The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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Homily for All Saints’

(Sermon during bilingual service at All Saints’/Todos los Santos for All Saints’ Sunday)

Padre Guillermo draws our attention toward the importance of living the life the beatitudes prescribe, and I love considering what Jesus thought as he ascended the hillside to give his sermon to the crowd gathered to hear him teach. They gathered en masse because this was someone who was going around curing every disease and sickness, healing the demoniac, epileptic, paralytics–everyone. If there was a physician today who had 100% success rate, he or she would have a large following, too! Jesus had to go to higher ground logistically so people could see and hear him, but isn’t it significant that he is the one elevated during this sermon, that he–the Son of God, the one who speaks with utmost authority–is the one who speaks from on high?

We’ve heard or read how all of us are accountable to living into the beatitudes. We don’t have to be canonized like the Saints to live righteous, holy lives, and our ordinary lives do have extraordinary potential, thanks to the power of Love. Our ultimate sanctification is when we are fully glorified in God through Christ, and for most of us that will be when we die. But we have every reason to believe we share glimpses of glory here and now, and it takes all of us together to make known the presence of God here on earth. I usually say we are working toward beloved community, and we are. Today, however, I think we can consider our work to be manifesting a community of saints.

Again, the beatitudes are a recipe Jesus gives for those who follow him. The community organizer who spoke at Diocesan Convention last year used the beatitudes to illustrate how Jesus shows us a community working together to build up the kingdom. It’s almost a formula, really. 

Verses 3 and 10 are the bookends; notice how the promise is the kingdom of heaven. That’s for all of us. The poor in spirit, as Padre says, means we know we need God in our lives, and to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake is a badge of honor we get for carrying the Cross.

Now look at verse 4 (Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.), and verse 7 (Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.). The merciful comfort those who mourn and in turn receive mercy.

Verse 5 (Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.) and verse 8 (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.); the pure in heart see the meek (the submissive, the marginal, often those who are oppressed) and know that Creation is as much theirs as anyone’s. In the meek, the pure in heart see God.

Verse 6 (Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.) and verse 9 (Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.). Those who make peace fill those who hunger for righteousness, for what is just and right and true, and they are children of God who bring such peace. And all who bring this kind of righteousness, who fulfill this yearning that comes from the heart, that bears the image of God, theirs is truly the kingdom of heaven.

As much as it sounds idealistic, these are considered more the internal beatitudes. For more tangible, actionable items, we get the corporal, the physical beatitudes in Chapter 25:31-45, where we are judged by how we treat others being how we treat Jesus (feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting in prison, etc).

These beatitudes are applicable now, but they are also a promise of the kingdom to come. Acknowledging the suffering we face, the persecution, the judgment. Nowhere does Jesus promise that following the way of the Cross will be easy. It might get easier as we grow in our faith, as we strengthen our roots in Christ, knowing deeply in our being whose we are so we know who we are as a child of God. Knowing who we are and who we want to be ignites that light within that shines like a watchtower. Others notice and attracted to it, curious and maybe even seeking. We radiate with a joy that others want to know, too, or maybe they’ve experienced it and want to know where it comes from. This is evangelism, when we get to share our stories and experiences in our life of Christ. Others who notice us might not have such a positive intention. Standing out in a crowd means we are vulnerable both to praise and persecution, and Jesus showed us that to the extreme. Even if the reality of our blessedness isn’t manifest here, it is promised.

And maybe Jesus doesn’t give us the specifics of our life of glory, but he does show us the triumph of life beyond death. Jesus promises us that we have reason to rejoice and be glad–not naively but with certainty of faith. Our blessedness in following the way of Jesus Christ is a promise that we are walking, living, believing that the suffering of this world is not the end of our story and that we are not passive observers as trials and tribulations unfold. We are a community of saints, part of a larger community of saints, bonded to the Communion of Saints through our life in faith. Ours is the kingdom of heaven to manifest now, with God’s help, and the kingdom of heaven is ours in time to come.

Rejoice and be glad! Amen.

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Our Command

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 | Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 | Matthew 22:34-46

(More of what was preached for Proper 25)

The other day on the radio I heard an engineer talking about the amazing thing that a tiny robot can do (called the robo-bee). Fifteen of them together weigh about as much as a penny, she said. It flies, and now it can swim. More than that, it can launch itself out of water, converting water to gas to create enough propulsion so it can break through the water’s tension and emerge above water ready to fly again. Amazing. Most of you know my husband is a computer guy, so I understand there’s a whole programming side of things that I will never fully understand. My husband spends a lot of time at the command line on the black terminal screen that most of us regular users never see, but it’s the commands that he puts in that keep the software running as it should, just as the programs coded for the little robo-bees direct them in what they are able to do.

So when we have this account of Moses death, that he died as the LORD commanded, I marvel at the significance of his obedience even in death, knowing full well that his life has not been perfect. Even in his imperfection, Moses had been singled out by God to know and experience God in a way few have. Joshua had big shoes to fill, leading the Israelites, but they carried on, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. They persisted in following the law, keeping their tradition alive through generations.

By the time of Jesus, there are an estimated 613 laws to follow in Judaism. The Pharisees know them and are responsible for keeping them. A lawyer would presumably be one skilled in Mosaic law, also, and that’s the person who speaks up to test Jesus, offering what he’s sure to consider a trick-question. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus unhesitantly replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a natural outgrowth, seemingly, of the first.

Knowing your Book of Common Prayer, you of course knew this summary of the commandments, as it’s in the Catechism. This “Greatest Commandment” is also in Mark and Luke, with the addition of loving God with all our strength. We can know these commands by memory, but what does it mean to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul? “Love” alone is complicated. Sometimes we want to focus on agape as a love that seems to evoke the all-compassionate love of God, philia that has the brotherly-love emphasis, or eros that gets at desire. Yes to all of these, and more. There’s so much more than sentimentality here. This all-encompassing love asks for all of our heart. However much we think we love, it’s that and more, requiring our loyalty and devotion. It’s putting God before all else, before any idols we might have, be they animate or inanimate (thinking of relationships, power, money, etc.). Love God with all our heart and with all our mind. I can’t even begin to wrap my feeble mind around God, but with all that I am, I let my thoughtful self love God. I allow myself to bring all of my questions, doubts, concerns, and fears to God. I bring my whole intellect, even when what I’m wrestling with makes no rational or logical sense. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul.With the very essence of our being, we love God. It is our soul which most yearns for restoration in full likeness of God.

With whole-hearted, holistic love of God, love of neighbor is both a natural outgrowth and a societal obligation. But especially here, it’s important not to forget that Jesus is talking with people who want him dead. Earlier, in Chapter 7, Jesus tells his followers that the greatest thing they can do is treat others as they want to be treated, thus we get the golden rule. Now, he’s telling his enemies, his neighbors, that they are to first love God and then love one another. Jesus could have easily pointed out how these people were disobeying both commandments, kind of like the scene with the men charging a woman with adultery when he tells the one without sin to cast the first stone. Jesus is writing something in the dirt, and when he looks up, everyone but the woman is gone. Perhaps he was enumerating their own transgressions. But Jesus doesn’t do that here. He goes on to ask a question of his own, a question that as he interprets it, points to his own divinity. Psalm 110 is referenced about 37 times in the New Testament. In Christianity, it points obviously to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry but also to his divinity, his life as fully human and fully divine. Obviously, this isn’t so for the Jews then any more than now, but that didn’t change the Truth of who Jesus was and is. He had his own commands inscribed in His being and in His will. It’s no wonder those who were adamantly trying Jesus were ultimately left speechless, not daring for a time to ask any more questions.

We can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves, but in practice, things can get a little fuzzy. We have a day like Thursday. I’m all ready to go to the gym to practice my self-care after I drop Avery off at school, but on the way to school, my oil light comes on in my car. It’s the big red hazard light and another oil can light. Rarely do they both come on at the same time, so this is a huge red flag, and I’m just praying my engine doesn’t seize up in 8:00 traffic on 102. I stop in for an oil change at my regular place, and they tell me it will at least be an hour and a half, but I have a lunch appointment in Siloam. So I go to a 15-minute oil change place. I have my schedule to stick with, things I’ve got to get done. As the mechanic is welcoming me to my new venture, being my first time there, he’s smooth. I’m thinking he’s about to up-sale me on everything, but he assures me he’s not. At some point in the conversation, I tell him I’m an Episcopal priest. Before long, he brings my air filters to me to show me that they’re not bad, that I have a bulb out, and that they’re about finished. When we’re wrapping up the paperwork, where he’s giving me a first-time discount, it’s mentioned how expensive things are, and he says something about not being able to afford the best stuff, either. And I say, “Are you doing okay, though?” “Yeah, I’m alright,” he says. And he shares with me in less than five minutes the abbreviated version of his life story. How his mom’s life changed drastically when she found out she was pregnant with him, how it was her come to Jesus moment. How he didn’t really have a relationship with his birth father, but his mom found Jesus and also found a husband in a Church of Christ pastor. He shared a lively story about her being caught up in Spirit. His family is mostly in central Arkansas, so he’s a bit isolated up here, but he’s radiant with life. I probably would have bought anything he suggested, because I was smiling as I pulled away from the shop. That feeling of fullness and contentment, that happens when we let go of our preconceived notions of how things should be or how we think they are, even when they’re not. Opening ourselves to love God first and then extend it to our neighbors, we open ourselves to unlimited possibilities–yes, of potentially being hurt but only because the love is so grand.

So with the fullness and taste of joy and a much happier car, I drive to the gym and eventually make my way to Siloam, where the sapphire skies are shining, it’s nearly 80 degrees, and all seems right in the world (I rocked out to Hamilton rather than listen to the news). My colleague treated me to lunch as we caught up on life and work. He showed me some of the plans that Grace has for their expansion, as they get ready to break ground. I left with that same feeling of having had a lovely time.

But on my way back to pick up Avery, I started to feel a bit of worry, maybe a touch of anxiety or fear because I had signed up to go to the Q Commons event, an event sponsored by–as my colleague pointed out–some very conservative evangelical folks. Even the speakers were from the very conservative side of the spectrum. People who are probably praying for me, right? I’m going to this event where I imagine I’ll be judged, and I don’t know anyone else. We see what’s happened, don’t we? I’ve walled off myself in fear and worry, already forgetting what God has revealed to me just in this one day, let alone my whole life!

So I go, and there’s Christian folk being played from the stage, the tables are set, the food truck vendor has a buffet at the back and I judge it to be typical hipster scene. (The cookies on the table were a nice touch!) I’m mistaken for a sister, but the mistake informs me that someone I know will be there. Before long, I get to see her and make contact with someone I know. I talk to people in line, at my table. I start to see and converse with people I recognize but also meet new friends, all of us coming from various Christian denominations. But the whole event was about showing up to address Questions of this particular cultural moment, when we’re as divisive now, it’s perceived, as we were during the Vietnam era.

During the talk, NYTimes contributor David Brooks talks about cultivating virtue. Kara Powell talks about our addiction to technology. Propaganda talks about how complicated our lives are, how truly connected we are to one another so that we shouldn’t judge one another. Local folks spoke about art, service, and the Confederate statue. We listened, and at our tables we had a few moments to share. Of the many things I heard that still resonate in my mind, David Brooks mentioned how much our society shies away from commitment; we’re not anchored. We’re like the fall leaves right now, barely hanging on, and when a gust comes along that makes life difficult, we run away. We’ve been told by society we’re free to do whatever we want, be whatever we want, and have forgotten our covenant. We’ve forgotten that while we are free, we are in a committed relationship not only to God but to one another, with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. This covenantal relationship anchors us through trials and tribulations and keeps us moving forward in life, hopefully more aligned with God’s will.

So we can see how we have commands built into our Christian DNA. Born in Baptism, we are commanded to do certain things. We agree to them in our Covenant. It’s not just a contract, though; it’s a relationship. It doesn’t make life easy, but it roots us deeply in something bigger than ourselves. It might come with persecution or ridicule, but it promises us eternal life through Christ. It comes with expectation, too. Dr. James Hawkins from New Heights in Fayetteville, who spoke about the statue, said that we keep looking to our government, to politicians, to make changes. He told us that it’s up to believers to start the revolution, the radical move to life lived for love of God, that it’s up to us to pave the road of reconciliation. It’s up to us to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s what we’re commanded to do, but it’s also what I want to do with every fiber of my being.

 

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What are we looking for?

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

I imagine it’s safe to say that we’re all looking for something. Maybe it’s job stability, good retirement benefits, better health, or healthy friends. Maybe more existentially we’re looking for meaning and purpose, happiness and quality. This question of considering what we’re looking for is worth exploring, in Scripture and in our lives.

What was Moses looking for when he spoke to God? He knew it was important and set up his Tent of Meeting, and everyone in the camp noticed when the pillar of cloud appeared, signifying that Holy Speak was going on. From the reading today, we hear that Moses needs certainty in the presence of the LORD, an Advocate. Moses wants to see God. The LORD assures him but also reminds Moses that the terms are set by God. God will be gracious and merciful as God sees fit (though Moses already knows that intercession doesn’t hurt). God tells Moses that no one can see the face of the LORD and live, so instead the glory of God passes over Moses, with the hand of God covering him in the cleft of the mountain. We’re told Moses could see the back but not the face of the LORD. Amazing. Could Moses even imagine in his seeking God that he would so intimately experience the presence or the Glory of God? Or be told so blatantly that to see the face of God would be fatal to his mortal body? In all the encounters with God, Moses himself was too much for the people, eventually having to wear a veil over his face (Ex 34:29-35). Moses was transformed by his encounters with God.

What is Paul seeking in his correspondence with the Thessalonians, when he repeats, “You do not need to have anything written to you” but still sends the letter and asks that it be read to all the brothers and sisters. In the letter–since he can’t be there in person–Paul conveys his affection, encouragement, and instruction. In times of persecution, he’s telling them to be strong and keep doing the holy, blessed, and good work they are doing as believers. He’s seeking to support this small, marginal community as devoutly as if he were supporting a mega church. Paul’s sincerity of writing matches his tenderness. Always, it seems, Paul seeks to grow the Church, encouraging all to believe in Jesus Christ, holding himself forward as an example.

What about the Pharisees? What are they seeking, and why? They again show determination to destroy Jesus. They continue in their effort because they know Jesus is not going to let things continue as they are. The holy men can’t do this alone; they need the help of the Romans, from now through crucifixion. Catching Jesus in heresy or in treason, the Pharisees don’t seem to care so long as he is removed from the scene entirely. With Jesus gone, they can return to normalcy, their power unchallenged, the Law as they understand it enforced.

And what is Jesus looking for? I don’t ask this as a trick question or a trap. As I pondered the question, I realize that Jesus isn’t looking for anything. Jesus, the Son of God, Word incarnate, is perfectly present and  whole. If Jesus is “looking” for anything, it’s him looking to manifest the will of God on earth, to bring the presence of God to earth in a way we can encounter and not die from. Jesus looks to give his life that all might proclaim his name and live. Jesus looks to show us the Way of Life and Love so we can die to sin and live in glory. Jesus looks to teach us that while we will be tempted, tested, tried, and maybe even tormented for our faith, that is our cross to bear, that even those are things of which we are not to be afraid because for those who call upon the Name of the LORD, the LORD answers them . . . maybe not as we’d like but with a peace that passes all understanding.

Consider now what we are looking for. We, a people gathered here in this pocket of the Church, in this little corner of Arkansas. In this country. In a time not unlike that of Paul, Matthew, Jesus, or Moses. In a time when we are, as ever, people divided, especially by race, gender, and class.

In two-thirds of her new book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown looks “at how we can reclaim human connection and true belonging in the midst of sorting and withdrawal” (p. 59). Because what we are looking for, her research affirms, is true belonging, but we let our fears divide and isolate us from one another. We’re afraid others won’t believe us or follow us (like Moses). We’re afraid our community will crumble if it’s not strong or persevering enough (like the Thessalonians). We’re afraid our power will be tested and get overthrown (like the Pharisees). Perhaps we’re even afraid that Jesus isn’t enough to help us make it in this world. In all the stories, Jesus never sought to do anything but the will of His Father. Jesus wasn’t phased by politics, economics, or social norms, just as today Jesus Christ isn’t partial to any one race, gender, or class. Jesus Christ is all about true belonging.

Brown offers a working definition of true belonging I find useful:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (p. 40)

And we are people created in the image of God. We are the coin of God, just as much as the denarius is the coin of Caesar. Jesus knew this fully, in every moment, whether he was in the midst or the head of the crowds, in the wilderness facing Satan, or on trial informally or formally.

What can we do to believe and belong to ourselves so deeply that we tap into the child of God we are, that we find a way to unleash the Light of Christ that shines in wisdom and knowledge that we know we are known to God, beloved of God, belonging in God, abiding in love?

Maybe you heard the phrase “me, too” this week. #Metoo was people braving the wilderness, facing vulnerability and perhaps fear by declaring that we, too, were victims of sexual assault and/or harassment. With all the women and men who said “metoo,” did you consider that we were finding belonging in our pain, in our being devalued, considered less than someone else? But it is in the belonging, in the collective, in the standing together to hear and listen to one another, to risk feeling together (even the pain) that love grows. Where love grows, fear has a harder time finding its way into our fault lines of division and isolation. Making the choice to stand out is braving the wilderness, being vulnerable even to temptation or evil itself, Satan we call it to personify it. Equally evil are the violations themselves and the shame that silences the voices and hardens the hearts, both breaking the connection of belonging as a beloved, whole child of God and as a person in beloved community. This is one example of how gender is abused. Internalized racism blinds a white person to their privilege and whispers in the mind of a person of color that they don’t know any better, that they can’t or shouldn’t speak out, up, or against. Classism, our social stratification, traps people in worldly systems, making their “worth” only as great as their social standing. These belong to God about as much as Caesar’s coin–part of creation because humans created it. They are in God’s power to change because it’s up to us to say where the power and authority lie. It’s up to us to call out violations of true belonging, to pay attention when our brothers and sisters aren’t being valued as children of God. In the name of Christ we stand against the status quo and stand up for love one genuine contact at a time so that the life and love of Christ flourish.

A life lived having seen the face of God is one reborn having known Glory. This was Jesus’ every breath, but we are so defended that we protect ourselves even from God. We see a sunrise and pause in its beauty. Our soul stirs at those liminal moments, those thin places where we feel the hand of God on our backs, but then we quickly forget or return to life as if we hadn’t been touched by God. Brown says what God knows to be true:

“Mercifully, it will take only a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across difference to change everything” (p. 58).

It will take a critical mass of people looking for Christ here and now to change the world. It is taking a critical mass of people uniting together to build beloved communities across differences, whatever they may be. In the complicated moments we find ourselves in, we have to pause–especially in our fear–and breathe in the breath of God to inspire us, to remind us of our belonging and our belovedness. And then we set out looking for ways to affirm that we bear the image of God and seeking the reflection of the light and love of Christ in others. When we start looking, we’ll see that Light has been with us all along.

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Dearly Beloved

Exodus 32:1-14 | Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 | Philippians 4:1-9 | Matthew 22:1-14

Thanks to my carefully created Facebook content/echo chamber, I get friends or ads sharing really great videos and articles. I don’t watch/read all of them, of course, but one caught my eye this week. It’s an interview with Sister Teresa Forcades in the UCOberserver. She’s a Benedictine nun, a physician and feminist theologian from Catalonia, Spain. In the interview, she speaks about her social activism, and there’s an embedded audio where you can listen to her views about deliberate democracy. It’s her story I found compelling. A woman who wasn’t raised in a religious household, found a calling to a religious order. When she told an abbess she wanted to join the order, she was actually laughed at and told to go to Harvard–where she had been accepted–and then to come back if the call persisted, which it did. As a feminist, she doesn’t deny the patriarchy of the Catholic Church. She strongly believes the structure needs to be undone, particularly the clericalism that only allows males, and she has in her mind that it could take another thousand years, saying that just when it seems the Holy Spirit is going to break through, something happens to set the Church back. Also, Sr. Teresa acknowledges that she could be deluding herself in her sense of “calling.” She says,

“My foundational experience — whatever it was that happened to me — this is why I am where I am. It has nothing to do with the church being patriarchal or not. It’s simply about a human being who was touched by God.

“If you were to ask me, ‘Are you sure it was God calling you?’ I would say, ‘Yes, I am existentially sure.’ But my intellect tells me I could be deceiving myself. It might have been a psychological need that just developed into this idea. Sometimes I imagine that when I go to the final judgment and I’m face to face with Jesus, he might say, ‘No, Teresa. It wasn’t me.’ But I will tell him, ‘Okay. Fair enough. You know better, but I thought it was you. And that was enough for me to give my life to this.’ I think he would like this answer.”

I love her honesty. As she’s telling her story, I imagine the voice coming from the image of the face at the top of the article. I think of friends who exude similar auras of kindness. Listening to her voice in the audio clip, in clear English with Spanish accent, I get from her story, her sharing, a glimpse of something true, something honorable. Something just and pure, pleasing and commendable. Something Christ-like which is definitely worthy of excellence and praise.

So what is it about her story that evokes a sense of the presence of Christ, not only in her being but also in her work, that isn’t in the guests of the wedding banquet in our gospel reading today?

In this parable (the climax of the three, in this sections where Jesus’ authority is questioned and where he comes back with stories of judgment), the King/God has invited guests who ignored the invitation. The early prophets–Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel, etc.–have been ignored. More slaves/prophets are sent, proclaimers of a new Way (like John the Baptist), but they’re persecuted. And the would-be guests are preoccupied with their earthly toils/farms and worldly occupations/business. This infuriates the one who has everything prepared, even his son. Ultimately, it’s not the A- or even B-list being invited. Everyone is gathered–everyone, the good and the bad–by the last round of servants. There’s no preliminary screening. Yet at the banquet, one man is singled out, and we realize how ludicrous this is. “Hey, you invited me; I didn’t have to come,” we can imagine him saying. But what started as a relatively straightforward parable becomes a scene of final judgment here in Matthew. The one who came to the kingdom without the proper attire, without righteousness and a pure heart, was cast out because he wasn’t one of the chosen, one of the elect.

Lest it sound like we believe in predestination, let me clarify what this language of chosen/elect means for us. Chosen is reciprocal, in a sense: choosing to follow Jesus meant salvation was theirs. Those who accepted Jesus’ message were considered “chosen,” even though it meant they apostatized their Judaic tradition. “Chosen” and “elect” are used here interchangeably, and the note of this last sentence is one of warning against self-righteousness. Matthew is writing to the insiders here after the Great Commission’s already given, after 70 CE, when they are actively waiting for the Final Judgment. As M. Eugene Boring says in his commentary, those who are chosen “depends on manifesting authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice” (Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, 418, emphasis added).

So how does the nun and the good guests differ from the absent or the bad wedding guests? What makes one chosen? I believe it has something to do with manifesting authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice. It has something to do with how we respond to the given that we are all chosen.

And that’s what we do when we are called. We live into an authentic Christian faith, the Way of Jesus, the Jesus Movement. Like Sr. Teresa, it may come from a genuine encounter or experience with God. It may come from living deeply into our faith. We use our baptismal covenant as a guide and know it’s not only our faith but also our actions that clothe us in righteousness, the necessary garb for all of us baptized into the priesthood of believers (Ps. 132:9). Right actions are good works, deeds of love and justice, and we each have gifts and talents suited to the work we are given to do. Sr. Teresa realized her gifts, has worked with WHO. Those in positions of leadership are gifted with opportunities to make wise decisions. At home, those with children do our best to raise children in the way of Christ, and we all strive to make conscious decisions about our purchases, about our food, about our care of creation. Maybe we knit/crochet hats for babies, make stuffed animals for traumatized children, pick up stray animals, donate money to Puerto Rico, tend our gardens…we make a choice to be aware so that when the times comes to make a decision that is either right or wrong, we see it clearly. If we’re too tired, we might not have the wherewithal to say no to the third or fourth drink, to go stand with the people of color, or  to stay after our representatives in government to do what is right. This is hard work.

When Paul is writing to his beloved Philippians and telling them to persevere in unity and imitation of himself, he isn’t terribly explicit about what hard and thankless work it is, that it might get you jailed or killed, that it likely won’t win you hundreds of friends or followers. That it might get you fired or ostracized. Sharon Salzberg, a columnist for On Being, wrote recently: “I don’t believe we can survive for long in a state of constant agitation. Our bodies and hearts need rest to replenish stores of energy. This is something best done from a place of love.” She’s absolutely right.

We don’t just do deeds of justice. We do deeds of love and justice. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is adamant in saying that whatever gifts we have, whatever work we do, if we don’t have love, we are a clanging cymbal, we are nothing, we gain nothing (13:1-3). (This happened to be the Epistle reading for Morning Prayer Saturday.) In his interview with and the writing of Krista Tippett, the legal and racial scholar john powell shares that we don’t consider enough our connectedness, the importance of belonging, and he says “we don’t have confidence in love” (Becoming Wise, 121). We think love is wimpy or emotional while anger and hate and rage are more powerful, better able to fuel movements of change to get things done our way. Impatience and fear motivated the anger of the Israelites, leading them to make their own idols while Moses conversed with the Almighty. Instantly the people became Moses’ people. “Go down to your people,” the LORD said, for the people had become corrupt and were no longer the LORD’s. Moses reminds the LORD of His promise, the greatest expression of love and relationship, and God reclaims His people, once again showing infinite grace, tremendous love. God showed us how to transform anger to love.

It is love for one another that can fuel righteous anger, a powerful agent for change. “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” I’ve seen on bumper stickers. Why are we angry? Is it because we’re afraid or because we’re in beloved community, and injustice abounds? Jesus overthrew the tables in the temple because people were being taken advantage of. Jesus chastised his disciple who violently struck a guard. Our tradition teaches us that we are accountable for our life and love and that violence is not the answer.

You don’t have to be a modern-day Freedom Rider or a nun to be loving and just. If someone were interviewing us, though, would they hear our story and recognize one who is beloved of God? Would they see in us what is true, what is honorable? What is just and pure? What is commendable? Would they see in our life not only faith but also good work, surrounded by God’s grace?

The good Christians, the good people who embody Christ, aren’t always going around with the fanciest cars or clothes, the biggest churches with the largest Sunday attendance, or even collars or monastic habits. The good guests of the kingdom are those who are known by their love, the wedding robe we all wear in our lives when we manifest our authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice, surrounded by the grace of God.

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The Work We Must Do

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 | Philippians 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32

Saturday night marks the end of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, one of if not the most important day in the Jewish calendar. A day of prayer and fasting begun at sundown Friday evening, it’s not only a time of acknowledging one’s own wrongdoing, such as unfulfilled vows to God, but also a time to seek forgiveness. Every time we come together for corporate worship–whether it’s the Daily Office or the Holy Eucharist–we can pray our general confession as well as the Lord’s prayer. Twice in our worship today, we ask forgiveness not only for what we’ve done in thought, word, and deed but also for what we’ve left undone and for forgiveness of our trespasses, where we’ve crossed a line or committed an offense against someone else . . . as well as forgiving their trespasses toward us. We do this not to live in perpetual guilt but so we remain awake, fully aware of what is going on in our whole lives, mind, body, and spirit. We do this because when we make our baptismal vows, we promise that when we sin (not if but when), we will repent; we will re-orient ourselves toward God. We do this because we are not perfect, because on our own, we don’t have the ability to fulfill the yearning for a life lived fully, authentically, rich with wonder and purpose.

Throughout Scripture, time and time again, we get the message that it’s not us who can solve things alone.

In Exodus, again we hear the people raising their voices at Moses. They “quarreled” with him. If they didn’t have water to drink–in the desert of all places–I cannot imagine this is a lighthearted disagreement, and we get clarification when Moses tells the Lord that the people “are almost ready to stone (him).” Not only are they quarreling with Moses, but Moses says they are testing the LORD. All the things the LORD has done, now they test Him again, questioning as Moses said, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Yet God provides. Here in Exodus, Moses and Aaron do what the LORD says. The same story in Numbers (Chapter 20) has Moses strike the rock and take credit for what God has provided, receiving the promise that he will not make it to the promised land. It wasn’t Moses alone who provided water for the people of God.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the chief priests and elders deceitfully prompt Jesus with a trick question, one they hope will incriminate himself. Jesus, however, turns the table with full transparency, unveiling the very criteria to which they themselves are held accountable. In their unwillingness to state their own position about where John the Baptist came from, they showed themselves unworthy before Jesus to receive the Truth. How different the moment in the gospel would have been if the elders had been honest about their struggle, given ear to Jesus as the Philippians did to Paul about what constituted righteousness, about what mattered. If they had, Jesus could have shared with them what Paul shares to the Philippians, what Jesus shared with his disciples: that there is complete joy to be had in love of one another through Christ who comes from the Father, that abiding in love with love of God is the utmost fulfillment we can attain this side of Glory.

Presumably written from prison, Paul shares his letter to the Philippians with love and affection, including in our reading today what may have been a “Christ hymn,” something familiar to the community. What truly matters to the welfare of the people is having the same mind, love, and agreement–rooted in Christ. This was to be their work, to “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling” since it “is God who is at work in you.” Reading this correspondence, it doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to hear how the Holy Spirit might speak to us from the Word. Are we as a people of one mind? Are we willing to let God work through us, in us, for the sake of love of God alone? For love? For joy?

There’s an article titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans” by Andrew Sullivan, noted to be a conservative political commentator. In it, the whole premise is that because humans are tribal creatures, America isn’t the best set-up. From the beginning of humanity, tribalism was a good thing, necessary for survival. You know who your people are, you’re working toward the same goals, you share the same myths to understand the world and the supernatural. I want nothing more for my daughter at college than for her to find her tribe, because our tribes can be a good thing. But tribes of around 50 are quite different than a tribe of 323 million. Naturally, we have many tribes within America, and we want to sort and classify everyone so we can understand not only others but also ourselves. From the beginning of our nation, Sullivan figures, “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.” Surely they must have thought that common values rooted in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be enough to keep us united. Sullivan himself hopes that America can find common ground under one president.

But I warrant that placing our hopes upon any one person or even a group of persons alone is not enough. This is hard work, this working out of our survival, especially our salvation. It’s okay for it to be a struggle. Our tradition provides many examples of people wrestling physically, verbally, and emotionally with God or God’s messengers. Think of Jacob, Jonah, and Paul. Like them, if we truly engage, we are not the same person after a genuine encounter with God. Most of the time, if our endeavor is entered whole-heartedly, we are transformed by the experience because the struggle moves us deeper into relationship with God. The closer we are to God, the clearer it can be to see how we’ve lost our way, how much we need God and one another to be fully restored.

The key to a full restoration, the hope for us all is that our humanity can be transformed by the life of Christ, by an understanding and practice of life that restores us to unity in God.

It’s true that we don’t have to be Christian to be good people, but as Christians, we have a unique responsibility to bring about reconciliation and restoration to unity to God through Jesus Christ. How do we do that? As Paul told the Philippians, we have to be of one mind in Christ. This might sound idealistic, but I believe it gets at the core of what a Beloved Community is. It’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female: it’s here and now, inclusive of all. But it’s going to be hard, admitting when we’re wrong and losing our lives–especially losing perceived control of our lives–for the sake of true salvation in God. If we can make this sacrifice, then we might be able to taste the exquisite beauty and ultimate freedom in a life given over to God . . . our best opportunity to experience joy made complete.

All this is easy to talk about, especially in context of characters of the past. But the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Scripture now as then. The clarion call for us all to have the mind of Christ rings loudly and earnestly today, but how do we get it? As Episcopalians, we do engage in Scripture; we have Bible studies. I challenge you to take this reading from Philippians, to take it and read it at least two to three times per day this week. When the Bishop comes next week, see how you hear his message, notice how you welcome our newly confirmed and received, observe how you listen to the news. Will it have changed with a constant focus on who Christ is? Can we put on the mind of Christ and “be the change we wish to see in the world” (to borrow a quote from Gandhi)? We won’t know if we don’t try, and this is the work we must do.

 

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Changing the Rule

Exodus 16:2-15  | Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1:21-30 | Matthew 20: 1-16

Everybody stretch your shoulders a minute for a brief exercise, if you are able. By a show of hands, how many of you here today are cradle Episcopalians, meaning you’ve been Episcopalian since your infancy? . . . (keep ‘em up, if you can) How many of you have been Episcopalian for 20 years or more? . . . How many of you have been here at All Saints’ since its beginning in 2007 or have been in The Episcopal Church at least 10 years? (you’re probably getting tired, cradle folks–hang in there!) Five years or more? For how many of you is this your first visit, or you’re not even part of The Episcopal Church but have landed here at this point in your spiritual journey? Here’s the thing:

All of you are welcome here, in this place and at this table.

(You can put your arms down now.) All of you are invited now as ever to taste and see God’s grace and mercy. Is there more grace and mercy available to you if you’ve always been faithful and devout? Do you have special privileges if you’re an old timer, get more bread at communion for holding your arm the longest? No. It’s the same for everyone, infinitely and abundantly the same. The kingdom of heaven, according to our gospel today, shows no partiality amongst its workers.

This is good news. We are all equal, have the same access to God through Christ, receive gifts of the Spirit. Why can’t we leave it at that?

Well, Jesus said, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” All I hear at first glance is that there’s a first and a last, and Jesus knows I want to be first. I want to be rewarded for my efforts. I want it to show how much I love and serve, how close I am to Jesus as His number one fan. Last week (I’m sure you remember) I mentioned that Peter’s question about how many times to forgive was a question of quantity: just how much do we have to do to be good or right? This is a humanly economical thing to do, to quantify something so we can measure rank or amount, put “stock” in something. With such a measure, we can gauge our self-worth, estimate our value. We can also judge others. I want to be first in my devotion and faithfulness, not the least devout and most unfaithful. In my striving to be the best and most, I compare myself to others. I might even begin to think that I don’t have what it takes to be first. So focused am I on increasing my value in the system that I complain when things fall short, I complain that I don’t have enough. I might even think that I am not enough.

When we lived in Fayetteville from 2004-2012, I noticed this increased lingo about who was “native” or not in Arkansas, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Returning to the area of my nativity, I can’t help but notice that this distinction between natives and non-natives has reached almost a fever pitch, as if only those born and raised here have a right to give voice to the way things should be, now or going forward. We’ve been here longer than they have, so we have greater value.

Consider also the young children brought here with their aspiring immigrant parents, parents who were hoping to find their place in the economy, establish their value in the social and cultural constructs. These children, many now adults, are struggling to maintain a sense of security in the only place they know as home. They are looking to the others who have been here longer to help them, to protect them. Somewhere along the way they heard and believed that people were to look after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, that people were to love their neighbor. As they clamor to rush paperwork, our DREAMers are trying to navigate a system that sees them as another statistic, another number.

With our emphasis on earthly things, we cling to our human economy, constantly compare, and make our value judgments based on what we determine matters most. We get anxious thinking that we will come up short in this valuation, afraid that we won’t measure up.

And then Jesus goes and affirms that if we’re first, we’re going to be last.

That makes us even more anxious, unless we understand the love and compassion Jesus shares in these words. Can you hear him saying that you can be first, third, 50th, or last; what matters is that you’re part of the kingdom. You’re in. Notably, however, we’re not the boss. We’re the hired laborers doing the work, tending to the resources made available to us by nature of our position. We tend to think that the materials we work with, the resources we use, the compensation we’re given is all ours. So we hold onto it. We might even do a really good job of tending it well, watching the quantity multiply. But holding it to ourselves traps it, in a sense, keeping it from being in circulation. Whether it’s money or time or products or anything valuable, if we hoard it, we prevent it from being in the flow, being part of what Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute calls “holy currency” (he has a whole book about it). Healthy congregations, healthy societies, healthy systems reap the cycle of blessings when the holy currencies are enabled to flow and fulfill the will of God, to manifest the Kingdom.

At one of his workshops, Eric Law shared with us an example of how not just someone but a community rallies to perpetuate an economy determined by values of the Kingdom, where everyone and everything has value. It did take the resources of one to help make it happen, but it has involved the whole community to keep it going. It’s the JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey. (JBJ for Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) It’s one of those kitchens with great chefs and many hands and many patrons. Where some pay for their meal with cash, giving whatever they can afford but at least the minimum donation, and some pay with an hour of their time to volunteer, paying for their meal with dignity. What is most valued here is LOVE.

Love is God’s economy, and we can’t get it fully because it defies our understanding. In our human economy we are so predisposed to focus on scarcity, of there not being enough, that accepting even the possibility of there being enough for everyone seems improbable. It’s improbable if our systems adhere to human economy. Enough for everyone is provided by God. We, as caretakers and workers of Creation have imposed our earthly values. Gold is just another metal except that “its rarity, usefulness, and desirability make it command a high price.” What if we replaced greed with love? What if we gave power to those who truly exemplified the love of Christ? What if we frame our hope for the future around a kingdom of heaven that does welcome all, that values love above all things, and requires us to be good and faithful workers in the field, doing whatever work we are gifted to do?

I’m an optimist. Of course I can imagine a place in time where we make the Kingdom a reality this side of heaven. I’m also realistic, so I know that the odds are not in our favor for the whole world to coalesce into a single hum of peace and love. But if we keep making pockets of the kingdom, we are doing good work. We support places like Soul Kitchen–places that affirm and support the dignity of all persons and pay attention to their stewardship of creation. We realize that whether we’re native or alien, we are here together–whether that be in Northwest Arkansas or in this country. Our job is to love one another. That might look like protecting one another. It might look like getting someone out of a ditch, carrying them to the one who has the cure, or standing or kneeling beside them in their deepest, darkest grief. We might have done this all our life or just realized that this is what we’re given to do. Either way, we don’t push our way to the front of the line.

We make a bigger circle so we can gather around the table and marvel at the beautiful tapestry of the heavenly kingdom revealed as beloved community on earth.

 

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Can You Imagine: Forgiveness & Judgment

Exodus 14:19-31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1-12 | Matthew 18:21-35

We’re going to save Moses and the parting of the sea for another day. It warrants a sermon of its own, given all the implications of the miracle at the beginning of the Exodus, especially that of a God that not only sanctioned the death of the firstborns but now also wiped out the pursuing Egyptian army. Today we’ll address our Gospel and Epistle topics of judgment and forgiveness. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, where 18 folks gathered to talk about racism– representing at least 5 different Christian denominations–one of the women said that given the need for dialogue and discussion, she didn’t feel like she had the tools to engage with people, the language to use in regards to having conversations regarding privilege and race. How could she give voice to where she’s coming from while respecting whomever she’s in conversation with? If we are filled with an understanding of judgment and well-stocked in forgiveness, aren’t these significant components pertaining to full reconciliation? I believe they are.

We want guidance and instruction, right? Peter asks Jesus: How many times am I to forgive? Is seven enough? (Because surely that’s more than generous.) Like us, Peter wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing and that it’s quantifiable, a transaction. Someone does you a wrong, you forgive them. The parable set forth shows a master who forgives his slave, yet the slave doesn’t show the same forgiveness to another. We can keep track of the forgivings and the withholding of forgiveness. This is what I call human economy: we can keep track of what’s going on, who owes who, and where we stand in relation to what’s expected. But Jesus . . . in response to Peter, Jesus says we’re to forgive 77 times, not that we’re going to actually count that many (if we could even keep track) but because

we’re not supposed to be counting in the first place.

Jesus sees our humanity and knocks it out of the park into God’s economy, where we try to comprehend terms like grace, mercy, unconditional, and infinite. We’re not supposed to keep track; we’re just supposed to keep sharing God’s grace.

But this storyline of the master and slave we have, it’s familiar to us. I can’t help but think of Beauty and the Beast–the Disney versions, of course, how at the end after Gaston has led the charge into the castle and tangled with the beast on the rooftop: the beast is given the opportunity to kill Gaston. He shows an act of mercy, telling Gaston just to go. What is he thinking?!? We’re proud and amazed at the compassion shown by the beast, and when Gaston pulls a gun on him (in the newer version — whole scene around minute 5:00), we see the injustice of it all flare and aren’t exactly disappointed when Gaston falls from the castle roof on his own. We breathe a sigh of relief at the happily ever after. When it comes down to it, it’s hard for us to comprehend forgiving someone who has wronged us. We are the master in the parable when it comes to withholding forgiveness or even taking it back. We make our human judgment calls on who is worthy or not of our forgiveness, forgetting what Jesus tells us and what Paul elaborates on: that it’s not our place to judge.

We joke about judging one another: I’ll ask you not to judge the cleanliness of my house when you come for dinner or my car if I give you a ride. We’ll more seriously ask not to be judged on the basis of our family system, our sexuality, our ethnicity. We’re not to cast judgment, but we make judgments all the time, discerning what to do or say in the next moment. Our decisions reflect the judgments we make. But what Paul tells us is basically: don’t sweat the small stuff and leave ultimate judgment to God. It’s our job to show God’s grace and mercy to others by staying in relationship with them, to the extent that we can. God isn’t telling us to stay in dangerous situations. God certainly isn’t telling us to forget. Forgiving someone does not mean we forget. We learn from our mistakes and know the burden of our sins. The knowledge we glean and the relief we experience are worth the scars we bear, and we can’t forget the stories of why we are better for what we’ve overcome. Even if we can’t stay in relationship with those who have done us wrong, we can stay in relationship with God as we work to let go of what was wrong and move toward life and love.

There’s a song in the Hamilton soundtrack about forgiveness. (Yes, I told you I love the soundtrack!) At the Garland County Jail, in the program I did with the folks there,  I wanted to play this song so we could talk about all the levels of forgiveness. But I realized they wouldn’t have any context if they didn’t know all the stories involved, all the references made. Did they know what Alexander was going through, the significance of this proud man using his wife’s words? Did they know Eliza’s grief of finding out about her husband’s past affair and then shortly thereafter losing her son when he died in a duel? Did they know how trusting and kind Eliza was? How deep the betrayal and how true her love? So, we had to listen to the whole thing. 😉  And when it came to the song about the unimaginable and forgiveness, there was stillness in the room, both times with the men and the women. In this song called “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the relationship unfolds in this confession, of not being afraid to admit what was wrong, and this willingness to be in relationship, to return to relationship. All the while, the company sings the chorus as witness to this beautiful thing unfolding with the words: “Can you imagine? . . . Forgiveness . . . Can you imagine?”

It’s hard for us to imagine forgiveness in the face of the horrible. Such swift judgment affords us the death penalty, just cause, self defense. We are absolutely amazed and in awe when not just in movies but in real life, people show true forgiveness and leave judgment to God. A prime example can be found in the survivors of the families who were killed at the AME church in Charlston in 2015, like the families of the children killed at the Amish school shooting in Lancaster in 2006–people who chose to relinquish the burden of judgment, giving that to God. Whatever their reasonings for doing so, I know that their decisions enable them to  move forward in their grief with a foundation of love. And it is hard to imagine, because it’s not the way of our world.

In the face of another acquittal for a police officer who shot and killed a black man, people in and around St. Louis demonstrate–literally–how difficult it is to stay in relationship with one another. On the way to church this morning, I heard a St. Louis alderman speaking on NPR about the peaceful demonstrations that are happening and the pockets of violence that erupted. His voice portrayed his fatigue, along with his words that said he was extremely frustrated by the same pattern repeating itself and not for the first or second time. What he sees reflected in the outcomes is a reinforcement of the message that black lives don’t matter, that they are not valuable. But he did seem encouraged at the unification of many in the area who were showing their solidarity and support for black lives. Maybe not all hope was lost.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we sit idly by while injustice continues, whether it’s race relations, domestic violence, or any other of our societal maladies. Giving judgment to God doesn’t mean we abandon all responsibility. WE are the hands and feet here on earth sharing the presence of Christ. We don’t have to judge others, but we do have to discern what is right and wrong and choose how to best convey the presence of Jesus to the world around us.

And it often involves taking yet another long look in the mirror and making sure we forgive ourselves. However easy it may be for us to forgive others, sometimes we bear the hubris of not seeing ourselves as worthy of the generosity we extend to others. I’ll be infinitely patient with you and forgive you a million times over, but I don’t cut myself any slack. I have to be very intentional with myself, reminding myself how worthy I am of the love and compassion that others need just as much as I do. I have to remind myself that my relationship to God is only as healthy as I let God’s grace flow through me and others. Can you imagine what our town, our world would look like if we turned to one another with understanding of all our heartaches, all the sufferings, and let ourselves move toward forgiveness, toward reconciliation in safety and love? I can imagine it because I believe in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, which have already accomplished the unimaginable.

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Where Is God?

Exodus 12:1-14 | Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 18:15-20

Take a moment to breathe. How are you doing? Because there is a lot going on right now.

Even if everything is wonderful for you, there are people in Houston digging through mold and mud. An earthquake struck South America, and now Florida is being battered by Hurricane Irma. There are people directly affected by the DACA decision, and there are also those being persecuted in Myanmar and refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Thanks be to widespread communications, we are aware of what a mess things are right now, and it is a lot. In the wake of so much that seems like death and destruction, we might ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a faithful question to ask, and how we respond to it says a lot about our theology, our understanding of God.

I have heard some respond that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, that hurricanes or disasters are either given to help us be the strong people we are, or that are some kind of consequence for being sinners. Given this line of thinking, God is at the hand of destruction. So much like in Exodus, God is the agent behind the angel of death that destroys the firstborn in Egypt, unless they have been signified as households of God. We might gratefully wipe our brow and dismiss this as “not our position,” relegating it as a position of Jewish theology, this view of a wrathful God who hardens hearts and sacrifices the living. We separate our good selves from people who attribute natural disasters to some trite meaning.

It’s okay for us to say and believe that we don’t understand–we don’t know–why these horrible things are happening, especially to the vulnerable, to people who don’t have options or the ability to change their circumstances. As people who can rationalize anything, we can assign meaning to anything, too, but I caution myself when it comes to ascribing attributes to God based on my finite understanding of how things work. I don’t know. I can’t know. (Along this line, there was also this response to God and the disasters at hand.)

But I do know this: when I look for God in situations, I find God in relationship with people who are looking for God.

  • God was there in the midst of Pharaoh and Moses, giving Pharaoh the chance to heed the warnings being given.
  • God was guiding the people in their preparations for their meal.
  • God is with the people crying out for protection, help, guidance, and deliverance . . . ALL the people.
  • And God is with us who have the ability to respond to the needs of our neighbors.

As part of my job, I consider it a perk to visit with people who have questions about the church, and I love when people ask what’s truly on their minds because it means we’re developing a level of trust between us, we’re entering a loving relationship. After general questions about what my collar’s made of and about some “Episcopalianisms” being clarified, somehow the topic came up about how part of my role as a member of the clergy, is to bring the presence of Christ. As much as my clericals say “the priest is in,” so also do they signify that a person is present who believes that when two or three are gathered, Christ is here. She asked me sincerely, “So do you think Christ is present now?” Yes, of course. Not just because we were talking about religious things, but because we were giving attention to one another. We were listening to one another share stories of who we are, where we were in our lives and work. Surely the presence of the Lord was with us.

I attended the public discussion about the Confederate soldier statue on the square, along with about 140 others. In that mediated discussion, a room full of people agreed to hear what others had to say, even if it meant hearing an opinion that differed from their own. I heard things that made me smile and things that gave me pause. At times, it felt like my heart seized a moment as I wondered if a person truly meant what they said or understood its implications, and at other times, my heart swelled at truth–even painful truth–being spoken. It was a room of people that was trying to be in relationship, and it wasn’t without times of tension. Even though it wasn’t a religious gathering, I felt that there, too, God was in our midst.

Driving home from the event, I was kind of rushed because I hadn’t yet had lunch, and the Saturday night service wasn’t far off. I take a sort of short cut to my neighborhood through another one. Right in front of the stop sign, there’s a house that almost always has its garage door open and at least five or six kids playing with an adult or two sitting in the garage. It’s an African American family, and I almost always smile and wave at them because I admire that the kids are actually playing outside (something I struggle to get my kids to do), and I am grateful to see people of color living in Bentonville. The diversity in Bentonville today is much richer than it was 30 years ago. (Out of the 140 people at the forum, only 3 black people were present.) Rather than just be the crazy lady who waves at them, I’ve always wanted to stop and introduce myself, but it never seems like the right time. I’m always just driving by. This time wasn’t any different, but so filled was I in hope of dialogue and relationship, that I turned left instead of right and parked my car on the street in front of their house and went up to introduce myself in the midst of the little dog and playing children. I met the youngest of the adult children who helps with watching the other kids. They shared some of their family story, and I listened. I mentioned the dialogue about the statue and the lack of presence of black folks, and he wasn’t surprised. I mentioned racism and prejudice and discrimination, not all at the same time, but throughout the conversation, and he mentioned that he had “been black all his life.” Before I left, I told him I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself as a neighbor who was glad to meet them, and he told me I was welcome to stop by anytime. At the end of the day, it’s all about being a good neighbor, right? Living into the commandment to love one another?

It’s easy to get caught up in talking about what to do and leaving ideals in the ideological realm, but I’m more of a mind that we don’t have time for just that. It’s not enough to talk about something. It’s not enough to point out how nice something is for others to do or for theories to exist.

What are we doing now?

As a church we’re signing up to serve, so all of you check out the ministry fair today! We actively serve in our church, a church where everyone is a part of our work and worship. It’s not just about what we do as clergy but what we do as a body. But it’s also not just about what we do in here, within church walls, but about what we do outside. So talk to your neighbors if you don’t already. Bring awareness of the presence of Christ to your midst. If I can do it, anyone can; it just takes getting over that initial barrier outside your comfort zone to find what you didn’t know you were missing.

And there’s something to sharing a meal together. We do it every week here. There’s something about setting a table with intention for nourishment. So, starting next month, I’ll host a “Dinner with the Vicar.” It will be a sign up to come join my family and me for a simple meal, nothing fancy. (I have pets, too, so be forewarned!) Over a meal, we can share our lives together more intimately than just a quick greeting at the back. I’ll continue to meet with folks as much as I can over coffee or wine or at your homes, but I consider this opening a path to deeper relationship. I also consider it an invitation for the church to start a “Dinners for 8” model, where we take turns hosting a meal for folks in our congregation, always open for visitors, so we can share our lives together in a meaningful way, share our stories that we don’t otherwise get a chance to share. Not only for our church family, but I’m opening this up even more broadly by signing up for a People’s Supper. There’s a group that set up a model for “healing suppers” and “bridging suppers,” doing what they suggest in bringing together like-minded folks and then broadening to invite others with a different viewpoint–over a meal.

Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever kind of predicament either good or bad, it’s okay to ask “Where is God in this?” It’s a faithful question to ask because we only ever find what we seek. If we want to find God, look at our relationships. Look at how we care for one another. If we want to find God, look for how we love. If there’s not evidence of love there, maybe it’s up to us to bring the presence of Christ.

 

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Here We Are

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:21-28

Don’t you love how Moses’ encounter with God through the burning bush begins by “he was just keeping his father-in-law’s flock…” He was just going about his work, but he wanders beyond the wilderness to THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD” where he doesn’t seem completely surprised to see a burning bush not consumed by the flames. Moses actually wants to see how this thing is happening, turning to get a closer look. That curiosity is a sign to God that Moses is in, and God calls Moses out by name, to which Moses replies, “Here I am.” So begins God’s call to Moses and Moses’ work as a Prophet.

If you were here last week, you got to hear many times over that you are loved. I love you, your neighbors love you. You were minding your own business, going to church like you’re supposed to, and you get told you’re loved. Showing up today as you have before, you could be checking off a to-do item from your daily list. But my hope is that you came here today–that you came last week–and love touched your heart. Maybe you found yourself getting beyond the wilderness and arriving at a place filled with the presence of God, and you knew something was happening because your life became filled with more purpose. Love does that to us. All this search for meaning or wondering what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives to me says that we haven’t yet fallen completely in love with God, that we haven’t yet leaned into God calling us by name so that when we hear it, we say, “Here I am.”

Because that’s scary. As a child I was reprimanded over an intercom by someone nearby playing a joke, and I could’ve sworn it was the voice of God. I’ve rarely been so terrified. Now, that was a prank. Hearing a genuine call from God has more at stake. There is actually material substance involved in denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus. It will cost us money and possessions because we’re busy spreading the wealth and abundance, trusting that there’s enough for everyone. Even more than the material, though, there’s the valuable intangible stuff: time, energy, and ego . . . especially our ego. Because when we show up before God at this altar or in our prayers or out in the woods, we are bare, heart, mind, and soul. God knows how broken and wounded and imperfect we are–all our needs and wants–and knows exactly how perfect we are to do the work that God needs us to do.

And last week I asked if we had become lame as the Body of Christ, unable to do God’s work because we had become so divided. I asked if we needed to be revived as the Body of Christ. And the answer is of course, YES. We need to be revived as a united Body of Christ, even if we have quirky differences in how we understand God’s love revealed in the world or how we practice partaking in Holy Communion. As baptized members united in love of God and one another, we can and must work together for the love of God in the world. This is the perfect time for a revival, especially in our Episcopal Church, a church that truly welcomes all, and this is a message we need to be sharing, loudly and proudly.

This revival talk might make you nervous. You just came to say some prayers and receive the Eucharist. You didn’t come for a revival. But I’m saying if you came to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, if you came to say a prayer for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world, you are participating in the love of God, and God is inviting you to gird up your loins and get ready to do some work. Because the world needs you. The world needs you to show some love–not just any love but the love of God.

Now, I’m not adding anything more to your to-do list (yet). What I want to do now is illustrate how we’re already doing the work! In an essay on Medium, The Reverend Emily Scott outlined Seven Hallmarks of a Progressive Revival (which we could say would be seven hallmarks of the Jesus Movement). She described the revival as a spiritual awakening that calls us not only to confession and repentance but also to do the hard work of opening ourselves to transformation by and through Jesus. So these are the hallmarks that I think you will find strikingly familiar.

  1. An encounter with Jesus: Confidence in Christ and Christ’s transformative power. Has your heart been touched? Has your life changed because an experience of genuine love, healing, and resurrection? Have you had a “burning bush” experience? Our call is to holy discomfort and transformation that is clear, biblical, theological, and radical.
  2. Offers vulnerability: we’re honest and show our woundedness, which reveals what is true. Carry our cross not as a badge of honor but to show suffering and how we heal
  3. Rooted in abundance: There’s enough love, grace, and mercy for all. There’s enough, and our voice has enough power to share the good news for all.
  4. Rejects a whitewashed God: Actively seek to reverse the power imbalances built into all the structures and systems in our society and institutions. We have to be in relationship with others not only to see the imbalances but also to change them. This work isn’t captured in our annual report on paper … yet. In January, you bet we’re going to report ways we’re moving from our heart to the world around us.
  5. Centers the marginalized: especially queerness. Transgress societal norms like Jesus did and bring life to where there was death and brokenness. In doing so, we are all radically transformed by the experience.
  6. Ecumenical and interfaith: uniting for broad justice movements like Dr. Barber’s Moral Mondays reminds us of our common humanity. Interfaith work like the Abrahamic Center aims to do teaches us what it means to be neighbors and learn and grow even we are each other’s “other.” Learning how to cultivate understanding, respect, and compassion is godly work.
  7. Tells the truth: Truth is hard to swallow at times, especially when we take the “hard look in the mirror.” But truth-telling proclaims the gospel–that we’re all created in God’s image, that we are all commanded to love, and that we all have hard work to do for the love of God.

We’re already in the midst of a revival! Now that you know we’re already participating in the revival, be excited about it! Say, “Thanks be to God” in public. Share God’s blessing with others in the name of God. Talk about coming to church to learn how to be part of the Beloved Community. Be proud in a humble way that you belong to a church that is truly struggling to live as Christ commands us to live, even when it’s hard and we don’t clearly see the way. We are living and growing deeper in our relationship with God through Christ, and it’s a beautiful thing. Be nervous about saying you love Jesus, that you’re a Christian (without apologizing), and keep practicing. We don’t want to deny Jesus like Peter did. I know I don’t want to be part of the church MLK, Jr., addressed in his letter from the Birmingham jail. We certainly don’t want to be stumbling blocks on the way to God. We are here now to be building up the kingdom of God.

And we can check ourselves for signs that our lives are set on the divine and not on human things — see Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul gives us a list of over 20 things that say “we get it.” Others notice when our lives have been touched by the love of God. In our conviction, we stand out front in all of our weakness and humility, linked with the marginalized even in our own marginal position within the whole Church. Together, like the clergy with arms linked in Charlottesville or the people forming human chains in Texas floodwaters, we have a bold, clear, moral, and courageous voice that proclaims love of God, that shows we are doing holy work with all our heart, mind, and soul. So, labor on, dear Christians. Here we are. We have good work to do.

 

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