Truth and Good Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, here’s the Good News.

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

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

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

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

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

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Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Offering Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966

Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Called to Believe

Click here for the readings.  Click the play button below to listen:

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The Incredulity of Thomas, Caravaggio

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

How many times have you said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”?  Or maybe you just think it.

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in Thomas’ seat.  I find myself full of suspicion and doubt, with thick, highly-defended walls, impenetrable by the people around me.  It seems to make me feel like I am in control.  It helps me to feel powerful.  It keeps me safe from disappointment.

Thomas, or “Doubting Thomas” as he has come to be known in the Christian tradition, is one of the followers of Jesus, a disciple.  And, it seems, he is the last of those 12 to see the resurrection of Christ.

He is not there when the community witnesses the resurrection together.  He’s not there when Jesus breathes on them to bless them with the Holy Spirit.  He is not there to learn the lesson of the Resurrection with them – that of forgiveness, of reconciliation.

Instead, Thomas is elsewhere on the evening of the Resurrection, we don’t know where.  Thomas is left out.  He’s not present.  He’s not party to ‘the party.’  And so, he’s feeling marginalized by his community.  He’s no longer in the know.  He’s disconnected because he hasn’t had the same experience that the rest of the community has had.

 

Jose Lerma Doubting Thomas

Doubting Thomas, Jose Lerma

 

And Thomas reacts much the same way I would when I feel disconnected from community.  He’s a little defensive.  He’s at odds with what his friends are telling him.  He essentially says, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

And I think we all experience this doubt when we find ourselves in the margins, when we find ourselves on the outside in some way.  It’s simple defensiveness, drawn from the depths of our own fears because we really just want to be accepted.  We really just want to belong to someone, to something.  And so, in response to the thought we are shunned, we shun others to make the experience easier to tolerate.

I think this need to defend ourselves is exactly what Thomas is displaying when he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And this is why today’s lesson about belief is actually about forgiveness.  This is why our collect today talks about the new covenant of reconciliation as established in the Paschal mystery.  This is why forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are intimately connected – Jesus says: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

True reconciliation, true forgiveness, can only happen when we have completely dropped our defenses.  It can only happen when we’ve let go of our need to have things proven to us.  Because when we stand in the place of expecting to be disappointed instead of expecting to be surprised by joy, we prevent ourselves from being reconciled to God and reconciled to one another in God.

Bound HeartHave you ever been so disappointed in someone, perhaps someone very close to you, that you have steeled your heart to expect disappointment from them?  Perhaps they are always doing something wrong, or they are never what you need them to be.  And rather than see the gift that they actually are, we simply shut down in the face of our disappointment in them.  We only see the lack.  We can’t see the abundance.

And so we live our lives closed to Christ, instead of open.

We look for the potential scams, instead of looking for the potential glory.  We expect the worst and try to protect ourselves from it, rather than expecting Christ to show up and opening ourselves to a new creation.

We hold our breath, instead of breathing the breath of Christ.

  • In the homeless person we expect to swindle us by buying booze with the $5 we’ve given them instead of food.
  • In the child we expect to get it wrong instead of empowering them to do it the way they think might be best for them.
  • In the friend we expect to hurt us or the loved one we expect to break our heart again instead of working to reconcile with them.

It is hard to believe, especially when you’re hurt or shamed in anyway.  It is hard to believe so that we might surrender our false power of building walls that constrict and protect ourselves and breathe in God’s Holy Spirit so that the true power of forgiveness might open our heart.  It’s hard to believe that much in the Resurrection.  But that is what we are asked to believe in, nonetheless.

Because, my friends, we are disciples.  We are in the room.  We weren’t left out.  And we are called to believe in the possibility of a new creation.  We are called to free ourselves and one another from the prison of death.  We are called to believe that, not only can that person over there change, but perhaps I can change too.  And perhaps the relationship itself can change.

When I think about forgiveness and reconciliation, I think about Restorative Justice.  Restorative Justice is a movement in many countries all over the world that offers a different option than the typical criminal justice system.  Restorative Justice believes that true justice happens when forgiveness happens.  Both the victim of the crime and the perpetrator meet with a trained counselor.  And if the counselor feels that both people are ready to step into a new relationship, they meet with the counselor present in the room, and they work together to restore the relationship.

I heard a story by a Restorative Justice counselor once: He had started meeting with a young man who had damaged some property and tagged it with graffiti.  He would have been sent to a juvenile hall in California’s penal system, but it was a case that was given to the Restorative Justice counselor.

He worked with this young man.  And he worked with the owner of the house, an older woman.  Her garage door had been spray-painted and broken.  And when they met, the woman explained that her husband had just died a month prior to the crime.  She spoke through her tears that he had worked tirelessly before his death to make sure that the house was in perfect shape so that she wouldn’t have to worry about problems once he had gone.  It was his last gift of love to his wife.

As she spoke, the counselor watched the young man – his eyes, at first, defiant and scared, his arms crossed in front of him.  The counselor watched as the young man’s defenses melted before his eyes.  The young man’s eyes beginning to well with tears, his arms uncrossing as he reached up to wipe his own face.  And then he watched as the light of Christ grew within this young man as he offered all that he could in that moment, his deepest most sincere apology and his desire for this woman’s forgiveness.

And so then it was time for him to tell his story.  His grandmother – the one person in his life who believed in him, who watched over him – had died a few months ago.  And now he had no one who he felt was on his side and he had grown angrier and angrier.  And, now, here he was in this room with this woman that he had hurt and he was so sorry that his thoughtless anger had done such damage.

So, they decided that, instead of going to juvenile hall, this young man would come to the woman’s house and repair the damage – fixing the door, painting it with a fresh coat of paint.

As the counselor tells it, the young man and the older woman grew to be friends.  He became the one she called on when something needed to be fixed in the house.  And she became like his family, someone who could care for him, who believed in him and who he would care for until the day she died.

Forgiveness and PrisonerAnd this happened because she opened her heart and chose to believe that there was more to this young man than the vandal who had damaged her home and ruined her husband’s gift of love.  And, perhaps more importantly, she chose to believe that she was more than a bitter, powerless woman and that she could do more than just let the police handle it.

Instead, she stood strong in the powerful love of Christ and extended that love to someone who just needed someone to believe in him, in the gift that he was and is, in his inherent goodness and preciousness as a beloved child of God.  And this gave him the power, then, to stand strong in that love too alongside her.  And both people were resurrected into a new creation awakened by mercy and true power.

My friends, we are disciples.  We are called to believe.  We are called to look for abundance, and for goodness, and for true power.

And more than that, we are tasked to call it forth in one another.  This is the mission of the Church – to call this forth in the people that we meet.  In our communities and our homes and our workplaces and on the street.  In our everyday lives… people who inconvenience us, who hurt us.label-jars-not-people

The mission of the Church is for us to be called out into the world to spread this love, this forgiveness, this understanding of reconciliation that is the Resurrection of Christ.

We’re not called to tell people how they need to be.  But we are called to stop expecting them to meet our standards and instead to wait patiently, expecting nothing more than the glory of God that is already inside of them.

Bp Desmond Tutu knows this.  Nelson Mandela knows this.  When Nelson Mandela walked out of his South African prison cell after 27 years believing deeply in a new creation, he worked tirelessly with Desmond Tutu to work toward reconciliation in South Africa.

Instead of seeking retribution, instead of inciting rebellion and racial riots, Mandela and Tutu worked with the white government of South Africa to end apartheid.  Because they believed in the Resurrection.  Because they believed in God’s abundant, saving love for creation.  And they believed, then, in their discipleship mandated them to call everyone to the Light of Christ so that an entire country could become a new creation.

By surrendering our hardness, our need to have people prove their worth, our desire to see people get what we think they deserve, we empower ourselves and other people to shine forth the light of Christ.  So that we all may walk in the Resurrection with our Savior and know the love and the abundance of God.

Thomas, the doubter, is a part of all of us.  He comes to visit when we feel we’re on the outside, when we feel we need to protect ourselves, when we have come to believe more in our own false power than in God’s power to work through us.  And this is why Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Because while Thomas is an inevitable aspect of being human, and an understandable one, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to believe.

We are called to receive the breath of life, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that continually calls us toward one another – to forgive, to believe in one another’s belovedness – not more than our own but in concert with our own, so that we may always be reconciled to God.

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Suddenly – An Easter Day Sermon

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A few years ago, I was walking along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  If you’ve never been there, it’s one of the more touristy places in San Francisco, right along the water, filled with souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants, tour buses, and lots and lots of street performers.

As you walk along, you are treated to performances by jugglers, musicians, dancers, men in suits spray painted in silver and moving like mechanized robots.  It’s a lot to take in.

 

SF Bushman

See?  I wasn’t making this up!

On this day, the sky was bright blue and clear, the breeze from the ocean wasn’t too cold but the sidewalk was packed with pedestrian traffic. And I can’t remember exactly where I was going or why I was there.  All I remember of that day is one particular moment.

 

I was walking along trying to maneuver through the crowd and “suddenly,” a man jumped out from behind a bush and scared the living daylights out of me.  I jumped back, gasping in fear and surprise.

Some of the crowd of people laughed in response to my shock. You see, this was his street performance – to crouch behind a dried bush that he carried with him and watch for his next target. The people watching were, of course, his audience, the ones who dropped money in his bucket.  It was harmless, really.

But I’ve wondered if Matthew’s sense of humor wasn’t a little bit like this street performer’s. Matthew uses the word “suddenly” to describe Mary and Mary’s meetings with the angel in white and with Jesus that morning. And the use of this word makes me think that Jesus couched behind some bushes in the early morning, like a prankster performance artist lying in wait for his friends to come by.  And then just at the right moment… “ta-da!”  “Greetings!”

Our friends Mary and Mary went through quite a bit that morning. While still grieving over the torturous death of their friend they wake before dawn to go and prepare his body for burial.  And then they get there and “suddenly” there was a great earthquake followed by a shocking scene where a lightning bolt burst open the tomb leaving a figure dressed in white who has the nerve to tell them, “Don’t be afraid.”  Don’t be afraid?

Mary and Mary, Matthew tells us, respond with a mixture of “fear and great joy” as they flee the tomb at the angel’s command to “go and tell.” And then Jesus pops out of nowhere and shouts, “Greetings!” And their response is to drop to their knees.

That’s what “suddenly” does to us.
“Suddenly” jars us out of our everyday patterns and routines.
“Suddenly” gives us a sense that we aren’t in control.
“Suddenly” shows us that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot plan for everything.
“Suddenly” has to be one of the most humbling words in the English language.  It brings us to our knees every time.

And the message is: “Do not be afraid.  Go and tell.”
Do not be afraid.  Go and tell.

I know we’re all here in this church today for different reasons, some because it feels good, some because we feel like we’re supposed to, some because we’re searching, some because it’s been a while and we want to be here.

I know we’re here looking for Jesus – but Jesus is not here.
At least not only here.  Jesus has gone ahead of us to Galilee.

Galilee, the place outside the walls of the church. The place outside the walls of our hearts and our minds.

Galilee, where we suddenly find ourselves when God chooses to shake us awake out of our reverie, out of our patterns and routines, and reminds us of the love that is eternal – the Alpha and the Omega, Greek letters inscribed on this Pascal candle to signify the beginning and the end.

Galilee, where we are brought to our knees because we see Jesus.

We don’t like surprises.  We want to know what to expect from our world.  We like knowing what is going to happen.  We desperately need to have some sense of control over our lives, our surroundings.

We expect people to show up how we need them to and we get mad when they don’t. We have opinions about security and safety because we confuse the importance of the things with the importance of their purpose.

We find all kinds of reasons to protect our hearts from being broken open in love because we don’t want to be brought to our knees.

Prison CellBecause we are sure that there is a tomb of death awaiting us. And we’d rather not be in it.  And we think if we just protect ourselves in some way, we can stay out of the tomb.

But in our need to do this very thing, we have chosen to believe in it – to believe in the tomb of death.  And that gives it power over us.

We’ve chosen to believe in an unreal world where “suddenly” is unwelcome.  We’ve chosen to believe a lie about ourselves that tells us we are incapable of love and of being loved.

“Suddenly” is necessary because we believe in the unreal tomb of death. We believe in it so completely that, unless we have an angel in white standing in front of us appearing out of some pyrotechnic show of fire and smoke, we will just go on about our way… believing in death. Refusing to be brought to our knees.

But the tomb is not real.  This is the Easter message: The tomb is not real.

What is real is Christ – seen and risen anew in a community that makes the choice to see only through the lens of love and uses that love to see beyond itself. A community of friends who know that the survival of our community is not our purpose.  Our purpose is to go and tell in Galilee.

 

Keith Haring

Untitled by Keith Haring

Go and tell of this love that is enteral – the Alpha and the Omega.
This is the only thing that is real.  And it will bring us to our knees.
But don’t be afraid, my friends.  Go and tell.

 

And I wish I had such abilities as that angel on the rock to shake us all out of our reveries to help us to understand just how profound the love of God is that is awaiting all of us when we believe in that eternal love, beyond anything we can imagine in our narrow understanding of reality governed by the expectations we have of people and the need we have to control our world. But I don’t yet have that skill.

All that I have, all that I can offer you is a deep belief that Christ is alive.  That Christ is risen.  And that Christ is waiting for us in Galilee.

Galilee – beyond our walls…
In our workplaces.
In our community.
On the curb offering ashes, in the yard blessing bikes.

Galilee – in our everyday walk through our everyday life.
Where we will see Jesus “suddenly” when we least expect it –
in the one who irritates us the most,
in the one who is homeless,
in the one who has hurt us the most,
in the one we most fear,
in the one who is in need,
in the one who is on the other side of the line we’ve drawn.

Our purpose is in Galilee, where we are called to serve.
Our purpose is to open ourselves to the “suddenlys” hiding in wait to shake us out of our expectations and fears and beliefs.
Our purpose is to go and tell, to go and love in Galilee.

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Go and Tell What is Real – The Great Vigil of Easter

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Click on the play button below to listen.

Here’s the scene:
A large, somewhat plain sanctuary with ornate wood carvings around the chancel.  Up front, the altar is decorated with candles and flowers.  In the back, the white marble baptismal font is also decorated with flowers.  Somewhere in the middle, a tall white candle surrounded by flowers is alight.  On the candle are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega – signifying the beginning and the end.

Here are the characters:
A group of about 40 people – some dressed in vestments, some in street clothes.

Here’s the plot:
They have been sitting in candlelight – attentively listening to stories, singing hymns, reciting psalms.  When the lights come up, in response to the priest’s proclamation, they all stand and ring bells and sing.

Then they sit back down and the priest, (who reminds some of these good people of Dawn French from the British television series The Vicar of Dibley) gets up and preaches such a fantastic sermon that they are all inspired to follow the Gospel’s command to “go and tell!”
And they leave running from the sanctuary to share their love of God with the first person they meet.

And the congregation grows because people want to be a part of such an enthusiastic, loving community of people who aren’t in it for themselves, but who understand that this thing called “church” is about serving the world.  Even if it means getting out of bed early on a Sunday morning.

This is a little different than the scene depicted in the Gospel of Matthew.

In that scene, we have a Middle-Eastern countryside outside the walls of a major city.  It is a clear, early morning at the moment of day break and we see two women walking the rolling hills toward a rocky outcropping where a small group of armed guards stands.

The characters, these two women – Mary and Mary, our main characters, are ritual leaders in a community of Jews because of their role in preparing a body for burial.  The guards are Roman soldiers dispatched by the local governor at the request of the Jewish leadership, who wanted to make sure the body wasn’t taken.

And the plot is a strange fantastical tale.  Because just as Mary and Mary reach the rocks, the earth shakes and a sudden flash moves a huge stone, leaving a gaping hole.

 

MBarredo Tomb

Empty Tomb, Cerezo Barredo

Emerging from the cloud of dust, a figure dressed in white appears casually sitting on the stone.  The guards freak out, unable to move or speak.  And this figure looks at Mary and Mary and says, “Do not be afraid.”

 

And the speech continues: “I know you’re looking for Jesus.  He’s not here.  He said he would be raised up and he has been.  Take a look and see for yourself.  Now, go and tell his followers.  Go to Galilee and you’ll see him.”

Now, I can imagine Mary and Mary, even though they were told “Do not be afraid,” were probably a little freaked out – a mix of fear and “great joy” is what we’re told they were experiencing. A set of emotions that accompanies us all when we are just doing every day things, living our everyday unremarkable lives and then something utterly unexpected happens.  We’re so shaken that we still haven’t adjusted, still haven’t believed this new reality.  Yet, so powerfully inspired were they, that they found themselves following the instructions and running to find their friends to tell them.

And then, my favorite part of the plot:

Before they had the opportunity to question themselves. Before they experienced the nagging doubt that can come creeping in when we’re faced with our world being turned upside down, their friend appears.  Shaking Mary and Mary to their core.

Jesus, the prankster (probably sitting behind some bushes along the footpath, anticipating the arrival of his unsuspecting friends, maybe even giggling at the thought of their reaction) jumps in front of Mary and Mary and shouts “Greetings!”

And he echoes the words, “Do not be afraid.  Go and tell.”

So, here I am – the priest (who reminds people of the Vicar of Dibley) in the place of the ghostly figure in white who sits casually on a stone and my task is exactly the same.
My words are exactly the same: Do not be afraid, my friends.  Go and tell.

I know we’re all here in this church tonight for different reasons, some because it feels good, some because we’re supposed to, some because we’re searching.
I know we’re here looking for Jesus – but Jesus is not here.
At least not only here.  Jesus has gone ahead of us to Galilee.

Galilee, the place outside the walls of the church.
The place outside the walls of our hearts.
And, just like in the Gospel story, I promise you’ll meet Jesus on the way, probably in some utterly surprising way.

And this surprise is necessary.  We don’t like surprises.  We want to know what to expect from our world.  We like knowing what is going to happen.  We desperately need to have some sense of control over our lives, our surroundings.  We expect people to show up how we need them to and we get mad when they don’t.  We have opinions about security and safety because we confuse the importance of the things with the importance of their purpose.

And we do this because we expect the tomb of death.
We are sure that there is a tomb of death awaiting us.
And we’d rather not be in it.
This is the way of the world.
But ironically, it’s not real.  This world is not real.
This is why the surprise is necessary: Because we believe in the unreal tomb of death.

We believe in it so completely that, unless we have an angel in white standing in front of us appearing out of some pyrotechnic show of fire and smoke, we will just go on about our way believing in death.

What is real is Christ – seen and risen anew in a community that makes the choice to see only through the lens of love and uses that love to see beyond itself.
This is the love that is enteral – the Alpha and the Omega.

And I wish I had such abilities to shake us all out of our reveries to help us to understand just how profound the love of God is that is awaiting all of us when we believe in the eternal Christ – the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end that is beyond anything we can imagine in our narrow understanding of reality governed by the expectations we have of people and the need we have to control our world.

But I don’t yet possess that kind of pyrotechnic skill.

All that I have, all that I can offer you tonight is a deep belief that Christ is alive.
That Christ is here.  And that Christ is waiting for us in Galilee.Love God Love People

Galilee – beyond our walls…
In our workplaces.
In our community.
Galilee – in our everyday walk through our everyday life.
Where we will see Jesus and he will take us by surprise:
in the one who irritates us the most,
in the one who is homeless,
in the one who is in need,
in the one who is on the other side of the line we’ve drawn.

And so, on this night, we gather to re-member ourselves.
To remember the stories of how we have come to know God’s hope for us through the stories of our tradition.
To remember that the community of friends is important to us but that the survival of our community is not our purpose.

Our purpose is in Galilee, where we are called to serve.
Our purpose is to go and tell, in Galilee.
Our purpose is to open ourselves to be surprised by Jesus hiding in wait to shake us out of our expectations and fears and need to control.

So, let us re-member ourselves as the Body of Christ in the renewal of our baptismal vows.

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Maundy Thursday – A Guest Post from Deacon Sue Bonsteel

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img_20161029_165133434In this world where we are often surrounded by harsh rhetoric, threats of violence and retaliation, and cries for “an eye-for-an-eye” type of justice, we hear a different message this evening. We hear gentle and enduring words about compassion and love and serving one another. It is an evening when we gather as Christ’s beloved community and listen again to the readings that foretell traditions that we are to remember and pass along from one generation to another. They are the words of Christ spoken more than 2000 years ago to his own disciples shortly before he would be tried by the Roman authorities and killed.

This story is imprinted on our Christian souls. In Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus had gathered his twelve disciples. He alone knew what was about to happen to him – that one of his own would ultimately betray him to the authorities; one would deny him three times; and all would abandon him during his hour of greatest need.

Yet Jesus called his friends together – they shared a meal; and he broke bread and poured a cup of wine; he ate with his friends and blessed them; then knelt down before them and washed their feet; and showed them love and grace and compassion during a time when fear and anger might have seemed the more likely emotions.

What had Jesus done to deserve what was to come? He lived a life of non-violence; he healed the sick and restored sight to the blind; he freed the captives; walked among the outcast and ate with the scorned. He spoke up in the presence of injustice. He brought hope and life to those who needed it most.

Those were his sins in the eyes of the authorities. Jesus was to be killed because the goodness he brought to the world was more of a threat to the ruling government and religious authorities than any army could ever be. He had so radically upended the status quo during his lifetime that those in power decided the only answer for them was to put him to death.

Jesus didn’t run away as another person might; he didn’t prepare himself for a battle, arming himself with weapons. Instead he chose to spend his final hours with the ones he loved and who loved him. Jesus needed to be with them for they would be the witnesses to what would follow.

You and I know what is coming…and still we willingly gather here together as a community. We find comfort in being together as a Christian family as we enter into the ancient stories of these last days of Jesus’s life and death.

For tonight is the night when Jesus gave his disciples (and the world) two things that would forever connect us to him and one another: the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the mandate to love. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We gather on Maundy Thursday not only to share a simple meal, but to share in the symbols of humility, love and service to one another established on that holy evening in Jerusalem. The physical acts of washing one another’s feet and hands and communicating one another with the bread and wine are both rich and intimate experiences. Perhaps we find it a bit uncomfortable; perhaps it makes us feel vulnerable. Yet if we allow ourselves the time and the space to enter fully into the liturgy, we are given an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and ultimately to God.

It all comes down to love. The command to love one another sounds so easy, yet we already know how difficult it can be.  For it is human nature to strike back at the ones who try to hurt us or hurt the people we care about. It’s natural to feel repulsed by evil and immoral acts and think of ways to punish. However, that’s not the mandate Jesus left for the world. Indeed it’s just the opposite. Love everyone, he said, even those who wish us harm; even those who hate us and fear us. Just love one another.

The challenge for us, of course, will always be to discover ways to live that love in our relationships and in our communities and to use this blessed force of goodness in service beyond our selves. This type of agape love is selfless, and always committed to the well-being of others first. To seek out the marginalized and welcome them into our life; to take in in the stranger; to feed and clothe the hungry and the naked; to care for the sick and visit the prisoner – these are the ways we love the world as Jesus did.

Love is more than a fleeting passion or an emotional high. There is freedom in the word “love” but it carries with it a responsibility, a commitment, a sense of dedication to someone, to some principle, some value or truth that we hold dear. It is our relationship to Jesus and our faith in him that will always create the space to love our neighbor in a way that is authentic – in a way that accepts that person fully.

Jesus didn’t give us an easy formula to follow. He didn’t spell out in precise terms exactly how to go about doing this – to love the unlovable; to forgive the unforgivable; to see the humanity in those who act in ways that are inhumane. But he did something even better. Through his life and his deeds and his words he gave us an example, a sign, a clue, a road map to follow.

And so, beginning this Maundy Thursday, my prayer is that we may be generous with our love and deliberate as we live out the mandate to love one another. The words are simple yet they demand our whole life and attention. When we wash one another’s hands or feet; when we share in the body and blood of Christ, may we remember that we are celebrating Christ’s great love for us. And when we leave this place tonight, may we remember to bring that love of Christ to others.

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