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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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