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.”


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost, 2020-A: Our continual becoming

Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39

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

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

We are a people of story. Our collective Christian story is chronicled for us in our Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The story of our redemption is found in the gospels; and the way the church was born and grew following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is told in the remaining books of the New Testament - but that is only the beginning of the story.

Pentecost marks what many call the birthday of the church, the day Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit came to us, to dwell within us and among us and guide us on the path of divine love that would lead to the reconciliation of the whole world to God. On that first Day of Pentecost the church began its journey to reach all people of all languages, nations, and tribes by the gift of the Spirit of God.

On that day God demonstrated that everyone who believed would able to share the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ to everyone else. Language would no longer be a barrier because, as we heard, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The work begun that day continues to this day.

Our collective story is being written continually by God. The barrier we face today isn’t language. Almost anything can be translated with a push of a button due to our advanced technology. The barrier we face in this moment of our collective story involves the shutting down of our churches and other cultural systems due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This moment in time points to seismic shifts in all of our systems: family, religion, education, medicine, finance, business, agriculture, and social safety nets for the poor, infirm, and mentally ill. All of our assumptions are being challenged, and our systems and processes are up for re-examination as we work to find our way through this global pandemic moment.

Those early Christians also experienced a seismic shift in their way of being. The nascent church was formed in the midst of persecutions and atrocities, and their emergence involved a courageous breaking free from oppressive systems replacing them with a culture built on the principals of love inaugurated by Jesus.

This is our moment and the situation we face is remarkably similar. How we adapt, how we share the Good News of the world’s redemption in Jesus Christ, will determine how our chapter in the continuing Christian story is written. Thankfully, we have the power to write our own story. More than that, we have a commission to do so.

The same Spirit that descended on those first believers descends upon us now and works as powerfully through us. Those first chapters of our collective story speak of marvelous ministries and colossal growth, as people who hungered for hope and thirsted for life, true life in which they were valued and free to be who they were created to be, found it in the newly forming and expanding Christian community.

When Peter quotes God’s promise to pour out God’s spirit on all flesh, men and women, slave and free, enabling dreams and visions - he couldn’t have foreseen our time of closed church buildings and Zoom worship, online school, and virtual medical care. Yet, God continues to fulfill this promise in us today, so we must be awake and open to God accomplishing marvelous ministries and colossal growth in the way of love today.

This is, after all, the same God who our psalmist proclaims as creator of the “great and wide sea with living things too many to number, creatures both great and small.” This is the same God who created the Leviathan then and the duck-billed platypus now - just for the fun of it.

Our Good News is that the God who created all that is, is the same God who is creating and recreating us now, lavishing us with gifts to be used for the common good. This may be the most overlooked feature of our collective story in modern culture: that the gifts God gives us as individuals who are part of the body of Christ, are given so that we can serve. As Jesus said, he didn’t come to be served but to serve. The same is true for us.

As many of you have heard me say: I believe that each church is unique, uniquely gifted, and has a divine purpose. God gathers a particular group of people together at a particular time, and commissions us to respond to the world around us as Jesus taught us to do until the whole world, all nations, languages, peoples, and tribes are reconciled to God in Christ.

The Christian story is one of continual becoming and the believers in each era are co-creators with God in that becoming. It is our faith that gives us the confidence to examine all of our systems and respond as the Spirit guides us.

The shutting down of our churches and cultural systems has raised up for us in the clearest possible ways, where those systems weren’t working before. The number of people who are unemployed and those who are food and shelter insecure continues to surge here and around the world.

One would have to work very hard these days not to see that people are hungry for hope and thirsting for life - and we have it to share. Jesus tells us that out of the hearts of believers will flow rivers of living water, meant to soothe anyone who thirsts.

In my non-profit work, my partner, Martin, and I talk about moving not toward a new normal, but a better normal. So many of our cultural and religious systems were not working for the common good. What if it can be written about our part of the collective Christian story that we were co-creators with God of a better normal that rises like a phoenix out of the ashes of this pandemic?

We, like those who came before us, will confront those who will try to stop us, even persecute and oppress us to preserve the old way of being, but it’s too late. That way is already gone. What comes next is our choice. Will we passively allow a restoration of what was, knowing it didn’t work except for a privileged few, or will we actively co-create a better normal, one that works for the common good?

It seems like a big decision, a risky decision - and it is. The hope we have, though, is that the same Spirit who guided those first believers, as imperfect as they were, guides us too, as imperfect as we are.

It must have appeared to many of them in their present moment, that they weren’t achieving the outcomes they’d hoped to see. We have the advantage of historical perspective, however, so we know that redemption takes time, meaning we can be patient and confident as each new step is formed, re-formed, and incorporated into our collective experience.

Redemption is the promise we believe. In every moment we cling to the belief that all things, all peoples and nations, all creation will be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ the Redeemer.

We also believe that we have been chosen by Jesus to serve in his name in our time. Jesus has made us sources of living water, of hope and life in the way of divine love. God knows the way we should go and will guide us there. Guaranteed.

This may be the most hope-filled moment in recent history and in our collective Christian story. The whole world is seeing how intimately connected we truly are. This shift from national to global citizenship could be for us what the shift from the Jewish community to the Gentile world was for those first Christians. I pray we respond faithfully as God reaches farther and farther - through us - to draw everyone into one family of love.

Happy birthday to the church in our continual becoming. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

6 Easter: Clothed in the love of God

Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

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

The icon featured here was commissioned for me for my ordination by my first parish, St. Paul's in St. Joseph, MI. It was written by Anne Davidson, Iconographer in the Diocese of Western Michigan.

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

Our gospel today is the next section of Jesus’ farewell discourse, and like last week, we are reading from his teaching given at the Last Supper in order to reflect on it from the perspective of his resurrection.

This part of Jesus’ teaching begins with “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (Note: I inadvertently cut out the second part of this quote, the last sentence in this pericope. I didn't realize it until I was preaching it, at which point it was too late and I didn't know the quote well enough to fake it. The next sentence, however, makes more sense when it's included, so here it is: "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me: and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”)

Is Jesus telling us that his love of us is conditional on our obedience?

At first glance, it might seem like that, but I don’t think he is. Our reflection on this part of John’s gospel requires a little vocabulary study from the original Greek to help us understand the meaning of this text.

In the first place, the word we translate as “if” isn’t a conditional in the original Greek. It’s a word that implies a future possibility which experience determines. And the word “keep” refers to preserving, maintaining, or continuing something. It isn’t talking about obeying at all. That’s a whole different word in Greek.

So we might restate what Jesus’ like this: When you love me, you will discover that you will maintain and continue what I have commanded, that is, enjoined you to do. Then the question becomes, what did Jesus urge us to do? The answer is: to love.

Love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 13:34) Love your enemies. (Mt 5: 44) Love.

Once, when he was asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus held up two: to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and souls (Deut 6:5), and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18) . On these two, he said, hang all the guidance and inspired teaching.

Granted, keeping those two commandments isn’t easy to do, especially in the midst of the kind of grief of loss the disciples would experience when he was gone from them, a loss he said would happen “in a little while.” So he promised them another comforter, translated here as Advocate, both words being accurate even in their distinction.

We can sense when people near us are beginning to panic. We can see it in their faces and body language, and feel the energy of it building like static electricity around us. Perceiving this among his disciples Jesus speaks directly to it saying, I will not leave you comfortless or alone with no one to love you, take care of you, protect you, and celebrate you. I am coming to you - to comfort you and support you forever.

As with our gospel reading last week, we are invited to contemplate this teaching of Jesus with spiritual understanding. One day, Jesus says, we’ll get it! We’ll know that God is in Jesus, who is in us, and we are in him, and through him, we are in God.

Get it?

I remember when I was in my seminary Greek class and we were all feeling so overwhelmed by how vastly different Greek was, from the alphabet to the layers of meanings, and the many conjugations and tenses. Our professor assured us that one day, we’d just get it, and he snapped his fingers.

Oh sure, we thought. Easy for him to say! But he was right. One day, it suddenly all fell into place and the learning began to happen at lightning speed like a vortex was opened.

Jesus was promising the same thing… “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. When that happens, you will have my commandments within you and you will be able to preserve and continue them.

You will know love, divine love. You will know that you are loved by God, and by me, and I will be revealed to you in ways you couldn’t have understood before, and it will change everything! The knowledge Jesus is talking about here is spiritual understanding.

Our beloved Dame Julian of Norwich speaks of this so eloquently. Here are her words:

“I desired in many ways to know what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.”

This is the love in which “we live and move and have our being” as Paul quoted from the poets of his time… the love who “holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip” as the psalmist says. It all boils down to love: divine, eternal, sacrificial, joyful, mutual love.

This doesn’t change the fact that we will know suffering, doubt, and darkness throughout the course of our lives. In addition, we may get it, as Jesus said we would, then lose it again, and get it again, over and over in the course of our lives.

Knowing this love with spiritual understanding means that we will never be alone in any of the “changes and chances of this life.” (BCP, 133) We will never be comfortless. We will always be, as Dame Julian says, clothed in the love of God, which “wraps and holds us… enfolds us for love and will never let us go.”

We also have each other. Prayer not only “fastens us to God” as Julian says, it also fastens us to one another, connecting the love of God in you to the love of God in me, as it were. Those connections are real and through them God can change the world, working in and through us.

In these days of pandemic when our usual connection to God and one another in our weekly experience of the Holy Eucharist is unavailable to us, we can rely on the power of prayer to keep us connected to God and one another in love. Prayer is unhindered by time and space, and as our psalmist says, our prayers are attended to by God.

I pray we continue to pray together, more and more as the Spirit guides our community to do, for our sake, but also for the sake of those, nearby and far off, who connect with our circle of love virtually. What a gift we have received: the will and motivation to pray online. I am so grateful for those here at Calvary who are committed to being fastened to God and one another through our online prayer life.

Since Julian of Norwich has been so present in this reflection on the Word, let’s close with the prayer assigned to her feast day, which was just last week: May 8.

Let us pray: Lord God, who in your compassion granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

5 Easter, 2020-A: Our spiritual reality

Lectionary: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Note: if the above player won't work on your device, click HERE for an mp3 file.

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

I’m a big fan of English literature, and in those classic novels, people sat in reflective thought for hours pondering the events of their lives. For example, in Charlotte Brönte’s novel, “Villette” the main character, Lucy, spends three hours reflecting upon a single conversation she had with Dr. Bretton. Three hours!

Can you imagine? Interestingly, the present moment of sheltering-at-home offers us the opportunity to do just that - if we take advantage of the gift of time, put down our phones, turn off the TVs, and sit in quiet reflection instead.

It is in this reflective sense that the lectionary writers revisit the Last Supper even though we are well into the 50 Days of Easter. Before the resurrection the disciples heard Jesus’ words but, we’re told, they didn’t fully understand them. On this side of the resurrection, everything Jesus said and did will have new, more profound meaning upon reflection and the church is invited to spend some time listening deeply and letting God guide our understanding of these events which will be the foundational guide for our life choices, just as it was for those first disciples.

Last week we heard Jesus teaching about servant-leadership using the figure of speech of a good shepherd, claiming himself as the gate, that is, the way to truth and life. This week, Jesus reaffirms this saying no one can come to God except through him. Then he declares in very clear I AM statements (remembering that I AM is the name of God from Exodus): I AM the Way. I AM the Truth. I AM the Life.

How are they to understand this upon reflection? How are we?

We are all being invited by Jesus into a new relationship, one unconstrained by earthly limits. We can’t listen with literal, earthly understanding because Jesus is speaking spiritually, saying things like: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

The literal listeners, like Thomas, ask, ‘Where is that place? We want to go but how can we know the way?

With amazing compassion, Jesus gently begins to address this very human hesitance to move into spiritual understanding, clarifying that the place he is speaking about isn’t a location, it’s a relationship: “where I AM there you will also be… because I AM in the Father and the Father is in me… If you know me, you know the Father also… The Father who dwells in me does his works… Believe me that I AM in the Father and the Father is in me…”

Jesus is “I AM” and God dwells in him and works through him. Where Jesus is we are also because Jesus dwells in us and we in him. It’s a spiritual reality that redefines our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with God and neighbor.

From this side of the resurrection, Jesus’ words reach deeply into his disciples, and into us, beyond our earthly understanding. We know that finding the words to describe spiritual experience is hard because they limit the truth of the experience so much.

So, how do we describe it? How can we share it and how will it be received?

The story of the stoning of Stephen is a perfect description of how earthly ears may hear and respond to spiritual experience - and it isn’t pretty. We can take heart, though, this isn’t the only response, but we are wise to remember it is a common metaphoric one.

I remember when I was very young, about five years old, and I would try to tell about my spiritual experiences of God: how the trees sang a song of heaven to me; how forest critters (including snakes) drew close and hung out with me like family; how the healing power of God opened to my awareness illness and injury in other people’s bodies, or how God my Mother would hold me in her lap and heal me from continuing abusive experiences.

I learned very quickly that my spiritual experiences were not welcomed discussions, especially my experience of God as Mother before my Christian educators taught me that God could only be Father - so I stopped talking about them. It didn’t stop them from happening - it only stopped me from talking about them.

It’s probably no surprise then how much I love the maternal metaphor in Peter’s epistle where he says: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk. Long for the nourishment that leads to spiritual understanding that will work and live in cooperation with earthly understanding because by it we “grow into salvation” which is eternal unity with God.

If ever you “have tasted that the Lord is good…[Peter says] let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood…” Like Jesus before him, Peter isn’t talking about a location when he says “be a spiritual house” and he isn’t talking about an ordained office when he says “be a holy priesthood.” He’s talking about the fullness of the human-divine relationship that is in all of us, because of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

Jesus reminds us that we are built by our Creator as dwelling places for the divine. As he says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

That the spirit of Jesus lives in us is our spiritual reality, which upon reflection, affects how we hear Jesus say,” the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” I mean, it’s hard to imagine doing greater works than those Jesus did: raising Lazarus from the dead, healing the man born blind, calming the storm on the sea… but only when we listen with literal ears and from an earthly understanding.

In fact, we’re already doing these works. When we accompany someone through a time of transition as they let go of their old life or their old self, and step into a new life, God, who dwells in us, is doing his work raising the dead back to life. When we speak the truth of God in Christ by our lives or using words, and someone finally gets it, God has done her work in us bringing sight to the blind. When we walk willingly into someone’s nightmare, bearing the peace of Christ to them by our very presence, God has worked through us to calm the storm in their life.

We all have these stories when we think about it with spiritual understanding because we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, consecrated by God to proclaim by our lives as much as by our words the mighty acts of the one who calls us all from darkness into his marvelous light.

Jesus concludes this portion of his farewell discourse with a statement that truly deserves reflection: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, [he says] so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

When we listen deeply, we hear Jesus promising that whenever we choose to serve as he served, to be his hands and feet on earth, what we desire will reflect the desire of the One who dwells in us, and the will of God will become reality on earth as it is in heaven by God in Christ who works in us. May we steadfastly follow the one who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, now and forevermore.