Love is the Final Word

A sermon preached on the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Year B) on November 18, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can read today’s scripture here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

We’re finishing up our reading of Mark’s Gospel today.  We’ve read as Jesus sought to teach his disciples how Love, not power, is God’s way.  How the ways of the world will be undone by the Love that is God.  And we read how the disciples struggled mightily with that understanding, as we continue to do to this day.

Then we read how Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem.  And Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and pointed to the oppression of the poor by the temple leadership.  Jesus performed these actions to help us understand that the temple had exchanged Love for power.

And this power is the very subject of today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel.  Because Jesus promises that this power won’t last.  “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Because true power comes from Love, not from violence and oppression, not from acquiescing to the ways of the world, not from vengeance or spite.Pauls Love

Love will always be the loudest voice.  Love will always throw down the stones of the temples we build.  Love will always be the final word.

Although, Love is sometimes a difficult path that requires much from us.  It requires us to give up our desire to blame and our need for vengeance.

I remember when a white supremacist with a gun walked into the prayer meeting of a church in Charleston SC about three years ago.  And I remember being horrified and stunned upon hearing of the crime he committed – the massacre of 9 black men and women.  And I remember, in the aftermath, hearing the voice of one of the survivors saying, “I forgive you.”

In a world where violence and death reign, Love is the final word.

In today’s reading, Jesus takes his disciples and sits down opposite the temple – in opposition to what the temple represented.  And he says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”

Now, remember that Jesus lived and taught during a very fearful time.  Jewish people had been living under an occupying force known as the Roman Empire for several generations and the tensions were heating up in and around Jerusalem.  The people were desperate for a warrior messiah – one who would conquer their enemy and expel them from Jewish lands to reign as king of the Jewish state so that Jews could be free from oppression.

When we read historical accounts of first century Palestine (or, rather, what would come to be known as Palestine), we learn that there were other people claiming to be the messiah at the same time as when Jesus was teaching and gathering followers.  There were many others ready to take up the call to build a Jewish army and lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire.  There were many others who were willing to use violence.

During desperate times, we all know the desire to seek vengeance, to react out of a fearful place and exact pain, impose death, to meet violence with violence.  It can be tempting to think the answer is to build walls and buy guns and draw lines in the sand, especially when our leaders speak words of hate and terror designed to whip us into a frenzy of fear.

This is not all that different from what Jesus was experiencing.  And instead of trying to lead an armed rebellion against the occupying force, instead of hunkering down and hoping it will all go away… Jesus goes out, unarmed.

And he heals both Jews and Gentiles.
He feeds both Jews and Gentiles.
And he teaches both Jews and Gentiles.

And then he sits his disciples down in his final teaching and warns us, saying, “Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”

Voices of fear.  Voices of shame.  Voices of hate.  Voices of anxiety.  Voices of death.  These will all come.  Indeed, they have all come.  They all tempt us.  And they all lead us astray.

It is Love Incarnate that always brings about the Reign of God.

Being a disciple of Jesus means that we commit ourselves to Love.  And I don’t mean nice thoughts and prayers… I mean an active love that is Love Incarnate.  The Body of Christ alive in the world, living into the way of Love.  Acting in love, being in service, reminding ourselves that we are all here to take care of one another… these are paths that lift us up as much as they lift up others.

If you think you have nothing to offer or if you believe that the world owes you something, I invite you to stop listening the voices of fear and shame.  Because if we don’t commit to walking the way of Jesus, we risk losing ourselves to the god of hate or indifference.

And, my friends, those are gods that have far too many followers right now.

It is Love that is the final word.

I’m not sure I could muster the kind of love that looks at the face of a white supremacist terrorist who has just killed 9 of my friends and family and say, “I forgive you.”  I’m not sure I would be able to rise above my own pain.

But that’s the task, isn’t it?  That’s how Jesus leads us, isn’t it?  To rise above our own pain because it is Love that will ultimately heal us.

When society wants to seek revenge, Jesus tells us to love, to forgive, and to heal one another.  When the culture says to make a profit, we are called to make sure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  When the self-important and conceited run the system at the expense of the poor, Jesus explains the system must be thrown down.

The way of Love, which is the way of Jesus, is one of crossing borders, feeding hungry people, welcoming the stranger, lifting up the lowly, offering forgiveness, healing our pain, and helping to heal the pain of others.

Jesus offers his final teaching in the Gospel of Mark in today’s reading, telling us that in the midst of the world and all its ups and downs, changes and chances, beginnings and endings…
when we have mass shootings almost every day and devastating wildfires caused by the changing weather patterns of climate change and all the other daily occurrences that bring us to a near-constant level of outrage…
in the midst of all the fear-mongering…
our messiah, our true messiah is found in a very simple teaching,
“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

In this we will find solace and healing.  In this we will find hope.

I saw an interview a few months ago where 3 of the survivors from the Charleston massacre were interviewed. One of them was the wife of the pastor who was murdered that day. She was asked where she was on her journey of forgiveness.  And she admitted that she goes back and forth – sometimes she gets angry but she keeps working at it.  She keeps working at it because she knows that one day Love will be the balm that will finally heal her heart.

Love is the final word.

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We Believe In Love

A sermon preached on the Feast of All Saints (transferred), November 4, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  To read the lessons, click here.  To listen along, click the play button below.  I forgot to start recording right at the beginning, so the first paragraph or so isn’t there… sorry!

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
These are Jesus’ words to Martha, and to all those who crowded in deep mourning for their friend, their brother… this man Lazarus.  Lazarus, whose name comes from the Aramaic word El-azar, meaning “God is my help.”

Fire heart“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
Jesus says this to Martha and it’s not meant to be comforting.  It’s not what we say to people who are grieving the death of a loved one. Jesus himself is weeping in this scene and instead of comforting his friends, he is confrontational.  Challenging them by saying…

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus wasn’t more distraught over the lack of faith he was witnessing, than over his friend’s death.  But then, what is the difference?  Isn’t it just as painful when you witness the death of someone’s faith?  The death of their wonder?  Their belief in their own inherent goodness and worth?  Their reason for being?

Don’t we also grieve when we love someone and we watch the life leave their eyes?  The joy vanish from their soul?  Isn’t that just like a death?

And when that happens, when we see that happen to someone – especially someone we love – it’s as if a little part of us dies too.  And we become fearful because a part of us loses a little hope. A part of us steels up for some more disappointment.  A part of us gives in to death.  And that part is lying in the tomb with Lazarus.

So Jesus doesn’t comfort us in these moments.  Jesus challenges us, confronting us in our moment of fear… so that we don’t give in to death.  And he says…
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

This is a most apt question for us in these times.
Some days, it’s so hard to see the possibility of the Revelation to John:  That God’s home will be here among us mortals.  That God will dwell among the peoples and be with us.  That God will have the capacity to, indeed, wipe every tear from our eyes when we cry so much… and death will be no more.

When every time we turn around there is another act of terror… another mad man kills women at a yoga class or black people in a grocery store.  Sends bombs through the mail to people who have different political views.

Where is God in this madness?  The bigger question, I think, is, where are we?
Where are we?  Locked in fear or living into love?

I was so deeply humbled and heartened to see so many from our community of St. John’s at Shabbat the other night over at Congregation Emanuel. It was a sweet and meaningful worship service.  And so many others from the Kingston churches were there too.  The place was filled as we all demonstrated our love and our sense of community by showing up in support of our Jewish siblings.

And Rabbi Yael was inspiring.  She said something like this (at least this is how I remember it):  When we use the phrase “God’s chosen people,” we are careful to understand its true meaning.  It was never meant to be used to mean that some people are better than other people.  That is not what “chosen” means (and, I would add, it’s not what the word “elect” means in our scriptures today).  It’s meant to be understood that our “chosen-ness” is in our unique-ness.  When we live deeply into who we are called to become, we are God’s chosen people.

And this, as we celebrate All Saints’ today, is what sainthood is really about.

When we live into our reason for being, when we come to the heart of ourselves and learn to give ourselves over to something bigger than our own needs and our wants and our fears, this is when we live fully into Love.  And we become our full selves, our true selves.  We become saints.

It happens in little moments, if we’re paying attention. We all know those moments when it seems that some miracle has taken place because we surprise ourselves.  We do something we’ve never dared to do. We find ourselves opening up to others despite ourselves, letting our guard down, taking risks, leading with love and realizing just how liberated we feel when don’t let our fears control us.

We feel more connected.  We feel more whole. We experience deeper joy and we offer ourselves more to others.

The Communion of Saints that we celebrate today is an assembly of people from across time who chose to live the Way of Love.  They are people that believed deeply in their own belovedness and chose to become the Beloved Community.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

What exactly is it that Jesus is asking us to believe?

We believe that the lessons our rabbi Jesus gave to us in his teaching and in his ministry are meant for us and we continue to learn what they mean and how we can live into them.  We continue to engage with the stories and we continue to come to this Table, the Table of Reconciliation.

We believe in the power of forgiveness – for ourselves and for others.  Because death is not the final word in the Kingdom of God.  And therefore, sin is not the final word in the Kingdom of God.

We believe that we have been gifted with all we need to do the work God has called us to do.  We aren’t looking for what’s missing, we look at the abundance of what we already have and we offer it in thanksgiving.

We believe in our own discipleship, that we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world.  And as such, we strive for justice so that the dignity of every creature of God, every person is upheld and honored.

We believe that we are the ones who are now called to roll away the stone and open the tomb and release Lazarus from his death.

Because we believe in Love.

Love is that which gives life.  And the way of Love means that we live lives that offer proof of God’s love to others.  Proof that God does, indeed, make his home here among mortals as the Revelation to John prophesies.

When we live into our chosen-ness, as Rabbi Yael says it, we come to know… for certain… that we are beloved children of God and every day we give a little more of ourselves over to that Love that is God and God’s glory shines through us.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

What part of you might be in that tomb with Lazarus?  Waiting to be freed?  And… it’s time for you to call on that part of you that is ready to roll the stone away and holler, “Lazarus, come out!”

You are needed in this world.  Your heart is needed in this world.Fire heart

We all have both of these parts.  A part that is afraid, that would rather stay in the tomb, fearful, convinced of our own nightmares.  And we all have a part that yearns to be free of the fears and the burdens we carry, to be resurrected, to be made a new creation.

This resurrection happens when we believe in the way of Love.  And as we live into that Love, our faith in that love grows every day.  We stop believing our fears and we become more confident in the knowledge that Love gives us life.

Because it is Love that will resurrect.  It is Love that will make all things new.  And God’s glory will indeed shine forth.

And now, let us remind ourselves of our baptismal vows:  Vows of Love.  Vows of Life.

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Invitation to Love

Preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Oct 14, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  To read the scripture passages, click here.

Last week, I taught a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery.  And they have a tradition for all their meals.  When people come into the refectory they come in two lines to form a large circle with the table of food in the middle, the first people meeting at the top of the circle and the last people sometimes straggling in after or during the prayer and forming the bottom of the circle.

Yet, when the line forms to receive the food, these stragglers, these last people, are invited to move through the line first.

ReversalA beautiful way to live out Jesus’ words: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Now, I promise to you that when the Stewardship Committee planned this year’s Pledge Campaign, we didn’t know that the Gospel reading would be one in which Jesus says, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”  But here we are.

This isn’t the only time Jesus talks about money in the Gospels.  And this isn’t the only time Jesus refers to money as the thing that gets in the way of God’s Love.  In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus uses the word mammon in reference to money.  He says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

But the word “mammon” does not mean “money.” Mammon is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word that means, “that in which one fully trusts.”

That in which one fully trusts.

Money is a big part of our lives.  Money.  Bills.  Wealth.  Property.  Debt.  Credit.  Savings.  Pledging.  Budgets.  Investments.  Banks.

Each one of us has a relationship of some kind to every one of these.  It makes me wonder how much of our lives do we spend talking about, worrying about, thinking about money?  We can get so wrapped around our identity with money that we define our own inherent worth by it.  And we judge other people because of it… either for having too much or for not having enough.

It becomes mammon to us, in this way… a thing in which we fully trust.  A thing that we think will save us.

But money is not the only thing that can become mammon to us.  It’s just one of the most common forms of mammon.  Jesus talks about this when Peter starts to get defensive.   Peter says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…”

Jesus is talking about a long list of things that, to us, feel scandalous to leave behind. All of our property… houses, fields… well, that makes some sense because of their relationship to money.  But all of our family?  Brothers, sisters, mother, father, children?

What does he mean here?  And how can this possibly be equated to money?

It’s a way of thinking about all the things that we form attachments to.  By going to the extreme and suggesting that even our family is what we need to leave behind, Jesus is demonstrating that it’s our attachments to worldly things – even and especially to our most cherished relationships – that can prevent us from experiencing God’s Love.

Because to follow Jesus means that we follow an ethic of Love no matter what.  It means we continue to seek ways in which we offer Love.  It means that we always seek a higher purpose, a higher plane, because we realize what the larger story of scripture tells us about how God works in this world.

And the definitive narrative of this in the Christian tradition is found in the narrative of the manger – the Christmas story.  I realize we’re 2 months from Christmas but the manger is the foundational story of how God works in our world and it echoes throughout all of scripture.

God comes down to earth in the form of the most marginalized, most humble, most vulnerable… and in that, is the salvation of the whole world.

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Pledging is, of course, a way for any church community to pay for the things we do.  But the spiritual component is so often overlooked.  And the spiritual component is this:  the practice of letting go of the things we think will save us and doing so in an intentional way, a reflective way with the discipline of a regular pledge.

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler23nkjasc90The young rich person in today’s Gospel reading tells Jesus, “I’ve followed all the rules.”  You can almost hear the pleading in the young person’s voice, “What must I do?”

And Jesus looks at this confused, young person and responds in love… not contempt or judgment.  But Love.  Jesus saw in that moment that this young person was like all of us who have learned the worldly message that we have to hold on to something.  And the loving response is to invite us to give it up.

Because we are not able to see this thing we have to have… whether that’s money or property or status or the right relationship or the way we present ourselves or the things we do or the things we know or the ideology we subscribe to… all of it…
The loving response is in the invitation to surrender that, the very thing in which we have placed so much trust.

Isn’t it strange to think that the invitation to Love isn’t: “Here, have more.”
The invitation to Love is: “Here, have less.”

And aren’t we all that young person?  In some way?  It’s true, we cannot serve God and mammon.  Can we see that the invitation to surrender mammon, is the invitation to come to the manger?  Where God’s love comes down and finds a home in our own heart with the most vulnerable, as the most humble.

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

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Miracles of Love – The Wolf of Gubbio

A sermon in celebration of St. Francis, transferring his feast day from October 4 for our Blessing of the Animals event on October 7, 2018.  Click here to read the scriptures for today.  You can listen to the sermon by clicking the play button below.

Today we celebrate St. Francis as we join him after worship today in our Reflection Garden to bless our pets and honor the lives of our furry friends who have shared this earthly walk with us.  St. Francis is known as the patron saint of animals.  A person who still teaches us the importance of uncovering the divine spark in every part of creation.

francis-and-wolfOne of the more famous stories of Francis is called the Wolf of Gubbio.

When Saint Francis was living in the town of Gubbio in the Italian region of Umbria, a large wolf appeared in the town, so terrible and so fierce, that he not only devoured other animals, but also preyed on people.

Like with any menace, all the people were in great alarm and would carry weapons with them, as if going to battle.  They sought ways to kill the wolf and lived in fear, failing to take care of one another, allowing friends and neighbors to be devoured, proud that they themselves weren’t killed.

Francis, feeling great compassion for the people of Gubbio, resolved to go and meet the wolf, though all advised him not to.  So, he went out to the margins of the town, taking some of the townspeople with him. But they became scared at the edge of town and refused to continue so Francis went on alone toward the spot where the wolf was known to be.  People followed at a distance, however, curious to see what might happen.

Suddenly, the wolf ran towards Francis with his jaws wide open.  But Francis, standing peaceful and with serenity spoke calmly to the charging wolf: “Come hither, Brother Wolf; do not harm me nor anybody else.”

And a miracle occurred.  The wolf closed his jaws and stopped running.  He slowly walked up to Francis and lay down at meekly at his feet.  Francis spoke to the wolf:

“Brother wolf, you have done much evil in this town, destroying and killing the creatures of God; the people cry out against you, and all the inhabitants of have become your enemies.  But I will make peace between you, my Brother Wolf, if you would promise never to torment them again, and they shall forgive you all your past offences so that they shall not pursue you any more.”

Having listened to these words, the wolf bowed his head, and, by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what Francis said.

Francis made a further promise: “Because you are willing to make this peace, I promise you that these people shall feed you every day as long as you shall live among them.  No longer shall you suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made you so vicious.  If I do this for you, Brother Wolf, do I have your word that you will never attack these people again?”

And putting out his hand Francis received the pledge of the wolf who lifted up his paw and placed it familiarly in his hand.

Francis said to him: “Brother wolf, come with me now so that we can confirm this peace and show these people your pledge.”  And the wolf walked by his side to the great astonishment of all who were witnessing.  Now, the news of this miraculous incident spread quickly through the town.  All the inhabitants flocked to the market-place to see Francis and the wolf.

When all the people had gathered, Francis got up to preach words of compassion – teaching those commandments that Jesus taught about loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself.  And he reminded the townspeople that we are all our brothers’ keepers.  That even when it seems our brothers and sisters aren’t keeping us, we are still their keepers.

And he paused and looked slowly at each person saying, “Listen my friends: our Brother Wolf has promised and pledged his faith and desires to make peace with you and terrorize you no more.  And so I ask that you demonstrate faith as well, by promising to feed him every day.  For it was his hunger that drove him mad.”

Then all the people promised with one voice to feed the wolf to the end of his days.

Francis, turned to Brother Wolf and said again: “And you, Brother Wolf, do you promise to keep the peace, and never again to offend God’s creatures?”   The wolf bowed his head and lifting up his paw, placed it in the hand of Francis.

The people of the town, relieved and joyful, became devoted to Francis, both because of the novelty of the miracle, and because of the peace that had been achieved with Brother Wolf.  They lifted up their voices to heaven, praising and blessing God, who had sent them Francis and restored to them their friendship with Brother Wolf.

Brother Wolf lived on in Gubbio, visiting from door to door without harming anyone.  And all the people received him as a friend, feeding him with great pleasure.  No more did they carry their weapons as if they were going into battle.  No more did they live in fear.

At last, after many years, Brother Wolf died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly, burying him as they would any of their beloved.  For when they saw Brother Wolf going about so gently amongst them all, it reminded them of their own gentleness and of their God-given call to love one another and be keepers of all our brothers and sisters.

This story may, in fact, be a legend or a metaphor.  But it’s hard to find a more compelling tale that so swiftly helps us understand forgiveness, mercy, and redemption.  In short, it’s a story of restorative justice.

Every human being has a story of hurt.  Every one of us.  We’ve all been terrorized by the wolves at the edge of town, sometimes devoured by them in some way.  But what we don’t often pay attention to is how that story ends up turning us into fearful people, carrying weapons, failing to take care of one another.  Our personal stories of grievance and pain keep us locked in our own prisons of fear.

The real miracle of the story, you see, is not that Francis tamed the wolf.  The real miracle was that the town was transformed, reconciled to God and reconciled to one another.  Through mercy.  Through forgiveness.

Redemption is about healing and restoring God’s peace to all.  And for this to happen, all must examine their actions and come to terms with all the ways in which we are not acting as peacemakers, all the ways in which we are not being one another’s keepers.

But it it’s always the light of Christ that helps us to see.  And Francis carried with him the light of Christ, that opened up the way for mercy and forgiveness.  Francis followed Christ and stepped into the places the townspeople weren’t willing to go.  Instead of creating a scapegoat out of the wolf by killing him, Francis reconciled the townspeople with the wolf.

And this enabled the people to remember and live into God’s peace, to become better caretakers of one another and, ultimately, of themselves.  Even though we often think its foolish to do so.

Today’s passage from Matthew has Jesus saying, “I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.” 

We often think it’s foolish to offer mercy, to forgive.  We become enamored of the methods we develop for protection and safety… the ways in which we ensure that we will not be seen as the fool.

But, in the end, they are prisons for us.  They are the burdens we carry.  And it is mercy and forgiveness that releases our own hearts from the prison we’ve created.

This is the meaning of Jesus’ invitation in today’s Gospel:  “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

This rest comes in laying down our stories of fear.
This rest comes in offering mercy and forgiveness.
This rest comes as we remember our task to be our brothers’ keeper.

This rest is the peace of Christ.

May we all live into this peace.  May we all remember our call to be one another’s keepers.

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Rollercoaster of Love

A sermon preached on September 9, 2018 (Proper 18) at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read the day’s scripture.

Gods PlanI saw an image on Facebook yesterday.
It was a young woman and a small child on a roller coaster… probably one of those kiddie roller coasters.  The woman looked forward towards the coming hill laughing with smiling excitement as she held onto the child’s hand.
The child, however, had that look of clenching and fear on his face as he gripped the safety bar in front of him…

And the caption read…  God says: “I have a plan for your life.”
The woman was labeled as “Holy Spirit.”  The child was labeled as “You.”

It’s a hilarious image, of course.  God’s Holy Spirit grabs us by the hand sometimes and takes us on a scary ride.  Why is the Holy Spirit laughing?  It’s not because she loves your pain.  The Holy Spirit laughs because God is excited for you…
how you will be opened, how you will be moved,
how you will be transformed,
how you will be resurrected into a new creation.

We can’t always see what God sees, however.  So it feels scary to us.  Change always does.  So we resist.  We lose the ability to listen because we are certain that we know the right thing to do.  We lose the capacity to be taught anything new because we already know the answers.  And we lose the willingness to become anything but what we’ve always been.

In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus entered the region of Tyre.  To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory.  The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region.

These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with.  The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.

And Jesus, for some reason is called to cross the border into the region of Tyre.  From the safety and familiarity of his home into a place of danger and risk.  Facing the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them.  He was conditioned to fear them.

We’re halfway through Mark’s Gospel and this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles.  Jesus is meeting people who don’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.

Why does he do this?  Why should he do this?  Why should he bother with these people?

The original hearers of this story know that Jesus is a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about.  Jesus’ healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation.  He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.

So, why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing?  It’s clear how he feels about these people because he insults the first person he meets.  He encounters a brazen woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.

And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”

A dog.  This is a huge insult.  Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals.  They were not kept as pets or even as working animals.  They were scourges and scavengers.  They were garbage.

Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is garbage.
Think about what Jesus is doing here.
Think about how Mark is telling this story.

Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog.  He’s calling her garbage.

Without thinking, he dismisses her.  Out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God.  He doesn’t see her humanity at all.

And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.  Even my Syrophoenician life matters.”

Deacon Sue’s beautiful sermon last week reminded us of our call to walk with people who are stuck in poverty.  The stories are heart wrenching as we watch what our society’s systems of power do to people who don’t have privilege.  We see it most readily in places like People’s Place as we witness the cycle of poverty.

It’s heartening to know that our Outreach efforts make real differences in people’s lives.  And, as Sue reminded us, that these efforts are more than just ways to help other people – they are important to our own spiritual health as we learn to share God’s providence with our neighbors.

They are ways for us to cross the borders into places we might find scary. They are ways for us to be opened up by God’s Holy Spirit.  When we are in real relationship with the people we serve, we find ourselves being changed.

Perhaps that’s why we might find it hard to be of service sometimes.  We might find ourselves on that roller coaster, being asked by the Holy Spirit to learn something new.

The question, as it always is:  Are we able to be opened?  Are we able be taught by God’s Holy Spirit?  Are we able to listen, really listen?  Or do we shut down and refuse to be in real relationship with people who live lives unlike ours?

Syrophoenician LivesJesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human.  He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so weighed down by expectations and cultural conditioning.

Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman.  And because of that, he calls her a dog.

And the Syrophoenician woman responds, “But my life matters.”

Something inside of Jesus decided to listen.  Some part of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman.  So that he could go on and teach others how to be opened.  Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him.

Jesus demonstrates for us what it means to be opened, to be awakened out of our certainties.  Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl.  And when he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear.  Both became free.

Jesus is never more real to me than in this story.  And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing.  For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.

If Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman…
If Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is opened by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders…
Then I too might be saved from my own prejudices.

I might be made a new creation if I am but willing to be taught… to open myself up and listen.  If even Jesus needed to be opened up, then there is hope for me too.

Can I be that vulnerable?  Can I surrender my certainty long enough to be taught by that which is right in front of my face?  Can I… can we listen?  Or will I be like that little child on the roller coaster, clenching and holding on for dear life, resisting the whole ride.

The implication here is a challenging one for us to bear because it requires us to be as vulnerable as Jesus was in that moment.  The implication is that we need one another.  It’s that simple.  We need one another so that we can be freed from our presumptions and our certainties.

Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberating, life-giving love.

May we follow our Savior so that we may we be opened too.  And may we enjoy the ride.

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Guest Post: On Being the Body of Christ

A sermon given by the Rev. Deacon Susan Bonsteel on September 2, 2018 (Proper 17, Year B) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.

Backpacks1 2018She was perhaps 5 years old…a tiny little child quietly holding her mother’s hand, waiting her turn for a new backpack. Mother and child stood to the side, away from the raucous confusion, as parents and children lined up in single file. Each parent had to show their identification to the women seated at the table as proof of their need for assistance. There were probably 20 or more people in line to begin with, most of them quite familiar with the routine.

And for those of us volunteering, it was a bit overwhelming at first…the numbers of those seeking help steadily grew along with the noise level. So many people picking up boxes of food; so many children getting free haircuts under a tent set up outdoors…and then the long line for backpacks…a few people inevitably became impatient and demanding…it was a very hot morning and people were standing for long periods of time…and we thought how very difficult it must be to always be on the receiving end, asking for help from strangers and trying to follow the rules set by the agencies upon which they depended.

As a nation, we certainly don’t make it easy on the poor. For the most part however, folks seemed resigned to the wait but also appreciative for all that People’s Place could offer them.

The young mother standing with her little girl lightly touched my arm as I made my way through the crowd and asked me about a backpack for her daughter.  Her information card with the child’s gender and grade had never made it back to where we were working. The two of them had been apparently been waiting for their turn for a long time. She asked if someone could help her.Backpacks2 2018

I’m sure that you have also experienced that emotional tug at your heartstrings when you are moved by something or someone. It was such a touching scene…this little girl holding her mother’s hand patiently waiting amid the chaos around her. It brought a few of us to tears. The mom’s anxiety showed in her eyes as she looked around her at the large number of people gathering. “Please,” was all she said.

Now Michelle had just dropped off a second pile of new backpacks from St. John’s and we searched for something special for this child. Hidden among the pile was a sparkly pink backpack with a smiling cat’s face on the front. And we quickly filled it with crayons, paper, glue sticks, markers and all good things that were needed for kindergarten. How I wish all of you had been there to hear the sounds of delight from both mother and daughter as we came around the corner.  To the eyes of some it may have seemed to be just a sweet little backpack…but truly…it was so much more. That moment was a reminder of what you and I are called to do… and to be… in the world. We become more than just helpers…more than just kind volunteers…we become tangible signs of God’s love in the world…handing God’s love out in the guise of notebooks and rulers to children in our community.

And it all began with your backpack donations collected right here in this room.

Food collections, hygiene product collections, winter hat collections may seem rather pointless to some who wonder how a few bars of soap or a can of soup or a single winter hat will be much help in the midst of the needs around us.

Backpacks3 2018And perhaps we wonder at times if we’re actually helping…if we are changing anyone’s life for the better.

Let me say this: seeing the happiness in the face of that young child and the gratitude and relief of her mother convinced us that these moments matter more than we might ever fully appreciate.

Relationships begin to be nurtured when we meet the women, the children and the men being served by programs such as People’s Place. By standing with those who may in difficult circumstances, we begin to understand more deeply the challenges that confront these – our brothers and sisters – on a daily basis.

And how important it is…to our own spiritual health… to understand that we’re doing more than simply packing up a box of food or stuffing a backpack with school supplies. We’re sharing God’s providence with people in desperate need – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the immigrant. We get to know them by name…who they are…where they come from…where they live…and their hopes for themselves and their children. And…as some of us learned this past week…their stories are often very difficult to hear.

One father walked from Hurley Avenue to People’s Place on St. James Street pushing his baby in a stroller on one of the hottest days this summer in order to get formula and some food. The infant was in distress when they arrived and the good folks at People’s Place jumped into action, offering medical assistance and supplying the food and transportation the family so desperately needed. Even the volunteers, who see a lot in their work, were deeply upset by the seriousness of this father’s circumstances.

Another day a grandmother appeared, along with several of her grandchildren, wondering if she could get shoes for the tallest boy. They had no money to get him sneakers to begin school and he was wearing well-worn flip flops. We watched as the boy was taken aside by one of the male volunteers. Moments later a smiling teenager came out of a back room showing off a new pair of sneakers. The volunteers gathered and we watched as they whispered among themselves. Quickly 2 gift cards for a shoe store appeared and were handed to the grandmother so that she could buy her other grandchildren shoes as well. One volunteer quietly wiped tears from her own face.

A pile of clothes for a young girl hung near the backpacks. They were for a homeless child who was starting school next week. Volunteers were waiting for her to arrive so that they could help the youngest one try on what they had. They didn’t know what if anything would fit her.

The next day we were told that the child arrived in a dress that was way too large for her, the only suitable piece of clothing she owned. One of volunteers offered to go shopping for the child that evening while others continued to search through bins of used clothing for socks and underwear.

Over and again we watched as more than just food and shampoo were given out…compassion and love for others was offered in abundant amounts.

Standing among the many volunteers this past week served as a reminder that acts of compassion do not need to be heroic. Simply showing up…caring enough to give of one self and willing to take a risk and cultivate a relationship with one of our neighbors in need is God’s call to us.  And our response may be the most priceless gift we can offer.

James tells us that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. There is a monumental shift in our hearts every time God stirs us into action. For many of us watching those in need standing in long lines with their reusable bags, collecting whatever food items were available, it was a painful reminder of the huge problem of food insecurity in our own city. The faces of those living in dire poverty within our very own community became imprinted upon us. And, for some of us, people we knew from our own neighborhoods, our children’s schools, even our own church – appeared seeking assistance. The poor are everywhere.

Be doers of the word, the Letter of James continues. By choosing to stand with our brothers and sisters in need… God will show us the way to use the blessed gifts God has given us so that we might act as agents of change in this broken world.

If we could imagine God’s voice at this moment, we might hear something like this:

Use your eyes to see the needs of your brothers and sisters around you…and simply love them.

Use your voice to speak up for those who are powerless. Protest the injustices that continue to allow your brothers and sisters to live in poverty…and simply love them.

Use your hands…to reach out and lift up the oppressed who have been worn down by circumstances beyond their control… and simply love them.

You can do all of these things. You can do them because you have done them before.

We have an abundance of love and compassion within these walls. Just consider what has been done these past few weeks! Over 50 beautiful backpacks were collected and more were purchased from our parish Outreach budget line. Fourteen parishioners joyfully gave of their time, delivering and sorting and filling backpacks on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s quite a powerful display of God’s love!

I was asked to thank all of you by the staff of People’s Place…for your kind and generous hearts and for caring so deeply for those in need. And before Wes and I left on Thursday, the staff gently reminded us that People’s Place will soon begin preparing for Project Santa, their Christmas toy drive.

As we departed the building, heading to our cars, we looked at one another and said… I’m ready. How about you?


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Love’s Dwelling Place

A sermon preached on August 26, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can click here to read today’s scripture.

Dwelling places – that’s what we’re talking about today.
Take some time to consider the places where you dwell, where you spend your time – work, home… places you hang out, where you “feel at home.”
Consider the places where you spent your time growing up, other cities/towns in which you’ve lived and worked.

How do they feel to you?  Are there places that bring negative feelings, bad memories?  Are there places that bring a sense of peace and happy memories?

The places in which we dwell are more than just places where we spend time.  They become homes for us.  We know them, develop attachments to them, forge memories in them.  Our sense of self is influenced by this because we know ourselves in relation to the places in which we spend time.  They become a part of us.  Where we dwell is an important part of who we understand ourselves to be.

The last of the “bread” readings from John Ch. 6 this month features Jesus’ capstone teaching about the living bread.  What does he mean when he talks about feasting on him, on the living bread?  He tells us that it’s not about the physical act of eating bread, it’s about what we choose to feast on.  He’s talking about where we dwell.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”Table

Jesus tells us by partaking of the feast of Love that we are called to, we become more and more aware of its presence in our lives.  That we live in God and God lives in us.

The spiritual practice of the Eucharist, in other words, is to finally come to understand that we are never separated from God, except in our troubled thoughts, in our worst beliefs about other people and about ourselves… which are always connected in some way.

Jesus teaches us that we become God’s dwelling place in the world, when we dwell in Love, when we feast on Love.

Jesus’ teaching here is not an easy one.  As a matter of fact, it’s so radical that Jesus lost many of his disciples because of it.  John tells us that they complained about Jesus’ teaching, that they said, “This teaching is so difficult; who can accept it?”… that many of them turned back and no longer went about with him.

So, why is it so difficult?  You would think that accepting Love is easy, right?  That’s what we all want, really.  You would think that dwelling is Love is effortless.  So, why isn’t it?

Because, in some way, the wisdom that we are created in Love… that wisdom is knocked out of every single one of us… by being mistreated by other individuals who have forgotten it – sometimes even those who love us.  It’s clobbered out of some of us by systemic oppression and institutional sin.  It’s chased away by truly tragic things that happen to us.

And for some, it’s incredibly difficult to find our way back to the wisdom of Love.

We are given glimpses sometimes, but it feels impossible to live in a place of Love, when love and hope and freedom seem to be so far away from us, so remote from our experience.  Even though we are built to have Love dwelling within each of us, sometimes it stays hidden until we are strong enough to remember it again.

Perhaps you’ve read the book or seen the movie called The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  It’s a story about a group of people who have learned how to access the place in themselves that has not forgotten about Love.Secret Life of Bees

This is a group of African-Americans in the American South in the mid-20th century who, for decades during slavery and after the end of slavery when Jim Crow laws were still enacted, they found an icon of Love in a wooden statue, who they came to know as Mother Mary.

As she dwelled with them, this statue of Mary… as they told stories about her boundless heart and as those stories became their own… Mary became a way for them to access their own fearless Love – the Love that heals our own broken hearts and allows us to become stronger… to become who we have been created to be.

This strength comes, not because we’ve never been hurt.  But because we learn how to stop dwelling in the hurt.  And we remember how to dwell in Love instead.  We learn how to feast on Love.  Jesus tells us this is where life is.

Mary’s heart is known in the Christian tradition as a place in which we learn to heal our broken hearts so that we may love again.  Because Mary holds our love for us when we are so hurt, when we experience such shame that we are not able to hold Love for ourselves.

And when we’re finally ready to know Love again, we come to realize just what it is that we’ve been longing for, that all of creation is longing for – a reconciliation, a reunion with God… who actually never left us.

We long for a return to the Love that was always dwelling within us waiting for our homecoming.Winter Forgiveness

The Psalmist today gives us the words for this longing:
How dear to me is your dwelling, O God of hosts!
My soul has a desire and a longing for the courts of God;
My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God…
Happy are they who dwell in your house!
They will always be praising you…
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room,
And to stand at the threshold of the house of God
Than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

So, where do we dwell?  Where do we spend our time? In Love?  In thoughts of Love?
Or… in thoughts that take us away from Love?
What do we spend our time thinking about?  Where do we dwell?

Do we spend our time being suspicious?  Or skeptical?  Do we allow ourselves to think a lot about what we don’t have or what we didn’t get?  Do we believe we need to solve the world’s problems?  Or do we worry so much that we lose hope?  Do spend our time trying up to live up to other people’s expectations of us?  Or extreme expectations of our self?  Living with some kind of shame because someone else made us feel small or helpless?

Because those places… those thoughts we have, those imaginings and stories we pursue and revisit time and time and time again… can take us down some extremely dark paths – some where we come to hate others and some where we come to hate ourselves.

And, yet, these thoughts can seem like home to us because we have spent so much time with them, breathing them in, dwelling inside their poisoned and wicked tents.  They have taken up so much space in our lives that we are literally haunted by them. They feel comfortable… like the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know.  They feel more real than Love.Keith Haring

So, of course it’s hard to leave those thoughts, to believe that Love is what we are, to believe that Love is what we are called to embody for others, for ourselves.  It’s such a difficult teaching, that we don’t always get there… just like the disciples who left.  It’s just easier to believe that we have to earn love in some way.

But we don’t.  We don’t have to earn Love because the truth is that we ARE Love.  Love is our birthright.  Love is our purpose for being.  Coming to remember this is what Paul means when he says to put on the whole armor of God.  It’s an unfortunate military metaphor but somewhat useful because it does feel like a battle.  Not an earthly one, as Paul articulates, but a heavenly one, one in our own hearts and minds, where we do struggle against the spiritual forces of evil… those lies that tell us that we are not capable of the Love that already dwells within us.

It takes some discipline to practice dwelling in Love.  Discipline, that has the same root as the word disciple.  Disciples are people who are disciplined in practicing Love.

This armor of God… it is the longing we have for living bread, the longing to experience and to dwell in God’s Love for us.  It is the part of us that has never forgotten…
Never forgotten that God’s desire for us is joy.
Never forgotten that God’s hope for us is freedom.
Never forgotten that God’s dream for us is Love.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Yes.  When we feast on Love, we abide in Love and Love abides in us.  Yes.

As St. Augustine tells us, the Eucharist is our very own mystery because we see what we are on the Table every time we come: The Body of Christ broken open for the world God has made.  When we receive it by saying Amen, we are learning to return, to come home to God’s indwelling Love.

So let us Behold Love.  Let us Become Love.
So that we may dwell in Love as Love dwells in us.


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