Risking Rejection — A Sermon by David Wantland

 The following sermon was offered by David Wantland, seminarian, at The Advocate, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2015.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Amen

Maybe there’s no easy week to preach on the Transfiguration of our Lord, but this Sunday feels particularly hard. We gather together this morning only a few miles away from where Deah, Yusor, and Razan were murdered. I won’t speak for you, but after a week of wide-ranging emotion, I come into this place looking to God with a lot of questions. And today of all days, when our liturgy, our prayers, and today’s gospel lesson are intended to give us hope and strength as we prepare to make a holy lent, hope seems in short supply. I keep thinking: what hope does glimpsing the transfiguration give us in light of these deaths?

To be sure, there is a word of hope for us today. But to get to it, I’ll need to criticize one of my loves.
Gandalf_the_White_returnsIf, like me, you love J.R.R. Tolkien, you’ve been deceived about the Transfiguration. An even if you don’t love Tolkien, anyone who’s seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy will know what I am talking about. The middle of the Two Towers, Gandalf the White, newly minted upgrade from Gandalf the Grey, enters the mountain town Edoras to confront a possessed king and his toxic advisor. Ascending the mountain with three other companions, Gandalf is cloaked, not in the white robes of his current order but in the old color of his prior rank– a coarse grey wool veil. Atop the mountain, Gandalf enters the throne room of Theoden king, using that wizard staff-turned walking stick to deceive the king’s court. See, this weak old man needs to pass as safe so that he can get near the king. Theoden, possessed by another wizard, mocks the weakness of this old man. Gandalf is having none of it. In a moment of surprise, Gandalf casts off his grey cloak, transfiguring before the eyes of all into Gandalf the White, strong enough to overcome the king’s possession and the trickery of the king’s advisor. Order in the kingdom is restored and the viewer/ reader is left pleased with Gandalf’s game.

I love Tolkien, but he has led us astray. To be fair, he isn’t the only one who has led us astray. Many have imagined the Transfiguration as the revelation of what Jesus had been veiling. But imagining Jesus in this way means that he was pretending all along. Wearing an untransfigured body like a coarse cloak, Jesus was just performing humanity for the sake of deception–even a virtuous one. If Jesus were performing humanity, then the Transfiguration is nothing more than a big reveal of the ruse he’s had to put up with for our sake.

Jesus in this understanding, has had to condescend to the world. His “true self” becomes the one on the mountain, glorious and eternal, not the one down in the crowd, with the diseased, and the Gentiles, and the Romans. You can imagine how this understanding of the Transfiguration, and of Jesus’ life in general, suggests that the Incarnation of Jesus was an act of obedience before it was an act of love, that Jesus’s ministry was one of patient endurance before he could get back to his heavenly throne. And it was only worth it so far as some people caught on. Jesus’ love for the world gets turned into love exclusively for the believer– Jesus loves those who love and obey him back. The rest of the world… well…

But that is not the Transfiguration of our Lord. And I praise God for that, because were this little deception game representative of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, I don’t think there’d be anything hopeful to say as Christians who grieve the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.

So praise God that Tolkien’s account is not the gospel account.

jesus_heals_boy_holeNo, brothers and sisters, we are given the account of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God transformed for a moment on the mountain to reveal who he was– the Son of God– the very one who would suffer and rise again. Most importantly, we are given a picture of Jesus of Nazareth who does not tarry on the mountain to savor in his glorified state. No, we encounter Jesus of Nazareth who goes back down the mountain. You see the Son of God is not hiding behind Jesus. The Son of God is the one who loves the crowd, who hurried back down the mountain, , knowing full well that the crowd may reject him. Just before the reading we heard today, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Great suffering, rejection, murder, and resurrection. He names it all. He anticipates it all and journeys that way.

Yes, the one who is revealed to be the Son of God descends the mountain to be caught up with the masses and to risk rejection.

Risking rejection, I think that’s what the transfiguration points us to today. I don’t think its about the future– its not about enduring suffering to gain our future state. It is that seeing Jesus revealed as God, we can trust to go where he goes. In the transfiguration and the subsequent descent down the mountain, we see Jesus’ willingness to bear the rejection and hatred of others just so that he could be close to those whom he loves, the very ones who hate and reject him.

And I think today, to go where he goes is to risk rejection. TO go where he goes is to show up in solidarity with the suffering and the marginalized, recognizing that most of us are privileged and empowered. And even if we would not claim those words for ourselves, our being here today, as Christians, and Episcopalians, means that we bear traditions that have oppressed. In our name, many have killed the queer, the person of color, the Muslim. So to show up in solidarity is to risk rejection, because histories of suffering may make even the well-intentioned indistinguishable from the enemy.

The transfiguration teaches us to say that we are here, we have put our bodies in places of solidarity BECAUSE we have glimpsed the transfigured body of Jesus. We have learned that this man was not simply some avant garde kook who liked to befriend the stranger so as to shock the friend. We have learned that this man who put his body alongside the forgotten, the insignificant, and the negligible (better terms), is God incarnate. To go his way is to do likewise and to do likewise in his name.

It’s a subtle thing, but I am saying that to hide our faith to be welcomed as supporters is to mislearn from Gandalf. It is to deny who we are so that we may be let in. It is an attempt to control our acceptance. The Transfiguration says, because I am who I am, this is what I do. Because I am one claimed by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, this is what I do. I show up in love and support of those who are unloved and unsupported even if I am rejected. How many times did Peter reject Jesus?

We as the People of the Advocate are self-consciously aware of the evil that has been done by and in the name of Christianity. And its no wonder that, with such knowledge, we may find it difficult to associate with the name. And I’m not saying we show up with banner. But I am saying that perhaps the most difficult task for us is to put our well-informed bodies in places where, regardless of our awareness, we may be rejected, suspected, and made to feel unable. But we keep showing up.

I was at a panel discussion following the recent events at Duke University where the administration decided, for a variety of reasons, to reverse their decision to permit the projection of the adhan from the Duke Chapel belltower. The panel was comprised of Muslim, Christian, and self-described pagan university scholars. Over the course of the discussion, panelists did not avoid naming the ways in which Christianity has contributed to violence and exclusion the world over. In that moment, it struck me as vitally important that Christian bodies be at that table, that Christian bodies be there to hear the cries of a crowd who may want to reject Christian voices, and that Christian bodies nevertheless remain, in love. To me, that was a moment of life seen through the transfiguration. Precisely because we have glimpsed the one whose name has been misused in histories of violence, we put our bodies in places that defy that violence by receiving the anger of those who’ve been hurt by it.

The virtue this Transfiguration life requires is perseverance. Therefore, it requires a community of support, strengthening us in this life vulnerable to rejection in the very moment we are trying to love. But that is where we find hope in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus himself goes down the mountain. Jesus goes down into the crowd and says, I love you enough not to believe your rejection. I love you enough not to believe your rejection. Amen.

 

 

 

Voices Behind Curtains: A Johnny Tuttle Sermon

A Sermon for Year B, Epiphany IV, February 1, 2015

at the Advocate

Johnny Tuttle

 

Grant us, Lord, the lamp of charity which never fails,

that it may burn in us and shed its light on those around us,

and that by its brightness we may have a vision of that holy City,

where dwells the true and never-failing Light, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

===================================================

Wow. The first sermon I am asked to preach at The Advocate

after three years (give or take),

and I am “coincidentally” scheduled

on a text about demon possession.

Well…here we go.

I imagine we are tempted

to avoid the obvious situation in the text –

that Jesus heals a man who is demon possessed.

I imagine if you are like me, you want to read this

in some way that allows you to take it seriously

while maintaining a safe distance from these antiquated themes.

We’re Episcopalians, after all.

We don’t have to “check our brain at the door…”

I sympathize with this way of dealing with the text,

and I would probably fall into this category more often than not.

I fear, however, that oftentimes we simply check our brains

out of one close-minded way of thinking

and check right into another,

in the name of so-called “enlightened, rational thought”.

We work around, beside, and straight past stories like this

because it challenges the way we understand and perceive,

the way we see the world.

But, my dear friends, it is so very difficult to see in the dark.

This is why we must look to the light that shines in the darkness,

because the darkness has not overcome it.

So I want to try and see what the light of Christ is exposing for us

in order that we might begin to reflect

that light into the midst of our darkness.

We should be careful not to pass over

the setup for this scene in the synagogue.

In fact, it may be the catalyst for the whole series of events.

Verses 21 and 22 say, “…he entered the synagogue and taught.

They were astounded at his teaching,

for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Jesus comes into the synagogue preaching the good news –

a new teaching with authority!

Only after Jesus has unleashed the Gospel does the demonic appear.

It is in the light of the Gospel

that the covert powers in our midst are challenged and revealed.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The Gospel brings light,

the Word of God shines in our midst,

opening our eyes to see what may be lying in the shadows

of those spaces we take for granted.

And so we cannot underestimate the fact

that this unclean spirit was in the midst of the synagogue,

in the midst of the community of worshippers,

only revealed, only drawn out

when the Holy One of God comes into their midst,

bearing in his very body the Good News of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

It was there, lying dormant – no, not dormant –

silently active beneath the surface,

masking its movements and manipulations

behind the all-too familiar status quo.

Only the presence of the Body of Christ,

the Word of God, draws the demonic into the open.

I want to be clear: it would be a mistake

to ignore the scriptural presentation of the demonic

precisely because the demonic relies

on being masked by the status quo.

It relies on covert operation.

It relies on our blindness to it in our midst.

When we turn a blind eye to its presence,

we lose the way it works into our institutions, systems, and habits

until we take its presence to be normative, perhaps even welcome.

As I thought through this story, I was reminded of a song

by the Country artist, Sturgill Simpson.

The song entitled “Voices” says,

“How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away

Seems they’re always talking but they ain’t got much to say

A picture’s worth a 1000 words but a word ain’t worth a dime

And we all know they’ll go on talking til the end of time

Don’t call it a sign of the times when it’s always been this way

Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no name

They plot their wicked schemes setting fate for all mankind

With evil that can fill God’s pretty skies with clouds that burn and blind

Many of you may know that I am deeply affected

by the current state of our so-called criminal “justice” system,

the Prison Industrial Complex, and the politics of the death penalty.

I am convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt,

that if we are going to name the demonic at work

in our social systems and structures,

the prison system is where we ought to start.

It would take more time than we have

to enumerate the evils of the Prison System.

There are a couple, however, that I think relate

specifically to the issues raised by the Gospel story

that might put what I’ve been saying on the ground for us.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is its relative silence.

The prison works in covert ways,

creating a barrier between those behind its walls and those outside.

The actual prison walls are the obvious part.

The bureaucratic nightmare one must go through

to enter the prison as a visitor creates a further barrier.

There is an intentional effort to hide incarcerated people

effectively cutting them off from the communal support systems.

The prisons statistically breed fear and violence,

reinforcing patterns of behavior that lead

to an extremely high rate of recidivism –

that is, people who are in prison usually go back

because of the inability to re-enter society.

And the reality of the prison system

is decidedly so far removed from our own view,

we have the luxury of forgetting

those who are daily dehumanized by it.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

The second silence is created

by what Michelle Alexander calls “colorblindness”

in her book The New Jim Crow.

There is, without a doubt, a racial bias

in the criminal justice system.

It is proven statistically by the enormous disparity

between the number of incarcerated white people

and incarcerated racial minorities,

black men and women making up the vast majority

of our incarcerated brothers and sisters.

And Alexander gives a brilliant account of this social evil

by tracing its development historically,

and marking its invisibility through the rhetoric of “colorblindness”.

That is, in our legal system, if there is not explicit racism,

it cannot be contested.

And the demonic continues to fester

unnoticed beneath the surface.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

And because we participate in and benefit

from the social and political systems

that perpetuate the unnamed evils,

we are complicit in them.

Often we pray, “Forgive us the evil we have done,

and the evil done son our behalf.”

This is evil done on our behalf.

Bishop Scott Benhase of the Diocese of Georgia

recently wrote an article about the recent execution

of a man on death row named Warren Lee Hill.

Bishop Benhase condemns the execution

as State-sanctioned murder, saying,

“This murder was done in…my name,

and in your name. Every citizen of this State,

whether we want to own it or not,

is complicit in the murder of Warren Lee Hill.

No, we did not strap him to the executioner’s table,

nor did we inject him with poisonous drugs,

but we cannot deny our complicity.”

Covert, unnoticed, yet in our midst.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

And it is perhaps most ironic

that it is these very institutions and systems of oppression

that inform a social imagination around the demonic.

That is, these very institutions teach us

to demonize incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

We are taught by the demonic how to think about what is demonic.

“Forked tongues and voices behind curtains with no names,”

as Sturgill Simpson sings.

How I wish somebody’d make these voices go away.

Dear friends, this is precisely what Jesus does here.

Jesus draws it into the open, silences it, and drives it away.

The silencing oppressor is silenced by the Word made Flesh,

and the voiceless is given back a voice by means of that same Word.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!

We look to the body of Jesus, and in his presence,

that which oppresses God’s beloved creatures

is exposed, silenced, and driven away.

The church, as the community of people

called the Body of Christ,

is empowered by the Spirit to participate in this work

of exposing, silencing, and driving out.

We are given the strange, terrifying gift

of binding ourselves to the life and work of this Jesus,

the “outside agitator”, the seditionist,

the one who was executed by the State.

As promised in Deuteronomy,

it seems that God has indeed raised up a prophet.

While I believe Jesus was certainly prophetic,

Jesus is much more than a prophet.

Jesus is God with us.

Jesus is the Word of God in our midst,

dwelling among, with, and in us.

And this Jesus is the Word that has been put into our mouths

for speaking the Gospel of God’s Kingdom,

bearing witness to its in-breaking in our midst.

The church is called to be the prophetic bearer of God’s Word.

But we should not speak where we are unwilling to act.

In a sermon preached to the first year class at orientation,

my fellow seminarian, Racquel Gill, put it this way:

“Don’t speak for people you don’t speak to.”

“You’ve got to put your body where your mouth is.”

If the church is to be the prophetic witness,

raised up from within the community,

we the church must be willing to put ourselves

in places where both our words and our presence

reflects that light that shines in the darkness,

exposes the demonic, silencing the voices of oppression

and restoring a voice to the silenced and oppressed.

What does this look like?

I am convinced that it looks like the church going into the prison,

visiting incarcerated people, creating networks of support,

love and trust that give voice to those

who have been demonized and silenced.

I think it looks like creating a space in our congregations

for those who are re-entering society,

committing to come alongside them in compassion,

bearing with them the incredible burden

placed on them by the carceral system.

It means seeking a restorative and compassionate justice

over against the retributive calculations of the State.

I think it looks like joining alongside

People of Faith Against the Death Penalty,

holding vigils when the State exercises

its usurped power over life and death,

coming alongside families of the incarcerated people

and those on Death Row to hear their stories,

and bear with them their burdens.

If you are an employer, it looks like hiring those

who have been incarcerated,

those who are forced to secure a job while identifying as “criminal”

on their applications.

It means coming together as a community

of shared and redistributed resources,

bringing what we have to the neighborhoods around us.

But the temptation will be to rely only

on the systems in place to effect these changes.

For example, we may be tempted to think voting

is the pinnacle of our Christian social witness.

Voting may be serviceable in our Christian witness,

but it too is caught in the systems of oppression.

Voter I.D. laws and politicians that offer nothing more

than a lesser of two evils reveal its grave limitation.

So, we must go beyond this.

We, the church, are called to create an alternative space,

a space that challenges our empires,

that draws out and silences that which oppresses God’s creatures,

and bears witness to the Kingdom of God

Our witness and prophetic voice is ultimately,

fundamentally bound to the Gospel

whereby we hear the Word of God in the Spirit of Christ.

In the words of Walter Bruegemann,

Being a prophetic witness means,

“evoking cries that expect answers,

learning to address them where they will be taken seriously,

and ceasing to look to the numbed and dull empire

that never intended to answer in the first place.”

As the church, we instead look to this table –

We are invited here to receive the Body of Christ,

drawing near to the Light that has scattered the darkness.

Here, we behold what we are,

and we pray that we might become what we receive.

As we come to this table, we receive Christ, the Word of God

and we are transformed as a community into the Body of Christ,

May we who bear the name of Christ,

who carry his presence with us,

expose, silence, and scatter the darkness

as we go forth in the light of Christ.

Amen.

Re-Member: A sermon by the Vicar for Epiphany III

The following is a sermon offered for Year B – Epiphany III, January 25, 2015, @The Advocate, by The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

A friend of mine showed me the website for his church.

Where we at the Advocate have embraced Core Values of Compassion Justice and Transformation, this church had Proclaim, Exalt, and Serve.

“Whew!” I felt. That sounds exciting, but also kind of exhausting.

I mean, I have my moments… driving on I 40 with Amy Grant or the Kings College Choir on the stereo, belting it out: “PraiseYear B – Epiphany III January 25, 2015 The Advocate The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck A friend of mine showed me the website for his church. Where we at the Advocate have embraced Core Values of Compassion Justice and Transformation, this church had Proclaim, Exalt, and Serve. “Whew!” I felt. That sounds exciting, but also kind of exhausting. I mean, I have my moments… driving on I 40 with Amy Grant or the Kings College Choir on the stereo, belting it out: “Praise my soul the King of Heaven!!” But I don’t think I personally can regularly sustain proclaim and exalt. Thank goodness some folks can! Yet…. there it is, right there in today’s Collect: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation….” And then there is the baptismal Covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” “I will!”, we boldly say, “With God’s help”. Our bishop, Michael Curry, has taken the opportunity over the past two years to encourage the people of the Diocese of North Carolina to “Go!” (exclamation point). He gets the word from Jesus telling his disciples to “Go to Galilee!” and he has developed this theme to include pretty much all that we do to make the Way of Jesus known in the world, all that we do in the name of the church, outside of the church. This certainly jives with our Epiphany themes – let the Light shine throughout the world, y’all. Today’s Gospel is a little more appealing to introverts, though certainly no less challenging. Rather than “Go!” Jesus says follow me. I don’t want to split hairs too much here about the visceral distinctions between being told to Go! (exclamation point) and being bid to follow. But I want, in true Anglican style, to suggest a Via Media, a middle way. Rather than “Go!” or “follow”, I wonder about “re-member”. ——————– Last week in our discussion about the first two chapters of Verna Dozier’s “Authority of the Laity” we talked about whether we identify ourselves as religious people. Dozier’s little book was written in the early 80s, after the publication of Fritz Ridenour’s How to be Christian without being Religious, but before being religious had taken on as many negative connotations as it does today – what with the evolution of the catchy phrase “spiritual but not religious”. As we considered our identities, we began to realize that our identity — as religious or not, as Christian or not, as minister or not, shapes the way we relate to the world. If we identity ourselves as religious, we may then feel religious and act religious. If we identify ourselves as Christian, and mindfully enter the world identifying ourselves as Christian, it could actually change the way we relate to the world. Even more, if we see ourselves as Christian ministers in that world. We say this in our liturgy week by week, of course. We are dismissed at the end of the liturgy with the words, “Go in Peace to love and serve the Lord”, or “Let us Go forth in the Name of Christ” or “Let us go forth in Peace and in Power.” “Thanks be to God!” we respond with cheer. At the Advocate this dismissal loses some of its power because we don’t very much go forth right after being encouraged to go forth. Rather, we usually stay for that extension of the Eucharistic Feast, our shared meal. We go forth from this place at varying times. And by the time we go forth, that sense of going out into the world with boldness sent by Jesus, is likely to have been lost. Though we may very well be feeling good about our life in this community. Which is a good thing, mind you. One solution we came up with last week is to maybe have a sign made to go by the side of the sidewalk between the chapel and the parking lot. The sign would have the words of one of the dismissal sentences painted on it: “Go in Peace” or “Go in Peace and in Power”. —————— But I wonder if we might take a few steps back in the liturgy, back to the Eucharistic rite. Specifically, to the words of Jesus, repeated by priest at the altar, just before the elevation of the elements: “Do this in re-membrance of me.” or “Do this to re-member me.” You will note that when I say these words, I don’t appeal to a nostalgic kind of sweet memory. “Ah, remember Jesus? …” Neither to a bitter, challenging, “Never forget!” Rather, I try in English to transmit the idea of a word that connotes actually to make some thing or some one present again. To re-member them. The reason we partake of the bread, and/or the wine, is to re-member Jesus. To make him present, to make him known, in and through us. “Do this, in re-membrance of me.” When we go forth, therefore, from this place. We are not being sent to will ourselves into a better life or to muster ourselves to be able to proclaim the faith. Rather, when we go forth from this place we go forth with Jesus, in Jesus through Jesus. As John’s Gospel reminds us: He in us and we in him and him in God so we’re in God. All very co-mingled and lovely. Kind of like a Celtic knot. As those words ascribed to St. Patrick proclaim: “Christ be with me, Christ within me.” This concept is reinforced and amplified at the end of our Eucharistic Prayer, after the bread has been broken. The priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.” and the people respond, “May we become what we receive.”. This exchange, though not in the Book of Common Prayer, derives from the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo, who, in the fifth century, wrote of the distribution, when the priest offers the consecrated bread and wine: When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! listen .. to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. And then Augustine goes on about the wine: ….what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. …. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. So when priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.” and the people respond, “May we become what we receive”, It is, at once, a personal and a collective hope. Behold the Body of Christ! May we become the Body of Christ! And when we receive and go forth from this place, we are not going forth individually, by ourselves. We go forth with Christ, re-membering him. And it’s not just me and Jesus or you and Jesus, either. No. We go forth as members of the Body of Christ, who have become what we received, we pray. If we indeed believe and “inwardly digest” this faith, imagine what difference it could make in how we then are present to the world at large and to the individual people who are in it. Imagine what difference it could make to each of us, in you. “Behold what you are!” “May we become what we receive!” I’m thinking maybe that sign between the chapel and the parking lot might simply say, “Re-member”. Amen. my soul the King of Heaven!!”

But I don’t think I personally can regularly sustain proclaim and exalt.

Thank goodness some folks can!

Yet…. there it is, right there in today’s Collect:

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation….”

And then there is the baptismal Covenant:

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“I will!”, we boldly say, “With God’s help”.

Our bishop, Michael Curry, has taken the opportunity over the past two years to encourage the people of the Diocese of North Carolina to

“Go!” (exclamation point). He gets the word from Jesus telling his disciples to “Go to Galilee!” and he has developed this theme to include pretty much all that we do to make the Way of Jesus known in the world, all that we do in the name of the church, outside of the church.

This certainly jives with our Epiphany themes – let the Light shine throughout the world, y’all.

 

Today’s Gospel is a little more appealing to introverts, though certainly no less challenging. Rather than “Go!” Jesus says follow me.

I don’t want to split hairs too much here about the visceral distinctions between being told to Go! (exclamation point) and being bid to follow.

But I want, in true Anglican style, to suggest a Via Media, a middle way.

Rather than “Go!” or “follow”, I wonder about “re-member”.

——————–

Last week in our discussion about the first two chapters of Verna Dozier’s “Authority of the Laity” we talked about whether we identify ourselves as religious people.

Dozier’s little book was written in the early 80s, after the publication of Fritz Ridenour’s How to be Christian without being Religious, but before being religious had taken on as many negative connotations as it does today – what with the evolution of the catchy phrase “spiritual but not religious”.

As we considered our identities, we began to realize that our identity — as religious or not, as Christian or not, as minister or not, shapes the way we relate to the world.

If we identity ourselves as religious, we may then feel religious and act religious. If we identify ourselves as Christian, and mindfully enter the world identifying ourselves as Christian, it could actually change the way we relate to the world. Even more, if we see ourselves as Christian ministers in that world.

We say this in our liturgy week by week, of course. We are dismissed at the end of the liturgy with the words, “Go in Peace to love and serve the Lord”,

or “Let us Go forth in the Name of Christ” or “Let us go forth in Peace and in Power.”

“Thanks be to God!” we respond with cheer.

At the Advocate this dismissal loses some of its power because we don’t very much go forth right after being encouraged to go forth. Rather, we usually stay for that extension of the Eucharistic Feast, our shared meal.

We go forth from this place at varying times. And by the time we go forth,

that sense of going out into the world with boldness sent by Jesus,

is likely to have been lost. Though we may very well be feeling good about our life in this community. Which is a good thing, mind you.

 

One solution we came up with last week is to maybe have a sign made to go by the side of the sidewalk between the chapel and the parking lot. The sign would have the words of one of the dismissal sentences painted on it:

“Go in Peace” or “Go in Peace and in Power”.

——————

But I wonder if we might take a few steps back in the liturgy, back to the Eucharistic rite. Specifically, to the words of Jesus, repeated by priest at the altar, just before the elevation of the elements:

“Do this in re-membrance of me.” or “Do this to re-member me.”

You will note that when I say these words, I don’t appeal to a nostalgic kind of sweet memory. “Ah, remember Jesus? …” Neither to a bitter, challenging, “Never forget!”

Rather, I try in English to transmit the idea of a word that connotes actually to make some thing or some one present again. To re-member them. The reason we partake of the bread, and/or the wine, is to re-member Jesus.

To make him present, to make him known, in and through us. “Do this, in re-membrance of me.”

When we go forth, therefore, from this place. We are not being sent to will ourselves into a better life or to muster ourselves to be able to proclaim the faith. Rather, when we go forth from this place we go forth with Jesus, in Jesus through Jesus.

As John’s Gospel reminds us: He in us and we in him and him in God so we’re in God. All very co-mingled and lovely. Kind of like a Celtic knot.

As those words ascribed to St. Patrick proclaim: “Christ be with me, Christ within me.”

This concept is reinforced and amplified at the end of our Eucharistic Prayer,

after the bread has been broken. The priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.” and the people respond, “May we become what we receive.”.

This exchange, though not in the Book of Common Prayer, derives from the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo, who, in the fifth century, wrote of the distribution, when the priest offers the consecrated bread and wine:

When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.”

Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! listen .. to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] 

One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread.

And then Augustine goes on about the wine:

….what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. …. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew.

This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated.

So when priest lifts the paten and chalice and says, “Behold what you are.”

and the people respond, “May we become what we receive”,

It is, at once, a personal and a collective hope.

Behold the Body of Christ! May we become the Body of Christ!

And when we receive and go forth from this place, we are not going forth individually, by ourselves. We go forth with Christ, re-membering him.

And it’s not just me and Jesus or you and Jesus, either. No.

We go forth as members of the Body of Christ, who have become what we received, we pray.

If we indeed believe and “inwardly digest” this faith, imagine what difference it could make in how we then are present to the world at large and to the individual people who are in it. Imagine what difference it could make to each of us, in you.

“Behold what you are.”

“May we become what we receive.”

I’m thinking maybe that sign between the chapel and the parking lot might simply say, “Re-member”.

 

 

 

 

The Senior Warden’s Annual Report

1376600_10200652870747272_87108402_nSenior Warden’s Report for 2014

January 11, 2015

Tom Fisher

Every so often, I like to take my camera and go out in search of photographs that I can make. Last year, 2014, was a particularly good year for doing that, for me.

 

On January 2nd, Candy and I flew into Boston, arriving just an hour or so before a dramatic blizzard closed Logan Airport.  We spent a couple of days mostly indoors, including one sunny morning when I was able to take a few good pictures at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 

In late July, we were in Manhattan, where I did a couple of days of street photography, and then attended a day-long intensive workshop with an excellent photography teacher.

 

Then, in the second week of December, I was out in the evenings making photographs of the Christmas lumieres on the Champs Elysee.

 

I between, I drove over to Raleigh six or seven times to photograph many of the people of the Advocate marching on Jones Street and Fayetteville Street for the Moral Monday protests.  And I drove up to southern Person County to photograph Jonathan and Megan planting flowers and, later in the year, raising the walls of their new home with a little help from their friends.

 

But of all of the hundreds of photographs that I took last year, the one that means the most to me was taken right here. A lot of you are in this photograph, taken at the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 19th.

L1005104

The photograph makes me think of the being on the first three-person vestry eleven years ago, and how we were renting space where very few people could find us, first at the Chapel Hill Kehillah and later at Unity Center for Peace. And how, in the second year of this church, in 2004, we were already longing for a place where we could set our own schedule, have our own liturgical space.

 

It made me think of all of the people, some of them experts in fund-raising or non-profit finance, who gave the vicar and me perfectly logical and reasonable explanations of why we could not afford to buy the land, why we would certainly not be able to raise enough money to build a chapel, why what we were trying to do was too risky, too unattainable, and was happening too soon.

 

But what I see in the photograph are six or seven dozen people of the Advocate who gave generously of their time, their money, and their energy and wisdom, and who somehow made this improbable adventure, this goat rodeo, come together.

 

I also see the people who are not in the photograph, were not here that night, going all the way back to George and Mary Esser.  Including Beth Lassiter and Mark McGraw, who along with Brian Dangler, Barbara Rowan, and Emily Cameron, managed to get this building from Germanton to this site.  And then worked tirelessly to get it put back together and upgraded to meet building codes.

 

Of course, I also see our tenacious and utterly determined vicar, Lisa Fischbeck, who never doubted that we would do this, and was always finding some small step, every day, to bring it all closer to reality.

 

I can also see and recall the time, last January, February, and March, when we were completely stalled on this project, when the last couple of work crews were never, ever, going to show up and finish the plumbing and the wiring, when the inspector for the town of Chapel Hill was never going to give us a certificate of occupancy, when we were so close, but we were watching weeks go by and getting no closer at all.  So that is when I see David Buchanan and Pete Barber, who worked magic and small miracles, cussed out and cajoled, and somehow got us a temporary certificate of occupancy on the late afternoon of Maundy Thursday, just two days before this picture was taken.

 

Now I want to tell you just one thing about photography.  This is from my own personal and private edition of the Apostle’s Creed, a section that I added and which I recite from time to time, although never before in church.  Here it is:

 

The Fundamental Truth about Photography, the most important thing to know, is that photography is NOT about the camera.  Photography is about learning to see. Yes, you have to have a camera, but only in same way that an artist has a brush or a writer has a keyboard.  It is only a tool, a means to an end.  In truth, it is all about learning to see.

 

And I will tell you the best thing about having been on the Vestry of the Church of the Advocate for the past four years. The best thing has been what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, what I’ve learned.  I know first hand that this church is led by its vicar and its vestry, but it is defined by dozens and dozens of amazing people, you the people of the Advocate. doing kind and generous things for each other, and doing brave and visionary things out in our world.

 

The Fundamental Truth about this community of faith, this Church of the Advocate, is that our life together is NOT about the chapel.  It is about learning to listen and to hear each other, about looking and being able to see each other, and about being Christ’s gospel going out into the world.  Having a place in which, and from which, to do that is important, but it is just a tool, a means to an end.  We are here, and we will grow here.  But now we are in our place, and so now we are free to dream new dreams, and see new visions.  Let us begin. Amen.

 

 

2014: The Year of Transplanting. The Vicar’s Report

IMG_0371Annual Meeting 2014

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

2014: The Year of Transplanting

 

I’ve never called myself a church planter.

Rather, I claimed the descriptor of “Gathering Priest” back in 2002. Gathering a congregation of people who wanting to make church in the 21st century. We’ve never really talked about planting the Church of the Advocate, either. Saying instead that the Church was launched in 2003.

Launching seems much more lively and spirit-filled and interesting than planting…

So the planting metaphor hasn’t been a favorite of mine.

Yet….

 

Yet in many ways, 2014 was the year in which the Advocate was planted, or really transplanted.. It’s as though we had been a little shrub. A little shrub in a plastic container. Or maybe even a terra cotta container. Carried from place to place, getting heavier and a bit more cumbersome from year to year.

 

If 2013 was the Year of the Mud, (which is certainly was here), then I’ve got to say that 2014 was the Year of transplanting.  2014 was the year in which the Advocate was transplanted  from its temporary, migratory pot into the ground here on 8410 Merin Road, off Homestead Road in north Chapel Hill.

 

One of the reasons I am now ready to embrace the planting or transplanting metaphor is that in the past few months I learned that if you want to plant or transplanted bushes, shrubs or trees, you do it in the cold months of late autumn and early winter.

Why? Because in those seasons, the energy and biological systems that go into branches and leaves go dormant, and the plant instead puts its energy into extending its roots more deeply into the ground. So while it seems as though the tree is taking a rest, hibernating like a bear, it is really using its energy in a different way. A tree or bush planted or transplanted in the chilly months can better get its roots established before it gets all distracted with branches and leaves.

 

IMG_9596Well, for the sake of this illustration, the Advocate Chapel was transplanted over many months, reconstruction and adaptation took a while…. but the soil was patted down and the metaphorical mulch added right around Eastertide.

 

We celebrated our first full liturgy in the Chapel with Town approval, The Great Vigil of Easter,

on April 19. Not enough thanks can ever be given to Pete Barber for taking on the building and certification process in its final months.

 

And in the months since Easter, (It hasn’t even been a year yet) we have been rooting ourselves here on this site, experiencing one “first” after another –

first Easter, first Christmas….

first baptism

first wedding

first funeral

first burial of ashes in the church yard….

 

We have tried things on – chairs set-up “Choir style”, slightly different processions, incense, a kids area (still needs thought…), and lunch instead of dinner (continued thanks to Martha Wheeler and Ernie Bowen for their gift of making it happen!)

We also tried on a contemplative Eucharist on Sunday afternoons, daily evening prayer  (which is now weekly evening prayer…), Adult Christian education conversations on Sunday after lunch (it’s going well)

We started a Conscientious Projector series and have a bold vision for its expansion. we moved Indulgences from the bar to the chapel.

 

We have also rooted ourselves in prayer, thanks to the spirit-filled leadership of Char Sullivan

who anchors our Wednesdays, which in turn anchor us. (they certainly anchor me!)

 

Some of our ministries are such a part of the Advocate, if we want to continue the transplanting the tree metaphor, that they are neither roots nor branches. Maybe the trunk of our tree? (maybe time to let the metaphor go here….)

Anyway, one is our ongoing engagement in the community and world around us. Many of the people of the Advocate are involved in ministries of justice and restoration. Collectively, we support numerous ministries through our Advocate Tithe (a list of 2014 Tithe Distributions will is now posted on our website). In 2014 we also participated in the ongoing work of the InterFaith Council, Orange Justice United, and the Moral Monday Movement.

 

Another ministry of this congregation is our “incubation” of individuals for ministry in the wider church. In 2014, we celebrated the ordination to the priesthood of Joslyn Schafer, now serving as a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte. We continued our support and sponsorship of Elaine Tola, who will be ordained a Vocational Deacon later this month and Molly McGee Short, who will be ordained a Transitional Deacon in June. We also sent David Wantland to the Bishop with our blessing and he continues his discernment of a call to the priesthood in the diocese. Johnny Tuttle is not sponsored by the Advocate, but he is certainly one of our own, and has been serving his Divinity School internship here since September.

And then there are the remarkable ministries of Nathan Kirkpatrick and Sam Laurent. Both of whom give of their time and talent here freely. How does a church this small get preaching this great?!?!!!

 

In addition to preaching monthly, Sam serves as our Theologian-in-Residence, and has been leading our Indulgences twice monthly. He now is ready to head down the road to serve as interim Episcopal chaplain at Duke.

In addition to his preaching once a month, Nathan serves as our Pastor-in-Residence while he continues his process of transitioning from Methodist minister to Episcopal priest. We expect him to be ordained as a transitional Deacon in June as well.

 

In 2014, we sent out a few shoots of growth, to make clear that from the beginning this chapel is to be, not just a place of refuge and strength for us, but also a resource for the community and world around us. We have hosted dances and drum circles art exhibits and yoga classes. We’ve learned from these acts of hospitality  about inconvenience, about increased heating bills and toilet paper rolls that seem to vanish, because they get used up so quickly.

We’ve also learned more about what it is like to pitch your tent on the door sill, where the two worlds touch. Our lives are enriched and our worldview made more vital.

 

On the grounds around the chapel, Martha Wheeler continued to take the lead on tending the roadside garden while Kathleen Herr and others created the Chapel garden out front.

We added two lithic “furnishings.” A stone altar on the south end the pond for use in our outdoor liturgies was funded with gifts given in memory of those people of the Advocate who have gone before us. And what I call “The Rock of David” on the north end of the pond, was funded with gifts given in memory of our brother David Buchanan, who regularly found rest and solace overlooking the pond.

 

Getting rooted more deeply has included becoming more reasonable about what tasks can be expected to be done by volunteers and what tasks need to be paid for. This is an ongoing discernment process for any church, and very much for us. As the Vestry and Vicar realized fully that we had been given to unrealistic expectations in prior years, we set out to re-define the expectations of the resident and the administrative assistant. Thanks, too, to Barbara Rowan and Linda Snow for their help with this. Resident, Anna Shine, and Administrative Assistant, Charles Rousseau,

are now welcomed in those positions.

 

We also realized a need to hire someone to mow and tend to the grounds south of the pond twice a month. Similarly, we have hired someone to clean the chapel twice a month. We offer thanks for the work of Don Hayes for the former   and Guadeloupe Collazo for the latter!

 

Notably, the people of the Advocate really came together on two occasions in 2014, in ways that deepened our roots significantly. First, on August 24, we hosted the Diocesan celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Both bishops of our Diocese were here, as well as two of the original “Philadelphia Eleven.” The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward preached and the Rev. Alison Cheek con-celebrated. We gathered under a tent over the parking lot, with huge fans circulating the August air. The hospitality, music and spirit that the Advocate provided was glorious.

And greatly appreciated by all.

 

More poignantly, the people of the Advocate gathered round  our brother David Buchanan as he was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer and declined rapidly to death in October. We had just cheered his baptism at Pentecost…. By September, dozens of us provided twice-daily visits to him.

When he died, we mourned.  We gathered on the night of his death for a vigil and memory-sharing in the Chapel, And on October 12, we incorporated the Burial Office into our Sunday morning liturgy.

Rarely has one human being touched the hearts of so many in a congregation in such a short period of time.

 

In all of this, I have been grateful for the steady leadership of our Vestry: Sallie Moore, David Moore, Celisa Steele, Elaine Tola, and David Pass, our Treasurer, Kerry Bullock-Ozkan, and our Clerk, Anne Henrich (who also most notably chairs our altar guild).

I am hugely grateful for the wise and diplomatic leadership of our Senior Warden, Tom Fisher.

Tom was the launching Senior Warden of the Advocate Vestry from 2004 – 2006. He returned to the vestry to fill out the term of someone who had left in 2011, Then agreed to a full three-year term, 2012 – 2014. Two of those years he has been Senior Warden, seeing us through the move, the transplant, and a few note-worthy bumps in the road. And I think he has served on the Finance Committee from the start.

Oh. my. goodness.

Thank you, Tom Fisher.

 

——————–

Now, I know that, being in a largely academic community, we are used to starting things afresh with a new school year in late August or early September. And I know that the liturgical new year starts with Advent One, four weeks before Christmas,

 

But there is something about early January and a new calendar year, something about Epiphany,

something about the baptism of Jesus launching him into his earthly ministry, that gets us feeling like we are on the verge of something new. And we are!

 

In 2015 we will likely continue to deepen our roots. But soon and very soon, we are going to start to shoot out some branches and leaves. Nathan is going to help us sort through just what that might look like during lunch. But I want to take a minute to offer three possibilities.

(very Trinitarian, that!)

 

First, I hope that we will be intentional about being good neighbors in this part of Chapel Hill.

That will include connecting with the historic Rogers Road community. One part of that will likely include the restoration and restocking of our pond so that it can become a local fishing destination once again. Our Rogers Road connection will also include advocating on behalf of that neighborhood for more affordable housing and access to utilities.

 

Our being good neighbors will also include welcoming the Community House, a transitional housing program for men, when it opens later this year,  and helping some of our more reluctant neighbors to welcome them too.

 

And there will be neighbors who move in to one new development of another, (and there are several going in around here). We need to be good neighbors to them as well.

 

Second, n the year ahead, I also hope we can find new ways for the people of the Advocate to support one another in our several vocations and ministries in the world. We will begin with our Epiphany Commissions in the weeks ahead.

 

Third, I want us to become a community that welcomes children more fully and safely, teaching them the Christian story, giving them a place where they know that they are loved and cared for

and where they can begin to connect that love to God.

 

Being a good neighbor,

Supporting one another in the world,

welcoming children.

If we can do these three, we will be blooming!

 

As a way to wind up this report of the year gone by and to get us thinking and feeling about the year ahead, and to give everyone a chance to stretch, I asked Elaine and the Blue Grass Band to getting us going again with that classic rally-up song: This little light of mine.

So if you would, and as you are able, please take a stand and get ready to sing!

 

 

To Risk It All: A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity, 2014

To risk it all

The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord 2014

The Episcopal Church of the Advocate

 

For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.

 

It’s uncharacteristic for me, but tonight, you get the point first.

We’ve waited long enough. We’ve waited four Sundays to hear it.

Some of us have waited a lifetime to hear it.

God loves the world — loves us — enough to risk it all by becoming human. 

That’s the point of Christmas.

That’s the point. Anything else that I say tonight,

anything else that any of us say about Christmas,

is simply commentary on that one sentence.

God loves the world, and you and me in it, enough to risk becoming human.

 

Now to understand what that one sentence means takes more than a lifetime; it takes an eternity.

So everything that follows is only provisional.

 

But, together, tonight, we will begin to inhabit the mystery

by breaking that sentence down into three parts.

If it wasn’t so very trite, you could say that I have three points,

But then you might fear a poem with rhyming couplets in your future.

 

The first part of that sentence is that God loves the world – loves us.

That may, at first blush, seem self-evident. This is, after all, the heart of the Gospel.

This is the foundational theological claim for Christians:

God loves extravagantly, extraordinarily, prodigally.

This is the witness of the Scriptures from Creation to Consummation.

It is how the story begins and ends.

You remember Genesis?

God, the eternal, whose very nature and essence is love,

creates earth and water and wind;

fashions creatures exotic and domestic;

knits humanity together and blesses us on our way.

And everything that is created

is created out of love, by love, for the sake of love.

Or if you prefer the obverse:

Nothing that has come into being

did not have as its origin or its purpose love.

This is the point of Genesis 1 and 2 and John 1, also.

It’s all made from and for love.

 

It is how the story begins, and it is how the story continues.

When humanity proves that loving is hard and our love fails,

God’s love does not fail us,

but pursues us to claim us and call us as children,

to remind us who we were and who we are. We are beloved.

It is the message of every prophet and every priest of Israel:

God loves the world and us in it.

Gloriously.

 

Those of you who are Advocate regulars have heard me talk about my first parish a good bit this year. Sorry for that. But one more time tonight.

In that church, there was a beautiful young woman named Molly.

Molly was born with cerebral palsy, CP, and was bound to a wheelchair.

She suffered from painful muscle spasms that would contort her whole body.

But she had a smile that was wide and a laugh that was contagious.

She would sing boldly in the choir, and she would bring such joy.

When she would sing “Jesus loves me,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

One Sunday, she rolled forward to receive the Eucharist.

I handed her the host,

“Molly, this is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

These are signs that God loves you very much.”

She looked back at me, “Oh, silly preacher, I know that.”

 

This is foundational to the Christian faith, and yet, not all of us are as lucky as Molly.

 

Some of us in this room grew up in churches that taught us something else.

Instead of beginning with the reality of God’s love,

We were taught to begin with words like sinful and broken —

We were taught a theology that uses words like depravity and disordered.

 

But, at Christmas, it is easy to see that that is a theological false start.

 

Let me say this as clearly as I can –

Any theology that does not begin with the reality of God’s burning love

Is unworthy of the name Christian

and doesn’t deserve to be spoken by the Christian people.

God loves the world and loves us.

“Oh, silly preacher, I know that.” I hope you do.

 

But it’s not just that some of us weren’t taught this;

some of us with more years than Molly have forgotten what she knew.

As life goes by, we take our hits. Relationships and jobs end.

The dream never becomes reality.

The church disappoints.

And somehow we project all of that back onto God.

We may even define it and describe it as God’s judgment.

A certain spiritual amnesia sets in and

We forget how loved we are.

 

The writer Galway Kinnell says it this way, “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

 

That’s part of the point of this annual celebration of Christmas.

Whether we never learned it or forgot it along the way,

Tonight we hear it again:

You — me — God loves us.

God loves the world and us in it so very much.

 

How much, you ask?

The second part of the sentence. How much does God love?

Enough to risk it all. 

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all.

 

To be clear, if you were God, this is about the most foolish thing you could do.

If you were God, you could remain safely ensconced in Heaven, forever involved but removed.

You could stay at a safe distance, passionate and dispassionate simultaneously.

You could stay above the strife, suffering and sin,

You could stay sheltered from brokenness, bitterness and betrayal.

If you were God, to risk it all is about the most foolish

and most unnecessary thing you could ever do.

 

But, what is love at arm’s length?

What is love from a safe, self-protecting distance?

What is love that lacks the courage to be face-to-face? to be open and vulnerable?

It may be something, but it surely isn’t love.

It isn’t relationship. It isn’t really even friendship.

Love that is aloof and removed is an impossibility.

 

On Christmas, God does the thing that, sooner or later, all of us learn is required —

that love by its very nature necessitates risk, that love requires vulnerability.

that love sometimes requires the grand and glorious act with no promise of payoff.

 

And so,

When God throws God’s lot in with the world,

It means that God is vulnerable to the world’s pressures and prejudices,

It means that God is susceptible to the foibles and failures of human beings,

It means that God risks being murdered by the world’s judgments and injustices.

Sure, it is to be open to the greatest of joys, to the deepest pleasures, too. But it is risk nonetheless.

 

But where there is love, then while risky, it doesn’t feel risky.

It feels liberating, exhilarating.

It feels like the only thing you can do.

Where there is love, then it is okay to be foolish.

Where there is love, then there is nothing else to do but be foolish.

And God loves. The world. And us. Enough to risk it all.

 

And God does so

in the most humble of ways:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

For unto us a son is born, unto us a child is given.

It’s the third part of the sentence:

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all by becoming human.

 

We can’t talk about Christmas really without talking about bodies.

When God becomes human, then in a real way, God is subject to the limitations of the body.

When God the infinite becomes finite, when God the immortal becomes mortal

then God in Christ shares all the fragility of life.

Diapers can be and are soiled.

Knees can be scraped. Arms and hearts can be broken.

Blood can be shed. Life can be taken.

But, if you’re God, on Christmas, it’s the risk you take

Because you’re done loving at a distance.

 

There is a physicality to this Feast that is often tacitly acknowledged but never overtly celebrated.

There is a physical intimacy to Christmas that matches the emotional intensity of the holiday.

That is what it means to be incarnate,

that the yearnings of God for God’s people

that the desire God has for us —

will now be conveyed in sensory ways

in touch, in taste, in smell, in sight, in sound.

Our redemption is philos, agape and eros:

There is brotherly love and self-giving love and burning passionate love here.

All of God’s love, all of God’s longing,

which has spanned and shaped millennia,

is now embodied in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes

and laid in a manger

because there was no room in the inn.

Divine love is now as fragile as an infant.

The Love that formed and fashioned the universe,

The Desire that called and claimed Israel,

The Longing that encompasses you and me,

Is in the manger now.

Here. With us. Like us. For us.

 

The point is simple. It’s meaning infinitely complex.

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all by becoming human.

It’s a mystery that we only begin to grasp, but it’s Good News.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

The Annunciation and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A Sermon by the Vicar

Year B – Advent IV

December 21, 2013

@TheAdvcateChurch

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck

 

Bartolomé_Esteban_Perez_Murillo_023Identify yourself publically as a Christian,

and at some point you are likely to hear it.

“But…. you don’t really believe in the Virgin Birth, do you?”

or

“I think Jesus was a good teacher, but I just don’t go for all that doctrine.

Like the Virgin Birth!”

or may even say it yourself:

“There’s just so much in the Nicene Creed that I can’t say or that I don’t believe.

Like, Jesus was ‘born of a Virgin’.”

And, of course, if a bishop, priest or deacon were to say anything like that publically,

they’d risk being charged with heresy,

even today.

Just ask Jack Spong.

 

So I’m not about to say it!

 

But I am going to use this Sunday,

this Sunday in which we hear the Gospel story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary,

as a time for us to consider who and what Mary is for us.

and who and what Mary is for Jesus.

 

First the story.

[In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…..” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.]

 

It is known as the Annunciation,

because Gabriel makes an announcement to Mary.

It is not to be confused with The Visitation.

That comes later, when the pregnant Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant,

pregnant with the baby John the Baptist.

 

Neither is the Annunciation to be confused with The Immaculate Conception.

The Immaculate Conception in a non-biblical teaching made doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century.

It claims that Mary herself had to be immaculately conceived in order to be a clean and pure vessel into which Jesus could be poured.

And certainly, this is not the Assumption.

that’s another non-biblical story that is said to cover what happened to Mary at the end of her life.

Jesus ascended, you see,

but the Assumption declares that Mary was “assumed” into heaven.

It’s a story featured inside the dome of the church in Parma, Italy,

which is also the birthplace of parmesan cheese.

I digress.

 

Today we are talking about the Annunciation:

This is the story that tells us how Jesus was conceived.

And it makes plain:

–       Mary is young

–       Mary is not yet married

–       Mary is a virgin. Which probably means that she has not yet had sex with a man.

–       Mary has somehow been chosen to be the one to bear the baby who is Jesus, who will be called the Son of God.

 

Now, it is not uncommon for stories to be told about the miraculous beginnings of famous and honored people.

The gods of ancient mythology are often said to have been conceived in unusual ways

or to have unusual circumstances surrounding their birth or early childhood.

Moses certainly has quite a birth narrative.

Here in the USA, we have stories about the boy George Washington.

How he chopped down a cherry tree and did not lie about it.

How he threw a coin across a river.

 

So, we could explain away Jesus’ birth narrative as being just that.

You know, it’s just a story that the ancients came up with in order to set Jesus apart as really, really special.

 

But, if we do,

If we dismiss the story of the Annunciation in that way,

I really hope we don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

 

Because in order for Jesus to be fully human,

he had to be born of a human mother.

And in order for Jesus to be fully God,

he had to have a different kind of conception.

 

Can you come up with a better birth narrative for him then?

 

**************

In my late 20s, I set out on a pilgrimage from Rome to Geneva to Canterbury,

seeking discernment about Christian faith and the feminine and God.

Women’s ordination was new in those days,

and matters of the feminine divine were very controversial.

I scheduled appointments with clerics and scholars along the way.

I had plenty of time for prayer and reflection, too.

 

But no single conversation or event clarified my thinking more that spotting a simple mosaic over a door to a restaurant in Florence.

The mosaic probably pre-dated the restaurant,

but there it was over the door of a secular, commercial establishment, none-the-less.

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary.

Clad in blue, as always.

 

I took a picture of her.

Because there over the door to the restaurant,

she was proof of what I was beginning then to understand:

Human beings need a feminine image of the Divine.

 

Human beings need a feminine image of the Divine.

This makes a lot of sense.

Because male and female we were created in the image of God.

As we relate to God, therefore,

we need images that are male and images that are female.

And, since God the Father and God the Son are traditionally both very male,

Mary necessarily emerged as a feminine balance.

 

Of course, Mary is never said to be divine, per se.

But in the Eastern Church her humanity is pretty much indistinguishable from divinity.

In tradition and icon, she is the Theotokos,

the God bearer.

And is ju-ss-st under God in many ways.

 

In the west, particularly in the Roman Catholic and the Anglican traditions,

she is “Mother of our Lord”.

Which is pretty high up there.

Not quite divine,

But she sure is said to be ultra holy and pure.

The Anglican hymn goes:

Sing of Mary, pure and holy

Virgin mother undefiled.

 

Though accounted as human,

her humanity is, in effect, inimitable.

 

Through the millennia,

MAry has been lifted up as exemplary, and the bar, of sorts,

that the faithful,

especially faithful women

are to aspire to.

Blowing past Mary’s incredulous initial response:

“How can this be?”

Mary is presented in art and story as

Submissive and obedient to the masculine God’s wishes.

“Be it unto me according to thy word.” she says.

 

And while the church acknowledges the quirkiness or sinfulness, even,

of other saints,

not so with Mary.

It is as though her holiness holds an edge over her humanity.

 

It is ironic, then

that Jesus,

whom, we believe,

is fully human and fully divine all at once,

gets his humanity bit,

his human genome, if you will,

by being born of Mary.

Mary’s humanity is essential to the equation.

 

Sure, it makes sense that the Church’s theology of Jesus,

also known as Christology,

has swung back and forth between over-emphasizing either his divinity or his humanity.

Because it is, quite frankly, hard to get your head around this fully-divine- fully-human-all-at-once concept.

 

But it doesn’t make sense that Mary should swing along with him.

Mary is human.

She’s got to be.

And the story of Mary, and the story of Jesus,

are both improved,

by the more gritty Mary,

not the more pure.

 

imagesPerhaps that’s why I’m drawn to this image of Mary more than so many others.

The original is a life-sized fresco at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina.

When it was unveiled in the 1970s,

it was widely criticized for it’s earthiness:

– Mary is visibly pregnant.

– Her robes are red, not blue,

– and her feet are not only bare, they are kind of dirty.

 

Seen this way, the virginity of Mary is not about her purity.

It is, rather something that makes plain that her pregnancy was not by the usual means.

It also makes her story as a human being all the more compelling.

Because we can only imagine what this bizarre story of conception meant for her.

 

It is this very human Mary who can be a comfort and a guide to us.

And not just as a mother with a child who has a will of his own, either.

 

Mary also knew all to well what it was like to feel overwhelmed by the demands of life and the demands of faith.

She endured hardship, mockery, discomfort, shame.

 

When we do not understand the ways and mind of God,

we can know that Mary knows that exasperation.

“How can this be?” she says.

 

When we are perplexed or stuck,

Mary nods at us from her two dimensional images,

knowingly,

reassuringly.

“Yeah,” she says, “it’s hard, I know.”

 

And when we feel helpless before the evil powers of this world,

which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,

Mary shakes her head solemnly and says,

“I’ve seen those powers at work.

They are wicked

They are cruel.”

 

Mary gained wisdom through her hardship, that’s for sure.

I suspect it took her a while to realize the truth,

the truths,

of her own song.

 

It just doesn’t work to have her all dressed in immaculate blue robes,

ever calm, ever benignly smiling.

She’s got to have some dirt, some strain.

Her acceptance of God’s call is more valuable if it is hard-won.

Her “How can this be?” is huge.

 

So if, as human creatures,

we need for God to be imaged and described in ways both feminine and masculine,

let’s find ways to do that.

Let’s wrestle with the theology and understand the Church’s diverse points of view and find our own.

 

But let’s let Mary be human.

And take her at her word.

AMEN.

 

A Sam Laurent Sermon for Advent

A Sermon preached by Theologian-in-Residence, Dr. Sam Laurent, December 14, 2014. The Third Sunday of Advent.

 

I begin, as is our sometimes habit here, with a poem, this one by the English poet/priest/scholar Malcolm Guite. It’s called “The Singing Bowl.” Consider it an invocation.

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

The world makes us want to change it, and fast. News of institutional racism, of disregard for the value of black bodies, of the dark and dehumanizing torture inflicted by our nation… these put us in the mind for something sweeping and radical and fast that will fix things. Numerous religious leaders have called on us to talk about these issues in our congregations, and we have done some of that here. I’m sure we will do more. But the change will not come as fast as we’d like.

Isaiah’s audience would probably relate. Scholars think that this passage addresses the Israelites who had just returned from exile, as they survey Jerusalem and lament how much of their city and their religion was lost.  Isaiah has been sent to rally the troops, so to speak, to remind them that God’s covenant with Israel still stands.

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

to provide for those who mourn in Zion—

to give them a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

 

These people, Isaiah says, will be called “oaks of righteousness,” “the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” And then, the kicker. Listen carefully:

They shall build up the ancient ruins,

they shall raise up the former devastations;

they shall repair the ruined cities,

the devastations of many generations.

For I the LORD love justice,

I hate robbery and wrongdoing;

Did you catch what happened there? Yes, the temple will be rebuilt, Jerusalem will be restored to something of its former glory, but it will be done by the faithful people, not by divine edict. God seems to stand next to them and say “wow, this is really a mess, huh? Guess you’d better get to work. You have my support.” It’s hardly the comfort we seek in the face of despair, as we mourn the brokenness of our society. The Israelites, having persisted through the exile and at long last returned to their home, were excusably tired. One could imagine their enthusiasm for their relationship with God starting to wane a little bit, perhaps even some wandering eyes looking curiously at the gods of other peoples, gods who appeared to be a bit more effective.

But not Isaiah. Isaiah rejoices even in the ruined Jerusalem, because his experience of God has filled him with hope, with a sense that a spark of divinity can find dry kindling among these people. Isaiah rejoices in God because God has poured the Spirit out on him, lighting him up with prophetic fire, calling him to turn God’s people back toward their covenantal relationship. Isaiah has experienced God. The others, maybe not so much, maybe not in a long time, maybe not with such clarity. We all need our prophets.

Now, the world does not need—and more to the point, you do not need–a sermon where a straight white guy compares his experiences to Israel’s exile, or to the very real violations of humanity that straight white guys have been engineering. The world needs that even less than it needs a sermon in which a straight white guy unburdens his guilty liberal conscience. That’s not what I’m trying to do here. I own my guilt. I just want to say, in what is surely a privileged observation, that if you bother to take notice of the injustice in the world, it can wear you down. It can make you stop paying attention or stop feeling outrage. Even the realization of privilege, which itself can inspire deeply unnecessary sermons, can dispirit us.

We feel a deep tension in these times, when hope turns into restlessness turns into fatigue. We might feel tempted to throw our arms up in despair and cross over to the more cynical side; the side that doesn’t seem to wear itself out trying to consider the interests of those outside a narrowly defined tribe. That’s our secret horror at all the dehumanization we see happening, right? It’s just so easy, so much simpler than examining your instincts and your prejudices. All that examination and righteousness seems only to present you with a world that looks something like the ruined Jerusalem. There’s a perverse seductiveness to letting your guilt-ridden bleeding heart off the hook. With so much needing fixing, that underlying hunch of faith, the hunch that something here is sacred, can seem deeply ridiculous.

And the paradox of God’s presence does not let us off hook. God was present with the Israelites; the Spirit had been poured on Isaiah in particular, and yet what they got was not a divine zap that fixed their city. Instead they got a promise that God would delight in their successes. No quick fix; just abiding love. Enormous brokenness makes us long for superheroes, and today’s Advent readings largely just give us ourselves. There is, it turns out, tremendous grace in that.

John the Baptist, as told in the Gospel of John not-the-Baptist, cuts right to the chase. Asked who he is, he tells them who he isn’t. He’s not the messiah. He is not Elijah, nor is he the prophet. He is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord.”  He is there to prepare the way for the one who will come after him.

John the Baptist is our great Advent role model, the one who spends his days preparing the world to follow Jesus. And he famously does it pretty enthusiastically. Other gospels describe him wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey. The business of preparing the world for Christ rarely entails a lot of conformity. And yet, for all his incredible fervor and passion, it is those denials of grandeur that sing to me today.

John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not the messiah, Elijah, or the prophet. Maybe this is a good moment for all of us to take a second and acknowledge that we, too, are not any of those things. It’s a good thought experiment. Something very much along the lines of Lisa’s image last week, of one bucket at a time. “I baptize with water” he says. Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Before we can make straight the way of the Lord, we need to remember who we are, and who we are not. You will not rebuild the temple on your own, nor will you right the world’s wrongs by yourself. And yet you are called. You are called to notice those wrongs, to cry out against them and name them and to heal them, and to feel the tension of being one person in a society with big problems.

John the Baptist’s next sentence is a show-stopper, I think. “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” That first phrase: Among you stands one whom you do not know. There. That’s Advent, for me. Possibility Incarnate.  Among you stands one whom you do not know.

You who look to the skies for hope, who pray for a superhero, who despair at your own smallness, who feel gloom as the days grow shorter and the news grows bleaker… among you stands one whom you do not know.

You who have fried your circuits with rage and sadness, you who are already exhausted without even reading the news, who seek some quiet corner in which to restore your coping mechanisms… among you stands one whom you do not know.

You who feel helpless and complicit in a society that is deeply broken, and which tilts toward you… among you stands one whom you do not know.

The one who stands among you is not you, and you are not tasked with being that one. You are tasked with making some space. The smallness that we feel when we start to realize how big the world’s problems really are is a very real smallness, but it is not a hopelessness. That one is among you, emerges in your midst, and you are not called to be that one. You are called to make straight the way, and to welcome that one into the world.

John was not Jesus. John was the first follower of Jesus, and the great irony here is that he is also the one whom Jesus followed, the one that came before Jesus. Likewise, the Israelites were tasked with rebuilding a holy city for the glory of God, an act that would galvanize covenant with God. Big work, for sure, but also human work. None of these people was asked to be more than who they were, not even Isaiah, and Isaiah actually was the prophet. They were called to create a space in their lives and among their people for the realization of God. God would follow.

We are called to the same. We are called to feel heartbroken at the things that happen in the world, to feel betrayed, guilty, and complicit at our own privilege. We are called to yearn for a great transformation, and to feel impatient and impotent when transformation comes far slower and smaller than we’d hoped. We are also called to be in our own skin, to know who we are and who we are not. The Incarnation, for all its importance, was not a very big thing as things go, and we are called to announce it, and to make space in this world for it to matter. It’s crucial work, but it’s human sized and so are we. So let me submit this Advent that the gnawing tension and outrage we feel in these weeks might not be the futility of the human condition. I mean, it could be if we aren’t careful, but it could also be the opening up of some space for the Incarnation, for God’s grace coming precisely as a marginalized body.

Among you stands one whom you do not know. How do you welcome that one? Start by remembering who you are.

In lieu of an “amen,” let me read Malcom Guite’s poem once more.

Begin the song exactly where you are,

Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Absence and Possibility” A Sam Laurent Sermon

Absence and Possibility

By Sam Laurent

Year A, Proper 28 (RCL), preached at the Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill

There are a lot of fun sentences in today’s readings, but here’s just one: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they
have will be taken away.” That’s from today’s reading, near the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

Here’s another sentence, from the same Gospel: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That one comes from the Beatitudes, which begin the Sermon on the Mount, another address
to Jesus’ close followers.

How can those two sentences both come from the same Gospel? How can they both be Good News? That’s what I want to at least try to sort out today.

What does this parable of the talents even mean? Well, it comes right after the parable of the virgins with their lamps, which we heard last week, and it continues the theme of attentiveness and discipline in
preparing for the kingdom of God. Traditionally the interpretation is that we are called to use our gifts and abilities to further the purposes of the one who gave them to us. Everything we have comes from
God’s grace, so we ought to use it to serve God.

I don’t have a problem with that interpretation. It’s really beautiful in a way, and it reflects the ongoing commission that we received in the story of creation, to be stewards of creation. But this text, this
parable that delivers that message, is difficult. It’s got slavery in it. Someone gets thrown into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. When the slave whom the master already trusted
the least buried the talent—which is an amount of silver it would take a laborer 15-20 years to earn– in the ground and told his master exactly why, I don’t think I’m alone in cheering for the slave. But there’s no happy ending there for him. Instead, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

My problem with the parable is not the message it delivers, but the fact that it feels a little like the police enforcing a rule. “Do this so you don’t get thrown in jail.” That’s not how the Gospel tends to work, and more selfishly, I just don’t think it’s very interesting.
There has to be more.

So how does this exist in the same Gospel as the Beatitudes? My suggestion today is that both of them show Jesus preparing his followers for the absurdity of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is preparing his disciples to be steadfast followers even as they encounter the world’s resistance to Jesus’ teachings. The absurdity they face is the idea that they can follow Jesus beyond the persecutions and ridicule they encounter. They can, by worldly standards, lose, and still win.

Jesus tells the disciples during the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It’s a nicer way of conveying the same message we get in the parable of the talents. What you have been given is meant not for you to hoard, but for you to use to share in service to God.

I’m not trying to evade a difficult parable by talking about the Sermon on the Mount instead. I promise. But the fair question is: what comes from today’s parable that couldn’t be said better through other
texts? Today’s Gospel is, I suggest, about an absurdity, and it’s a deeper and more harrowing absurdity than persecution or mockery. The parable of the talents shows Jesus preparing his disciples for his
absence. Like the parable of the virgins last week, it’s about how to live as people who wait for Jesus.

Jesus, especially as told by Matthew, can understand the slave’s offense at the master’s behavior. The master goes away for a long time, leaving the slaves, the ones who do not luxuriate in his vast wealth, to do the work of tending to his fortune. The slave who was given one talent says “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Jesus, only a few days after this, and only a couple of pages later in the Gospel of Matthew, will be heard crying “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, himself feeling left to do the hard work and then suffer. In this Gospel, Jesus is supremely aware of his mission and yet feels forsaken on the cross, when God’s embrace cannot be felt. It is an experience of deep abandonment, and here the slave is levelling a similar charge at the master.

Jesus knows that, even after the resurrection, even with the promised presence of the Holy Spirit, his ascension into heaven is going to feel like abandonment. He’s preparing the people of God for the absence of God. It is the same absence that we live with.

But it is a holy and incomplete absence. After all, the absence of God is still of God. It is not a simple departure that Jesus made, but like the slaves in the parable, we expect a return. We are not sure when it will happen, not sure what form it will take, but we feel the absence of Jesus and also an expectation of return. That expectation colors every moment of the absence, infuses them with the energy of possibility. This is the divine absurdity Jesus is coaching his disciples toward; to carry on the work of a departed master, living in the possibility of an unknown return. In a sense, this is what the Holy Spirit, which is the presence of God in the world, offers us: possibility, an opening to something beyond what seems inevitable.

So the absence of God, the time during which the master is away, takes on a new character. We are not biding our time until Jesus returns, at which point we will set to work on the things he says to do. In this
time of holy possibility, the moments can take on extra meaning, as each one can bring forth the revelation of God. In this way of understanding the parable, the slave who buried his talent committed
two offenses.

The first was devaluing the time when the master was away, assuming that because he was gone, his work ought not continue. Let’s pause and acknowledge that to our 21st century ears, this lesson in the context
of slavery makes our skin crawl. But the metaphorical nature of a parable lets it operate on several levels, so we can recoil at the slavery and still see that the absent master was present as the possibility of return.

The second offense the slave commits against the master in this parable is in assuming that, because he was not personally making the trades that grew his fortune, he had no claim to the fortune. Again, we in the era of Wall Street crashes and shareholder meetings will raise an eyebrow at the economics here, but if the story is about our relationship to God in the time between the ascension and Christ’s return, which is to say the time in which anyone anywhere has read the Bible, then it starts to make sense.

God is present in our lives, in this space, as holy possibility, as the Holy Spirit. God is not present in a way that overrides everything and enforces a divine edict on every detail of the world, but instead as that possibility that each moment, each event can manifest something of the kingdom of God, might be the moment of presence. We live in relationship with a God who stays mostly out of sight, calling us into mystery and wonder. Our sacraments are markers of that mystery, openings for the sacred possibility to punctuate the mundane.

So there’s some deeply poetic stuff going on here, but what strange God would operate like this? Surely some constant and clear presence, some unambiguous directions, some reliable office hours would be more characteristic of the God we think we want. The slave buried the talent because the master wasn’t there to notice. What kind of management philosophy is that?

It’s one in which our freedom matters. From the first moment of creation, on through the covenants and generations of prophets, humanity’s freedom has mattered deeply. And since the opening chapters of Genesis, that freedom has always meant an obligation to the one who gave it to us. An obligation to tend to the earth, to live into covenant, to share God’s good news with one another and to create circumstances in which God’s love can be readily felt. An obligation to—even when God cannot be seen or felt—carry on the work we have been given with the resources we have been given, that they may increasingly become signs of God’s possibility in the world.

What kind of God would operate like that? A God that is more concerned with having relationship with us than absolute control over us. A God who delights in seeing the beautiful things we can do with the
resources we have, and who mourns when we squander them. A God who, even when Jesus walked the earth, might best be described as calling us toward holy possibility.

That tricky sentence, “to all those who have, more will be given and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” isn’t talking about money or stuff, but
about freedom, which on our end entails faith. Faith not as a blind unquestioning affirmation of some set of propositions, but rather a commitment to the possibility of God’s presence, and to the seemingly impossible reality that presence enacts. Faith is holding open a space for the absurd possibility of the presence of an absent God.

To have faith is to be “poor in spirit,” as the beatitudes say, to know that we need grace and that we need to use our time to seek God, to try to cultivate the possibility of God in our lives. It’s a posture of poverty, rather than the arrogant assumption of completion. Those who “have” in the parable of the talents have faith and perspective, which makes them the poor in spirit from the Sermon on the Mount. They use their freedom, the resources trused to their decisions, to serve God’s vision, and in doing so are made freer,
endowed with more freedom. Those with no faith, like those who are not poor in spirit, are bound to their certainties, to the world as it most immediately appears. Without some absurd possibility, freedom
becomes slavery. “Those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” the parable says. I’m suggesting that it means that without a sense of possibility, without an investment in something unseen in your life, the gift of free will becomes moot.

So, to answer my original question, how is it that the parable of the talents is in the same book as the Sermon on the Mount? It works because both guide us toward an awareness of the beautiful absurdity
of God’s calling, and both teach us to use our freedom to seek relationship with the God that seeks us. The lessons of the talent that got buried are quite simple, then. Our resources come by grace. Even if our own cunning and intelligence shaped the processes by which we got them, intelligence and cunning are results of freedom, and so they too came by grace. We reap what we do not sow. And just as importantly, the absence of the incarnate Jesus from the earth, the lack of a full-fledged member of the Trinity walking among us, does not mean God has abandoned us. Everything we have is an opportunity to seek God, even if we cannot see God. The trick is to see the holy possibility.

Trust. Spend. Give. Believe. Repeat. The Vicar’s Sermon Last Sunday

Year A – Proper 25 — October 26, 2014 — The Rev Lisa G. Fischbeck — @TheAdvocate

Trust. Spend. Give. Believe. Repeat.

 

At the end of his sermon last Sunday,

Sam Laurent offered us a spiritual discipline.

“When you empty your pocket change at the end of the day”,

he said,

“or happen to glance at a dollar,

take a second to find those words. ‘In God We Trust’.

In light of the Incarnate economy, each coin, each bill

is an ironic little revolution.”

 

Now I have not talked to Sam about this since he last Sunday,

but I take his suggestion to mean this:

 

God has established an “incarnate economy”.

Which is to say, God has established an economy based on God’s deep care for the world God created,

and, perhaps especially,

for the human beings created in God’s own image to dwell in that world.

An incarnate economy gives priority value to the creation, dignity and inter-relatedness of human beings,

God being so deeply invested in this economy

so as to at one point become enfleshed,

in human form,

in the person of Jesus.

We are talking about a supremely intimate God here.

 

This kind of incarnate economy stands against

what Sam has helped us to name as an “excarnate economy”,

an economy that objectifies human beings and other creatures of our God,

seeing them as means to an end that is

in a capitalist society,

financial profit,

a means to an end that is,

in a communist society or in a dictatorship,

governmental power.

 

This objectification of human beings,

seeing them as objects of an economic industry,

as widgets rather than as creatures of God,

this objectification of human beings,

isn’t just of those who do the labor to makes stuff available.

No.

Those who purchase and sell the stuff are mere objects of the economic industry as well.

Stats on a chart.

That’s all we are.

 

So…

how we spend, how we use,

the money we’ve earned or been given,

is an opportunity to take a stand for God’s incarnate economy.

directly or indirectly made manifest by just about every word and way of Jesus.

Therein lies the opportunity for revolution.

 

In God We Trust can become our nudge,

our reminder,

to consider these things when we purchase or spend or give our money.

Are we using it in a way that magnifies the incarnate ways of God?

or

are we using it in a way that fosters widgetry?

 

So this past week I set out to take Sam’s suggestion to heart.

But truth be told,

in the last seven days,

I haven’t used any currency.

And since I keep my coins in a purse instead of a pocket,

I haven’t seen any either.

 

I did pull up an image of a quarter online, though,

so I could post it along with Sam’s sermon.

And it helped me in my pondering.

 

Nonetheless, it is worth noting

that we hardly use currency any more.

(thereby defying the legitimacy of calling it current – cy),

But it is our currency,

that bears the reminder, “In God We Trust”.

Our credit cards and debit cards don’t.

Which makes our ironic revolution a little harder to accomplish,

harder for us to remember

that we who are Christian

are playing with a different deck.

 

So if we are going to take on this discipline,

expand it even,

we are going to have to think a little harder

be a little more intentional.

We are going to have to concentrate,

maybe learn some more facts,

And pray.

 

Because this revolution isn’t just for the good of the world.

It is for the good of our own selves and souls as well.

 

Jesus says a whole lot about money.

A whole lot.

Parable after parable,

encounter after encounter.

Jesus knows,

which mean that God knows,

that where our treasure is,

how we hold it

how we loose it,

is inextricably intertwined

with where our heart is,

with what our faith is,

with who

with what

we truly trust.

 

In today’s reading for Deuteronomy,

we are given the story of the death of Moses.

In his death, we are reminded of his life.

And there has not arisen a prophet since

in the land of Israel like Moses.

whom the Lord knew face to face,

none like him for all the signs and the wonders

which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt

to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land.

and for all the mighty power and for all the great and terrible deeds

which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.

 

In the story of Moses we see a man who over and again

experienced and understood the incarnate workings of our God:

Basket of reeds,

nursing breast,

burning bush,

Red Sea parting,

pillar of fire,

pillar of cloud,

water from the rock,

manna in the dessert,

tablets of stone,

wilderness, land and mountains, land.

 

Over and again,

Moses sees God’s hand at work in the stuff around him.

And Moses sees it,

not as the means of his own power or gain,

security or tenure.

But as the means by which he is being lead by God

to help the people of God understand themselves to be

the people of God.

Provided for and called forth.

 

Money, wealth, material possessions,

along with gazillions of dollars worth of advertising that worms its way into our intellect, psyche and soul each day,

can tempt us into believing that money, wealth, and material possessions

are what matter most,

are what we should trust

instead of

or ahead of

God.

They are sneaky that way.

 

We need to resist that temptation.

Turn the tables, if you will.

So that how we use and spend our money,

the material stuff that we encounter or hold,

can become instead

a way for us to see and know

God’s creation,

God’s people,

and God’s Way, revealed to us in Jesus.

 

Every time we swipe our card in the little card swiper

or type our card number into the website of a business,

every time we pay a bill online

or set up an automatic withdrawal,

we are expressing our faith,

we are saying what we believe,

what we value,

who and what we trust.

 

There are many priorities that each of us needs consider and to ponder, of course –

tending to our health and well-being,

providing for our children,

 

But all in all,

we who would call ourselves Christians

are called to be mindful about our money and our possessions,

Thoughtful, intentional, prayerful,

about what they mean to us

and whether we save, spend, or give

in a way that responds to the first commandment

that we love God with all our heart, soul and might,

in a way that responds to the second commandment,

that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves,

or not.

 

To move myself a little farther along this track,

I’m going to take Sam’s suggested spiritual discipline a step further in the week ahead.

(see what you started Sam?)

On Monday, I’m going to go by the bank and get a roll of American dollar coins,

coins that bear the words,

“In God we trust”

and maybe have the image of a young native American woman on them too.

And I’m going to put them in my car’s cup holder.

 

I hope I’m not just going to keep them in that cup holder,

but take them out and look at them

(instead of my smart phone)

when I’m stopped at a red light.

And I’m going to try,

hard,

to ponder the incarnate economy of which I want to be a part.

It may not be as dramatic as a burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea.

But maybe,

just maybe,

by these red light contemplations

my faith will more and more inspire my spending,

and my spending will more and more inspire my faith.

 

I wonder how many of those coins I’ll be nudged to give away to the stranger standing by my window

holding a cardboard sign,

or maybe put into the basket under the altar at the Advocate next Sunday.

 

Amen.