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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(Almost a Sermon)

 

(This is the sermon written for today. The sermon preached had a lot more LOVE in it, thanks to the Holy Spirit and a wonderful Saturday.)

Exodus 24:12-18 | Psalm 99 | 2 Peter 1:16-21 | Matthew 17:1-9


As guilty as I am of it, I’m still amazed of how often these days more and more people are busy looking at their phones instead of at each other or looking through their phones to take pictures to capture the moment so it can be shared broadly through the social media venues. Again, I’m guilty, too, because I benefit by seeing the experiences of others, seeing what brings you joy, knowing when you are hurting (if you post it), and generally having a sense of what is going on. Unless we bump into each other at the grocery store or call each other on the phone (yes, phones are still good for phone calls), online is the way many people connect these days.

If he’d had a phone, don’t you know that Peter already had photos taken, had tagged Jesus, James, and John and had marked the location complete with new hashtags for Moses, Elijah, and the three new booths he was going to set up when he was saying, “Jesus, this is going to be so good!”

Only, it wasn’t.

Really, how many times are you able to capture a picture of the amazing sunrise or sunset, one that gets all the shades of purple, blue, pink, and orange spread all across the horizon? How many full moons and moonlit landscapes have you photographed and felt that the lunar beauty was adequately portrayed?

Peter thought he caught was what going on and was ready to mark the place and spread the news, but it wasn’t time. He didn’t have it right just yet, but what didn’t he have? What about Jesus being transfigured into full glory before them isn’t enough to verify his status as Son of God?

Because God already spoke from above when Jesus was baptized. Peter already said Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus shushed him then, too. Jesus has been performing works giving witness to his authority and to the glory of God. Surely this mountaintop transfiguration is just the thing to bring around all those on the fence about believing. Now we’ve even got Moses and Elijah for certain on our team. We’re ready to hit “send” on this press release now.

But in this account of the transfiguration according to Matthew, the apostles heard the voice from the cloud, repeating the baptismal approval and adding what I’m sure had to be a booming “listen to him!”, and they hit the ground. Well, it says, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear,” but if you’re covered in a cloud and hearing the voice of God, you’re most likely going to hit the ground because your time has come. The apostles were afraid.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t know what to say to their fear. In Luke, they all keep silent. Here, in Matthew, Jesus comes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

The apostles look around and see that the moment of transfiguration has passed, along with Moses and Elijah. It’s only Jesus with them now. As they make the trek down the mountain, Jesus orders them not to tell about what they’ve seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead–basically until what he’s already told them will happen has actually happened. He’s going to be captured, and he’s going to die and rise again.

Why wait? Jesus continues to perform miracles. Crowds still seek him out. He’s working as one with authority. Why wait? Because there’s more. Epiphany is a season of light, focusing on Jesus’s ministry in the world, how God manifests Light in our world through the Incarnation, but that’s not all of Jesus’ story. The Light of Christ gets overshadowed not by the cloud of God but by our brokenness, not just the nonbelievers and traitors of Jesus’ day, but by our brokenness, too. Jesus’s story continues to be our story because the gospels don’t end with the transfiguration or even the crucifixion.

Jesus’s story is our story because he goes through suffering and death yet rises again. His friends betray him, but he comes back to them, allowing them to profess their love and ascertain their faith. Jesus’s story is our story because he sent those first apostles out to make more disciples, and people’s lives have been touched by God throughout our history, giving testimony to the many ways we suffer, fail, and rise again. Jesus’s story is our story because He continues to be revealed to us, showing up as “a lamp shining in a dark place.”

And I don’t like it, but sometimes we have to wait. We have to wait on God’s time. We have to wait while we discern the next best move, and by “best move” I mean move in accord with God’s will, not mine, and most of the time that’s hard to understand or to have a concept of a bigger picture. Sometimes we wait because we’re afraid, and our first response is not one of compassion or respect, let alone love. The voice from the cloud told the apostles to listen to Jesus. Jesus tells them to “Get up and … not be afraid.”

In an interview, civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, reflected on his childhood and young adult life. Listening to him talk, it’s hard to believe that his man was at the front of the march on Bloody Sunday in March of 1965. This man who admitted that he probably cried too much and lamented that we don’t tell one another “I love you” enough, led a nonviolent protest straight into the mouth of hell, where it seemed if one wave of violence didn’t kill them, another one waited at the other side of the bridge.

He didn’t wake up one day and decide to protest. He grew up wanting to be a preacher. He grew up asking questions. He grew up with an unshakeable faith and  persistent love. He believed that things could be better, that we could be better people.

He and the many others who joined Dr. King studied nonviolence. They studied Gandhi’s nonviolent efforts and read Thoreau’s civil disobedience. They dramatized situations, taking turns assaulting each other with horrible insults, learning how to fall and protect the head, practicing maintaining eye contact so that they could show that their spirit was not broken. But they would not retaliate with violence. They would resist the urge to strike back and lash out, knowing that something bigger than themselves was at stake. They studied and practiced nonviolence until they were ready to go out and do when discussion, when civil discourse failed. Being ready meant that they were also willing to face death for what they believed.

And he thought he was going to die that Bloody Sunday of March 7th, 1965. More than worrying about his death, he feared for those who were behind him in the march. But he didn’t die. He lived. He lived to see the day when he could meet the children of the man who beat him and meet the police department that had carried out orders to stop them, all of whom were now seeking forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, seeking freedom from a past that haunted them. Lewis met them in peace, with love. As Christians, we know that the story doesn’t end when one good thing happens, when something bad happens, or when we get scared. In fact, we know the story hasn’t ended yet because we’re still waiting for the Son of Man to come again in full glory.

In the meantime, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got to train on God’s Word. We’ve got to study and practice being in relationship with one another in true love and reconciliation. Sometimes we’ve got to wait because we don’t understand fully, and we may not be ready to give up our egos or even our lives for a greater Good. If we keep seeking God’s will and keep looking for God to show up in our lives, chances are we’ll recognize the glimpses of God’s glory when we see it. Our hearts, minds, and lives are the only thing created to capture and reflect God’s glory, so it’s okay to put down the electronics and turn to one another in love. It may just be that God’s waiting for us.

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Annotated Confession, November 2016

This morning during Morning Prayer, I heard and said the confession with different ears, as one is prone to do in liminal times such as when one’s heart feels broken or constricted. In light of an election that nominated someone who condones violence, normalizes bigotry, and epitomizes hypocrisy, as an American, I feel the need to repent.* As a middle class person and someone who benefits from white privilege (even as a registered Cherokee), my socio-economic demographic largely voted for Donald Trump. I have heard more than one voice say that if our “group” wants to generalize, say, all Muslims as terrorists or all blacks as thugs, then others can likewise generalize all whites–especially all white Christians–as racist, homophobic, etc., etc. It appears then that I, too, have condoned violence, bigotry, and hypocrisy, among other things; it appears that I, too, have not respected the dignity of all human beings, which is in direct contradiction to my baptismal vows that I re-affirm regularly.

Before I turn to my neighbor to exchange the peace, and certainly before I presume to come to the Lord’s table, I confess my sins against God and my neighbor.

Most merciful God,

Yes, God, you are merciful. There is little, if anything, we have done to deserve your compassion or forgiveness, yet humanity continues to exist.

we confess that we have sinned against you

Me, myself, and I–as a whole, broken person–have sinned. I have turned away from you, in spite of you.

in thought, word, and deed,

I turn away from you in what I think, what I say, and what I do. It may not be obvious to others when I sin; it might be known only between you and me. It is known, though, and these sins are not right intentions, right speech, nor right actions. They are mine, and they are wrong.

by what we have done,

Yes, I take full responsibility for my actions and hold myself accountable to them.

and by what we have left undone.

How many times has my silence and/or inaction kept your mercy and grace from being manifest in the world or allowed hate to have a louder voice?

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

The heart was considered the seat of the will, if I remember my Old Testament studies. The heart is considered the seat of courage. The heart is the seat of our love and compassion. None of these have I wholly given to YOU.

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

My head hangs heavily, and my heart constricts at the gravity of the truth of this statement. Yet I say it, for it is true. There is no qualifier for who is my neighbor or who should be excluded as my neighbor. It’s not even “others,” because to presume “other” is to exclude from our “group.” Love my neighbors. Love everyone around me. Everyone. I haven’t loved them as myself. I don’t even know if I love myself as you would have me be loved.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

I am sorry, and I humbly turn toward you, O God. I cannot simply say that I am sorry; I have to show it. I have to do something about it. It’s what I’ve been taught, and it’s what I teach my children. This repentance isn’t shameful: it is honest. It hurts because it reminds me that I have been wrong in my ways, that I have made bad choices: wrong because I let fear or anger govern my decisions, bad because they send ripples of negative consequences into the world, and I may never know the extent of the damage done. I cannot undo what I have done. With humility I can only move forward. I choose yet again to move toward God first; then I can move into right action.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

In the most merciful act imaginable yet never fully conceivable by my finite being, you already showed us how to give our whole heart by giving yours. Let me never forget or take for granted the abundance of your love and grace. For the sake of all that is good and holy, let me not disgrace the worth of your sacrifice.

have mercy on us and forgive us,

I see what I have done. I realize what you have done and what you continue to do for us who turn to you. Mercifully, you grant us life eternal, relentlessly allowing us to return to you when we have fallen away.

that we may delight in your will,

With your mercy and forgiveness, there is joy to be had. That joy is deep and wide when our will is aligned with yours. This joy doesn’t promise riches or ease, but it promises a fullness and richness of heart that is only known by, with, and in YOU. I want that wholeness in my life. I may not even realize that I actually yearn for it.

and walk in your ways,

With your mercy and forgiveness, I will not only feel your joy but also walk in your way, doing the things that are right and good not only for myself but also for all of Creation.

to the glory of your Name.

What I do for you gives YOU the glory. I may be praised for doing good, but we both know that without your mercy and forgiveness, your love and guidance, I’m headed toward destruction and death. All glory is yours, O God. Thank you for sharing it with me, and help me carry it forward with both hands and all of my heart.

Amen.

Again, I say, “Amen,” as I take care of myself and family with love, as I listen intently to as many as I can, and as I stand strong as a woman of God striving to do all that I can in love of God, neighbor, and myself . . . with God’s help.

I am only one voice among many, one heart in the multitude, but I stand with a promise to love.

Love trumps hate.

 

* This list is not all-inclusive, I know. I also know there are those who voted for Donald Trump for many reasons: for a change to shake up the government establishment, for his anti-abortion stance, for his appeal to the common man, for his Republican nomination, for his not being the controversial Hillary Clinton . . . for these and other reasons. What he represented throughout the campaign, however, spoke to fear-mongering and to belittling (and that word seems too kind) much of humanity and creation. From my perspective, our collective voice did not vote for love of God and all of Creation in this election. What seemed to win is a legitimization of exclusion, oppression, and disregard for others, and it is for this which I confess.

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On Glory

Acts 16:16-34 | Psalm 97 | Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 | John 17:20-26

Wednesday morning chapel is now one of the highlights of my week during the school year. Looking out into the sea of about 60 bright eyed children and the dedicated, nurturing teachers, I hope that what I say in the few moments of my homily will plant a seed of God’s whole and everlasting love in them. I hope they have something to take away with them because I won’t always be there to remind them that they are beloved children of God, and I know that they are growing up in a world of pain and suffering.

Isn’t that typical of a good mother? To want to protect her children?

And there are lots of children to be protected.

The little second-grade boy who, while we were standing in the lunch line, told me his mom was in jail, and the boy behind him who told me he was about to get out of DHS.

The 13-year-old girl who tried to commit suicide.

The 17-year-old transgendered child kicked out of the house.

The 25-year-old busted for meth, though he’s been using since he was 14.

The 35-year-old refugee whose spouse died, leaving him with the toddler and no home.

The 45-year-old single mom who went in for a routine mammogram and ended up with a same-day biopsy.

The 59-year-old who learns about her biological parents and siblings for the first time.

The 64-year-old who hears the confession and remorse of her molester who is dying and thinks she is someone else.

The 80-something-year-old who loses mobility, not just outside the home but within the house, too.

And the 98-year-old who grimaces with pain and fear of the unknown.

These—all of these—are children, precious babies who are in the midst of suffering. Mamas who care want to eliminate the pain.

How many of you have heard or said, “Honey, if I could take away your pain, I would”? How many of you have actually crossed hell and high water to do so, or at least to try?

Glennon Doyle Melton spoke at Trinity Cathedral a couple of weeks ago, wrapping up the Insights lecture series. She’s acclaimed for writing her truth on her blog Momastery.com.

In her writing, she shares the truth she knows as a wife, mother, recovering addict, and lover of Jesus, and people have discovered that her speaking matches her writing. The cathedral was literally full of giddy women, excited to hear her in person. She shared her stories and how they intersected with other women’s stories, usually meeting at that important point of vulnerability.

One woman told her what a failure she thought herself as a mother because her son was in the throws of addiction, of pain. Glennon, in the crazy-wise way she has, basically said to the woman, “Oh, honey, I hear you. I heard you say you’re a failure. So what is it that you think a mother does? What’s your job description?”

And the woman says, “Well, to protect my child, to keep him from getting hurt.”

“Mmm-hmmm, and what are your hopes for your child?” Glennon asks.

“That he grows into a strong, resilient, confident man,” the mother says.

“And how do we become strong and resilient?” Glennon asks.

The dawn of realization can be awesomely beautiful and painfully brutal, like life itself, which is why Glennon coined the term brutiful. The brutiful truth, they tearfully acknowledged, is that we go through suffering and emerge stronger than we were before, resilient in an enduring sort of way, and confident of our place in this brutiful life.

Maybe a more realistic job description for mothers is to love and sustain life, life that is given to us. All life originates in God, and we are given the care of life in this world. We just have to make it through the suffering parts. Just.

God knows we need help.

So the Son of God comes and lives among us. Jesus goes to the sick and the suffering or they come to him, and he heals them. Their pain is taken away. It seems miraculous and magical and transactional, but really it’s transformational. When it happens so quickly, it’s hard to distinguish, except that for the healed persons, their life is forever changed in a way only they and God know. They’ve not just been physically healed by God; they’ve been restored to wholeness, their full glory.

Do we even know what that means?

Glory?

Because it caused me pause.

I had to stop and realize that I didn’t really know what Jesus meant when he said to God that he wanted us to be with him, to see his glory, the glory given to him because God loved him before the foundation of the world. It sounds great. It resonates within me but doesn’t register consciously in my brain.

So I looked at different definitions of “glory” and how we use it in our liturgy (because we use it a lot). We have our doxology: “Glory to God in the highest,” we sing. We partner glory and honor because it can mean high regard and esteem, and we do hold God in the highest regard, so we use glory because it’s the best we can do with our finite language.

But what about this glory that’s given to Jesus by God? The glory restored in those who are healed? Wouldn’t you know that I opened my e-mail Friday morning to the daily message from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and in the little preview line on my phone, their word for the day in bold was GLORY.

I gasped out loud because I had seriously been wondering about glory. (Y’all, when we seriously wonder in the presence of God, we need to keep our eyes and ears open because we’re going to run smack dab into it.) Brother Curtis told me—because I know he was just speaking to me (let alone the thousands others who read these things)—

“Glory, or to be glorified, is to teem with God’s light and life and love. It’s to draw from the deepest waters of life, how the psalmist prays: ‘For you are the well of life, and in your light we see light.’ The Gospel writers speak of glory as if someone were simply luminous, irradiated with God’s light and life and love.”

That’s the understanding of glory that resonates within me so deeply that it strikes the chord of Truth and sends chills up my spine.

Jesus, Son of God, perfectly shone forth in glory, though he was disguised to those who did not believe. It looks like he healed by flicking a switch, but it was the power of recognition that transformed lives. Letting ourselves see Jesus in full glory and doing the even harder thing of recognizing the glory within us changes things. That glory of light and life and love is already in us, being as we are, created in God’s image, but our glory gets buried under layers upon layers of stuff we accumulate throughout life. To let that light and life and love break through is going to hurt, and often it’s going to hurt badly.

Our God knows this too, and I imagine God saying, “Son, go and show my children—your brothers and sisters—go show them Truth. You go and live out your life revealing our glory, and there are those who will recognize us. You’re going to go through the suffering of them all, for them all, to show them the way back to me. You’re going to die, but you’ll go back to them after three days to show them Life and Love and Light fully revealed. You’re going to be among them in your fullness of Glory, and you’re going to tell them that you will be with them forever. And then you’re going to return to Me, and we will abide and welcome all the children as they come to us.”

Jesus knew this to be true and lives out his brutiful life even through death.

Now we are in the season where Jesus has ascended and is gone again, even though he said he’d be with us always, and it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

But Jesus said those things about being one with the Father and with us. He said that thing about giving us the glory that he had been given. He said that thing about love being most important, and he did that thing about redeeming all suffering.

So what are we left to do?

Maybe instead of thinking about being a perfect mom or dad, friend or relative, husband or wife… Maybe instead we should ask ourselves:

What is my role as a child of God?

What is my responsibility to the One who gives me life and light and love?

Our responsibility might look more like a challenge, for we are to grow into our God-given glory and show God’s glory to the world as best we can. We already have the glory dwelling within us. It’s our work—even through suffering and death—to grow into that glory.

We do this through grace and steadfast faith, hope, and love and whatever other gifts we are given. We study the Scripture and the lives of those in our tradition that teach us how to grow toward God. We spend our entire lives as children reaching toward our beloved parent. If we choose to grow into God’s glory, we can’t help but radiate with glory, revealing it to the world around us. We might even realize that every bit of everything is all One in God.

Recognizing our glory and seeing God’s glory in others, even if they don’t see it themselves, changes us, changes our worldview.

We come closer to seeing ourselves and those around us as I imagine God sees us,

with whole and everlasting love. So when I look out at the sea of faces, be they the children in chapel or yours here today, I know I don’t have to protect you or give any of you what’s not mine to give. My responsibility and privilege is to love you, be with you, and to share in the hope of our wholeness in God in every way I can. God’s already given you the glory, already planted that seed.

I see it in you.

I hope you see it, too.

 

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O God, You are my God

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 63:1-8 | 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 | Luke 13:1-9

You may have heard about Trinity Cathedral’s new offering Insights, a series of lectures and talks highlighting some of America’s leading religious writers and theologians. There are two more coming up in April that I hope to make it to, but I was able to go to the one on February 18th when Diana Butler Bass was the speaker. Bass has written nine books on American religion, and after holding positions at universities and as a columnist, her bio at the back of the book describes her now as an “independent scholar.” She’s gone rogue, I guess you could say, not because she’s any less grounded in her faith but I’m guessing it’s because how she understands religion and spirituality today isn’t necessarily fitting into a tidy, traditional category in the academy. In fact, her most recent book Grounded is subtitled Finding God in the World / A Spiritual Revolution because she thinks there is a spiritual revolution afoot. That revolution is intricately tied to finding God in the world, and the God we encounter in the world might be quite different from the God we have been taught to believe in.

Maybe she’s preaching somewhere this Sunday or maybe it is, as she said, her favorite Old Testament story, but Bass specifically spoke about Moses and the burning bush. I hate to reduce all of what she said to one takeaway, but a point she emphasized about Moses’ encounter with God was that even though Moses met God on holy ground, Moses’ understanding of where a deity was located was very much based on an understanding of a world where heaven is above, separate from earth. Whatever Moses’ awe and wonder and curiosity, there is fear because God came down to earth. While Moses does question God’s instruction and shows a reluctance to do what God is telling him to do, there’s not really any question about the fact that Moses is going to do what the great I AM is telling him to do. There is a sense of understood obedience, and it’s no wonder that he was obedient, given the show of power and might God provided and the dire consequences God subsequently showed for those who did not cooperate. There’s a sort of do-things-God’s-way-or-else understanding of God.

Paul in First Corinthians affirms such an understanding of God, reminding the Corinthians that “God was not pleased with most of (their ancestors)” who were following Moses and that “they were struck down in the wilderness.” Trying to bring a sense of order to his church plants, it makes perfect sense that Paul would appeal to the authority of tradition and the power of fear. A top-down theology, like a hierarchy, is pretty easy to understand, and it’s easy to maintain so long as everyone falls into their place. If they step out of line, they might get struck down, or they could be cast out. The consolation that the believers will not be tested beyond their strength can still come across as a bit of warning. To be safe, all should be upright and blameless.

If we have grown up with religion telling us what to believe about God and what to do based on those beliefs or else suffer punishment and/or eternal damnation, there is no wonder that our understanding of God is tightly woven with fear and judgment.

So when I read and hear Jesus’s parable about a man telling his gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” what I hear is the litany of my own shortcomings, a lifetime of criticisms real and imagined. My inner critic or what Brené Brown calls the “gremlins” seize the opportunity to remind me how unworthy I am. I’ll never amount to much. I’m just as bad as the worst of the sinners, destined to perish. I’ll just get my handbasket, and you’ll probably need one, too, for where we’re going, where we deserve to go.

This tape I have playing in my head about my unworthiness and my inability to do anything good enough is based upon a judgmental, conditionally loving God. My striving for perfection is a fear of disapproval, that not everyone and especially not God will be pleased. But God’s love is unconditional. “God is faithful,” Paul repeats more than once, and I believe he says it with sincerity.

God is faithful and steadfast. God keeps the covenant. God has given us this wild and beautiful life, has been with us all the while, and we are good.

With life, God has given us choice. Yes, we will all perish; our mortality is certain. Yes, we get off track from God’s will and don’t make the best choices. We perish and die like everyone else, as Jesus said, unless we repent. Whether or not we perish in our life in Christ is up to us.

Repenting does not mean that we call to God and God turns toward us. When we repent, we turn toward God who has been perfectly God all along. When we repent, we see our shortcomings perhaps as God sees them: how they did not celebrate life, did not share in love, and did not glorify God. Most often we are sorry and ashamed, but God sees our repentance as well and good and looks forward to what we will make from our time of fertilization and toward the fruits we will bear. Our very repentance affirms hope and goodness in the world and ourselves, let alone our eternal life in God. This God tending to me is close and personal and knows the intense, intimate joy of mutual love: the psalm we read today conveys a thing or two about such a relationship.

The fastest growing sector in America’s religious landscape is the non-religiously affiliated folks, but it does not mean that these people do not believe in something greater than themselves. They might encounter their “higher power”–whom we call God–while sitting in a kayak on Lake Ouchita, while watching the sun set over the golf course, or while holding the washcloth on their loved one’s feverish forehead. These can be powerful Spirit-filled experiences. I think we would agree that God is very much present at those times, and we can affirm such spiritual experiences within our religious tradition.

But there are those who have no context for a religion that incorporates their spirituality, their personal experiences of God.

Rather than have to “buy in” to a particular religion, especially one that is going to tell them how to encounter God, they prefer to go rogue and encounter Spirit on their own terms. These folks often identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

I understand this perspective, especially as one who broke away from the tradition of my upbringing. What I know of God is greatly shaped by my experiences. I consider myself fortunate to have found a religious tradition in The Episcopal Church that makes sense to me both religiously and spiritually, a tradition that encourages me to continue to ask questions to learn and grow, drawing from a long history of tradition and the deep well of Scripture.

What I also know is the struggle of digging deep and the stench of manure flung far and wide as I grow in faith. There have been parts of me that have died in the wilderness, branches that have been cut down by choices I have made. I take for granted that I am here at all until something happens, like a man looking at me through tired eyes and tears, telling me God has saved his life twice in the past week from being cut down. He looks at me and cries, “Why?” We keep talking, and he’s sure that God has a purpose for him because God won’t just let him die. I pray with him, and he raises his hands in prayer, turning his head up toward God, I presume. I bow my head in reverence. This is a holy moment. Here and now. The man left in hope, in hope that he still has fruit to bear.

We have the tremendous challenge, responsibility, and opportunity to proclaim God’s presence in the world. This might mean each of us has to go rogue in some sense, too, departing from existing norms to break into the freedom of a life lived for and with God. Living into our relationship with God through the Body of Christ, it is up to us not only to recognize God in the unsung glories and small miracles of everyday life but also to recognize and call out when we turn away from God individually and corporately. It is up to us to give witness to the presence of God in our sufferings, when that manure is hitting the fan, when we’re still deep in the wilderness, and the hope of resurrection seems far off. It is up to us to teach what we have learned about life in this world when lived in relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another.

What I’ve learned and what you’ve learned in the ongoing story of our faith enlivens our religious tradition and breathes life into the church. The revolution is that our understanding of God is coming from the ground of our being, from our experiences, rather than us understanding God solely from what we’ve been told. God only knows where it leads us, but as long as we keep turning toward God and seeking God, as long as we grow in the way of Jesus, the only baskets we’ll need are those to harvest our fruit.

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Blessings

I guess I don’t often think about what a gift it is when we share blessings with one another. Sometimes they are said aloud like on birthdays or holidays, but often it’s just a smile and shiny, teary eyes that say, “Bless you.”  Wrapped with each blessing is a bit of gratitude as well . . . and love . . . and recognition . . . and hope.

We are a blessing to each other when we take the time see one another not only as we hope to see each other but as we really are. In this one day alone, I’ve been privileged to share in conversation with people younger and older than me. I don’t know if they know how much they enrich my life, how much I see the Light of Christ in them.

The younger folks I visited with was through an elementary school mentoring program. This week they’re studying poetry, particularly that of Langston Hughes. In their eagerness to share their work with me, I saw the creative Spirit breaking through the surface, mostly untouched by criticism. A bit of creativity introduced and nurtured, set free to interact with each child–I only hope it catches on and sticks around to grow into the potential I heard and saw.

I hope that these children are able to pursue their dreams without false pretenses, saving themselves the time and energy of putting on guises to present who others want/expect to see. Still a prolific writer, how much more so would Hughes have been if he had been encouraged to follow his creativity at an even earlier age?

How much richer would our society be if we took time to acknowledge the Spirit unleashed in each other, blessing each other and the gifts that we offer? True, we have to know what our gifts are; furthermore, we have to know who we are first. This takes time (and sometimes therapy!), but the more people I meet and get to know, the more certain I am that each of us is a blessing if we choose to be.

As God’s beloved, we are blessed. If we can live into that, we can’t help but be a blessing to others.

Hungry for a spark of creativity from an author of beautiful blessings? I cannot get too much of John O’Donohue.

 

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What’s Your Passion?

Things can happen in the midst of activity, and it’s great at the time.  Then days pass, and other things happen, even horrible things. We can lose our focus, our sense of mission or purpose. It can help to have reminders of that which inspire us.

As I prepare to participate in stirring up the Spirit at the ECW Triennial and focus on crowdfunding, I was reminded of Nancy Frates’ TED Talk in Boston. It’s worth watching again in case you missed it last year. I’m posting it here for myself, when I need to come back to it.  Hopefully there will be others that are more current that I view daily. May we all be so stirred to do good in our lives, in our communities.

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Relationships Matter

Everyday events bring most of us into contact with all walks of life, dependent upon the paths we travel in our hectic schedules.  In a flurry, we move from one place to the next, hoping we’re not forgetting something, trying to keep all the plates spinning.

There are many who are homebound who consider themselves fortunate to greet the mail or the meal deliverer.  They might follow their daily routine, cautiously optimistic that it will be interrupted by a call or an unexpected guest.  All this if they are fortunate to be at their own home.

There are those who watch us pass them by.  We with our agendas and demands, so busy; their thoughts known to them alone.

Our connections seem so tenuous at times, the thinnest thread holding us all together.  Holding the hand of a beloved, we make visible the connection that has been present all along.  We feel what it is to be in a nurturing relationship, to be in the presence of another, experiencing the exchange of emotion, seen or unseen.

It takes a moment’s intention to smile at another.  It takes a bit longer to send a text or to call.  It takes concerted effort and time to travel to and sit and visit with someone.  Above all, it takes courage to let someone else know we see them where they are and identify ourself in all our vulnerabilities, too, to be loving and tender — to care.

Whether a moment’s or a lifelong relationship, showing that we care, that we matter to one another, can change how we move through our days and nights.  Bringing positive intention, opening our hearts to one another actually to show our love for our neighbor–not just in words but also in action–could surely change the world.

Every one of our relationships matter, and we have the choice on how we engage in each encounter.  I don’t think we realize the power we have.

 

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My Valentine

I got to awaken this morning, listening to music I forgot I had requested.  I got to open a ribboned box with a paper ring in it, one that held the place of one I would get to pick out.

I’m married to a man who never fails to surprise me, and while he may think he doesn’t, he does make me smile more often than he knows.

I am grateful . . . for my husband and for all the loves in my life.  I hope a deep, abiding love fills your heart this and every day.

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