Glory

A sermon preached on Easter III, April 15, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read today’s scripture.  Click the play button below to listen.


“You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you worship dumb idols and run after false gods?”

In today’s psalm, God asks us a very pointed question: How long we will dishonor the glory of God by worshipping dumb idols and running after false gods?

The glory of God.
We use the word “glory” a lot.  We devote the beginning of our Eucharistic liturgy to proclaiming the “glory of God” – when we sing or say the Gloria together.
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to God’s people on earth.
… we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.

What exactly are we talking about when we use the word, “glory?”

“Glory” is one of the most common words in all of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  In the Greek scriptures, the word we translate into “glory” is the word “doxa” which carries the connotation of splendor and brightness, value and wonder.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word is “kabod” which originally meant “weight” or “heaviness”.  In our modern American English tongue, I think this translates to our word: “gravitas” – a dignity or weightiness, a quality that calls forth intrinsic authority and respect.  It’s not magnetism or showiness, but more like wisdom, centeredness, and depth.

So, we use the English word glory to articulate splendor, dignity, brightness, and wisdom.  These aspects of God that we praise and respect because of their inherent value and wonder.  And we intrinsically respond to this glory with our adulation and devotion… our worship.

 

A few weeks ago, I preached about how God’s glory shines forth in and through us when we are living into our true purpose as creatures of God.  That is, when we are giving ourselves to something greater than ourselves.  This is the very covenant written on our hearts in the book of Jeremiah, that we are called to give ourselves in love.

When the church is at our best, this is who we are.  The Body of Christ, broken open for the world – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving the diversity of God’s creation.  And we do this as broken and forgiven creatures of God. Extravagantly and wildly loved by God.

God’s glory shines forth in us as we lift up others in our midst.

The concept of “glory” often gets confused with “vainglory” which is closer to “vanity” or “pride.”  Vainglory causes us to boast, seeking victory.  It’s arrogant, fame-seeking, and pretentious.  Vainglory arises from a misguided need to prove our worth because we have forgotten just how loved we are.

Vainglory is a striving for adulation of ourselves, a striving to be seen, to get what we think we need.  A striving to belong.
While glory is a surrender to God that happens when we focus our attention outside of our self – because when we see God out there, we feel seen by God in here.  A realization that we already do belong.

So, glory is not about golden chariots and pomp and medals of honor and celebrity – that’s vainglory.  Glory is about authenticity and surrender and life-giving shared power in service.  Glory is about relationship with others and seeing Christ in one another, the Christ worthy of adulation and praise.cslewis1

To unpack this a bit more, I want to quote a bit from C.S. Lewis, who is best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia.  He was known as a theologian in England in the first part of the 20th century and wrote a sermon called The Weight of Glory in 1942 in the middle of the horrors of World War II.  And here’s what he says:

“I turn next to the idea of glory… Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all… Glory suggests two ideas to me… either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity.

 Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God.  We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

 And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

Sometimes, we get a little lost.  Because the world is a difficult place.  It doesn’t make sense many days.  And, lately, it’s hard to make sense of it at all.  I have trouble listing all the ways in which the world doesn’t make sense to me.

And this doesn’t begin to speak about the personal concerns we go through – the illness and grief, the pain and fear.  It’s ok to get lost sometimes.  It is nothing but completely understandable that we find ourselves despairing or depressed from time to time.  When we’re in this state, it’s so easy to reject others because we’re so busy thinking that we are rejected.

When we call out to God: Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Because, like Lewis says, we long to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off.  In other words, we long to belong.

But being lost isn’t the whole of who we are.  God’s response to this petition is to stop running after false gods and dishonoring God’s glory.  Because the mistakes we make don’t define us.  The grief we carry, the ways we have been hurt, the struggles in our lives… this is not who we are.  We are so much more.Mom Show

I’ve been watching this show called Mom lately.  It’s about a group of women who are in AA and how they support one another in the program.  The oldest character, Marjorie, who has been in recovery the longest, is always reminding her friends of the importance of service, that serving others is not only a good and helpful thing to do, but it lifts us out of our own struggle.

Because when we stop focusing on ourselves, service reminds us of our greater purpose – to give ourselves in love.  In other words, to let God’s Glory shine forth though us.

As we move into relationship with others, we stop focusing on what we aren’t getting or how we aren’t seen, on what other people are or aren’t doing.  The voices of judgment quiet down.  Depressive and dark thoughts drift away.  And as this happens, we begin to realize, that not only do people need us, but we love being of service.

There us a mutuality in relationship because relationship is a real and costly love.  The cost being that we give up the illusions that keep us locked in stasis.

C.S. Lewis continues:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, [these are worldly]. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses… (s)he is holy in almost the same way, for in her/him also Christ the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

You are no mere mortal.  I am no mere mortal.  The people who live in this neighborhood are no mere mortals.  The undocumented immigrant, the person who receives welfare, a child in Syria, a person who drives us crazy, the addict, the homeless person, the police officer, the young black man who gets shot at by his neighbor for asking directions… None of them are mere mortals.

We are all beloved holy creatures of God, blessed with the desire to be seen by God and therefore, blessed to shine forth God’s glory simply because we are children of God.  We are luminous by our very nature.

And when we forget, it’s being in service to one another that helps us to remember.

 

Today’s second reading from John’s first letter says, “we should be called children of God; and that is what we are… what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like Christ, for we will see Christ as Christ is.”

We don’t enter into glory by ourselves.  We don’t achieve glory.  We enter into glory by bearing witness to Christ in our midst. We enter into glory when we serve Christ in our midst – when we are of service to one another – to our neighbors – to the other in the course of our day. We enter into glory when we take the time to witness glory in another.

Because when we see God out there, we feel seen by God in here.  This is when the Kingdom of God is present, when the Reign of God becomes real and tangible.

When the church is at our best, this is who we are.  The Body of Christ, broken open for the world – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving the diversity of God’s creation right here, right now.

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We Are Hope

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Click here if you’d like to read the scripture.
Hit the play button below to listen along… sorry about the recording.  I missed the joke at the beginning (which I got from the Vicar of Dibley) and I wasn’t at the pulpit when it was over so it goes a little long.  Still, you get the gist.  🙂

Given that Easter has fallen on April Fool’s Day this year, I thought it best to start with a joke.  And I didn’t know this until this year because it’s not something they teach in seminary… or, if they do, I missed it.  But there is a tradition to start every Easter morning sermon with a joke.

The idea is that God has played a joke, you see, but not on us.
Because Christ defeated death, every Easter morning, the joke is on the Devil – the diabolos, the spirit of division, that which splits us apart.

But people still die, as we know.  Death hasn’t really been conquered in the way we think it’s supposed to be.  We still live in the midst of enormous pain and suffering.  How can we possibly say that death has been defeated once and for all and the world has been redeemed through Christ?

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who is well known for her amazing preaching ability, puts it this way:  Christianity is the only religion that confesses a God who suffers.  It is not a popular idea, even among Christians.  We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we’ve got.  What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.  It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.

Think about that… “we prefer a God who prevents suffering”  How true that statement is.  I can’t tell you the number of conversations where someone says, “Well, if there is a God, why does he allow…?” And just fill in the blank.

Why does God allow war?  Why does God allow people to be enslaved?
Why does God allow racism, misogyny, abuse, homophobia?
How about global warming, enormous islands of plastic floating in the ocean, toxic drinking water.
Why does God allow poverty?
Why does God allow me to personally suffer… death of a loved one, illness, relationship loss, estrangement, financial problems, or just plain fear.
Why does God allow the violence… never-ending violence.

But Taylor reminds us: God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.

I took a poll of people on Facebook last week.  I asked them to tell me how they were disappointed in Jesus.  I said, I invite your thoughts on how Jesus is (or would have been, had you been a first century follower of his) a disappointing messiah for you.  I said, ignore Christian theology and speak from your humanness.

And, I was heartened to see people respond honestly. People offered all kinds of ways in which they were honestly disappointed in Jesus, in God:
That healing doesn’t look like we need it to look.
That, in all his power and popularity, he wasn’t able to employ anyone.
That he was too political.
That he wasn’t political enough.
That he was unorthodox and too much a radical hippy-type.
That we feel abandoned by his leaving.
That he isn’t intimate enough.
That he didn’t just get up and leave the garden so he was safe from death.
That he died too soon.
That he continues to allow injustice and cruelty.

Of course, we have a laundry list of expectations for God.  But, if we learn anything from the story of the Resurrection, we learn that God does not conform to our expectations.

I mean, there was Mary, Mary, and Salome… preparing the herbs and spices to anoint the body of their friend and teacher.  They must have been angry and depressed and sad and, resigned.  This teacher they had been following, gave them reason to hope after all.  But now, he was dead.  Their expectation, dead along with their messiah.  It felt like God had abandoned them.GRichardson The Empty Tomb

And they get there, and nothing was as they expected.  Instead of the burden of removing a stone so they can get to the dead body of their friend, there is some young person in white who tells them something that completely freaks them out.  So much so that they fled in terror and amazement.
They were told: Don’t be alarmed.  The person you seek is not here.  He is in Galilee.  Go and tell the others.

What a strange thing to have come upon that morning.
But God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.  As Taylor says, It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.

Yes, we still live in the midst of war, and enslavement, racism, misogyny, homophobia, poverty, global warming… all of it.  The Devil, the spirit of division, is alive and well and we see it every day.
And… God is here with us in the suffering, not forcing human choices, but helping us in the midst of all this so we can find the way through.

We may wish to believe that God abandons us when things get bad, but the God of Life, this incarnate God, never abandons us.
I have proof because I hear the peepers return every spring.  The birds find their way back and the earth warms and the sun keeps rising every day.

Death is never the final word.  Life finds its way through, sometimes in the most inconvenient of ways.
Because God doesn’t prevent pain.  God stays with us in the midst of it.
Finding, with us, the ways to help.
Discovering, with us and through us, the ways to make things brighter and better… not just for us, but for the whole of creation.

Does that mean that we might be uncomfortable?  Yes.
That, perhaps, we may be asked to give something up so that all life may continue?  Yes.

Because, and here’s the really important part… In giving our life, we receive life.  As we give up our expectations… as we give up our disappointments…
As we give up the thing that we hold so precious – our anger, our sorrow, our pain, our fear, our cynicism, our self-judgment, our self-indulgence…
As we give these things up, we receive so much more, more than we would have ever received if our expectations been played out.
We receive life.  And that means death is never the final word.

So, like the person in white, sitting there at the edge of the tomb, I say, don’t be alarmed, my friends.  In the midst of your pain and suffering, when God helps you find a way back to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy of them… don’t be alarmed that you lose the thing that you held onto.

God is just doing what God always does… giving you new life.  Giving you new breath.  Giving you Hope.

I say, embrace this new life, grasp this Hope, and run with it.  Flee the tomb and go!  Run all the way to Galilee, where the world is waiting for the Hope that you bring, for the Love that you are.

Hope is the primary Christian vocation.  All Christians have a vocation to be people of Hope, people of Love.  This is the core of who we are.  The Body of Christ is nothing more than a group of people who are devoted to being Hope in and for the world.where-the-church-is-830px-708x541

It’s not about what God can vanquish from the world on our behalf. It’s about what God can do through us when things happen to us.  That is the joke God plays on the Devil.  That the people of God do not succumb to the ways of the world but, instead, we become what we receive – the Body of Christ, broken open for the world.

I say, don’t accept the terms of death the world gives us.
Be healers and justice seekers.
Be people who feed and nourish others.  Be climate activists.
Be artists and supporters of artists who tell the powerful truths.
Be helpers.  Be friends.
Be change agents in this world.
Be a sanctuary for God’s creation.

Why?  Because the God we worship compels us to pull together the shattered fragments the world so often leaves behind and, in doing so we become co-creators with God, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here and now… right close up.

That’s the joke on the Devil.  We are the punchline.

The Reign of God is not something that happens when we die.  The Reign of God is something we are capable of bringing to life right here and now in this place.  As we give our lives over in service to Hope, in service to Love, we are capable of bringing the Reign of God to bear.  That is hope.

Ooh Child by the Five Stairsteps

Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done.
Someday when our heads are much lighter
Someday we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Someday when the world is much brighter

 

Repeat as your heart desires…

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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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