Dearly Beloved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Work We Must Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Changing the Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Can You Imagine: Forgiveness & Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where Is God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we doing now?

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

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

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

 

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Here We Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hope, Unity, & Vision

Exodus 1:8-2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1-8 | Matthew 16:13-20

At the Christianity panel sponsored by the Tri-faith Club on Tuesday night, there was a question regarding all the different denominations within Christianity. The question really started out with something like: “What’s up with all the different denominations in Christianity?” We were told there are more than 33,000 denominations, and that number continues to grow. So when our collect mentions a church “gathered together in unity,” I pause. “Unity” doesn’t exactly come to mind when thinking of the whole Church, and therein lies a warning flag for a shortcoming in my living into God’s will. So focused am I on “our” well-being as an appendage to the Body of Christ, that I miss the opportunity to pray with all my heart, soul, and mind this prayer of hope that sees–that visualizes– the potential we have as the Body of Christ to give glory to God.

We are taught from a very early age to look out for ourselves, for our kind. It’s a tribal mentality, and I haven’t tried it, but I imagine that if you look at every conflict throughout history, you can see the battles playing out between an “us” and a “them.” We must protect ourselves for our survival. Certainly we have that within our Christian ancestry. Take this genesis story of Moses. The new king didn’t know Joseph; he didn’t know that it had been Joseph’s leadership that had helped the Egyptians and the Hebrews live through the famine. From his place of power, he saw the others, the Hebrews, growing in number, and rather than do the hard work of learning to live together without fear, without oppression, the king leaned harder into the oppression, motivated by his fear of this strong multitude of people. Where was the king’s hope? We can’t see it for the fear of losing power. What is his vision? For a continued reign unchallenged. Where is his sense of unity? Solely within his kind.

(I’m talking about the ancient Egyptians, remember. People who lived thousands of years ago.)

What about the “others”? The apparently growing number of Hebrews, who, even in their subservient place in society, were also growing in power. Whereas the Egyptians feared the Hebrews, the Hebrews, we are told, feared God. At least, the midwives feared God more so than the king. So when they are told to kill the boys born to Hebrew mothers, they commit civil disobedience. They speak the truth when they say that the Hebrew women are vigorous; they are strong from all the labor they have to do. Are they born before the midwife comes to them? I birthed with a midwife who said the baby always started to come when she stepped away to go to the bathroom. Maybe these midwives, too — Shiphrah and Puah — didn’t get there in time. It can happen like that. We have the names of these midwives. Shiphrah and Puah. They had a sense of where they stood in relationship to God. They had a sense of hope in the blessing of their people, that they dare not defy God’s covenant or work against it. Their hope is in God. Their vision is in a people chosen by God. They know the stories of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and even more than that, they know the roles of the women in the stories, too. They know the power of the women to continue in God’s work. Their people cannot survive without them. They know they have to work together as a people united to be and stay strong. Out of all of this, Moses is born and rescued–by the cooperation of Egyptian and Hebrew women. Leave it to something innocent, precious, and good like a baby to bring people together, even if they aren’t fully aware of the divine work at play.

We’ll continue with more of Moses next week, but today, where is our hope? What is our vision? Where is our unity?

We, who know the stories of our people, who, like Peter recognize Jesus as the Son of God and are assured the kingdom of heaven, can we kick back and ride out this life on the waves of grace and the assurance of our salvation?

Peter might have been granted this moment of glory with the favor of Jesus shining upon him, but remember that Peter is also the one who denies Jesus three times. Peter is a lot like us in his imperfections, right? He showed us that great faith can get us out of the boat, but our fears can also sink us. We needn’t be so sure of ourselves. We have to know who we are, really.

We have to know where our hope is, and our hope is in the name of the Lord. How many times have we said that? What does that look like in practice? My hope is in God, so even when I’m told to do something that I know in my heart of hearts is wrong, I do not do it. More than that, I say out loud what is true, and if I do what is wrong, I confess and repent and begin again. With the strength of Shiphrah and Puah, I support life and protect the vulnerable, and even if I’m scared, it is hope that I have in God to be with me, behind me, and before me, that I walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Hope in practice looks like living with the marginalized, if not as actual neighbors then as advocates for them. Sharing meals together. Sharing conversations together. Voting on measures that support the poor and silenced. Hope in practice looks a lot like taking the Light of Christ and sharing it with others because it gets stifled and changes when we hoard it for ourselves. We begin to think that the hope and all God’s promises are just for us when we keep hope to ourselves, when we start to enclose ourselves in our echo chambers which are too confined for the Holy Spirit.

Our hope is in the name of the Lord, and our vision is set on the Kingdom of Heaven. Isn’t it? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” We mean that, right? If we don’t pray this every day, we get distracted. We forget what’s important. Our vision gets short-sighted in the busy-ness of our daily lives, and our hope becomes fixed on making it through the next few hours for me and mine. And we do have to take care of ourselves, making sure that our basics are met so that we can help others. But taking care of ourselves doesn’t mean that we only make sure our basics are met; our neighbors need the basics, too. Do you know when and where the food pantries are in our community? (Here’s a link.) As long as there are people starving, we’re going to struggle to share the vision of the kingdom because people are living in hell. When our basic needs are met, we can imagine the kingdom because we’ve tasted abundance. We’ve known love and safety and stability. There are people worldwide who don’t have those experiences. And it doesn’t mean that God is any less with them than us. Don’t for a second think that God doesn’t love someone who is suffering. The culpability is on us, the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in this world.

Have we become lame? Do we need to be revived?

Yes, we need to be revived, and we must be united as the Body of Christ. Yes, there will be divisions because we do not agree on everything, but fundamentally, we share one Lord, one Word, one Love. As a Church gathered together in unity by the Holy Spirit, we can’t help but show God’s power of Love in the world, and this is work we must do.

There is hope.

Being new in this community, I’m building relationships. Yes, it’s easier to build relationships with people like “us,” but I’m also looking for opportunities to reach out and unite with others for the sake of Love and to the glory of God. Because we have a Light that shines and illuminates for us a vision of the kingdom. The doors are wide open and sometimes we get a glimpse, like when Camp Mitchell announces it’s open for refugees from the hurricane or when another Magdalene House opens up or brings another woman in. And ultimately, we are a people united, not just as Christians but as children of God, as people of humanity. What unites us? Love. The love that involuntarily bubbles forth when we recognize our common humanity. The love that makes us rush into harm’s way to help another. The love that makes us pick up the crying baby from the river.

At the interfaith prayer service Monday night, Dr. John L. Colbert from the Northwest Arkansas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Council had a speech prepared and threw it to the wind as the Holy Spirit blew in. His heart showed in his eyes and smile as he greeted us with the energy of a black pastor about to lead us in a gospel sing. He admitted that he was overcome by love as the voices from people gave thanks and as we came together as a people united. And he did the thing that we are so dis-inclined to do. He chided us for sitting so far apart, and he told us that we love being told that we are loved. Then he told us to stand up and tell a neighbor that we love them, to look them in the eyes and say, “I love you.” Laughing genuinely, and I’m sure some were laughing nervously, we all stood up and spent the next five minutes hugging one another, telling each other, “I love you.” And we meant it. You know when you look into the eyes of another person whether they are telling the truth. You know when it’s hard. You know when they’re trying. But if you look into someone’s eyes and say, “I love you” with the love of Christ, that love of Christ shines forth from the depth of your being and rejoices that you’ve given glory to God, allowing a connection to be made, for a union to occur. It might be tenuous at first, but with a lot of practice, all our hopes and vision for the kingdom can be realized if we focus on what unites us.

 

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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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We Are Saved

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 | Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b | Romans 10:5-15 | Matthew 14:22-33

(Asking for a show of hands) How many of you have ever been asked or heard the question asked: “Are you saved?” This isn’t a judgment of you, just a poll to see if its prevalence is what I think it is, especially here in Arkansas. Now, without raising your hand, did you feel like you could respond to this question? Do you feel like you can respond to this question now? Chances are, if you’re a lifelong Episcopalian, you’re a little iffy on this. If you were raised Baptist or something more evangelical, chances are you remember the moment you were saved and maybe more than once when you were baptized. Just so no one gets a nervous sweat going, I’ll offer you a major spoiler: you’re already saved. I know you’re saved because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again for us all. But do you know that? Where are you in your life of faith, your understanding of salvation?

Because we can be young in our faith, naive even. We can take for granted the faith and beliefs that we are born into, that are spoon-fed or indoctrinated into us. We can take everything at face value and ask no questions because everything is just fine as it is. We can be like Joseph, confident, self-assured, and gifted. We can have the favor of our father (and/or mother) and just do what we think is right because it’s what we’re told to do or say, even if to others it looks like tattling. We can wear our beautiful garments because they are lovely, unaware of the jealousy we might be inciting in others. We can show up when we are summoned and go where we are sent because obedience comes naturally in our innocence and untested faith. Surely others are as good as we are; surely everyone else means well; surely no one would do anything out of ill will or out of line from God’s will. If someone asked Joseph if he was saved in his youth, prior to his 17th year when his life took a drastic turn, I can imagine him saying, “Saved from what? I am safe. I am part of a Chosen people. I am protected by God.” Would he really have a concept of being “saved”?

About nine years ago, and for a few years thereafter, I would go over to a friend’s house in the afternoons for coffee and conversation, and we would let the kids play. The summer months were especially great because they could play in the pool and would come home exhausted. One afternoon while we were at the kitchen counter right by the backyard door, my friend raced around and ran out the open door, coming back in just a moment later completely soaked and carrying an equally wet Autumn on her hip. Autumn seemed fine. My friend was wide-eyed. “What just happened?” I asked. What happened was that Autumn had just walked down the steps into the pool. My friend noticed her missing from the fray and ran out to find her standing, open-eyed, underwater at the bottom of the pool, right there in the shallow end. She wasn’t afraid. Was she saved? Yes. Did she think she needed to be saved? She had no concept of what she needed saving from.

As we experience more of life, we learn more about consequences of our own decisions and of the decisions of others. We learn more about what might be “out there” that might do us harm. Joseph learned a thing or two about his brothers and how politics work. My daughter has learned a lot about the importance of water safety. We grow and mature in our understanding of life, just as we grow and mature in our life of faith.

Peter and the disciples were learning and growing with Jesus when the five thousand were fed, which precedes our gospel today. The disciples were sent ahead in a boat while Jesus took some time apart. When he was ready, Jesus returned to the boat, walking on the water as he did on the land. This disturbed and terrified the disciples until Jesus assured them, and then, of course, Peter offers a little test of Jesus, who calls him on it.

“Come,” Jesus says to Peter. Come out of your boat to walk across the sea. Come out of your shelter and into the wild. Come away from your fear and toward your hope. Come. Peter sets out, and things were great. Peter got caught up in the moment like Peter does, and he didn’t think things through, like Peter does. He soon notices the wind and gets scared.

We understand this, right? We’re not perfectly aware all the time. We get excited and caught up, and no matter how mature in our faith we are, we can take things for granted. No matter how focused on doing right we are, how devoutly we have our sights set on following Jesus, the winds can blow, pricking our ears toward our fears, reminding us of all the what-ifs. Jesus, as divine as he was human, could walk on water. Our faith so set upon him, what couldn’t we do? But our doubt binds us to our physical confines, the confines of physics in our material world.

To the one standing on water, Peter cries out, “Save me!” and the witness of Jesus saving Peter stirs the hearts of the disciples to worship him as the Son of God. (Out of one person’s experience, eleven other lives were touched.)

Why was Peter sinking? His fear crept in with the wind. The risk of it all. It didn’t make sense to be doing it. He wasn’t prepared for a swim; if he sank into the water, he was going to drown. He was going to die. And he was afraid.

His hand holding mine

Waist-deep in the stormy sea

Faith and doubt collide.

Was Peter saved? Yes. Did he know what he was saved from? Yes, from drowning in the sea. Is that all? Could Jesus have been measuring Peter’s faith in a discernible way? Do we doubt the extent to which Jesus is our savior? Do we doubt God or ourselves? Jesus trusted Peter to come and to make it, but Peter had a choice to make. Jesus knew whatever Peter chose, he was safe. Jesus wasn’t going anywhere.

When we ask someone if they are saved, aren’t we really asking if they are safe? Mind, body, and spirit, do you know you are a beloved child of God?

When we are sheltered like Joseph and Autumn, we are safe. We abide in love. We’re entrusted to our elders, steeped in faith and tradition. Yet we can be unaware of the dangers lurking outside our door or in the hearts of our neighbors. This puts us especially at risk, this vulnerability of innocence.

We’ve seen enough of the world to know what is good and bad, especially what is good for us or not in relationship to God. And we know what we love and cherish. Truth be told, we love and cherish our material world quite a bit. We find it hard to let go of things and people. We get attached. Maybe these others just make us feel good, or maybe we do send a deeper, truer Love that gives us a glimpse of Christ.

When we know we are saved, when we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips, we are saying we know what dangers lurk about us and that we know we are safe. We know that the greatest hell there is to live a life separate from God, for a life lived in sin is a life lived apart from God, outside of God’s will for us. We don’t have to fear an eternity of hell; there are plenty of “hells” this side of eternity–just ask someone living in dire poverty, struggling with addiction, living in war-torn communities, living in fear fueled by ignorance. Whatever storm threatens us, there is a constant that God is in our midst with an understanding of everything that surpasses anything we could even imagine understanding. There is a love we are called to live in that’s easy when when we’re not tested but that is deeper and richer when we know what is at stake.

We are saved. Let that belief be strengthened in your heart so that others don’t need to ask you–they just know in your being. If they don’t just know then may we all have the courage to say that we know a love that passes all understanding through Jesus Christ. This salvation kindles a hope in me for the world. A hope that assures me that love triumphs fear and that we do have good news to share, that we must share not only with our neighbors but with the world.

With blessed feet may we go proclaim the Good News. We are saved.

 

Post-script: 

Believing in our hearts that we are saved, what do we confess with our whole lives, not just the words of our mouth? The violence in Charlottesville–not just the outright fights but also the rally promoting a people divided against “other”–begs the question of who is paying attention? Who is awake? Who will stand up for a way of love of neighbor, truly showing a love for God and self? Let us not sit idly by or take a seat of complacency. Let us discern our way forward together, not fueling a path of fear and violence but growing the way of Love with a fierce dedication to what is truly right and good.

 

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Stories & Light

Exodus 34:29-35 | Psalm 99 | 2 Peter 1:13-21 | Luke 9:28-36

Wherever our lives have taken us, our paths have led us here, to this moment on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, a feast that marks the occasion of Jesus being transfigured from an ordinary, praying man to the radiant and dazzling Son of God. It will always be significant to me when we baptize someone new and renew our vows because it reminds us that our roots are grounded deep within our tradition. Today, especially, we are reminded that our trajectory is oriented toward the glory of God, our ears attuned toward Christ. We are reminded through story.

We start with our Bible stories because these are our past, even as we bring them to the present. We intelligent folk might get a little tangled up in the verification of facts from fiction in our Holy Scripture. My Old Testament professor, who read her Hebrew as we read our English study Bibles to illuminate discrepancies in translation, pointed out to us time and time again that we were missing the point of our Holy Texts if we were caught up in what was fact or fiction. She said we needed to be concerned with what is True because it could be True and not a fact, and that it is through these holy stories that God reveals the Truth to us. Stories like bearing witness to the glory of God.

We’re given a preview, aren’t we, of the power of the glory of God, from Moses’ encounter at Mt. Sinai? This part of the story is where he was so radiant from being in the presence of the LORD that he scared the people at the bottom of the mountain. After he shared what the LORD our God had told him, he covered his face with a veil and remained covered, presumably, until he was back in the presence of the LORD. Moses’ face was radiant; his face shone with the glory of God from God passing over him. Was it hope? Was it assurance? Was it the perfect combination of grace, mercy, love, and light that illuminated his whole face that he was scary to people who thought they knew who he was? God had changed Moses somehow, but Moses continues unapologetically to do the work God has given him to do.

The highlight of today is our gospel story of Jesus’s transfiguration. Mind you, religiously we understand that a transfiguration is “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state” (per Google definition). Not only does it have a physical component, but there is also something of the Spirit about it that gives it an “exalting” or “glorifying” component (per Merriam-Webster). It was true of Moses, and now we have it in Jesus. But we don’t just have an account. We have a story.

Jesus chose his three fellows–Peter, James, and John–to go up the mountain with him to pray. Were they watchmen or companions or fellow pray-ers, it doesn’t say. But while Jesus was praying–and probably while the disciples were praying, too–they were distracted. They probably felt a disturbance while they were of course bowing with their heads down and eyes closed, but they couldn’t close their eyes again as they saw Jesus’s countenance transfigured, his clothes no longer desert-dingy but dazzling white. They saw blessed Moses and Elijah talking with him, heard them talking about his forthcoming departure that Jesus had mentioned but no one really wanted to comprehend. The three disciples had been so tired, but now they were awake, one might say they were rewarded for their wakefulness to witness this great sight, a sight that Peter wanted to commemorate. But then a great cloud overshadowed them, right . . . like at Sinai with Moses. And they were afraid in this cloud that had a voice that told them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then all returns as it was before–except that they had experienced this, hadn’t they? We are told they kept silent and in those days told no one of what they had seen.

(Of course, it’s a great irony that they told no one when we have this story archived in our Holy Scripture.)

They had just seen something truly incredible. How many of us, if we had seen that, would have been able to keep it quiet? How many of us, having experienced something great tell no one?

How many of us, having experienced the grace and love of God, know it in our heart and soul yet keep the good news to ourselves?

Maybe it was easy for Peter, James, and John to keep quiet because they didn’t want to sound crazy or have everyone else judging them. Or maybe they didn’t want incite chaos because it was said that Moses and Elijah would appear before the Messiah. Maybe they were still terrified at the cloud-voice they heard, and they were being quiet themselves until they had explicit instructions from Jesus on what to say and do. He had taken them up the mountain to pray.

Maybe the best prayer advice we can get is to listen.

But they experienced something amazing. Whether they knew it or not, day in and day out they were with Jesus, and he was transfiguring their lives. What they saw happen to Jesus was happening to them, only they had not the eyes and ears to understand. We still don’t understand. But following Jesus changes us, exalts us, glorifies us because when we encounter Truth and Love in the stories we share, we discover more and more of the Light our lives have to bear. Those whose lives had been touched, healed, restored, transformed by the life of Jesus Christ bore a mark to the soul of having been touched by God, just as all of us who have been baptized and sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.

This notion of being elevated to or into the glory of God is not new. Our church mission “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855). Jesus showed us the way during his life as he went around healing others, welcoming the other, hanging out in the margins, not clinging to stuff or buying into the status quo. His whole life story was about showing us how to find our way back to God. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Sounds so simple: kind of like just going up a mountain to pray.

But here’s another story.

I’m reading Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and I find myself rejuvenated by her words and the stories she shares. Mostly, the book is a sharing of stories from people she’s interviewed in her career, particularly through On Being. Early in the book, she mentions Rachel Naomi Remen, “a wise woman and physician” who “first began to challenge the nature of cancer treatment . . . with her realization that every illness has a story attached.” Her understanding that “the details of a person’s life make every cancer or diabetes or heart disease different and every course of healing unique” may have first taken root in her fourth birthday present, given to her by her Hasidic rabbi grandfather: the Birthday of the World (24). The story begins in the holy darkness at the source of life where eventually a great ray of light emerges. Only an accident happens, and the light is broke, shattered and scattered and hidden to this very day. The task of humanity, of course, is to restore the fragmented, hidden light of the world to its wholeness. “We are all healers of the world,” Rachel says, and “It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.” This story from her grandfather touched her in a poignant way and challenged her to consider that not only she herself but all of us are exactly what’s needed to heal the world, not all at once in one fell swoop, but one fragment at a time, one by one.

We understand who we are, in our brokenness and in our restored wholeness, through our stories. We tell our birth stories, as Christians, as human children. We tell our stories of transitions–when and where we went to school, moving across state or countries. We tell stories of hardship, grief, and trauma when we can, usually when we’ve gotten to the other side of them or at least have a little more understanding of them or more support in their midst…when we have more love than fear in place to see with eyes open and a courageous spirit.

So often in these stories, while they are filled with all the who’s, what’s, when’s, and where’s, and probably a good dose of humor or suspense and lots of emotion, where do we see God? Do we point out what is True? What have we learned, what have we gleaned? What has been revealed to us about God that uncovered a fragment of Light that was buried near us?

It could be that we’ve grown accustomed to thinking we had to climb some spiritual–or physical–mountain to achieve enlightenment or the glory of God. But really we have the multi-dimensional here and now to mine. In every direction, who is there to be restored to health? What is broken and needs to be made whole? Like our precious possessions in our home, like our friends, family, and neighbors, everything and everyone has a story. If we listen well enough, we’ll see the Truth and Light revealed. That revelation will change us, if we let it. Whether we say a word or not, others can know in the countenance of our being that “the morning star has risen in our hearts,” that we, too, have been transfigured by the Glory of God.

 

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