Sunday, September 8, 2019

Creation 1, 2019: Are we there yet?

Lectionary: Gen 12:1-10; Ps 126; Acts 4: 32-37; Mk 4: 26-34



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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Are we there yet?

Have you ever been on a family trip where that question came up? Did you notice how the tone of the question changed over time from “Are we there yet?” to “Are we there yet?” to “Are we there yet?”

The story in today’s reading from Genesis is that kind of journey. It’s a story of new beginnings… lots of them, all part of a larger divine plan that the people involved couldn’t have known at the time. Every time they landed somewhere, they were sent off again, so the answer to “Are we there yet?” was “We’re on our way!” …over and over again.

Abram went wherever God sent him, whenever God sent him. It was an act of faith, trusting God enough to obey God’s call to him to “Go…. to the land I will show you… and, God promised to make a great nation of Abram, to bless him, to make his name great (meaning lots of descendants), and to make Abram himself a blessing.

So, Abram and his entourage of family, servants, and livestock left his hometown of Ur and made the arduous journey to Haran (about 600 miles- a journey that would take months to complete) where Abram purchased slaves which he added to their number. Then, following God’s leading, the clan went to Canaan (another 600 miles). But Canaan wasn’t ready for them. They couldn’t live there because there was a famine, in spiritual language, there was extreme scarcity. They weren’t ready, so they were sent down to a foreign place where they knew they were not yet at home. When all was ready, years later, God sent them back to Canaan.

Being semi-nomadic, the frequency of the changes may not have been entirely unexpected, but given their number, each move of Abram’s clan was an enormous undertaking. As they traveled, Abram built altars to God, physically and spiritually identifying the land as God’s land. Where the name of God had been absent in the land, Abram made it present.

I wonder what Abram and his clan thought when he finally got to Canaan, where God promised him, “To your offspring I will give this land” only to discover the great famine. Did they blame Abram for poor leadership? Did they wonder if God was punishing them for something? Did they get frustrated or mad at God? Did their trust in God’s promises wane?

We know from this side of history, that the promises God made to Abram, later called Abraham, have been fulfilled. God did make of Abraham a great nation with many offspring, and Abraham continues to be a blessing to us thousands of years later.

As Christians we are part of the nation of descendants promised to Abram. Our Muslim kin are too. We celebrate this truth every time we come together at our Abraham’s Table gatherings: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children of the one God, sharing a meal, teachings, and friendship together here in Cullowhee, NC. It’s a beautiful thing.

When God says to Abram, “To your offspring I will give this land” this isn’t so much about a particular location as it is about the nature of “land” in God’s kingdom. As Jesus’ parables in the gospel show us, in the kingdom of God, land is an earthly womb where divine seeds are planted. In the first parable, we learn that no matter how much we watch and study, the phases of transformation, which Jesus described as moving from seed to plant to fruit, remain a mystery to us.

In the second parable, Jesus demonstrates that God holds all creation as sacred – which means set apart, dedicated for a purpose. Jesus uses the example of the mustard seed, a tiny little seed which somehow becomes so large a shrub that it serves many of God’s feathered creatures, providing a safe place for them to birth and house the fruit of their wombs. This tiny seed serves a very big divine purpose.

As Julian of Norwich wrote in her “Revelations of Divine Love,” “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

This is a comfort to us as we journey as a people into our divine purpose, which in the kingdom of God, happens in phases. As Abram wandered from Ur to Haran to Canaan to Egypt and back to Canaan, he and his clan were going through their own phases of development, much like the tiny mustard seed went through it phases of development.

Some of these phases can be really scary or painful. Imagine how the seed might respond if it could know it must shed its protective outer covering and die in order to live as a plant. Imagine if the plant knew that its life will only last long enough for it to produce its fruit, then it will die. Imagine if the fruit could know that within it were the seeds of new life but it would have to die in order for those seeds to be collected and planted in the divine womb.

The truth is, we don’t have to imagine. We’re living it. We are the seed; we are the plant; we are the fruit. In the divine economy, the presence of the harvest is in the seed.

At St. David’s, we are on a journey, and the new life being formed in us right now, our sacred purpose, is happening within the womb of God. There are phases of this journey that will be painful and scary. We may get where we think God is sending us, our Canaan, only to find that all is not yet ready and we must travel on while God prepares the “land” to sustain life.

Like Abram and his clan, our part in this is to trust God enough to live fully into each phase of this journey; trusting also in God’s plan, the fullness of which cannot be known to us; and traveling in unity as a clan: a close-knit community of interrelated families.

As we prayed in our Collect, “through the changing of the seasons Your Spirit renews the cycles of life.” We know this because we can observe it in creation all around us. And we believe it because we can feel it deep in our souls.

The Spirit of God renews the cycles of all our lives including our church life. God made us, God loves us, and God sustains us.

Do we trust that? Or maybe I should ask, Are we there yet?

Well, we’re on our way, aren’t we? Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Pent 12, 2019-C: Our bond of love


Lectionary: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14



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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador.

Prophets often used the analogy of a legal trial to make their point. In our reading from Jeremiah God is putting Israel – the N kingdom which has strayed - on trial.

Israel had made a covenant, a formal agreement like a contract – with God. It was witnessed and (literally) cast into stone tablets. Now God is asking why they broke their part of the contract.

“What wrong did your ancestors find in me [God asks that they went far from me,” God says, I kept my promise in our agreement. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”

And the leaders – where were the leaders in all this? God asks. Instead of serving, the leaders made their own choices and “went after things that do not profit.” And the people followed them…exchanging “their glory “– their gifts, their beauty “for something that does not profit.”

God’s response: “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, for my people… have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, [but the cisterns they make have cracks and] can hold no water.” And as we all know – without water, whether physical or spiritual, we will die.

Even though God promises us, over and over again in our Scripture that we will receive the nourishment and the resources we need, and that all we have to do is trust God and open our mouths wide, as the psalmist says, we often don’t.

Though God is always faithful to us, God laments that we are not always faithful in return:“… my people did not hear my voice, and Israel would not obey me. So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their hearts, to follow their own devices.”

God will not force us to trust or obey. When we stubbornly pursue our own wills, our own ways, God will step back (as any parent would) and let the inevitable happen then pick up the pieces.

But God suffers knowing that we will suffer until we repent and turn back to Love. “Oh, that my people would listen to me! that Israel would walk in my ways!”

The sin of the people of Israel is that they chose to follow their own choices informed by ways of the world instead of listening for and complying with God’s direction to them.

The ways of the world can not and will not lead to eternal life.

That’s why Jesus tells the group gathered for dinner at the Pharisee’s home the parable that turns their expectations upside down. A little background here: Jesus has just healed the man with dropsy (edema) on the Sabbath, and that was the second time he’d done a healing on the Sabbath – violating Jewish law.

So in today’s story, Jesus is invited to the home of a rules-keeper for dinner and “they were watching him closely” to see if he’d behave this time. Which he did.

Since there was so much attention on him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach. He “noticed how the guests “at this dinner chose for themselves “places of honor” as they were all being seated. The word translated here as “guest” translates more accurately as “apparently chosen” or in modern parlance, the “in-crowd.”

So Jesus says to the in-crowd:" When you are invited… to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor. Instead, go and sit down at the lowest place… For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

It was about their choice. Choices bring consequences.

When we make choices, they should be motivated by humility, putting the other first. If our choices raise us up above others or even above the will of God for us then we will be humbled.

Then Jesus turns to his host and says, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends… your family…. or rich neighbors.” Instead… invite those who don’t have friends or family. Invite those who can’t increase your Sunday attendance or your budget. Invite those who aren’t strong, don’t have clear ministries, and need something, rather than offer something.

If you do that, Jesus says, “you will be blessed “by God in the eternal reality.

Our epistle today is the conclusion of the letter to the Hebrews so it nicely wraps up the teaching points – which fit exactly with what Jesus was teaching in the Gospel. Consider for a minute, this community: they are Hebrews, Jews, transitioning into a Christian community.

Many of their traditions no longer fit. Many of their beliefs and practices have to be set aside. They are being called to move into a new identity and way of being.

Sound familiar?

So, the author instructs this community in transition: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; this, of course, being anyone in jail or actual prison, but also those imprisoned by their fears, need to control, anger, or addiction.

This also applies to remembering those who are being tortured - literally, as well as those tortured by grief, or emptiness, or darkness. Be faithful to one another. Let your lives be exemplary, and be models of what you believe.

Demonstrate your freedom from attachments such as “the love of money’” by living your lives so that people can see you are “content with what you have.”

The author continues, for as [God] has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." We, therefore, “can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’"

This quote is what God said to Joshua at the end of the exile. Moses, their leader during the transitional time, had died and the people were now entering into their new life and they had no idea what to expect or how they would live – or even IF they would live.

As the author of the epistle reminds his community in transition, I remind this community in transition: The Lord is our helper. We will not be afraid.

“Remember your leaders, “the author continues. In our case, this refers to our clergy and lay leadership. Remember them and imitate their example. They are learning and practicing new ways of being, ways that build the kingdom of God. Don’t fight them. Follow them. Go with them.

Finally, the author says, remember that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer [our] sacrifice of praise to God.”

Take every opportunity to “do good,” and remember that the gifts you’ve been given are meant to be shared.

So love even when you’re afraid, or angry. Love even when you disagree, dislike what’s happening, or feel uncomfortable.

Love.

And let love be mutual, for our mutual love is a bond that reflects the bond of love God has with us. When it doesn’t look like that, we’ve strayed. Thankfully, mistakes are not fatal in the kingdom of God, where forgiveness is ours even before we ask.

So let us pray now as we prayed earlier in our Collect:

Graft in our hearts, O God, your love so that your love is what motivates us. Increase in us true religion, remembering that religion is a bond of mutual love that comes with an obligation. Strengthen that bond in us, Lord, so that we can live in such a way that our gratitude for your love is always apparent…and nourish us with divine goodness so that we may be motivated by kindness and generosity for others, using every gift you’ve given us to further your kingdom here on earth in this time; in this place.

This is our prayer. This is our calling. Amen.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Pent 11, 2019-C: The unshakeable kingdom

Glad to be back after two weekds vacation!

Lectionary: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17



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In today’s reading from Jeremiah, we witness the prophet’s call from God in those beautiful, loving words from the Creator: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

As usually happens when God calls a prophet, the prophet resists the call at first. You’ll remember, there was Abraham who said he couldn’t lead because he stuttered, and Jonah who didn’t want God to save the people at Nineveh, and Mother Mary who, when the Angel Gabriel informed her she would bear the Messiah into the world asked, “How can this be?”

God calls and the prophet hesitates - but I haven’t known a man… but they’re terrible people…. but I’m only a boy. These aren’t excuses, these are reality – earthly realities that only the divine can overcome. This is the moment the prophet must own the limitations of their humanity and finally, fully acquiesce and trust God.

Through our Scriptures, we are continually reassured that God chooses us and calls us to serve even knowing our limitations and our resistance to inner and outer change. God knows we struggle to allow change to happen within us and that we reasonably wish to avoid the consequences of calling for change in our community – because there are always consequences.

Even Jesus sought to avoid those consequences as the story of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane affirms. But as Jesus said, Your will, not mine, be done. As his mother said, Let it be done to me according to your will.

Once the prophet has given their consent to this invitation from God, then God empowers them to fulfill their call.

God says to Jeremiah:
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."

In every case, there will be the destruction and overthrowing of what is and the building and planting of what God intends there to be. As Fr. Nick preached so wonderfully last week: Jesus “came as a fire starter, a division bringer.” He also came to reconcile the whole world to God. He did both – in that order.

During the painful, fearful time of destroying and overthrowing, we cry out as the psalmist did for God to be our strong rock, to deliver us. And as God always does, God reminds us that God has been tending to us since before we were formed in our mother’s wombs and sustains us still.

The letter to the Hebrew’s reminds us that God’s call to us now may not look like God’s call to those who came before. There may be no burning bush, no sounding trumpet for us but when God calls, the author warns, don’t refuse to answer – because God is shaking things up and is building an unshakeable kingdom. So even in the tumult of the transition between what is and what God intends there to be, we give thanks and worship with awe and reverence.

Then in our gospel, Jesus demonstrates what this unshakable kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom in which God sees and heals all wounds – a grace offered even before we ask because God knows that some of us harbor deep inner wounds that prevent us from fulfilling God’s purpose for us and for the world. By healing this woman in the presence of her faith family and its leadership, Jesus demonstrates that in this unshakable kingdom, God will seek, call, heal, and empower whom God chooses, when God chooses; and no earthly authority, doctrine, or institution can interfere.

The world saw a woman who had an infirmity which they would have seen as a divine punishment for her unworthiness, but God in Christ saw a beloved one who was wounded within and without. God chose her, touched her, and healed her. By calling her a daughter of Abraham, Jesus elevated her to full membership in Jewish society and called the religious leadership out for being more willing to show compassion to an animal than to a child of God; for holding fast to doctrine rather than prioritizing compassionate reconciliation – which is the hallmark of the unshakable kingdom.

Dividing, destroying, and overthrowing what is are necessary as God builds and plants what God intends for there to be.

There are predictable cycles involved in being prophetic leaders of change. For example, the gospel tells us that “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things… [Jesus] was doing.” As Jesus is inaugurating the destroying phase, the people of God are rejoicing because they are getting a glimpse of the unshakable kingdom and they love the freedom and inclusion they see. It is vastly different from their experiences as occupied citizens under Roman authority. As the overthrowing phase gets real, however, these same people will demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Later, as the rebuilding-planting phase kicks in, they join the nascent Christian movement in droves.

Knowing this cycle, we, like Jesus, we keep walking the path God is setting before us, destroying and overthrowing what is, and partnering with God as rebuilders and planters of what God intends there to be. We will notice people rejoicing, then doing their best to make us stop, but on we’ll go, as Jesus did… to the cross, then the grave, certain by the assurance of our faith, that the grave is our doorway to new life, resurrection life, in the unshakable kingdom of God; and if there’s a church that knows and can trust in resurrection life, it’s this one.

Today’s Collect is a prayer we can cling to and repeat as a mantra on this leg of the journey. Let’s do a very quick Lectio Divina of the Collect together:

Reading 1: What words or phrases stand out for you as you heard this prayer?
Reading 2: As a church in transition, what gift does this prayer offer?

Let us pray…

Eternal Wisdom, Love Almighty... Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Pentecost 8, 2019-C: A divine hunger

Lectionary: Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21



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En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

I have a confession to make: I’m a sweet-eater. As a sweet-eater, I have found that when I crave something sweet, if I don’t eat it, I will eat, and eat, and eat all kinds of other things seeking satisfaction which will elude me until I finally eat that sweet treat. As C.S. Lewis once said: “What does not satisfy when we find it was not the thing we were desiring.”

Sometimes our desire is a divine hunger, but in our unawareness, we seek to fill that desire with earthly things; things that are immediate, tangible, and may provide us a sense of security or a feeling of aliveness when we feel otherwise numb or dead.

In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” When we lose sight of what God desires for us, and for the world through us, it’s because we have looked away, and our behaviors will show us that – hence the list in Paul’s epistle.

So the question is, what does God desire for us? (The preacher asks for answers) Do we hear anywhere in our Scripture that God desires great fortunes, lots of land, or power for us?

Our fulfillment, our purpose can’t be found in or measured by earthly things. So when St. Paul speaks of obedience, he’s talking about hearing and responding to God. Our modern experience with the word is being compliant with rules, but Paul is saying that when something earthly has diverted our attention and become the object of our desire, and we are devoting our time, energy, and gifts to that instead of to God, then that thing is an idol.

We have many idols – and they can be tricky. We may not recognize that something has become an idol for us until someone else points it out, or until we realize things have gotten out of control. Addictions to food, substances, self-harm, shopping, or gambling come to mind.

The same can be said of religion and belief. If we create an ideal about God or how to worship God or what language to use about God, then what we have is a relationship with our ideal, not with God, and we have created an idol.

If we project our own beliefs and prejudices onto the divine, we have created an idol, and this is a very dangerous kind of idol. This kind of idol enables us to divide ourselves according to race, class, religion, or country of origin – despite St. Paul’s clarification that since Christ is all in all “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.”

This kind of idol motivates and justifies the destruction of people who are judged by the idolater to be different or unworthy. Their freedoms can be taken away. Their children can be taken away. Their lives can be taken away.

I read this morning that the US has suffered 251 mass shootings in 216 days. (Source) In the last 7 days, 2 people were killed at a Walmart store in Southaven, MS; 3 people were killed and 15 injured in Gilroy, CA; 20 were killed and 26 injured in El Paso, TX; and only this morning 9 were killed and 16 injured in Dayton, OH. It seems that our relationship with guns just might be idolatrous. It’s certainly destructive.

In her book Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith, author and theologian, Kathleen Norris, says: “Idolatry makes love impossible.” (88) That’s because we can’t love an idol – it isn’t real. It’s our own creation. Norris says we create these idols because it’s “…safer to love an idol rather than a real person [or God] who is capable of surprising you, loving you and demanding love in return…” (89-90)

Idols mislead us into believing that we can trust in ourselves, our judgment, our beliefs. And that is just what the rich man in Jesus’ parable has done.

The Parable of the rich man describes a landowner who has many possessions and is being given even more – a windfall crop. In the theology of that time, such a gift would be seen as coming from God, a blessing for the man’s righteousness. But Jesus shows the fallacy of that idea revealing it to be nothing more than vanity.

In the parable, Jesus shows that the rich man first sinned when he asked himself, ‘What should I do?’ You’ll notice that the first part of the parable is not a conversation or a prayer. The man wasn’t asking God, “What should I do?” he was asking himself. In fact, the number of times the rich man considers anyone besides himself in this parable is exactly: zero.

The rich man had devoted his time, energy, and attention to himself and his riches were nothing more than vanity. He was truly poor in the only thing worth having – a right relationship with God. This is important because when we seek and enter a right relationship with God, we have the added benefit of discovering a right relationship with ourselves and with others.

In his book, God Hunger, John Kirvan reminds us that being made in the image of God means that it isn’t just God who is mystery. Kirvan says, “We, too, have at the heart of our beings a core of reality that will forever escape definition or confinement… Our spiritual quest [then] is an exploration of our likeness to God – a case of mystery courting mystery. We are in search of the only reality worthy of our efforts, the only truth large enough to satisfy our deepest needs.” (129)

It can be hard to let God be God. We have a tendency to want to solve the mystery. Thankfully, as Episcopalians, we opt instead to live into it. God, who is more than we can ever imagine, will always surprise us. We, who are temples of God’s Holy Spirit, will surprise ourselves; and others, who are also bearers of the image of God, will surprise us too – because God is mystery and God in Christ is all in all.

We all have idols to shed. As a parish community, we have idols to shed. As a Christian community, we have idols to shed. As a country, we have idols to shed.

The first concrete step we can take today is to open ourselves to the opportunities our Holy Eucharist provides us: to pray and worship as a community that is part of the larger body of Christ; to share the spiritual food of Holy Communion which is a tangible reminder that we are one body, one spirit in Christ; to use the quiet moments in our worship to look within and encounter the divine mystery already present there.

I offer this prayer from John Kirvan as a way to begin to let God be God in us, and through us into the world:

Let us pray.

“It is because
you have made me, Lord,
in your image and likeness
that my soul seeks you
and will not rest until it rests in you.
Even as you are not
the sum of your words and images
neither am I.
Help me, Lord, not to settle
for anything less
than the divine mystery
you have made of me. (Kirvan, 129)

Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Pentecost 7, 2019-C: One foot in each realm


Lectionary: Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13



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En el nobmre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

I love our Collect for today, particularly the part where we pray that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.” As we journey on this earthly pilgrimage, we do it with, as they say, one foot in each realm… earth and heaven. It’s a gift of our baptism, our oneness with Christ who joined his divinity to our humanity, being the first-born of this reality and making us the next-born of it. We are, in our earthly bodies, temples of the heavenly Spirit of God. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him…”

What we do with that reality remains our choice. Our Old Testament story from Hosea illustrates for us what happens when we turn our attention away from the presence of God in us and in all creation: we cut ourselves off from life. This is the story of the time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel (where Samaria is) and the southern kingdom of Judah (where Jerusalem is). The kingdoms split right after Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, took over as king.

This story is hard to read but it isn’t any harder than living in conflict. When one community has two opposing factions, the whole community is harmed. Think of our own Civil War. The only casualties were us. We died on both sides, and the fallout from that conflict lives in our own divided northern and southern “kingdoms” to this day. We still haven’t healed. We’re still arguing over flags, memorials, and “heritage.”

This isn’t a story about way back when. It’s about now. It’s about us.

This is why it’ so important to remember that while we live in the temporal realm of earth for a moment, we exist in the heavenly realm eternally. Both at the same time. It’s only when we shift our focus away from the eternal presence of God and toward the temporal circumstances of the world that we can see our sisters and brother as “other” or worse yet, as our enemy.

We remember this eternal reality when we pray and enter the presence of God. This is why the gospel lesson on prayer is vital to our temporal life on earth.

Since we will soon begin a book study on The Lord’s Prayer, I’ll wait for that setting to go more deeply into this prayer. For today, I hope we’ll notice these two things:

1. That it begins with praise and acquiescence to God’s kingdom: your kingdom come.
2. That God’s supply to us, whether in the form of earthly or spiritual nourishment, is what we need for today only: give us each day our daily bread.

This bread reference points back to the Exodus when God sent manna to feed the Israelites each day. They couldn’t store up this manna as it would spoil at the end of the day. As they wandered in their wilderness, being remade by God, they had to let go of all pretense of future destinations and lifestyle as well as any sort of long-term security they could muster up for themselves. In order to be reborn, they had to trust God entirely, for as long as it took – and it took way longer than they had wished.

This kind of wilderness, where new life is formed in a people, takes time. It’s especially hard on our modern sensibilities to be patient while new life be formed is being in us. We want to make a plan and get it done. But that’s focusing on the temporal. Anything we can devise for ourselves is temporal.

When God is working new life in us, each step may take us where we need to go, but it may not be a direct path to the goal. Like a labyrinth, God may lead us near to the center, then back out to the edge where we can’t see the way back to the center. But there’s only the one path and it leads only to the center where God is, where we are illuminated by the spirit of Christ and reinvigorated for the journey back into the world.

When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he followed the prayer with a parable to teach persistence in prayer. Interestingly, Jesus’ parable includes three main characters: God, the host, and the neighbor, which harkens back to Jesus’ recent teaching on the summary of the law: love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus’ parable shows how that looks in the temporal realm.

A little background first: Middle Eastern culture takes hospitality very seriously. To fail to be hospitable, even when it’s the middle of the night, is to bring shame upon yourself and your whole community.

So we must be persistent in prayer not just for ourselves but for our whole community. In prayer, we enter the heavenly realm where we experience again that all are truly one in the unity and love of God. There is no other, no stranger, no enemy. It’s all us. We’re all one.

When we persist in experiencing that in the heavenly realm, then we are in a state where God can manifest that through us in the temporal realm. The persistence isn’t to nag God until God does what we want, but to stay close to God so we can recognize how God is already providing for us each day.

As Jesus said, if we ask God for a fish would God give us a snake? Of course not! If we ask for an egg, would it turn out to be a scorpion? No! That isn’t how love works. But when our attention is focused solely in the earthly realm we can forget that. It may look like God isn’t present, doesn’t know or care about what we need, and isn’t responding. But God is, so we must persist in our prayer.

When we ask, God provides – not necessarily what we ask for, but always what we need; and not just what we need, but what our whole community – the family of God – needs. That may be why it seems to take God too long – because God is patiently working with another soul or souls, trusting we will remain faithful while a larger plan is being worked out.

Sometimes what we need is the comfort of God’s assurance that there is a goal for us. In that assurance we can let go our own temporal goals and our earthly plans for long-term security, remembering all we have is today, and all we need for today is given to us.

Sometimes what we need is insight or revelation that expands our vision and our hearts so that our temporal plans link with God’s heavenly plan and we are in unity and in step with God’s plan which is for us but also for the whole world. In prayer, we remember that God’s plan, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. (Eph 3:20)

I close with a portion of the “Psalm to Enliven Habit Prayers,” from the book "Psalms for Zero Gravity, Prayers for Life's Emigrants" by Edward Hays.

May I invest each word of my spoken prayers
with a whole and sincere heart…
May I feel the Spirit’s spur in my side
speedily rousing me to become my prayer.
May I feel the Spirit’s wind filling my soul
with a holy windmill power.
May I pray not only for what I know I can do
but also for what I long to do in you.
May my habit of heartfelt prayer
being me ever closer to your blessed side.

Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Pentecost 6, 2019-C: The one thing we need

Lectionary: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42



Note: If the above audio doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

En el nobmre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

What a week it’s been! A heatwave is scorching our country killing six people so far. Bird attacks on people are on the rise around the world as their habitat disappears. Thousands of people are protesting for freedom in Hong Kong and Puerto Rico while maritime tensions are building with Iran. To top it off, a 17-year old girl named Bianca was murdered in NY and graphic pictures of it were posted online by her murderer with this question: “Here comes Hell. It’s redemption, right?” (www.bbc.com/news/world)

I’m so glad to be here with you to hear the Word of God and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Then I read Amos and the psalm for today.

Our story from Amos begins with a teaser about a basket of fruit, but quickly takes a darker turn with God saying: The end has come upon my people Israel.” If I hadn’t had to write a sermon, I might have just stopped reading and walked away. But I did have to write a sermon and my role is to discern and share the Good News in our Scripture because it’s always there.

The “basket of fruit” reference is a wordplay in Hebrew. The word that translates as 'basket of fruit' sounds like the word that translates as 'the end.' God asks Amos, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ Amos says, “the end.”

Remembering from last week that God is the plumb-line in the midst of the community, this story from Amos shows us that God sees what’s happening on the ground. God repeats, “I will never pass you by” which is interpreted to mean, I am in the midst of you and I will not forget what I’m seeing, and what I’m seeing is not just, not compassionate, and not right.

Hear this, God says: [I see] you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. [I see you who] practice deceit with false balances, exchanging the poor for your own wealth and the needy for a pair of Gucci’s, selling junk food and passing it off as nutritious – all for your own gain.

I see you and though I embody the true vertical among you, you don’t see me. So I will watch and wait while you bring yourselves to the only end available to you: mourning and lamentation. When you get where you’re going you’ll realize how wrong you’ve been and you’ll look for me to save you, but you won’t see me.

The psalm picks up the theme calling out the tyrant for his cruelty. “You love lying more than speaking truth. You love all words that hurt.” O that God would hear our prayer and demolish you utterly…”

I admit this Psalm has been my prayer for a while now. I am not God but I see these very issues playing out in our world today, and if social media is any indicator, I’m not alone in this. I will concede, these issues play out in every era, but I think this time it's personal. This time it’s us, the historical good guys, acting unjustly, without compassion, and doing what is not right toward the weak, the foreigner, and the powerless among us.

So like the psalmist, I pray in order to go into the presence of God where my heart can be moved from “demolish them utterly” to “I trust in the mercy of God for ever.”

There are days and weeks the news is so disruptive of my peace and corrosive to my hope that my only recourse is to shut it off for a moment and return to the presence of Jesus, which is what Mary was demonstrating in today’s gospel.

This familiar story is often discussed in ways that pit Martha against Mary in a competition for holiness. I often hear people say, “I’m a Martha” or “I’m a Mary.” The truth is, we’re all both. We all have our gifts to offer in our ministries, and there are times we must all stop and sit at the feet of Jesus for the renewal of our souls.

The other biblical stories of Martha and Mary illustrate that these sisters possess a great gift of hospitality – one that goes beyond the cultural expectation for “women’s work.” They are a team – and their home is a center for hospitality and friendship. Martha’s frustration in this story is that her teammate, Mary, isn’t doing her part, leaving the burden of the whole ministry to Martha who tries to hold it up alone, but finds herself bitter and resentful about it.

Jesus responds with a soothing: Martha, Martha… you are worried and distracted by many things, but there is only one thing that really matters. Look, Mary has chosen the good part.

Why our translators changed the word here from ‘good’ to ‘better’ escapes me and is part of the reason, I think, we hear this as a competition for holiness. Mary didn’t choose a better part than Martha. Jesus called Mary’s choice good, that is, admirable, deserving of respect and approval, and he gave it all of that.

Jesus was clear that Mary’s choice would not be taken from her. Choice is a sign of our freedom. Mary had the right to choose for herself. We all do. Besides, any ministry Mary offers can wait while she is renewed in spirit.

When I picture this scene as if I were going to paint it, I see Mary sitting with the other disciples having a conversation with Jesus. They all seem happy and relaxed. Martha is not in the room with them. She’s visible through a doorway to another room where she is preparing a platter of food. Her back is to Jesus as she prepares the food. That means Martha can’t see Jesus, and as the story from Amos teaches us, when we can’t see God, we can’t move in justice, compassion, and right relationship.

To all of us who are worried and distracted by many things, Jesus assures the Martha within us and it sounds something like this: Y’all know me well enough to know that I don’t need a fancy dinner, just time with you and our friends in your home. Be still sometimes, all you Marthas. Just be with me. You have no praise to earn, no expectations to meet. You are already beloved. Come and be with me. I will fill your emptiness, restore your hope, and prepare you for your work in ministry.

Do you see how this connects to our practice of Sunday Eucharist? We come to our center of hospitality and share simple food of bread and wine with our friends and ministry teammates. Refreshed and renewed we re-enter the world where injustice and unrighteousness leave so many suffering and hopeless and we declare the goodness and mercy of God to them by our words and our lives.

As followers of Jesus Christ today we are called to be intentional about seeking the one thing we need: time spent with God and one another, listening for the voice of God within us and among us. We come together to be strengthened for service so that we can live as agents of Christ’s transforming love in the world.

That is the servanthood to which our baptism calls us, and it's why we started our Eucharist today with the opening from Holy Baptism. Now let's turn to page 304 in the Book of Common Prayer and renew our baptismal vows together. Afterward, we continue with the Prayers of the People.

After the renewal of Baptismal vows, we conclude with this collect:

Let us pray. Holy God, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon [us] your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised [us] to the new life of grace. Sustain [us], O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give [us] an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (BCP, Baptism, 314)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Pentecost 5, 2019-C: Let God be God among us

Lectionary: Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37



Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE.

En el nombre dil Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

Our lectionary today includes a lot of emphasis on what we should do as God’s people. In fact, we started our worship with a prayer asking God to help us know what things we ought to do, then give us grace and power to do them.

What are the things we ought to do… ?

This is often a problematic discussion in the context of worship and church life because it can degrade very quickly into a set of rules delineating specific things we must do while adding in the things we must not do. Lists such as those often reduce living lives of faith to a freedom-less obedience to a changing landscape of laws architected by the powerful.

As history demonstrates – the rules change as those in power change. They also change as people grow in wisdom, grace, and faith, as evidenced by the ordination of women and LGBTQ people and the federal law allowing same-sex marriage.

There have always been those among us who must know and clarify every instance in which any specific rule does or doesn’t apply, and we end up with 10 commandments morphing into nearly 700 rules to live by. There are also those who utilize the rules to thin the herd so to speak: if you disobey the rules, you’ll be cast out of our community, or worse yet, cast into eternal damnation.

Don’t’ get me wrong: I’m not purporting we ditch all rules or that living in faith or freedom means living with no rules. On the contrary, I believe that rules, customs, and traditions help communities live together in peace with fairness and provide a foundation upon which communities can evolve and grow from generation to generation - especially in the context of the church.

What I don’t believe is that obedience to rules or traditions can lead us to eternal life. That path can only be found in the heart, which is what (I think) Jesus was demonstrating in today’s gospel.

The lawyer in this story asks Jesus: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking what the law says. The lawyer, familiar with the law, answers correctly quoting from Deuteronomy (6:5): You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Jesus affirms the lawyer saying, “Right… do this and you will live.”

I want to pause here and notice that Jesus did not say you will live eternally, which was what the lawyer had asked. We’ll get back to this later.

Luke says that the next question the lawyer asked was to justify himself, that is, to affirm for himself that he is doing it right - according to the law. Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan.

You all know this story, so we don’t need to go deeply into the details of it. Because in the end, the lawyer sums up Jesus’ point: the one who showed mercy was the one who was a neighbor.

The power of this story is in these three details:

1) The man who did it right was a Samaritan. As we discussed two weeks ago, Samaritans were considered racially and spiritually impure by the Jews, and they couldn’t interact with or touch Jewish people, as that would make the Jewish person unclean too.

2) The other characters in this story, who did it wrong, all responded to the dying man in keeping with the law which prohibited them from touching a dying man, lest they become unclean themselves;

3) The impure Samaritan had to violate the law in order to show mercy since he too should not have touched a dying man AND he should not have touched a Jewish man. Jesus didn’t identify the dying man as Jewish, but what if he had been? By the time someone could know this, it might be too late and the poor man would be unclean and dead!

You can see the conundrum. So Jesus clears it up in typical rabbinical fashion – by asking a question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?”

The obvious answer is the one who showed mercy. This answer points to two important things. First, when we show mercy we are prioritizing the other over ourselves. Their need becomes more important than our obedience to the law. Second, action is required. The Samaritan didn’t think mercifully, he acted mercifully. He didn’t offer thoughts and prayers, he offered aid.

This brings to my mind the man arrested for bringing water to thirsty refugees at the border or the many cities in which people are being arrested for feeding the homeless, and looks ahead to the ICE raids scheduled to begin today.

So the question is: how do we know what we ought to do?

The answer can be found in the story from Amos and the epistle to the Colossians. In Amos, God provides the prophet with a vision of a plumb line, which is, of course, a vertical reference line: heaven to earth. From now on, God says, this is us. “I am setting this plumb line in the midst of my people… I will never pass them by again” because I will be among them. The thing about a plumb line is, it can only offer a true vertical reference when it is free from restriction or obstruction.

In other words, God must be free to be God among us in order for us to be in right relationship. This ties in to the great commandment: we are to love God with all we are – heart , mind, soul, and strength. This kind of love isn’t about having strong feelings about God (there’s a different Greek word for that) but about giving God preference over ourselves. The word ‘love’ used here refers to our will. To love God in this way is to choose to acquiesce to God, to accept God’s will without protest, and to cherish God with reverence.

The other important point in the story in Amos is that the plumb line is in the midst of a community. This isn’t about our individual relationship with God but our relationship as a community of God’s people to God. Does the community choose to put God’s will ahead of its own? In order to do that we must let go of our individual and corporate ability to influence an outcome we might honestly think is best for the community, trusting that God has a plan that is more than we can ask or imagine. (Eph 3:20) In community then, if we hinder the free movement of the plumb line, we are a stumbling block.

The letter to the Colossians reminds us that there will be moments the community needs to endure together, with patience, and the author prays for their strengthening, wisdom, and understanding. It makes you wonder if they were a church in transition, doesn’t it? ;)

So, the question we’ve been pondering is: how do we know what we ought to do?

I noticed that there is a thread that runs through the whole lectionary: the presumption of a prayerful relationship with God. When we pray to God we remember to get out of the way of the plumb line. Praying is the means by which we live in right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves.

Praying also puts us in the presence of God – which is eternal life - this life and the afterlife in the eternal presence of God. We don’t inherit eternal life, as the lawyer questioning Jesus assumed. We accept it. It is a gift from God. Being in the prayerful presence of God is the only way we can know what we ought to do when we face a circumstance that takes us beyond the limits of the law, custom, or tradition.

As we transition culturally from a generation that goes to weekly church services out of duty or obedience to the rules to a generation that dismisses (some even abhor) the institutional church and its rules, it’s important to remember that the body of Christ is now as it has always been – a community of people in whom God in Christ dwells.

As the body of Christ, then, it is important for us to let God be God among us; to pay attention - together, listen - together, and respond - together - to God’s call to us as a community because every church in every generation is faced with situations that cause us to have to look beyond our rules, traditions, and customs in order to respond with love; in order to grow in wisdom, grace, and faith.

Do this, as Jesus said, and we will live. Amen.