All Saints. A Sermon by Nathan Kirkpatrick, Pastor-in-Residence

All Saints’ Sunday |November 2, 2014
Nathan Kirkpatrick, Pastor-In-Residence
 
One Sunday, soon after I had graduated from seminary,
while I was serving my first churches,
            I included in the sermon
                        quotations from both
the 5th century bishop Augustine
and the 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
At the end of the liturgy that morning,
one woman in the congregation met me at the back door,
            thanked me for the sermon, and then asked,
                        “Augustine, Bonhoeffer … whose kin are they?”
 
                                    It was her rural North Carolina way of asking
                                                whose family Augustine and Bonhoeffer belonged to.
                                    It was her way to figure out whether they were worth listening to at all.
                                                I think she expected me to say
“Oh you remember lil’ Auggie – he’s a Johnson from over in Boonville” – or
                                                            “Oh, Dietrich – he’s Nellie’s boy.
                                                                        Pure Casstevens.
You know, his sister went to the prom
with your cousin.”
                                                Instead, I told her exactly what I told you –
                                                            Augustine was a fifth century bishop in North Africa,
                                                            And Bonhoeffer was martyred during World War II.
                                                She told me that she didn’t know their people.
“Augustine, Bonhoeffer … whose kin are they?”
Whose family do they belong to?
Today I have a better answer for her.
Poor woman. She had to wait more than a decade
            for me to have a better answer for her
than a fifth century bishop and a twentieth-century German pastor.
But today I have a better answer for her.
Because today answers her question beautifully.
            Whose kin? Whose family?
                        All Saints’ Sunday tells us.
They’re yours, and they’re mine.
                                    They belong to us. And we belong to them.
Together, we a part of a single family —
 a family that spans chronology and geography,
                                                a family made up of Revelation’s
                                                 vision of that great multitude
                                    from every nation, tribe, people and language.
            See, today, on All Saints’ Sunday,
                        we acknowledge that part of what happens in the waters of baptism
is that we are made part of a great extended family.
As St John put it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
                        In baptism, we are given our place in a family tree that includes
                                    seekers and servants, poets and prophets,
                                                mystics and medics, lawyers and lovers,
contemplatives and charismatics.
                                    And in the waters of baptism, under the Name of God,
we take our place in that family
                                                that seeks to live in love and to love in peace.
                                    In baptism, we are incorporated into that family that has sought to live
                                                with God’s priorities as its own, with God’s dream as its own,
                                                            that family that depends on grace, relies on mercy,
                                                                        and is guided by the Spirit.
In baptism, we become part of a family
That reaches farther back than human memory,
            Part of a family that embodies a promise
that extends into the future beyond even time itself.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
Augustine, Bonhoeffer.
Whose kin are they? Well, they’re yours, and they’re mine. And we are theirs.
Today, we gather to celebrate the connectedness of our Christian family.
            Today, we come together to remember how we are bound together.
That is foundational to our identity as the Body of Christ,
     to our being the family of God in the world.
Now, like every family,
Ours has known loss and grief.
            We’ve said some goodbyes too early –
                        And we have stood beside gravesides and wondered where the years went.
We’ve loved and lost, not entirely convinced that we believe the poet
that that’s better than never having loved at all.
And so if today is, in part, a day to celebrate the connectedness
of the family born in baptism,
            then it is also a day to remember
                        All those who have taught us and shown us
what it means to belong to this family.
Today, we remember them,
     and remember that the bonds which hold this family together reach beyond the grave.
Some of their pictures decorate this place –
            Each one is a memory. Each one represents a story that is worth telling and worth sharing.
                        Each one is a person we celebrate today.
                                    Each one is of blessed memory.
                                                Each one is a saint of God.
Now, some of you may chafe at my use of the word saint to describe them.
            You may object: “She was just grandma.” “He was just my brother.”
               “She just taught me middle school English.”
So often when we use the word saint
We use it to mean the self-sacrificing or the perfect.
            We use it to refer to those of heroic virtue or astonishing faith.
Why wouldn’t we?
            Most of the time that we see saints in our society
                        They peer out at us from the painter’s canvas
                                    Or the sculptor’s marble.
                         In art, they are their perfect selves.
            And they look as comfortable under their haloes
as I feel in a baseball cap.
So, when we think about grandma or our brother or our child or our teacher or our friend,
            The word saint may sit awkwardly on their lives.
                        We knew them in their complexity, in their humanity.
We knew that her love had rough edges,
that he could be snarky or sarcastic.
Of course, the complexity of their lives helps us to nuance what we mean by saint.
We do not mean the perfect.
            We do not mean only the heroic.
                        We do not mean just the self-sacrificing or the extraordinary.
When we speak of the saints we mean the people who
who have taught us something of the way of Jesus,
who have shown us in their lives what justice and joy;
what redemption and reconciliation look like.
We mean all those people who have reminded us
            at our best and at our worst –
                        “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
They are a complicated, human lot.
            Remember the story of Teresa of Avila?
                        One day as she was riding along, her horse threw her to the ground.
                                    There, as she looked up, she saw Jesus.
                                                And he said to her, “This is how I treat my friends.”
                                                She retorted, “Lord, perhaps this is why you have so few.”
All but the most talented of artists flatten her into a pious postcard,
when in truth, she’s a feisty saint who said that, if God picks on you, you pick back.
That’s the image I want of a saint –
Something human, something honest.
The saints of this place decorate these walls …
            And they are human and honest and playful and wondrous.
                        They taught us something of the way of Jesus.
                                    They reminded us that “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”
Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that she understand her vocation as a priest
To be one of “recognizing the holiness of things and holding them up to God.”
It’s a nice definition for a priest, but it’s a better definition of a saint.
A saint is a person who recognizes “beloved, we are God’s children now”
and holds us up to God as part of the family.
Now, there is a caveat in all of this, a word of caution –
And some of you will quarrel with me at this point, and I welcome that conversation.
There are some whom we have lost
that we might be tempted canonize – that we might be tempted to paint into saints –
            not because of who they were but because of our guilt or fear or shame.
I will never forget the courage of a woman in my first parish
Who came up to me after my first funeral there and said,
            “Nathan, do you have to say the nice things?”
                        “What do you mean,” I asked.
“I go to these funerals,” she said, “and everything is always about how wonderful the dead person was. So what I’m wondering is, if my dad dies while you’re my pastor, do you have to say nice things about him because none of them would be true?”
On All Saints’ Sunday,
In the midst of our celebration of all of those members of the family
who have taught us the way of Jesus,
            It is perfectly legitimate to remember
a few whose memories we should let go of –
            the ones whom we have lost
who didn’t teach us about grace or love or peace
who didn’t show us the shape of mercy or forgiveness or gentleness.
                        There are a few whose voices we should no longer heed,
                        Whose example we should not seek to follow,
                                    Whose witness in our life is counterproductive to our own growth and healing.
Like every family,
there are those in this one whose memory is a source of pain not peace.
     It is okay today to trust them to God and to let them go.
“Augustine, Bonhoeffer … whose kin are they?”
            They’re yours, and they’re mine.
               And I am grateful that we are family together.
                    Amen.

“In God We Trust?” A Sam Laurent Sermon

In God We Trust?

By Sam Laurent

Year A, Proper 24 (RCL), preached at the Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or, iconically in the King James, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” It’s the classic sound byte for separation of church and state, Jesus himself seemingly saying that they are distinct concerns, with distinct jurisdictions. In some sense, it’s an easy way out, a way to sort of appease the secular powers and the religious powers at the same time.

After all, the situation itself is a trap, set up by the two factions who most feared that Jesus might cause instability. The Pharisees—who followed a rather legalistic understanding of Judaism—and the Herodians—who had allegiances to the Roman empire—ask Jesus whether it is right to pay taxes. If he answers yes, he offends the Pharisees who resent the empire’s taxation, and if he says no, word will shoot back to Rome that there’s a dissident leader over here in Palestine. So he asks whose picture is on the coin. Caesar’s. So give the coin to Caesar. The stuff that is God’s… give that to God.

It’s a suggestion that the empire and God operate in different economies. After all, human authority, according to the empire, ran no higher than Caesar, who some held to be divine. To say that, beyond the scope of Caesar’s jurisdiction and stewardship, there was yet something more that was God’s is really quite radical. It’s suggesting that Caesar is not the ultimate ruler, and that the currency of empire—coins with the emperor’s image on them—do not hold ultimate sway over human beings.

But look at a coin or a bill. It’s still got something like Caesar’s image on it, a president or otherwise important person in our history, but it also says “In God We Trust.” It would seem that our empire has made the coin both Caesar’s and God’s. At the very least, it would seem to be a way of trying to align our economy with God, of signifying that we believe our nation in some way reflects the household of God.

“In God We Trust” showed up on our money in two movements. The first was in 1861, during the Civil War. A Pennsylvania minister named M.R. Watkinson wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, concerned that future generations, when studying the turbulent American republic, would, by it’s artifacts and documents, assume that it was a Godless place. Showing our piety on our money was a way to signify to all concerned that this country cared about God.[1]

Watkinson proposed particular designs and language, and explained his motives thusly: “This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.” Rev. Watkinson was apparently not a fan of the first amendment.

The Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase was sufficiently moved by the argument, and instructed the mint to start inscribing something about God on our coins. His order said “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.” So there you go. In a time of deep national crisis, it seemed important that our money, which after all is the national symbol we carry around with us, indicate that our strength and safety as a nation come from our participation in God’s power.

Fast forward to 1955 and Dwight Eisenhower, who signed a law placing “In God We Trust” on our paper money as well. The Florida congressman who introduced the bill, citing the restrictions against religious practice in the Soviet Union, said that our national faith is a foundation of our freedom. The 50s were the same decade that saw “In God We Trust” become our official national motto, and “under God” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. Eisenhower described our nation’s religious faith as “spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”[2]

So by this point, our powers that be seem to have done a fair amount to make it hard to figure out what ought to be rendered to God and what ought to be rendered to Caesar. It makes sense that in times of crisis, like the Civil War or Cold War, we might want to appeal to some transcendent power to assure us that our national identity is somehow rooted more deeply and justly than others. It makes sense, but it’s still kind of problematic.

More to the point, I think it short-circuits our understanding of the Gospel if we take our financial “In God We Trust” to mean much. Last time I preached, I talked about excarnate economics and incarnate economics.[3] I got the idea from Richard Kearney, a philosopher whose work I love, and since it’s not my own, I feel not even a twinge of shame in meditating on it some more. Excarnate economics ignore the intrinsic value of each person and the importance of material sustenance. Excarnate economics put no real stock in the in-carnation. Incarnate economics, putting a lot of stock in the Incarnation, radically value each person as a member of the Incarnation, not as exploitable assets.

It’s not hard to argue that, no matter what we write on our money, our economic system is pretty excarnate. I went on about this quite a bit last time, and so I won’t repeat myself too much here. But look at the way manufacturing moves toward cheaper labor, devaluing employees in favor of cheaper goods and higher profits. All of this is done as part of a system that concentrates a whole lot of money in very few places. You know this stuff. I don’t need to go on. So, write anything you want about God on a dollar bill. It doesn’t change the economics. It’s still made in Caesar’s image.

But Jesus very subtly points to an alternative, toward an Incarnate economy. It’s really hard to talk about that economy, because we experience it primarily as a challenge to our excarnate habits. From our standpoint, the Incarnate economy feels like negation, like a cancellation of our structures. The Incarnate economy deconstructs our assumptions and, by pulling us back down to earth, into our createdness, constantly reminds us that we look for power in the wrong places. Because Incarnate value cannot be traded or sold, because it simply is wherever we look, the Incarnate economy always eludes the grasp of cynical capitalism, and that’s why it remains a holy possibility. The Incarnate economy is a thorn in our excarnate ambitions, and reveals itself in the dissonance we experience in the Gospel. Today, we see it in the words Jesus didn’t speak, but which say the most.

In today’s story, neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians can claim victory.  Neither tricked Jesus into uttering the “gotcha” quote they wanted. Both sought to trap him, and both groups, upon being told where they can render things, “left him and went away.” His most provocative statement involves reading between the lines. Because the question he asked without asking it was “whose image is on the people who pay the taxes?” It’s easy to answer, and the Pharisees would have known it. People are created in God’s image, and so they belong to God. Not to the religious authorities. To God. Neither side really wins here.

Being created in God’s image, every single one of us, is a pretty simple idea. It means something of God is in us. The Incarnation, the event in which God takes human form and walks among us as Jesus, underscores that. God’s presence is not that of a distant, purely abstract idea. God is earthy, is embodied, gets God’s hands dirty in the messiness of creaturely existence.

Jesus, refusing to play by the rules of the excarnate economy, marches steadily into that messiness. Face to face with the human instinct to consolidate privilege and money, to control access to the things that are valuable, he very slyly offers a response that somewhat appeases the imperial interests but also ridicules the whole enterprise. Who cares whose image is on the coin? The idea that ascending hierarchy draws closer to God is quickly debunked by the understanding that each person, peasant or prince, is created in God’s image.

The Incarnate economy that Jesus points to here is a radical challenge to any system in which one person can claim to be more valuable than another, or in which one person can claim to know more about God than another. In fact, what makes it so elusive—powerfully elusive—is the way it dismantles our assumptions and our instincts. It is present in our lives as a possibility that breaks apart our idols and our abstractions. The parable of the vineyard a few weeks back broke down the notion that our instrinsic value is related to economic production. Today Jesus seems to be saying to the Pharisees, who were upset that Jesus does not conform to their understanding of the covenant, that they are not the ones who determine the relative value of one person or another in relationship to God. God has already done that, in their creation, and in the Incarnation.

In the end, I don’t think today’s Gospel affirms the first amendment’s separation of church and state. I don’t think it tears it down, either, just for the record. I mean, you guys, the Bible might not be about The Constitution. I think it’s about God’s economy and ours, about the Incarnate economy and  our excarnate one. While we can’t extricate ourselves from the excarnate ways of the world, nor can we honestly pretend that we don’t help maintain them, we can also know that a possibility restlessly persists, buzzing in our ears and tugging at our hearts, calling us to honor that which is of God in every person.

So I’d like to stand here and draw on some mythical theological expertise to give you an outline of the Incarnate economy. I’d like to tell you exactly how the way Jesus points toward a deeper and closer source of value and meaning in our lives translates into rules and structures that will bring about a transformative new reality. But it’s much more appropriate that I admit that I cannot. The Incarnate economy eludes my grasp too. It tries to break apart my pride and open my heart. I wrestle with it, and I hope that I will lose.

Unknown-2Ultimately, it’s kind of funny that “In God We Trust” is written on our coins and our bills. It was meant as reverence, a strange cocktail of nationalism and religious pride. But thanks to Matthew’s gospel and the Incarnate economy, the intended piety comes apart at the seams. I’ve never heard of a spiritual discipline that involved looking at legal tender, but here’s one. When you empty your pocket change at the end of the day, 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.



[1] http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx

[2] http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-eisenhower-signs-in-god-we-trust-into-law

[3] Read that sermon here: http://theadvocatechurch.org/farmworkers-and-reincarnate-economics-a-sam-laurent-sermon/

Farmworkers and Reincarnate Economics — A Sam Laurent Sermon

Farmworkers and Reincarnate Economics

By Sam Laurent

Year A, Proper 20 (RCL), preached at the Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill

Something about us wants to be extraordinary. We want our impact on the world, and our legacy within it, to be greater than it is. We gnaw at the confines of our mortality. And so we compete with each other. We try to carve out a little immortality by winning trophies or acquiring wealth, or by doing whatever it is that we care about better than other people. We get jealous of things they have, and we endlessly annoy each other on facebook by projecting ourselves as we’d like to be seen, and by using way too many exclamation marks.

This is human nature, I think, not a guilt trip. It’s why the story of the unfortunate snack in the Garden of Eden still gets to something at our core. Our drive to be more than we are is powerful. It has done great things, and it has led to a lot of problems, too. Striving to transcend our limits, we often view the rest of the world in abstract, as things to be overcome, things holding us back, things that we want, and people we want to get them from. Ambition is to be praised, and yet it can torment us, and it embeds itself in the way we structure our societies.

There are all sorts of little lies we tell ourselves to justify being less than decent to others, and chief among them is that toxic little “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” line that worked itself into American identity at some point. A low wage or poor treatment is incentive to work hard, to better yourself and reach for the ever-dangling carrot of slightly higher wages.

This is rubbish thought, and it really bugs Jesus, who happens to be talking about farmworkers today. We don’t need the Bible to tell us these things, but it sure helps. Have you been to the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Newton Grove? It’s an amazing place. If you go there and talk to the folks whose labor yields our food, you’ll learn that they have a wide variety of skills and backgrounds. They have all sorts of expertise, but the best opportunity available to them is migrant labor. Have you ever picked produce in a field? I thought I was in good shape, and after an hour of picking collard greens for the Food Bank—collards too small for stores, so left behind by the migrant crew that worked a few rows ahead of us—I was worn out, on a not particularly hot day. One night, a crew of workers came straight from a 14 hour day in the fields to the ministry, to play soccer with the middle-school kids I was chaperoning. Still wearing dusty jeans and work boots, they took it easy on the kids and let them score a goal every once in a while. I slept in my air-conditioned house that night, not in the crowded barrack-style camps that the farmworkers live in. You’ve driven right past those camps, but if you don’t know exactly where they are, you won’t find them. The camps are hidden right in our midst, sort of a metaphor for the whole deal. You will be blown away by these people. Your brain will search for words to describe them, but “lazy” and its synonyms will not be needed. Leave those words on the shelf.

There’s no laziness near the biblical vineyard either. When the landowner goes to the 1st century equivalent of the gas station down on Jones Ferry Road to hire more workers, he asks them why they are not working. They tell him “because no one has hired us.” This story is about people who want to make a living struggling to exist in a vulnerable position. We’re not talking about total wealth redistribution (that will come on another Sunday). We’re talking about subsistence.

Today’s parable is literally about farmworkers and economic justice, but it’s not just a one-off. The logic that drives this parable is deeply ingrained in the character of Jesus. All of this follows from that moment of Incarnation, when God pours Godself into human form. We say that the historical moment in which Jesus emerged is a reflection of something eternally true of God. God is always pouring grace on us and choosing to be in relationship with us in our bodily existence. In today’s Exodus reading, God’s people ask for food, and are given it. God reaches out to people in their bodily existence. That is something that is true of God at any point, and the Incarnation stands as the richest illustration of it.

Behind these structures lurks the great lie that’s often deployed in support of economic exploitation. “Only spiritual things matter.” Our bodies and this whole world are only passing phenomena, but the spiritual is eternal. Rather than worry about material things like subsistence and shelter and health, people should only concern themselves with the spiritual things.

From this viewpoint, the Incarnation is truly scandalous, for it shows how deeply God values this world. If only the spiritual dimension matters, and if we can tend to our spiritual existence by ignoring our bodily lives and needs, then God need not call us to material justice, to make sure people have food to eat, water to drink, and a place to take shelter… things that Jesus does quite emphatically.

If only the spiritual dimension matters, then no one really needs to do anything, because the material world is only the inconvenient vehicle for our time in our bodies. If those farmworkers who were not hired until late in the day can really be abstracted out of their humanity—as our economy and politics so often manage to do–then we can deny them a decent wage because no one will make us do otherwise. This, for the record, is also the theology that was taught to slaves. This world is fleeting, and your reward lies in heaven. Curiously, it’s something only poor folks are forced to take seriously.

I’m going to take a cue from the philosopher Richard Kearney here and call this system of thinking of people as economic commodities “excarnate economics.[1]” Ex-carnate because it presumes to remove bodies, families, health, love, grief, and all the other elements of the human experience from consideration. A farmworker, in this system, is roughly the same as an assembly line robot; a means to an end, a machine that gets produce onto a truck. These assessments are made without consideration of the lives involved, the pain inflicted, or the spiritual cost. The deep irony is that so much of this excarnation happens in the production of food, which is a very In-carnate process. Food has value because bodies need it, but the economics of food treat bodies themselves as a commodity.

Now, our word “economy” comes from the Greek “oikonomia,” which means household. Today, Jesus calls us to think of ourselves as an In-carnate household. In a household, we make sure everyone is fed, we care for each other, we understand that our fortunes are bound together. In a household, we know that our ability to be nourished and to feel valued are the most important things relationships do for us. By paying a decent wage, the landowner honors the intrinsic value of the workers. He passes up the opportunity to treat them as excarnate entities and treats them as incarnate persons.

The logic of the Incarnation is simple and the implications are endless. The Incarnation was revealed not to one person, but to masses, and they were told to tell everyone they could of the Good News, the Gospel. God essentially says, “I’m with you, you’re with me. I’m part of you, you’re part of me. Act accordingly.” The invitation to God’s kingdom is not to be hoarded or hidden, but is to be shared as widely as possible, for each person is equally loved by God, and as shown by the Incarnation, is embraced by God. That’s the Incarnate logic of the divine economy; everyone’s value is equal, and God’s grace lifts up the downtrodden.

So the reason that we cannot resent the landowner’s generosity the way the workers who started in the morning resent it is much deeper than a simple “it’s my money and I’ll do with it what I please.” It’s because in recognizing that everybody needs to get by, he values each of his workers fairly. Their value is not created by the work they do for him, but by the fact that their lives, like all lives, are graced by God. Don’t mistake him for a philanthropist. The landowner’s just a decent guy who runs his business like a household. A fiscal fool in today’s market, but a shrewd economist by the logic of the Incarnation.

Think of the Incarnation as precisely a counterpoint to our runaway ambition and the excarnational ways in which we operate. We chase after wealth or power as though they are the rungs of a ladder that lifts us up. God, we think, is up, and so we focus on those things that we think will elevate us, will propel us under our own power a little closer to being deities. As we are straining upward and away from our humanity, God is coming “down,” gathering up humanity, and incorporating it into God’s body. As we try to raise ourselves above our fellow humans, the Incarnate God reminds us that our worth stems from the fact that we are all welcomed into God’s household.

So much human energy goes into standing on top of other humans to reach a little closer to where we think power and immortality are kept. But our ideas of those things are pale shadows of the grace God delivers to every single person. To strive in the direction we think is up, we have to overlook the real value of the people with whom we are in relationship. The mythical “free market” is an engine of excarnation. It lets people think they can apply financial value to other people, even if that value is less than subsistence. We interact with farmworkers and other underpaid workers without ever encountering them as embodied people.

Incarnate economics remind us that we are one, but in this country, farmworkers are denied the right to unionize, bargain collectively, or otherwise emphasize their value by acting as one. Incarnate economics, echoing Lisa’s reading of Genesis last week, celebrate creation and thank God for the fruits of our land, but the people who harvest it receive a remarkably small cut of the proceeds, mere pennies of your food dollars. The average farmworker makes $11,000 per year, though farms on the East Coat pay less than the national average, so local farmworkers are likely getting less than that. They live in camps amidst the pesticides and poisons of the fields they work, and have irregular access to health care. This is what happens when the injustices in our midst are hidden from sight or selectively overlooked. It runs counter to the logic of the Incarnation, and there is work being done to stop it. If you want to learn more–and I hope you do–check out the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry web site, or talk to Lisa, who has been working with that ministry for years.

In this time when so much of our food arrives on our tables through excarnate economics, we are gathered here to do something radical. Our Eucharist is a decidedly Incarnate feast, in which we take the gift of Incarnation into our bodies for nourishment and for strength. In the Eucharist, we boldly assert that God’s Incarnate economy is the source of true value, and we give thanks for it. They are doing the same thing this morning in Newton Grove at the Farmworkers Ministry, where hundreds gather each week. May this Incarnate feast never stop challenging our excarnate inclinations.

Amen.



[1] http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/30/losing-our-touch/

Elaine Tola Sermon on Community — a response to Matthew 18:15-20

The following is a sermon preached by Elaine Tola, Candidate for Holy Orders (deacon) sponsored by The Advocate, on Sunday, September 7, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

When Lisa asked me a few months ago if I would l like to preach sometime this fall I jumped at the chance. I picked the date based on the schedule on my calendar, not on the schedule of the Lectionary. As I read this Gospel passage for the first time a few weeks ago I immediately saw the folly of my thinking.

Why couldn’t I have picked a Sunday where the Lectionary offered up a straightforward story of healing, of hope, or even one of those neat parables? Surely one of those passages would be easier and more comfortable to reflect on than this one. And therein lies the rub – the Gospel isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable. But it is good news, and the good news in this passage is revealed to us if we look beyond the obvious and see the intricate underpinning that informs the words we read today.

Let me tell you what I mean. I struggle with this passage. I bristle at the legalistic language. Taken by itself, taken out of the context of the whole chapter in which it is located, this text has been used to marginalize, dehumanize, ostracize and shame members of minority groups and prophetic voices in Christian community for centuries. Our church doctrines and history books are full of accounts where this text was and is imposed in its literal form to the detriment of many. By itself this text reads like a legal document outlining the rules of engagement when it comes to conflict in community. And in its literal sense it seems to say in the final few verses that in the economy of God, majority, not always justice, rules. But this way of reading the text is not the Gospel of Jesus.

If we look at this text in the context of the whole of the 18th chapter we can see a progressive movement emerge – we see that this text is framed on either end by parables and other teachings that emphasize two imperatives: to seek the lost, and to show forgiveness and mercy to  those in our community.

In the parable leading  up to this text Jesus tells us about our call to be the shepherd who, when we see that one of our community is lost to us, leaves the 99 to go out in search of the lost one until they are found. For Jesus, regaining a brother or sister who has, for whatever reason, found themselves apart from the community is a holy enterprise, and it is one we must be willing to undertake.

Immediately following this text we hear Peter ask Jesus how many times he should forgive one who has sinned against him. Jesus comes up with an impossible number, seventy-seven times. Forgiveness is essential in community because transgression is a reality of the human condition and Jesus knows this about us. And so he shows us what forgiveness means through parables and by example – ‘Father forgive them…’

So when we read this text in light of the larger context of community and forgiveness, our view of it begins to change. The primary goal is no longer to change someone’s behavior, or demonstrate how he or she is wrong, or even to invite him or her to repentance. Rather, the goal is to restore a damaged relationship. It is speaking truthfully about the breach or hurt we are experiencing, taking responsibility for our feelings and our actions and inviting the other person to do the same so that we might find a way forward together.

It’s harder than it sounds – well, no, it actually sounds pretty hard. It requires intense commitment and a willingness to be vulnerable. This kind of authentic relationship means that we have to acknowledge that not only are we the one who is sinned against, we are also the sinner. To do this is often difficult and sometimes heartbreaking. And it can be liberating down to our very souls if we will let it be.

In light of all this, let me see if I can summarize what I see as the main points of this text:

1)   People sin. People hurt and are hurt by one another.

2)   Communities are made up of these sinning people.

3)   When conflict happens we are invited to seek restoration of relationship through forgiveness, not litigation and blame.

Ah, but what, you ask, what are we to make of the admonition to treat those who do not come back to us as Gentiles or Tax Collectors? Again we look to the example of Jesus. How did Jesus treat Gentiles and Tax Collectors? He ate with them, he fellowshipped with them, he made them to know the love God has for them. He made them his disciples. Matthew himself was a Tax Collector!

4)   And finally, when we come together in the spirit of community and forgiveness – whenever two or more of us are gathered in this spirit of authentic, difficult, painful, beautiful community; forgiving and being forgiven, there Jesus is also – offering healing and presence in the midst of our struggle.

We are the most connected generation in human history and yet we still struggle with how to participate in authentic community. We belong to virtual communities, affinity groups, parent groups, singles groups, support groups… the list goes on.  We want these communities to be places where there is welcome; places filled with people who accept us and who never disagree; a place where everyone likes our ideas; and no one ever hurts our feelings. We find conflict and disagreement uncomfortable and these days it’s easy for us to check out or become anonymous if we decide we no longer want to participate. That is the easy road and it doesn’t lead us to where we are called to be. Community, authentic community – We all say we want it, but what are we doing to create it? People hurt us. We hurt others.  People leave. Sometimes we leave.

Jesus invites us to another way. A way in which we can be authentically who we are with one another – warts and wonders and all. A way that invites the divine into our midst every time we gather – in this place, in our homes, in our workplaces. And no, it isn’t easy. It requires patience, listening, openness and honesty. But when we stick with it—when we accept our own faults and the faults of others, we open up a path to engage our faith and our God on a deeper, stronger level. Again, When we come together in the spirit of community and forgiveness – whenever two or more of us are gathered in this spirit of authentic, difficult, painful, beautiful community; forgiving and being forgiven, there Jesus is also – offering healing and presence in the midst of our struggle.

So tell me, what do you want your community, our community, to be? What are you willing to do to get it? Do we want to be a people who delight in the diversity that God has created around us, opening ourselves up to the very real challenges of community or do we want to simply be Sunday-goers who gather week by week just long enough so we don’t have to engage the hard issues? If we want community, Jesus tells us where to start in this text today. This is very good news. Thanks be to God.  Amen (Read third verse of “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”)

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward on the Occasion of the Diocesan Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church

IMG_7059Sermon by the Rev. Carter Heyward

on the Occasion of the Diocesan Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women in the Episcopal Church

Church of Advocate, Chapel Hill – Aug 24, 2014

(note: video of the sermon can be found here)

 

Thanks to Lisa, Bishops Michael and Anne, and everyone here in this parish who has made today’s gathering possible.   As a native and daughter of this diocese, I’m especially moved to be back on this celebrative occasion.  I cannot tell you how much it means to me!  Thank you all.

Alison and I are delighted to be with you today, in this Church of the Advocate, kindred congregation to the great Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, home not only to the “Philadelphia ordination” but also to both Black and Gray Panthers of the 1960s and 1970s and to many other endeavors to help create a more just, merciful and god-loving world!  In fact,  the“Philadelphia 11” were proud to be ordained in a church that had already had deep roots in the Jesus Christ who  lives for ALL humankind and creature-kind — and is always, especially, advocate of the Poor, Marginalized, Outcast, Feared and Most Despised among us.

The other day, on NPR, I heard Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an epidemiologist based somewhere in the US, talk about why she was boarding a plane to Sierra Leone to assist in the ebola crisis.  The journalist couldn’t quite believe that Dr. Bhadelia had freely chosen to take this step?  Why are you doing this? Aren’t you afraid?

Her response went something like this: “Well, of course, I’m afraid, but not too afraid to go… In fact, I’m more anxious about all the international travel than I am working with people inflicted by the ebola virus!  And why am I doing this?  For two reasons: Because I have skills that can be useful in this crisis, and because I hope that other physicians will make a similar decision.”

I have no idea whether Dr. Bhadelia is Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish, or Pagan, or a woman of no particular faith tradition – but I thought, as I listed to her, that here is someone who is incarnating Christ in our midst!  She who goes for us, to love the poor, because she knows she can help – she has skills – and because she hopes that her life will encourage others to go and do likewise.  Our sister, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia , is incarnating the spirit of our brother Jesus and urging us to go, live in the same Spirit, whoever we are, wherever we may be most helpful in this world that needs every one of us, without exception.

And where are we most needed?  Many places!  There is great need, all around us.  Just look at the ongoing needs of the poor in the state of NC,  those who are under fire right now by a government showing itself to be ignorant of, or indifferent to, those without health care, those without jobs, those children who cannot be assured of high quality education any longer in a state that once ranked at the top of our nation’s public school systems; a legislature and governor who have turned their backs on women, students, the sick and elderly, and people of color throughout this state that was once a beacon of justice and compassion, shining brightly in the Southeast.

Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor reflects in her memoirs that the main problem with the majority on the court today is that they seem unable “to imagine someone else’s point of view.”  She goes on to critique Chief Justice John Roberts’ statement that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  That, she notes, quoting Ida B. Wells, “is an expression without a thought.”   Sotomayor continues, “The court majority’s refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable…. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

Amen!  Look at what’s happening in Ferguson, MO, right now.  Look at the Trayvon Martin case.  Look at the various cases of racial profiling and violence leveled against young black men and women all over our nation.  Think about how our President has been dealt with by those who hate the fact that we elected an African American and who refuse to accept his authority.   Then listen to the loudest voices in the public forum – political leaders and religious commentators — insist that we are beyond racism and that to even bring it up is to “play the race card.”   An expression without a thought, indeed.

Sisters and brothers, you and I  are linked, through baptism and later by our own decisions, with the life of Jesus.  As brothers and sisters to Jesus, we share a vocation to embody the truth – the truth not only of our own lives as individual men and women, but the truth of those whose lives are linked with others, those who’ve gone before, those who are with us now, those who will  come after.  Those who are white, black, brown, Asian, native… Those who are women, men, lesbians, gay men, transgender sisters and brothers…  Those who are poorer, those who are richer… Those with whom we agree, and those with whom we take issue….  We are called to “imagine someone else’s point of view” and give our imagination permission to teach us and lead us beyond our comfort zones.

We are called by the God whom Jesus loved and embodied to go beyond platitudes, as James points out, to go beyond saying “peace be with you” and “we’ll pray for you” and “we’re with you in spirit” and “God loves you” and other words that inspire.  Yes, we can offer uplifting words. It’s what our liturgies are all about, but we are called beyond inspiration to put our lives on the line.  To put ourselves —  including our speech, which is a form of action —  on the line.  Because  faith without works, faith without action,  is dead, nothing but a pretense.

Episcopalians are renowned for our niceness.  So are Southerners.  So some of us care a double burden, which can also be a sweet blessing.  Afterall, we aspire to be kind.  We don’t want to hurt or offend our neighbors.  But you know it’s really hard to speak truthfully without offending anyone,  and sometimes it’s the nicest people who seem to be the most offensive.  Alison and I could tell you many stories about how, the more polite and gracious we were back in 1974 and 1975, the angrier our opponents seemed to get.   This, I suggest, is because very little makes some folks crazier than to be refuted in a kind and gentle spirit!

But that, dear ones, is what it’s all about.  It’s what Jesus was all about. It’s what those whom we most admire are all about.  Think of those who take your breath away  because they somehow manage to be both gracious and truthful:  Desmond Tutu for example. We could name many, I am sure, people close at hand, people far away in space or time.

When Jesus said, “Don’t think that I have come to bring peace, but rather a sword…” and when he said, “men will be set against their fathers” and “daughters against their mothers,”  he was speaking the truth that we all know too well:  how angry and upset we get, especially with those closest to us, when we do indeed speak of things that folks would rather not hear about; or when we ourselves are spoken truthfully to about things that we don’t want to hear.  Like when one of my friends told me a long time ago that he and others were worried that I drank too much; or when an African American colleague told me many years ago that I needed to attend to ways in which I, as a white liberal woman, had a lot of white race privilege and   that I didn’t understand how black professional women’s lives were still being shaped by racism in a way that mine was not.    Speaking the truth can slice into and cut even our closest friendships.  This is  what Jesus is saying.

But, my friends, if we love Jesus more  and, by that, I mean if we truly love the God whom we meet through Jesus; if we love this God of justice and mercy and kindness; if we love this One who loves us All; if we truly love this God of All more than anything or anyone, and if we truly understand that She is God of All and not just of some,  we will put Her first:  Her justice.  Her compassion.  Her kindness.  Her mercy. And Her Speaking Truth to Power through our lips and lives will mean more to us than any pat on the back, or any award, or any popularity contest, or even any relationship.

Or let’s put it slightly differently – Most relationships that matter the most to us will weather the storms of truth speaking provided we are able to listen as well as speak; and provided we always approach those whom we love and those whom we genuinely do not like in a spirit of kindness and  openness to their humanity.  And if a relationship is broken because we, or someone else, loves the God of justice and mercy and kindness, more, or in ways that we or our loved one cannot comprehend, then we need to offer this relationship to God, believing that God will do with our relationship what God will do, in ways that we often cannot imagine.

So brothers and sisters,  hear again  the words of  Dr. Bhadelia as she prepared to board the first of several flights to get to Sierra Leone to work with the ebola patients: “Of course, I’m afraid, but not too afraid to go,   I go for two reasons: Because I have skills that can be useful in this crisis, and because I hope that others will follow.”    I cannot imagine a more powerful contemporary rendering of Jesus’ call to us all, wherever and whoever we are:  “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Amen.

 

 

Wrestling With Demons — A Sam Laurent Sermon

Wrestling With Demons A Sermon By Sam Laurent, Year A, Proper 15 (2014)

August 20, 2014 @TheAdvocateChurch

There are times when the lectionary serves up just what you need, when the things going on in the world, and the things that have been on our minds are perfectly addressed by the set of readings assigned for the day’s contemplation. It’s not a testament to the wisdom of those who devised this way of arranging the texts in a three-year cycle, I think, so much as to the fact that the central themes of the Bible are enduringly relevant to our life. There are times when it all just seems to click together. Today is not one of those times, at least not for me. Today I have to wrestle with the texts. I hope you don’t mind.

Like a lot of you, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Robin Williams, and grieving his death. I went through a strange internet-era progression, of being stunned that a man who had long-ago ascended to my own personal pantheon of immortal genius could actually die. And then, about an hour later, I felt silly for being so saddened by the death of someone I didn’t know. An hour after that—and this is where I still am—I felt heartbroken by the depth of pain that someone who spread so much happiness was feeling.

So, look. I know that tragedies beyond my comprehension are unfolding in Iraq, and in Palestine, and in Israel, and I know that the events in Ferguson, Missouri this week have shown us once again that the struggle for civil rights remains a struggle. Today’s readings, at least their theological messages, point to a radical acceptance of people who don’t subscribe to our norms, and it’s really easy to see how that message could be helpful in those places, and in places where various forms of boundary-drawing have not yet erupted into violence. That’s probably what I should have written for today.

But Robin Williams killed himself on Monday, and I’m standing in an Episcopal Church—the denomination in which Williams grew up—and there’s a woman in the Gospel asking Jesus to help her daughter, “who is tormented by a demon.” I was really hoping there wouldn’t be something like that in today’s Gospel, and I’m pretty annoyed that it’s there. But there it is, and it’s not going away, so let’s come to grips with it.

This demon language is part of why Christianity is historically not super-great at talking about mental illness. The Bible’s not being malicious; it’s simply expressing the way in which mental illness was understood in that particular context. Like lots of ailments, it was a matter of a demon or a spirit which had taken hold, and needed to be chased out in some way.

Jesus is at first reluctant to perform a miracle on this mother’s behalf, as he has been sent to minister to Israel, not to those, like this Canaanite woman, who do not live in covenant with God. Jesus tells her “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Only after she suggests that the dogs gather crumbs that their masters drop, only after she reminds Jesus that God’s grace overflows any boundary, does he proclaim that her faith is great and her daughter is healed.

The discussion of mental illness here is unfortunate. We no longer think that mental illness is a religious phenomenon, at least not if we have bothered to learn much about it. For me, the demon language is easy enough to forgive, but what’s really been nasty about passages like this is that faith in Jesus, according to the story, just makes the demon go away. A mother’s faith cures her daughter’s mental illness. What’s more, Jesus had to be harangued into recognizing that mother’s faith. And so this demon/faith setup really can keep Christians from having a good way of talking about mental illness in church, because the Bible makes it a matter of faith. Same deal with the man in Mark who was possessed by an “impure spirit” which identifies itself to Jesus by saying “we are Legion.” That man got better, and some pigs got much, much worse. If you recognize who Jesus is, you will not be troubled by mental illness. That’s the company line.

Todd Bridges, whose rose to fame in Diff’rent Strokes, commented on Robin Williams this week, and he pretty much echoed the sentiment that the Gospel suggests. He said “You gotta buckle down, ask God to help you. That’s when prayer really comes into effect.” If you think mental illness is a purely spiritual thing, that might make sense. A religious intervention could help, and certainly faith in a loving God has helped a lot of people in their struggles with mental illness. But we know now that mental illness has physical and chemical causes, can be linked to things as varied as genetics or trauma, and that when he suggests that Robin Williams should have just prayed more, Todd Bridges sounds really clueless. So maybe the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is handier than the Bible for talking about depression and addiction. Lots of you know more about this than I do, but I want to make sure that we don’t think this Gospel passage is really about mental illness. It’s not very good news if it’s about mental illness.

So where to now? Let’s start with that radical inclusivity that the Gospel points to… you know, the thing that I should be preaching about. The Canaanite woman has faith in Jesus, and so she receives God’s grace. Taking it not as a treatment plan but as an illustration of the breadth of God’s love, we start to see that the Gospel may be telling us that grace is already here. Earlier on in today’s Gospel, Jesus clarifies that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles us, but what comes out, for what we say comes from our heart. That’s a rebuttal to the Pharisees and their belief that the religious rituals of temple Judaism are necessary for a holy life. But it gets to the literal and metaphorical heart of things for us today. It’s not the ritual observances of your faith that allow you to be in relationship with God; those would be things you do because of that relationship, not to earn it. You can be in relationship with God by recognizing God in your life and responding with faith.

The reading from Isaiah spells this out more clearly than the Gospel does:

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,

to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant–

these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.”

 

This great redemption includes not just the people of the covenant, but also those “foreigners” (that’s us) who join themselves to the Lord. This is the stuff that liberal Christianity loves most of all, right? An open invitation to join God’s feast, a “house of prayer for all peoples.”

The catch is that an invitation doesn’t go very far if the person you are inviting does not perceive the thing you are inviting them to. The words of our faith aren’t magic. And that’s the thing that irritates me when people suggest prayer as a panacea. I deal with mild depression, and the first thing I notice when it sets in is that the range of possibilities I can perceive seems narrowed. And my depression is mild. I’ve got it easy. Depression is nasty business because it makes the good things in life seem less good, and gives your bad thoughts the ability to conquer everything. And so when someone tells you that all you need to do is give it over to God and pray, that sounds ridiculous. It sounds ridiculous to a lot of people not dealing with mental illness, but especially when hope itself feels unreachable. I think here of my middle school gym class and the awful fitness test we had to take. When it came time for chin-ups, I was hanging from the bar like a salami in a butcher’s shop. I was not so muscular back then. And my well-intentioned gym coach is shouting “come on, son, do a chin-up.” Now, I knew what a chin-up was. I had seen people do them and heard them talk about chin-ups. But I was not able to welcome a chin-up into my life. What I needed was some exercises to build some strength, not just the reminder to lift myself up to the bar. So the “just pray more” approach, especially when taken to be sufficient for things like depression and addiction, sounds a bit tone-deaf to me.

Beyond that, we now understand that there is a complex psychopathology behind mental illness that means the power of positive thinking is not the only arrow in our quiver. For some folks, prayer offers the solutions they need, but for a lot of folks in desperate situations, prayer doesn’t even feel like a viable option, much less a treatment.

The glaring scandal of Robin Williams’ death is that he was joy personified, and by all accounts, kindness too. People are falling all over themselves to tell stories of the man’s heart-rending compassion, or of how his truly supercharged wit felt like a force of nature. Jesus says that what comes out of our mouths comes from the heart, and thus tells something of who we really are. By the standard of what came out of his mouth, which is a very good standard, I think, Robin Williams was among the very best of us. And yet we know that depression and addiction changed his perception of his life such that he decided to end it. We learned this week that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, too, which beyond it’s physical neurodegenerative effects, can also exacerbate depression. I don’t think telling someone in that place that they just need to pray is the best that we can do.

The inclusivity of today’s readings means that we are all welcomed into the household of God, regardless of whatever religious standards of spiritual purity we may or may not achieve. Each person is beloved and is desired, and if they cannot see that because something in their life–be it an illness, or violence, or oppression–hides it from their view then that is indeed a tragedy. We are called to use every tool available to help all people glimpse the possibility of God’s kingdom, and we know that the human condition means that it’s not a simple matter of believing or not believing. Our response to God’s call, should, I believe be one of cultivating awareness of God’s possibility, through the tools of compassion, science, reason, and yes, prayer. And all of that together does not add up to a miracle cure for all of the things that turn us against ourselves. Robin Williams got a lot of help. But understanding the complexity of experience and knowing that faith doesn’t make everything simple is part of letting our experience of God make us compassionate and caring people. Your heart is going to break sometimes.

There’s a deep paradox in the human condition, wherein we are tremendously blessed and live in the presence of grace, and yet we often feel worthless or hopeless. Lots of things can lead us to that place, forces outside ourselves, or forces within our very being and body. And I don’t stand before you purporting to have some comprehensive grasp of the tangled workings of depression or addiction. I am neither the most compassionate person in this room nor the wisest. It’s just my turn to preach, and I know that we live with a God who wants all creatures to thrive. I increasingly believe that the best thing we can do is to help each other, through any and all means available, to feel that divine concern. Act as friends, as therapists, as analysts, as health care providers, as teachers, as social workers, as activists, as pastors, as family. Do the best you can. It’s a lot more complex than prayer, but our task isn’t just to pray. It’s to welcome each other to a house of prayer for all people, and we all need help getting there.

 

Got Christian faith? What’s that? — A sermon by the vicar

Sermon preached Sunday, July 27, 2014, Year A – Proper 12, At The Advocate, by The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

 

She caught me.

Try as I may to avoid church-speak,

the woman I was talking to

caught me.

I had said, “If I didn’t have faith, I would truly despair.”

She said,

“What do you mean by that?”

 

Fair enough.

“What do you mean by that?

What, after all, is “faith”?

 

Now, I realize this may seem elementary to some of you.

Incomplete, misguided or irrelevant to others.

But it just might be illuminating.

And it’s worth the reflection anyway.

Especially if it helps us each to sort out our own…

Faith…..

 

So here’s what I told her,

more or less.

See what you think.

 

I figure we all,

most of us,

have faith in something.

I have a brother who doesn’t worry about climate change because he believes that technology will advance fast enough to keep pace with the changing climate.

This brother has faith in technology.

Now I really, really enjoy technology.

But I don’t have faith in it.

 

My dad had faith in technology,

but also in family.

“Family” he would say,

“is always there for you.”

Friends may come and go.

jobs, houses, health.

But family endures.

This has been my experience.

sort of.

So I appreciate it a lot.

 

Others have faith in government,

in the military,

in human kindness.

Still others have faith only in themselves and their own capacity to solve problems and get through life.

 

Me, I have faith in “God”.

 

We have faith in that which gives meaning to our lives.

Our faith, whatever our faith may be,

answers the question,

“why are we here?”

It helps us to understand why there is pain and suffering

and how we are to respond to it.

Our faith, whatever our faith may be,

helps us to know how to relate to one another and why.

 

It helps us to answer the question,

“what happens after we die.”

Not specifically, perhaps,

but certainly in broad strokes:

 

Why are we here?

What do we say and do about suffering?

How are we to relate to one another?

What happens after we die?

These are the questions of faith.

 

I am a Christian,

in part,

because the Christian answers to these questions give meaning to my life like none other.

If I did not have faith,

Christian faith,

the troubles and travails,

the suffering and the mean-ness in this world,

within myself,

would probably be overwhelming.

Heck, even with Christian faith,

some days, some seasons, can be rough.

 

Christian faith lets me know that there is a really, really big force,

spirit,

being,

that some would call Yahweh,

and others Allah,

and others call God

Christian faith lets me know that there is a God,

who is intensely creative,

and that we,

humanoids that we are,

were created in the image of God, yes.

male and female, yes.

 

Our being created in the image of God.

is pretty significant stuff.

You see if every human being on the planet

is created in the image of God,

then we have reason to respect every human being on the planet.

Or, as the Quaker George Fox was known to say:

… walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

This is a faith that we share with Jews and Muslims.

Very significant!

And it very much informs my thinking about things like

the refugee crisis on the USA-Mexico border.

and the sadness and disparity in Gaza right now,

planes being shot from the sky

and women being shouted at with feet of a health clinic.

 

But there is more.

In addition to creating human beings, male and female, in the image of God,

Christians believe that God did one thing more to seal the deal.

God became a human being.

Christians call it

the incarnation.

chili con carne means “with meat”, yes?

in-carnation means enfleshed, made human

don’t ask me why a flower is called a carnation …

that’s not my department.

 

Anyway,

at the heart of the Christian faith

is the crazy, wonderful, stunning idea,

that God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us so bad,

that God became a human being,

like one of us.

 

It is not logical,

so don’t even try to make sense of it or prove it.

It’s not logical,

but it is life-changing and world-transforming.

God became a human being in Jesus Christ.

Which is about as intimate as God can get,

Another name for Jesus being Emmanuel,

which mean “God with us”.

 

In Jesus,

through the incarnation,

God is with us

big time.

That is what Christians believe.

 

And whatever other theological significance we give to the

crucifixion of Jesus –

that Jesus was hung by huge nails to his hands and feet on a large wooden cross to die,

whatever other theological significance we give to that

(and there are plenty of possibilities believe me!)

there is no doubt

about the excruciating pain, loss, betrayal and isolation that he felt.

 

Which means that God,

the God who is with us,

knows,

intimately,

any pain, loss, betrayal and isolation we feel or know.

 

That’s why St. Paul can write in his letter to the Romans that:

neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

 

God’s love                                    Us.

God’s love/Us.

 

God is with us.

That is Christian faith.

 

This, too, very much informs my thinking about

the refugee crisis on the USA-Mexico border.

and the sadness and disparity in Gaza right now,

planes being shot from the sky

and women being shouted at with feet of a health clinic.

 

Because if God became a human being in Jesus,

then we have a whole lot more in common with each other than we might think.

Or at least we have all the important stuff in common.

(which is what all those genome mappers have been saying for years now:

Genetically, All humans are 99.9 per cent identical.

All of our differences, genetically,

are in only one tenth of one percent of our gene pool.

Genetically, All humans are 99.9 per cent identical.

Incarnationally, it is 100%!

 

This,

honestly,

keeps me humble

It also gives a whole new meaning to loving each other and why.

And it gives me pause when I tempted to other-ize each other.

Because incarnationally, the “other” is my own kin.

 

As if this weren’t stunning enough.

all this creation and oneness and love

is permeated by the teachings of Jesus

such as the one in today’s Gospel reading.

In it we hear more agricultural examples of

The Way of God (aka the Kingdom of heaven).

We hear it is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

it is the smallest of all the seeds,

but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs

and becomes a tree,

so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

and we hear that

the way of God

is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour

until all of it was leavened.

Then

Voommmm!

 

You see

the kingdom of God,

the Way of God,

all this creation and oneness and love

is more vast and abundant than we can know or imagine.

And God is looking for every little bit of goodness God can find

to make it great.

A little bit of goodness goes a long, long way in the Way of God.

 

We get glimpses of it on our earthly pilgrimage,

and it is thrilling.

Together,

we get a foretaste of here in the Eucharist every week.

Which is one of the reasons why we have it every week.

So we don’t forget.

And so we might become what we receive,

the Body of Christ.

God with us all.

—————————–

This is what I told her,

more or less,

this is what I told the woman who challenged my church-speak.

 

God is intensely creative, yes,

God is intensely creative,

absurdly loving.

and wildly abundant.

And God is with us,

with us through it all.

 

This is Christian faith that gives me hope,

that keeps me from despair

 

On my better days…..

Wheat and Tares. A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon

Wheat and Tares

A Sermon Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate

Sunday, July 20, 2014 | Proper 11

 

At the beginning of the 20th Century,

Christians in America started two new magazines,

whose titles alone reflected something

of the theology contained within their pages.[1]

 

On the one hand, there was “Christianity Today,”

created by the conservative evangelicals.

Its title conveys a certain urgency that they felt.

You can hear the decision that they believe is necessary.

They were disillusioned by the state of the world,

And certain that Jesus was coming back,

Hoping to save a few more souls

Before the end of days.

So “choose Christianity today …

Lest you find yourself like Jacob, saying

‘surely the Lord was in this place,

and I knew it not.’”

Christianity. Today!

 

At the other end of the Christian continuum,

The liberal Protestants —

 

You know that term, right?

“Liberal Protestant” does not refer to Christians who vote for Democrats – it refers to a whole particular theological worldview rooted in Enlightenment sensibilities. They tried to reconcile reason and rationality with faith. For them, Christianity was about ethics much more than it was about dogma or doctrine. 20th Century Episcopalians were often liberal Protestants.

 

Anyway, the liberal Protestants

created “The Christian Century,”

A magazine with a more optimistic title,

An announcement of sorts

A proclamation that the 20th Century would be the age

When the world will live and know

God’s priorities as its own.

 

At the turn of the 20th Century, there was so much optimism

Among liberal Protestants,

So much hope that the problems of the past belonged to the past,

That we were living in a new age,

That a new Century was beginning

when war would be forgotten,

when poverty would be eliminated,

when injustice would be remedied,

That all human beings could live and thrive

As God hopes and dreams,

That we would all know peace.

The Christian Century.

 

This will not spoil the surprise for any of you,

But the 20th Century was pretty much a disappointment to both

Conservative evangelicals and liberal Protestants.

 

Conservative evangelicals were disappointed to watch

Another 100 years go by without the return of Jesus,

Something that they thought had to be so close at hand

Given the state of the world –

“Look around, surely God can’t leave it like this much longer.”

And yet. Nothing. No Second Coming.

 

But … their disappointment was somewhat tempered

By the fact that Christians have been waiting for a long time

For Jesus to return.

And so, another 100 years is disappointing,

But not calamitous.

 

For liberal Protestants, on the other hand,

The disappointment at the end of what was supposed to be

The Christian Century

May have been more disillusioning.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said it this way:

“[at] the end of the 20th Century, our certainties [were] shaken.

We now know that the Enlightenment failed to prevent the Holocaust.

Technology has given us the ability to destroy life on Earth.

Reason did not cure prejudice.

The growth of consumption

threatens the environment whose air we breathe.

 

Those who define our present situation as ‘post-modernity’

Are right in this respect.

We have lost the simple faith that new means better.”

 

Two world wars, Vietnam, the Middle East,

Pernicious prejudice, hate crimes, homophobia,

Sexism, racism, ageism, classism.

Unemployment, economic disparity, food insecurity.

 

The liberal Protestant optimism that everything is getting better,

that inevitably the world is becoming better and better day by day

well, that idea ran aground by the end of the 20th Century.

 

It is curious, though, that, in some ways,

we might be able to understand in a new way the disappointment

Of both conservative evangelicals and liberal Protestants

through the parable we heard a moment ago from St Matthew’s Gospel.

 

On the one hand, the conservative evangelicals have spent too much time

Obsessing about parables like this one.

On the other, liberal Protestants have spent too much time dodging parables this one.

 

Frankly, I doubt many of us file this parable

under the heading  of “my favorite stories of Jesus.”

It isn’t exactly a bedtime story.

Wheat. Tares. Evil. Judgment. Fire. Gnashing. Wailing.

Julie Andrews never sang that those were a few of her favorite things.

 

But together, following the reading

Of wheat, tares, evil, judgment, fire, gnashing, wailing,

We affirmed that there was Gospel here,

That somehow — mysteriously — there was Good News for us

In those words.

But where?

 

You heard the story?

A farmer has his workers sow good seed in a field.

And, after the labor is done, they sleep, and as they sleep,

The farmer’s enemy comes and plants weeds in the midst of the wheat.

When the laborers figure this out, they go to the farmer –

and suggest that they do some weeding.

 

But, the wise farmer says, “don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, if you pull the one, you’ll disturb the other. So wait until harvest time. Then we’ll gather it all, and sort out what is wheat and what is weed.”

 

Now that’s kind of nice, until Jesus explains it.

I wish he hadn’t, because it’s the explanation that is difficult.

For the second week in a row,

Jesus takes a perfectly good agricultural metaphor and explains it,

Which seems to flatten it, deaden it.

 

He seems to suggest that there are really two types of people in the world —

people who are intrinsically good (wheat)

and people who are intrinsically bad (weeds).

And that we exist side-by-side until the end of time,

When judgment comes

And the good are gathered to God.

And the bad are weeded out and sent the other way.

To a place where there is fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

 

(It’s hard not to think about that

old New Yorker cartoon that shows two people marching into flames,

and the one turns to the other and says,

“this is the part of religion we could do without.”)

 

The more I have sat with the parable itself, though,

The more I have come to see that the story isn’t about its unsettling features.

The more I have come to see that the story isn’t about judgment or doom or about people,

But that the story is really about a field and a farmer.

 

The story is about a field where good and bad (not people) –

just good and bad — coexist.

Where success and struggle, where faith and doubt,

Where hope and hurt live alongside each other.

The story is about a field where there is progress and setback,

Where there are reasons for celebration and reasons for lamentation.

 

The story is about the world as we know it –

about the world that is often beautiful and exhilarating and wondrous and often heart-breaking and maddening and befuddling

and often all of the above simultaneously.

It’s a world of wheat and weeds.

 

And for us, as people, that is a difficult reality.

 

And it inspires the conservative evangelicals to hope that Jesus comes

So that the world can all be wheat. So that it will all be good.

So that we might be done with heartache and hurt and pain.

 

And it inspires the liberal Protestants to want to weed the field

So that it would all be wheat. So that it would all be good.

So that we might be done with despair and disappointment.

 

But wheat and weeds still grow together in this world.

 

It is a disappointing reality, but why wouldn’t they?

Wheat and weeds grow together in our own hearts.

 

And that is a difficult reality.

It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Gulag Archipelago,

Who diagnosed our predicament this way:

“If only it were all so simple!

If only there were evil people

somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,

and it were necessary only to separate them

from the rest of us and destroy them.

But the line dividing good and evil

cuts through the heart of every human being.

And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

 

This is a story not about judgment or fire or gnashing or wailing,

This is a story not about good people or bad people.

It’s a story about a field … where wheat and weeds grow together.

It’s a story about the world we know.

It’s a story about our own hearts.

That makes it disappointing and difficult.

 

But it’s also a story about a farmer

Who knows the field and doesn’t forget or forsake it because it has some weeds.

 

This is a story about a farmer

Who sees to it that good seed is sown.

And who is patient as it grows.

This is a story about a farmer who know the wheat in us and in the world

And bears with us in our weediness.

 

In these still early years of the 21st Century,

We no longer have the optimism to declare a “Christian Century”

Or the sense of urgency to insist on “Christianity Today.”

But as people of faith and hope and goodwill –

We know something about a weedy and wheaty world

And about a farmer

who loves it, sustains it and redeems it still.

 

 

 

 



[1] I am indebted to Dr. Grant Wacker, Duke University, for this historical insight.

Being Dirt — A Sam Laurent Sermon

The following sermon by Sam Laurent, Theologian in Residence at The Advocate, was preached at The Advocate, July 13, 2014, The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10.

Anyone who spends much time with me will eventually learn that nothing makes me cringe quite so intensely as when a person explains their own joke. You know the situation I have in mind: at some sort of social gathering, when somebody cracks what they firmly believe to be a good joke, and then when nobody laughs, proceeds to explain it. We’ve all done this at some point, so part of the cringe is sympathy for the joketeller, but the principle remains: a joke that has to be explained to you is just not very funny.

So I get a little peeved with Jesus when I read today’s Gospel. The first paragraph lays out the parable. You’ve got these seeds, and they fall in various places, and they only do well in fertile soil. Got it. Simple enough. Parables are always fun, because you can read yourself into the text from multiple viewpoints, as the prodigal son, or the one who stayed home, or as the father. To me, it’s the magic of the parables. Their open-endedness is a standing invitation to enter a new mental and spiritual context and think from that place. So my mind starts thinking of the different angles into this parable of the sower, hoping that I can find some way to start my sermon that’s not “so what kind of soil are you?”

But nope. Nope. Jesus shuts that process right down, as he goes on to explain what the parable means. He writes the sermon for us. The path is like those of us who don’t understand the message of the kingdom, and so are easily trod upon by other interpretations. The rocky ground doesn’t afford a good root structure, much like shallow faith, and therefore plants that grow there are not resilient. Thorns are like secular concerns, so the plant that grows hemmed in by them can never reach its full potential in God’s kingdom. And fertile soil is fruitful, for it is deep and nourishing, and the word of the kingdom is there cultivated and produces great yields. So there’s today’s Gospel, all wrapped up with a bow on top, self-interpreting, a biblical anticipation of those quizzes that bounce around facebook. “LOL, I got ‘rocky soil.’ So true, guess I’m kinda shallow. What kind of soil are you?” Thanks a ton for explaining that, Jesus.

Thankfully, Isaiah’s in the background, clearly being invoked by Jesus in this parable, and in Isaiah’s prophecy, we start to see layers of depth in what appears to be a straightforward parable. Fertile ground, you see, is a complex and living process, itself teeming with life. In the midst of a great proclamation of God’s covenant with the earth, God (as voiced by Isaiah) gestures toward the cycles of inspiration and calling-forth that constantly offer the possibility of fertile ground to all people.

God’s word, Isaiah tells us, is not fired out like beams of light, but goes forth, tills up the earth, and returns to God. Christian interpreters will generally, with variable theological tact, say that these words are a prefiguration of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. They certainly point to a broadly resonant truth about the nature of God’s presence in the world, so our messianic claims about Jesus could not possibly exhaust the truth of these words. God’s word, indeed, flows like water.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

There’s that cycle. Not just a going out and a coming back, but a creation of something in between. Our Nicene Creed, talk a lot about Jesus coming into the world and his departure from it, but the real action, the real purpose of his being sent here is what happens between those two events, during his life, when he was teaching and preaching in our midst. Likewise, the Holy Spirit in each moment proceeds into the world and back toward God, but it is the fact that the Holy Spirit is here that is transformative.

Isaiah’s imagery for the fruition of God’s calling is nothing short of an ecstatic natural revelry. The usual natures of non-human creatures and the earth itself are transcended in jubilation, a celebratory reception for God’s love.

For you shall go out in joy,

and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

shall burst into song,

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;

instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,

for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

This is more than just a metaphor. There is real wildness in these lines. The response to God’s word dwelling in the world is not a dignified “amen” from a gathered congregation, but is more along the lines of the planet happily going berserk. The mountains are joyous, and the trees join the tune together. Bob Ross was a prophet.

And we see the language from today’s parable in Isaiah. “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress.” Remember that the thorns are secular or limited concerns. In this rapturous vision, those are replaced by the beautiful and long-living cypress trees. Instead of briers, we get myrtles, a move from the aggressive and short-sighted to the long-lasting and beautiful. God’s word doesn’t just call forth beauty that is beyond our control, but it calls forth beauty that extends beyond our lives. This is what the word is doing in Isaiah, and it is what Jesus is trying to cultivate with his audience, as he preaches from a boat, urging them to be ones who will bear “fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Ok, so this is moving along. It’s not just a matter of deciding that you want to be fertile soil for God’s word, but Isaiah tells us something of what that fertility will look like, or at least fleshes out the metaphor of earthy fertility a little. We start to long for that ecstatic outcry of joy that the word calls forth. And yet there is a problem. If the word of God comes as water and as seeds, what makes the ground fertile?

That part is going to be a human endeavor. Well, humus is more like it. Fertile soil contains a good measure of humus, which is organic material that has decomposed to a stable state. This is what we add when we mix compost into our soil. Humus holds nutrients and moisture, and supports the networks of micro and macro organisms that create sustainably fertile soil. And it comes from previous life. Good soil comes from the decomposition of plant matter, which is broken down into the carbon-rich stuff of life. Life nourishes later life. If you want to plant some seeds and expect them to grow, you’ll want there to be a good amount of humus in the soil, the legacy of that soil’s past. Fertile soil does not happen overnight, but rather over years and years of hosting life. It is itself a life-process, diverse and inter-related.

So then Jesus is the word of God, come into this world with a purpose, and bound to return to God having successfully fulfilled that purpose. Sounds about right. But the fertile soil today’s parable points to seems to need to already be in place, right? The seeds fall on fertile soil. They don’t make it fertile.

Like good dirt, Isaiah’s prophecy provides the humus for the parable of the sower. Between the lines of today’s Gospel (and actually in an direct quotation between the passages lifted for the lectionary), the words of Isaiah are the humus that allows Jesus’ preaching to have real depth and breadth in that place by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The prophet’s words would have been practically in the bones of these first-century Jews. What seems to be a neatly packaged parable can, when it interacts with this prophetic compost, burst at the seams and spring forth like the songs that the mountains sing. Human and humus are not accidentally linguistic cousins. The word “human” reminds us that we are earthly, that we are made up of humus. It’s a biological truth and a spiritual one too. Our energy and our nourishment come from the lives before us, from their wisdom, and their courageous proclamation. When we internalize it, dwell in it, and allow this inheritance to become our own, then we may become fertile soil.Isaiah was spiritual humus for those who heard the parable, and Isaiah and Jesus are humus for us today. The wisdom we gain from them may let us be fertile soil for the Word of God in our own time. I mean, look what a good soil metaphor can let you say: Jesus was human and is humus for you.

Maybe Jesus did not, in the end, explain his own joke. I can allow my cringe to relax. He’s as sly as ever in today’s Gospel, drawing on the prophetic overtones of his parable to call us to be part of a studying, wondering, and seeking community. To be fertile soil for the kingdom of God is to seek to know it, to understand the wisdom we inherit of it, and to be ready to let it take root when it enters our soil. To be fertile soil is also to just be soil, to be nothing more than the human humus that we are. The sower in the parable is God, the water in Isaiah comes from God. That spark of life that we await comes from God, and is not of our own devising. But anyone with a compost bin knows that making fertile soil is no passive process. It needs to be fed and turned, and a certain balance of ingredients helps things come together optimally.

At risk of explaining my own joke just as I stopped cringing, this is what we’re up to when we build religions around the visceral experience of God. What comes in flashes and is collected in tradition can nourish us beyond measure if we read, mark, and inwardly digest the accounts of those experiences, and if we do the best we can to be fertile soil for God’s word. By learning what we can from the past and taking in new materials in the present, we can prepare for what will surely be a radical new thing in the future. It takes a whole biome of subtle and often invisible actors to make one great cypress tree possible, and the word of God aims for nothing shy of planetary rejoicing. This is radical stuff. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Come to Jesus. A Sermon.

The following sermon was preached by the Vicar of the Advocate, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, July 6, 2014. Year A – Proper 9

 

In the Name of the Creating, restoring and transforming God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

His name was George but his friends called him Ted and his wife called him Teddy.

He was not aging gracefully.

In his prime he had been a powerhouse,

both physically and professionally.

And as he moved toward retirement and his body softened,

he grudged.

Still, he donned his coat and tie Monday through Friday and went to his office in the company he had founded.

Still, he rode his tractor on weekends,

checking out the far reaches of his farm,

cutting the lawns around the house and the barn himself.

 

It was an early summer Saturday

and he rode out on the tractor that morning as was his custom.

The grass around the house responded well to the mower blades.

Quite rewarding, as it lost a little bit more of its shag with each sweep.

The grass along the creek that ran through the land at the lawn’s edge was getting too tall, though,

so he decided to ride over and trim it down.

It went well for about 30 yards.

Very gratifying.

But then his tire hit a rock protruding from the grass.

The resulting imbalance combined with the slope of the creek bank to roll the tractor into the creek.

George was pinned beneath the side of the machine,

barely able to keep his nose and mouth out of the water,

his leg crushed.

 

It was, what we call,

a “come to Jesus moment”.

 

In today’s Gospel

Jesus offers the comforting, now-familiar words:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

A “come to Jesus” moment is one that jolts us or shocks us with its immediacy,

with it force.

It may or may not bring us closer to Jesus, really,

but it does sharpen our wits,

and often calls us to a life-changing decision or need.

God is waiting in the wings for us to be transformed spiritually as well in such a moment,

waiting for us to realize our need for God’s healing power and love.

But we don’t always catch on.

Even so, there are many who can testify to the rapid conversion in scuh moments.

Lives changed and given to God in a “come to Jesus” moment.

 

Most of us though, find ourselves on a more gradual road to transformation.

We realize our need over time for a God who bids us come.

Come with your burdens and your sorrows,

come with your heaviness of soul and your uncertainties about the future.

Come with your weariness,

however it is that your are weary.

And I will give you rest.

 

Several years ago

a member of the Advocate introduced me to a poem that has deeply shaped my own objectives for the mission and ministry of the Advocate.

It was written by the Persian poet Rumi

some 800 years ago.

 

People are going back and forth across the doorsill?

where the two worlds touch.?

The door is round and open.?

Don’t go back to sleep.

 

We can talk another time about how this might apply to the Advocate.

But as I chanced to read this poem again this past week,

what struck me was how I have been completely missing the beginning of the verse.

The lines I have noted and quoted so often are the second half of a verse that begins:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

 

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

This is no sudden, dramatic and traumatic life event.

This is a gentle, comforting nudge.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

 

Here in the early weeks of the long green season after the Day of Pentecost,

we have been particularly mindful, here at the Advocate,

of the Holy Spirit breathing and moving among us.

It’s been in the sermons.

In Sam’s teaching.

But something about the open windows,

the ceiling fans,

the rush of the air-conditioning,

has combined to give us an outward and tangible sense of it.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

 

And it turns out

there’s even more to the Rumi poem,

The verse prior to the one I’ve been talking about so far

says:

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.

From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.

Unable to see, I heard my name being called.

Then I walked outside.

 

Then I walked outside.

Or maybe then I walked inside,

inside into an old wooden chapel.

 

Wherever you walk,

wherever the gentle breeze of the Spirit is nudging you,

Jesus is there bidding:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

 

George didn’t really come to Jesus that Saturday morning.

Within the hour his wife spotted him from the living room window and called for help.

Help came.

The tractor was lifted off of him and he was taken to the hospital.

When the surgery was behind him

he was frustrated more than anything else.

Frustrated because his life was changed.

Changed for the worse and not the better.

He walked with a cane from that moment on.

He hobbled.

And when he was seated,

he would rap the cane against his foot,

as if punishing his leg for letting him down.

George didn’t really come to Jesus that Saturday morning.

But slowly, very slowly,

the patterned Episcopal churchmanship of his prime

became the foundation that gradually, very gradually,

allowed

his anger and frustration to be transformed into a humble need,

a desire to rest,

A yearning to be relieved of his burden and his weariness,

and he began to share the yoke with Jesus,

who carried more than half of the weight of it.

 

Elizabeth Lesser,

founder of the Omega Institute in New York State,

has observed through the years

that in times of challenge we are given a choice:

Will we be broken down and defeated,

or broken open and transformed?

Will we keep whacking at our crippled leg

or find a way to sit grace-fully,

more attuned to the Spirit than we ever were when we were charging around

hither and yon.

 

Will we be broken down and defeated,

or broken open and transformed?

 

God,

the One who creates, restores and transforms us

bids us to allow ourselves to be broken open and transformed.

 

In times of transition, confusion,

weariness and pain,

we may be tempted to ask God for clarity,

for clarity, energy, stamina, or healing.

For relief and direction,

however that may come.

Such prayers are certainly sincere and fine

and they should continue.

 

But I wonder what it would be like if we were to pray as well,

for transformation.

Oh God,

we might pray,

in Jesus you have shown us and given us

what has been called

“a whole reality beneath and beyond what we thought we understood”,

In our times of bewilderment and confusion,

I wonder what it would be like if we were to pray:

help us to find a “deeper truth in our life than we ever knew”,

help us to live our lives in a way that we never imagined,

and be “folded into your grace like never before”.

(adapted from “A Different Way to Pray” by Samuel Wells; Christian Century; April 30, 2014; p. 51).

 

Help us to live our lives in a way that we never imagined,

and be folded into your grace like never before.

Help us, in other words,

to be transformed.

 

It may take longer than we want.

We may get frustrated

or even grow more weary along the way.

But here’s the deal.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

The Holy Spirit has secrets to tell you.

to tell me.

to tell us all.

 

You will find rest for your soul.

Don’t go back to sleep.

 

Amen.