Wisdom and the Choice to Serve

You can read today’s readings here.

 

Our readings today are about choice – the choice to serve God.

Joshuas 12 tribesThe Book of Joshua picks up where the Exodus leaves off – as the 12 tribes are entering the Promised Land.  For many, the Promised Land is a metaphor for coming home, for returning to God, for coming back to ourselves after having been lost in a desert, a sense of healing and resting now that the search is over.  It’s a metaphor for the spiritual journey.

And these 12 tribes now gathered after their journey, become one people – the nation of Israel.

To extend the metaphor, the parts of ourselves gather and we become whole again when we find our home, when we find ourselves.  We’ve given up the other gods that take our attention and our time and our money – those things we think will bring us peace but never do: addictions, possessions, unhealthy relationships; behaviors like blaming, gossiping, complaining; beliefs and ideologies that are really just ways to excuse selfish behavior.

Whatever it is that has taken us from ourselves… from God… we’ve given it up.  We’re ready to make a different choice.  We’re ready to serve God.  We’re ready to return from the wilderness and be home.

Everyone’s spiritual journey is different because everyone’s wilderness is different.  But it’s always about coming home, about knowing more clearly the choices to make, hearing God’s voice above the noisy din of the world.  This voice is Wisdom.  The Wisdom of God.

The Wisdom of God isn’t about learning to navigate the world or figuring out how to work the system.  It’s not about manipulating the world or investment strategies or computers or getting a lot done every day.  No.

 

Sophia

Sophia, Chisinau, Moldova

The Wisdom of God is the voice that expands our awareness beyond ourselves while also helping us to be more aware of our inner weather, our self-talk and our fears.

 

The Wisdom of God is Sophia, depicted on the cover today.  In the color image, she is depicted as a red winged woman who descends wherever and whenever she is needed.

Found throughout Proverbs and the books of Wisdom and Sirach, Sophia, or the Wisdom of God, is finally heard by us when we’ve given up on the ways of the world and ready to come home, to serve God.  She’s always speaking to us – always, even in our darkest moments, even when we are so lost in our own stories and fears and routines – Sophia speaks, she whispers God’s wisdom.

But when we’ve finally decided to turn to God, we hear her and, like a balm for our soul, we know how to serve God.  And we make different choices.

AVares Parable of the Bridesmaids

Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, Ain Vares

 

Wisdom is portrayed in today’s parable as bridesmaids – wise women who have learned about the choice to serve God on their spiritual journeys through their own wildernesses.  They’ve learned how to prepare themselves, prepare their own hearts and minds to be ready to hear God’s voice speaking to them.  They’ve learned how to be of service to God.

And Wisdom is not selfish, although it appears from this parable as though it might be.  But, frankly, Wisdom cannot be given to those who aren’t ready to receive it.  We couldn’t give it even if we wanted to because each person has their own spiritual journey.  Everyone has their own deserts and wildernesses to go through on their way home.  Sophia speaks to each of us differently.

My own spiritual journey took me on quite a path.  I didn’t come to Christianity until I was in my 30’s.  I had been spiritually seeking for many years already and had learned many things about myself and had developed a passion and yearning for spiritual work.  It wasn’t until I was utterly dependent, when I was living in a friend’s house in the middle of Oregon, had an exceedingly low-paying job, had just totaled my car, and had several broken ribs.  That’s when I realized I was ready to serve God in some way.

I had no idea what that meant.  All I knew is that it felt good to be in an Episcopal church on Sunday mornings where the priest was patient and the people were kind, letting me find my way for well over a year until I could figure out just what I was doing there.  They didn’t need me to be a member.  They didn’t expect me to sign-on or get involved.  But they cherished me as a guest in their midst.  It was as if they knew they were enough and God would do the rest.

And that’s exactly what happened.

The choice to serve God is often what opens us up to the truth – that we are enough and we have enough.  Whatever we have is enough.

I offer this message today because, as the leadership of this amazing congregation goes through the hard work of creating a budget, knowing that we’ll need to rely on our reserves again this year, and as we all look at the task of stewardship of this congregation, I want you to know that even in all of the horror that the world is, and there is a lot of it right now, the most important thing you need to know is found at that Table.  In the Sacrament of abundance called the Eucharist.

Walter Breuggemann says, “The Eucharist is the great sign of God’s abundance.  It’s the only place in our lives where it’s just given to us and it is given to us regularly.”

The TableEvery week we gather together and celebrate this Great Thanksgiving.  We bear witness to the abundant love of God, made known to us in the simple elements of bread and wine as we remember Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice.  And we come to the Table to share this meal that reconciles us to God, to one another, and to ourselves.  This is the grace that comes to us in the form of the Sacrament.

Think about that for a moment – this unbounded, abundant grace that comes to us again and again and again.  It never runs out.  It’s hard for us to imagine sometimes because it’s a very human tendency to think that God’s grace is limited, to think that it will run out and there won’t be enough.

Some questions for reflection:
What are the ways that you believe you’re not enough?
What are the way that you believe we don’t have enough?
What if we stopped focusing on what’s not here and focused on what is here?

Of course the foolish bridesmaids took no oil.  It wasn’t about planning, it was a lack of awareness.  They never acknowledged the importance of or took responsibility for what they already had.  They never opened their eyes to see God’s abundance, or their ears to listen to God’s Wisdom.

They never made the choice to serve God.  They were just along for the ride.  They were unaware.  And life does this.  It pulls our attention away from God by listening to voices that make us feel so small and ill-equipped, so unlovable and damaged.  Sometimes it’s all we can do to go along for the ride.  But Sophia continues speaking, waiting for us to choose to listen.  “You are beloved.” She says.  “Come take your place at the Table.”

This meal of thanksgiving is a sign of God’s abundance and like any Sacrament, it is meant to change us.  As we receive this meal we are called to a life of gratitude and generosity, learning to lovingly share who we are and what we have, living into the assurance that as we offer, we will also receive from that flow of abundance.

Stewardship is a practice of awareness of and gratitude for this flow of abundance.  It’s a practice of caring for community and for ourselves as we offer our time and talent for the common good.

You see, the world fools us into thinking that there isn’t enough, that we are not enough.  And off we go into a wilderness of shame and self-judgment.  We leave behind a memory of Belovedness in hopes that we can somehow fill ourselves with the world’s schemes.

And the Eucharist calls us home to remember our Belovedness in God’s abundance.  Can you hear God’s Wisdom above the din of the world?   Can you hear Sophia?

The Promised Land isn’t somewhere far away – it’s here.  Right here.
We have enough here.  We are enough here.  Your lamp, my friends, is already full of oil.
The question is not one of means, it’s one of choice.

And so the question is: Are you ready to serve God?

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Clothing of Belovedness

You can read the scripture for today by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel lesson is pretty challenging and it brings up a central issue about salvation: What exactly is it that saves us?  Are we saved simply by believing in Christ?  If so, what does that say about people of other faiths?  Or are we saved by our works, by good deeds in our lifetime?  If so, exactly how high is the bar on that?

What do we mean when we talk about being saved?  And what does that mean about what choices we make?

Matthew has Jesus using another parable to highlight the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership at the time.  I’ll get to Matthew’s motivation in a moment.  For now, let’s open up the parable a bit.

DRivera Dance of TehuantepecThe King (God), is giving a wedding banquet for his son and the people who are invited, (the Jewish leadership or the people of Israel), would not come.  And even though God sent people to come after them (the prophets), the people make light of the invitation, refusing to go, even killing those who have been sent.

And in answer to this violence… God seeks vengeance.  The king destroys the murderers and burns the city.  Then goes and seeks different guests for the wedding, both good and bad.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  Let’s consider what Matthew is writing and why.

Much like John’s Gospel, Matthew is writing for a group of people who were Jews and had been telling stories for several generations about this man named Jesus who had been put to death by the Roman authorities.  Both John and Matthew were writing for these kinds of communities whereas Luke and Mark were writing for more mixed communities that included non-Jews.

We know that about 30 years after Jesus died, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, forcing the grief-stricken and traumatized Jews into a new way of life.  No longer having the Temple at the center of their faith, Jews began following various teachers called rabbis.  Today, there is no Temple Judaism, there is only Rabbinic Judaism.

And this leads us to the differences in the storytelling of the Gospel writers. You see, it’s not just a matter of style, but the common stories are told with different emphases and slants.  Because each community was dealing with the fall of Judaism in different ways in different contexts.  Each community was developing its beliefs and telling stories that helped them to form those beliefs, to form their identities, their sense of belonging.

The Matthean community had come to understand Jesus as the messiah and the divinity of Jesus became very important to them, to offer legitimacy to their movement in the face of the other Jews in the area who didn’t believe.  Thus, the stories of the Matthean community were purposely divisive, blaming the Jewish people for killing Jesus, giving themselves a sense of self-righteousness, a sense of belonging to God.

And in this series of parables that we’ve been reading over the past month or so, Matthew intensifies the divide with each parable, increasing the violent imagery each time.  Blaming the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.

I said this a few weeks ago and I want to reiterate it because it’s incredibly important.  For centuries, scripture has been deeply misused by Christians to provide a reason to hate Jews and has created the misunderstanding that Christianity is the sole inheritor of Judaism.  All of these parables are in danger of being read this way.  And, it’s an improper reading of them.

And this brings us back to the beginning of the sermon and the point of this parable – exactly what is it that saves us?  Are we saved simply by believing in Jesus as the Christ?  If so, what does that say about people of others’ faiths?  Or are we saved by our works, by our good deeds in our lifetime?  If so, exactly how high is the bar on that?

As we continue to move through Matthew’s parable for today, we can discern that this is not just about believing in Jesus as the Messiah.

Those that were invited, the Jewish people, are now destroyed because they were unworthy.  They did not believe. So, the king invites everyone else to the banquet and they all come, both good and bad.  But here’s the thing: even this isn’t enough for the king.  He wants everyone to wear the right clothes, kicking someone out saying, “many are called, but few are chosen.”

God invites everyone to the Table but if you’re not doing the right things, even though you’re coming to the banquet, you still might be tossed out.

It’s a mixed message but worth examining a bit more. And it has to do with how we receive what is offered at the Table.  Whether we are willing to drop our armor and allow ourselves to be changed by God’s grace at the banquet of Love.

Nouwen BookI’ve invited the people of St. John’s to read a book called Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, a professor, a priest, and a writer.  Life of the Beloved begins by defining the spiritual journey as learning to avoid the temptation of self-rejection.

Nouwen says that we are constantly looking for ways to legitimize or prove that we are loved or esteemed.  And when we fail or when something happens, we usually don’t examine the circumstances and take an appropriate measure of limitations of the situation.  Instead, we listen to the darker parts of our inner dialogue, the daemons, the parts that tell us we deserve to be abandoned and forgotten, punished and rejected.

And lest we think that some people are immune from this because they are so incredibly arrogant, Nouwen reminds us that arrogance is nothing but the need to put ourselves on a pedestal because we are so afraid of being seen for what we fear that we are.  Arrogance, you see, is just another form of self-rejection.

The deepest spiritual problem, Nouwen says, is that “we succumb to the belief that we are not truly welcome in human existence.”
Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.”  And being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence… Aren’t you like me, hoping that some person, thing or event will come along and give you that final feeling of inner well-being that you desire?… But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied.  You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run.  (pg 35-36)

But, he says… it doesn’t have to be this way.  The truth of our existence is that we are the Beloved.  That when the dove descends upon Jesus and God speaks, “This is my child the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God is speaking about all of us as creatures of God.  We are all the Beloved of God, known by God before we are even knit in our mother’s womb.  And we belong to one another because we all belong to God.

This is the work of the spiritual path – to find that voice that reminds us, that calls us back to remember this.  From this place, we have the strength and wisdom for our ministry.  From this Belovedness, we are able to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And so the lesson of today’s Gospel, although particular to what Matthew’s community was going through in its grief and pain, still points us to the confusing reality of the spiritual path:  We’re always looking for something outside of ourselves that will save us, some experience that will make us feel better.  But it’s this inner work of accepting the banquet’s grace, really allowing it to change us, that will actually save us.

And, hopefully, this opens today’s parable up for us because we come to realize that Matthew was trying to articulate, even in their slanted story, just how widespread the invitation to the banquet actually is – that all are invited.  Even those who laughed it off, they were invited.

But that it’s also not always easy to allow the banquet to change us, to give us new clothes to wear, so to speak so that we learn to rest in our true identity of belonging, as the Beloved.  We are so tempted by self-rejection that we can end up refusing the teaching of the banquet and we never learn how to show up for one another, how to treat one another, how to be in community with one another.

Paul often refers to this “clothing ourselves with Christ.”  The clothing that we learn to put on, is not one that legitimizes us over and above others it’s not about self-righteousness.  It’s the clothing of grace that we receive, the clothing that reminds us of our Belovedness, our truth, our deepest identity.

Because the Table’s salvation is this grace, this reminder, that we are Beloved, that we belong, we are invited in this human existence and those voices of self-rejection, those wolves of our psyches, that tear at our clothing, are lies and they are the most deadly of all sins.

Those voices are what we are called to leave behind as we are absolved from our sins.

All are invited to the banquet of Love.  All.  No exceptions.
And we, as Christians, find our sustenance at this Table, the Table of Reconciliation.   Where we are first reconciled with God so we might be reconciled with ourselves.  Where we come to remember we are the Beloved so that we might learn to stop being tempted by self-rejection.  Where all are welcome at God’s Table.

Where each one of us is invited and where each one of us is, hopefully, changed by this invitation, by this experience… changed by the truth that we are Beloved.

And salvation lies in this: that we are so changed by this truth, that it becomes the clothing that we wear whenever we come to the banquet of Love.  That we come to know we are Beloved so deeply that we wear this clothing all the time, as we carry this banquet, this Love, with us out into the world as the Beloved of God.  To be Christ’s hands and feet in and for the world.

You are the Beloved of God. This is the simple truth.
May you remember.  May you always remember.

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God’s Peace, Our Willingness

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

You can listen along by click on the play button below:

There’s an Indian writer named Arundhati Roy.  She penned one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever heard for a 2003 speech.  She wrote: “Another world is not only possible.  She is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.  She is on her way.”

I used that same opening last year in a sermon I offered from this very place.  It was the Sunday after the Orlando massacre.  I haven’t been with you all two years yet and this is the second time I’m preaching after a major national tragedy involving guns. 

Another massacre.  Another reason for our hearts to be broken.
Another opportunity for us to grapple with the world’s violence.

I struggled a great deal with this sermon, mostly because I’m so tired of this.  I’m so tired of mass shootings and massacres.  And I’m tired of hearing people talk about gun laws and gun rights and reading articles, watching people get self-righteous and angry, speaking our opinions as if that solves the problem when, I think, we’re all just scared out of our wits.  And I’m tired of all the conjecturing and theorizing and postulating and lobbying and the blaming.  I’m so tired of the blaming.

Because nothing is changing.  We can say all the things we want and we can say them as many times as we want and we can be as indignant and as angry and as fearful as we want… but nothing is changing.  People are still dying.

So I stand before you today, a very worried priest – your worried priest. 

I worry that the sheer magnitude of dreadful and vile stories coming across our newsfeed on a daily basis will have a long-term effect on our congregation’s collective mental, emotional, and spiritual health… if it hasn’t already.
Many of us are going through a lot in our own personal lives: aging, relationship issues, family divisions, financial burdens, health concerns.  And now, almost daily, the news gives us something enormous to worry about.  It’s all a lot for us to shoulder.  I’m worried for our health.

I worry that maybe the part of us that earnestly wants to live into another world, a peaceful world of God’s love and justice, is being overwhelmed by the part of us that remains unwilling, for whatever reason, perhaps it seems hard or inconvenient, or we might offend or anger people we like/love, or it might just scare us to get too involved in things that seem political and beyond our abilities.  I’m worried for our souls.

I worry that just talking about the massacre in Las Vegas is going to make some of you feel uncomfortable.  I’m aware that many people come to church with the expectation that it will help them feel good, that it will be something they enjoy.  And I hope that on most Sundays we enjoy our lives together.  And, believe it or not, I don’t like it when people feel uncomfortable.  My personality seeks to be a people pleaser.  Making people feel uncomfortable is not fun or sporting for me.  It’s actually quite painful.  I’m worried for our relationships.

I really don’t want to talk about things that make people feel uncomfortable.  But I have to.  Or rather, I’m compelled to.  Because the Gospel doesn’t really give us a choice when we are faced with the circumstances of “the world.” 

“The world”… this world… can be a nightmare, so loud in its horror that it drowns all the quiet.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I believe with all my heart, with all that I am… that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Otherwise, there is no way that I could be a priest.  There is another world.

The Gospel talks about “another world,” about the kingdom of God, a world of love and justice.  We know that Jesus was a Jewish man who talked about the in-breaking of God’s Love into the world.  And through his ministry, he came to be known to us as the Rabbi, the teacher, sent to teach us, his disciples… to teach us what that that world is, what it looks like, how we will know it. 

He taught his followers about this other world by using parables – stories that spoke about God’s dream of peace for all of Creation.  Matthew’s parable today is about the unwillingness to recognize and accept the in-breaking of God’s Love, the unwillingness to produce the fruit of the harvest, the unwillingness to give ourselves over to God’s dream of peace and justice.

In this parable, the landowner is God, giving the vineyard – giving Creation – to people, to tenants, to watch over it with the intention that they will cultivate a fruitful harvest, a harvest that belongs to the God of Love, the God of Life.

When it’s time to gather the harvest, God sends two groups of people, slaves as it says, who are the prophets – the former prophets and the latter prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.  And the people refuse to acknowledge the teaching of the prophets.  Instead, these people have decided, “No. The vineyard is ours, to do with as we please.”

The vineyard, intended for the purposes of God’s love and justice, is being used for other purposes.1 percent

Then, God sends the son – for us, as Christians, we believe this to be Jesus the Christ, the anointed one.  And the people reject the son, killing him on sight.  They continue their prideful insistence that it’s their vineyard.  The people have refused to recognize and accept the in-breaking of God’s Love into the world.

The result is that rejected becomes the cornerstone.  And those who rejected the cornerstone are unable to participate in the Kingdom of God – not because God seeks punishment, that is not the God of Love – but because they are unwilling to participate in God’s Kingdom, God’s dream of peace and justice. 

They have turned Creation into their world.
They have turned themselves into gods.

I was over at Congregation Emanuel on Friday night.  Rabbi Yael and her Sukkotcongregation invited all the houses of worship to join in their Festival of Sukkot – the Festival of Tents.  People from Holy Cross were there, people from Christ the King were there, people from Vida Real were there, people from the Kingston Muslim Mosque were there… all there to pray for peace together. 

I listened as Rabbi Yael reminded us that praying for peace is so important, but what’s more important is that we have to be willing to live into our teachings.  And we must be willing to make hard choices sometimes in order to do that.

And when the world becomes the nightmare it can be, hope can be hard to imagine.  This is where prayer is vitally important.  But let me remind you of something: 

Mthr T PrayerChangesUsThe power of prayer is not that it has an effect on something out there… the power of prayer is that it has an effect on our own hearts, on our own souls and bodies and minds.  The power of prayer is that we are changed and we become willing servants, devoted tenants of God’s vineyard who seek to reap a harvest of justice and peace, not for ourselves alone but for the whole of creation. 

Prayer is meant to change us because it is we who change the world, who are Christ’s hands and fee in the world, who usher in another world.

I agree with Rabbi Yael that peace needs our willingness in order to become real, to be made manifest, to be made incarnate among us.  Our hope is in our willingness, in our devotion to something greater than ourselves, greater than the world we have created.  Our hope is in our commitment to participate in being shepherds for Another World.

 

CRCancel St Francis

Painting by C.R. Cancel

And St. Francis knew this too.

Today’s cover image is a depiction of St. Francis, surrounded by animals, bowing his head in humility and reverence.  Francis has become known to us as the Patron Saint of animals because he had a deep awe for God’s Creation, believing nature to be the mirror of God, the God of all Life, and calling all the animals his brothers and sisters.

 

Born into wealth, Francis grew up enjoying all the fine things and spent money lavishly.  He saw the world as his own and was unabashed in his enjoyment of what his wealth could buy.

But a meeting with a beggar opened his heart and gradually, he became a willing servant.  Because of this, he was mocked by his friends, and scolded and rejected by his father.  And yet, he started a way of life that hundreds of thousands after him would come to follow over centuries and centuries on all continents around the world. 

Franciscans are noted for living a deeply simple life, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in recognition that their lives and all their work in the world belong to God.  In this way, they are icons for us, a way for us to remember our place as tenants, not owners, of God’s Creation. 

Because of his willingness, Francis became the rejected cornerstone.  One who felt as if he owned the world, came to see another world that was different than the one he grew up in, a world in which he didn’t need what the world told him he needed and he led others to see the same world.  He is sometimes called “another Christ” because his life so closely resembled the ministry of Jesus.Giving water

Not all of us have the same dramatic calling that Francis had.  But I bet most of us, if we allow ourselves to, can imagine another world. 

Take a moment now.  Close your eyes and imagine another world.  What does it look like for every creature to have exactly what they need?  Tg3What does it feel like to not be scared, but to trust that all will be well?  What does peace sound like?  Taste like?  Smell like?

I suspect that each person sitting in this room, in this holy sanctuary, has a dream of peace that is much, much bigger than we Climate March IIare but we just don’t know how to make it happen, how to speak it into being.

Here’s what I know: Even in the midst of the nightmare that the world can sometimes be, it is our willingness to serve God’s dream of peace that matters most.  There lies our hope.  Devonte HartOur willingness to try, our willingness to show up, our willingness to give ourselves over to becoming what we are called to be: Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

Because we all have ministry.  Even if our bodies are not as capable as we’d like them to be, even if our minds are not as sharp as we want them to be, we all have something to offer in service to the in-breaking of God’s Love.  cville-5-clergy-via-twitterEven if we’re scared and feeling a sense of scarcity, we all end up having more, the more we offer ourselves.

 

And so today, let us do something radical in the face of terror and violence:  Let us celebrate the God of Life, the God of all Life – especially as we honor the love we have and have been given by the animals in our lives.  Communion summer 2017
Let us refuse to give in to terror and violence, denying it’s power to hold us in chains.
Let us, if only for one moment, allow ourselves to dream of another world – one that is filled with God’s Love, in which all life is honored and respected.
Let us surrender ourselves to that harvest, a harvest of peace and justice, for these are the fruits of the kingdom.
And let us be willing servants of this world, this other world that we dream with God.

May we hear her breathing.  May we know she is on her way.
And may we have the courage to make it so.

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In This Sanctuary

Click here for this week’s scripture.

The end of Matthew’s Gospel today references the presence of God that we experience when we are engaged in various forms of prayer.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

God dwells among us when we are gathered together as prayerful people – prayers of song and of speech, prayers of silence and of laughter.  Studying, worshipping, healing, serving.  God is always with us.  And when we are focused and receptive to God, wholly occupied with God, we experience a deeper aspect of God.

What Matthew is talking about is not a passive, “just show up to church and the magic will happen.”  Matthew’s words come from the Jewish understanding that God dwells where people are participating and engaging together in prayer, a particular form of God’s presence when we share the time and space to be in community together.

The Hebrew word for this is shekhinah. And Matthew, who was writing for a JewishShekhinah Hebrew community coming to know themselves as followers of Jesus, knew shekhinah to be the aspect of God which rests between and among people who are occupying themselves with the joyful adoration of God that happens in the midst of all that takes place in our lives… good, bad, hard times and easy times, our worries about friends and family in places of fire and flood and hurricanes, our grief and frustration about racism and deportation, and our joy in new births, deepening friendships, successful operations, and serving others… all of it.

The shekhinah comes to dwell as we open ourselves in joyful adoration in the worship of God.  And so it actually matters how we bring ourselves to one another, how we offer ourselves here… in our sanctuary.

IMG_20161221_132120369Today we return to our beloved St. John’s sanctuary after spending 2 months in our “summer chapel.”
This sanctuary that was reshaped to include a center aisle when the church was moved stone by stone from its location on Wall St in 1926.
This sanctuary that is graced by these amazing windows depicting the beauty of creation given in honor of people who lived well over 100 years ago.
This sanctuary that is decorated by the beautiful woodwork of George Huber, an immigrant to the United States, installed in the 1940’s during WWII.
This sanctuary where the baptismal font was moved from the private baptistry in the 1990’s so it could take its proper place in the public space of the church.
This sanctuary where people have been married and baptized, where we’ve cried and prayed and celebrated, where we’ve held funerals for our friends.

In this sanctuary, shekhinah has been with us, is with us, will remain with us – the spirit of God that flows among us as we sing the hymns of our tradition, as we speak the words of prayer, as we sit in silence, as we share the scripture, as we focus on God, as we bring ourselves fully to this place where we, as a community meet the living God with receptive, open hearts and minds.

In this sanctuary.  This home for the community of St. John’s.

This spirit of God, this shekhinah, is an angel that hovers sweetly as a mother… gently nudging, and sometimes pushing, helping the community along.  It listens and it speaks.  It hears what is on our hearts and whispers hope.

shekinahIt listens to our lives and brings us to new perspectives of what it means to Love each other.  It attends to our pain and cracks open doors of forgiveness and new life… always leading us to the Table of Reconciliation.

This shekhinah is the angel of this place, the angel of our community that dwells among us and, as we open to it, refreshes our souls in this sanctuary and longs to be carried with us as we leave this place and offer ourselves in ministry to the world.

We come to this sanctuary to hear the stories of our tradition, to listen deeply and connect them to our own lives.  To find meaning in our lives through the stories that have been handed down to us.

How does the story inform and instruct us?  How does the story challenge us?  Comfort us? How does the story invite us to the Table of Reconciliation at the center of our sanctuary?

When we hear Jesus today, through Matthew’s Gospel, talk about responsibility, what does the Angel of this Place have to offer you? As it hears what is on your heart, how is it informing you and instructing you?  How is it opening you up to the Table of Reconciliation?

Take a moment now and rest in the knowledge that this angel is here with us and rest deeply in these questions. Open your mind and your heart.  Rest yourselves in this Sanctuary and listen to the Angel of this Place.  Just listen. Let any remaining hisses of fear and division drift away.  And just listen… for the whispers of hope and of grace and of love.

Here’s a parsing of today’s lesson from the Gospel

Matthew is structured with 5 discourses; 5 sets of interactions that occur after major parts of the story, in which Jesus is speaking with the Disciples, with us, to instruct us.  If we consider it, Matthew’s technique is masterful.  He offers a story and then helps the readers interpret the events through Jesus direct interaction with us, the Disciples.

Today’s passage comes from the 4th discourse, on the communal responsibilities to one another.  In chapters 15 and 16, Jesus comes into conflict with the Jewish leadership – the Sadducees and Pharisees – and they have accused him of being evil.  He can see what’s coming.  They can all see what’s coming.  In last week’s Gospel, we know that Jesus understands his fate is one of great suffering in Jerusalem.  Peter objects to this and so he chastises Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”

And, knowing that he must take the opportunity now, he starts instructing them on how to carry on this movement that he’s started in his anticipated absence, first emphasizing humility earlier in Chapter 18.  This doesn’t come in our readings this year, but it’s worth reviewing:
‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He’s talking about the humility of one who is receptive, who is listening and learning, not to leave our brains at the door, but to allow our pride and our know-it-allness to take a back seat.

And he goes on to say, “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Mt 18:1-6)

 Take a moment again and tune in again: What does the Angel of this Place have for you today? How is this presence of God informing and instructing you?  How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?

The word “disciple” which is what we are as followers of Jesus, has the same root as “discipline”… discere, to learn.

After “humility,” Jesus talks about “responsibility” in today’s Gospel and in the readings for the next two weeks.  The responsibility we have for one another in building the church, the ekklesia (from the Greek) – those who are called out into mission.

I was speaking about this with someone earlier this week – the importance of pastoral care, of caring for one another because the larger task of mission is hard work.  So, to one another, we offer kindness and extend forgiveness.

And we engage in spiritual work so that we become more mindful of the ways in which we might become those stumbling blocks Jesus is talking about, those traps of unhelpful behaviors that are the ways of the world, not the ways of Christ.

This pastoral care is something we are all responsible for because it is how we are responsible to one another. It is the building up of the community, the lifting up of one another, extending the benefit of the doubt, offering mercy and tolerance and acceptance, disciplining ourselves because we are disciples…Be kind

Something I endeavor to remember: Be kind.  Everyone is going through a hard battle.

All the ways in which we make of ourselves a joyful offering so that the community and not get lost in the minutiae and the drama so that the community can become the Body of Christ broken for the world and live out the Easter command, the Great Commission given to us on Easter morning:  “Go to Galilee.  Go to Galilee where Jesus has already gone ahead of you.”

Humility and responsibility – the qualities necessary in a community named the ekklesia.  Two weeks ago we talked about this word that Matthew uses – ekklesia.  We translate that as “church.”  In the original Greek, the word means those who are called out by someone for something for a purpose.

Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this the Jesus Movement.  And when he became Presiding Bishops a few years ago, he spoke to the whole church in a video filmed in our own Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.  And here’s what Bishop Michael says:

 

“When Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.” “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.”  Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.  Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.  Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

 Coming our sanctuary every week is a homecoming.  Not just a homecoming to our physical space but to our own souls, remembering our own souls – the sanctuary that we carry with us, where God is always present.  The world can a wearying place.  We know this now more than ever.
And as people of faith, we find rest as we gather together here with the Angel of this Place who whispers to us as it nurtures our souls so that we can be agents of healing in and for the world.

Take a moment again:  What does the Angel of this Place have for you today?  How is this presence of God informing and instructing you?  How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?

As Bishop Michael finishes his talk to us in that video, he reflects on an interaction he had with a Mennonite pastor who had been sent by his church to organize a community of faith in the streets, a community without walls.

He said the Mennonite community asked him to do this because they believed that in this environment in which we live, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is. 

 

Bp. Michael continues: Now is our time to go.  To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ.  To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation.  To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

May it be so.

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I AM

You can click here to read this week’s scripture.

I am. I am.
How often do we make that statement? I am.

We all tend to use these words as a precursor to something else.
Our state of being: I am excited. I’m disappointed that it’s a rainy day. I am scared. I am sleepy, frustrated.
Or our current activity: I am writing a letter. I’m playing with my children. I’m going to the store.
A descriptor of some kind: I am gentle. I am not so gentle.Munch

We identify ourselves with how we feel, with what we do, with our experience of ourselves, as well as other people’s experience of us.
And, most definitely, we identify ourselves with our roles:
I am a mother. I am a father. I’m a daughter, a son. I’m a priest, I’m a nurse, a teacher, a musician, a waitress, a salesperson, an administrator… the parent of an honor roll student, as our bumper stickers say.
With our names and what they mean: I like mine, actually. I’m Michelle. It means God-like.

And, most especially in our culture, we identify ourselves with the products we use: I’m a Honda driver, a Costco shopper, an iphone user. We identify ourselves with organizations and causes we support: I’m an animal-rights activist, a democrat, a republican, a Yankees/Mets fan, a member of the ACLU.
By what we’re against: I’m anti-war, anti-big government, anti-abortion.

With our culture: American. Which gets conflated with religion: I’m a Christian… forgetting the fact that Americans are also Muslims and Jews. I’m Episcopalian, Roman Catholic.
Which can get conflated with race and ethnicity… I’m white, I’m African-American, I’m Latino, I’m Arab.
We identify with our body or our body image… I’m skinny, I’m tall, I’m short, I’m handicapped, I’m fit, I’m fat.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we heap on some incredibly negative identities: I’m a loser. I’m stupid. I’m worthless. I’m ugly. I’m wrong. I’m bad.

It’s astounding. We have so many competing identities, no wonder we forget who we really are.  Our mind is full, so busy articulating ourselves, defining ourselves, creating faces for ourselves, no wonder we fail to remember who we really belong to.

Without noticing, we separate ourselves from one another and we forget, seeing only what we want to see in the other and hoping that they will only see the faces we present.

So, we have Moses.
Moses – an Israelite in Egypt. Just few verses before today’s passage, Moses names his son Gershom. ‘Ger’ is Hebrew for ‘alien.’ He passes on this identity to his son and says, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

Here’s what we know about Moses. He survived genocide, we know this from last week’s reading. By order of the Pharaoh, the baby boys were supposed to be put to death and the midwives defied the law in order to see through God’s will, which is sometimes necessary.

Because Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the home of his enslaver and attempted murderer. When he grew up, Moses killed an Egyptian for beating his own Hebrew kinsfolk and became an outlaw, forced to hide in Midian.
While in hiding, Moses defended a group of women at a well and was taken in by a priest. He married Zipporah and fathered a son.

Moses had many, many faces. He was a survivor, a victim, a killer, an outlaw, an advocate, a son, a brother, a father, a man, an Israelite, an alien. Moses understood himself in a very particular way with a variety of identities. As we all do.

And one day, Moses, this alien, went looking. The scripture says he went beyond the wilderness (in scripture, the place of being lost), beyond the state of being lost, beyond the state of forgetting, beyond the identity-laden, confusing, day-to-day wilderness of who we take ourselves to be.  And Moses went to Horeb, to the mountain of God.

Moses had become curious, you see, longing to hear God call his name.

Have you ever experienced that? You just want to leave all you think you are and all you think you know behind because of a yearning to know something deeper, something truer about yourself?

Is there something else to this? Am I something bigger, something deeper, something more?

When we are really ready to experience the truth, God shows up.

For Moses, it was the voice of God calling to him out of some magical, unconsumed, burning bush.  And in the presence of the holy, the eternal, in the presence of the Almighty and everlasting God of all, the ground of our being in the presence of that awe, the identities we have taken such care to create, mean absolutely nothing.

And so, Moses hid his face. Moses hid his most identifiable feature, his worldly identity. Because he knew.Burning bush

All of these things that we think we are… all of these affiliations, identities, preferences, descriptors, all of these faces mean nothing to God.

No longer victim. No longer killer.  No longer advocate or husband or son or outlaw. No longer alien.

So, there is Moses… stripped of his identity, everything he thinks he knows about himself, everything he thinks he knows about God… gone.
And he asks, “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
God tells him, “I will be with you.”
In that one phrase, God is saying, “You are mine, Moses. That’s who you are. You belong to me.”

And there even in the presence of God, even hearing God tell him who he is, Moses in his glorious humanity, still can’t fully trust, still can’t fully believe this astounding, humbling, overwhelming truth.  That who he is, is enough.

Because he asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

And God responds with: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. I AM WHO I AM.

Now, when God names Godself, this is a big deal. After all, naming is a form of power. Being able to name, to define, to constrict another into an identity is a form of power over them.

Think about it. Isn’t it an infuriating thing when someone tells you who you are or what you’re feeling? When after spending just a few moments listening to you, someone puts a label on you and proceed to treat you in some particular way.

We do this all the time. We give people a name, a label.  We reduce other people to a simple identity to feel safe so we know how to deal with them. We turn people into known quantities, like characters.  We put them in a box on a shelf in our consciousness and refer to them by the identity that we have afforded them.  We narrow the field of our understanding to simple stereotypes, caricatures of people.

And here’s the thing, when we do that, we stop being curious. And this is how we stop loving people.

label-jars-not-peopleHow many times has it been easier to explain-away a confusing or a negative experience – they’re an idiot, a loser, a narcissist.
How often is it easier to make assumptions about people because of their weight or their gender? Their sexual orientation or their age?  The language they speak or their religion?  How often do we make assumptions about people because of the color of their skin or the way they dress or act or which street they happen to live on?

And just like that, we’ve traded love for power.  Because the way love is most genuinely, most often manifested as curiosity.

When homeless people are asked “what is the most dehumanizing thing about being homeless?” They reply that it is being ignored, as if they don’t exist. When their fellow humans demonstrate indifference, a lack of curiosity in them.

Curiosity.  Love.  This means that we are willing to put aside what we think we know about ourselves, about one another.
We choose to go beyond the wilderness of all the faces so that we might remember our true identity and in doing so remember theirs as well – which is something that cannot be contained by human thought or words, cannot be enslaved by human identities.
Because our identity rests in God, and in God alone.

EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. This identity isn’t easily defined.
On the contrary, it’s full of mystery.  EHYEH. I am.

What if we looked for this mystery in one another? What if we saw the Christ in one another, the spark of God that is the divine nature?  That is the “I am.” That’s what we bring to God – the part of ourselves that is difficult to define, that has nothing to do with the world.

What if we simply offered ourselves to one another in our authentic, raw, human truth. What if we found the courage to stand before someone without the need to present any identity and just say, “Here I am.”

Would we be able to drop our expectations of others and just see the divine mystery alive, waiting to be spoken? Like a baby does?

awe_childBabies are great for this, because they haven’t yet learned how to be shy, they haven’t yet learned how to protect themselves. They just keep shining. And they just keep expecting us to shine right back. And we do.

We may think we have to be something – good, or strong, or smart, or helpful, or loyal, or self-sacrificing to be loved by God.  But what God loves, is something so basic, so intrinsic to each of us that we have forgotten it because we have gotten lost in the wilderness.

EHYEH. It’s like breathing. It’s that basic.
It’s that intrinsic to us.

EHYEH, the Hebrew word for I am.

Moses, whose name, interestingly enough means “out of the water”, is an alien, a person without origin.  Moses approaches God and when God called him, he responded the only way he could in the presence of God, with the knowledge of his own true identity. “Here I am.” EHYEH

But as Moses demonstrates, so beautifully in this story, even when we get it once, we continue to get lost in the wilderness. Even when we’ve experienced the presence of God, we forget.  As we move through the Exodus story this fall, you’ll notice that Moses questions, worries, demands, denies. Just like us.  He’s tempted by the human need to define, to characterize, to label.

Douglas Let My People Go

Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas’ Let My People Go

 

Moses is the character who leads Israel out of slavery for this very reason. Because he has glimpsed the truth but is still confined by the world. He has tasted the liberation from the wilderness of identities. Moses has experienced the truth of who he is. EYEH. Like breath.

The ones who have experienced liberation on some level are the ones who are called to lead others to liberation.

This is what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Mt 16: 24-25

The part of ourselves that Jesus is calling us to deny is this persona we’ve created. These faces. This “life” that we have built based on the ways of the world. This need for the power to define, instead of the call to love.

He demands that we refuse the tempter both in our own voice and in the voice of our loved ones… “Get behind me, Satan.”  Instead, he’s calling us to remember. EHYEH
To remember who we are and whose we are.  To hear the call and to respond simply and clearly, “here I am.”  Taking our full place in relationship to God.

And we’ll forget because we do. We’ll find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ll sin. We’ll miss the mark as we continue to do.

But Jesus continues to call us back to the heart of God again and again.  The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we offer here is just that, a calling back, a remembering. This is why we come to church every week, to come to remember to show up at this Table and say, EHYEH, Here I am.2017-07-02 09.49.08b

The Table of Reconciliation is not just for us to reconcile with one another.  It’s also to reconcile with ourselves and to be able to bring ourselves fully to God. Because that’s who we belong to.

You are a mysterious child of God, full of the mystery of the divine, called good from the moment the universe sparked into being. Please don’t forget this.

You are.

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This Is Your Ministry

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

Click on the play button below to listen along as you read.

I watched a movie recently, called Thanks for Sharing.  The movie was about addiction and the miraculous work done by people in 12-step programs.  Miraculous because it changes lives.  Work because it’s not easy – it’s the hardest thing that these folks have ever done in their lives.

And, as I watched the movie, I realized that the significant part of the 12-step program, the most important thing… is that these people have surrendered any notion that they are in control of anything and are at the mercy of one another’s commitment to each other.

In their darkest places, they call on one another.  And, they are there for each other.  Answering the phone at all hours of the night, racing across town at a moment’s notice… to save their friend from slipping.  Because they know that, in helping someone else from slipping, they are saving themselves from the same fate.

As one of the characters, new to the program, remarked to her new friend after he had shown up for her in her dark moment, “Y’know, as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”

It’s transformational… to be that vulnerable and yet that powerful at the same time.  To be that invested in someone else’s liberation.  To know that we need one another so much and yet know that just showing up for one another is the most powerful, the most liberating act anyone in this world could ever do.

In today’s gospel reading, we have a strange and iconic encounter between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus asks the disciples, these people who have been following him and calling him rabbi, Jesus asks these followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Both titles, one a Hebrew title, the other a Roman title, are royal titles, describing a ruler or divine leader.  The Messiah, of course, meaning the anointed one.  And Jesus announces that his church will be built upon this foundation – the foundation of Peter’s faith.  And he will give that church the keys to the kingdom.

I think it’s important to understand that the definition of “church” here, is not how we define it 2000 years later.  It’s not this massive institution and it’s certainly not this building.  The word in Matthew’s gospel that is translated to the English “church” is the Greek word ekklesia, which is a word that means “those who are called out.”

 

It’s like that children’s rhyme – Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open up the door, here’s the people.

It’s the people part.  This is what Jesus meant when he was talking to Peter.  This is the Body of Christ.  This is ekklesia.  The people called out to do God’s work in the world.  God’s work of liberation.

It’s why we have a dismissal at the end of our worship, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.”   What we’re really saying is, let us go forth and get busy with God’s work of liberating one another.  Because this is what it means to be the church.

And, as a community, St. John’s has discerned a call to a particular mission – the Body of Christ moving in concert at this time, in this place, with these resources.  Now, I’m the first to say that Mission Statements are meaningless unless they give us a clear sense of what we are called to do as a group of people, unless we know them well enough that they inform our imagination of our congregation’s ministry.Mission Shirt

So, we have been saying a special Collect for Mission since the Feast of Pentecost to call upon God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us for this mission.  We have new t-shirts that reflect the 4 basic tenets of our mission – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving.  And the Mission Statement is printed in our bulletin every week.

We are called to know all our neighbors and be a bridge of God’s Love; connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving each other and the diverse community of Kingston.  We will do this by:

  • Sharing our physical space and resources
  • Being stewards of the arts
  • Advocating for social justice
  • Participating in inclusive and intergenerational worship
  • Affirming everyone has a place at God’s Table

And to be formed as the ekklesia, those who are called out, it matters that we come to church, that we have a place to be called out from.  It matters a lot – especially right now because there are forces at work in our culture that are truly evil and that, to be blunt, require exorcism.  Hate and bigotry have no place when God has formed us all in the very image of God.

But more than simply coming to church, I think it matters that we understand our directive “to be called out” from this place and we take it to heart.  I think it matters that we leave worship, we leave this place, and we remember our baptismal vows – to pray, to worship, to forgive and repent, to love, and to strive for justice.

I think it matters more that we truly grasp, that we read, mark, and inwardly digest the responsibility we have to one another.  To show up for one another, to liberate one another from the darkest places of our lives.

And Paul tells us today, in his letter to the Romans,  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

And Paul goes on to tell us that we have been empowered, not to be God but to surrender ourselves in service to God so that God may act through us.  Because we are called as Christians, to recognize our vulnerability and our power.  We are called as Christians, to show up for one another.

And here we are centuries later, the church.  The people who are called out.  Fire heartThe Body of Christ.  Who do we need to show up for?  Who are those who are experiencing their darkest moments?  In your heart, where are you being called?

  • Is it African American people, Jewish people, gay people, immigrants… anyone currently being targeted by hate groups across the country?
  • Is it Syrian refugees who are seeking asylum from the ongoing war like so many of our own ancestors came here?
  • The suicidal veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder?
  • The hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly girls, who are sold into slavery every year?
  • The young person, one of so many, who is addicted to readily-available opioids?
  • The homeless person? The bullied kid?  The bully?  The criminal in prison?

The list is endless, even in a culture as wealthy as ours… or, perhaps, because our culture is so wealthy… we have an endless list of “others” – those who are left out, an endless list of people who we believe are just on the short end of the stick.  Who just need to work harder.

But Paul tells us not to be formed by the culture but to be formed by the Gospel.

Whether it’s a belief in karma or the prosperity gospel, sometimes I think we believe if God wanted them to be better off, God would have made sure that happened.  And, so we leave it to God instead of taking a place in someone else’s life.

Or, worse, we believe that we are in control of our own destiny… and we have no responsibility to anyone in our lives but ourselves.  And, if these “others” could just take control of their own destiny, if they would just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they would also be doing ok.  That’s the cultural ethic, right?

And Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”

 In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus, the beginning of the Moses narrative – the midwives defied the law in order to serve God.  Sometimes that’s what’s required.

This is why 12-step programs are so miraculous.  Because these people have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, coming to recognize the liberation in surrendering their power and taking responsibility for one another.  Because these people know what truly dark places are.  Because these people know, “as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”

My point is this, my friends: We are Christians.  We believe that the Son of Man is the Son of God.  We believe the incarnation actually matters and the power we have to show up for one another as incarnate beings actually matters.  We believe that God works through us and that we are called out as the ekklesia, as the church, to be of service to one another.

I had a professor in seminary named John Kater.  He preached a sermon that still sticks with me.  He said our call as Christians, is to stand in the crossroads.  To stand where we can see both the broken state of the world and the blessed Reign of God – at the same time.  We are called to stand here and witness and to participate in reconciling the one with the other.

Because we have decided to follow a person named Jesus who commissioned his followers to be the Body of Christ broken for the world.  And we have willingly taken on the mantle of disciple.

So, we are called to actively participate in in the liberation of one another’s lives.  Jesus told us in the Gospel of John that we will do greater things than he ever did.  So, what are we waiting for?

It’s an enormous task, I know.  It’s an endless list, as you know.  And sometimes it’s all we can do to get through our own day.  But Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world…”

Because you are called to ministry as a baptized member of the Body of Christ.  You are called to carry on the work of Christ in this world, to make God’s mission of liberation a true possibility.  To show up for others in their darkest places.

So here it is: don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture of all of it, just focus on one thing as an individual person.  We have a mission as the community of St. John’s.  And we have leadership that will drive us through the living out of our common mission.

But as an individual, you are called to a particular ministry wherever your heart beats.  What is it that brings you to your knees?  The idea of working with prisoners, with refugees, with kids?

What is it that breaks your heart wide open?  The possibility of changing the way we view the mentally ill or the treatment of women or fighting white supremacy?

What would make you feel powerless if you were in someone else’s shoes?
This is where you start. Keith Haring
This is where liberation always starts – love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.
This is where you stand as a witness in the crossroads, where you can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.
And this is there you offer yourself to your brothers and sisters.
This is where you offer yourself as a sacrifice to God.
This is your ministry.

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Accountable to One Another

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

Author and speaker Brene Brown is an Episcopalian who works as a researcher in psychology and has written several books about shame and vulnerability.  She’s also done many presentations and videos that are posted all over the internet.

I bring her up because, as I was preparing to write this sermon this week, I stopped to watch a video of hers on Facebook where she talks about empathy and the importance of showing up for each other in the aftermath of Charlottesville and the continuing discussions about race as we listen to more stories than just the one about the history of our country.

In her work, Brene talks about being authentic in our relationships with one another and in community.  She also talks about accountability – how we are accountable to one another because we live in relationship to one another.

What does it mean to be accountable to others in a community?  What does it mean to hold each other accountable or to hold ourselves accountable to others?
Sometimes what this means is we help them in some physical way – feeding people, clothing people, assisting them with the everyday tasks of their lives.
Sometimes what this means is we stop telling our own story long enough to hear their story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what they’ve said.
But always, it means that we consider the repercussions of our actions on others and take responsibility for those repercussions, even if the results were unintended.  This means that we sometimes need to correct our behavior, even if we think we didn’t do anything wrong.

Because we don’t live in a vacuum.  We live in relationship.
As humans, we always live in community.

Our readings today point to this accountability we have to one another.

The tale of Joseph is a metaphor or a mythical story that helps us understand the larger narrative of the ancient Israelites.  Joseph is the youngest son of Jacob, who was renamed Israel because he wrestled with an angel of God.  This is a story about the nation of Israel.

 

Joseph Cartoon

The story of Joseph is also told as the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… sort of.

If you recall from last week, Joseph was hated by his brothers because he had prophetic dreams and they plotted to get rid of him, a few wanted to go so far as to kill him.  They finally decided upon selling him into slavery.  Then, they lied to their father about their deed, letting Israel think that wild animals killed his son.

 

8 chapters later (the story of Joseph is quite lengthy), we have today’s reading.  In those 8 chapters, a lot happened to Joseph but in the end, he rose to prominence in Egypt because of his prophetic dreams, eventually becoming the closest advisor to the king.

In his dreams, Joseph foresaw a famine and ensured that the king’s storehouses were packed with seed.  Once the famine started, people from neighboring nations came to Joseph asking for help, this included his own family who were still living as aliens in the land of Canaan.

Which is where we find ourselves in today’s story of reunion – Joseph’s brothers have come to ask for seed and Joseph knows he is accountable to them, even though he has reason not to help them because of what they did to him in the past.

Eventually, Jacob’s whole family, the whole nation of Israel, comes to live in Joseph’s house in Egypt, which is how the Israelites came to live in Egypt.  They received sanctuary from the very brother whom they had thought about killing, the brother they had sold into slavery.

Although this is a tale about the nation of Israel, it’s really a story about how we, as humans, are accountable to each other.  Responsible for each other.Libertarian Logo

And it’s also a critique on our culture.  We like to say “live and let live” in the US.  To each his/her own.  “I will do what I please and I’m sorry if you can’t deal with that.”  But we’re seeing the unintended consequences of that ideology played out to its extreme for us in living color.  What we do over here to feel safe, has an effect on people over there.  What we did or failed to do in the past, has a cumulative effect on the lives of whole populations of people.

We are responsible for our actions.  We are accountable to each other.  We do not live autonomously.

Covenanted Self BrueggemannOld Testament professor Walter Brueggemann talks about this as being covenanted.  In his book The Covenanted Self, he says this covenant is lived out through two things that happen simultaneously – the assertion of self and the abandonment of self.  And if they aren’t happening in relationship to one another as corrective forces, then we lose track of the covenant, and relationship and community are destroyed.

The assertion of self is when we are taking up space with our words or our property or our demands or our needs or our opinions or even our physical self.  When this is functioning well, we are showing up for each other in supportive, authentic ways.

But when it’s not balanced by the abandonment of self, we filter everything through our own lens and insist that the way we see things is the only way to see things and the rest of the world is there for us to use in some way.  We even end up insisting that God sees things the way we do (if we believe in God at all) and that we are the source of our own power devolving into what Brueggemann calls “praiseless autonomy” where there is no gratitude and “self-sufficiency becomes a law unto itself.”

The other edge, abandonment of self, is when we are willing to be taught, to learn, to give ourselves over to an idea or narrative other than our own, to consider that truth might be more complex than what we previously thought.  When this is functioning well, we are still showing up for each other, supporting one another, and our presence isn’t about our own needs.

But when it’s not balanced by the assertion of self, we give up our agency and allow everything to happen, looking the other way if things are difficult or challenging, accepting everything as God’s will, offering no grace to ourselves or to one another.  Brueggemann says that this devolves into “graceless obedience” in which we let the forces of the world have their way without confronting evil, correcting unjust systems, or seeking ways to heal the wounds that inevitably happen.

Brueggemann tells us that both edges are crucial for the covenant we have as God’s people.  Our lives as Christians are not solitary, singular existences.  We have inherited from our Jewish ancestors the understanding of covenant – we are in a covenanted relationship with God and with one another.

I will admit that reading the Hebrew Scriptures can be challenging sometimes.  God always seems to be angry about something.  But the reason God is upset is because people keep forgetting the covenant.  They keep trying to dominate others, keep trying to make themselves great, keep trying to deny that they are responsible to one another.

This is exactly why Jesus says that the whole thing boils down to love God, love your neighbor as yourself.  That is our covenant as Christians, given to us as sacrifice in the Eucharist.

We can neither give up our assertion of self, nor the abandonment of self.  The two must balance each other.  We have to show up for one another and act in this world and we have to realize that the world is not for our taking and we are not the sole arbiter of what is supposed to happen.

This is what living in community is.  This is what accountability is.
Our actions have an impact on others, but that doesn’t mean we stop acting.
It means we continue to learn about how our actions effect other people and we humbly make corrections whenever we can where they are needed.
It means we listen when someone says, “Wait a minute.  You’re treating me unjustly.  My life matters.”

Which is exactly what happens in Jesus’ meeting with the Canaanite woman.

Canaan was the land Israel lived in.  It was the land they took for their own, calling it the promised land and in the process of taking it, the Israelites sought to exterminate the Canaanites.

As a Jew, Jesus grew up around people who used the term Canaanite as a catch-all for anyone who was unworthy of notice, unworthy of treating justly, someone who had no rights in Jewish law, someone who was inferior.

Germain-Jean Drouais_Jesus and the Canaanite Woman_1784_LouvreWe like to think of Jesus as someone who was unblemished by his upbringing.  But it’s clear from this passage, that he was not.  He carried prejudice and brought it to bear in this interaction.  He called her a dog.

It’s important to understand just what kind of insult that was.  Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets.  They thought of dogs as mangy, disease-ridden, unwanted, filthy pests.  They thought of dogs as scum.  So, Jesus, our loving comforting messiah, is dismissing this woman, calling her scum.  Think about that for a moment.

He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Meaning that his healing, the nourishment he offers, is meant only for those who are viewed as the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob.

Her Canaanite life and the life of her daughter don’t matter.

And this woman, this piece of scum, says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that her life matters. BLM Face

And instead of feeling angry that this woman dared to challenge him, instead of being annoyed that she shoved her story in his face, instead of defending his first response or rationalizing his refusal as the fact of history, instead of listening to his disciples who just wanted him to ignore her… Jesus stopped in that moment and realized that he was accountable to this woman.

That he was responsible for her and her daughter and his behavior had an impact on them both.  And he healed them.

And he healed centuries and centuries of sin in that moment.

Jesus stopped telling his own story long enough to hear her story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what she said.  He made himself vulnerable by listening to her story and abandoning his self to a greater truth – the one that was kneeling before him.  At the same time, he asserted his self, acting in service to justice to heal the centuries of sin and hurt and division.

Leaving behind the prejudice of his heritage, refusing to be shackled to it and refusing to allow her and her daughter to be shackled to it any longer.

So, here’s what I believe:  If Jesus can stop to listen to someone besides himself, perhaps we can too.

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