The Edge of Hope

A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture click here.  If you want to listen along click the play button below.

 

Jesus, when you rode into JerusalemODix_Entry_Jerusalem
the people waved palms
with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
we may still walk beside you… even to a cross.
 The Collect for Palm Sunday from the New Zealand Prayer Book

This prayer captures today’s lesson so beautifully. It speaks to the precipice of Hope, the razor’s edge of choice that we face everyday.  Can we walk with Jesus?  Or do we offer our messiah something else?  Can we walk in Love?  Or do we offer our fear?

Today, in this drama, it’s clear: We offer Jesus our disappointment in him.  Our thoughtlessness.  We offer Jesus our laziness and our self-righteousness.  Our stubbornness and our nostalgia for an easier life.
Today, on Palm Sunday, the lesson is that we offer Jesus our privileged comfort and our skepticism.  Our judgment.  Our sarcasm.  Our gossip.  Our cynicism.  We offer Jesus our refusal to participate.  Today, we offer Jesus all of our forms disappointment.

The Passion narrative illuminates with almost frightening clarity the interweaving of our personal spirituality and societal responsibility.  How our personal salvation is directly connected to our participation in the common good and how deeply, deeply important it is to remember this.  Even though it’s the easiest thing to forget and the one thing we most want to deny.

On a social level, Jesus was the leader of a protest.  It’s that simple.  There is no other way of reading the gospel, try as you might.

Rome was an occupying force.  The Jews had been trying to wrestle free from Roman control for decades and many people had been labeled “messiah” before Jesus was even born.  And each time the people got their hopes up that this one would successfully raise an army and drive out the Roman oppressors.

But part of the problem was that the Jewish authorities were enabling the Roman leadership so that they could continue leading their religious services, a special favor offered to them by Rome.  Otherwise, they would have had to bow to the worship of Caesar instead of God.  This deal-making between the Jewish leadership and the Roman authorities, of course, caused deep corruption.

Which got worse over the decades.  So, when the Jewish leadership turned Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor, it was pretty much expected that they would.

Still, the people tried to raise a messiah… one who would free them from the oppression they were experiencing.  And lots of zealous leaders claimed messiah and attempted violent revolution.  And those people were all crucified by the Roman state. NIKOLAI_Ge_Crucifixion

Along the most well-traveled pathways, Roman authorities used to have rows and rows and rows of posts lined up. Posts prepared to receive a person nailed to a cross-beam.  Sometimes there would be hundreds at a time.  People implicated in a crime against the state.

This was Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome for the non-citizen.  Oppression.  Intimidation.  Crucifixion.

Our scripture tells us that God will always upend the powerful from their thrones.  So, of course there was protest.  When people’s lives are being trampled on, there is going to be some kind of backlash to that.  There always has been and there always will be.

And then we have Jesus.  Our scripture also tells us that he was a messiah like no other.  And I believe this to be true.  And this is where our personal spirituality leads to social responsibility.  Because the way he spoke, the things he said, the support he offered, the actions he took…
He taught something completely different than violent upheaval.
It wasn’t about making Israel great again.
It wasn’t about meeting force with force.
It wasn’t about the human desire to take an eye for an eye.

It was about meeting force with resistance to force.  Instead of the Peace of Rome, a militarized peace, Jesus teaches us the peace which passes our understanding… beyond our understanding.

This becomes personal because it requires each one of us to recognize something that we’d rather not pay attention to.  That inside ourselves is a part that is capable of going down an extremely dark path that slowly and violently robs us of own humanity, our own holiness.

And the decision to allow violence, to turn a blind eye to violence in any of its forms, regardless of the excuse we use, is the first step down that dark path. And so we pray rather than react violently.  We find a way to listen to God to listen to each other instead of seeking vengeance.
We strive, we act, for justice instead of shrugging our shoulders and walking away wishing it were more comfortable.

God’s peace, the peace which passes understanding…Nonviolene Sculpture
Jesus taught that this kind of peace is healing and is how change really happens.  This kind of world is what God really wants.
The kind of world where power is brought to its knees at the foot of a manger, not at the end of the barrel of a gun.
Where force is met with resistance to force.  Where violence is met with non-violence.

But if we are to make that real, if we are to follow our Saviour and be the healing agents Jesus teaches us to be, then we must pay attention to that need for retribution in ourselves and practice our own resistance to that violence.
Practice the peace of God, not the Peace of Rome.

But it’s hard.  It’s hard for me.  It’s hard for all of us.
It’s easier to want someone to do battle for us, a show of strength to prove something.  It’s more convenient to mock and gossip and judge, rather than to think we might be wrong.  Or, perhaps, it’s just hard to be on that edge of Hope, where we might dare to believe in ourselves so deeply that we could be become a new creation, a source of true healing for the world.

To follow Jesus is to believe that God chose incarnation and made the whole creation holy.  And that requires us to treat the whole creation as if it were actually holy… starting with ourselves.  To walk in love as Christ loved us.

Perhaps it’s easier to be cynical and stubborn because hope, real hope, can be so hard.  I mean, what if I put myself on the line and things didn’t get better?  What if I fail.  Isn’t it better to just never try?  Never believe in the first place?  We don’t want to be disappointed and so maybe that’s why we offer our disappointment as a preemptive strike against the possibility of real peace, real love.MLKJr Nonviolence

And perhaps that’s why we are asked to remind ourselves every year just how hard this walk with Jesus is, to be on the edge of Hope.  On Palm Sunday.  And in our walk through Holy Week.

Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem the people waved palms with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that, we, when the shouting dies  may still walk beside you… even to the cross.

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New Jerusalem

A sermon preached on the 5th week of Lent, Year B on March 18, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below:

It was 50 years ago.  It was 1968, 50 years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. was

martin-luther-king-jr-pop-art-portrait-25-randal-huiskens

by Randal Huiskins

assassinated outside a hotel in on April 4 in Memphis, TN.  The life of the Rev. Dr. King was remarkably like that of Jesus – one of leading people, not in a war, but in peaceful protest until the point at which he knew he was being targeted.  The point that he knew he might die because he stood in a place of righteousness, in a place of love, that made many people uncomfortable.  And yet, he went on, knowing that the cost for his love would likely be his very life.

 

I offer this today, because this particular anniversary is a little less than 3 weeks away and we have such powerful readings that remind me of this man who, at this time 50 years ago, was preparing himself to go to Memphis.  And because he was a person of deep faith, I know Dr. King must have been reading today’s Gospel passage as he was making the decision to go to Memphis… not because he knew what was awaiting him there, but because he knew it was awaiting him somewhere:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Most of us don’t lead such dramatic lives.  Rarely is our actual life required of us.  But I bet each one of us has experienced a time in our life when we had to muster our courage, when we had to do something that we didn’t really want to do but we knew that we had to do.

It’s a point of no return.  A moment in which we lose the innocence and comfort of a simpler way of being, an easier time.  And, in a way, that is like losing our life.

I’m convinced that this is how God’s Glory works in us, shines forth in us.  We read in our scriptures that God has known us since before we were born.  In Psalm 139, we praise God saying,
3 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end
*—I am still with you.

And when we come to those moments for which we were born, the moments when it feels as if we are giving over our lives to something greater than ourselves… I’m convinced that this is how God shows forth God’s glory through us. Dying Seed

Because, as John’s Gospel today says to us, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

Now many of you know that I am a devoted fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In case you’re not aware of this show, it premiered 21 years ago and ran for 7 seasons and it has an enormous following, even to this day.  The show itself is a bit campy and, obviously, quite fantastical because it deals with superpowers and daemons.  As a matter of fact, when it originally came out, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.  I thought it was too weird.

But it was one of my seminary professors that convinced me to watch it because he referenced it in a class I took.  It was a class on pop culture and religion and how religious themes inevitably find their way into culture – into visual art, into music, film, poetry, dance, and… even into TV shows.Buffy_Grave

The scene that my professor showed us from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the moment that Buffy chose to willingly give her life in the name of love.  Even though she is constantly in a battle for her life throughout the 7 seasons, it is the choice she makes to willingly give her life in the name of love that brings her to a sense of completeness and wholeness.

The journey she makes to that decision is not an easy one.  Along the way… she loses love, she loses her mother and has to become he adult of the household, she’s forced to stand up for herself against coercion, and accept the growth of her friends… all the while doing battle with a god, because we all wrestle with God in our own ways.

And all of this is a maturing, a growing-up, if you will, so that she may step forward into the moment in which she knows exactly what the ultimate purpose of her life is.  To give herself in love.

And, again, unlike the Rev. Dr. King… unlike Buffy… unlike Jesus… many of us don’t have such a dramatic moment in our life.  But we all face moments in our lives when we are called by God to live into a purpose, a sense of something greater than ourselves.  And, in that moment, it can feel like we’re losing everything.

It can feel like we’re losing our very life, all that we’ve worked so hard for.  We may mourn its passing.  We may yearn for a simpler time.  We may be angry that we feel forced to live into a new reality.  But this is how God’s Glory manifests in us – when we become willing to give up our ease and our comfort in the name of love.

Throughout Lent, the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have focused on covenant.  We heard about God’s covenant with Noah, which came about after God flooded the earth because humanity couldn’t stop its war mongering ways.  And when Noah responded with obedience by saving the larger creation, God entered into a covenant saying never again would God wipe humanity from the face of the earth.

And we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham, which came about after Abraham pronounced a new faith – belief in the God of love and abundance, the God of all life.   And God responded by covenanting with Abraham that the descendants of him and Sarah would be as plentiful as the stars in the sky. That is, the descendants of faith, who also believed in the God of all life, regardless of particular religious expression.

And we heard about the covenant of the law (the 10 Commandments) and how living by the letter of the law rather than living by the spirit of the law, can become oppressive.   Because, God’s law is always going to be one that leads us to care for each other, the particulars of which change from age to age.

In today’s reading, Jeremiah tells us about a different covenant, one that is much more intimate, much more individual.  It’s a covenant that is written on our very heart.  It is the purpose for which we were born.  It is the very meaning of your life.Fire heart

So, as we approach Holy Week this year, I wonder how this covenant that Jeremiah talks about might be speaking its words to you.  I wonder what roads your life is leading you down right now.  What your life is asking of you, how your is life forming you, and preparing you for God’s purpose of sacrifice in love.  How are you being prepared for Easter and new life in Christ?

Because while it’s true Jeremiah weeps for Jerusalem (which is the image on today’s bulletin cover) the Jerusalem he weeps for is the Jerusalem that was.  For many people, it was seen as great and mighty.  For others, it had become deadly.

And so, we might begin to realize that Jeremiah’s lament is for something that has passed away so that a new Jerusalem may arise in its place.

What is that new Jerusalem for you?
What is being asked of you in the name of love?
What is the covenant written on your heart?

Because what should we say, “God save me from this hour?”
No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour.
It is for this reason, we are here.

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Hope

 

A sermon preached on Lent IV, Year B at St. John’s Episcopal Church on March 11, 2018.  You can read the scripture by clicking here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,Dickinson Hope
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

This poem by Emily Dickinson (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) gives us a vision of Hope.  The thing with feathers… like a bird that perches and sings… it has a lightness.  Hope is an experience of a lifting or of being lifted from the heaviness that weighs us down.  A ray of light in the dark or blue sky on a grey, cold, stormy day.

We experience Hope as an opening, a deep breath where there has been only shallow respiring before.  Or a sense of calm or warmth.  A sweetness that sinks into our being to nourish and fill us. A smell of earthy spring warmth.  Or a breeze that blows through our hair.Hope 1

And Dickinson says that Hope asks nothing of us.  It’s just there for us to see, to experience, to know.  Because it never ends.  Even when we don’t know it’s there, even when we’re not able to see it, it never stops.  Hope remains.

The movie Shawshank Redemption is a movie about hope and how it remains, even in the darkest prisons of our lives.  The main character, Andy Dufresne, is sentenced to life in prison after being falsely convicted of 2 murders, one of which, was the spouse who had just left him.  He is a person who has every reason to be embittered by life and the circumstances in which he finds himself.  A person who has been devastated by the harshness of the world.Shawshank

Many of the people in prison with him have lost their hope, or they have forgotten how to see it.  Cynical.  Hardened.  Andy’s best friend Red goes so far as to say that hope is a dangerous thing, that it can drive a person insane and has no use in a prison with people who have no expectation of being released, no promise that anything will ever change.

But Andy eventually reminds Red that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.  And no good thing ever dies.”

Hope always remains.  It may not look exactly like we’d like it to look, which is why it’s so hard for us to see.  We confuse Hope with expectation.  And this is why we are given signs and symbols of Hope – to help us remember, to help us return to that fluttering place where the thing with feathers is perched and sings to us its sweet song.

Today’s scripture is about Hope.  This passage from John is often quoted out of context so we easily forget that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus here.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, the kind of religious leader who is so focused on rules and law, that the law becomes conflated with God.

The Pharisee is that part of us that gets irritated when people don’t use their turn signal or don’t load the dishwasher the right way.  We want everything to be done the way we want it done.  And when we take that to extremes, we have extremists, needing the world to follow a rigid set of rules, making an idol of the rules themselves.

Our Pharisee Nicodemus is searching though. He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to seek out answers.  He comes in the darkness to find the light.  He has chosen to walk away from the prison of his rules.nicodemus-jesus

And Jesus tells him that what he seeks is right in front of him.
Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things…”  And then he reminds Nicodemus of their ancestor Moses and how Moses offered a sign of hope.

“and Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

The passage from Numbers that Jesus refers to, reads a bit like Moses is performing magic.  But it’s much more than a magic trick.

As we know, Moses is leading the people of Israel out of slavery, yet they grow impatient because they thought freedom would look different than wandering around the desert for a bunch of years.  They grow bitter and resentful.  Soon, they are able realize that their bitterness is a mistake that brings them to death and they ask for forgiveness, which they receive. Moses Broze Serpent

And as a remembrance, Moses constructs a symbol of Hope out of their bitterness and resentment so that when he lifts it and people see it, they will remember their mistake and remember the forgiveness, so they may be healed of their impatience and hostility.

Hope comes to us in the memory of forgiveness, in remembering the feeling of being lifted up out of the heaviness by the thing with feathers, being freed from the darkest prisons of our lives.

Through this action of the memory of forgiveness, the bronze serpent becomes a symbol of Hope.  Because we remember the temptation to indulge in our narrow, hopeless thinking, as well as we remember the experience of being freed from it.

People do this all the time, keep a symbol of something they have been freed from, or liberated from, something they have survived so they can remember.
It’s a touchstone, a tangible, incarnate memory of this part of their lives.

Sometimes members of 12-step groups keep a bottle cap or beer tab.  Sometimes people who have been injured keep a cast or crutch from a fall. For a while, I kept pieces of the broken window after I totaled my car 15 years ago so I would remember to be more attentive to changing my tires in the winter time.

It’s a way of honoring the new life.  A way of thanking God for God’s saving Grace.

These, of course, are different than trophies.  They don’t celebrate the event themselves but they are the remembrance that there is always a second chance. That God loves us beyond our mistakes and on the other side of the shame we carry for whatever we’ve done wrong… is another world.  It’s a resurrected life that awaits us.

This action of remembering – remembering the mistake and the forgiveness of it – is the essence of Hope.  We have lots of words for different aspects of this experience – forgiveness, mercy, grace, favor, charity, blessing, kindness, liberation.  Salvation.

Salvation, the focus of John’s mystical Gospel.  The cross we carry as Christians, the cross we bear, is not one of shame, as in “we all have a cross to bear.”  The cross is the memory of forgiveness from a mistake that is so devastating, so incredibly inhumane… so we might be healed of the impulse to ever indulge in such a barbaric act again.

We place the cross in our worship spaces, not because we love gory images, but so that we might look at it and remember the life of Jesus and never do that to another one of God’s children ever again.NIKOLAI_Ge_Crucifixion

We might never sacrifice another for the sake of a greedy institution.
We might never sacrifice another because its more convenient to have them expelled from our lives.
We might never sacrifice another because they challenge our comfort.

So that we might, instead, offer kindness.  Offer sanctuary.  Offer Hope.
This is our Christian salvation.  Our Christian Hope.

We remember the Resurrection, which is the incarnate act of forgiveness.  We remember that the God of Life will always return us to Life, always return us to Hope even in the darkest prisons of our lives, the worst mistakes we have made.

And as the Body of Christ, we are called to offer that to one another whenever and however we possibly can.  Forgiveness.  Mercy.  Sanctuary.

I know I’ve had times in my life, when I was feeling so hurt by what someone did, I desperately wanted them to learn their lesson.  Certainly not injury or death, but I wanted them to experience shame or regret for what they did to me.  There is a sense of satisfaction in that, after all.

And I cannot say that I’ve been purged of this tendency completely because I don’t think we ever really are.  But there’s no hope in that.  And there is certainly no love.
And so we continue looking for the path.  Because we are broken humans, we continue looking for the path, like Nicodemus.

This is how Hope functions in our lives.  It’s a place that holds forgiveness for us until we can forgive. Because these places where we’ve been hurt, where we store anger and pain and shame… they are the darkest prisons of our lives.  And they spawn same the bitterness and resentment and hostility as the people walking in the desert with Moses.  They bring death.Hope 2

Because sometimes the hardest thing, when standing in one of these prisons, in one of these deserts… is to make the choice to walk out of it.  Instead of holding on to our resentment, we look for the path or the tunnel that will lead us out.

We relieve ourselves of the expectation that the world must be right and follow rules and laws, like the Pharisees.
And, instead, we forgive the world its mistakes.

And we forgive ourselves our mistakes… for not meeting everyone’s expectations or needs.  For, not being the person we wish we were. For not living up to whatever yardstick we measure our worth by.  Because Hope asks nothing of us, even in the darkest moments, and the strangest seas.

The choice to walk out of the narrow prison, is the choice to return to the Hope that is already waiting for us.  Where we come to know, once again, the lightness of our being.  To return to the experience of being lifted from the heaviness that weighs us down.  This is liberation.  This is salvation.

The ray of light in the dark or blue sky on a grey, cold, stormy day.  The deep inhalation where there has been only shallow breathing before. The calm and the warmth.  The sweetness that sinks into our being to nourish us.  The smell of warm, spring earth.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all.

Hope remains because God remains and waits for us.  Always.

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Guest Post: A Sermon from Deacon Sue

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lent III, March 4, 2018 by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel.  You can read the day’s scripture by clicking here.

img_20161029_165133434….and Jesus went into the temple. There he found people illegally selling guns, dealing drugs, and trafficking humans and the money changers were seated at their tables, gold coins stacked high around them.  And angrily calling each one of them out by name, he overturned their tables and drove them out of the temple. He told those that were selling opioids and heroin, assault weapons of all designs, and who profited in the exploitation of children, “Take yourselves from here and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It’s jarring, isn’t it, to hear this part of John’s gospel using contemporary societal issues. It unsettled me even as I wrote it for sounds so harsh and there’s always a danger of offending someone. In many ways the story of the cleansing of the Temple embodies the active, social justice ministry to which Jesus calls the church. This gospel story reminds us that the Jesus we love and follow was a renegade in his time; he was a man on a mission. Jesus used the political and social climate of his day to challenge the status quo and to call attention to the failings of its leaders. He took risks far greater than worrying about offending someone’s feelings.

The cleansing of the Temple is among the most important events in the life of Jesus. Because of its significance, it’s included by all four Gospel writers, albeit somewhat differently. The Synoptic gospels suggest that Jesus’ public action in the Temple was one of the main reasons he was arrested and put to death. The Roman rulers saw his behavior and words as capital offenses and a great danger to their authority.  One contemporary writer describes it this way – “Imagine Jesus walking into the massive Temple run by the Jewish religious elite (who, by the way, had been put in place by their Roman oppressors). This was tantamount to someone walking into a federal government building and blowing it up.”  For Jesus, it was that perilous an act.

What was going on in the Temple that upset Jesus so? The Temple in Jesus’ time was a busy place where money changers prospered. The rabbis had determined that Roman coins with the image of Caesar needed to be exchanged for Tyrian coins, the currency required in order to purchase the animals used for sacrifice during the 8 days of Passover. The Temple complex was huge and, in many ways, it had been turned into something similar to a bazaar where merchants sold their wares. The Temple had become a business enterprise. It had ceased being an inclusive place where pilgrims would enter and worship God. Only a very select few were permitted into the inner sanctum where it was believed heaven and earth met and where God might be encountered.

When Jesus entered the Temple, instead he found the bankers taking advantage of the poor, demanding outrageous conversion rates, and making huge profits to line their own pockets. This did not sit well with Jesus.

His strong reaction to what the Temple had become was more than a display of anger. It was a confrontational act of speaking truth to power in the face of injustice taking place within his Father’s house.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus would teach his followers that there was much more to life than simply being good people. He would teach that societal reforms were necessary if the values passed on in the Law of Moses and the Word of God as spoken through the prophets were to be honored. All of this was to prepare the world for the new Covenant that was to come following Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It was very clear that the religious, political and social institutions of his day needed a major wake-up call.
We might say the same for our institutions today.
What do we do? Can a social justice ministry be effective against the status quo? Are we courageous enough to speak truth to power?

In the chaos that surrounds us these days, it is easy to lose sight of the power we have as people of faith. We have the ability to speak from a place of strength and confidence, for we have learned from the One who confronted the injustices of his time. We must be part of the solution.

The oppression of our black and brown brothers and sisters through harsh and unjust immigration policies is heartbreaking; but shedding tears is not enough to stop the cruelty that tears families apart.  A response by the Body of Christ is demanded.

The power of a gun lobby that ignores the faces of the dead and wounded and instead seeks to protect its own pocketbook needs to feel the pressure of Christians empowered to create change.

The brutality of human trafficking and the greed of those who sell flesh and blood into forced labor, sexual exploitation and slavery is a violation of all basic human rights. The Church does not stand idly by while people are abused and exploited.

The wanton production of drugs and greed of those that market them devastates not only the addicted and their families but the communities in which the drug culture thrives. The Body of Christ must offer more than thoughts and prayers to the children of God trapped in a cycle of drug abuse.

It is often too easy to feel disheartened, powerless, and bewildered by the overwhelming need around us. It is easy to slip into moral outrage.

But moral outrage is not always helpful when we speak of social justice issues. Anger at an injustice or a wrong initially may fuel us; but unless we have the ability to listen to one another and to try to understand one another’s perspective, we may never see the change that is needed.

Just consider the gun violence debate. I think it’s safe to say that we all share in the belief that something must be done to curb the deaths at the hands of people armed with military-style assault weapons. To some of us there seems to be an obvious and straight-forward solution – just ban assault-style weapons except in the hands of law enforcement and the military. But others of us see any restriction on our understanding of the 2nd Amendment as an infringement on our Constitutional rights. So our moral indignation grows until we end up shouting and turning over tables and acting in ways indistinguishable from those that aroused our anger. We rage at the greed of the gun manufacturers and the elected officials who benefit from financial contributions, and who pile up gold coins around them; yet we remain at an impasse.

Consider immigration reform and the concept of creating places of refuge for people targeted for deportation. This deeply divides our nation. To display compassion and kindness and offer assistance to the exiles and immigrants among us is the least the church can do. But when national and religious leaders engage in inflammatory and racist remarks, the fear and resentment felt by too many in our country is fed. In order to comprehend the complexities of the immigration issue, we need to understand that this is more than an economic, social or legal issue, it is ultimately one that is both humanitarian and spiritual. For the Body of Christ, standing with the immigrant means we are standing with Jesus who hung out with the “wrong people” and challenged the “right people” to reexamine their priorities and prejudices.

Any social justice ministry that we choose to carry out must be a ministry of inclusion and empowerment. This means making the poor and marginalized welcome in our lives and in our Church and taking the time to listen to their stories. This is part of the work necessary if we wish to confront the systems that seek to diminish the dignity of oppressed people.

Jesus’ own words inform the call to social justice: I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.

We see in these words a call to building relationships – not only to feed those who are starving, but to prevent others from going without food. We are called not only to give water to those who are parched, but prevent others from becoming thirsty. We are called not only to cover those who have inadequate clothing, but to prevent others from becoming naked.

What Jesus does in the gospels is to refocus our attention on the things of God. He reframes the conversation. To be the Church is to be the true Temple, the Body of Christ; to stand strong and confront the systems that seek to diminish and destroy.

Should we choose not to respond – not to accept the call to love another  and to work for the dignity of all people – then we fail in our mission of continuing Jesus’ ministry on earth. For it is Jesus’ own example that teaches us the importance of being faithful; and of opposing the idolatry in our culture whenever profit, privilege, racism and unlimited consumption corrupt our human behavior.

As lovers of justice and peace and followers of Jesus Christ, you and I have the power to turn over tables and to make our voices heard.

Hear the words of Alan Paton, the late South African author and anti-apartheid activist:
O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others
Open my ears that I may hear their cries;
Open my heart so that they need not be without comfort;
Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong,
Nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.
Show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
And use me to bring them to those places.
And so open my eyes and my ears
That I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for you.
Amen.

Deacon Sue Bonsteel
March 4, 2018

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And a Child Shall Lead the Descendants of Abraham

A sermon given on February 25, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in honor of Emma Gonzalez and all the children of Parkland, FL who are calling us to listen.  You can read the scripture lessons by clicking here.

LapofAbrahamOn today’s cover, we see an illustration from an illuminated Christian manuscript, Abraham and his descendants. In the front, we see the Christian on the left, the Jew in the middle with a yamaka on his head, and the Muslim in a turban carrying the Quran.   Abraham himself looks like he is in deep need of a couple weeks of vacation and sleep.  After all, the people who claim to be his descendants haven’t always played together very well.

The stories of Abraham are quite significant in Christianity, as well as to the religions of Judaism and Islam.  These 3 religions are known as the Abrahamic religions because we all claim Abraham as the ancestor of faith.  In the Muslim scriptures of the Quran, Abraham’s (or Ibrahim) story is a well-developed account, second only to Muhammed.   The tales of Ibrahim mirror those in our own scriptures but focus heavily on the compassion and kindness of this character and how these qualities are the most important to live a life in union with God.

Since we share the Hebrew Scriptures with Judaism, we share the same narrative and, to a large degree, our religions understand this character the same way – the ancestor of faith.  The one who led us all to understand God in the way we understand God today – the unbounded, ever-present, omniscient loving presence… the God of Love, the God of all Life.

The character of Abraham articulated belief in a God of all – monotheism.  The stories of Abraham all reflect this in both the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the Quran.  Abraham is the model, the archetype, if you will, of an aware life, an enlightened life, a life in union with the God of Love.

Modern Biblical scholarship understands Genesis not as history the way we understand it today, but rather as a set of stories written to help remind ancient Israelites of their common ancestry during a very divisive time in their history.  These stories offered a way to help people remember that differences were not as important as what they shared in common.

And the most important thing they shared is their relationship with the God of Love, the God of all life.

As we know, this is hard for humans to remember.

Abraham first appears in Chapter 11 of Genesis as Abram, the son of Terah.  And, like last week’s readings, where Jesus went immediately into the desert, the first story about Abraham is one of desert journeying – God sends Abram away from his home of Haran into the desert.

Abram built altars to God in the desert and lived in Egypt as an alien, he traveled extensively and received direct messages from God – one, in particular, a dream in which God offered Abram a vision of his descendants:

“‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions.”  (Gen. 15:13-14)

But if Genesis isn’t an historical account, how do we understand these passages?  Who exactly are the descendants of Abraham?

As I was coming to Christianity in my 30’s.  I had many conversations with my first priest, Bill Ellis, as I struggled with this religion.  His responses were never about learning rules or quoting scripture.  Instead, they always offered space for me to let God in.  In other words, he taught me about faith, rather than about religion.  And I am profoundly grateful for that.

My particular struggle in finding my own home in Christianity is that I see truth in many religions.  And this was related to the trouble I was having as I tried to reconcile this call to be a Christian with the more extreme fundamentalist versions of Christianity.  I couldn’t and still cannot claim to be practicing the same faith as these people.  So, of course, I spoke with Bill about this.  And Bill’s response was so filled with grace that it has stuck with me.

He said something like this, “I’ve come to understand that I have more in common with people of other religions that I do with many other Christians.  Because it’s not about the particulars of how we worship God, it’s about the God we choose to worship. And so I find I have more in common with people who actually worship the God of Love, regardless of how that is expressed, than with people who are more interested in judging others or twisting God to fit their own image.  Because they don’t worship the God of Love.  They worship the god of fear or, even, the god of hate.”

So, I’d like to return to the question: Who exactly are the descendants of Abraham?  Because I believe the answer to be: those who worship the God of Love, who is the God of all life.

It is not Abraham’s DNA that we are invited to inherit.  It’s not even Abraham’s religion that we are invited to inherit.  What we are invited to inherit is Abraham’s faith, Abraham’s belief in a generative, life-giving God that knows no boundaries.  And this faith is found in all religions, in all peoples, in all walks of life from the beginning of time.

Abraham, the original believer, the exemplar of compassion and kindness.  The one who knew God to be the God of all life, rather than a localized deity who only loves certain people.  Abraham, the one who continually gave his life and his heart to God rather than insisting that God do his selfish bidding.

Abraham is the one who understands that this journey with God is a covenant that human beings must actively participate in.  We give of ourselves and God gives us what we need.  It is a faith that calls us to service of God to one another.

Abraham’s faith acknowledges that all comes from God and all belongs to God so all we have and do is offered to God.  The truth articulated in this faith is so basic and deep, so expansive and generative that it is beyond the walls of nation and religion, and the limits of tribe and law.Abrahams Covenant.jpg

And God promised that multitudes of peoples would learn this truth and come to exemplify the same compassion and kindness that Abraham did.  God promised that leaders would arise from this awareness, that God is the God of all Life, which is what Abraham taught us.  God promised that this covenant would be everlasting.  And so it is.  Because here we are – the inheritors of Abraham’s faith.

And what is most helpful to remember is that the stories of Abraham were written for a people who were divided to help them remember the deeper truth as articulated in God’s covenant with Abraham:  It is the God of Love that binds us all together.  It is the God of Love who will find a way to return us to Love by turning worldly power on its head.

Remember God speaking to Abraham about his descendants? … your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed… but I will bring judgement on the people who enslaved them…

This is the same declaration given to us in the Magnificat:
God has brought the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

It’s the same message given to us by Jesus in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful…

It’s the same prophecy given to us in Isaiah chapter 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

US-SCHOOL-SHOOTING-PROTEST

Young person Emma Gonzalez speaks out after the Parkland, FL massacre.

 

The stories of the Hebrew Scriptures aren’t about things that happened a long time ago or entertaining myths we can toss aside.  These stories are about us, about what we are experiencing right now.  And it is at our own peril If we refuse to find guidance in them.

When we are deeply divided and we find ourselves in untenable, tension-filled times… and then we try to look for safety in the echo-chambers of our opinions… it’s because the powers that be have us all rattling our swords. This is when the God of Love lifts up the lowly and blesses the peacemakers and the merciful.

This is when the God of Love lays low the rich and powerful and cuts through the cacophony of the world by speaking through the voices of children, the truly powerless in any society.  “A little child shall lead them.”

For a descendant of Abraham, these are beacons of hope in a dark world, calling us back to the God of Love, back to compassion and kindness.  The God of Love will always call to us in our disparate, lonely places, inviting us to accept our inheritance and become Abraham’s descendants in faith once again.

Because when the world has stopped making sense and we’ve grown staunch in our opinions, refusing to listen to each other, the voices of children will always rise above the din and lead us back to God.

Are we listening?  Will we follow?

This is the covenant that is everlasting:
We are each other’s keeper.  We always have been. We always will be.

May we listen to the voices of the children.
May we accept our inheritance.

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Listening for Transfiguration

A sermon preached on Last Epiphany to celebrate the Transfiguration on February 11, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read the scripture.
Click on the play button below to listen along.

In today’s collect we ask for God to change us “into his likeness from glory to glory.”  I think sometimes we forget that the Transfiguration is for us.  That it is a map for us.

Jesus, upon that mountain with Peter, James, and John offered them a vision of what is possible.  I think it’s easier to believe that only Jesus could be transfigured, because that lets us off the hook.  But here we are, praying for ourselves to “be changed into his likeness.”

Bowman Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Bowman http://www.bowmangalleries.com 

This vision that Peter, James, and John saw was fantastical. It was unbelievable.  This kind of transformation, this kind of revelation belongs with the top echelon of Hebrew prophets – with Moses and Elijah.  Moses who brought Israel out of slavery and Elijah who defended the worship of YHWH over the more popular god Ba’al. This is the who’s who of prophetic Jewish leaders.

This mountaintop theophany (or direct encounter with God) is used throughout Hebrew scripture.  Moses receiving the 10 commandments in the book of Exodus on top of a mountain.  Elijah receiving instructions about who to anoint as the leaders of Israel in the first book of Kings on top of a mountain.  And here, Jesus shows us that God’s dream for us is more than rules to follow and more than rulers to bear power.

In this theophany isn’t Jesus receiving anything.
This is Jesus becoming something.
This is Jesus becoming Christ in full form.
And this is what is possible, not just for Jesus, but for us.

We had our Vestry Retreat yesterday at the Rectory.  The leadership of St. John’s all met to spend time in each other’s presence to offer ourselves to one another.  And as these amazing leaders talked about how we will work together as a group, the first thing they brought up wasn’t about emails or timekeeping or reports.

The first thing they talked about was the importance of listening to one another.  And they were clear, we’re not talking about listening to wait for our turn to speak so that we can make a point. We’re talking about a listening that is focused on attending to one another.  Listening with an open mind and an open heart so that we might be willing to be changed by what we hear.

A theorist named Otto Scharmer talks about 4 levels of listening:

He says the first level of listening is when we listen from our habits.  We listen for what we already believe.  And the result is that we confirm our opinions and judgments.
If we’re honest, this is what Facebook and Twitter is largely used for.  Echo chambers where we feel better because we’ve gotten plenty of likes for the things that we already think and believe.

The second level of listening is when we listen with an open mind so that we are listening, not to confirm what we believe, but to take note of new or different things.  It’s scientific observation. The result is that we learn and discover new things and we may learn to apply those things. This is good.

The third level is called empathic listening, listening with an open heart that enables us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what life might be like for them.  We listen from somewhere other than our own locus. Or we connect to a part of ourselves that may remember a similar experience in our own life.  We put our self in someone’s shoes.  Like a Wounded Healer, which we talked about 2 weeks ago.
The result is that we connect with someone in a real and authentic way and we are able to offer a healing presence and be healed.

The fourth level is called generative listening, which is listening with an open will.
This is a place of surrender, a willingness to be truly changed by what we hear.  The result is that we become a new creation and because we become a new creation, the person to whom we are listening also becomes transfigured before our very eyes.

This happens because we see Christ, we see what is possible is becoming what already is.  We see the Kingdom of God before us.

KHinkle The Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Kenyatta Hinkle

This doesn’t happen when we keep the world at arm’s length.  It cannot.  It may feel safer to keep the world at arm’s length.  Our opinions and our fears usually rule over us and we only listen for that which confirms what we already believe.

But when we welcome others into our world, not only are we likely to learn something new, we are likely to experience deeper connections and we are likely to become changed by the experience.  It all depends on our willingness to surrender to what’s in front of us.

This kind of welcome is exactly what we are asked to do in our Baptismal Covenant that we said together at the beginning of the Epiphany: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

Can we do it all the time?  No.  We’re human.
Some days we have bad days when the world is too much with us and we’re tied up in knots because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills or we don’t like what someone said to us or our physical health has deteriorated of we’re sick or we feel bad about something we did or we’re hurt because someone doesn’t love us the way we would like them to.
On these days, it’s hard to get past level one, quite frankly.

But we practice.  Because Jesus has given us this image of Transfiguration, we practice.  And we have 40 days of Lent given to us as a gift in which we practice.

SHaque Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Sabina Haque

We practice opening our mind and maybe we realize that learning new things may feel a bit chaotic, but it increases our capacity and gives us new insights.  And so that might inspires us to go a little bit deeper.

We practice opening our heart and perhaps we realize that connecting with another person may feel a little risky, but it, ultimately brings joy to our lives as we share ourselves with friends.  And so we might go even a little bit deeper.

And we practice surrendering our will so that we might be reconciled with God, transfigured, “changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory.”

This Reconciliation happens because, having bent our own will, having arrived on bended knee before the manger just like the magi who followed the star and found themselves in a smelly barn full of animals and poverty and filth at the Epiphany, we are changed.
And what we see before us, isn’t the dirt of the world, but it is Christ.
This person standing before us is Christ.

And, just like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, we ask, “How may I serve you today?”

In this moment, we realize that the world is just the world with its laws and its power and that we will find no salvation in those worldly means.  But the true revelation is that God is with us, in this person transfigured before us.  Christ in dazzling white.

Transfiguration mosaic

A mosaic of the Transfiguration

Coming in Lent we have some opportunities for listening.

      1. Centering Prayer 5:45 every Wednesday, a new practice for us as we learn to listen to God in the silence.

 

    2. Lenten Soup Supper Learning Series: Understanding the Sanctuary Movement 6:45 every Wednesday.  We’ll listen to guests and to one another.  See the flyer in your bulletin.

It’s just listening.  Not making decisions.  Just learning to employ the 4 levels of listening.

Today as we celebrate with the final Alleluias before we begin our journey of Lent, may we know that this Transfiguration is, not only possible, but this vision that Jesus gives us is our birthright as children of God.  To welcome another, not hoping that they will be like us and agree with us, but to welcome another in the hope that we might surrender and be changed.

My friends, may we be changed by our Lenten journey into Christ’s likeness… from glory to glory.

giuliani_transfiguration

The Transfiguration by the Rev. John Guiliani

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On Healing and Service

A sermon preached at St. John’s in Kingston NY on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018.  Click here to read the scripture. Click the play button below to listen along.

Isaiah paints for us a picture of God – a God of comfort, renewal , redemption:
God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  (Is. 40:28)

There are several feasts we celebrate this time of year on the Christian calendar – the Feast of Saint Brigid, Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation) feasts which appear here in order to mark the mid-point of winter.  blue-green-light.jpg

It’s mid-winter when we start to see a shift in the light, when we can see, perhaps, a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.  I have several of my lamps on automatic timers in the Rectory and I’ve noticed this past week that, as they come on, the light they offer is not yet needed because the sunlight is still filling the room.  And I feel a sense of delight and relief that the light is lasting longer.

I think this is a wonderful metaphor for healing.  There are times in our lives when we are called to put forth a little more effort, keep the light on just a little bit longer, moments when we need to pay closer attention to the light in our lives, to cultivate it.

There is a list of the most stressful events that typically cause illness if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not taking the time to take care of ourselves:  Death of a family member, moving, change in job, major illness, additions to the family or the or leaving of partners/spouses, being incarcerated… and the list goes on.

These are the moments in our lives when it can be difficult to tend to our light because we’re so focused on taking care of the crisis or so shaken by it that we lose our self for a bit.  This is understandable.  Life is sometimes quite difficult.

It’s during these times when, if we’re not able to kindle our own light, we may need to rely on our friends and family members just a little bit more, so we don’t get completely lost in the darkness.  So we learn to be of service to one another to be one another’s hope, to be one another’s light in the darkness.

And Isaiah says: “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless… but those who wait for God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

This part of Isaiah – chapter 40 – starts out with the words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Tenderness

It’s the announcement of deliverance, the promise of imminent redemption.  This chapter is one of the most quoted of all of Isaiah’s words because this message of God’s Love is so easily forgotten, yet so desperately needed:

Because the light will always return.  Even when we lose our way, especially when we lose our way, in the darkest moments of our lives, the deepest dream in our hearts, is that God’s light will return.

There are times when all seems lost and it’s so hard to remember God’s Love, when we believe we might just be beyond redemption, beyond hope.  In those moments, we think our heart is shattered, irredeemable… broken beyond recovery.

And there are some for whom this is a nearly constant experience. The ones on the margins.  The ones whom we would rather ignore.

What we often forget is that healing depends less upon what we do ourselves and more upon what God does.  Taking care of ourselves often means giving God the space to do what’s needed… through prayer or silence, through quiet walks or simple activities.   Allowing time.  And allowing space, usually the space to welcome others in.

I believe I’ve mentioned the movie Groundhog Day in a sermon here before.  Well, since Friday was Groundhog Day, I spent Friday evening watching this funny but poignant movie.

Bill Murray plays a weatherman in Pittsburgh, PA.  He’s someone who is convinced of his own greatness and puts forth enormous effort in shoring up his own self-esteem.  Like all of us, Murray’s character is a flawed human being.  But he’s someone who is so disconnected from himself and the people around him that each person he meets is just an object in his world – he either gives them attention so he can get what he wants from them or he ignores them because they have nothing he wants.Groundhog Day

From this worldview, everyone moment looks the same – on the lookout for objects that I can use.  Every interaction feels the same – did I get what I needed or not?  Every day seems to be a repetition of the day before – get up, get what I need from the world, be disappointed by what I didn’t get, go back to sleep.

In the story, Murray’s character actually lives the same exact day over and over again.  At first, he panics and tries to fix the problem.  Then he decides to relax and just enjoy himself, using each day for his own personal gratification.  Then he realizes just how empty that is and dives deep into despair, successfully killing himself over and over again only to wake up to the same Sonny and Cher song on the radio again and again.

Finally, he begins to surrender and starts to see the beauty in the world, beholding it with awe in the simple, little things. He decides to use the time to study, learn ice sculpting, and the piano.groundhog-day service

But the last step in his healing is when he realizes there are ways he can help other people – he shows up to catch a kid who falls out of a tree everyday, even though he never gets thanked.  He cares for a homeless man he sees everyday, trying to save his life.  He changes a tire on a car he sees everyday.  He saves someone from choking everyday.  He buys tickets for a honeymooning couple he meets everyday… and on and on and on.

In other words, he’s fallen in love with the world, with these people that he used to see as only objects in his world.  Which is to say, he’s fallen in love with God, the Creator, and made himself God’s servant, showing up to serve the others in his life everyday.  Welcoming them into his life as creatures of God, instead of just objects from whom he might be able to get something he wants.

When he finally wakes up on a new morning, the evidence of this healing is found in his genuine question: “How can I be of service to you today?”

And this doesn’t come from a need to be needed, or some desperate craving to be seen as good. This question comes from a simple desire born of awe, as if to say, “I see you, beloved child of God.  How can I be of service to you today?”Rest here bench

When is the last time you turned to someone in your life and simply asked, “How can I be of service to you today?”

Think about it for a minute.  Imagine yourself asking someone that question, someone you love or someone you don’t even like…
Does it make you feel vulnerable?  Does it make you wonder if they will ask it back so you’ll be taken care of too?  Do you think that, if someone needs you they will let you know so you don’t ask?  You don’t risk being laughed at or rejected?

These are typical human responses.

I think you’ll find if you ask it, people won’t know what to do with that… at least at first.  I’ve tried it before and so I know that people find it more than a bit disarming. But what if we asked anyway and meant it? What if we kept asking and eventually started getting answers?  How would that change our world?  How would that heal our hearts?

This theme of healing and service is the point of today’s gospel message from Mark.  When Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, she began to serve them, healing and service going hand in hand.Healing Hands of Service

Like last week’s gospel, Jesus, the Wounded Healer and Welcoming Stranger, is able to reconcile the community… “the whole city was gathered around the door…” by helping these people find their hearts again they can once again be in service to one another and be a part of healthy community.  They begin to welcome one another again.

Welcoming instead of needing.  Allowing God to heal what needs to be healed within us and through us, surrendering ourselves in service to God’s Holy Creation.

The whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, the whole of the Old Testament, has a simple storyline to it.  God gets angry when we forget that we are responsible for one another, not as a tribe, but as the whole Creation.  As a matter of fact, tribalism is identified as the exact causes of the divisions in the first place.

And so, if this is why God gets angry, because we are so focused on ourselves and our own tribe, then salvation must come through the healing of the larger community by the restoring of those on the margins – and this is exactly what Jesus comes to tell us – through the care of the poor, the destitute, the oppressed… the ones who Murray’s character in our movie would ignore and deem unworthy of his time and attention.

The ones who live their lives in the darkness.
The ones who we would rather ignore.
The ones who Murray’s character learns to, not only see, but to serve and to welcome… as if he’s welcoming those parts of himself.

As Isaiah reminds us, Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

This is how God works.  This is how God redeems.
This is how God reconciles us to Godself.
The restoration of Jerusalem occurs through service to God, in service to one another which is the healing of the whole community.

May we all offer one another healing, as we offer ourselves healing. May we all welcome the one we would rather ignore, especially those parts of ourselves. May we all offer ourselves in service to one another and learn to ask, “How may I be of service to you today?”

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