been being formed in the very image of God.

The healing in today’s gospel story happens on the Sabbath, just as it should. Because the healing is an unburdening, it’s the action of receiving the Word of God, so that we can come to know our wholeness more fully. So that we might live no longer for ourselves and the things we think we need in order to be better or different, but that we may accept our blesssedness and become, the Body of Christ. One body and one spirit in Christ. This is our birthright as creatures of God.

Jesus unbinds this woman from her demon, just as he unbinds us from those demonic thoughts which trick us into thinking we are less than what we are. Jesus unbinds us from our beliefs of inferiority and shows us the sacred order of our life just as it is so that we are free to stand up straight and praise God from the depths of our soul. Jesus heals our thoughts and delivers us from those cruel whispers and those wicked voices that tell us we are broken. Those voices are lies. We are not broken. We might feel that way, but we are not.

And this happens, as it should, on the Sabbath. We are unbound on the Sabbath and given new life on the day of rest, the day of praise, the day of resurrection. And this unbinding, this deliverance happens so that we might become that which God has consecrated us to be from before our birth. Empowered to live into our true purpose.

Luke, I think, gives us an understanding of what it is we are being saved for. Jesus calls the religious leadership hypocrites: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

It’s clear from the passage that healing, salvation… is not just for ourselves, but so that we can unburden others whenever it’s in our power to do so.

Nobel Prize winning author, Toni Morrison, who died just this summer put it this way: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

vocation-defined-440x220This is what we call vocation in the Christian faith, when we live into our true purpose. When we become those “repairers of the breach” that Isaiah talks about.  Vocation can be a tricky word. We so often connect it with our job.  It’s not that vocation is disconnected from our job, but it is not the same thing as our job.  Let me illustrate this with a story.

A man fell into the business of selling carpet for a living. He sold wall-to-wall. He sold area rugs. He sold patio carpet. He even sold welcome mats. After becoming good at his job, he started thinking about what was next for him.

A few of his friends were discontent, looking for better jobs with more money, so they could buy bigger houses, with more things. He saw other people who seemed like they “had it all together.” He read about people who had jobs or positions of power he was jealous of. And he started wondering, “What is wrong with me? Why am I not happy? How do I fix myself?”

This man became distraught, thinking that he was meant for more than a simple life of selling carpet. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy his job. He liked interacting with customers and he made a living that was enough for his family. But he became convinced that his life was unfulfilled.

He started going to church more often, looking for some kind of sign. And soon he developed friendships with others. One day he found himself in a conversation about vocation. “Ha-ha!” he thought. “Now, I’ll find an answer about what it is I’m truly called to be doing in this world.”

And here’s what he discovered: his vocation had nothing to do with his job, but it had everything to do with how he understood his purpose. God had called him to a life of service, just as we are all called to service. The person we follow, Jesus, gave himself up to a life of service.

Gradually, this man saw that his vocation was to help people create spaces of beauty and graciousness in their homes and, sometimes, their businesses. He started connecting with the people he served in a deeper way, listening to their desires and their needs and helping them in other ways like sponsoring community endeavors, offering extended services.

And as he continued to connect his life in the world with the healing he received through the Word of God, he started to experience a widening of his vocation. He saw that he was called to be in service to God’s whole creation. He started to adjust his own business practices, hiring people to create a truly diverse workforce and offering benefits that offered a sense of dignity to his employees. He started carrying lines of carpet that were sustainably produced and manufactured in factories that treated their workers ethically.

Soon, he was educating other business owners on how to spot sustainable production in their product lines and several of them created an advocacy group for ethical business practices. But still his job was to sell carpet. But his vocation was bigger than that.

Once in a while, when he would get together with his friends over a drink or at a planning meeting, they would share stories about what inspired them to get more involved in this advocacy work, and this man would talk about the healing he received at church.

This healing that invited him to remember his wholeness because he was formed by God in the womb. The healing that enlightened him to the knowledge that he was consecrated for a purpose before he was born. The healing that called him to a vocation as a member of the Body of Christ.

This is what salvation is. When we are freed up from that which weighs us down so that we may live a life in service to God’s creation, so that we may praise God and extend God’s Sabbath to others. This is how we become repairers of the breach.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

If the World Is Going To Know Jesus…

Deacon Sue leads us every year as we help Peoples Place with their Backpack Giveaway.

A sermon preached by Deacon Sue Bonsteel on the tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15C) on August 18, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  Click here to read today’s scripture.

 

After the past long weeks of tragedy and deep sadness that casts a shadow across our nation, and the predominance of harsh rhetoric around us that often includes words of hatred and racism, I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled when I read this gospel passage from Luke in preparation for this sermon. Honestly, my initial reaction was “oh, come on, Jesus…how many more words of division and conflict can we handle?” I’m sure you too are exhausted by the daily barrage of inflammatory news and rumors that are shared through social media and often repeated on cable news. We’re overloaded with negativity.

Like me, I’m suspect you’ve turned off the television and sat in blissful silence at times, while still aware that the world outside seems to be spinning out of control and that the peace we seek is fleeting. It’s becoming altogether too easy to lose hope that things can get better when the fires of discord and division and conflict are purposely being lit in neighborhoods and towns and cities across America.

So it’s understandable when feelings of helplessness overwhelm us and cause us to turn our eyes away. For how many times can we watch the videos of ICE agents replayed over and over again as they engage in Catch and Release, indiscriminately rounding up hundreds of immigrant workers and then releasing them back to their homes when no valid reason to deport them can be found? They are often accompanied by heartbreaking images of their young children sobbing for their parents, begging for understanding from our government which is tone-deaf to their pleas for mercy and compassion. For good people everywhere, it’s simply too much to bear.

The epidemic of gun violence and the horrifying images of innocent people sprawled in shopping center parking lots and shot down in outdoor festivals, clubs and restaurants threaten to desensitize us simply by the sheer number of mass shootings within days of one other. We barely know the names of the dead before a new casualty list from another tragedy appears. As caring people, we know that we need to do something that might prevent these mass casualties…yet there‘s a widespread feeling of powerlessness mixed with anger and frustration at the inaction of the powers that be.

Just recently I was driving through uptown Kingston and I noticed a parked car with a bumper sticker that read: You Won’t Take My Guns. But You Might Get My Bullets. There were a few people standing near the car and pointing, shaking their heads. And I wondered who the owner of the car was who found that bumper sticker appropriate in any way. It’s such a reprehensible message in light of the scores of innocent adults and children who have died.

Division is everywhere in our world…it’s certainly not unique to our nation…it certainly is not even unique to this time…but when we have become so entrenched in nationalistic politics and we remain immovable in our positions, building up God’s Kingdom on earth seems insurmountable. So hearing Jesus say that he comes…not to bring peace but division…is in very stark contrast to the image of the Prince of Peace that we so desperately want to cling to amidst the chaos around us.

So what can we make of this fire and brimstone gospel passage?

Well, we know that Jesus himself lived in an occupied country that was as deeply divided as ours is today. There were all kinds of religious and political divisions between Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. There were also social and ethnic divisions between the Jewish people and the Samaritans and other gentiles. The tax collectors serving the Romans were as despised as were those seen as “Other”…the outcasts and the prostitutes among them. Fear and hatred of the “Other” rooted itself in the community, and was taught and passed along from generation to generation.

Jesus’ presence and message of the coming of God’s new world was therefore a direct threat to a ruling class that cared only to protect its own political power and wealth, refusing to let go of its authority…no matter what the cost might be to others.

It all sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it?

The words of Jesus were a wake-up call to his followers…that it was time for them to either accept him or reject him. Jesus certainly knew that divisions already existed in households and in family relationships…and that these relationships would be further jeopardized by the choice to follow him. The peace that Jesus brought to the world would come with a great cost.

“I come to bring fire to the earth…do you think that I have come to bring peace..? No, I tell you, but rather division…father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”

The reordering of the world would mean people would need to re-examine their understanding of who their family truly was. Not simply father and mother, brother and sister…but a larger family that crossed boundaries and divisions…and which would include all those looked upon as “Other,” including the dreaded tax collectors and Roman centurions, the prostitutes and the very powerful Jewish officials…certainly this was a formidable idea for an already deeply divided society. To love as Jesus loved would mean setting fire to the old ways and allowing a new world to emerge out of the ashes.

Choosing to love and follow Jesus…was then…and is now…risky business. For in order to love people the way that Jesus did means we must stand against injustice when we see it, just as he did….and to oppose lies and hypocrisy when we hear them, just as he did…and to speak truth to power and not back down…all of which means we will make enemies along the way.

I suspect that I have made a few enemies during my own ministry as I try to follow Jesus. Actually…probably more than a few! Yet I’ve come to understand that if we identify ourselves as part of the Jesus Movement…and are committed to bringing the message of God’s kingdom to the community around us…and then bring the community to God’s abundant love…it’s likely we will offend others along the way.

But that’s the choice we are asked to make…to align ourselves with the teachings of Jesus Christ…or to sit quietly on the sidelines, afraid to cause ripples, and pray that someone else will take the risk on our behalf.

There are some among us who feel that the concerns of the world and the unscrupulous policies that thwart the sacred work of reconciliation and justice shouldn’t be brought anywhere near the sanctity of the altar. How many times have we heard…”church is too political?” But I argue that’s exactly where the social concerns of the world belong…in church…for they are deeply embedded within the context of the gospel message…we are told to listen, to learn, and discern what the gospel is saying to us…and then to act in the world in the same way Jesus did.

For this fire that God has planted in us, through his life and his ministry, is intended to ignite our passion for justice for all people…not just a select few. This fire gives us direction and courage to confront all the evil that protects the status quo.

The Christian call to dismantle the structures that are responsible for so much suffering in our midst arises out of Christ’s love for all of us, individually and equally. And our commitment to his mission must spread beyond the sacredness of the altar to the broken world filled with God’s Beloved who stand in pain and suffering right outside these doors.

We are part of the body of Christ. And your job and mine – is to carry out the work and ministry of Jesus, not only while we’re in this place…but during our entire lifetime. And part of that work is to show the world a different way of living…where divisions end and all people are part of God’s kingdom…and where all live with dignity, and love, and respect for one another.

For if the world is ever going to see and know Jesus, then it must first see Jesus in us.

O God, be with us in the flame; a newborn people may we rise, more pure, more true, more nobly wise.  (“Before the Throne” from The Hymnal 1982)

Let us pray that it may be so. Amen.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Transfigured By God’s Peace

A sermon preached on August 4, on which we celebrated the transferred Feast of the Transfiguration at St. John’s in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here.  To listen along to today’s sermon, press the play button below.

From today’s collect: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold our Savior’s true beauty.

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration. We enter into a liminal space with Peter and John and James – climbing the mountain to pray where we bear witness to glory and anticipate the change that is to come. The story falls before Jesus’ death, but after Jesus realizes what is to come.

Luke’s Gospel tells the story:  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.

Biblical scholars tell us that Peter represents the very human inability to embrace the change that we are called into and surrender to God’s peace. The need to institutionalize our ways, and to reify, to somehow solidify God’s glory.  Peter, the one who desires to build dwellings to keep glory safe, to keep God as is. To stay on top of the mountain and, perhaps, stave off the terror of the world awaiting them below. The death just around the corner.

Perhaps Peter knew what was going to happen to Jesus when they got to Jerusalem and was trying to protect him. Which really means, that Peter was trying to protect himself, thinking that walls would create peace.

Peter is not so different than you or I. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we want things to stay the same. As humans, we like stability.  We are creatures of habit. We seek that even keel.

And so, we even try to contain God somehow.  Defining God, refusing God’s living Spirit in our lives.  And it’s Peter’s hubris, humanity’s arrogance, that thinks it can build a dwelling to contain God. As if we could.

Every day we’re asked to deal with change.  The people around us change. They grow and learn and develop new interests. Sometimes people leave or we fall out of touch.

The culture changes – what is acceptable today was not acceptable 20 even 10 years ago. And, sometimes the reverse is true… what used to be acceptable, is now no longer tolerated.  Technology changes us and changes how we function in the world and how the world itself functions around us.

And we change. Our bodies change – sometimes because of aging, sometimes because of how we use them or misuse them or what has happened to them. Our attitudes change sometimes – perhaps we can see hope where we didn’t see it before or develop an ability that we didn’t think we could.

All this change… no wonder our collect, our prayer for today, asks for deliverance from the disquietude of this world. But does this mean we remove ourselves from the world? Does this mean that we keep our peace by keeping ourselves separate?

I feel the disquietude of the world often.  The world, it seems, is screaming.
When I hear that 20 people died at a shopping center Friday in El Paso Texas because a white man with a gun wanted to kill Latino people.  3 people last week at a festival in California. And 9 more people last night in Dayton, OH in a nightclub area.

When I hear that the record heat in the Northern hemisphere this summer melted 11 billion tons of Greenland ice in one day last week.

When I hear the continued disfunction of our government and the rampant racist rhetoric and lack of decency from our president.

When I hear horrific story after horrific story about the detention camps.

The disquietude of the world is pretty constant. The word disquietude doesn’t even do it justice.  The world is violent.  I can understand Peter’s desire. To be in a quiet place.  To have an experience so sublime, so sacred. And to want to stay there. To want all the violence to go away.  It must have felt like a vacation – to escape the violence of the world for even just a bit.

But the Transfiguration teaches us something very specific about God and just how much God loves us.

We know from the passages immediately before this in Luke’s Gospel, that Jesus has been in periods of deep prayer and he has also been very actively teaching his disciples. We know that Jesus has come to the determination that he must give all that he has to God. He must give his very life.

He cannot expect to retire from his ministry one day. He cannot dream of sitting by a fire with his family. He cannot aspire to explore the world and make money in business. As a matter of fact, we never even imagine these things for Jesus. We have just come to think of him as this mythical figure who was so much better than us.

But Jesus was fully human. Just a person. Like you and me. The difference is that he learned that the world’s peace is not the same as God’s peace. The world’s security is just another form of worldly violence.

Jesus realized that, just like us, his life began and ended in God’s Love, that God was the very ground of his being.  And, because God loved the world, he could not leave the world, as Peter suggested. He had to stay in it in order to truly serve God, to offer everything he could in service to God’s beloved children.

But in the midst of the violence of the world, Jesus knew God’s peace and he became God’s Hope. And this is how God’s Glory was made manifest in this humble carpenter from Galilee.  2000 years later we continue to behold God’s Glory in the face of Christ. We bear witness to God Incarnate in the face of Christ.

And when we follow Jesus, when we choose that path, we too, become transformed by God. When we accept for ourselves God’s peace, we become less attached to the ways of the world and we learn how to be the face of Christ for one another.

Every week, on Wednesday evenings, a group meets here for Centering Prayer. The practice of silent prayer has been a part of Christianity since the beginning.  Matthew 6:6, for example, tells us that Jesus instructed us “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your abba who is in secret…”

And this is what we do at Centering Prayer, we practice a form of silent prayer. We practice setting aside the thoughts we have, and inviting God’s peace to fill us. This is not as easy as it sounds.  We are so used to our endless stream of thoughts that we often don’t realize just how much they are running in the background until we try to sit in silence.

Join me in this practice, for one minute of silence…

This group that meets every week is committing themselves to a practice aimed at quieting the disquietude of the world.  It’s a form of prayer that cultivates God’s peace in our being and opens us up to something other than the thoughts that fill our minds.

Because, when we start to become aware of those thoughts, they are so often un-peaceful, so often judgmental, so often based in the violence of the world.  By cultivating this peace within us, we learn to carry it with us in the world.

When we open ourselves to God’s peace, living into our birthright as beloved children of God, we are formed by a gentler spirit than we can ever find in the world.  And we are transformed as individuals and we are transfigured as the Body of Christ. Never to be the same again.

The Transfiguration demonstrates that God’s Glory is not going to be made manifest in maintaining the status quo.  God’s Glory is not about the survival of an institution.  On the contrary, Jesus demonstrates that the institutions of the world, even and especially religious ones, can be easily coopted by worldly violence.

God’s Glory shines forth from God’s beloved children whenever we are able to surrender to that greater peace within us.  Because is through God’s peace that we are transfigured and become the Body of Christ – broken open for the world God has made.

 

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mercy for Sodom and Gomorrah

A sermon preached on July 28, 2019, Proper 12, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  To read today’s scripture, click here. To listen along, click the play button below.

 

In the Biblical tradition, Sodom and Gomorrah have come to represent people lacking righteousness.  A sinful culture.  A society so absent of virtue that they had lost any aspiration for redemption and forgotten their yearning for God.  And God, it seems, was ready to wipe them off the face of the earth.

There are 2 things I’d like us to focus on today in this lesson.  First, that God chose not to wipe them off the face of the earth.  And second, the sin itself – what was it that made Sodom and Gomorrah so reprehensible in the eyes of God?  Let’s look at this first because it may not be what you think.

Like last week, where we encountered a popular misunderstanding that, under closer scrutiny of the scriptural text, proved to be erroneous (there is no scriptural support for Mary Magdalene being a prostitute) this is true of Sodom and Gomorrah.  There is a popular misunderstanding that the so-called “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah is sex between two men.  The word “sodomy” comes from this.  But there is no scriptural support for this, except through misinterpretation.

It’s the prophet Ezekiel who offers us the reason for God’s anger towards Sodom and Gomorrah: “As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  (Ezekiel 16:48-49)

So, according to scripture, the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah is its pride, its excess of food and prosperous ease and its refusal to help the poor and needy.  This is a particular form of violence:  Treating others as objects, creating walls of worthiness, drawing lines in the sand.

The Jewish rabbinic tradition (Midrash) goes on and on and on about this, offering details about the exact nature of corruption and conceit:  “… the [inhabitants of] Sodom said, ‘We live in peace and plenty – food can be got from our land, gold and silver can be mined from our land, precious stones and pearls can be obtained from our land.  What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us?  Come let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land…’” (Book of Legends, 36)

To deny care, especially for the stranger, is a deeply egregious sin because the primary duty of Jewish people was and is to care for and to welcome the stranger.  This, by the way is also the primary duty of a Muslim, and of a Christian.  Our savior, Jesus was extremely well-educated and conversant in Jewish law and he made such huge commotion in reminding people about their duty to one another, that he was killed.  “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself,” he said, “on these two commandments, hang all the law and the prophets.”

God works through us to offer God’s mercy, God’s Love.  Nowhere in scripture does it tell us to hoard what we’re given, even if it’s a result of our efforts.  Nowhere does it tell us that we are only to share with those we deem worthy.  Scripture tells us the exact opposite and Paul reminds us that we are the Body of Christ – the hands, the feet of Christ.Soup Kitchen

By caring for those who are vulnerable, we remember that we are part of a larger hope, a greater abundance, that must flow through us, not stop at our feet.  We serve God when we serve one another.  And to make that point clear, the Hebrew Scriptures remind us again and again that we were once strangers and, had it not been for the mercy of someone else, where would we be?

  1. Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.  (Zechariah 7:10)
  2. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

These passages are just a sampling from the Hebrew Scriptures that demonstrate exactly how important hospitality to the stranger is and exactly how much of a transgression against God it is to deny this responsibility and perpetrate this kind of violence.

However, to offer mercy, especially where we believe none is deserved, is not easy.  Indeed, it is the hardest spiritual practice I can think of.  I think it’s so hard because, often, we believe we, ourselves, are unlovable.  Unworthy of mercy.

This leads us to the other significant aspect of this story: God’s mercy.

I saw a video clip a few years ago from a documentary called Human.  In the clip, you see the head of a human being against a pitch-black background – no context, no scenery.  Just the face of a human being.

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

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

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

He said, “by all rights, she should hate me.”

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

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

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

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

Can we imagine a mercy like Agnes gave?  A mercy the size of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Can we believe that this human being was worth such an act of love?

When society wants to seek revenge… when we want to seek revenge… Jesus tells us to love, to forgive, to offer mercy.  I’m not sure I could ever, ever offer the kind of mercy that Agnes did.  But that’s the task, isn’t it?  That’s how Jesus is leading us, isn’t it?

As the embodiment of God on earth, Jesus kept pointing to mercy, to love, inviting even the most despicable people to his table, even those who perpetrated violence upon his own people.  And when the world insisted on violence to shut him down, we learn that love, not death, is God’s hope for us.  It is love, not violence, that redeems us and saving us from our worst nightmares.

Violence never redeems anything because, even though it might feel satisfying, it keeps us bound to our own pain and fear because it separates us from our own heart, keeping us behind a wall.  Violence always begets violence… because this is the way of the world.  But this is not the way of God.  God puts an end to violence through mercy.

Abraham, our ancestor who taught us that there is one God of all Life, shows us the nature of God in this comic scene from Genesis today.  Abraham negotiates with God, wearing God down, and in the process we are reminded of, if not dumbfounded by, God’s wild, extravagant love.

We are wonderfully made in the very image of God.  We have, as a part of us, a spark of this love, this divine light.  We are offered mercy again and again, not because we deserve it but because we are loved.  And we are loved simply because we breathe.

God loves us beyond our conceptions and expectations for exactly who we are.  God loves even the parts that we believe are unworthy, unlovable, and unredeemable – the Sodom and Gomorrah inclinations we have.
The ways we have dismissed the stranger.
The parts of us that have denied another’s worth.
The self-judgment that keeps us from opening ourselves to others.

No matter what we do, we cannot destroy the love that God has for us.  We are not beyond mercy.  We cannot escape God’s love.  And, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, that means, neither can anyone else escape God’s love.

This is what it means to believe in Christ – to believe that God’s love is that boundless, that God’s mercy is beyond our conception.  As Christians, then, our task is to learn to follow Christ.  To journey ever deeper into our faith in this Love.  To open our hearts… to others and to ourselves… so that we can more and more see Christ in one another.  Every day becoming this light that offers mercy to one another, calling each other home.

This is our salvation.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sacramental Scars – Mary Magdalene as Healer

A sermon preached on July 21, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY as we celebrated the feast day of Mary Magdala (transferred).  If you’d like to read the scripture for today, click here.

 

Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene, is an often-misunderstood character in our collective biblical imagination.  Tomorrow is her feast day – July 22 – and it’s worthwhile for us to spend some time with this female saint.

Mary Magdalene appears in all four of the canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  From these texts, this is what we know about her.  Mary was:
– a follower of Jesus
– healed of demonic possession
– witness to the crucifixion
– present at the burial of Jesus
– the first one to see Jesus resurrected

She is the Apostle to the Apostles.iconofmarymagdalene

Let’s first talk about Mary as follower of Jesus.  One of the things that many people don’t know, is that Mary Magdalene wrote about her experiences with Jesus, or at least she shared them with others.  In 1896, an ancient document written in Coptic was found in a shop in Cairo, Egypt and was, eventually, translated.  Scholars tell us this document is attributed to Mary of Magdala.  We spent some time discussing this text at our Rector’s Forum in June.  Much of the document is either missing or damaged, but the text that remains gives us a deeper understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the role Mary had as a follower of Jesus.

Additionally, whether hinted at or stated directly in the four canonical Gospels, Mary was among Jesus’ followers.  Unfortunately, this is not a universally held understanding because the lens of patriarchy employed by so many professing Christians still insists that women are second-class citizens.

When we look at Mary as the healed one, we see that the Gospels of Luke and Mark both mention in passing that Mary had been healed of demonic possession.  There is no description of this healing and there is certainly no mention of prostitution anywhere in any of the Gospel accounts.  The portrayal of Mary as a prostitute is 100% pure fabrication. 

Titian Magdalene 1533

Magdalene (1533), Titian

What follows from that is the casting of women either as pure and virginal future mothers, like Mary the mother of Jesus, or whores in need of healing, like Mary Magdalene.  Women have not been seen as individual people, only as extensions of men through their roles.  If you think about it, this is the perspective that frames so much of our public discussion today, especially the debate over abortion rights.  It is exactly what has led to the need for the #metoo movement and its dramatic unveiling of just how much women tolerate.

And we know Mary witnessed the crucifixion.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that Mary was with other women (including Jesus’ mother Mary), watching at a distance where, those who were closest to Jesus were standing.  John, however, places the women at the foot of the cross.

And then at the burial of Jesus, which is unsurprising, given that women in Ancient Israel were the ones responsible for the holy ritual of using perfumes and ointments to prepare the body for burial.

Finally, all four of our canonical Gospels list Mary of Magdala, by name, as one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection, along with other women.  And, in all four accounts, Mary and the other women are given the task of telling the other disciples.  For this reason, Mary is known as the Apostle to the Apostles.

mary-magdalene-2019 Mara Rooney

Rooney Mara stars in the title role in the 2018 film Mary Magdalene

Today, we have John’s version of this witness to the Resurrection as our Gospel.  It’s a text focused on healing instead of evangelism, like the other Gospels.  “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus tells Mary as a way of helping her open up to what is coming and what God is calling them all to become.

It is Mary Magdalene who demonstrates the willingness to let go of that which keeps us bound to our suffering and pain and to have the courage to step into a new reality, become a new creation.  She demonstrates what healing through Christ, that is healing through loving relationship, looks like.

Coincidentally, this is Healing Sunday.  Consider for a moment, what we are talking about when we talk about healing.  What is our concept of healing?  Whether we think of it as the domain of medicine or of sprit or of both.  What is our expectation?  When we ask for healing, what are we asking for?  What are we seeking?  What is it that needs to be healed?

Humans experience a wide range of maladies – from cuts and bruises to hurt feelings; from accidents and severe injuries or attacks to mental illness; from chronic conditions to addictions; from fatal physical conditions to suicide.

Healing is never about returning to exactly who we were beforehand, if we’re honest.  Even if we could, there is simply no way to completely remove the experience from our hearts or our bodies.  We always end up with a mark of some kind.  Even if it’s not on our physical body, the injuries and illnesses we face have an emotional and mental mark on our being, sometimes resulting in PTSD or even amnesia. 

This is also true of societal and communal trauma and injury.  As a matter of fact, as I was writing this sermon in Panera the other day, I overheard two people talking to each other about Kingston – one person said something like this: “Everything’s closing!  You go down to Poughkeepsie and everything is open.  But here, everything is closing!” 

This is a story in need of healing if I ever heard one because people are moving into Kingston and opening businesses all the time.  Industries like film and tourism are bringing new life to our community.  It may not look like it did before, but that’s the point – we never return to the same place.

Healing, therefore, is needed not just for what we experience as individuals, but for what we experience as community, as a people, and as a society or culture.  And this is not new thought based in the disciplines of sociology or cultural anthropology.  We bear witness to the need for communal and societal healing in the Biblical narrative.  The people of Israel are continually faced with the opportunity for healing. 

The prophets seem to repeat the question over and over again: Do we choose to live in pain, fearing the other and wreaking havoc out of a need for revenge or control?  Or do we choose to be healed, growing into who God is calling us to become?  Perhaps we’re walking somewhere in between most days, doing the spiritual work of forgiveness where and when we can.

These marks of something having changed us, we call scars.  Whether they are physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual… these scars are sometimes hidden from others (sometimes even from ourselves) and these scars are sometimes permanent or they may fade completely from our consciousness.

So, what is a scar?  It’s a part of us that has been tender and vulnerable, a part of us that has been wounded and raw.  And from that place of vulnerability, is born a miracle of new life.  New cells, new tissues.  So, this mark is a mark of grace, a mark of God’s love.  Our scars are holy, regardless of how we feel about them.

Whether they are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, communal – our scars are a sacrament or, at the very least, sacramental.  They are evidence of God’s grace that empower us to emerge as a new creation, sometimes, even, in the midst of continued pain and suffering.  A scar doesn’t suggest an end, but a beginning of new life.

Our prayer book defines a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  A scar is just that – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  A sign of the healing that the God of all Life is capable of.  A witness to God’s boundless Love.  A reminder of our own belovedness and inherent goodness.  We are resilient and capable of being healed.  This capacity was born into us as creatures of God.

Janet McKenzie Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene, Janet McKenzie  http://www.janetmckenzie.com

 

Mary of Magdala is an icon, for us, of this sacrament of healing.  And she also just might be, for us, an icon of collective societal healing.  Because through a reclamation of Mary of Magdala in Christianity, we have the capacity to heal our tradition and, potentially, all of humanity of its misogyny.  Becoming a new creation, able to see women, not as either a whore or a virginal mother, but as full persons in Christ in and of themselves.

What God asks of us through Mary Magdalene’s witness, is to see the mark that these beliefs have left on us – in our language and our practices and our laws –  and to perceive the wound that is there.  This wound is something we all bear because we have all been hurt, not just by the desecration of women but by casting God as masculine in gender and, by association, casting men as ordained by God to rule over all creation and everything else is an object for their use. 

Can this wound be healed?  Can we allow ourselves to recognize the wound for what it is and allow God’s grace to touch this raw, vulnerable place?  And we live into new life through our collective scar?  Imagine humanity healed of this sickness.  Imagine us individually, collectively, culturally living into new life, becoming a new creation. 

Mary’s ministry is one of opening to new life by taking her place as a follower of Jesus and boldly proclaiming the glory of the Resurrection.  For us as individuals, therefore, she is an icon of faith and icon of spiritual practice – both of which help us to accept God’s grace and live into the Resurrection of new life, which she so boldly proclaims.

We are and we can be a bold witness to God’s healing grace, just like Mary of Magdala. 

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Lights for Liberty Vigil

A number of people have asked so I’m publishing my remarks from the Lights for Liberty Vigil held in Kingston on July 12, 2019.  The Lights for Liberty Vigil was a nationwide effort aimed at denouncing the detention camps and demanding the release of the people held inside.  For more information: lightsforliberty.org

 

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act.

This is an often-used quote from a German theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was an extremely outspoken critic for 14 years, while the Nazis ran his country.  He was forbidden from speaking and teaching, he was imprisoned and tortured, and eventually killed a month before Nazi Germany surrendered.

When I think about his life, I’m sure there were moments during those long 14 years, when he must have felt discouraged.  A sense that things were getting worse, not better.  But it seems that there was something in him that did not lose hope.  Because he kept speaking.  He kept acting.  He did not remain silent.

This is, of course, also true of the great American the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  One who most of us know better in the US – as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement for 13 years until he was assassinated in 1968.

He said:  Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
He said:  You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt.
He said: Let no person pull you low enough to hate him.
He said:  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Now, love is a word used in so many ways for so many reasons.  But the love that Rev. Dr. King spoke about is the same love that held Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s hope.  This place inside that never dies because it is the light.  We were born with this light and we carry this light with us.

I believe we were formed specifically for this purpose – to use our skills and our intellect and our bodies and our resources and our hearts in service to this light.  This is where we find our source of love and our source of hope.  And when we move in the world from this place, we become love in action.

Because it is this light that makes us human.  It is this light that is never silent in the face of evil.  And it is this light which we are called to nurture and to cultivate now.

Because a great darkness has infected us: our communities, our nation. And it is the darkness of white supremacy lived out through the violence of systemic racism.

It’s not new.  It’s been brewing for ages and ages.  And it’s based in fear – the fear that what I have must be protected.
And when power arises out of fear, the result is violence.  And it’s a long, long list of violence in our land.

The slaughter of Native Americans.
The doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
The institution of slavery.
Gerrymandering.
Red-lining.
Jim Crow.
Citizens United.
Poverty.
Ecological devastation.
School to prison pipeline.
Corporate lobbyists.
ICE.
Prison industrial complex.
The war economy.
Family separation; abuse and neglect.
Deportation.
Private detention camps.

These are immoral systems and practices that are all interrelated because they all arise from and serve fear.  And they are all violent.  They are designed to do nothing but profit from violence.  And they accomplish nothing except to de-humanize every one of us.  Resulting in a lack of willpower and an apathetic spirit that refuses to challenge these systems of violence is.  Which is, in itself, a form of violence.

And if we are to change this system, then we all have work to do.  But I’m speaking now especially my white brothers and sisters – all of us who have benefitted from racist policies, practices, and systems.  We have to be honest about this.  We have to own this if we are ever going to change what we have created.

This is about our moral core as a nation.  This is about our very souls.  This is about this light that we have been born into by the very fact that we are alive – breathing and moving and being.  And about the fear that, if we’re honest, we all have that this will be taken from us in some way.  But that notion is bullshit.  Because the light can never be taken away.

It’s easy to decry the policies of this administration.  It’s low-hanging fruit.  As a matter of fact, it’s satisfying to have someone to blame.  But it’s a red herring, a distraction.

This president is not the first racist to hold that office.  This is not the first time we’ve locked people of color in prisons en masse for no reason at all.  This administration is not the first administration of violence we’ve seen.  This whole show of violence and ego is a symptom of the infection of white supremacy

But the challenge to us is to see that it’s up to us.  Change must come from us.   And for change to come from us, we must be willing to change.

And, especially as the campaigns ramp up, we must refuse to look for a messiah political candidate that will save us, returning us to a state of consumeristic calm.  Instead, we must realize that we can be a movement that will transform our nation into what it was truly intended to be.  A place where everyone is free.

A freedom that is not about self-satisfaction and indulgence, but a freedom that is established in a practice of a greater love that connects us all one to another.  That is true freedom.

We must not let anyone take us down to where we hate.
We must love.  We must become love incarnate.

Our power must be based in love.
Our action must come from love.
Our spirit must be one of love.
Our unity must be founded in love.
Our strength must be deepened by love.
Our eyes must be looking for love.
Our souls must be soaked in love.
Our voices must be vehicles of love.
And our freedom must be established in love.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way of Love: Turning

A sermon preached on Easter 2, April 28, 2019 at St. John’s in Kingston, NY.   To read today’s scripture, please click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

It had been 3 days since Jesus was taken away by the police.  3 days since he had been with his friends.  Those 3 days in Jerusalem had been tumultuous for this movement, This movement that Jesus led.  A movement whose message is love of neighbor, and justice for the poor and disenfranchised, and peace for all of creation.  Love, Justice, Peace.

But Jesus, the leader of this movement, had been killed.  They saw the death.  And, as far as the Jewish tradition of the messiah coming to free them, this fact annulled his messianic claims.  This put his friends in danger.  The worldly powers, it seemed, had won.  His disciples went into hiding.  They holed up in the place that had become their home in Jerusalem.  Too afraid to be seen in public, they dug in… maybe to figure out what to do next, maybe to make plans to leave, maybe even to pray.

That morning, as we heard in the Easter message last week, their friends (the women) came to tell them what they saw at the tomb, that is, the empty tomb.  So they knew the state of affairs, even if they thought it to be an idle tale.  This must have made the fear worse for them: not seeing, not understanding, not knowing who or what to trust.

Their situation was now more desperate.  They had been in league with their teacher who was executed by the state and now, the legal seal on the tomb had been destroyed.  The law had been broken again.  Who was going to be held accountable?

The conversations carried on as it grew dark on the first day of the first week in the cramped house, the walls closing in on them.  Since we have no Gospel account of those conversations, I’ve always wondered…

Were they fearful?  Were the disciples wondering things like:  Would they be blamed?  Should they run?  Go back to the country?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just keep their heads down now that their teacher had been killed?

Or, had they really heard the words of Jesus?  And, even in their fear, were they prepared to carry on his mission in the world?  Were they capable of sharing his message of Love, Justice, and Peace?

And then… Jesus came and stood among them in that small space, and showed them his flesh in the dim light of evening, and said, “Peace be with you.”  And they rejoiced, their spirits uplifted, to be in the same room with their teacher again, to be touching his flesh, to be breathing the same air.

This breath he breathed with them, that he breathed on them in that room, became the blessing of the Holy Spirit.  Breath brings calm and nourishes our bodies.  Breath signifies that life is present. The inhalation and expiration of our breath.  The animation it creates.  The inspiration it brings to us.

In the beginning God breathed, God spoke creation into being.  God formed humanity out of the dust of the ground and breathed life into our nostrils.  And here is God, once again, breathing us back into life.  Inspiring us to become Christ in and for the world.  To take this message of Love, Justice, and Peace into the world.  To continue Jesus’ work, continue his mission.

way_of_love_primary_graphic_1The cards you received are from our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, and they outline a simple set of practices for the Way of Love, a path that puts Jesus at the center of our lives to keep us focused on his mission in the world:  Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest.

And today’s Gospel message is most certainly about Turning, about taking a breath.  Breathing new life.  That moment of choice where we pause, and we listen, and we choose the Way of Love, instead of the way of the world.  The way of Justice.  The way of Peace.

We do this every week when Deacon Sue reads the Gospel.  She walks to the middle of the congregation and we turn and face the Gospel, This is the moment of breath, the moment of turning.  WE are demonstrating that we are reorienting our life around Jesus, around the Gospel message.  Every week, we make that choice.

The disciples in that small room in the evening of the first day of the week, were making a choice.  The same choice that we are always called to make – do we choose to look for the living among the dead?  The challenge from the angels at the empty tomb?  Meaning, do we choose the methods of worldly power over love?  Do we choose to allow death to be the final word?

Or do we choose the Way of Love?  Do we choose Jesus for our teacher?  Are we prepared to follow through on Jesus’ mission, to bring his movement of Love, Justice, and Peace to the world?

This isn’t always an easy choice.  Following Jesus means a lot more than being nice to people.  It means we understand the Sermon on the Mount to be a set of principles that articulate God’s preference for those that the worldly powers have made vulnerable – the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the immigrant, the marginalized, the abused, the oppressed.  God stands with these people because the worldly powers have made them vulnerable.

It means we believe God’s Love manifests in the world as Justice, as Peace for all of creation and that this faith informs our actions and our decisions.

It means we believe that the 2 commandments Jesus gave us – love God, love your neighbor as yourself, that these two commandments actually calls us to change the world.

Turning offers us a breath, a moment in which we start to question the everyday assumptions of the world in which we live.  Because of this, Turning is meant to be performed over and over again – we start to see things anew when we turn and see things through the eyes of Jesus.  And the next time we have an opportunity to turn and take a breath, we see things anew yet again.  Always challenging our assumptions.

It is what the word “repent” actually means – we turn to God, we turn to listen to the teachings of Jesus, we turn to listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit.Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Even Thomas eventually turns, eventually finds his way to belief.  Thomas is an example that drives us all a bit crazy and, if we’re honest, makes us all thankful.   Thomas doesn’t just comply, Thomas demonstrates that faith requires our full engagement.  This means, we don’t just say yes.  We bring our doubts and our questions and our skepticism.  We bring all of who we are to this mission.  Thomas shows us the full range of what it means to be human.  And just how full our faith can be, how free we can become.

God’s promise, God’s hope that comes from making that choice is one of true freedom – being free from the bondage of the world, the death-dealing of the world.  Bp. Michael always describes God as Loving, Liberating, and Life-giving.  Because when we keep turning ourselves toward our teacher, just as we do when we turn to face the Gospel during the liturgy, we begin to realize that in liberating others, we are actually liberating ourselves from the death-dealing ways of the world.

And we see that, even when we are at our darkest moment, when it seems that the world has defeated the way of Love, God’s Love comes to us – unbidden.  And we’re unprepared for how that comes: incarnate and whole, with wounds fresh from the world, to breathe on us and inspire us again.  To liberate us and bring us back to life.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Idle Tale?

Preached on Easter Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scriptures, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

The story of the Resurrection is one of symbol and meaning, mystery and enchantment:  The first day of the week at early dawn.
An empty tomb with its stone rolled away.
A group of confused followers, who happen to be women.
It’s a strange tale.  Not what you’d expect from a story in which the main character has just died a violent death.

The story of the Resurrection is also the Christian story of salvation.

It’s the story of how God helps us come to understand just how devastating the world can be and how life-giving it is when we are not beholden to worldly power.  Delivered by the men in dazzling white, the message of the Resurrection is: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then, it began.  At that moment, the world began making a choice:
Do we believe?  Or is this just some idle tale?

Do we believe that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death?
Do we behave as if we believe that to be true?
Or do we choose to think that this is just some idle tale?

But first, what does it mean that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death?  Let’s look more closely at the story Luke gives us.

The timing of the story is important.  This is a new day, a new week.

We know that Jesus breathed his last and gave up his spirit.  We know that Jesus died and was put into a tomb.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Because, at sunrise we begin anew.  Death, pain, suffering… they don’t have the hold on us that we think they do.  They don’t have the hold on us that the worldly powers want us to believe.  What if we lived as if this were true?  We are beginning, not ending.  God’s Hope comes to us in the midst of our worldly death.

In the midst of the nightmare that this world can sometimes be, God’s Hope arises like a new day.  A first day.

And that we have an empty tomb is curious, I’ve always thought.  Jesus could have arisen and stayed in the tomb to greet his friends.  But he didn’t.

It helps to understand the burial practices of the time.  When a tomb was sealed, it wasn’t just a huge stone that was put in front of the tomb entrance.  There was much more to it than that.  As theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman tells us in his book Seasons of Faith and Conscience:

“I grew up with a… notion that to seal the tomb was a matter of hefting the big stone and cementing it tight. The seal, in my mind’s eye, was something like first-century caulking–puttying up the cracks to keep the stink in. Not so. This is a legal seal. Cords would be strung across the rock and anchored at each end with clay. To move the stone would break the seal and indicate tampering.”

In other words, it was the Roman Empire who declared legal death by sealing the tomb or… sealing the fate of a person.  The breaking of the seal by anyone but an official of the state, would be considered illegal.  This means, the Resurrection was illegal.

Worldly power has been undermined.  God is refusing to cede to the empire, refusing to allow the empire to tell the story.

And then we have Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women.  Who, expecting to find the body of their friend and teacher, come upon this empty tomb, the seal broken and stone rolled away.  They were “perplexed,” the Gospel says.  Of course they were.

But more importantly, all 4 of the Gospel accounts go out of their way to explain that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb, who first understood the implications of what took place.  It was women who were there at sunrise on the first day of the week and witnessed, in varying ways, the Resurrection.  They were given the message from God, via the messengers dressed in white: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but is risen.”

Women at that time and in that place, and for most of human existence really, had no rights outside of the home.  That the Gospel accounts would put women front and center as the first witnesses of the resurrection, is remarkable.  Even revolutionary.  It was such an alarming notion that the larger church, basically, ignored that particular element of the Gospels and refused women’s leadership for nearly 2000 years… and much of the church still does.

These women, who became the first evangelists, the first people to proclaim the Good News, is itself the Good News.  In the Resurrection, the ways of the world have been emasculated, literally.  This is a new day.  A first day.

The ways of the world: The empire.  The purity codes.  The social mores.
These are the abominations where God is concerned, because they maintain worldly power and incite us to raise walls between us and the people who, we believe, want to take away what we have.  We point fingers.  We become jealous of what we want to keep.

And this plays out in all the ways you might expect – racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, classism.  All of the ways in which we marginalize and bully and oppress and conform.  These are an insidious kind of violence that is, literally, exposed by Jesus in the Resurrection.

As Richard Rohr says, “There is no redemptive violence.  Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys – in both the short and long term.”

Jesus takes away the sin of the world because the Resurrection demonstrates that the real sin, is this violence we do onto one another through believing in the power of the worldly powers.

Why do we look for the living among the dead?
In other words, why do we believe that the worldly ways will save us?
Why might we prefer to think that the Resurrection is just an idle tale?
That hope is just nonsense?

The larger story of Jesus’ ministry is one in which he was continually bullied, challenged, and threatened.  Why?  Because he was constantly challenging the way things were.

He exposed the purity codes as, not only meaningless, but heartless and cruel.  And, rather than try to fit in, Jesus made it his goal to refuse to fit in.  He healed on the sabbath.  He ate with sinners.  He associated with all people who were marginalized.

And he explained that the point of the law was 2 things: To love God with all your strength and your mind and your spirit.  And the second, is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.  On those 2 things hang all the law and the prophets.

And this is the Good News of the Resurrection!  That Love, not violence, is redemptive.

The larger story of Jesus consistently articulates a clear vision of God’s Love.  Summed up in the message of the Beatitudes: God’s Love is found with the powerless, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.  And not just the people who are disenfranchised and marginalized, but the parts of ourselves that feel disenfranchised and marginalized and oppressed.

It is Christ, the incarnate Love of God, who gives comfort to the powerless, strength to the vulnerable, belonging to the disenfranchised, and connection to the marginalized.  And it is Christ that we, as Christians, become.  We become God’s Love incarnate in and for the world.Resurrection

This is what baptism means.  It means we believe that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death.  It means we have decided that we will pray and read the scriptures so that we become more and more like Christ in our lives, endeavoring to remove from ourselves the addiction to and desire for worldly power, worldly gratification, so as to remove ourselves from participating in worldly violence.

And so, Baptism means that we become what we behold at our Eucharistic Table every week. what we receive at the Eucharistic Table:  The Body of Christ broken open for the whole world.  Because in the Resurrection: God’s Love is the final word for the whole world.

And, in the case of a young one like Alivianna, it means that she will be brought up by people who believe this.  And who can hold that belief for her until she is old enough to believe herself.

This day we celebrate the triumph of God’s Love over worldly power and death.  What better way to help us remember this, than to gather around the sweetness of a little one, such as Alivianna, and baptize her into the membership of Christ.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dcn. Sue Bonsteel’s Sermon for Lent II

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C.  March 17, 2019; two days after the massacre of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, NZ.
At 8 am, after we shared the Peace, the congregants broke into spontaneous conversation about the sin of racism, spurred on by Deacon Sue’s sermon.  Then, at 10am, we started worship by lighting candles in remembrance of the 50 Muslim victims of the massacre in Christchurch, NZ while we sang our introit, “What wondrous love is this.” It was so very moving to watch everyone come forward to light a candle. Our Deacon Sue Bonsteel preached a powerful sermon about having the courage to call out evil for what it is, despite the fear of offending someone’s politics. We finished the morning w a Rector’s Forum on Anti-Semitism and Christian Scripture.

50victimsThis is not the sermon I prepared on Thursday. It is not the message I intended for today. But upon waking on Friday to the horrendous news of another terrorist attack – this time in ChristChurch, New Zealand – I was brought to my knees in sorrow and anger. “Not again” was my – and I suspect yours – first thought.

By now you are certainly aware that 50 Muslim men, women and children were gunned down in separate incidents at two mosques, just a few miles apart. Another 39 people, including a 5 year old child, were shot…some critically. It was another carefully planned despicable attack upon innocent people doing little more than praying in their houses of worship. Initial news reports identified the shooter as a male in his 20’s apparently steeped in the culture of white nationalism. And authorities have in their possession a manifesto believed to be written by the shooter that describes his desire to drive cultural, political, and racial wedges between people across the globe. His hatred of immigrants and Muslims fed his desire to create more violence between races.

And we are faced once again with that age-old question: what drives someone to kill so randomly but determinedly – to willingly shed the blood of innocent people as they kneel during prayer? What causes that kind of hatred to fester inside human beings? For it is impossible to understand how a child of God could do this to another precious child of God. Yet we have seen this happen in places much closer to our own home – in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville and Charleston. And we gasp at the violence and weep at the number of lives lost  but we seem to be unable to do much to prevent it. So we pray.

So I prayed as I know many of you did as well…until I heard of a statement in the young man’s manifesto that actually singled out our president as a model of white supremacy and nationalism. That statement, in the midst of a rambling document of pure evil, must cause us great concern both as American citizens and as people of faith. For some time Americans of all political slants have expressed their concern about the harsh and often racist rhetoric that has come out of the mouths of the President and other members of our government. Their harsh rhetoric seems to have no purpose other than to drive us further apart. It is intolerable.

As Christians who vow to serve God before all others, perhaps it’s time for us to re-evaluate just who it is we are choosing to follow. It is past time for faithful people to repudiate all racist and hate-filled language by our elected leaders.

Nationalism is not some sort of patriotic flag-waving. Nationalism is an ideology that places one country’s interests above all, even at the detriment of other people and nations. American nationalists believe that other races are inferior to the white race. They place great importance on a person’s particular heritage, culture and language. We’ve all seen the You Tube videos of whites berating dark-skinned people for daring to speaking Spanish instead of English in public places. They are displays of ignorance, fear and bigotry.

The proliferation of racist attitudes displayed by public officials only contributes to the rise of militarism and white nationalist groups in our nation.  Can we ever forget the images of white supremacists marching with torches and angrily yelling anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville? And to have our elected leaders deny or diminish this behavior is abhorrent to good people everywhere.

When intolerance for the rights and dignity of others becomes part of our national identity…and we witness the pain and suffering inflicted upon our brothers and sisters as a result, then we…as Americans…as citizens…as members of the Church…must rise and make our voices heard.

Whenever a tragedy occurs, whether it is inflicted by human beings or by Mother Nature, our first instinct as Christians must always be to respond with love, prayer, and care for those who are affected. The political whims and intemperate words of those in authority that claim to speak on our behalf do not act in the best interests of this country. Bigotry and special interests rise to the surface and people of other ethnicities, races, or cultures are seen as less worthy of our compassion and support. Funding is erratic, needs are ignored, and those without power find themselves also voiceless in the rooms where life and death decisions are made. We don’t need to look too far back in our history to find examples.

Consider Puerto Rico and the appalling response of our government to our own citizens whose lives were devastated following Hurricane Maria.

Consider the shameful words chosen by our president to describe the suffering of the impoverished countries of Haiti, El Salvador and parts of Africa.

Consider the inhumane caging of immigrant families fleeing violence and poverty near our southern border.

These words and attitudes from our leaders must be condemned for what they are – heartless and shameful.

And above all, they do not represent the Way of Jesus.

Recently I ran into an acquaintance and we ended up chatting over a cup of coffee about our respective churches and about the things that in which we were involved. “I don’t think the church should be political,” she said, when I mentioned some of the justice issues we were addressing. “We don’t want to offend anyone.”

Now we’ve heard that said many times and perhaps we have even said it ourselves – that the job of the church is to take care of people’s spiritual needs…that faith and public life have nothing to do with one another.

But that’s actually a rather narrow view of a faith that is – according to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – “committed to living the way of God’s unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial, and redemptive love.” What God is calling us to do is to practice love in many different ways, including confronting public policies and language that are clearly contrary to the Gospel.

So…that’s not being political. That’s modeling our lives after Jesus.

Consider what separation between the church and state means today…for it is actually not at all how society during Jesus’ time thought and behaved. During Jesus’ time, public life and faith were knit together a lot more closely than they are today.

There was no such thing as a secular society. The Roman government generally allowed the Jewish people to practice their faith without much interference. As long as Roman authority wasn’t challenged, the religious practices of Jewish people were tolerated.

Yet we know that Jesus’ mission on earth was to be much more than a faithful Jew. And we know that he broke most of the religious rules of his time…by eating with outcasts and lepers and working on the day of rest…by teaching that the poor should be always be fed, clothed and sheltered…and by treating women as equals.

Certainly Jesus was not content with the status quo, for what he preached was radically different from what life was actually like under Roman rule. He challenged the injustices of the social order and the rigid class structures. He also took on the Pharisees, a pious and certainly influential class of Jewish religious leaders, and challenged their greed and their complicity with a corrupt government.

Jesus certainly wasn’t too worried about offending people.

When he directed them to “go and tell that fox (Herod),” that the government was failing its very own people, his message was loud and clear. God’s glorious reign would bring justice, mercy and equality for all people only if they reconciled themselves in love with one another and with God.

I’d like to sit down again with my friend and remind her that, like Jesus, each one of us is being called to deeply listen to the concerns of those around us. Yet listening is but the beginning.

For a Jesus-centered life means that we must also GO and cross those boundaries that make us uncomfortable or unsure of ourselves. It means that we, the Church, must use our voices to identify those areas where our public life is not where God intends it to be. It means speaking loudly when we need to be heard over the racist and nationalist rhetoric that comes from our highest levels of government. And it means accepting personal responsibility and repenting for the mistakes we may have made along the way, such as our own inaction or indifference to the suffering around us.

The Church simply cannot be silent in the face of any form of evil.  Daily heartfelt prayers for guidance and wisdom and strength are necessary if we want to tackle the justice issues that confront our nation. But we need to act as well, in whatever ways we are equipped.

As a group or as individuals,  we must work to ensure that our nation gets back on track to a holy place where all lives are valued and all people are treated with respect and dignity. We cannot – I will not – sit quietly and mourn another death or another attack upon our brothers and sisters of color and of other faiths. Our call is to love one another just as we too are loved.

It’s the Way of Jesus. And there isn’t anything offensive about that.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

God’s Promise of Liberation

A sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year C on February 17, 2019 at St. John’s in Kingston.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below… coming soon!

The scene: Jesus has just been up on the mountain praying after being rejected by the Jewish leaders.  He names 12 apostles (Greek: apostolos, “those sent”) and then he comes down the mountain with them, to a level place, where a great crowd has gathered.  They seek renewal and inspiration.  They seek restoration and healing.

Now, for the people who are hearing this story, for those whom Luke is writing, this scene has layers of meaning.  Luke calls to mind Moses, who also came down a mountain to deliver God’s message.  So, it doesn’t matter that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus.  God has ordained this person standing before them.Jesus Teaching

Only Jesus isn’t delivering commandments, a list of rules that sets God as a distant judge.  Jesus is offering this huge crowd, these people in need of healing, a description of the Reign of God.  He’s is painting a picture of God’s promise.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  (conflating Lk 6:20-26)

 This promise harkens back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, to the beginning of Jesus’Black Madonna life, which is to say, the beginning of God’s incarnation, the beginning of creation.  In chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel, it is Mary who sings her song of deliverance, her song of God’s promise, the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his humble servant…
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation…
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy…  (Lk 1:46-55)

God’s promise.

Jesus begins his public ministry by echoing the Magnificat, the words of the great mother who gave birth to us all.  The song is an image of the Reign of God that helps us understand with absolute clarity what exactly it is that is in need of healing in this world.Border Wall

And what is in need of healing?  The oppression, deprivation, victimization, and enslavement of God’s creation in order for some to gain power and hoard wealth.

It is this, in the eyes of God, in the Reign of God, which constitutes a state of crisis, an emergency.BLM Face

We could spiritualize this passage because, after all, we all have experienced states of feeling a sense of poverty, or even anxiety about how we are going to pay the bills.  We have all experienced moments of hunger or thirst for renewal, if not real hunger.  And certainly, we’ve had moments of sorrow and deep grief.  We have felt like the outsider before, excluded and reviled. Rape Culture Pyramid

And Matthew’s Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount does talk about being poor in spirit, being meek, being merciful, pure in heart.  These are more qualities of spirit than they are aspects of concrete, material life.

But Luke is clear here in his Sermon on the Plain.  His Beatitudes are different than Matthew’s; there is no parsing the meaning of these words.  Luke is talking about actual poverty, actual hunger, actual grief.  Real oppression at the hands of those who have power and privilege.hunger

But the Gospel passage doesn’t say that only poor people came to hear Jesus.  The crowd traveled from all over to listen to him speak that day, there must have been people who had at least some wealth to have traveled that distance.  Yet, Luke is clear, all of these people sought healing, and all were healed.

What is it that makes these words, which actually could be read like works of chastisement and condemnation, what makes these words, words of healing and liberation, for everyone?

I think it starts with what gets in our way… and Jesus knew this.  Jesus knew that we are so often unable to see how our lives are interconnected with everyone else’s lives.  We only know somewhere in the pit of our stomach that we don’t feel fully free for some reason and we end up seeking worldly ways to free us – more money, more indulgences, better, bigger, faster things and experiences, ways of proving ourselves to gain approval, acceptance, and love. Prison Cell

We can confuse true liberation with the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want, to get whatever we want.  But that’s not liberation.  That’s immaturity at best, addiction and abuse at worst.  Jesus points to those who have everything and he says, “woe to you” so we know this healing isn’t about having what we want.

It’s about something deeper, something more essential, more life-giving than satisfying a craving.  Again, Moses is helpful here.  It was Moses who delivered the original law of God, a life-giving discipline, a liberation discipline.  And it is Moses who is being evoked here, not so that Jesus can erase the law or replace it, but so that Jesus can fulfill it, pointing to the completion of God’s promise.  Which is liberation of all life so that all life may flourish.

Liberation from the systems of oppression and victimization.
Liberation from the lie that says the way things are is the way things are.
Liberation from the false belief that abundance is a zero-sum game so we’d better limit how many people can be free in order to protect our own interests.
Liberation from the perceived need for plastics that kill and maim God’s creatures in our oceans and the myriad destructive forms of environmental abuse that we reap on a daily basis.AURORA24
Liberation from the cultivation of fear that tells us we need to arm ourselves with guns that are created for no other reason than to kill another life.  And worse, that there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

The fulfillment of God’s promise is liberation for the flourishing of all life.  The flourishing of all life.

This means that my needs do not trump your needs.
This means that privilege and worldly power have absolutely no place in the Reign of God except to bow at the feet of the most vulnerable.
This means that compassion, vulnerability, kindness, equanimity… these are essential life-giving, life-connecting qualities that we are called to cultivate, most certainly as disciples of Jesus.

But how do we cultivate these in a world that seems to thrive on competitiveness and fear and desire?  How do we learn to see?  How do we begin to liberate ourselves?Mountaintop Meditation

Remember the scene here:  Jesus had just been up on the mountain praying.  He spent the whole night in prayer to God, Luke says in verse 12.  A full night in prayer to God and I guarantee you that he wasn’t talking… he was listening.

All throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his practice of prayer.  And he doesn’t stay in prayer.  He come back into the community, in relationship with people – teaching, healing, advocating.  And then he retreats and prays some more.

He grounds himself over and over again in his relationship with God, silencing himself, submitting himself, learning to know God more intimately as Abba, and inviting God to rest within himself more completely.

Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Christian mystic said, “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”Stained Glass 7

In other words, ministry and prayer must be intertwined.  Because the purpose of prayer is to change us and deepen our relationship with God, not to attempt to direct God’s actions on behalf of our interest.

If we truly seek healing and restoration, if we want to live into God’s promise and participate in bringing about God’s Reign on earth… we have to be willing to listen for God’s voice… which, believe it or not, does not sounds like our own voice.

When we do this, when we surrender ourselves to God, we may find that we are better able to respond, to see more clearly what needs to happen because we are more interested in the lives of others and less concerned about what we have or don’t have.

Then, this liberation that we experience becomes liberating for others as we learn more about what we can do to be of service.Banner

Essentially, this is about practicing love because we worship a God of Love.  Learning how to love ourselves so that we can learn how to love others.  This is actually how we love God.  And, as our banner out front attests, this is how we change the world.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Revelation In Human Form

A sermon preached on the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, year C, on February 10, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can click here to read the scriptures for the day.

 

thomas-saunders-nash-the-miraculous-draught-of-fishes

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Thomas Saunders Nash

We are in the middle of the Season after Epiphany, the season of revelation.  We celebrate the stars guiding us, revealing to us the path.  We celebrate the magi traveling great distances to bow down in service to the most vulnerable.  We celebrate the revelation of baptism and how it calls us to salvation through ministry.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we celebrate Jesus himself as revelation.  In his Gospel, Luke goes to great lengths to teach us that Jesus is revelation in human form.

Luke’s revelation begins with telling a deeply moving and extensive account of Jesus’ birth and the story of his baptism – our Nativity Story.  Then Luke gives us a long, all-encompassing genealogical history that goes all the way back to Adam.  And finally he tells us about Jesus’ ministry as a teacher and a healer, which he points out, begins at age 30.

And in today’s passage from chapter 5, Luke tells us: “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him…” demonstrating his popularity and the range of his influence.

Jesus as revelation is off to a good start – miraculous birth, extensive and important lineage, gifted healer, and popular teacher.

But what is it that is being revealed in Jesus’ invitation to these Galilean fisherman though this miraculous catch?  What is this revelation?

The fishermen are doing what they always do, tending to their nets on their boats so that they can fish and make a living.  Everyday things.  But then something they weren’t expecting happens to them, something they couldn’t explain, and their lives change completely.  In the middle of doing everyday things.

What are the things you do every day?  Take a few moments and consider, what are your “everyday things?”  Get up.  Get dressed.  Coffee.  Breakfast.  News.  Work.  Driving.  Shopping.  Facebook.  TV.  Phone calls.  Texts…

What is revelation in the midst of these?  What might revelation look like?  What would Jesus sound like?  What would it take for you to interrupt your daily activities enough to stop and be willing to put it all aside for a greater vision, a bigger hope?

I found a story that, I think, illustrates this from Joan Chittister’s Welcome to the Wisdom of the World.  Joan is a RC nun who lives and ministers in Erie, PA.

WttWotW ChittisterIt was a cold day, one of those late fall days along the banks of Lake Erie when the rain is heavy, almost snow, cold to the bone.  The Soup Kitchen is always overfull on those days.  If the guests are not hungry they are chilled to the marrow.  On those days, homeless people, jobless, come of them sick, all of them living out of shopping carts or garbage cans, come in off the streets and stay till it closes.  It is, if nothing else, a place to warm up and talk a bit to the longtime staff, who call each of them by name before they leave the kitchen to face the long damp night alone.

The sister at the counter that day didn’t really know the man in the long black overcoat all that well.  He had come by a few times before with leftovers from an office party.  A few times he simply walked up the steps, handed one of the sisters an envelope at the door and left.  Some days he dropped in and did some of the heavy work of filling the pantry shelves.  This day he came in carrying hams to donate and, seeing the size of the crowd, stayed to fill plates in the serving line.

But it wasn’t the sight of him serving salads that was so surprising that day.  After all, some people make a regular ministry of it.  Whole teams of them have come one day a week for years.  Without them, the kitchen couldn’t possibly survive.  But this was different. 

Just as he got ready to leave for the afternoon, coat on and scarf tight around his neck, he noticed that one of the guests sat at the end of the table, his legs pressed against the heating element, his summer sandals wet.  Summer sandals.  He was wearing summer sandals.  He was wearing summer sandals with open toes and sling back heels over his bare feet.  On the fringe of winter.

In a heartbeat, the man in the long black overcoat and silk scarf reached down took off his shoes, handed them to the sister at the counter, and walked out.  In bare feet.  “Wait,” she ran after him, “you can’t go like that, without these.  It’s cold out there.”  The man kept moving down the street. 

“I know,” he called back, “that’s why I left them.”
(Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, Joan Chittister)

This business person on a cold day doing everyday things.  Jesus as revelation in human form appeared to this person and he responded – a simple act that made Christ real.

You see, Luke is teaching us that revelation comes to us in the midst of our everyday lives.  It’s a matter of responding as simply and directly as we can.  And ministry is a practice that forms us, opens our hearts and readies us for the revelation, sometimes in subtle moves and sometimes like a hammer on the head.

Because it’s not like the disciples got it right.  It’s human nature to ignore God’s call to us because we get caught in our ways, stuck in our comfort zone.  Simon complains when Jesus asks them to put in their nets… “Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the net.”

 What makes it more interesting for Simon is that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law in the previous chapter, so you’d think that Simon might be more attentive, more willing, more grateful.  But he’s human.  He forgets.  Like we all do.

We get self-involved, focused on our own lives and goals and errands.  Or we convince ourselves that we are lacking… we don’t have enough money or time… or enough of ourselves.  Or we lose belief, forgetting that, in our baptismal vows, we said we would seek and serve Christ in all persons and don’t trust that the person standing before us in need is, indeed, Christ.

Whatever our particular way of avoiding the revelation might be, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we come to a place where we begin to accept God’s revelation in human form that comes before us in the midst of our everyday lives.

What scripture teaches us, what it reveals to us, and, most certainly what Jesus teaches us through the Gospel witness, is that is that God could care less about whether we say our prayers or sing our songs.  Don’t get me wrong, those things are good but they are for us; to help us find comfort or inspiration or to express our praise.

What God cares about, is whether we respond when Christ is standing before us in wet sandals on a cold, wintery day.

It is we, when we refuse the revelation, when we refuse Christ in front of us… it is we who will not turn to be healed, like the words from Isaiah tell us today.  This revelation is for us, so that we might be changed, be transformed.  To free us “from the bondage of sin and give us the liberty of that abundant life” as today’s collect says.

We are warned in Isaiah, of our tendency to refuse the revelation:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”

The more we refuse, the more we deny God’s love for us. Soup Kitchen

When might we actually learn that serving the most vulnerable is not about whether people deserve our help, but whether or not we are willing to be saved by God’s love ourselves?

The Good News is that God never gives up.  God is always calling us to Godself.  We are always being invited by Jesus to accept God’s revelation to us in human form, to make our journey through whatever land we live in and come to kneel at the foot of the most vulnerable.

The Good News is that we do have this time of worship to renew ourselves and offer ourselves, again, to God.  To come to this Table of Reconciliation and remember our belovedness so that we may become what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open in love for the world God has made.

May it be so.  Amen.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Miracles

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture, click here.

Merry Christmas!
We’re here tonight to talk about a miracle.

The person of Jesus, who some Jewish people came to know and follow over 2000 years ago, became, for them, the manifestation of God’s Love.  After Jesus died, they kept telling the story of the love he shared, the love he gave.  Those people became the first Christians.  And one of them, a man named Paul, traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to teach others about this man Jesus so the news of what God’s Love looks like spread to thousands and thousands.  And those people told their children.  And their children told their children across generations and generations. 

And here we are tonight, in this place, over 2000 years later, talking about this person named Jesus and the miracle of Love that he was and continues to be for us who follow these teachings.

The word “miracle” is one of those words that tends to evoke skepticism.  It’s not easy to believe in miracles, I know.  Because a miracle is something that comes along and changes your entire life for the better.  But it’s not anything that you could have previously imagined.  And, because it’s nothing we could have imagined, it seems to turn everything on its head, redefining our world and redefining us along with it.

The other thing about miracles, is that they are always about Love.  They change us for the good.  They remind us who we are and whose we are, helping us to come home to ourselves, come home to our own heart.  And this, more than anything else, is what God wants for us – to know our heart, to live in our heart.  To live in tenderness, and in do doing, attend to the tenderness of others.

It’s is why a miracle comes along when we need it most, when we find ourselves in a place of fear or pain.  When we can only see the world from a narrow and particular view.  When we can only see ourselves in a particular way.  When we have become so convinced of our own story and so influenced by the world’s story that we don’t believe anything else is possible.

For who would have thought that a baby, vulnerable and powerless, lying in a manger, filled with the smell of barnyard animals, carried by his parents to a foreign country… who would have thought that in this scene, a scene of danger and filth, lies the salvation of the world?

When our ideas of power and comfort are so particular, so dependent upon what the world would have us believe… who would have thought that this, is something that would change us?  And, in changing us, would change the world?

Wouldn’t it be easier to pass it by?  Wouldn’t it be easier to keep trying to live by the world’s demands?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just not witness the miracle?

People do it all the time.  And it’s not that people are “bad”… but it’s so much easier for us to stay lost than to realize that this miracle is for us, to open us up and remind us that this life we live is deeply connected to all of life.  Love comes to us as a miracle, changing our entire life for the better and in ways that we could not have possibly imagined.

But it’s as if a part of us has always been waiting for this.  A part of us has always known that Love is what is real.

We use the word “king” for Jesus because it mocks worldly power, because the reign of God is not the same as the reign of earthly kings.  Earthly kings use power and privilege to control and maintain.  Earthly kings build walls to separate instead of inviting people to a table of abundance.  Earthly kings destroy the earth so they can suck everything they can and make money from it.

The God of Love uses miracles to inspire and liberate.The God of Love desires that everyone live in abundance and has given us an earth capable to feeding us all.  The God of Love is the God of all Life.

Our Christmas story is a story about a miracle because when we realize that God’s salvation comes to us as incarnate love in the form of a human heart, it really is a miracle.  It’s not something we would have expected… that God’s love would come to us through a human heart, through human hands and feet.

Jesus lived and breathed and reminded us all that the way of earthly kings is not the way of God.  Love.  Love is the way of God. 

So, tonight we come to the manger again to be reminded of God’s love for us and reminded that more than anything else, God wants us to know our heart and to live in our heart.  So that, in living in this tenderness, we might attend to the tenderness of others.nativity-color

The words of poet Christina Rosetti remind us:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

This love is for us.  This love is for all.
And w
hat a miracle that is.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Love: Advent IV

A sermon preached on Advent IV, December 23, 2018 at St. John’s in Kingston, NY.  You can read the day’s scriptures here.

 

We sang the Magnificat today, a deeply loved poem.  This is Mary’s song, reverently prayed and sung by people all over the world because its message is one of the most comforting and most powerful in all of scripture.  These words offer us an image of God that opens us to the understanding the God of Life… the God of Love we worship, is also the God of Liberation.  And that liberation, therefore, is inherently the focus of love and the promise of life.

Listen, again, to the words we sang:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

Black MadonnaMary identifies herself as a lowly servant, not as someone who has power.  There is no entitlement, no privilege.  She experiences no worldly value.  Yet, she is joyous, praising God.  And she tells us why:

God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy…

At the end this is defined as “The promise he made to Abraham,” the ancestor identified in scripture as the one who first understands God as the God of Love, the God of all Life, rather than the god of a specific people or place.

The Magnificat tells us that Love is defined as liberation, the liberation of all life.

Think about when you have felt loved in your life.  It has to do, usually, with feeling like someone has taken care of you or they have really seen you, really seen your heart, your tenderest place, and they have held that softest place with such deep care and kindness that, suddenly, all of the things you’ve been carrying, all of the ways you’ve been hiding from yourself, from the world… you are freed from them.  You can lay your burdens down.

You are liberated from the weight of protecting yourself, from the enormous task of proving yourself worthy… and you can just be.
You can just be exactly who God created you to be.
You are liberated from the shame others might place on you, the shame you place on yourself. And you have a feeling of belonging.

We often associate this feeling with the task of mothering, which is why we name this song of Love as the song of a mother, of Mary.  But this love doesn’t always come from mothers, it comes from others in our lives who inspire us, who hold a space for us and encourage us.

However, we experience others also, as we grow and mature, who may be so lost themselves that they use our vulnerability to take advantage of us or use it against us, or thoughtlessly betray us.  And so we learn to hide.

We don’t come into this world shrouded in shame, but we can learn it quite easily as we may be teased or bullied, or told once too often that we need to be like other people.  We’ve seen this before.  I have a feeling we’ve all experienced this in some way ourselves.

And this Love, it’s not a love that lets us off the hook when we’re stuck in unhelpful or unkind behavior.  Because that’s not love and because liberation is not self-indulgence.  Liberation is learning how to be free from that which keeps us bound in unloving behavior – either to self or to others.

Love is that which sees and knows softness of our hearts and helps us to live so that we can find the strength in that softness.  From this Love, we learn that the very thing we thought was wrong about us, is our gift to give this world.  This is how Love liberates us, transforms us.

It reminds us that our Creator is the same Creator that made the stars to shine and the earth to nourish and we, these human creatures, who so often struggle so much… we, are beautiful, beloved, children of God.  And when we can finally learn to love ourselves, to hold our own softness and know it as our strength, well, then… we can truly love others.  When we are there for ourselves, we can be there for others.

Mary’s Song is God’s promise of liberating love.  This is why these words are at once so comforting and so powerful.  Because this self-emptying Love, this Love that seeks the liberation of life, is the salvation of the world.  This Love knows that if you are more free, then we all are more free.

Ana and I have been watching this amazing show lately on Netflix called Big Dreams, Small Spaces.  It’s a reality show out of England in which this well-known gardener named Monty Don, works with people who want to turn their plot of land into a beautiful garden.

Now, stop and think about that for a minute… what an incredible and perfect metaphor that is – to turn a plot of land into a beautiful garden.  For we are all plots of land, really.  We are all made of the earth.

And this person Monty is one of the most loving people I’ve ever seen on TV.  Here is someone who knows everything about gardening and when he meets with these people, he doesn’t tell them what to do.  No.  He sits and he listens to what they want, what kind of garden will reflect their heart’s desire.

And, he may have a suggestion or two.  He may actually think they are completely crazy to do whatever it is they are doing.  But, as he always says… what he thinks, doesn’t matter.  What makes a garden a success is whether or not the people who create it are happy with it.  And you can tell he genuinely feels this way.

The other night, we saw an episode in which the person he was working with was a pretty negative and indecisive person.  And this person had a friend who had agreed to work with them on their garden.  Watching this person was just driving me nuts.

But I watched how loving this person’s friend was… moving plants around… big, heavy plants and pots… moving things over and over again and listening to this person complain and whine.  But the friend was just there waiting patiently for this person’s heart to emerge, steadily working alongside them.  Helping to carry the weight of the earth for them until, finally, their heart came to rest.

And when Monty came back to see the finished garden, this person was transformed by it.  By the love shown in the friend’s help and in Monty’s selfless encouragement.

Love does this.  It sees a plot of earth as God’s garden waiting to emerge in another and prods and carries and walks alongside until we can come home to tend to God’s garden- this amazing display of liberated life, growing and blooming and becoming exactly who it was always meant to be.

Mary’s Song is this song of Love – reminding us that our tenderness, our softness is our gift to the world.  This gift is what liberates us because it is what liberates others.  And the more we offer this, the more we become the mansion we are asked to prepare for God.  A liberated heart is a heart that becomes a sanctuary for others, indeed, a manger for Christ’s light because it can learn to see through God’s eyes.

Love is God’s promise.  Always.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Joy: Advent III

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture passages for the day, click here.

 

Every year as we prepare for Christmas during Advent, we hear the voices of prophets – Baruch, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Micah.  It is in these voices that we hear God’s promise speaking to us across the eons, through the centuries and centuries and centuries of generations of people.  These prophets belong to us as Christian people.

And how we have come to understand God’s promise as Christians, is through a human named Jesus.  A person who healed and, in so doing, taught us to look more deeply within ourselves for God’s light so that we could shine it brightly for others and Love.  A person who, as a Jew, reminded the religious leadership that following human laws wasn’t as important as following God’s law – to love God and love one another as we love ourselves.

Because we hear these prophets, these Hebrew prophets, speak to us about God’s promise and because we have come to understand God’s promise as the person of Jesus, many strains of Christianity have conflated the two.  They have conflated the Hebrew prophets with the advent of Jesus, with the coming of Christ.  This conflation has resulted in a very narrow reading of the Hebrew prophets, insisting that the prophets were all talking about Jesus.

Let me be clear – for us, they are talking about Jesus.  For us, Jesus is God’s promise.  For us, Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one.  Jesus is our messiah, our Savior, our Rabbi.

But that doesn’t mean that for Jewish people, the prophets can’t be talking about someone else, something else.  The Hebrew prophets don’t belong to us alone.  And we must be attentive to this.  Because God’s promise isn’t for us alone.

This time of year it’s very important for us to be mindful of the tendency to think God’s promise is somehow restricted to the birth of Jesus.  Because this limited understanding of the Hebrew scriptures has twisted perceptions and resulted in evil attempts to erase a whole religion and, with it, a whole people.

We cannot forget how easy it is for religion, for God, actually, to be coopted for worldly purposes and used as a weapon by people and turned into a nationalistic god who only serves “my people.”  We cannot forget because we have seen its ugly resurgence all too recently.

But why is this important to hear this time of year?  For the same reason that John the Baptist’s message is important this time of year – to remind us that preparing for Christ means opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s promise:  Unrestricted Hope.  Uninhibited Life.  Unbounded Love.

This joyous message, interestingly, starts off with John the Baptist offering chastisement – “you brood of vipers – who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”

John, who stood at the bank of the Jordan river, calling people to a baptism of repentance(remember that the Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia”… literally, a “change of mind”).  John is reminding people that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you’re related to.  It doesn’t matter that you can claim some inherent right based on the laws of the land.  Nations rise and fall.

Change your mind, John is saying.  And bear fruit that is worthy of God’s promise because what matters is how you live your life.  What matters is how you treat God’s creation.  What matters is how you love others.

John tells these people, who believe they are God’s chosen people simply because they can claim Abraham as an ancestor, that God can create children of Abraham out of the very rocks, out of the earth… because being a descendant of Abraham is not about lineage, not about bloodlines.

Being a descendant of Abraham is about worshipping the God of Love, the God of Life… who’s promise is always about the flourishing of all life because God is the ground of all being.

The God of Love is not a God of nationalism.  The God of Love is the God of all Life.

So, the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”  And what does John say?
He says:  Give somebody your extra coat.  Give somebody the food they need.  Give out of your abundance because that’s how God works in the world – through us.  This is what repentance looks like.

When you think that others are somehow undeserving you are in need of repentance (metanoia – a change of mind).  Because those trees, the trees of greed and hate and entitlement and corruption, those are the trees that will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This giving, this love, this care of life… this is joy.  This is God’s promise in action.

Last month, after the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue, a number of us from St. John’s and from religious communities all around town, attended shabbat services that Friday at Congregation Emanuel.  I spoke about it in my All Saints sermon, but it bears repeating here.  Rabbi Yael said something like this:

When we use the phrase “God’s chosen people,” we are careful to understand its true meaning.  It was never meant to be used to mean that some people are better than other people.  It’s meant to be understood that our “chosen-ness” is in our unique-ness.  When we live deeply into who we are called to become, we are God’s chosen people.

Paul says to his friends the Philippians, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  This is when God is near.”

He says to stop worrying about what you might not have or what you might want.  Put it out there as a prayer to God, if you need to.  But worrying about it, only keeps you focused on making sure you have enough and that is not joy.

JOlsen The Bicycle Boys Rejoice 1955

Bicycle Boys Rejoice (1955) by John Olsen

Joy is found in loving the God of Life by taking care of your neighbors, by tending to God’s holy Creation.  Besides, nothing you could want is more satisfying, more nourishing than the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  This is Joy.

This, as Paul says, is what will keep our hearts and minds in Christ.

God’s promise that we hear echoing across time from the words of the Hebrew prophets is a promise of Light – of shining a light into these places that make us feel small and needy, places that make us feel like we need to protect and defend and withhold and grasp.  We prepare for this Light by changing our minds, remembering that spark that knows we are loved beyond all our imagining.

This is the place, like Rabbi Yael says, where we find our chosen-ness, our unique-ness.  This place that may feel tender and vulnerable in a world of grasping but that has been waiting to be seen and shine forth.

It’s from this place, John reminds us, that we can offer everything we have to the God of Love.

We become Joy.  We become Peace.  We become Hope.  We become the manger where Christ comes to live once again, where Love comes down and illumines the whole world.

Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Peace: Advent II

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) on December 9, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the day’s scriptures, click here.  If you’d like to listen along as you read, click the play button below.

 

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.   (Baruch 5:5)

These are words from the Book of Baruch.  This book called Baruch is a patchwork of readings.  Biblical scholars believe that the chapters all came from various sources and were put together into one book by Jewish editors and writers sometime after Rome had occupied Israel.  The book was named in honor of Jeremiah’s friend and assistant, Baruch ben Neriah.

jeremiah-arts-chagall

Marc Chagall’s Jeremiah

Jeremiah, if you recall, is one of the major prophets, the prophet who led the Hebrew people while they were in exile in Babylon.  And these readings that make up the book of Baruch, talk a lot about the experience of exile – words of sorrow, pain, suffering, fear.  But also hope, comfort, peace.  They are words filled with the knowledge of being split in two, as if living apart from one’s own soul.  And then finding God again.

Worldly exile is a consequence of war.  And war is about exerting power.

I’ve told the story of Ancient Israel before:  How the 12 tribes decided they needed a king to keep themselves safe from the invasion of surrounding nations.  How the kingship didn’t last long before a thirst for power caused a split in among the people of Israel.  How the split made Israel susceptible to surrounding nations who invaded them.

The thing they thought was going to save them is what split them in the end.

Babylonia was the final nation to wage war on Israel and, when Jerusalem was captured, when it had finally fallen, the Babylonians sent the Jewish leadership into exile – in Babylonia – to ensure that the Israel could not raise an army to fight back.

In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its leaders, meant the end of Israel.
At least, that’s how the story of war goes.  But that’s not what happened.

The most miraculous thing about the story of Israel, which is the story of our ancestors, and the story of our Jewish siblings, is that war was not the end of Israel.  Defeat, exile was not the end of Israel.

If we stop to think about it, these are stories that should belong to history, but they belong to faith.  So, why are they a part of our story of faith?

The Hebrew Scriptures are an account of how people came to know God.  How people have come to understand themselves in relation to God.  The Hebrew scriptures give us the narrative of those who were left behind under the rule of other nations and those who were sent into exile and how both peoples remembered their true identity in the midst of all the turmoil.Babylonian Empire

In other words, it was who they were as people who lived and breathed in God that mattered to them, not who ruled over them.  Their identity was about who they were in relation to God, not in relation to a nation.

And this is so hard for any person to remember because we often take great pride in our nation, and rightly so much of the time.  But the larger story, God’s story, is that nations rise and fall.  Empire is just that… empire.  Empire is not of God.  It never was and never will be.

The larger story of God is that God alone will always be.  God’s reign is the reign of Life.  As long as life breathes, God loves.  We belong to God, not to a nation.

This is a very appropriate lesson in the world – especially now because it’s such a divisive time in the life of our own nation with so many people having such wildly divergent opinions about what it means to be American, that we seem to have lost a sense of who we are and faith in ourselves and one another as a people.

But what is real, what we are called to remember, is that our true identity rests in God alone.  And just as this is so important to remember right now as we consider the world around us, it is, perhaps, more important to remember and understand this in relation to ourselves and our own heart.

For all of us have a part of our self that we feel like we need to hide away, a part of us that we have some sense of shame about or tenderness towards, a younger part, a more vulnerable part.  And in some way it feels like we must make war on our own heart, exerting power over the most tender part of ourselves because we’re so scared to bring it out and let it be seen. And so we send that piece of our soul into exile.

Each Sunday during the season of Advent has a distinct theme, all of which focus on different aspects of God’s Love as we prepare for the Incarnation at Christmas: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

Last week, we appropriately heard Roddy’s story from Deacon Sue – a story of freedom which demonstrates God’s Hope.  Roddy, who has been a prisoner on Death Row for 19 years and is being released soon.  He has always maintained his innocence and, in that, keeping a sense of freedom – God’s Hope – alive in his heart.  Roddy’s story reminds us how Hope is about freedom, how we keep ourselves free in the midst of our worst nightmare even if it lasts for 19 years.

This Sunday the theme is Peace.  And how, when we finally accept that we belong to God and not to a nation, that we belong to the Eternal Love and not to this warring transitory world, this is when we find true Peace.

When we lay down our belligerent tendencies, when we drop our defenses, when we refuse to take sides, when we learn to see God’s Holy Love in every aspect of this amazing Creation, even when a member of this Creation is acting in hateful ways…
When we see God’s Love infusing every single cell and God’s Spirit breathing over all the earth, then we know that God is indeed the Ground of all Being.  We all share one God.

Fabric of the UniverseAnd when we see the world from this vantage point, nations and borders and walls and wars become utterly meaningless.  They make no sense.  If we see the whole universe as made of the same fabric of God’s Love, and if we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of that fabric, then how can we possibly hate a part of ourselves, a part of that fabric, a part of God’s Love?  How can we make war against a part of ourselves?

It’s not some ridiculous pie-in-the-sky notion.  This is basic theology and we forget it all the time.  The real world is that which is of God and of God alone.  All the rest of it… is humans forgetting.  Humans being human, nothing more. Trying to exert power, trying to wage war.  And exile is always a consequence of war.

Baruch’s message to us today comes from a place that knows the pain of being in exile and the profound peace that comes when we suddenly realize that God has never sent us away and that this exile is of our own making because we have forgotten.  It is a message of Hope and Peace because it is a message of repentance.  Repentance, not a word we necessarily associate with hope and peace but that’s what this is really about – returning to God.

Arise, O Jerusalem (we are all Jerusalem) stand upon the height;
look toward the east and see your children
(see us all)
gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One
(
as we hear God’s whisper to return to God, that we are wholly beloved members of a Holy Creation)
rejoicing that God has remembered them.  (Baruch 5:5)
In fact, God never forgets us.  It is we who forget God.

From the HeightsThis is what John is talking about in today’s reading from Luke – repentance.  When John preaches a baptism of repentance, the Greek word here is “metanoia”… literally a change of mind. The invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.

No matter what the state of the world is, as along as life breathes, God loves.  And this is the remembering of the reality that in God alone we have our reality.  This is what brings us peace and helps us to be more peaceful people in and for the world.

Our neighbors at Congregation Emanuel, our Jewish siblings, use a beautiful prayer book called Mishkan T’filah, the words mean “dwelling place for prayer.”  And every week at Centering Prayer here at St. John’s we use a prayer from that book to end our time together.  I’d like to use that same prayer to end today’s sermon.

Let us pray:

May we find peace with those we love,
growing together over time.

May we be at peace with ourselves
and with the labors that fill our days.

May we fashion peace in our world
with wisdom and gentle patience.

Blessed are you, God, who blesses us with peace.

Amen.

(Mishkan T’filah, pg 97)

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Deacon Sue Bonsteel – First Sunday of Advent C

Preached, as you might have guessed, by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent I, December 2, 2018.  You can read the scripture for the day by clicking here.

 

“Give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

img_20161029_165133434At this Advent time of the year – as the chill of autumn becomes more pronounced and winter approaches – we find ourselves searching through boxes for wool sweaters, long underwear, and hats and gloves we had carelessly tossed aside last spring when they were no longer needed. Flannel sheets and down comforters come out of storage and surround us in warmth at night. The furnace is cranking away and fires are glowing in the fireplace.  We light candles as the daylight fades. We try to hold off the darkness by turning on more lights or throwing another log on the fire. We are determined to hold back the night as long as we are able.

Yet the season of Advent is the ideal time to welcome the cold, the silence, and the darkness. For these coming days are more than a pause between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas; these days offer us a holy space in which to settle…to rest…and to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent offers us an opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ponder the darkest places where Jesus is most needed in our lives.

So it’s particularly poignant then that we recently received the news that a dear friend Roddy Johnson will soon be released from prison after over 20 years of incarceration, 16 of which were  served in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row. It’s the advent of a new life for him.

If there are any of you left who don’t know the story, I will tell it for the last time. For Roddy will soon be writing a new chapter in his life story as he prepares to enter the world once again.

Roddy and I became friends shortly after his incarceration through the Death Row Support Project, a pen pal prison ministry of the Church of the Brethren. The program’s aim is to connect those on death row with people on the outside, offering friendship and support to men and women discarded or shunned by society.

Looking back last week at the pile of letters from Roddy, I came across his initial request for a pen pal. He had simply asked for someone with a friendly heart who was willing to listen. And tears came again to my eyes when I realized what a simple “yes” to Roddy’s request came to mean to him, to me and so many others.

What is so admirable about the Death Row Support Project is the way it supports the often abandoned men and women behind bars and helps them make a connection beyond the prison walls. Its ministry is one of compassion and love, forgiveness and redemption. The letters exchanged become a glimmer of light in a world where darkness prevails and too often justice is denied. Roddy and I began as strangers in 2002, but it wasn’t long before we came to understand that God had truly led us to one another through this ministry.

Building a relationship with someone behind bars is, as you can imagine, a serious commitment…one that requires perseverance and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions and prejudices. I certainly had my share. A middle-aged privileged white woman writing to a young black man caught up in a drugs and gang culture of New York City brought us both frustration at times… but also laughter. Often Roddy wrote using street slang that might as well have been a foreign language to me.  I sent him classic literature that I thought he’d enjoy when all he really wanted was the latest trashy novel.

But there was also a sweetness in our weekly correspondence. Long handwritten letters about mundane things brought a bit of normality to our relationship. Roddy wanted to hear about the day-to-day events in life – the trips to the grocery store; vacation plans; memories of my childhood; the visits from grandchildren – anything that helped him connect to a world that he was no longer part of. These letters were eventually accompanied by 15 minute phone calls and then finally email. We stuck together during his many years in the wilderness of appeals. And at times it was truly hard work. At Roddy’s request I contacted national anti-death penalty groups as well as The Innocence Project. I spoke to lawyers who listened politely but regretfully said they could not take on any more pro bono work for capital cases. Roddy connected me with Linn Washington, a Temple University professor of journalism, author,  and  political activist who had interviewed Roddy and included him in several mainstream articles. Dr. Washington suggested I contact 2 colleagues of his, notable newspaper journalists Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald and Bob Herbert of the New York Times. Both were  interested in Roddy’s story and had their interns contact him. And two of our own bishops, Mark Sisk and Andy Dietsche, were gracious in their support, helping fund some of the expenses I incurred. It was through Bishop Sisk that I became a regional deacon for prison ministry.

Despite the many people familiar with Roddy’s case, we were, however, reluctant to say aloud to one another that there was but a glimmer of hope that Roddy’s sentence would ever be overturned. We all understood that getting an innocent person off death row would be an uphill battle.

The darkness had to be overwhelming at times for Roddy as the years passed. As a father of young children when he was sentenced for the deaths of two men, Gregory and Damon Banks,  he was often worried that he would become mired in the grief and anger that consumed so many around him. His faith in a generous and loving God was tested over and over but it never seemed to waver. Roddy truly believed that the Righteous Branch in Jeremiah would ultimately execute justice and not death, even when those around him were skeptical.

Oh, he came close to death on two occasions soon after arriving at Greene Correctional Facility. Once he was but 24 hours away from a scheduled execution before he received a stay. It’s horrifying to realize that Pennsylvania came that close to executing an innocent man. It’s also horrifying to realize that innocent people have – in all likelihood – been executed in our nation – in our name -despite claims to the contrary by those who support capital punishment. The work to end the death penalty must continue….

Despite the reality of this, Roddy would sometimes say, that even in the midst of the darkness and cold of the prison system, there were glimpses of light in the faces of people who refused to bend to a system that sought only to enslave and punish. It was, he said, in those people that he saw the face of God.

Some of you have asked if he were exonerated so I wrote to Roddy, asking him to explain it in his own words. This is what he wrote to you:

I know this is confusing to all. The Appeals Court did not exonerate me. Rather they declared the Capital Case a “Wrongful Conviction” saying that my constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated by the district attorney who hid evidence and lied to the court. Therefore the convictions could not stand. There was also the issue of double jeopardy – meaning that you can’t be tried for the same crime twice – so the life sentence I was given at the same time as the death sentence was also thrown out.

My lawyer explained that the State argued against dismissal based upon my actual innocence because the State would then open itself for additional lawsuits – not only from me – but from anyone else convicted through the actions of the same corrupt police department who were involved in my case or by the same District Attorney’s office. My lawyers said the State was more concerned about a lot of appeals by others on death row and not about absolute justice for me.

When I asked him how he felt about this decision he wrote:  After all of this, I can only say…Thanks be to God! I have been given my freedom and I will make the best of it.

Roddy is ready to cast off the works of darkness at long last. The years of watching and waiting and wondering what is to come are almost over. While he is eager to begin his new life, he is not surprisingly anxious about all that has changed and all that he must learn anew. Just think about the changes in the world today and the one he left behind 20 years ago.

Long ago you and I welcomed Roddy into our Beloved Community here at St. John’s. He’ll need our prayers and support more than ever. He’s hoping to visit us one day and thank us personally for all we were able to do for him and his family. I know we will greet him with joy.

Luke’s gospel this morning – and Roddy’s own story – remind us of the need to always be prepared…to understand that while we may never know what the future holds for any of us, we are called to live with love and hope. For the kingdom of God is everywhere, even in the darkest of places. It can be a struggle to move through the darkness to the light.  Yet when we discover that we can cast off all that weighs us down in our lives – whether it be fear or cynicism or isolation or whatever burdens we bear – only then will we be able to rejoice and put on the armor of light that is Jesus Christ.

May we all have a blessed and holy Advent.

Amen.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment