Sunday, July 19, 2020

7 Pentecost: The first step

Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23, 16-19; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

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

We’ve been hearing some heavy-duty teachings from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel lately. Two weeks ago, Jesus issued a divine call for change in the way we live together in community and promised to be with us, yoked to us, bearing the weight of that change and guiding us forward on the right path.

Last week Jesus, the religious rebel, called us to be servant-listeners. He called us to go beyond our traditional and habitual understandings and take the word of God into our hearts where it can have its effect so that we can respond from that transformed understanding as Jesus did: upsetting the status quo in order to bring justice, peace, and love to all of God’s people who hunger and thirst for it.

Today’s gospel continues with another powerful teaching from Jesus, this time piercing the heart of the apocalyptic tradition in Judaism which, by the way, was carried into Christianity and lives vigorously today in Christian understanding. Having just told us to listen differently, like infants (innocently, openly, and continually), Jesus tells the Parable of the Weeds, a story about living in the presence of good and evil in the world and in the church, perhaps hoping we’d practice what he just preached.

In this teaching, Jesus uses images familiar to his listeners. In those days you could sabotage a harvest of wheat by throwing in seeds of bearded darnell, a weed-grain that looks a lot like wheat at first but is bitter and a bit toxic in its maturity. The roots of this weed would wind together with the roots of the wheat, making it impossible to remove until the threshing.

Jesus clarifies through the parable that the separation of the weeds from the wheat is a divine task, not a human one. So, what are we supposed to do, just wait and do nothing? We’ll get back to that question a bit later.

Much of the commentary and discussion about this parable talk about the judgement of God being terrible - the weeds being thrown into the fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth, and they warn us that God’s justice is like that. This seems to be a persistent human tendency to project onto God the character of a punitive enforcer who threatens harsh suffering for some and enlightened blessing for others, even though Jesus, who is the second person in the Trinity of God, demonstrated by his life and ministry quite the opposite character.

Jesus demonstrated a loving, forgiving, humble character. When the law would have allowed him to punish sin, as in the woman caught in adultery, he didn’t do it. Instead, he forgave people their sins - even from the cross as he died.

God is steadfast in God’s commitment to reconcile those who are evil, that is, those who by their intention or actions cause division, harm, or sadness, those who build systems that make the burdens of others heavy or oppressive. We affirm the same in our Catechism where we proclaim that our mission is to “restore all people” the wheat and the weeds “to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, p 855)

God’s stated plan, God’s promise is the reconciliation of the whole world. The wheat are dwelling places of the presence of God, imperfectly in our humanity, but that’s OK. God knows our ignorance and weakness and has our backs. The weeds are lost - and we know how Jesus felt about leaving the many to go after even one who is lost.

So, the wheat and the weeds must live together, entwined together in the roots of our humanity, because God seeks to redeem and reconcile all. That doesn’t always happen, however, as we well know. Sometimes the weeds die in their evil state, unrepentant.

When that happens, the parable says, the angels of God separate the wheat from the weeds and throw the weeds into the fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There are two very important concepts to unpack here.

First, let’s consider the fire. How is fire used in the Bible? There’s the famously burning bush through which God spoke to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus (v 1), and in Exodus 24, the “appearance of the glory of God was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain for all the people to see (v 17). In Luke 3, John the Baptist declared that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v 16).

Fire is biblical language for the presence of God. When the weeds are thrown into the fire, they are thrown into the presence of God where, of course, there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who believe in their own power will resist dying to self, but in the presence of God, who is love, the revelation of the harm they have done will leave them full of remorse as their system of denial or justification fails, and they know their guilt. Weeping and gnashing of teeth often happens before repentance.

When we are in the presence of God, no matter how unworthy we are or we feel, the pervasiveness of God’s love saturates us and we can only - finally - love back. It is the ultimate healing. It is reconciliation.

Then, as the parable says, those who have been brought back into right relationship in the fire of the divine presence, will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God. God’s plan of redemptive, reconciling love is for the whole world. God’s judgment isn’t terrifying, it’s salvific!

In the parable, the weeds are the children of the evil one. Hearing that from our 21st century perspective, we may miss the point. Remember, Jesus called himself the Son of Man. We call him the Son of God. Similarly, the children of the evil one those who are in relationship with and agents of those who sew division, pain, and heap unfair hard work upon those they can oppress.

The children of the evil one are those who participate in malevolence or maintain malignant systems. All of us have been and are participants in systems that are rife with what are called the “seven deadly isms:” racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and individualism.

We, who are the church, clearly have lots of reconciling work to do. Trying to dismantle all of these systems at once would be impossible, but that is no reason to give up. God has raised up for us in this moment two -isms to attend to: individualism and racism. These -isms, however, are interconnected, bound together at their roots, and attending to one will have an effect on them all.

God has been calling us, in very overt ways recently, to wake up from our collective sleep and recognize that our economic, educational, public safety, and even our religious systems are racist, that is, they discriminate against people of color. Recognizing how and where our familiar systems are racist is only the first step, but it’s the most important one we can take right now. And we take it by listening to the voices of those who are being oppressed - listening as Jesus taught us to do in last week’s gospel: as servant-listeners who prioritize God and other over self. Listening like infants: openly, continually, without defensiveness or blame.

Until we as a people can recognize and acknowledge the inherent racism in our systems, no amount of work by individuals to dismantle them will be successful. Bound together as we are at the roots of our humanity, we must live and act as one, unified, anti-racist, anti-individualist body to dismantle those unjust, oppressive systems and build new, just ones.

This first step is a hard one, and it’s scary. A familiar oppressor is often preferable to an unknown future, even when that future promises freedom. Thankfully, “in hope we were saved” as St. Paul says, so we can “hope for what we do not see…with patience” and keep going. As Dr. King said, “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Source.

The twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism have revealed to us two of our most potent -isms: individualism and racism, and the time for healing action is now. The path for healing is the redemptive, reconciling love of the Triune God who gave us our mission: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ by promoting justice, peace, and love. (Book of Common Prayer, 855)

We can do this only through the power of the love of God in Christ who is yoked to us, dwelling in us, guiding our every step. As always, we pray before we take a first step, so I offer this prayer, adapted from our Noonday Prayer service.

Let us pray. Redeeming God, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts, to direct and serve us according to your will, to comfort us in all our afflictions, to defend us from all error, and to lead us into all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 107)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

6 Pentecost, 20-A: Servant listeners

Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

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

One of my favorite things about Scripture is that there is always new revelation awaiting the one who reads it openly, innocently, receptively. The problem most of us tend to confront when we read Scripture is that we’ve been taught to understand and visualize the stories in a singular way. God is that grand-fatherly old man with a long white beard, like the image created by Michelangelo in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Jesus is a very western looking Palestinian Jew: light-skinned, sometimes with light or blue eyes, and smooth, wavy hair that goes to his shoulders. And the Holy Spirit almost always looks like a white dove.

Culturally agreed upon images and traditional ways to understand Biblical stories tend to develop over time. By itself, that isn’t a bad thing, as long as we remember that the revelation of God to humankind is continual, so clinging to traditional images, understanding, and practice for habit’s sake, or out of fear of leaving “orthodoxy” limits our freedom to grow and God’s freedom to grow us. The “truth” has not been established by any system or religion or forebear in the faith. The truth exists only Jesus Christ who is living and active in the world, and in us.

When we hear the Parable of the Sower from our gospel reading today, most of us were taught to picture God as the sower and ourselves as the soil. We listen asking ourselves, which type of soil am I? I want to be the good soil that produces fruit!

But when we listen to the parable that way, I have to wonder… where is the challenge that Jesus almost always included in his teaching parables? Where is the twist in the plot that points to the counter-cultural nature of God’s reign?

So, let’s expand the window through which we are looking a little bit. Our gospel reading starts with the words that same day, which refers to what has just happened in the previous chapter. The Pharisees have accused Jesus of being a law-breaker because he healed a man on the Sabbath and allowed his hungry disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath. They also accuse Jesus of healing a demoniac by the power of Beelzebul. Jesus responds to these accusations by calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and an” evil generation.” Heavy duty!

This is where our story today picks up. Jesus is a religious rebel who challenges the traditional understanding of his time, and in spite of the opposition to Jesus by the religious leadership, huge crowds continue to gather around him, hungry for what he has to offer.

So, what is Jesus offering in today’s gospel story?

Jesus begins his teaching saying, “Let anyone with ears listen.” This is obviously not a literal request. They probably all had ears! But Jesus is asking them to listen differently… freely, innocently (like an infant); to open themselves and go beyond their traditional, habitual understanding.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus describes the sower as an extravagant gardener who casts seeds everywhere: on soil, pavement, into thorns…everywhere. The sower tosses the seed out in such a way that it’s possible new life might take root in the least likely of places. Why isn’t the sower more careful? the listener is thinking. What a waste of seed.

If the gardener is God, which is the traditional approach to this parable, then God is extravagant in speaking the plan of redemptive love into the world and there are four ways we listen - but only one of those ways is obedient. To be obedient isn’t simply to do as we’re told but to hear, take the word of God in so it can have its effect on us, then respond from that transformed understanding.

Here are the four ways Jesus says people tend to listen. See if any feel familiar.

First, there are the very busy listeners who are persistently on their way somewhere. These listeners can be very “devout (and sometimes very demanding) about the correct way to understand God and Scripture, but in the end, the busy-ness of their lives snaps up their attention like birds eating seeds off the sidewalk, and they produce no real fruit for God.

Next are the on-fire-for-Jesus listeners. They are faith-filled, passionate, and ready to get stuff done! But somehow, it never gets done. They don’t actually take in the Word, so they aren’t transformed by it. Their passions remain only in their thoughts, so they don’t make any real changes in their lives or in the world. They burn out quickly and sit back until the next passionate awakening, only to repeat the pattern. They too produce no real fruit for God.

Then there are the cell-phone listeners. They’re looking at you, but listening to the phone in their ear. Money, position, and other self-centered concerns distract them, take priority, and become the focus of their time and attention. Witnessing the good news and magnifying the reign of God become what they can manage to fit into their spare time - and everyone knows, there is no such thing as spare time - so these listeners also produce no real fruit for God.

And finally, there are the servant-listeners. These listeners put God and neighbor before self and therefore, produce continual fruit. Servant-listeners realize that obeying God doesn’t mean giving up their free will or freedom, but rather expands their understanding and widens their reach. Servant-listeners listen openly, innocently, and so they are able to hear and understand “what things they ought to do” (as our Collect says). The Word of God transforms them so they see and understand differently, more completely. As a result, they realize that it is God who gives them the “grace and power faithfully to accomplish” those things, so they surrender their plans and their habits and offer themselves fully to God.

Servant-listeners produce fruit humbly and continually because their minds are set on the things of the Spirit, as St. Paul says. They have detached from seeking the rewards of the world, which gives them true freedom because the rewards of the world are manipulated and sold to us by those who stand to gain from them. An example is the shampoo company that coined the phrase: lather, rinse, repeat. By convincing us that we needed to wash our hair twice every time in order to be beautiful, they doubled our use of their product. Our hair was no cleaner or more beautiful than it had been before, but we bought the concept and they raked in the money.

It’s a simple example, but there are other more malignant ones that are part of our traditional and habitual experience. For example, colorism, which is discrimination based on skin color. It can happen across races and within the same race. Did you know that Queen Elizabeth I used to eat arsenic crackers to help her maintain her ghostly whiteness? Why? Because whiteness had become associated with purity and goodness - and we continue to buy that bill of goods today.

This deception lives out now in something called the “school to prison pipeline.” According to “the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students… Trouble at school can lead [a student of color] to their first contact with the criminal justice system. And in many cases, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system — often by having students arrested at school.” Source Children of color become terrified of getting in trouble at school, making them more vulnerable to bullying because white students know the students of color have to avoid getting in trouble.

In his 2018 study* called: “The color of punishment: African Americans, skin tone, and the criminal justice system” Harvard sociology professor, Ellis P. Monk says, “it isn’t just being black that makes a person more likely to be sentenced to jail in the US, it’s how black they are. A person’s lifetime chance of having been arrested, the study found, is directly proportional with the darkness of their skin… After accounting for differences like gender and level of education, [Ellis] found that African Americans have an overall 36% chance of going to jail at some point in their lifetimes. Dark-skinned African Americans, meanwhile, have a near 66% chance. That’s a full 30% increase.” Source

We’ve been sold a bill of goods for generations that black bodies are impure, bad, or dangerous - and it’s time we stop buying into it. It’s time for us to be servant-listeners and stop judging our neighbors by the standards of the world, standards that were intentionally manipulated to further the wealth and power of an elite, self-centered group.

Jesus was a religious rebel who challenged the traditional understanding of his time, showing us how to do it in our time. As it was for Jesus it will be for us: there will be opposition to upsetting the status quo, but there are crowds gathering around our country and around the world who are hungry for the freedom of the truth that is found in Jesus Christ.

How will we listen and respond? In truth, we are, each of us, all four of the listeners Jesus speaks about at different moments in our lives. Together, however, we can choose, in this moment, to be a church of servant-listeners. That is my prayer and my hope. Amen.

Art: Goddess Sun(flower)

* Study citation: Ellis P. Monk (2019) The color of punishment: African Americans, skin tone, and the criminal justice system, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42:10, 1593-1612, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2018.1508736

Sunday, July 5, 2020

5th Pentecost, 20-A: Wisdom's divine dance

Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an.mp3 audio format.

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

There’s a tiredness known now as “COVID-fatigue” which is, in part, why we’re seeing so many people going out without masks, ignoring social distancing, and taking risks that make no sense as the pandemic resurges among us. I’m hearing people say things like: ‘I don’t care if I get it or not,’ or ‘I’m willing to take the risk,’ or ‘some people are going to get it and some won’t, that’s just the way it is now.’

COVID-fatigue also shows up as irritability over little things as couples and families isolating together can attest. And there’s a growing fatalism taking hold: ‘why am I bothering? The numbers just keep going up. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway.’

Part of the fatigue derives from a feeling of helplessness. The answer to the problem still evades us. There’s no vaccine to stop it and no magic medicine to treat it.

We’re tired. We’re tired of isolating. We’re tired of Zoom meetings. We’re tired of not being able to hug loved ones, travel safely, or take a summer vacation. We’re tired of not being able to eat out, party with friends, and go to the beach. We’re tired of not being able to worship together at church, sing hymns, and share communion. We’re tired.

What if this were to go on for centuries?

If that were to happen, then white people might have some sense of what black people in America have been experiencing. This is our moment of awakening to how it feels to have our lives and freedoms restricted with no clear solution to the problem, and no end in sight.

I expect the same kind of fatigue will soon start showing up in complaints from people who are tired of hearing about racism, but until every one of God’s children of color is treated with the respect, dignity, and advantage God’s white children enjoy, the discussion and justice-making work must go on.

Thankfully, our Collect today offers us the motivation to keep on working for justice and wholeness even though we’re tired. As our Collect demonstrates, ours is a trinitarian relationship of God, other, and self, moving as one in a divine dance, the individual parts in unity with one another. Three moving as one. If any one of us falls out of step or leaves the dance, the whole is affected.

It’s like a mobile that you see over a baby’s crib. The ornaments rotate slowly in a peaceful, circular dance, but if one of the ornaments is cut off the whole mobile tilts out of balance and soon, it can’t rotate anymore.

In the same way, no matter how tired we are, it isn’t just about us. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. Everyone else in God’s creation is part of us. Therefore, what we do or don’t do affects the whole of us.

So, we wear masks and practice social distancing, not just for ourselves but for those among us who are at risk of harm from the coronavirus. And we stand with and listen to people of color who are crying out with pain from of the effect of generations of racist policies that have restricted their lives and freedoms.

Even now, there are counter-voices claiming that the coronavirus isn’t a real thing but a political ploy. This is nothing more than intentional ignorance.

Then there are the voices that claim we are in a post-racial society, we had a black president after all, they say. They deny racism exists anymore except when it can be abused by people of color who “play the race-card” to get what they want without earning it. This kind of gaslighting has led to all kinds of passive-aggression in response to real injustice.

It may help to know that intentional ignorance, gaslighting, and passive aggression in response to injustice isn’t new. Jesus confronted the same thing in his time, and it frustrated him too as we heard in today’s Gospel from Matthew.

The setting is this: John the Baptist is in prison. Jesus, who had been a follower of John, is out on his own now preaching. When John hears that Jesus is out preaching, he sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah they have been awaiting. Jesus tells them to tell John what they see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

This is where today’s lectionary picks up. The greatest prophet ever is in prison and Jesus knows where all of this is leading - for John, for himself, and for God’s people - and he’s frustrated.

You’re acting like a bunch of children, he says. The children of Group A say to the children of Group B: we celebrated a wedding and you wouldn’t come dance with us. Yeah, says Group B to Group A, well we held a funeral and you wouldn’t mourn with us.” This doesn’t sound like much to us, but it was a huge violation of the hospitality law for them and it would have been a great disruption to their community.

For us it sounds more like this: We sang our anthem at the football game and you wouldn’t stand and sing with us! Yeah, well we keep mourning murdered black bodies and you just look away and complain about protestors.

There’s no satisfying people who are so polarized, and Jesus uses John and himself as an example: John is called demonic for not eating or drinking while I’m called a glutton and drunkard for eating and drinking.

“Yet” he says, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Jesus’ choice of the word “wisdom” alerts his hearers to a powerful biblical concept found in Joshua, Solomon, Job, the judges, Proverbs, and the whole wisdom tradition.

As the religious and cultural authorities respond with violence to those like John who call for change in the way the community lives together, wisdom, the justice-maker of God, is vindicated by her deeds: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Yet, the people refuse to see or acknowledge the divine call for change. They refuse to dance in unity with one another and with God, choosing instead to fight and complain about those other people, deepening the divide between them.

Then our lectionary jumps a few verses - skipping over Jesus skewering his own people. Jesus compares them to the famously wicked towns of Tyre and Sidon. We’re not wicked. We’re not like them! Today it might sound like this: “We’re not racist. We’re not like those slave-traders and plantation owners.”

Jesus hurt some feelings speaking a truth they didn’t want to hear, so he offers a public prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants...” Awakening to truth is hard for those who think they already know it, but it is God’s will that we do, and that we open ourselves to learn as infants do - continually and innocently. This isn’t about blame, it’s about justice.

But it all feels so hard, so heavy… and we’re already tired. So, Jesus restores us to the divine dance, reminding us that we don’t do this alone. We do this as we do everything, with God and one another.

Jesus’ next words of comfort are some of my very favorite, which is why I use them so often at the offertory sentence (in Spanish and English): “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…”

This isn’t Jesus telling us to stop carrying our burdens, just to stop trying to carry them alone. Jesus offers to yoke himself to us to bear our burdens with us and to guide us on the path we must go to establish real, lasting justice.

COVID-fatigue has just begun for some of us. Racism-fatigue is centuries long for others of us. We are all tired, but we are motivated to change the way we live in community together even knowing there will be no magic medicine to make this quick and painless.

The only way to get through the long-term changes that will be required of us is to go together, in a divine dance of unity with one another and with God, humbly, gently, innocently, and for as long as it takes.

Our way will be made successful. God promises it - and God always keeps God’s promises.


Sunday, June 28, 2020

4 Pentecost, 20-A: Nothing short of everything

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

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

I love the story from Genesis that we’re given to contemplate today. I love it because it challenges our comfortable definitions of God, ourselves as believers, and what God wants from relationship with us.

I love it because it marks the beginning of a very long journey for God’s people, led by Abraham at first, a journey that would take too long yet would eventually lead them to the promised land. Before this journey could begin, however, God needed Abraham to know that he could do what God was going to ask of him. The test wasn’t to prove anything to God, but to Abraham.

The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac seems like a divine game of chicken. How close will God let Abraham get to killing his own son, the son God had promised but not delivered until he and his wife were elderly, the son God said would generate a nation of people for God? What kind of God would play such a monstrous game?

And why didn’t Abraham plead with God for Isaac’s life as he had just recently done for the people of Sodom? Why did he just comply with so terrible a command from God?

I suggest three reasons:

1) Sometimes it’s right to plead with God hoping to change God’s mind. Other times it’s right to quietly comply. We can’t know which of those any situation it is unless we listen with our hearts - which takes practice. Abraham was practiced by now and discerned that this was a time to quietly comply.

2) By the time God made this request of Abraham, their relationship had grown and deepened to a point that Abraham had profound trust in the goodness of God, enabling him to walk to the edge of that nightmare cliff, ready to jump. Abraham knew that God’s plan of salvation for him and for all people was beyond his imagining and sure to be fulfilled so there was nothing that could disrupt Abraham’s trust in God, not even what seemed like a monstrous demand for his son’s life.

3) Abraham was ready to offer whatever was required of him as a participant in God’s plan of salvation. He was willing to do only his part, then hand off the journey into other hands God had made ready to carry it. In short, he was willing to die to himself that others might have life in God.

What God wanted from relationship with Abraham was nothing short of everything; and Abraham was ready to give it. That’s what he needed to know about himself in order to serve God and God’s people.

In the context of our present time and our uncertainty about how to make real, lasting changes in the systems that oppress our African-American sisters and brothers and all people of color, we hear from this story what will be required of us: and it’s nothing short of everything.

Hear this story again:

God tested white Christians in America and said to us, “white Christians in America!” And we said, “Here we are.” God said, “Take your economic systems, your governmental systems, and your institutional church systems, take these systems you made for the future for your children, whom you love, and bring them to a place I will show you, a place where you will "recognize the truth." (Source) In that place, offer all of those things you love to me as a burnt offering.”

So white Christians in America rose early the next morning, saddled with sadness, and packed what we needed to make the sacrifice: the partial histories we wrote and the whole histories we silenced, the money we bent our knees to, the politicians we bent to our will then blamed, and the churches we constructed to make it all okay.

And white Christians in America went, with a small community of global friends, to the place in the far-off time that God would show us. We traveled for three days, a short but arduous journey. Three days, the same amount of time Jesus spent in the tomb.

On the third day white Christians in America looked up and saw the place of the far-off time. It had erupted before our eyes awakening our souls with a start. We suddenly knew that the far-off time is now. We had seen it coming. Our forefathers and mothers knew they could only start it and we’d have to finish it. And the time is now.

Then white Christians in America said to their global friends, “Stay here; we need to go over there to the place of the once-far-off-but-now-present-time; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
When they came to the place that God had shown them, white Christians in America built an altar there and made ready to sacrifice their future on it, placing on the altar the preparations for the burnt offering: the partial histories we wrote and the whole histories we silenced, the money we bent our knees to, the politicians we bent to our will then blamed, and the churches we constructed to make it all okay.

The future said to the white Christians in America, “Fathers! Mothers!” And we said, “Here we are, my children.” And the future said, “Everything is ready, but where is the sacrificial offering?” White Christians in America said, “God will provide the sacrifice, my children.”

Then they bound up their future and laid it upon the altar, on top of the preparations. Then white Christians in America reached out their hands to burn their future.

But an angel of the LORD called to white Christians in America from heaven, and said, “white Christians in America, white Christians in America!” And we stopped and said, “Here we are.”

Then a voice said, “Do not kill your future. Sacrifice only your alternative to my plan. Place your will, your plans on the systems you built, and sacrifice that to me.

For now I know that you truly love me, since you have not withheld that which you love from me.” And White Christians in America looked up and recognized the truth: we do love God and we can trust in God completely.

We recognized the truth that the Lord has always provided and will always provide. That God’s plan of salvation for us and for all people is beyond our imagining and sure to be fulfilled so there is nothing that can disrupt our trust in God.

We recognized the truth that the preparations we were ready to sacrifice - the partial histories we wrote and the whole histories we silenced, the money we bent our knees to, the politicians we bent to our will then blamed, and the churches we constructed to make it all okay - were nothing more than the wages of death; the bonds of a lie that overtly denied others the freedom to live and covertly stole ours too. Burning those would be our freedom.

We recognized the truth that we have been chosen by God to establish a new future, God’s future - that leads people of every race, gender, nation, and language, along with all of our children, and our children’s children, to participate in God’s plan of salvation.

We recognized the same truth that Abraham did: we can do this. We can be willing to die to ourselves that others might have life because we trust God’s goodness completely - for us and for all.

It was a short journey to that place of the once-far-off-but-now-present-time, but it will be a long exile from our familiar ways until we reach the promised land, but we will reach it. God has promised it.

In this present moment, God’s children of color are dying, babies of color are locked in cages while their parents grieve their empty arms, and the privileged class is drowning in selfishness. The questions re-echo: what do we do? How long will we suffer this perplexity in our minds and grief in our hearts?

The answer is: as long as it takes. Our forebears spent a long time building their world then leaving it behind for exile in the wilderness, where they felt lost and abandoned, hungry, and missing what they left behind.ut on they went following God’s guidance until finally - they reached the promised land, generations later.

We will have reached our promised land when our systems welcome all of God’s people into life. We’ll see evidence of this promised land when we are acting to soothe the thirst of every little one on earth who suffers.

We will recognize the promised land when everyone on earth is so joined together with the apostles and all the company of heaven, in unity of spirit, that we are made one, holy, diverse, living dwelling place of God.

And it will require from us what was required of our Father Abraham: nothing short of everything.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Sin and Grace: Choosing Life

I am not preaching this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost, but there is a powerful sermon from our Deacon, Janet Schisser on the Calvary YouTube Channel. Instead, this week I offer my article from our weekly newsletter.

In our Bible Study this week, our discussion went deeply into the topics of sin and grace as presented by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (ch 6). I mentioned an article written by theologian Paul Tillich called “You Are Accepted” which offers a traditional definition of sin; one that is supported by Scripture but is unfamiliar to many modern Christians. It was requested that I share it here, so I do - with a little context.

What do we mean when we talk about sin? Many people talk about sin as it refers to our behavior. Sins are the bad or wrong things we do.

In his book, The Shaking of the Foundations, theologian Paul Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. (Note: As a trained trauma responder, I’d also say trauma can lead to this - especially early childhood trauma.) It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to righteousness, that is, to right relationship with God, one another, and creation.

Jesus speaks plainly about this when he says, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish” (Lk 13:3). He goes on to explain what he means in the parable of the fig tree. In this parable, the lord of the vineyard sees a fig tree that isn’t producing fruit, judges it as useless, and cuts it down. In Jesus’ re-telling of this popular near-Eastern story, however, the owner of the garden shows mercy, giving the tree one more chance. In order to live the tree and the tree’s community (the gardener) must change how they’re doing things… which is the point in this parable: repent, change how you and your community are living together, or you will die… not because God will punish you, but because the way you are living is not life-giving… it leads to death.

When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love, even though we are thoroughly unworthy of that love. Suddenly, “a light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted…accepted by that which is greater than you…’”

Repentance empowers us through the grace of God’s acceptance, opening the way for all of our relationships to be changed, reconciled. If there is a burning theological and social issue right now, this is it: the way white America lives in relationship with our African American sisters and brothers needs to change. It leads to death. We’ve seen the videos.

The world is currently erupting in pain born of the sin of racism. Rather than stop the pain or silence the cries, we might consider entering it instead and being changed by it, trusting in God’s grace to transform it and us. The time is now to repent and be reconciled.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

2 Pentecost, 20-A: Called to systemic change

Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7); Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an mp3 audio format.

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

As Episcopalians, we seek to affirm our individual discernment with corporate discernment. An example is our process to ordination. The called person must have their call affirmed first by members of their parish, then their diocese before the bishop will prepare them to serve. In that way, we give the Holy Spirit time and means to show us the will of God for the person and for the Church.

Before I accepted my call to ordination, I heard about it from people in my parish, my friends, my co-workers, even some of my Roman Catholic family members! God was kindly making the revelation of my call abundantly clear to me by providing affirmations from many directions and varied people so that I might stop resisting it.

It’s time to notice what the Holy Spirit is revealing to us when the same thing begins to happen in various places, among varying people, toward the same goal. And what is that goal?

Our goal as Christians who are Episcopalians, is of course, to pray and work toward what Verna Dozier called,’ the dream of God’ when “all creation will live together in peace and harmony and fulfillment. All parts of creation. And the dream of God [she says] is that the good creation that God created… be restored”. Source

As I look around at all the tumult in our current historical moment, I see God affirming this call to us from all directions. There are many ways we aren’t living into the dream of God, but two have risen into the light recently, never to be shoved back into the darkness again, I hope.

Remember the #MeToo movement? Doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago now? It was only a year ago when it all hit the fan. The #MeToo movement marked a peak in the arc of historical efforts to expose and stop sexual harassment and abuse whose predominant victims over the generations have been women.

The subjugation of women has been part of the fabric of human existence for thousands of years. It’s even evident in the stories of both testaments of our Holy Scriptures.

We’ve experienced it in the history of our own young country from the suffragettes in the early 20th century, to the feminists in the mid-century, to the recent #MeToo movement which brought to light in an undeniable way, the ubiquitous nature of sexual harassment and abuse in our families, churches, and business systems. We watched as the truth of this began to topple dynasties in all of those areas, even sending a few of the most recent perpetrators to prison.

Yet the statistics on harassment and pay inequality remain largely unchanged. The sexist systems held firm, took the bruising from the #MeToo movement, then proceeded on as usual. Even in our beloved Episcopal Church, women still find themselves relegated to secondary and tertiary or part-time positions more often than men, concluding their careers with far more meager pensions than our male counterparts.

Then the #BlackLivesMatter movement erupted as the images of recorded abuses of black bodies flooded our media. This movement marks a similar peak in the arc of historical efforts to expose and stop racism in our families, churches, and business systems.

The events of the past few weeks have shot the reality of the African American experience into our collective consciousness like a lightning bolt, exposing the brutality of, and our complicity with, systems that have long oppressed them. We were shocked into seeing that while most of us are not racist, and not all cops are brutal, the systems are, and all of us who are white have benefitted from those systems that continue to perpetuate racism in our culture.

In a very short span of time, then, we have witnessed the convulsive revelations of sin in two major sins that continue to plague our church and cultural systems - sexism and racism. Do you think God may be trying to tell us something?

In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus went out into his world teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news of the dream of God. Crowds of people described as “harassed and helpless” gathered around him and Jesus responded to them with compassion and an urgency to send out laborers into the field.

To prepare his disciples for their mission, Jesus gave them divine authority to cast out unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and sickness. But, he said, go to your own people and proclaim to them the good news of the dream of God.

We know that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and that this was his way of showing that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would bring salvation to the whole world through the Jewish people. But today, we hear another reason why this message matters to us.

We are sent in this moment to our own people whose language and history and dreams we share to proclaim the good news of the dream of God, to heal those infected with the sin of racism, to raise back to life those whose souls have been deadened by their perpetration of sexual harassment and abuse, and to cast out the voices that distract us from establishing beloved community by spewing hate and threats of all kinds. These are the lost, harassed, and helpless to whom we are sent.

Their victims have already demonstrated their strength and endurance. They witness to us the character and hope that happens when we endure with trust in God who does not disappoint.

As hard as this may be to hear, please listen to the plea we heard just last week at the Black Lives Matter Rally. Quoting the Rev. Al Sharpton, local pastor, The Rev. Marcus Richardson said: “We aren’t asking you to give us anything for free. Just take your knee of our necks and we’ll get it for ourselves.” He was speaking to all of us who benefit from the systems that oppress our African American sisters and brothers.

As a church, we pursue our mission through prayer and worship, by proclaiming the Gospel, and promoting justice, peace, and love. That’s what the Catechism in our Prayer Book says, anyway. (p. 855)

The world’s response to our mission will be the same as it has been in every generation. The systems that thrive on the harassment, subjugation, and disempowerment of people for their own gain will resist any change, using their power, money, and networks to stop it. As Jesus said to those first disciples: ““See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… Beware of them…”

We can’t un-see the murder of George Floyd and we can’t un-know the systemic racism that has been revealed to us as a result. For that, we give thanks, because the pain and anger, shame, and guilt this causes in our hearts lead us to cry out to God: What do we do? What do we say? How do we restore the dream of God in the midst of this nightmare?

The moment we surrender ourselves to God, we find our way. We are not the source of the answers. We are the voices God will speak through, the hands God will work through, and the hearts God will break open until the dream of God is restored.

That is why we pray: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.”

The Church (with a capital “C”) has been given the gift of having to reimagine our ministries due to the coronavirus. We thought that meant figuring out how to be the community of God while isolating to stop the spread of the virus, but that was just the tip of the iceberg, wasn’t it?

The divine revelation to us is that we are called to something much bigger, something much more than that. We are called to work together to restore the dream of God in all of the systems of our lives - including our churches - until all are living in peace and harmony and fulfillment.

We have work to do together and now is the time. God has kindly made the revelation of our call abundantly clear by providing affirmations from many directions and varied people so that we might stop resisting it.

Ushering in systemic change through the transforming love of God is in our Christian DNA. It’s what Jesus did, and what we are called to do in his name - and I think he learned it from his mom who was herself oppressed.

I close with her prayer, The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55):

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.


Sunday, June 7, 2020

Trinity Sunday: We humbly repent

Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 13 (or Canticle 2); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an mp3 audio format.

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

What a week this has been! I am so grateful that today is Trinity Sunday and that our lectionary speaks to every single uncomfortable aspect of the current chaos in our world.

The Feast of the Trinity calls us to remember the very basic truth that God is a community of love living in a diverse, dynamic unity with itself. The Trinity is also the framework for how we are created to live, but the events of the past week have made uncomfortably clear how far we are from that. As we will say in our Confession: “…we confess that we have sinned... in thought, word, and deed...” (BCP, 360)

This week on our clergy call with our Bishop-elect, we heard this chosen one of God, this gentle spiritual leader of ours struggle with the reality that the current chaos is at his front door, it’s part of his life. He thinks about things like what if he’s stopped for a traffic violation? He knows that being a bishop doesn’t change that he’s first a black man. He didn’t say this, but I will - he could end up with a knee on his neck.

He also lamented having to have “the talk” with his 8-year old son in order to keep him safe. This isn’t happening out there, y’all. It’s happening in here.

The hope we have is that Jesus Christ is with us every moment, in every age, until God’s plan of redemption is fulfilled and the whole world is reconciled to God as one, diverse, dynamic community of love.

The Genesis story of creation reminds us that God created everything there is and declared it all very good - in all its diversity. Then God gave dominion over creation to humankind. This was not a gift of ‘power over,’ but a commissioning to serve. It was God entrusting the continuing care of creation to us.

Whenever we objectify one whom God has created or treat them as a commodity rather than with dignity and respect, when we exploit them for our own purposes rather than serve them to fulfill God’s will for them, we sin. Whether it’s the commercial trade of people as slaves a century ago, or sex slaves today, we must acknowledge that we have a history of allowing the objectification and exploitation of people.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We know better, and we’ve known for a long time, yet we have allowed the systems that perpetuate this sin to continue “…by what we have done and by what we have left undone…” (BCP, 360)

The black experience in America is vastly different from the white experience and recent events, including the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbry, and the resulting protests against racism and police brutality, have raised up for us that these systems in our common life aren’t working now and haven’t worked for a long time.

The phrase that should haunt our collective conscience is the one spoken by both Eric Garner and George Floyd as they died: “I can’t breathe.” This is our sin of racism.

I was in Shelby, NC when Dylan Roof, who murdered nine African Americans as they prayed in their church, was arrested less than a mile from my house. I watched as he was caught, handcuffed, and put into the police vehicle, the officer gently guiding his head so it wouldn’t smack on the car as he entered.

How vastly different it was for Ezell Ford who was walking in his neighborhood; for Tamir Rice who was playing in a park; for Philando Castille who was driving home from dinner, for Breonna Taylor who was asleep in her bed.
This is our sin of racism.

Unarmed African Americans who call out and protest this pattern of injustice are called thugs while fully armed, white people storm a state government building, shutting it down, with no consequences, and are called “good people.” This is our sin of racism.

In each era, it is the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ that sets the captives free - from those first oppressed Jews in Jesus’ time, to the oppressed people of color in our own time who are shouting their cries for freedom, for value, for life.

In response, I often hear well-meaning (mostly white) friends lament instead about the protests-turned-to-riots saying things like: “These protests don’t help their cause,” or “Destruction of property won’t accomplish their goal.”

Their goal? Is it only their goal that black men should be able to walk in their own neighborhood without having to hold the hand of their young daughter so people won’t be threatened by their presence? Is it only their goal that there should never be another Emmett Till or Medgar Evers? Isn’t this every Christian’s goal?

Speaking about the protests, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: “Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands...”


Keep shining the light… There is our path forward.

God brought order to chaos by speaking light into the darkness. If we act in God’s name in our world today, we will do the same. We will shine the light we have in us, the light of Christ, into the darkness of this moment.

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry commissioned us last week to “channel our holy rage into concrete, productive and powerful action.” He said we must make a “long-term commitment to racial healing, justice, and truth-telling - knowing that, without intentional, ongoing intervention on the part of every person of good will, America will cling to its original, racist ways of being.” Curry exhorted us to stand with people of “every race and religion and national origin and political affiliation” and say “’Enough! We can do better than this. We can be better than this.’”


It is time for us to put things in order, as St. Paul said, because our sin of racism has led to a critical moment of social and cultural disorder. “Now is the time [Bishop Curry said,] for a national renewal of the ideals of human equality, liberty, and justice for all. Now is the time to commit to cherishing and respecting all lives, and to honor the dignity and infinite worth of every child of God. Now is the time for all of us to show — in our words, our actions, and our lives — what love really looks like.”

The question for us is: what will we actually do in response?

We, like Jesus before us, must willingly drag our crosses to the place of crucifixion of much of what we hold dear in order to open the way of freedom and peace for all. It will hurt us as it did our Savior. Pain is part of healing.

When I was a young mother, I was burned when cooking oil splattered up on me leaving first, second, and third-degree burns on my right side. As part of my treatment, I had to go in and a nurse had to dig out the dead skin as the new tissues formed deep down. Left un-sloughed, the wound would have become infected. The nurse gently and apologetically acknowledged to me that is was going to hurt - which it did - but that it was necessary for my healing.

This is where we are. We are infected by racism because of “what we have done, and … what we have left undone.” (BCP, 360)

We can choose to sit by and let the old ways be restored. Or we can choose to heal, knowing upfront that the process will be painful. As believers, however, we already know the choice we must make. We said it every week in our Confession: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” (BCP, 360)

Some of us at Calvary experienced this at one of our recent Bible studies. The discussion went to very divergent experiences of racism and the recent protests. The discussion was passionate and difficult, but also respectful and loving. In the end, we were reconciled into an even stronger community of love, transformed by the Spirit who led us all to a moment of crucifixion and resurrection.

We know, because he promised it, that Jesus is with us, tending to our collective wound as parts of us die and new life is formed deep down in us. He knows what we face because he faced it first. But through his resurrection, Jesus raised us up with him into the Trinity of God by the forgiveness of our sins and made us part of the eternal community of love. Now he sends us into our world to do the same. The time is now, as Bp. Curry said, “for all of us to show — in our words, our actions, and our lives — what love really looks like.”