Sunday, September 27, 2020

17 Pentecost, 2020-A: At the heart of our faith

 Lectionary: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32 



Our gospel story today starts with the religious authorities asking Jesus a question: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” We who read this today have to wonder what were the “things” Jesus was doing? 

It helps to look at what led up to this moment. This chapter of Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey with people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was a public reception of the Messiah by the people, and a grand show of the divine authority Jesus possessed. 

Then Jesus goes to the temple where he turns over the tables of the money changers in an angry application of this authority while quoting the voice of God in Scripture: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” 

It’s important to remember, as one commentator said, that it is the authority of the religious leaders that “Jesus defied when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers because moneychangers would require the approval of religious authorities to pursue their business in the temple.” Jesus’ usurped the authority of the religious leaders calling out their corruption: lining their own pockets by exploiting the poor who came to pray. 

People began to flock to Jesus, and he healed them, even the blind and the lame. This display of divine authority was quickly winning over the crowds and the religious leadership realized they couldn’t control it, which leads us to their question in today’s story. 

Jesus is in the temple teaching, as a rabbi would be. The religious authorities, who represent the holders of divine authority, confront Jesus, publicly asking him by what authority he had been doing all of these things.

Jesus answers like a quintessential rabbi: if you can answer my question, I’ll answer yours; and he asks them: by whose authority did John baptize people - was it divine or human?

They can’t answer ‘divine’ since they didn’t believe John or receive his baptism. Neither can they answer ‘human’ since most of the people believed that John was a prophet sent by God and if the religious authorities openly denied that, the people might revolt against them.

The only safe response they could make was, “We don’t know” but their answer only further undermined their authority. True to his word, Jesus replied to them with a victorious dismissal, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

While he had center stage and wore the crown of authority, Jesus publicly challenged the religious authorities to interpret his rabbinic teaching. “What do you think?” he asked, and he told the parable of the two sons: A father tells his sons to go work in the vineyard. The first son says, no” but ends up changing his mind later and going. The second son says, OK, but doesn’t go. Which son did the will of the father?

Caught in another spectacularly laid trap, the religious authorities had no choice but to answer, ‘the first son,’ after which Jesus springs the trap. Speaking directly to the religious authorities who refused to repent when John called them to it, Jesus says, know this: even the wretched tax collectors and prostitutes, who are like the first son, will enter the kingdom of heaven before you who, like the second son, refuse to repent.

That’s a pretty scathing rebuke of their authority, their morality, and maybe worst yet, their place in the hierarchy. Being used to being first, Jesus proclaims they will be last, behind even the worst of the worst sinners in their culture.

“So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:16) In case we missed that point in last week’s gospel, it’s repeated for us here.

Why is this such an important point? Because it is at the very heart of our faith and beautifully stated in our Collect today: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly by showing mercy and pity.” Think about it; God’s almighty power is declared primarily in God’s compassion for those who suffer and God’s willingness to act to relieve that suffering.

We who work in God’s vineyard today, are to declare this same truth and do this same work. I promise, we don’t have to look far to find people who are suffering and in need of compassion. With over 200,000 people dead from COVID, there are that many families grieving right now. Our isolation from in-person contact with friends and family is wearing us out.

Add to that the pain and frustration of African Americans who are denied justice from an unjust system that allows armed white supremacists to storm a government office undisturbed while using lethal force against a black child playing the park, or a black woman asleep in her bed, or an unarmed black man with and obvious mental disability.

We also don’t have to look far to find people who need to repent. In fact, we only have to look as far as the mirror. We all need to repent. We need to change direction collectively and walk in the way of righteousness, as John the Baptist did.

John was in right relationship with God and the people God sent him to serve. His oppositional relationship with the unjust, unmerciful rulers who killed him was right too - because he called out the truth about them, saying what everyone knew but was afraid to declare: that they were corrupt and needed to repent.

Like John, we need to be truth-tellers about our corrupt, unmerciful earthly powers - both historically and presently. We need to have compassion for those who suffer and be willing to act to relieve that suffering.

We can do that by amplifying the voice of the oppressed among us, people who have been systematically executed, impoverished, and tortured by our earthly authorities: African Americans executed today as horribly as they have been for generations; indigenous peoples who suffered near-complete genocide and who continue to suffer in the “third world conditions” of the reservations we exiled them to; Mexican children taken from their parents and put in cages at our borders, and now allegations of forced sterilizations of Mexican women in a detention center in GA. 

None of this is new in human history, but our response today can be. We can choose to repent.

We can choose to re-aligned ourselves in right relationship with God, whose almighty power is chiefly declared in showing mercy and pity. We can choose to get into right relationship with one another, respecting the dignity of every human being as our Baptism calls us to do.

We can choose to repent and bear the divine authority of God into our world today by letting down our guards and opening ourselves to feel and acknowledge the suffering of God’s people among us instead of denying it or dismissing it, or blaming them for it in order to maintain our comfort and advantage. 

We can choose to repent and bear the divine authority of God into our world by being truth-tellers, calling out corrupt powers and systems in our world, even when that might lead to our own discomfort. If we are to be of the same mind that was in Christ we must, as St. Paul says, look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, [Paul says] but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Putting others ahead of ourselves is at the heart of our faith, for the last will be first and the first will be last.

I close with a prayer from our hymnal that sang in me as this sermon wrote through me. It’s hymn  #594: “God of grace and God of glory on your people pour your power. From the fears that long have bound us free our hearts to faith and praise. Cure your children's warring madness; bend our pride to your control; Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days, serving you whom we adore.” Amen. (1982 Hymnal, #594, CCLI # 11330380)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

16 Pentecost, 2020-A: Walking the talk

 Lectionary: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16




En el nombre de Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

 
There is a theme in our readings today - and it’s perfect for us after nearly 6 months of COVID-restricted living. Can you guess what it is? 

Grumbling! Right? 

The whole congregation, in the story from Exodus, is grumbling that they’re tired of living in the wilderness. They’re tired of having no meat or bread to eat. They’re tired of not being at their final destination. The promised land of milk and honey seems impossibly distant and the hard work of getting there isn’t worth it anymore. They’d rather die than live like this.

Then in our gospel story, the laborers who worked in the vineyard all day grumbled because they were paid the same as those who worked only the last hour.

Even Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, admits that he’s hard pressed between his preference to die and be done with his labors on earth and his call to live and press on for their sakes.

Walking the Christian talk is hard work. The unfairness in the parable makes a lot of sense to us, that’s because we’re looking at it from an earthly perspective. Jesus is teaching us, however, that what seems true and fair on earth isn’t necessarily what’s true and fair in heaven.

From an earthly perspective, fair payment for work is a justice issue we Christians would be called upon to seek for everyone here on earth. But this story isn’t about unfair labor practices. Nowhere in the parable are the laborers exploited.

The unfairness that grabs us and makes us grumble is the generosity of the landowner who treats the last who are hired equally to those hired first, paying them the same amount - not just the same rate. We can identify with the complaints of the first-hired who worked long hours in the scorching heat, partly because we cling to the values of the Protestant work ethic handed down to us by our ancestors: hard work, frugality, and a lingering sense of predestination, that is, that God creates some people of value and they will be blessed with wealth and riches on earth and in eternity, while others whom God created are of no value and they will be cursed here on earth and in eternity.

These values helped form our current society and economic structure where a few at the top of the hierarchy justify their wealth by their chosen-ness and dismiss, even scorn those at the bottom of the hierarchy, whose pitiable state of existence is their lot - determined by God.

The parable Jesus tells turns all of that upside down and convicts us to examine how we as Christians, are working to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom described in this parable, where everyone is chosen, everyone is valued, and everyone has a generous share of the bounty that belongs to God.

The parable presents a question for us to ponder: why is generosity unfair?

If we shift into the interpretation of this parable, the laborers are those whom the landowner, God, has chosen to work in the vineyard, which represents the world. The day represents the time we have on earth doing this work, and the payment for our labor is our eternal reward.

The work the laborers are doing is bringing the good news of salvation to the world. They are doing their part toward the reconciliation of the whole world to God, which, the last time I checked our Catechism (BCP, 855) is our ministry too.

We are the laborers in the vineyard today. We were chosen by God to do this work. and are sent into the world to do it. If we recoil at the apparent unfairness in the parable, then we must ask ourselves: do we resent doing the work we were chosen by God to do, and do we expect more reward than those whom God calls later in the day to work beside us?

Part of the Christian talk we must walk is taking up our cross and following Jesus. There is no ambiguity in that. We know the work is hard at times, that it will feel like we’re laboring in scorching heat.

We chose to answer God’s call to work in the vineyard. We choose it continually.

Let’s look more deeply at what the reward for our labor is. Many might say its heaven, by which they mean going to heaven at the end of our life and labors here on earth. But in the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus says that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (19:29) 

Somehow, we conflated reward with eternal life. They are different things. Our reward, which comes from receiving the abundance of God’s generosity and grace in our lives, happens now in our earthly lives and takes many forms: freedom from anger or oppression, abundant and diverse family, joy, meaning and purpose for our lives.

Eternal life is life in the eternal presence of God, and it is by definition without beginning or end, so it can’t begin at our death. It is our present, not our future state.

When we own that eternal life is our current reality, it changes how we view the present moment. It changes how we view every moment in our earthly lives.

This parable describes the extravagant, counter-cultural generosity of God, and the question it offers us to ponder is: why is generosity unfair?

Let’s pause for an earthly perspective on day laborers. First of all, they aren’t paid well. When a person is desperate for work, the employer can pretty much pay whatever they want. It’s generally an off-the-books cash transaction.

When they do find work, these day laborers will likely get paid just barely enough to eat, sleep, and return the next day to work again. They rarely, if ever, get ahead. They are also vulnerable to the employer who chooses them and many suffer indignities and injustices at the hands of these employers.

So, the parable Jesus tells is a story of amazing hope. The workers chosen last would be the ones no one wanted, no one valued. Their desperation would be so great that they might have reached the point of hopelessness.

Then the employer shows truly surprising generosity - paying them first and for a full days’ work. These last-chosen ones suddenly realize that they are wanted, valued, and have a share in the abundance of their Lord.

The first-chosen, who are us, should be celebrating this moment of reconciliation, joyfully watching as each last-chosen one is welcomed in and made whole by the generosity and abundance of God’s love. We should rejoice that God, who sought and found us, continually seeks and finds more laborers to join us in our reconciling work.

This parable offers us, who are mostly first-chosen in the world, the opportunity to check the structures we have built or accepted from our ancestors, structures that separate us, elevating some while subjugating others. As followers of Christ, we must all be as invested in the welfare of the least among us as we are in our own for that is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Let us pray: Generous God, grant us the grace to dismantle the earthly structures that separate and restrict us that we may be free to receive the abundance you have ready to give to us, remembering that you created us all, you love us all, and you choose us all to be your beloved ones. Unite us into one body by your Holy Spirit, that we may rejoice to serve you, working to make life on earth more like life in the kingdom of heaven. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

14 Pentecost, 2020-A: Prophets of the way of love


 

 LectionaryExodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Note: This sermon can also be found on my website.





I once had a bishop who used to tell our diocese that we are all called to be prophets. I always agreed with that. I still do… because a prophet is an inspired teacher, a person who proclaims the will of God, who speaks in a visionary way about a new idea, belief, or cause that God is revealing to the world.


So much of what is called Christian teaching isn’t Christian at all. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.

 

So, a prophet teaches about love, proclaims the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envisions a way to go that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.


We are all prophets, and as Walter Brueggemann teaches, ‘the prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. For those who realize the need for change in society if justice, peace, and the Will of God for the world are ever to be achieved, the new vision that must be molded requires immersion in the mind of Jesus and time, time, time.’


I came across this quote at our clergy retreat this week and it got me thinking… We’ve been living within a disjointed experience of quick and sudden change together with slowing to a standstill. It’s been very disconcerting at times for me to be so rushed and so completely stopped at the same time.


Time has been transformed. For example, for Deacon Janet and me, most of our Sunday is now on Thursday, while part of our Sunday is still on Sunday. My internal rhythms have been so disrupted by this that I hardly know what day it is anymore.


Being off-balance in this way feels vulnerable, but the truth is, for a person of faith, it’s an opportunity for transformation - of ourselves and of the world we serve in God’s name. When we know for sure that we cannot rely on ourselves, on our intellect and our strength, we are reawakened to the reality that what we can, and already do rely on- is God.

 

This place of vulnerability is our stronghold. Everything we do - from how we understand what we see happening around us to how we respond to what’s happening around us - comes from this foundational reality that we rely on God, not ourselves, to see, understand, and respond.

 

It’s also the only answer to the problems of racism, classism, sexism, individualism, all the -isms that have risen up into our communal awareness in such a big way right now. How we understand what we’re seeing and how we respond, when they come from God’s inspiration and not our own intellect or strength, can be transforming to us and to the world.

 

Like many people, I’ve dedicated much of my personal reading time lately to books that help me break open from what I was taught and go more deeply into new ways of understanding race, class, history, and religion, and I’m participating in book studies and discussions that help me hear other perspectives. When we invite God to use our time of imbalance and vulnerability to awaken us to a new reality, we can own that the church, and we the members of it, have sinned.

 

This isn’t news to us. There isn’t much disagreement that the Crusades and the Inquisition are blights on our church’s history. We all know that our beloved Episcopal Church was complicit with the institution of slavery, segregating African Americans to the balconies in the back of the church, while rich white families sat in their gated pews up front.  

 

But did you know this about our history?  “In 1882, a Mississippi [Episcopal] priest launched a virulent attack on blacks, arguing that sparse black Episcopal growth was due to their intellectual, moral and leadership inferiority. The southern bishops then proposed the Sewanee plan to segregate blacks into a racial diocese…  In response, the Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People was formed.

 

This according to the UBE, the Union of Black Episcopalians which is the current iteration of this Conference. The Conference of Church Workers Among Colored People “met annually. Every third year, it met at the site of General Convention and appointed lobbyists to press for black goals… through protest and agitation, [the Conference] served as the conscience of the Church, recalling it to its catholic ideal.[As a result,] Segregation was never written into national policy or canon law [in the Episcopal Church].”

Today the Union of Black Episcopalians continues its tradition as the conscience of the church by its prophetic teaching, proclamation, and visioning the way of love. I encourage you to check out their website.


In every generation, we as a church and as individual members of it, fail to love one another as Jesus loved us. That’s why we have to be able to talk to one another about our sin. It isn’t about passing judgment, that isn’t ours to do. It’s about opening the doorway to freedom and walking together on the path of love toward wholeness.

 

Jesus knew this and showed us how to go here, and it’s really important in our world today to hear this good news. Jesus said, “If a member of the church sins…”

 

I need to point out here that the words “against you” were added later and weren’t in the earliest manuscripts. The sin Jesus was talking about wasn’t an individual offense, but a corporate one. It was about things like complicity in racism, trans and homophobic segregation, or covering up child abuse.

 

If a member of the church sins, go and speak to them alone first. Respect their dignity. Humiliation and confrontation are not part of the way of love. If they refuse to listen, take one or two others with you and try again. If they still won’t listen, tell it to the church.

 

Coming from the deep south, it is a common practice among some Christians who take this passage literally, to force a sinful member to confess their sin in front of the whole congregation. That is not only coercive and unloving, but it accomplishes little besides shaming. More importantly, it misses the point of this teaching.

 

Telling it to the church is what the UBE does so well, as we heard earlier: “through protest and agitation” they continue to serve as an inner guide, leading to Church back to the way of love, to its all-embracing ideal.

 

Telling it to the church is why we have required training programs like Safeguarding God’s People and Safeguarding God’s Children - because child abuse in the church was (and sadly still is) real. People didn’t want to believe that such things would happen in church, but they do happen, and the church was called upon to wake up from its collective sleep, be transformed in how we understand what’s happening around us, and respond from that transformed understanding.

 

The next part of Jesus’ teaching is critical. If, after telling the church, the offender still refuses to listen, Jesus says, “let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I hear so many people interpret this as a direction to cast out the offender from the community - but that too misses the point.

 

All we have to do is look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He healed and forgave them, reconciling them back into love, even welcoming one of them - the writer of this gospel - to be his disciple.

 

There is a place for the separation of an offender from the one they have harmed. It’s in our Disciplinary rubrics (BCP, 409), but that’s a discussion for another time.

 

The point is, we have one direction to go - the way of love. Right now, the revelation of how far we as a church and a culture have strayed from that path of love is bright with the clarity of Christ’s light. Now is the moment for us to wake up from our collective sleep on the issues of racism, sexism, individualism, and the other -isms that plague our church and society.

 

Our response, our responsibility as Christians, is to refocus on God’s vision for us and for the world. That will mean shaking ourselves loose from our habitual and comfortable, yet sinful ways of understanding, and binding ourselves to God’s inspiration, that is, God’s breathing into us the divine way of love as it is being revealed to us in this moment.

 

It will mean listening to the prophetic voices among us, like the UBE, and joining with them as prophets who teach about love, proclaim the will of God, which is the reconciliation of the whole world to God who is love, and envision a way to go together that leads to love on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Let us pray... “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts” and guide us on your way of love. Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Pentecost 12-A: Be like Peter, Son of Jonah

Lectionary: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Note: This sermon can also be viewed on my website


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

As many of you know, I co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to enabling churches to be agile and resilient in changing times. When we formed this nonprofit three years ago, my partner and I were addressing the steady decline churches were experiencing.

Even then there was hand-wringing and perturbation about the long-term consequences of downward trending church statistics and the rise of the generation of the “nones.” The future of the church as we have known it has been uncertain for decades.


Then the pandemic hit and now so much more has become uncertain. How do we educate and socialize our children if schools are closed and sports leagues are canceled?  How do poorer children without iPads and internet access connect with online learning? How do parents get to work if their children are at home? How long can businesses survive continued quarantine? As the economic impact continues, how will our society cope with rapidly rising numbers of unemployed, evicted, and hungry people and families?


In the midst of all of this, what is becoming clearer is that the church as we knew it is gone. It isn’t likely we’ll ever return to the way things were in February, but that isn’t a bad thing, just a true thing. I see this moment in our history as church as an opportunity for us to be like Peter, Son of Jonah.

 

You know, in all of these years studying this Scripture, I never noticed how significant it was that Jesus called Peter the Son of Jonah. I was preoccupied with Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter and giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

 

I rejoiced in Jesus’ promise that not even the gates of Hades could prevail against the church he was birthing in that moment - a hope, by the way, I repeat often as a facilitator of church vitality - and as a church leader in the midst of a pandemic.

 

I’ve was so attentive to Jesus praising, blessing, and empowering Peter for his future ministry, that I missed that each of them had renamed the other.  Peter calls Jesus “The Son of the Living God,” which represents a hugely transformed understanding of his rabbi-friend.

 

Jesus calls Peter the “Son of Jonah.”  But Peter’s father was named John, not Jonah.

 

How did I never notice that before? Jesus called Peter the Son of Jonah - you know Jonah - the prophet who refused to bring God’s salvation to the people of Nineveh because he didn’t want God to save them! Jonah,  who sat down in defiance, refusing to respond to God’s call to him to serve by loving the unlovable. Jonah, who eventually acquiesced and did what God asked of him partnering with God for the salvation of a whole community of people.

 

To be named in Jewish culture is to be claimed, to have a declared relationship. By this encounter, Jesus and Peter have entered into a mutually declared, claimed relationship.  Here’s why that’s significant.

 

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Peter used the authority Jesus gave him to keep the door to heaven closed to the Gentiles. It wasn’t until God spoke to Peter in a dream that Peter acquiesced, let go his old way of thinking, and declared that God showed no partiality, and neither would he or the church Jesus entrusted to his leadership.

 

We are Peter today. In what ways is God speaking to us and leading us to change our old ways of thinking so that we can open wider the gates of heaven in our ministries on earth?

 

Something else I noticed from this encounter with Jesus and Peter is that Jesus says, ‘you are Peter (Petros - which means rock) and upon this rock (petra which means foundation) I will build my church. For years, I heard that as the church taught me to hear it: as Jesus giving Peter ecclesial authority, hence the church tradition of popes and bishops.

 

What if this statement wasn’t referring to what Jesus had just said, but to what he was about to say? What if the foundation Jesus was referring to was his giving the keys of the kingdom of heaven to his representatives on earth?

 

That is the foundation upon which we stand today, is it not? In our sacrament of Baptism, we affirm that we continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. (BCP, 304) This is the foundation of the church: Jesus, who reconciled the whole world to God by the forgiveness of sin.  He is the key that opens the gate of the kingdom of heaven - and he has given himself to us.

 

Jesus was not giving ecclesial, institutional power which Peter and the church could wield, he was giving the church the ability and the commission to show forth God’s power among all peoples, as our Collect says.

 

And what is God’s power? Love. The abundant, forgiving, reconciling love of Jesus, the Christ.

 

Our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to serve the way Jesus served: forgiving as radically as Jesus did from his cross, and reconciling all to God - even the bandits to our left or our right.

 

Having the keys to heaven, however, comes with this warning from Jesus: what the church holds bound on earth would be held bound in heaven,  and what the church looses on earth would be loosed in heaven.

 

The church will be accountable for what it teaches is right and wrong, for what is forgiven and what isn’t - so we must choose wisely and compassionately, in the manner and power of Jesus.

 

What is so amazing and comforting to me is that despite all of Peter’s demonstrated thick-headed, dim-wittedness, Jesus chose and trusted Peter. In the same way, Jesus has chosen us and trusts us to serve.

 

The church is undergoing a huge transformative moment, ushered in by the pandemic and the revelations we have witnessed on a global level, about the destructive nature of the -isms that bind us. We’ve discussed racism, sexism, and classism recently.

 

Today it is individualism that our Scripture lifts up for our contemplation - individualism that infects our churches and our society like a plague.

 

Paul addresses this -ism so beautifully and effectively in his metaphor of the church as a body, connected and unified by the Spirit of God into one magnificent, mystical whole.

 

Paul says, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” We are members of one another - not the church, not Christianity or our branch of it, the Episcopal Church. We are members of one another.

 

The sin of individualism is the temptation to believe that “I” matter most, that looking out for number one is morally or spiritually acceptable. It is not.

 

I have never worried about the survival of the church. Jesus promised that no matter how wide the gates of death open, the church will stand firm bringing life, eternal life in Jesus Christ, to all.

 

So rather than worry, we who follow Jesus can focus our vision and energy on the opportunities that are emerging for us in this moment. In what ways is God calling and strengthening us right now? What gifts are we discerning in ourselves and in our faith community?

 

Gifts are given for the purpose of serving God’s people in God’s name. The gifts we have change and adapt as the needs of God’s people change. The church, our church, is the repository of these gifts. The church is where our gifts are discovered, nurtured, and sent out to serve.

 

The uncertainties we face now are nothing to fear. Rather they are our signal, an alert message that God is calling to us and has a plan for us to implement. This plan, however, may be very different from the one we thought we were supposed to be doing. Like Peter, Son of Jonah, we may have to radically change how we think and act, but also like Peter, we have been chosen by God who trusts us to do just that.

 

Let us pray: God of love, we thank you for your trust in us, for the gifts you give us, and the call to serve. Help us discern how you are strengthening us right now that we may glorify you by using the keys you have given us to open wide the gates of heaven on earth, ministering to your people as Jesus did - with compassion, forgiveness, and reconciling love. It is in your holy name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

11 Pentecost, 2020-A: A boundary-busting ruckus

Lectionary: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28



Note: This sermon can also be found on my website  or on my YouTube Channel.


 

In my family of origin, I am the third of four daughters. Growing up my sisters and I were very close since we moved constantly -  about every 6 months to two years. Our sisterhood was one of the few constants in our ever-changing world.

 

Like all sisters, we fought a lot, but we also protected each other. The only time I ever beat a kid up, I was 8 years old and I caught another 8-year-old, our neighbor, beating up my little sister. After I punched her out, I brought her home to her mother, blood dripping from her mouth and nose, and told her mother what she’d done and why she was bloody. She got in trouble all over again with her mom.

 

I hated the experience though. The girl I beat up was a friend. I didn’t know why she was beating up my sister, but the whole thing made me cry. I went to see her the next day and we made up.  It turns out her father was dying and the little girl was just unable to cope.

 

I never beat up anyone else again.  

 

In my childhood home we could yell, but we couldn’t hit each other. My parents laid that rule down to stop the cycle of physical violence they knew as children. It was an intentional action on their part, and a pretty remarkable one: two kids who had regular beatings as children choosing to eliminate physical violence from their parenting.

 

So, yell we did. Two of my sisters were exceedingly talented with hurtful words. One day, my little sister, who was my light and my joy, screamed at me that she hated me.

 

I was stopped short. “No, you don’t” I said softly. “Yes, I do!” she yelled in her characteristically dramatic fashion. “I hate you.”

 

My heart broke. The force of the violence of those words hit me harder than any punch ever could have and I vowed right then never to say those words to any other person… and I never have.

 

“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

 

I became skilled at using the power of words, mostly for self-protection. Words gave me the power to compensate for being physically tiny, female, always the new kid, a brainiac a year ahead in school (so the youngest in my class), and a childhood victim of personal violence.

 

In my adulthood, I began advocating for other victims of the kinds of violence I had known growing up, directing the power of my words toward the freedom of others instead of using them to protect myself. It was then I discovered the real power of words. What comes out of our mouths has the capacity to transform lies to truth, pain to healing, desperation to hope, even death to life.

 

Words also have the capacity to disempower, slay, or destroy another. The choice is ours.

 

And this is the choice Jesus is clarifying for us in today’s gospel. You can wash your hands all day long in keeping with the “law,” he says, but you still aren’t clean if what comes from your heart causes sadness, division, and unfair burdens for others - which is what the word “evil” really means.

 

Our gospel has two stories that seem disjointed: one on the law and ritual cleanliness, the other a story about healing for a Gentile. But in Jesus’ inimitable way, these stories are closely connected by his main point. The first story being a theoretical discussion, the second being the manifestation of his point.

 

When Jesus went way out of his way to take his disciples north, where the Gentiles lived, he invited the encounter with the Canaanite woman by his presence. When she sees him, the woman, from whose mouth a ruckus was heard, pursues him. So annoyed were the disciples by this foreigner, this woman, that they asked Jesus to let them send her away.

 

What came out of the disciples’ mouths was selfish and exclusionary. They wanted only to shut her up and restore their peace. But Jesus used the moment to make his point.

 

The story tells us that the Canaanite woman cried out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”  Here is this despised person speaking Jewish terms of respect and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah of God.

 

But the next thing she says is equally as important. “…my daughter is tormented by a demon.” What she was asking for from Jesus was not for herself but for her child. Love motivated her to risk being humiliated and even violently pushed aside.

 

What came out of her mouth was faith and love - and it sounded like a ruckus. This sounds so sadly familiar to us, doesn’t it?

 

Voices among us are crying out making a ruckus today We might imagine the Canaanite woman as a Mexican immigrant mother crying out for her child still being held in a cage on the border. Or it might be the family of a person addicted to opioids. In both cases, they cry out, “Have mercy Lord, Son of David, my child is under the power of an evil force.”

 

These are today’s voices of faith motivated by love. No matter how annoying they are or how much they disturb our peace, Jesus demonstrated that we must engage them.

 

Now, the way he engaged the Canaanite woman seems, at first glance, like one of the most horrible things Jesus ever said to anyone! It hurts our hearts to hear him say such awful words.

 

But he says those particular words to demonstrate how evil tradition can be. In his culture, and in ours, people recognize what it means when someone is called a dog. I promise every female everywhere knows what it means and how it feels to be called the word that means “female dog.”

 

Humans tend to stratify ourselves placing one group at the top then organizing others beneath them. This is classism and it lives in cultures throughout the world - including ours.

 

Here in the US, we believe that anyone can improve their lot with hard work (our Protestant work ethic) and an entrepreneurial spirit. And that’s true to some degree. But a few instances of upward mobility don’t threaten a classist system. Freedom and equality for all do.

 

When the disciples encountered the Canaanite woman creating a ruckus, she was not a threat to them or their tradition. She was just one.  In the same way, having a few black or brown successes doesn’t threaten our overall system of classism.

 

The problem happens when everyone seeks to have access to the same opportunities and benefits. That’s when we see the upper echelon put up boundaries and close doors, excluding those they believe are beneath them or at least, heaping such burdens on them that advancement is very difficult if not impossible.

 

When Jesus responded to the Canaanite woman’s ruckus, he used words that reflected the traditional understanding. The Messiah came to bring salvation to the Jews - not to her. It wouldn’t be fair to give the children’s food to the dog.

 

Notice, not a single person among Jesus’ band of disciples spoke up about the insult. So common was this understanding that Jesus could call her a “dog” with impunity.

 

Undaunted, the woman argued with Jesus - and won! Her argument didn’t return insult for insult, but rather reframed the discussion using humility. Kneeling at his feet she said, ‘You say I’m a dog. OK, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the Master’s table. Give me the crumbs - that will be enough.’

 

To which Jesus replied, “Woman, great is your faith!” You can almost see the shock on the faces of Jesus’ followers.

 

Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees, followed by his encounter with the Canaanite woman, demonstrate his Messianic message of salvation for the whole world as prophesied, by the way, in Isaiah 49:6 where God said, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

 

The law and our traditions are meant to be guides that lead us to love. They are not boundaries around love meant to exclude anyone, and violence is never justified.

 

Changing our habitual understanding and practices is hard, but it can (and it must) be done. But we must be willing to raise a boundary-busting ruckus. That is our tradition too!

 

There is no violence and no classism in heaven. Where it exists on earth, whether in our traditional religious understanding or our practical application in cultural systems, we must, like Jesus, bring those boundaries down and let the love of God flow freely to all, for all, for ever. Amen.

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