The Hope of Miracles

You can read this week’s scriptures by clicking here.

Click the play button below to listen along.

It starts with Peter.  It always seems to start with Peter.  Of all the disciples, Peter seems to be the one who epitomizes the humanity of Jesus’ followers.  He’s not particularly great.  He’s not wise, nor brave but neither is he stupid nor completely fearful.  He’s an average person trying to figure out this faith thing.  Sometimes he gets it.  Sometimes he fails miserably.

Perhaps that’s why he’s named as the head of the church universal.  Sometimes we get it.  Sometimes we fail.  But we are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

The Gospel story comes to us from Matthew.  Jesus and his disciples have just participated in a miracle together – feeding the multitudes.  And, instead of basking in a job well done, Jesus sends the disciples away: “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…” 

Immediately, Jesus sends them out into the unsafe sea where they are at the mercy of the winds and waves.  The sea is the symbol for chaos, where we are deeply uncomfortable, where we are in fear for our lives because the sea is not something we can control.  It’s unstable and, more than the earth, responds to forces beyond our control – wind, moon, air temperatures creating currents and riptides underneath the surface.  The sea is uncontrollable.

Meanwhile, Jesus sends the crowds away and goes to pray.  Later, he comes to find the disciples some distance from safety, being tossed about by the wind and the waves and in clear distress.  In the middle of the night, in the middle of chaos, the disciples are scared out of their wits.

They are so scared they don’t even recognize Jesus at first.  They don’t recognize the presence of God who is with them.  And Jesus responds with “Take heart!  Do not be afraid.”

Peter Walks on Water Coptic iconAnd that’s when Peter shows us why he’s the head of the church universal.  He gets it right and he gets it wrong at the same time.  His love, his devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.

And one might think that Jesus should tell Peter to get over himself – to stop thinking he has the power to do such a thing, to reign in his ego. But he doesn’t.  Jesus looks at Peter and says, “come.”  In the midst of the raging sea, Jesus sees Peter’s Love and says, “come.”

Of course, Peter gets scared and nervous when he’s shaken from his devotional trance and starts to slip into the drink.  But the point is that a part of Peter knew.  The indestructible part of Peter knew that he could survive the chaos and join Jesus in the midst of it.  Peter’s unbounded, eternal Soul led him to follow Jesus, follow our Emmanuel, in the face of death.

 

I opened a book on my vacation a few weeks ago and the first line of the intro said, “We live in turbulent times.”  Indeed.

We’ve been through quite a bit this summer as a congregation because people have decided to leave the community of St. John’s. As hard as that has been on me, I’m very mindful that it’s been just as hard if not harder on you.  It’s incredibly difficult when people decide to leave, regardless of the reason.  We feel rejected.  Sad.  Disappointed.  And we might question if we’re doing what we should be doing.

I’m deeply grateful for Sue’s excellent sermon last week. She helped us to all remember our sense of purpose and common voice, the Spirit that has been guiding St. John’s for nearly 200 years. This is something that theologian Walter Wink calls, the “angel” of a congregation, the communal consciousness who reminds us that we are here to serve God’s mission, not our own.  And God’s mission was here before us and will remain after we are gone.

So, our parish life has felt some turbulence recently.

And then, there’s the turbulence felt in the larger culture around us through the detestable saber-rattling between our government and North Korea, both militaries having the ability to launch nuclear strikes.  And the pastor from Texas who has announced that “God has given him the authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.”  This, by the way, is blasphemy.

All of this on top of the everyday fears and challenges of our lives… as we age, have health concerns, hurt by friends or family, as we try to see to the demands of everyday life, and some days we just need to rest.

So much turbulence.  It can be hard to find a sense of hope when all we can see is the raging sea.

On Friday evening, I started hearing reports about what was happening in Charlottesville – white supremacists marching with torches, surrounding a church where clergy and others were praying.  The white supremacists chanted “blood and soil” a racist ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on purity of blood and territory.  It’s a phrase that was used by the Nazis.

And then… even more devastating reports on Saturday.  The same white supremacist protestors armed with semi-automatic weapons, more hate-filled chanting, riots.  And death and traumatic injury as a car purposefully plowed into a group of peaceful counter-protestors.racism-text-straight

Some people are shocked at these events, that the white supremacist movement still exists.  Others are not shocked, but scared that it was so boldly expressed. But for those of us who are white, we must acknowledge that people of color have been telling us this for a long, long time. If we haven’t paid attention yet, it’s time to start.

Because the sin of racism targets our brothers and sisters.  We are all made of the same flesh, from the same earth.  The human race began as brown skinned and olive skinned and black skinned people in the Middle-East and Africa.  We are, in no way, disconnected from this violence born of hatred, fear, bigotry, and ignorance.  Our blood and flesh are bound to it.

So, where is hope to be found?
It starts with Peter, the head of the church… teaching us about faith.

His devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.  Demonstrating who the church can be and what the church can do in the midst of raging chaos:  We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

There is Jesus, standing in the chaos of the world, where he always is.  And Jesus encourages us to be faithful and to know that “faith” means we are to step out into the chaos of the wind and the waves and join him there – in the chaos.  And he reminds us that he is going to be there with us when we falter and lose our faith, when we forget that we are as strong and as good as we are.

Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that means “God is with us.”  Jesus didn’t come to prove that he alone is the most powerful healer.  That, too, is blasphemy.  Jesus came to help us understand that God is always with us, the ground of our being, the spark that is our indestructible Soul.

The point of the story is not that Jesus saves Peter.  The point of the story is that Peter offers us a beautiful example of faith in the midst of chaos.

In our fear, we cry out and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”
In our devotion, we look for Jesus and he calls to us, “Come.”

What are we called to do as the church in response to the evil of white supremacy?  How is the church complicit in this evil? And what can we do to transform it?

These are hard questions.  But Jesus is standing in the raging sea, patiently waiting for us.  Saying, “Don’t be afraid. Come.”

Because hope is not outside of us.  Hope is found within us and works through us.

There is no savior coming to save us.  Our Savior already came and he gave us very clear instructions.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  That we believe this and we live it – that is what it means when we say that Jesus saves.

Jesus tells us that Love of God and Love of neighbor is what all this is about… all the law and the prophets.  Everything that Moses was talking about.  All the justice that the prophets proclaimed.  Everything that’s in the Bible is all about love of God and love of neighbor.  Love in action.  And that Love will give us the power to walk the raging sea and reconcile us to one another again, to reconcile the world to God.

Because if it’s not about Love, it is not about God.

Peter walks out onto that water out of utter love and devotion to God. He’s not particularly great.  He’s an average person, like you and me, trying to figure out this faith thing.  Sometimes he gets it.  Sometimes he fails.

But what is remarkable in this story is that, for a moment, he forgets his smaller, fearful self.  For a moment, he forgets the possibility that the others in the boat might mock him or pressure him to stay inside the boat. He forgets, even, that the world is a raging sea around him.

Because he remembers the most important thing.  He loves God.  And when we love God, when we put that first in our lives, we become the hope that we seek because we can indeed perform miracles.cville-5-clergy-via-twitter

  • Hope is the counter-protestors in Charlottesville, many of whom were clergy, willing to stand arm in arm in prayer in the face of the white supremacists who came in riot gear armed with semi-automatic weapons.
  • Hope is the people who ministered at the scene and in the hospital when that car plowed into the crowd.Cvill TEC
  • Hope is every person who is now taking a deliberate oath to boldly stand up to white supremacy and the sin of racism wherever it rears its head.
  • Hope is the action that we take, in the place that we choose to stand in the middle of the raging sea.
  • Hope is the change of heart that comes.
  • Hope is this Table of Reconciliation.

The hope, you see, is us – you and me.

And I look at the people in this room and I know.  I know that we are willing to respond to Jesus’ call to love in action.  I know that we are capable of continuing to deepen our faith in the God of all life.  I know that we have the compassion and sense of justice to tend to the unbreakable connection we all have to one another, regardless of skin or shape or gender or orientation or ability or age or nationality or religion.

Our hope is in us, in our devotion to something greater than ourselves and our fears and opinions.  Our hope is in our devotion to God, in our commitment to love God and neighbor, and in our faith in the ability of that Love to carry us across the raging sea and reconcile us to one another once again.

We are the church.  We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

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The Transfiguration – Guest Post by Deacon Susan Bonsteel

Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration and our Deacon Susan Bonsteel preached this beautiful and deeply meaningful sermon for the life of our community.  She got some big AMENS afterwards.
You can find the readings for today by clicking here. 

Six years ago on my birthday, I climbed into a 1958 DeHavilland 7 – passenger plane and had a thrill of my life. On a beautiful and clear sunny September day, our Vietnam War-era fighter pilot flew us over the mountains of Denali National Park in Alaska and within 4 miles of the summit of Mt. McKinley. He mentioned that we were quite fortunate to have such great weather since there are few days each year that the summit could be seen so clearly. We wore headsets in order to communicate with one another and with the pilot, but I don’t recall a great deal of conversation other than an occasional “WOW!” We were enthralled by the majesty of what was below us and around us, as far as we could see. Huge and broad and snow-white covered peaks extended in every direction for miles. Looking down and outward from my window seat, I wondered if there was another soul out there or if were truly alone. And the thought was not at all frightening; indeed I wondered if heaven could compare to what was before my eyes. How could anything be more beautiful, more serene, more perfect? It was an intensely spiritual experience.

Seeing things in a different way can change us. How I viewed the world and my place in it was altered in those 2½ hours. I had been on commercial planes many times before but always surrounded by strangers, noise and the stresses that inevitably come with air travel. Flying had stopped being fun a long time ago. So I didn’t expect my flight that day in Denali to be transformative. At the very least, I had hoped it would be worth the hundreds of dollars we had paid. But looking back, I can say that my sense of self was greatly impacted – for I came to fully understand that I was just a tiny speck on an expansive and glorious planet. Seeing the world from such a place – that so few others get to experience – was humbling. And I could feel the warmth and the glow that emanated from me as we started to head back to the airport.

For me, this was a “mountaintop” experience – a spiritual high where things seemed to fall into place and I understood and experienced God in a way I hadn’t before. I had seen beautiful shorelines and canyons and mountains and forests but nothing quite as spectacular as Denali. Everything seemed to be good and right and meaningful. It was a time that I didn’t want to end. I felt this great desire to stay in that place and prolong those feelings of completeness and peace.

Perhaps my feelings were similar to those felt by the disciples in today’s gospel reading.  On this day we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus – that moment that Jesus’ true nature – his divinity and godliness – was revealed to Peter, John and James while Jesus still walked on earth. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God in some way. Luke describes how Jesus takes three of his dearest disciples up a mountain with him and is transfigured right before their eyes. As if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets. Yet the disciples don’t know what to do or say, it so far beyond their comprehension. Peter is compelled to offer to construct three dwellings – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Perhaps at some level he senses the holiness of it all and wonders if this is where all might dwell. But the Transfiguration story doesn’t end there. For a cloud appears and overshadows them all and from it God’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then, just like that, it’s all over and the disciples find themselves alone again with Jesus, heading down the mountain, with clear instructions not to speak yet of what they’ve just experienced. So we are left to wonder what James, John and Peter were thinking and feeling as they returned to their life on the ground. Were they overwhelmed and frightened by the experience? That would certainly be understandable. They had just had an intense and holy encounter – experiencing God in their friend and teacher Jesus in a way they had never before. Were they at all reluctant to return to the crowds who were waiting below for Jesus? Or did they yearn to remain longer on the mountaintop?

Anyone who has had a religious experience of any degree knows well the power it can have over us.  We don’t want the connection to God to end or our feelings of connectedness to the world around us to dissipate. We want to find a way to keep these feelings alive in us. We have been transformed and perhaps we want others to feel the way we do. We want to stay just where we are. But life isn’t like that.

Like many of you, I have been struggling with the sadness that is in our parish since several members have chosen to leave. Each of us here this morning arrived at St. John’s in a way unlike the person seated next to us. Perhaps we were baptized or received here; or our parents brought us here as children; maybe we were invited by a parishioner; perhaps we were going through a difficult time and were searching for a safe place to rest. Perhaps we simply were seeking God in the midst of community. Each one of us has our own story – and together – our stories form the Body of Christ here at St. John’s. No one’s story is more important than anyone else’s. Each one of us here possesses a gift that enriches us all; and we are called to use our gifts to build up and strengthen the body of Christ.

Healthy churches are made up of people who are eager to welcome others with diverse backgrounds and perhaps different but no less authentic ways of worshipping.  So it’s is unrealistic to think that one church can meet everyone’s needs, but all churches can strive to be welcoming places. Part of our mission is to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The church that goes off-track is the one that loses sight of its mission and becomes more like a club where only people just like themselves are invited in. Looking inward and finding those places where change is needed may be difficult for many; for we become quite comfortable in our routine and start to assume all feel the same way. It’s important for us to remember, however, that a church that serves only itself will never grow.

As we’ve discovered, change is more challenging for some of us than it is for others. A new hymn, a new prayer, shouldn’t throw us into a tizzy, as my grandmother liked to say. The hymn that is new to me may not be new to the person next to me. The prayer that I find rich and meaningful may not resonate with someone else. The beauty of any new experience is that it can transform us if we are open and willing.

I have no doubt all will be well. Churches all over are going through challenges like ours. Certainly the political atmosphere around us is charged with negativity and we can’t help but be affected by it. It doesn’t mean, however, that we Christians need to accept it as the norm in our dealings with one another. And so, my wish is that we would see this as an opportunity to look ahead in hope. Our faith isn’t static. Why then should our church be?

One our greatest strengths as a parish family has been our generosity. Our focus on community outreach and social justice issues over many decades has been a shining light to the community around us. The suggestion that we are focusing too much on social justice bewilders me. I’ve been in many churches where there is little connection to the issues of poverty, homelessness, literacy, and food security and wonder how Christian communities can isolate themselves from the needs around them. Our own ECW has had a long history of supporting programs that ministered to women and children, Native American and indigenous communities, literacy, and for the mentally ill. For years, the women of the ECW were leaders who guided us to new and important social programs.

All of these issues encouraged us to look beyond ourselves and into a broken and imperfect world we helped create. As Christians, we profess that we have a deep yearning for the perfect community – the communion of all humankind with God. And I believe that is why we continue to confront peace and justice issues on a daily basis.  St. John’s may be a small group of people in the grand scheme of things – but we have the ability to continue to do big things. So how would we ever measure how much of a commitment to social justice is enough?

 If you were around in 1992 to see Angel Food East open its doors to our neighbors living with AIDS, you might remember the resistance we felt from some in our own church. There were concerns about bringing AIDS to the midst of own community.  Some local area pastors claimed our ministry was not in keeping with their understanding of Scripture. Hateful phone messages and threatening letters were all too common. Yet St. John’s persisted.

If you were around when we began For Whom The Bells Toll, then you remember that there were some in our parish who would not pray for the men and women on death row. There were others who would not participate in the tolling of the bells on the day of an execution; who could not accept that the executed named in our Prayers of the People were also children of God. Yet St. John’s persisted.

The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek

Even the widely successful Carpenter’s Kids program had its resistors, folks who wondered aloud why we were engaged in efforts beyond our borders when there was great need within. Like Angel Food East and For Whom the Bell Tolls, patience, compassion and education were the keys to alleviating misinformation and anxiety. Our involvement with Carpenter’s Kids eventually connected us in a profound way to global mission.

And it will be the same for any mission effort to which we agree to commit ourselves in the future. Wherever God leads us, it is apparent that we are not a church that wants to stand still, simply admiring all that has gone on in the past. We are people who believe that the God we worship is a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing in our lives.  It’s why Jesus calls us to be disciples that follow, that don’t simply stand still. Jesus’ own life teaches us that by engaging with others, by living our faith in communion with the world, we can heal and transform the world. May our prayer be – that in the process of living our faith – we will also be healed and transformed.  Amen.

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Just Listen

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

 

I remember when I first arrived here a little less than a year and a half ago; it was the beginning of March.  I was excited to get to know you, the people I would be serving.  I wanted to know who you are and what you care about.  I was thankful that many of you took the opportunity to have a meal or coffee with me so I could learn more about your lives.

And I remain always thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts because I’m here to be your pastor and to help this congregation of St John’s grow into what God is calling it to become.  I’m here to help St John’s discern how to live out its mission of serving God by serving our neighbors.

SnowdropsSo, when I arrived here in early March, the ground was still frozen and most of the plants in the yard were dormant in some way – either brown or underground. Some small plants had just begun to pop their heads out, however – crocuses, snowdrops, the beginnings of all the tulips that Janet Vincent planted over 20 years ago.  It was a feast during those first couple of months.  I went out and walked around nearly everyday taking pictures, posting them to Facebook and Instagram.

As I got to know you and as the spring breezes warmed the air and the soil, all manner of things started growing.  Now, I love houseplants and I’m pretty good with things in containers.  But outdoor gardens are new to me simply because I’d always lived in an apartment – even as a child.

So, I watched as green things grew and I slowly started to realize that not everything was meant to be a part of the garden: some things were weeds and some things were “supposed” to be there.  However, by this point, everything in the garden was growing so fast and my attention was focused on you – still getting to know everyone, still getting my head around everything that happens in the life of St. John’s.Weeds and Not

So, I let the weeds grow.  As you might have noticed.  It’s a lot of space and a lot of garden for one person to manage. But still, it was only once things came to maturity that I could tell exactly what was happening.  Now, we could argue whether this is patience or procrastination on my part. But I think the lesson is important: when we only know a little bit about what’s happening, we really have to wait and see before we go uprooting things.

So, we watch and we listen.  And we wait patiently to see what will happen.

 

Celies Breakfast

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Color Purple is when Celie, a person of infinite patience, cooks breakfast for her cantankerous houseguest, Shug.  Another character named Albert tried to cook Shug’s breakfast and he did such a bad job that Shug threw the breakfast out the door of her bedroom so that the food ended up on the wall of the hallway.

 

So Celie cooks a scrumptious breakfast, slowly slides it into the bedroom and jumps back out of the way, saying “I just stand back and I wait to see what the wall goin look like.  See what kinda color Shug’s goina put on there now.”

We watch and we listen and we wait… until we have more information, until we can see a clear path, until we truly know the difference between the weeds and the wheat.

Wheat and WeedsThe parable of the weeds and the wheat, as articulated by the Gospeler Matthew, is an allegory, where each thing in the parable correlates directly to something else.  As you heard Sue say when she read the Gospel, what we know is: the wheat is good and the weeds are bad.  However, rather than jumping in too soon, it’s best to wait.

In order to preserve the wheat and gain the best possible harvest, it’s best to wait until things mature to discern the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, this is usually applied to people in a wholesale way – that a person is either good or bad.  We end up calling people “bad eggs” or we believe that there is no redemption for people who have done bad things.  That is, quite frankly, blasphemy.

It’s true that it’s hard for people to change, but they do.  It is possible for people to stop thinking in immature, selfish ways and realize the impact of their behaviors on others and to live in ways that uphold the two greatest commandments:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

But even besides all of that conjecture about people being able to change, God never gives up on anyone.  No one is ever beyond the love of God.  I’ve often said, whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side of it.  Every single time.

So, when it comes to interpreting this allegory, I believe the more truthful understanding is that we have both good and bad tendencies within us.  (Harry Potter fans will remember that Harry’s godfather Sirius said this exact thing to Harry… not that Harry Potter is the gospel…)

Or, to be more generous, we have both helpful and unhelpful tendencies within us.  Some days we are the weeds and some days and we are the wheat.

Much like the parable of the sower from last week, we always have the potential for goodness because we are inherently good.  The whole of Creation is inherently good. We always have, within us, the possibility for being good soil.  Often it comes down to the choice we make.  And to make a choice, we need to discern.

If we apply this understanding to this week’s parable that we have, within us, the ability to be both the wheat and the weeds, then it’s incumbent upon us to continue maturing in our spiritual life so that we can better discern which parts of us are the unhelpful, toxic weeds and which parts of us are the fruitful wheat, capable of feeding others as well as ourselves.

This means we continue our efforts to learn to see through the eyes of Christ, rather than solely through our perceptions and limited understandings because preferences and opinions are often full of weeds.  We never have the whole picture.  But when we wait and listen and watch with faith in Christ, we are often surprised at the result. Something happens that we would have never expected.

And I know we don’t like it, but yet, we are sometimes asked to move through uncomfortable situations or be in relationship with people we label as “irritating” or “stupid” and listen and watch and learn rather than react.  The situation always opens up.  The other person always offers something that we haven’t thought of.

This is discernment.  What do we do when things are unclear or uncomfortable?  What else do we need to see?  Who else do we need to listen to?

Rather than react out of fear or anger, how do we move thoughtfully, respectfully, and lovingly… holding the tension of a difficult situation?  How do we hold a generous space to see what else might arise in us and in the situation we are facing?  This is fruitful discernment.

Because while we are called to act in the world, we are called to listen more than speak.  We are asked to watch for acts of goodness and kindness in others and recognize that sometimes we are wrong in our assumptions because we don’t have the whole picture.  Not one of us has the whole picture.  Because not one of us is God alone.

Things happen that we don’t like.  People act in ways that feel hurtful and are disruptive to our sensibilities.  But how do we respond rather than react?  How do we hear a voice other than our own when we are truly lost, which is to say, when we are cloaked in our certainty?

There is a prayer in our prayer book on page 833.  It’s a prayer that is always attributed to St. Francis because, as he spoke to birds and listened to animals, St Francis was the very icon of listening and watching, and waiting and hoping.

St FrancisLord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

And, just to reiterate something that I said a few moments ago, because it’s deeply, deeply important:  I will always be thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts.  It’s a holy thing to listen to others.

This prayer that I just said… it’s not just words to me.  It’s how I try to live my life.  It’s how I strive to be with others because I believe that when we listen deeply, when we seek to understand, it offers something that we aren’t often given in our current context of tv news and political pundits and opinions and reactions and snarky comments on social media… and that is the invitation to go beyond the weeds, those places of opinions and preferences, to go deeper into our hearts so that our inmost concerns and fears and hopes might be spoken and held as sacred.Heart flame

 

How often are we given the space to be truly heard?

 

Being the priest means that I’m given the pulpit, that I’m called to teach and guide and continue to point to Christ but it’s never a one-sided conversation.  I am well-trained and have experience but offer what I have and who I am in profound humility because I don’t have all the answers and this is God’s Table, not mine.

Listening to you and what’s on your heart is, ultimately, the only way I can be of service to you.  So, just as I did when I first arrived here, I continue to welcome and cherish each opportunity to listen.  Because I’m here to be your pastor.  And I’m here to help guide this congregation of St John’s as we grow into what God is calling us to become.

May we all seek to understand.  May we all seek to console.
May we all strive to see through the eyes of Christ.

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Truth and Good Soil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, here’s the Good News.

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

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

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

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

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

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Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Offering Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966

Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Called to Believe

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

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The Incredulity of Thomas, Caravaggio

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jose Lerma Doubting Thomas

Doubting Thomas, Jose Lerma

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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