Choosing Community

Genesis 45:1-15 | Psalm 133 | Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 | Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

(These are the main points from Sunday’s sermon, which was very much a homiletical moment born of prayer and preparation . . . but not a script.)

Many times this past week in particular, I’ve heard people say with a weary, heavy heart, that we’re living in dark times, that they haven’t seen or heard things they’ve been seeing or hearing since the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. I don’t know how many of you watched Presiding Bishop Curry’s video that was circulating through Facebook. In it, he says that in times of crisis, we have a decision to make. (Times of crisis can be receiving a medical diagnosis, facing a death of a beloved, famine, war, or anything that disrupts our sense of things being as they “should.”) Right now, Bp. Curry points out that we are in a time of crisis, and our decision ultimately determines where we go from here: chaos? or beloved community?

As Christians, as followers of Christ, we better be moving toward beloved community. I think this is where Bp. Curry sees the Jesus Movement taking us, and simply by being here in this place, taking time out of our lives for worship, prayer, and fellowship, we demonstrate that being present at church is part of it. But how do we do it daily, moment to moment?

I remember reading about a story attributed to Cherokee legend, and I told myself I’d never use it in a sermon because it was seemingly too simple, too trite. (I should know better than to say “I’ll never do ….” because I think it just gives the Holy Spirit good ideas for keeping me humble!) But the story bears truth, and I imagine my own Cherokee grandparent telling me the story.

The grandfather tells his grandson a lesson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, fear, hatred, vitriol, violence, false pride, ego. The other is good; he is joy, peace, love, kindness, compassion, generosity, humility, empathy.

“The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson looks intently at his grandfather. “Which wolf wins?” he asks.

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Choosing beloved community, I believe, is feeding the good wolf. It is choosing to show love and compassion to our neighbors and ourselves for love of God. It does not mean that it is being meek and mild all the time. I’m sure wolves, like mama bears, demonstrate a fierce love with which few would interfere.  In feeding the Good, we show our true strength within, what is truly in our hearts. We show with our actions and our words that we know Christ and follow his Way, choosing what is right and good.

This choice is a conscious decision. Joseph didn’t have to forgive his brothers. He had the power to let them starve, to let them die as they had left him in the pit to die before selling him as a slave. But he chose the high road instead of meeting violence with violence. He was overcome in being with them, of the hope of seeing his father again, and he sought reconciliation with them. After doing the hard work of being with them, dialogue took place.

And what better example do we have of our human condition of treating others than Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman? He called her a “dog.” Whatever racial slur we can imagine, Jesus used it here, as was custom of the time. Yet the woman’s faith persisted. Most likely Jesus knew that his company at the time and we had to see him correct his way of interacting with others so that we’d know how to do it ourselves. Because Jesus already knew the faith of the woman and that her daughter’s wholeness would be restored.

Clearly recent events show us that we don’t always follow in the footsteps of Christ. My heart has been heavy not only with the newsfeeds following Charlottesville but also with the scheduled protest in Hot Springs. White supremacists, KKK, whatever they booked the protest under, were to meet downtown. The Jewish synagogue was advised by the police not to meet for their own safety. A peaceful gathering was advised not to meet at St. Luke’s. Thankfully, the events were well-controlled and well-patrolled. People gathered. It was nonviolent, though words were exchanged, I’m sure. But my heart . . . before I knew for sure that the situation hadn’t combusted into chaos, I was scared for my friends, neighbors, and vulnerable. What we’ve seen in videos and heard in the news is proof that the evil wolf has grown strong in the hearts of many, that disregard of neighbor is a symptom of a deeper sickness.

Katie Couric was in Charlottesville during the rally, and she describes well the cold, bitter anger that runs through the crowd as they shout angrily, standing up for what they believe to be “right.” But in the face of fear, she says she has never been more assured of hope. Because when a huge commotion erupted not far from the cafe where they were, they ran out to a scene where others were already running toward the site where a crowd had been run over by a car. These strangers weren’t necessarily trained professionals, but they were people dominated by the choice to help, to do whatever they could to help those in danger, even though they couldn’t save the life of Heather Heyer. Heather’s father said that his daughter had way more courage than he ever had. She was an advocate for the marginalized. Hope continues to spring up around these events promoting hatred. Maybe it’s because Good has gotten so strong that Evil has to fight louder. Rather than feed the evil, we have to choose to unite around what is good. Never more so than now am I aware that history, again, has its eyes on us, watching what we are doing. (I’m a big Hamilton fan, so don’t be surprised when I use lyrics. I’m only surprised I haven’t done it more often!) People skeptical about religion to begin with are paying attention to how religious leaders and laity alike are standing up or being silent. In a question of Good and Evil, let us be very clear about which side we are on as Christians. Are we following in the footsteps of Jesus all the way to cross, or are we part of the crowd standing in silence? Or are we part of the mob shouting, “Crucify Him!” We have a choice to make.

Being a part of the beloved community, thankfully, means that we don’t do this alone. Yes, we have to make individual choices and make our way through our personal struggles, but even then, we are in community. We go through this life together, with God’s help. Together, we affirm hope. Together, we show love for ourselves, neighbors, and God. And we can do hard things.

I can’t help but think of the family that was rescued in Florida a few weeks ago. Remember? A family got caught in the undertow, and even rescuers were having a hard time getting to them. They were waving their hands in the air, calling for help, and strangers decided to join hands, to make a human chain, in effort to save those who were at risk of drowning. It was scary for them. Those in the current and those along the chain were all at risk. But they did it. Together.

When we link hands in prayer, be it at home or as a line of defense, I imagine us linking hands all the way to Jesus. We have to be the hands and feet of Good here and now. We have to proclaim the Good News in thought, word, and deed, so that others know that hope is alive and well, and that the beloved community will stand up for what is truly right and good.

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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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