Unity of Spirit

Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42

A month or so ago, Krista Mays contacted me, politely asking if I wanted to use Track 1 or Track 2 for our lectionary. Wisely on her part, she mentioned that Track 1 does include the bit about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I grimaced. No one likes that story. What kind of first sermon would it be that mentions human sacrifice at the command of God? (Even though it doesn’t happen.) These are my first split-second thoughts. Then I remembered what I asked Rachel Held Evans at the Insight Lecture at Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock just days before Krista called, something like: “What stories do you find you have to lean into when you really want to ignore them altogether?” So I paused, sort of girded up my loins, and said for this new beginning, we would start with Track 1. I wouldn’t shy away from the difficult. And so we begin our relationship with the lectionary we have today.

Our collect this week asks God to join us “in unity of spirit” by the teaching of the prophets and apostles but chiefly of Jesus Christ. We will spend every Sunday, if not every day we spend in Scripture, gleaning the teachings of our ancestors in the faith. But today, how fortunate we are to have some foundational principles that will guide us in our life together individually and as part of the body of Christ. Especially as we look forward to and imagine the future of All Saints’ . . . we have to know who we are and whose we are. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this means. We have a tradition already firmly established in the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles.

In a church whose tagline is “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”, we get the Gospel message today. Our Good News is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are welcome in this place, you are welcome at God’s table. Given the number of times I think we will have to extend hospitality to each other and the commitments we have made to reach out to others, I know All Saints’ understands the imperative of this teaching to extend welcome to all, to receive one another in the name of Christ, whether we are devout children of God or wandering seekers yearning for something we just can’t wrap our mind around. The graciousness of Spirit that Jesus showed us in his life with all the people he came across, especially the marginalized, that is the graciousness of Spirit we are to embody in our daily lives in whatever way we can.

That’s where the apostles and disciples come in: they show us that the most ordinary folks are acceptable in the eyes of God and that we’re meant to be a motley crew. Last week we got a list of the twelve apostles, but we know there was an even larger band of misfits with them, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, though mostly poor. The apostles teach us that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions. It’s normal to get uncomfortable, especially when Jesus gets excited and breaks yet another social norm, let alone when he starts flipping tables. And they show us that it’s okay to be completely surprised when we do something remarkable in the power of the Spirit. The apostles and disciples show us that if we are full of ourselves, how does that leave room for Jesus to shine through? Only when we’ve given ourselves over to God, become slaves to righteousness, only then can God fully work in our midst, only then is the kingdom of heaven at hand. All of this sums up to living a life in faith and righteousness to the best of our human ability (because we know none of us is perfect).

So we have what we often call the radical hospitality of Jesus and the faith and righteousness of the apostles and disciples. That leaves us with the prophets, and I promised I wouldn’t neglect Abraham.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of Abraham as a prophet. Father Abraham, yes. Prophet? Of course he is. He gets a remarkable call from God from the beginning to leave his people, and he goes. He’s told he will be the father of nations, though his wife is barren. And when he does finally have sons, one he is told to send away, which he does, and the other he is told to make a sacrifice, which he sets out to do.

Now, if you want to read a remarkable book on Abraham, I commend to you David Rosenberg’s book Abraham: The First Historical Biography. After I told Krista I would do Track 1, in my conversations with the Rabbi in Hot Springs, I asked him nonchalantly, “So, anything in particular I should be mindful of about Abraham if I were, hypothetically, to be preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac?” “Let me think about it,” he said, and the next time we met, he gave me a 300-page book on Abraham, being the good rabbi and Hebrew studies scholar that he is.

The obedience of Abraham, as with all the prophets who eventually accept their calls, is the main teaching that stands out to me today. (Maybe it’s because I’m so close to this most recent transition in my ministry.) But Abrahams’s obedience–particularly related to the near-sacrifice of Isaac–bears particular significance in lessons for our lives in faith. The translation Rosenberg includes in his book has Abraham responding to God not with “Here I am” but with “I am listening.” Not only is Abraham present, but he is actively receiving the Word of God. And Rosenberg describes Abraham’s actions, as the text does, as very physical, very tangible, yet in a dream-like state. There is something at work here beyond the natural realm, but very much in the natural order. For Judaism, God cannot cross to interfere in the natural world because then He would not be trusted ever again. But the boundaries have to be tested. Boundaries like between life, the affirmation of continued existence, and death or the fear of extinction. Isaac is the one upon whom the continued identity of a nation depends. This situation, Rosenberg says, is a “biblical nightmare” because God is testing Abraham with threat of cultural extinction. We realize how incredibly vulnerable this young nation is, a small family in the midst of strangers.

We might think God interfered directly, but Abraham awakes from his trance-like state from the voice of heaven, not entirely unlike the voice of our conscience. Probably with tears streaming down his face as he holds the blade above his son, both of them showing their devout obedience to God above all else, Abraham hears the voice and says, “I am listening.” And he’s told to stop, for Abraham is shown to have “an integrity dedicated to God,” not just fear of God. I love the translation that shows a father of nations to be filled with humility and integrity dedicated to God. That is the kind of obedience we are to show. Not false humility or empty martyrdom, but a complete devotion in knowledge of our strengths and of our faults that we will do nothing but our best to live into the commandment of our LORD. Every day we are listening, we hear the command to love one another as Christ loved us.

Hospitality. Faith and righteousness. Obedience.

The teachings are spelled out for us, but it is up to us to figure out what they look like in practice, what the process of becoming a holy temple will be like. What makes us worthy of the name Christian in the eyes of God?

So I have my sermon prepared by yesterday afternoon when I checked my email and saw the letter from the Bishop about the Little Rock mass shooting early Saturday morning. I had read about it not long after I woke up and thought, as I’m sure many of you did, “How horrible. How senseless.” Like our state leaders, we probably sent up our prayers to the victims and their families. And I went about my day and wasn’t even going to mention it in my sermon . . . except I read the bishop’s letter that challenged us to think about how we can be life-giving when so much of society condones violence as a solution. How hospitable is it for me to look away shaking my head just because the Power Ultra Lounge isn’t my scene and I’d never heard of Finese 2Tymes before Saturday? The victims at the concert were people’s children; the youngest wounded was 16 years old. If it was gang violence, these are individuals looking for belonging in the only places they think they can find it. How faithful and righteous is it for me to ignore or look away from that which is not pleasant and painful? How obedient is it for me to pretend that this doesn’t affect me or us? Because we are all connected. If I’m going to say my prayers matter, then another person’s pain also matters. We can’t turn away or pretend the situation didn’t take place any more than we can pretend that there aren’t some deep-seated issues in our society that need to be addressed for what they are . . . issues that make a place especially susceptible to fatal violence. I don’t expect us to come up with a response for the bishop right away, but he poses questions worth asking ourselves. Keeping our foundation firm in our teaching, we can engage the questions and embark on the arduous journey together.

It will take time, but I aim to meet with everyone here. Don’t be alarmed when I call you . . . consider this your advanced notice, and please let others know who aren’t here. I’ll not show up unexpected, though you are welcome to surprise me. (I’m a big fan of scruffy hospitality, so be at ease.) I want to know how live into your baptismal vows, what keeps you curious about a faithful life, how you see Christ at work in our midst. Together we will discern how we live into these teachings that give us a sure foundation in all we do because no one of us is at the head, save Jesus Christ. When we serve meals, it is the light of Christ we share first. When we visit jails, it is the presence of Christ we bring first. When we pray, it is the voice of God we listen for, surrounded in the presence of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.

In everything we do, how and who are we welcoming?

Are we doing it in good faith and righteously?

Are we being obedient to God’s will, or has our own will obscured our way?

The rewards of our practice, of our being Christian grounded in these teachings, is not spelled out in our Gospel today. But allowing the creativity of Spirit to craft our rewards accordingly encourages us to be aware, to keep looking for the glory that awaits us. It won’t necessarily be gold stars or even stars in our crowns, but it will be something like the glory of God manifest in the world around us. Something like that taste of joy when we are aligned with God’s will. Something like the smile of a loving father or mother who tells their child, “Well done, good and faithful one.”

I know we have hard work before us, for Jesus assures us that living as disciples isn’t easy. But our foundation is sure, and our prayers are set for the glory of God. I am blessed to share this journey with you, in unity of spirit, as we fill our community with the light and love of Christ.

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We Have All We Need

 

Isaiah 58:1-9 | Psalm 112:1-10 | 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 | Matthew 5:13-20


Knowing how different each of our lives are, I still think I can say with much certainty that we all have a lot on our plate right now. Before we even bring our offering to the Lord’s table, we bring all our anxieties and distress with us when we walk through the door. So, please . . . take a deep breath, drawing in the peace of Christ, and exhale, letting the yoke of all your burdens rest beside you or at your feet, yours to pick up when you leave, if you can’t leave them altogether. Breathe in . . . and out in the luxurious security of this place, with one another, in the presence of Christ. Whatever else is on our plate for today, right now we’re given this time and taking these moments to make way for the light of Christ to break into our reality, perhaps even, as our collect says, to set us free from the bondage of our sins. We need this time more than we realize.

We’re in a place of being perilously close to losing our way, losing our heading of what is true and real.

I share with you a question I was asked on MLK Day. Speaking to a small but beautifully diverse gathering, I was asked sincerely: after all that has happened and is happening, can we be a united people? Sitting here, together, with all our different views, the answer is easy: Of course! We’re all children of God, and we come to the table as one Body in Christ.

But who are we when we’re not gathered on Sunday morning?

The news and media represents all of us as what I call “a hot mess.” Everyone is slapped with a label whether we like it or not, and we navigate our community as part of the majority or minority, the left or the right, the us or the them. A rare news or media outlet will create the safe place of a small group where we can be who we are. Tuesday night at the human trafficking panel, I caught a glimpse of who we are. With care and respect, we delved into a difficult topic. As beloved children of God recognized their woundedness, especially having been harmed by others, they were not helpless victims but strong survivors. Saturated with the Spirit that empowers them to carry on as love warriors, loving of a power greater than themselves and loving of themselves, these women sprinkled their salt generously on those of us present. We couldn’t help but be enriched and hopeful that lives will continue to be touched by grace and saved from harm. However damaged or broken the body might be, the dimmest flicker of light could be tended and kindled to grow ever brighter. At no point did anyone say they did the hard work alone, even though they had to make hard choices for themselves. Their truths sent out ripples of righteousness to all of us gathered.

Beloved child of God we are, but we are also part of a much larger family. We are each of us unique, bestowed with particular gifts and talents, skills and experiences. Unless we have reached a certain point in our life, chances are we’re not sitting still, hiding our light under a bushel.

What are we doing for ourselves and others?

Many of the women who have escaped trafficking or drug abuse find that even getting their life back on track with a steady job, safe home, and healthy kids isn’t as satisfying as reaching back into the darkness to help another escape the pits of destruction. Many today reading the news find that they cannot remain immobile and silent while their neighbors are afraid. That light bearing the brightness of a city on a hill bears the Light of the Body of Christ not to be dampered by the bushels of fear, anger, and indifference the world might try to construct.

Some days we are just trying to breathe under the weight of everything we bear; we’re just trying to survive. Eventually, though, like a candle under a glass jar, the isolation of our self-focus deprives us of the oxygen that fuels our light. Like a single tear dropped into a tub, the saltiness is lost. Even if we’re the most introverted of introverts, we need relationship. We need a friend, a mentor, a teacher. We need the Word, a prayer, and Jesus. We need to listen and be heard. We need to see and be seen.

In our relationships, we have the opportunity to untie some of the complicated knots of deception and injustice, to untangle ourselves from the bondage of sin, of turning away from God, by doing what Jesus tells us to do: to Love. Love God so much we can’t help but love ourselves, and that love is so overwhelming and rich, we can’t keep it all to ourselves but have to share it with others. That doesn’t mean we dance around singing Broadway songs, kissing everyone we meet. It does mean we question our motivations behind our decisions. Is where I spend my money perpetuating justice or enforcing injustice? What am I doing to help release the prisoner trapped either in mind, body, or spirit? Who do I know who is hungry? What am I doing to help feed their hunger? Who needs shelter from whatever storms they are facing? Who is naked and vulnerable? In my wealth and responsibility, what does Jesus command me to do? How can I best love my neighbor?

“Why are you helping me?” someone asked me last week.

“Because you’re a child of God,” I replied, our eyes connecting so he could measure my truth, my heart and soul laid bare.

What are we doing? At our best we are sending out ripples of righteousness not for our sake, not in empty selfish prayers and false piety but for the glory of God, without whom all our works are but dust.

Where do we go from here?

One could say we’re all headed to our death. All living things die as part of our natural order, but we are also a spiritual being. As we move forward in time it seems we make decisions that are either headed toward destruction or restoration, toward isolation or community, toward inadequacy or fulfillment. We move toward death or toward eternal life, to the grave or to the heavenly banquet.

What does it take to move beyond our fear of death long enough to taste true Love, true freedom?

I was reminded of what it feels like to let go in a very physical way when I was at Disneyland just over a week ago. In the 8 hours I was there–from 4pm until midnight–we rode as many rides as we could. Of course not all rides are equal. The caterpillar ride through Alice’s Wonderland differs greatly from the Indiana Jones Adventure ride complete with oncoming boulder I thought I must dodge physically. (I couldn’t get any lower in my seat!) It was on Space Mountain that I felt certain in the twist, turns, and utter darkness that I would die. At one of the crests, I relaxed my death-grip and let my heart leap and expand. In that moment of darkness with pinpricks of light like galaxy stars, I let my eyes be wide open and smiled with peace and sheer joy . . . before being yanked into a valley and slung around another curve, surely going faster than the 35mph the stats say it goes.

As I watched a video being circulated from the New York Times of people at the top of a 10 Meter dive tower, I wondered how different it was for them. They weren’t strapped in a moving vehicle. They climbed the tower stairs and walked to the edge, some more bravely than others. Nearly all the people shown backed away first. Would we willingly take a dangerous plunge? Would we go weak at the knees, or give ourselves a pep talk? Would we give up, declare it an impossibility, and ease ourselves back down the steps we ascended, or would we listen to the encouragement of a friend? Could we dive into the deep end, completely vulnerable, breaking through our irrational yet resounding fear? “I’ll go first,” more than one person said to their companion.

In this high-speed, one-way life of ours, we die many deaths; we take many risks. The Good News, dear Christians, is that we have all that we need to be a people united if we choose to keep moving toward God. We have all that we need to be free, to love fiercely. We have the gift of each other to help us in areas where we are weak, others who are honest, sincere, and righteous. God gave us discerning hearts to know the truth, that we could follow the light and love of Christ and keep moving toward eternal life. This isn’t idealistic spiritual talk; this is our true north. Following the Light, giving glory to God, we’ll not lose our way.

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