Peace: Advent II

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) on December 9, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the day’s scriptures, click here.  If you’d like to listen along as you read, click the play button below.

 

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.   (Baruch 5:5)

These are words from the Book of Baruch.  This book called Baruch is a patchwork of readings.  Biblical scholars believe that the chapters all came from various sources and were put together into one book by Jewish editors and writers sometime after Rome had occupied Israel.  The book was named in honor of Jeremiah’s friend and assistant, Baruch ben Neriah.

jeremiah-arts-chagall

Marc Chagall’s Jeremiah

Jeremiah, if you recall, is one of the major prophets, the prophet who led the Hebrew people while they were in exile in Babylon.  And these readings that make up the book of Baruch, talk a lot about the experience of exile – words of sorrow, pain, suffering, fear.  But also hope, comfort, peace.  They are words filled with the knowledge of being split in two, as if living apart from one’s own soul.  And then finding God again.

Worldly exile is a consequence of war.  And war is about exerting power.

I’ve told the story of Ancient Israel before:  How the 12 tribes decided they needed a king to keep themselves safe from the invasion of surrounding nations.  How the kingship didn’t last long before a thirst for power caused a split in among the people of Israel.  How the split made Israel susceptible to surrounding nations who invaded them.

The thing they thought was going to save them is what split them in the end.

Babylonia was the final nation to wage war on Israel and, when Jerusalem was captured, when it had finally fallen, the Babylonians sent the Jewish leadership into exile – in Babylonia – to ensure that the Israel could not raise an army to fight back.

In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its leaders, meant the end of Israel.
At least, that’s how the story of war goes.  But that’s not what happened.

The most miraculous thing about the story of Israel, which is the story of our ancestors, and the story of our Jewish siblings, is that war was not the end of Israel.  Defeat, exile was not the end of Israel.

If we stop to think about it, these are stories that should belong to history, but they belong to faith.  So, why are they a part of our story of faith?

The Hebrew Scriptures are an account of how people came to know God.  How people have come to understand themselves in relation to God.  The Hebrew scriptures give us the narrative of those who were left behind under the rule of other nations and those who were sent into exile and how both peoples remembered their true identity in the midst of all the turmoil.Babylonian Empire

In other words, it was who they were as people who lived and breathed in God that mattered to them, not who ruled over them.  Their identity was about who they were in relation to God, not in relation to a nation.

And this is so hard for any person to remember because we often take great pride in our nation, and rightly so much of the time.  But the larger story, God’s story, is that nations rise and fall.  Empire is just that… empire.  Empire is not of God.  It never was and never will be.

The larger story of God is that God alone will always be.  God’s reign is the reign of Life.  As long as life breathes, God loves.  We belong to God, not to a nation.

This is a very appropriate lesson in the world – especially now because it’s such a divisive time in the life of our own nation with so many people having such wildly divergent opinions about what it means to be American, that we seem to have lost a sense of who we are and faith in ourselves and one another as a people.

But what is real, what we are called to remember, is that our true identity rests in God alone.  And just as this is so important to remember right now as we consider the world around us, it is, perhaps, more important to remember and understand this in relation to ourselves and our own heart.

For all of us have a part of our self that we feel like we need to hide away, a part of us that we have some sense of shame about or tenderness towards, a younger part, a more vulnerable part.  And in some way it feels like we must make war on our own heart, exerting power over the most tender part of ourselves because we’re so scared to bring it out and let it be seen. And so we send that piece of our soul into exile.

Each Sunday during the season of Advent has a distinct theme, all of which focus on different aspects of God’s Love as we prepare for the Incarnation at Christmas: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

Last week, we appropriately heard Roddy’s story from Deacon Sue – a story of freedom which demonstrates God’s Hope.  Roddy, who has been a prisoner on Death Row for 19 years and is being released soon.  He has always maintained his innocence and, in that, keeping a sense of freedom – God’s Hope – alive in his heart.  Roddy’s story reminds us how Hope is about freedom, how we keep ourselves free in the midst of our worst nightmare even if it lasts for 19 years.

This Sunday the theme is Peace.  And how, when we finally accept that we belong to God and not to a nation, that we belong to the Eternal Love and not to this warring transitory world, this is when we find true Peace.

When we lay down our belligerent tendencies, when we drop our defenses, when we refuse to take sides, when we learn to see God’s Holy Love in every aspect of this amazing Creation, even when a member of this Creation is acting in hateful ways…
When we see God’s Love infusing every single cell and God’s Spirit breathing over all the earth, then we know that God is indeed the Ground of all Being.  We all share one God.

Fabric of the UniverseAnd when we see the world from this vantage point, nations and borders and walls and wars become utterly meaningless.  They make no sense.  If we see the whole universe as made of the same fabric of God’s Love, and if we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of that fabric, then how can we possibly hate a part of ourselves, a part of that fabric, a part of God’s Love?  How can we make war against a part of ourselves?

It’s not some ridiculous pie-in-the-sky notion.  This is basic theology and we forget it all the time.  The real world is that which is of God and of God alone.  All the rest of it… is humans forgetting.  Humans being human, nothing more. Trying to exert power, trying to wage war.  And exile is always a consequence of war.

Baruch’s message to us today comes from a place that knows the pain of being in exile and the profound peace that comes when we suddenly realize that God has never sent us away and that this exile is of our own making because we have forgotten.  It is a message of Hope and Peace because it is a message of repentance.  Repentance, not a word we necessarily associate with hope and peace but that’s what this is really about – returning to God.

Arise, O Jerusalem (we are all Jerusalem) stand upon the height;
look toward the east and see your children
(see us all)
gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One
(
as we hear God’s whisper to return to God, that we are wholly beloved members of a Holy Creation)
rejoicing that God has remembered them.  (Baruch 5:5)
In fact, God never forgets us.  It is we who forget God.

From the HeightsThis is what John is talking about in today’s reading from Luke – repentance.  When John preaches a baptism of repentance, the Greek word here is “metanoia”… literally a change of mind. The invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.

No matter what the state of the world is, as along as life breathes, God loves.  And this is the remembering of the reality that in God alone we have our reality.  This is what brings us peace and helps us to be more peaceful people in and for the world.

Our neighbors at Congregation Emanuel, our Jewish siblings, use a beautiful prayer book called Mishkan T’filah, the words mean “dwelling place for prayer.”  And every week at Centering Prayer here at St. John’s we use a prayer from that book to end our time together.  I’d like to use that same prayer to end today’s sermon.

Let us pray:

May we find peace with those we love,
growing together over time.

May we be at peace with ourselves
and with the labors that fill our days.

May we fashion peace in our world
with wisdom and gentle patience.

Blessed are you, God, who blesses us with peace.

Amen.

(Mishkan T’filah, pg 97)

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Guest Post: Deacon Sue Bonsteel – First Sunday of Advent C

Preached, as you might have guessed, by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent I, December 2, 2018.  You can read the scripture for the day by clicking here.

 

“Give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

img_20161029_165133434At this Advent time of the year – as the chill of autumn becomes more pronounced and winter approaches – we find ourselves searching through boxes for wool sweaters, long underwear, and hats and gloves we had carelessly tossed aside last spring when they were no longer needed. Flannel sheets and down comforters come out of storage and surround us in warmth at night. The furnace is cranking away and fires are glowing in the fireplace.  We light candles as the daylight fades. We try to hold off the darkness by turning on more lights or throwing another log on the fire. We are determined to hold back the night as long as we are able.

Yet the season of Advent is the ideal time to welcome the cold, the silence, and the darkness. For these coming days are more than a pause between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas; these days offer us a holy space in which to settle…to rest…and to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent offers us an opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ponder the darkest places where Jesus is most needed in our lives.

So it’s particularly poignant then that we recently received the news that a dear friend Roddy Johnson will soon be released from prison after over 20 years of incarceration, 16 of which were  served in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row. It’s the advent of a new life for him.

If there are any of you left who don’t know the story, I will tell it for the last time. For Roddy will soon be writing a new chapter in his life story as he prepares to enter the world once again.

Roddy and I became friends shortly after his incarceration through the Death Row Support Project, a pen pal prison ministry of the Church of the Brethren. The program’s aim is to connect those on death row with people on the outside, offering friendship and support to men and women discarded or shunned by society.

Looking back last week at the pile of letters from Roddy, I came across his initial request for a pen pal. He had simply asked for someone with a friendly heart who was willing to listen. And tears came again to my eyes when I realized what a simple “yes” to Roddy’s request came to mean to him, to me and so many others.

What is so admirable about the Death Row Support Project is the way it supports the often abandoned men and women behind bars and helps them make a connection beyond the prison walls. Its ministry is one of compassion and love, forgiveness and redemption. The letters exchanged become a glimmer of light in a world where darkness prevails and too often justice is denied. Roddy and I began as strangers in 2002, but it wasn’t long before we came to understand that God had truly led us to one another through this ministry.

Building a relationship with someone behind bars is, as you can imagine, a serious commitment…one that requires perseverance and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions and prejudices. I certainly had my share. A middle-aged privileged white woman writing to a young black man caught up in a drugs and gang culture of New York City brought us both frustration at times… but also laughter. Often Roddy wrote using street slang that might as well have been a foreign language to me.  I sent him classic literature that I thought he’d enjoy when all he really wanted was the latest trashy novel.

But there was also a sweetness in our weekly correspondence. Long handwritten letters about mundane things brought a bit of normality to our relationship. Roddy wanted to hear about the day-to-day events in life – the trips to the grocery store; vacation plans; memories of my childhood; the visits from grandchildren – anything that helped him connect to a world that he was no longer part of. These letters were eventually accompanied by 15 minute phone calls and then finally email. We stuck together during his many years in the wilderness of appeals. And at times it was truly hard work. At Roddy’s request I contacted national anti-death penalty groups as well as The Innocence Project. I spoke to lawyers who listened politely but regretfully said they could not take on any more pro bono work for capital cases. Roddy connected me with Linn Washington, a Temple University professor of journalism, author,  and  political activist who had interviewed Roddy and included him in several mainstream articles. Dr. Washington suggested I contact 2 colleagues of his, notable newspaper journalists Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald and Bob Herbert of the New York Times. Both were  interested in Roddy’s story and had their interns contact him. And two of our own bishops, Mark Sisk and Andy Dietsche, were gracious in their support, helping fund some of the expenses I incurred. It was through Bishop Sisk that I became a regional deacon for prison ministry.

Despite the many people familiar with Roddy’s case, we were, however, reluctant to say aloud to one another that there was but a glimmer of hope that Roddy’s sentence would ever be overturned. We all understood that getting an innocent person off death row would be an uphill battle.

The darkness had to be overwhelming at times for Roddy as the years passed. As a father of young children when he was sentenced for the deaths of two men, Gregory and Damon Banks,  he was often worried that he would become mired in the grief and anger that consumed so many around him. His faith in a generous and loving God was tested over and over but it never seemed to waver. Roddy truly believed that the Righteous Branch in Jeremiah would ultimately execute justice and not death, even when those around him were skeptical.

Oh, he came close to death on two occasions soon after arriving at Greene Correctional Facility. Once he was but 24 hours away from a scheduled execution before he received a stay. It’s horrifying to realize that Pennsylvania came that close to executing an innocent man. It’s also horrifying to realize that innocent people have – in all likelihood – been executed in our nation – in our name -despite claims to the contrary by those who support capital punishment. The work to end the death penalty must continue….

Despite the reality of this, Roddy would sometimes say, that even in the midst of the darkness and cold of the prison system, there were glimpses of light in the faces of people who refused to bend to a system that sought only to enslave and punish. It was, he said, in those people that he saw the face of God.

Some of you have asked if he were exonerated so I wrote to Roddy, asking him to explain it in his own words. This is what he wrote to you:

I know this is confusing to all. The Appeals Court did not exonerate me. Rather they declared the Capital Case a “Wrongful Conviction” saying that my constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated by the district attorney who hid evidence and lied to the court. Therefore the convictions could not stand. There was also the issue of double jeopardy – meaning that you can’t be tried for the same crime twice – so the life sentence I was given at the same time as the death sentence was also thrown out.

My lawyer explained that the State argued against dismissal based upon my actual innocence because the State would then open itself for additional lawsuits – not only from me – but from anyone else convicted through the actions of the same corrupt police department who were involved in my case or by the same District Attorney’s office. My lawyers said the State was more concerned about a lot of appeals by others on death row and not about absolute justice for me.

When I asked him how he felt about this decision he wrote:  After all of this, I can only say…Thanks be to God! I have been given my freedom and I will make the best of it.

Roddy is ready to cast off the works of darkness at long last. The years of watching and waiting and wondering what is to come are almost over. While he is eager to begin his new life, he is not surprisingly anxious about all that has changed and all that he must learn anew. Just think about the changes in the world today and the one he left behind 20 years ago.

Long ago you and I welcomed Roddy into our Beloved Community here at St. John’s. He’ll need our prayers and support more than ever. He’s hoping to visit us one day and thank us personally for all we were able to do for him and his family. I know we will greet him with joy.

Luke’s gospel this morning – and Roddy’s own story – remind us of the need to always be prepared…to understand that while we may never know what the future holds for any of us, we are called to live with love and hope. For the kingdom of God is everywhere, even in the darkest of places. It can be a struggle to move through the darkness to the light.  Yet when we discover that we can cast off all that weighs us down in our lives – whether it be fear or cynicism or isolation or whatever burdens we bear – only then will we be able to rejoice and put on the armor of light that is Jesus Christ.

May we all have a blessed and holy Advent.

Amen.

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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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