A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2020 – the Sunday after the 2020 election. If you’d like to read today’s scripture, click here. Click the play button below to listen along.
A note: I started writing this as a letter when I learned the results of the election but I ended up adding more to it and realized I was writing this week’s sermon. But I kept it in letter form because it is just that – a letter to the people of St. John’s.
I write to you today during a break in our conversations “at” diocesan convention and in response to the announcement concerning the presidential election we’ve been slogging through this past week. This is a pastoral note to you, my beloveds of St. John’s. Let us take this moment to breathe together.
The divisions in our society/nation are stark and shocking and painful. We have been living in a climate of hate and fear that brings a deep and profound sadness. It has taken away our love for other people. And made us fearful and critical of others. This ideological divide makes it easy to draw a line in the sand and claim victory or victim, especially now that the results of the election have finally been discerned.
But our teacher Jesus gives us a different vision, a greater vision, that we, as Christians, call the Reign of God. And who we are in that vision is the Beloved Community. A people with a mission in the here and now, in this world that our cynical selves would say is irredeemable. A mission to actively work towards the Reign of God, to have hope that the world is redeemable by becoming who we are called to be: The Beloved Community, a reconciling, loving community.
Reaching for reconciliation, however, does NOT mean that all opinions are equal or just; that we can agree to disagree and go about our business, hoping to avoid the hard conversations. For we claim to worship a God of Love as made manifest in the person of Jesus the Christ, a person who very clearly and consistently challenged the powers-that-be and taught his disciples directly from the witness of God’s unbounded Love found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. As we know and, as I so often preach about, Jesus gave us, above all, two simple commandments – Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Thus, we are to cultivate a way of life founded upon those very commandments. This translates into living lives in which we continually strive for the justice evidenced in the long arc of our scripture – scripture which tells us that God’s preference is for the marginalized and God’s Will is evidenced in the constant transformation of the world. God is continually making all things new, turning the world on its head, so that all creation can live into its purpose because all of creation is created to be good.
The definition of the Beloved Community, at least the one given to us by the King Center, a group who carries on the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (and I concur), the definition of the Beloved Community is: “A global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.”
In the words of the prophet Amos: What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? My beloveds, this is where true Joy is found!
In this passage from Matthew, we are given this multi-layered parable about 10 women. Now I’m not going to talk about ancient Israelite wedding practices because that really detracts from the focus of what Matthew is trying to help us understand about Jesus’ teaching. So, we have these 10 women and 5 of them are called “wise” and 5 of them are called “foolish.” We don’t have to discern that from clues in the text. Matthew offers those labels right up front.
We could spend all day on this parable, but the main point is simply this: We must to tend to the light we’ve been given by God because it is that light that guides us when we fall asleep to God’s dream for us. It is that light, that part of us, that helps us to find our way back to God when we get lost in the ways of the world. Our light, the light that we talked about last week in the Revelation to John, this light is our birthright. It is ours. It is our connection to life, to Love. It is our soul. And our soul is where the image of God resides in us.
And in that passage from the Revelation to John from last week, if you remember, this light is so bright it gleams. So bright it outshines everything. So bright it cannot be contained. And it is our birthright simply because we breathe. This soul, this precious soul, is the very seat of God in our being.
When we tend to it, we will never be lost for long. And, as this parable tells us, when we do not tend to it, we quite easily lose our way. Because the ways of the world demand that we incite violence against ourselves – the violence of leaving our soul behind in favor of the world’s fear and anxiety, drawing lines in the sand, turning the vulnerability of another person into an opportunity for our own gain. To make a deal with the devil itself and choose to believe that in order for me to have what I need, someone else will inevitably suffer. And that’s just the way it is.
And just like that, we’ve left our soul behind. We’ve decided that the light we were given is just not that important.
What does it mean to tend to our light? Quite simply, it means to surrender to Love. To love God enough to honor what She has created in all its forms and colors and shapes and languages and religions. To love God enough to pray, to stop talking long enough to listen for God’s yearnings and His dreams for this world.
What does it mean to tend to our light? To surrender to Love? It means that we bring ourselves and our worldly ways to kneel at the foot of the manger and realize how susceptible we are to the ways of the world, how easy it is for us to get lost, to forget our flask of oil. It means, then, that we humble that part of us so that God, once again, might show us how we are called to deepen our love for our neighbor and ourselves. And we move in mercy with tenderness to create justice.
We have work to do to become the Beloved Community, dear ones. The painful truth of racism in our society demonstrates that the evil that chattel slavery brought upon millions of African people is something that all of us are still chained to in some way.
As a white person in this society, I recognize and confess my own complicity in this system and the privilege I’ve been afforded. So that now it’s a daily decision to uncover my own unconscious racism as well as work actively to be an antiracist. And some days I fail. And it feels bad for a moment because I’ve always prided myself on being “not-a-racist.”
But that’s the thing – it’s not about me and my pride. And being not-a-racist is not the same as being antiracist.
Becoming the Beloved Community is not easy. But it helps to know that transformation/healing never is easy. So I know what I’m asking when I invite, beseech, and beg us all to do this work. Please know that it is in Love that I ask because it is with sincere love for you that I pray for our souls to open up to the unbounded joy that is possible. Because I know that, as we do this work and we hold one another up in it with Love, we will most definitely find ourselves on the path to becoming the Beloved Community.
What more could I hope for as your priest?
The Good News in these lessons, my beloveds, the Good News comes to us from looking at this parable from Matthew through the Book of Wisdom. Where we learn that Wisdom is an aspect of God – radiant and unfading, easily discerned by those who love her and found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
We’ve heard this echoed in Matthew chapter 7: “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For anyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.” Mt 7:7-8
Continuing from the book of Wisdom: Wisdom… she will be found sitting at the gate of those who rise early (those who are prepared, in other words), and she graciously appears to people on their paths and meets them in every thought.
What a beautiful passage!
Perhaps, then, we can realize that what Matthew is describing in this parable, is a path. It’s not a final judgment, a separating-out of who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. It’s not a line drawn in the sand because that’s not how God works. It’s a path. And we are told that Wisdom will appear to us on our path.
The foolish women depicted in this passage, they aren’t bad people. They are us, frankly. They are the people who disagree with us. And they are us. The “foolish” women in this story have not failed to pass God’s test because God does not test. There is no test in the Reign of God. God just loves and loves and loves and loves and loves and loves.
When we leave the path because we have become so entranced by the ways of the world or so damaged by the world’s violence, this is when we have lost our capacity to sense the path any longer. And God is just waiting at the gate every morning for us to return to love, waiting for us to cultivate, for ourselves, the desire to know Wisdom, the desire to know God, the desire to experience Love.
God is waiting for us to tend to our light and to join the gleaming, bright, dazzling multitude… that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, all joyfully gathered in praise of Love itself.
And the Good News here, is that when we are ready to seek… Wisdom, that is God, will graciously appear to us on our path and will meet us in every thought.
And so, my dear ones, this moment is not an opportunity for anyone to dance on any graves, not a time for cynicism or self-righteousness or rancor or harsh rhetoric; but an invitation. An invitation for us to tend to our light and recognize the joyful path before us, which is to continue to look forward in Love and become what we have been ordained to be from the beginning of time: the Beloved Community founded upon the Love of Christ Jesus, our redeemer and teacher.
In God’s love and mine always,