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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From Our Deepest Hurt to Our Greatest Love

 

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 | Psalm 66:1-11 | 2 Timothy 2:8-15 | Luke 17:11-19

The first experience for first year seminarians in Sewanee is to make a pilgrimage to Hayneville, Alabama, in honor of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire. Daniels saw the inequality in the South and believed so strongly in advocating for civil rights that he left the comfort of his home and school and went to join the movement in 1965. After being released from jail and going to get a soda, Daniels was shot in Hayneville in front of a convenience store, shot because he took the bullet aimed at a 17-year-old black girl named Ruby Sales, whom he had pushed out of harm’s way. Daniels became one of our modern day martyrs, and Ruby Sales has since continued advocating for civil rights and has become a public theologian, perhaps living into some of the roles Daniels would have, had his life not been cut short.

In reflecting on her youth, Ruby Sales says* she grew up with black folk religion “that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although (they) were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible, to even 7-year-olds.” She describes her parents as “spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that (she) was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched (her) consciousness” and a world where “hate was not anything in (their) vocabulary.”  This “black folk religion” was her foundation and was ingrained in her so much that later when she thought she had left the church, she realized that even though she had left God, God had never left her.

Ruby reached this moment of realization, she says, “When I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs.

“So something said to me, ‘Ask her, “Where does it hurt?”

“And I said, ‘Shelly, where does it hurt?’ And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother.”

Such an honest, open question given to her by “something” that we might call Spirit, opened Ruby to the reality of the person before her, this equally essential child of God. As Shelly shared the source of her pain, a relationship was forged, not only between Ruby and Shelly but also between Ruby and God. Ruby was reminded of her foundation in God and guided to pursue a way to do her work not as a Marxist but as a public theologian. In a moment of intimate relationship, Ruby went back and gave thanks to God maybe not in so many words, but her life work became about fighting to maintain this intimacy in relations, being able to look at matters straight on and ask, “Where does it hurt?” In the midst of this relationship-forging and soul-sharing, God shows up, and despite the pain, healing begins.

In nearly every conversation I’ve had in the past week, whether it’s been asked directly or offered willingly, people are sharing where they hurt. The images we see, the rhetoric we hear, the experiences we are having are chipping away at our resolve to be people of faith, people in relationship with one another and with God. It is so much easier to close our eyes to that which offends us, close our ears to that which assault us, close our minds to that which challenges us, and close our hearts to that which pains us. Perhaps like me you get caught in those moments where your heart physically hurts. Even as an enduring people who remember Jesus Christ, we are tired, and we are hurting. We may not have leprosy, but we know that we are sick, that we need Jesus’s mercy now more than ever, that we have no part of the kingdom of God without God’s grace, our only hope of salvation.

Getting to the kingdom looks like it’s a long way from here, looks pretty impossible, actually, but Jesus has shown us that it doesn’t matter who we are–black, white, or brown, native or foreigner–our faith makes us well.

Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.

Our faith that says when we are baptized and die to ourselves, we live life in Christ; that when we endure all manner of suffering, we reign with Christ; that no matter how faithless we are, God remains faithful to us because God cannot deny God’s self. Our being in relationship with God depends on us, on our faith.

I tell my kids when they don’t want me to go somewhere or when they were younger and didn’t want me to leave them alone at night, that I am never separated from them because our heartstrings are connected. I would place one hand over my heart and my other hand over their chest, and they would almost always lay their hands over mine, holding me close. So when my heart hurts over images I see, over the discourse I hear, over the suffering of family, friends, and neighbors near and far, I imagine my heartstring to God being pulled, being strained. Even in the pain, I’m grateful that I still feel this connection to God in my care and love of others. I know that I can invite God into this pain to give me strength, to strengthen my hope and faith. But perhaps our heartstrings can be pulled so much and so often that they become numbed, that we forget we are connected to God from the beginning. Perhaps we can lose our foundation or close ourselves off in isolation, being turned away from God.

When we ask, “Where does it hurt?” we are asking so many things.

Where are our relationships strained or broken with ourselves, with others, and with God? When were we told that we aren’t essential? When was the accessibility of God taken away from us? When were we told that we aren’t valuable, that we aren’t beloved? These are incredibly powerful questions, and answering them honestly makes us vulnerable and weak . . . and yet creates space for God to restore us to wholeness, to restore and strengthen our heartstrings–our relationship–because God is reminding us that God’s still here, has always been here: won’t we just turn toward God, perceive God’s power at work in our lives, offer our thanks and praise, and get on with the work God needs us to do?

God already knows our hurt, feels our pain, and has already laid out the path to our health and salvation. As we are restored to wholeness and affirm the great power of God, we testify to others how our salvation is already accomplished. It’s not cheap grace or easy love. Jonathan Daniels saw what was hurting in our society and was determined to show up in a place that needed a witness of God’s love. Two months before his death, Daniels wrote, “I lost fear … when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.” Such is the union of a saint with God and the life of one burning fiercely with compassion for others. Ruby Sales took for granted her foundation in God’s love but witnessed the power of that Love when extending it to others. In asking and answering a simple question that touches on our pain, we open ourselves to receive God’s mercy in our weakness. No matter how undeserving we think we are or how unessential society has marked us to be, salvation in Christ is offered to all who endure with Him and glorify God.

We may not have grown up in black folk religion, The Episcopal Church, or any religion or church at all. But if we are here today, we are plunging into relationship with Christ, because if there’s something we are good at in this place, it is in remembering Jesus Christ and giving thanks and praise to God. We open our ears to hear God’s Word, we open our hearts to forgiveness, we open our mouths to proclaim, and we open our hands to receive. In all this we affirm our lives rooted in God, centered in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we give our thanks. We have the security of our relationships with one another in Christ to share where we hurt and to see the way forward with hope through God’s grace, through Love, our heartstrings firmly connected.


 

* Krista Tippett’s interviews with folks have a way of speaking to what is true in so many aspects of our lives. I am grateful for this podcast that captures not only Sales’ experience but also the questions of other public theologians. http://www.onbeing.org/program/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/8931 

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