Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christ the King Sunday, 2023: Refined, remade, and restored

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46 

(Note: there is no video of this sermon due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This sermon, as part of our service, can be viewed on Emmanuel Episcopal Webster Groves' YouTube channel.)

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

Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule.

Freedom takes many forms, and when we lose it, we are truly lost – like scattered sheep - and we begin to die. Some of us lose our freedom to alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling. Others lose our freedom to money, power, reputation, or celebrity. Still others lose our freedom to people or churches with twisted theology. Our freedom also can be surreptitiously lost to mental or physical illness or to fear, hate, or hopelessness.

Some of us lose our freedom because it’s stolen from us – by an abuser or an oppressor. This is the kind of thief specifically described by the prophet Ezekiel who said: “…you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

Abuse, in all its forms, is about power… misused power… and the Good News Ezekiel offers is that God sees when the sheep, that is, the people, have been scattered by this misuse of power; and God says, “I myself will search for them… I will rescue them from all the places they have been scattered… [and] feed them with good pasture… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost… bring back the strayed… [and] strengthen the weak…"

Picking up on Ezekiel’s metaphor, Jesus takes this teaching even further. It isn’t just what God will do, but also what we must do as his followers. The main point of this teaching is about responding to the power of the world using the power God has given us.

This power is something we all possess. It’s a power that has nothing to do with money, or position, or age, or ability. It’s the power of Jesus’ presence within us – a power that can only be used properly when we are living in righteousness, that is, in right relationship with God and our neighbor.

That seemingly scary last sentence in the gospel story is not a threat. The word we translate as “punishment,” is actually “pruning.” While cutting away what is superfluous in us may be fearful and rightly anticipated as painful, the object of pruning is to increase growth and fruitfulness. It is a gift, not a penalty.

The penalty would be self-inflicted: cutting ourselves off from God. Disconnection from God feels like punishment because it is disconnection from the only truth, the only life there is.

I’ve mentioned having experienced hell more than once in my life. What made those experiences hell for me was that I’d lost my grip on my relationship with God. I felt disconnected, existentially alone, and eternally lost.

I wasn’t, of course, because Christ marked me as his own forever at my Baptism. So, while I may have felt disconnected from God, God was not disconnected from me. God was waiting like a shepherd to guide me back to the rich pasture Ezekiel describes - the richness of right relationship with God and neighbor.

While I was in hell, my entire focus was on myself. I was drowning in my own suffering. I felt alone and lost, scared, and angry about it. I couldn’t have noticed anyone else’s suffering because my focus had turned inward. I was in hell and each moment was an eternity.

That’s why this promise from Jesus is so vital: the accursed, that is, those whose attention is solely on themselves, or those who live in such a way that they cause pain, division, or hardship for the poor and vulnerable, will be sent into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the adversaries of good. Since “fire” is Bible-speak for the presence of God - remembering the burning bush that spoke to Moses in Genesis and the pillar of fire that led the Israelites to the Promised Land in Exodus – Jesus is promising that they will be sent back into the eternal presence of God where they will be refined, remade, and restored to right relationship with God and neighbor.

I can attest to this. I have experienced first-hand the refining fire of God’s love and I highly recommend it! It is the gateway to freedom. This freedom that includes us but extends far beyond us and the path to it is right in front of us all the time.

How many times have we walked or driven past a panhandler and ignored their plea for help? We may soothe our consciences saying they are addicts and we don’t want to support their habit - for their sake, or we may reason that they choose to be homeless, or that our little bit of help won’t make a difference in the long run.

The truth is, we don’t want to engage with them the way Jesus engaged the Gerasene demoniac or the woman being stoned for adultery. It’s dangerous and scary. So instead, we find a way to relieve ourselves of our Christian responsibility to respond to them.

Then we hear the prophetic voices call us back to truth, voices like Nelson Mandela who once said, "…to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “[Christians] are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Living into our Christian responsibility isn’t easy, but thanks be to God, we don’t do it alone. We do it as the body of Christ.

Just this past week churches from various denominations in Webster Groves gathered together at Webster United Methodist Church for our annual community Thanksgiving Service. We raised awareness of and money for our vulnerable siblings in Christ here and in the Rosebud Indian Reservation in SD. 

This ecumenical group also has spent the last year driving a spoke into the wheel of racism through our efforts to inform about racist statements still present in many of our homes’ deeds from the past and to ensure that racism finds no place in home deeds in the present. We have pushed back on the shoulders and flanks that butt out and scatter the weak as we work for affordable housing options in our fair city.

Each Sunday we gather as a family of faith to be nourished by Word and Sacrament so that we can go out into the world to enhance the freedom of others and drive spokes into the wheels of injustice in our time. When we truly believe that God dwells in us, we can step into any darkness, any suffering, and allow Jesus to do through us what he always does, what the prophets of old said he would do: set us free from all that separates us and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Grant O God, that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

All Saints, 2023-A: Blessed, holy, and worthy of praise

 Lectionary: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12 

(Note: there is no video of this sermon due to being at the diocesan convention through Saturday afternoon. This sermon, as part of our service, can be viewed on Emmanuel Episcopal, Webster Groves' YouTube channel.)

En el nombre del Dios Omnipotente, Cristo el Hijo, y el Espiritu Santo. Amen.

In his book, The Magnificent Defeat, American theologian, Frederick Buechner, said: "…to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one's mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full." Source

“To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind…” he said. Finally, a qualification for sainthood I can meet! I live a little bit out of my mind all of the time. I always have, especially when it comes to my spiritual life. I know many others (even some here) who could say the same but mostly don’t because, well… people will think they’re out of their minds.

The early church considered a saint to be anyone who believed that Jesus is the Christ. The current church still believes that. That’s why the saints we remembered today in our Litany included people of many faiths, civil right advocates, medieval mystics, military generals, and peace activists. They are lay and ordained, women and men: they are all of us.

The gospel reading today reflects for us the character of saints. These aren’t people who rise above their human frailties. On the contrary, Jesus makes very clear that saints are deeply and totally human, and he calls them blessed, that is, holy and worthy of praise.

Jesus says that saints are blessed when they come before God in absolute poverty of spirit, because knowing they need God, they place themselves into God’s care. Saints are blessed when they suffer loss, or desire justice …when they are generous with mercy in the face of sin, … when they work to bring peace out of conflict …when they keep God’s will as their priority, even though they themselves may suffer indignities and injustices for it. Blessed are they, Jesus says. They are holy and worthy of praise.

One saint I loved was an 8-year-old beggar I met when I was part of a mission trip serving the street children in Romania. This little boy was smart, savvy, and doomed by his poverty. Yet his smile, playfulness, and laughter were ever-present. One day, as we walked along the streets of Cluj-Napoca, this precocious little guy begged some money (which, by the way, he could do in about 5 languages), then went and bought a banana. As he returned to where I was sitting on the curb, he broke the banana in two and offered me half. I was overcome by the generosity that came so naturally to him. This precious little one was a saint in heaven by age 10, a victim of his life on the streets. Blessed was he, holy, and worthy of praise. (Pic is a Romanian street child, but not the one I mentioned)

The call to purity in these Beatitudes is about our willingness to rely totally on God. This complete reliance, no matter the circumstances of our lives, keeps us in the will of God. It’s a choice: waiting on God’s redeeming love to act rather than asserting our wills (and solutions) into it. This was made real for me by my beloved aunt and godmother, whose bitterness and anger, though justified by the circumstances of her life, made her quite unlovable for many. But as she would tell me the stories of how she made it through terrible ordeals, I saw how she trusted God and waited the very long time it took for redemption to happen. I knew even as a small child, that when I was with her, I was in the presence of purity of heart, and it made her beautiful to me. Blessed was she, holy and worthy of praise.

In his address to our convention, Bp. Rafael Morales of Puerto Rico, exhorted us over and over to go – get out of our churches and into the world and share the good news of the amazing, transforming love we know in Jesus.

Thankfully, Jesus taught us how to do that by embodying the Beatitudes, showing us – in real life – what it looks like to do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us, withhold nothing from anyone, and turn the other cheek. These aren’t metaphors for Jesus – or for us. They are a way of being in the world.

So, let’s choose to bring down the boundaries we’ve built up in our minds and in our faith - the ones that keep us safe and sane but separated from one another. Let’s be a little out of our minds and be led by God, taking our place in that eternal procession of saints who were, saints who are, and saints who are yet to come.

Then we too will be blessed, holy, and worthy of praise. Amen.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Pentecost 19, 2023-A: Signposts to shalom

 Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46 

Sean gratos los dichos de mi boca y la meditación de mi corazón delante de ti, oh Dios, mi fortaleza y mi redentor. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

When I was preparing for my First Communion, I had to learn the answers to the hundreds of questions in the Baltimore Catechism. I studied the catechism with my Latina mother, may she rest in peace, who would frequently say to me, “You don’t have to believe that. Just memorize the answer in case the bishop calls on you.” Early in my spiritual development, my mother taught me to respect the rules of the church while also giving me permission to discern my own relationship with God.

The Episcopal Church has rules which we call canons. They guide our common life in Christ. Our forebears called their rules “The Law.” Given by God to Moses, the Law was meant to guide their common life and bring about shalom: a fullness of harmony between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. They were meant to be signposts, but they feared getting it wrong, so they made 10 rules into 613 to ensure they were doing it just right. No one could have kept all of those rules. No one.

Following the rules doesn’t keep us safe from wrong. It’s like the symptoms and the disease I spoke about last week.

Where there is sin, there is a disruption of our right relationships - our righteousness - with God and one another. That is the disease, the dis-ease which is, according to the dictionary, “a disordering of structure or function.” (Source: Apple dictionary)

When we see murder or coveting or dishonoring of elders, when we don’t make time to be in the presence of God, or when we use God’s name to curse someone or invoke fear in them, falsely claiming divine power as our own, we are seeing symptoms of the disease - the disruption of righteousness – and we know we’ve sinned. Knowing that we can repent and return to the Lord.

In our Bible study this past week, someone said, “Context is everything.” Taking that to heart, I want to offer a little context for our gospel reading today. Today’s story comes after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey, his very public overturning of the tables in the temple and cursing of a fig tree. He cured the blind and the lame as the people cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

When Jesus returned to the temple the next day, the religious leadership ask by what authority he does all these things. Jesus answers, I’ll tell you IF you can tell me whether the baptism of John was of divine or human origin. When they couldn’t answer him, Jesus refused to answer them. Instead, he began to tell parables, a common rabbinical teaching technique, only Jesus was a genius with them.

This second parable, the parable of the wicked tenants, is a scathing judgment by Jesus against the religious leadership and their followers. There is so much symbolism in it, so let’s take a quick review: 

  • the absent landowner is God 
  • the vineyard is a common metaphor for the nation of Israel 
  • a watchtower is built which means God is keeping continual watch over the people 
  • the slaves represent the prophets, about whom Jesus laments later in this gospel “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing? (23:37) 
  • and finally, the tenants are the people of Israel and their religious leaders who kill even the landowner’s son 

What should this landlord do with these tenants? Jesus asks.

The religious leadership reply that according to their rules, ‘They should suffer a miserable death, and the land should be leased to someone else – someone who will give the owner the fruits of the harvest.’ Jesus has led the religious leadership to declare judgment on themselves – and once they realized it, they were steaming mad. But they couldn’t kill him because of the crowds.

Also in this parable, Jesus identifies himself both as the son (ben) of the landowner and as the cornerstone (eben) using a direct quote from Psalm 118, which the religious leadership knew well: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (:22) As he did with Psalm 22 from the cross, Rabbi Jesus uses the fullness of Psalm 118 to point to the amazing things God is about to do through him: opening the gates of righteousness, overcoming death, and bringing salvation.

Another important thing to notice about this parable is that, like the parable of the two sons that preceded it, this parable is inclusive. Jesus doesn’t condemn the religious leadership or their followers to exclusion from the kingdom of God, but he does take from them their purpose and gives it to another people. The word Jesus uses here is ‘nation’ – and it would have meant ‘Gentiles’ to his listeners.

This new Gentile people, he says, will produce fruit for the owner to harvest. This was always predicted, though. As Isaiah prophesied, it is too small a thing for you to restore only the tribes of Jacob and Israel… “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (49:6)

The Jewish people knew all along that they were God’s chosen, and that salvation would be extended one day to everyone. Jesus is letting them know that the time is now, and he is the one inaugurating it. Still, it can be hard when you’ve been the only child, to allow new siblings into the family. It’s especially hard when those new siblings are those you have traditionally despised or feared.

But, as we know, God is the owner of this vineyard, not us, so if we want to be faithful tenants in our day,we might look to St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians where, in three simple phrases, Paul shows us how to get there: 

1. “I want to know Christ [he says] and the power of his resurrection…” How do we come to know Christ? We pray, but when we pray do we remember that God is always more ready to hear our prayers than we are to pray them? Do we remember that God’s plan for us is more than we can ever ask or imagine? Do we pray to a loving heavenly parent or to a fearsome judge waiting to smite us for every mistake or infraction of the rules? 

As a parent, my heart would break if I thought my kids were too afraid of me to come to me for comfort or in their time of need. We don’t hate or punish our kids for making mistakes – even big ones. We guide them. That’s exactly what God did giving Moses the 10 commandments to be our signposts, our guidance.

If we want to be of that mind, then we must pray, making time for a Sabbath for our souls. The true benefit of prayer is not that we get what we want, but that it re-sets our minds and our hearts, aligning us to God’s will and we get what God wants. 

2. “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal…” God’s mercy and forgiveness set us free to let go of what was and move toward what could be, what God desires for us, for our neighbor, and for creation as a whole. In other words: shalom.

This is why the psalmist proclaims that the law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, and gives wisdom to the innocent. As Jesus said, it is to those who come to God like innocent children that the kingdom of heaven belongs. (Mt 19:14)

3. “because Jesus Christ has made me his own…” In Jesus, we have all been made siblings in the family of God. We are God’s own, cherished, and beloved in all our imperfection. This should give us cause to celebrate and it is this celebration that is our evangelism – the good news we have to share.

Didn’t see that evangelism twist coming, did you?

Despite what you may have heard, the purpose of evangelism isn’t to save anyone. Only God can save and Jesus already did that “once for all.” (Ro 6:10) Neither is evangelism about convincing anyone of anything. That freedom of choice, offered by God, extends to all.

For us, evangelism is done the St. Francis way – preach the gospel always, sometimes use words. We preach the gospel (which means good news) by what we do.  As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:35)

So, it is by living in right relationship with God, one another, and all of creation as Jesus did, that we embody and proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, the good news that we are never alone, never forsaken, always beloved, forgiven, connected, and provided for by the One who is Unity in Trinity.

So, I offer you what my mother offered me: permission to respect the rules while also discerning your own path to shalom. While you’re at it, feel free to break the rules of traditional evangelism, trusting instead in the love, mercy, and grace of God, then celebrate the good news we have to share – that Jesus has already saved us, reconciled us to God, and calls us to share that good news by living as if it were true. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pentecost 17, 2023-A: Choosing to celebrate divine grace

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

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

I love avocadoes, and anyone else who loves them knows how important it is not to miss that tiny magic window of their ripening. One of my favorite memes on social media says it like this, in the voice of the avocado… “Not ripe… not ripe… not ripe… I’m ripe. Eat me now!... Too late…”

At our Bible study this week one of our members told us about his son who has a vineyard in CA that grows grapes for wine. He says that when the grapes are ready to harvest, there is a small window to get them all picked before they go bad. It’s possible that the whole vineyard might have to be harvested in a single day, requiring lots of help. He talked about there being a sense of urgency, and that his son would welcome anyone who could come help any time during the harvest.

This urgency, and the welcoming of anyone who will help with the harvest, is reflected in our gospel story today. It’s a story that is rich in teachings about the differences between the way of heaven and the way of earth, about faith and reward, and about our sense of justice vs. God’s. Also, like last week, it comes down to our choice.

The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is disturbing. It pricks our sense of fairness. Why should someone who worked only an hour get paid the same as someone who worked all day?

We move easily from that question to the faith-related one: why should someone who has lived a lifetime of sin be able to have a last-minute conversion and receive the same reward as those of us who have lived a good and moral life all along?

It makes me wonder… are we jealous of them? Is living sinfully more appealing than living virtuously? Would we, if we could, choose to get away with living sinfully for as long as possible, then start living right just before we die?

And what exactly is the reward we are seeking? Is it admission into heaven after we die – or the avoidance of eternal hell and damnation?

Sadly, the Church has spent a lot of time holding up our eternal reward as a carrot on a stick, an enticement. The metaphor implies that if we don’t go where the carrot leads us, we will get whipped by the stick as punishment. Effective, but not faithful, and on behalf of the Church, I apologize to anyone who received this message.

The truth is, God doesn’t hold up any enticements for us. They aren’t necessary. Neither is God waiting to punish us if we don’t go where we’re led or do what we “should” do. The choice to follow God, to live in the life of God on earth, is always ours to make. When we choose that, then cry out in distress because things went wrong, God is there, listening, loving, and sustaining us.

As we heard in our reading from Exodus, even when God’s people balked and complained, God remained with them, responding to their needs and providing all that was necessary as they journeyed to the Promised Land.

And what is the Promised Land? I’ll tell you what it isn’t: it isn’t a place in the same way the kingdom of God isn’t a place. The kingdom of God, in Greek the basileia of God, is about God’s dominion, God’s power, and God’s way.

God’s dominion is over the totality of all that is, ever was, and ever will be because God is the creator of all. God’s power is love, emanating again and again into physical form in what is created, transforming sin by forgiveness and division into unity, in other words, earth into heaven. Finally, God’s way is becoming one with the created, first in Jesus, then by our Baptism, in all of us, dwelling with us on our earthly pilgrimage, and, at the end of our lives, reconciling us back into the love that created us.

Our Promised Land, our reward is living our lives in the eternal presence of God, becoming aware of our oneness with God in our hearts, minds, spirits, and souls. How blessed are we who get to know this for most or all of our lives? How much, then should we rejoice, each time someone comes to know and live this reward - no matter how late they arrive at it?

Let’s look more deeply at these latecomers. Beginning with the story from our Scripture, the day laborers were unemployed, very poor, and had little to no protection. They were desperate, which made them vulnerable to cruel employers. They usually earned a pittance, barely enough to feed themselves, much less their families. They would never get ahead on their wages. They could only survive day to day.

The day would begin for them standing outside in the town square waiting to get “picked” for work. Some might say that those who came early were motivated to work and, therefore, more deserving of being picked than those who came later. Unless… they had a sick family member or little ones at home they had to prepare to be alone all day. Unless… they themselves were sick or worn out from their labor the day before. Unless… they had arrived early and were picked by a cruel employer, so they left there and went back to the town square to try and get picked again.

Each day, these laborers would wonder if they would survive the day. They’d fret over not earning enough to feed their families and stress over whether or not they’d get picked to work or get picked by a cruel employer and what that would mean for them. Would they survive unhurt? Would they get sick from poor food, intense labor, or unsafe conditions?

These laborers weren’t getting away with anything. The grace the vineyard owner showed them was divine grace. Their suffering was known, and someone cared about them enough to provide what they needed. The amount they received was the right amount in the way of heaven, even if it seems unfair in the way of earth.

Those laborers who were picked by the vineyard owner early in the day enjoyed a full day’s labor in safe conditions. They received the payment they were promised. Their hard work was rewarded. Their expectation that they should receive more than someone else, someone who didn’t work as long or as much as they did is the perspective of the way of earth, and its focus is on the self: I worked all day. I deserve more than that person over there who only worked an hour.

The way of heaven is different. Remembering the urgency of the harvest and the need for help, what if the laborers chosen in the morning celebrated each time more help arrived? What if their focus was on the harvest, and not themselves? What if the community of laborers bonded in solidarity with one another, celebrating what they had been given rather than complaining about what they didn’t have compared to someone else? That would be the way of heaven happening on earth.

Now let’s consider how this metaphor works regarding faith. Do we celebrate that one who had been lost and now has been found, that one who had been separated and is now reunited in the family of God?

The way of heaven on earth is not a zero-sum game. One doesn’t get reconciled to God by kicking another one out. The love of God is inclusive of all who are created of God - which is everyone, anywhere, in any time.

Remembering that sin is separation from God, one another, and even oneself, when someone is living a sin-full life, they aren’t getting away with anything. They are lost, alone, desperate to be truly loved and to belong to a community.

They may look like they’re OK or having fun in their debauchery, but they aren’t. That’s just their public face, which is a defense against their pain and loneliness. Behind closed doors, there are drugs or alcohol to numb their pain, licentiousness to help them feel connected to anyone in any way, and self-harm to punish themselves for their unworthiness – or just to feel alive, instead of like the walking dead.

How can we not rejoice when one of these finally recognizes that they can choose to receive the grace God is continually offering? How can we not celebrate that by this choice, their suffering and loneliness are ended, they know they are loved and cared for, and that they are part of something big and wonderful: the family of God?

Reconciliation is God’s justice. It is God’s grace, God’s gift to all of us. How can we do anything but celebrate whenever it happens?

Let us pray: Generous God, thank you for setting us free to receive the abundance you always have ready to give to us. Help us to remember that you created us all, you love us all, and you choose us all. 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 17, 2023

16 Pentecost, 2023-A: Co-creators of heaven on earth

 Lectionary (Proper 19): Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35 

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

Our Scripture today is all about relationship: God’s relationship with us (the way of heaven) and our relationships with one another (the way of earth). As Christians, it is our mission to make the way of heaven and the way of earth the same reality, the only reality – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our Scripture stories teach us that the way of heaven is characterized by mercy and forgiveness while the way of earth is too often unmerciful and unforgiving. While the words of our stories today may be jarring and difficult to hear, the overriding message is such good news! The ultimate plan of God is for the redemption of the whole world, the reclamation of all back into the love from which we were created.

Forgiveness is complicated. We often have to offer it in the absence of satisfaction. It’s only natural to want to be satisfied that someone knows we’ve been wronged and makes it right again, but often, what we seek as justice is really retribution or revenge.

In addition, the one who sinned against us may never acknowledge their sin or accept our forgiveness. That doesn’t matter because when we offer forgiveness, it isn’t to fix a problem or heal a wound. It’s to let it go, to release it, to loose it, and trust God to do the rest.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a gift of freedom. It frees our thoughts from the tyrannical presence of the sinner and the sin. It frees our bodies from the stresses of the hurt and pain. And it frees our souls from the bleeding of the ruptured relationship.

I share a poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive” 
“I will forgive you. 
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them. 

When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment, pain, and sadness 
that had wrapped themselves around my heart 
will be gone. 

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.

You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count. 

But I will forgive you because I do count.
I do matter.
I am bigger than the image you have of me.

I am stronger. I am more beautiful.
I am infinitely more precious than you thought me.
I will forgive you.

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”
When I was a teenager, I was on a swim team with my younger sister. We used to practice in roped-off lanes between the docks on our lake. During one swim practice, my sister got a cramp and began to go under. When I jumped in to help her, she, like many other people who fear they are drowning, began to fight me.

I was trained as a lifeguard and she was an experienced swimmer, but the problem wasn’t about swimming. I knew my sister could die if I didn’t connect with her just then; and surprising even myself, I called out to her: “Sissy, do you trust me?”

The question caught her attention, and she stopped flailing - just for a moment. I used that pause in her panic to grab her into the save hold. Once in the save hold, her head was near mine, so I could speak assurances to her as we headed for shore.

Sometimes God’s save hold feels like that.

In our story from Exodus God tells Moses to stretch out his hand. God is asking Moses, do you trust me? Will you go where I lead you, even if it’s into the sea where you might drown? I have promised to lead my people to the Promised Land, God says. Do you trust me? Take my people with you. Some are going to fight you. They’re just afraid. Hold onto them anyway.

The part of this story that jars us is the end of it. What about those Egyptians who lay dead on the shore? How can God destroy people like that? Aren’t they also children of God?

The answer is yes! There is a traditional Jewish midrash (commentary) that says, “on seeing the drowning Egyptians the angels were about to break into song when God silenced them declaring, “How dare you sing for joy when” my children lay dead on the ground? (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).

God’s plan is for the reconciliation of the whole world. Therefore, it always includes reclaiming the least, the lost, the hated, and the hateful. Reconciliation re-establishes relationship with them which restores the family of God to wholeness.

By our Baptism, we have been made co-creators with God. As we heard last week, what we hold bound on earth, is held bound in heaven and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. This is how we co-create the reality in which we live. We choose it.

The sin, the hurt, the wound we cling to remain in us. The rupture in relationship caused by the sin takes up space in our thoughts and eventually affects our bodies. Anger, resentment, and tension become stomach aches, headaches, high blood pressure, and lots of other somatic symptoms. Is this the reality we want?

Our other choice is to forgive. When we forgive, we set the sin and the sinner loose. We release it from ourselves, our bodies and souls, and trust God to bring about justice and reconciliation – remembering that God’s plan includes the reclamation of all – even the one who sinned.

It may take a moment, or it may take years. Sometimes justice and reconciliation may not be something we get to see happen in our lifetime, but it will happen. That’s the promise.

Most of us talk about sin as those things we do that are wrong or harmful. That’s partly right. Theologian Karl Barth talks about sin as a state of separation from God and one another. It is when we are in that state of separation that we do those things that are wrong and harmful.

It’s kind of like the disease versus the symptoms. We know there is a disease by the presence of the symptoms. We can treat the symptoms, but unless we cure the disease, we are not healed. That’s why Jesus brought us redemption by the forgiveness of sin, bringing down all barriers that separate us from God and from one another.

In his most miserable, painful, humiliating moment as a human, as he was dying on the cross, Jesus’ prayer takes our breath away: “Father, forgive them…” At our most miserable moments, when we have been unfairly treated or wronged, is this our prayer?

Years ago I visited a place in England called the Cathedral at Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed into near oblivion during WWII and the cathedral was destroyed. When you go to the cathedral now, you will see that they didn’t clear away the rubble from the bombing. They simply built the new cathedral adjacent and attached it to the bombed-out shell with a walkway.

The very first thing you see as you walk into the narthex of the new cathedral, written in the tile on the floor, are the words: “Father forgive” and every day they offer Noonday Prayer in the bombed-out shell. They do not forget, but they continually forgive.

We all must continually forgive every time the hurt or anger rises up in us again. It’s a process.

Since we all sin, we all need to be forgiven, and we all need to be forgiving. Jesus makes this very plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t repay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him. When the slave owner learns about this, he becomes enraged: You wicked slave! he says. Shouldn’t you have forgiven them as I forgave you? By not forgiving, you have held that sin bound and condemned yourself to an eternity of torture by your choice.

When we refuse to forgive, we are the ones who suffer. Whether we refuse to forgive another, or ourselves, or even when we refuse to forgive God, we suffer because our relationship has been disrupted. We, who are one, become fractured. If you’ve ever broken a bone, you know how painful a fracture is. The same is true of a fractured relationship.

To forgive is to trust that God will bring about divine justice, reconciliation, and wholeness from every experience of brokenness on earth. When we try to do this ourselves, it’s like trying to save ourselves from drowning. We can’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone else. Forgiveness is a spiritual muscle we must develop and practice and church is where we do that. Offering our prayers and praise to God and sharing in God’s holy food of Communion strengthens and unites us. We need to eat together, pray together, and play together. We even need to disagree together.

Church is where we co-create the way of heaven on earth. It’s where we learn and practice forgiveness so that we can take it out into the world because as you know, our world remains sorely divided and held bound by sin.

Each one of us is created by God, treasured of God, gifted and sent by God to co-create the way heaven on earth. Our church equips and supports us to accomplish this. After our worship today we will enjoy time together at our Homecoming Picnic with Community Matters & Ministry Fair, connecting the dots, that is, listening for how God is gifting us in this moment of our Christian journey, then finding the ministries of the church that enable us to use those gifts as we work together to make the way of heaven and the way of earth the same reality, the only reality. Amen. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

11 Pentecost, 2023-A: In every joy and every storm

Lectionary: Lectionary (Proper 14): Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.

Look up. What do you see?

Most churches are intentionally constructed to be an ark, like Noah’s ark, a vessel that protects God’s people, keeping them from harm and destruction. This building is our ark, our boat, and we are the disciples in it.

Storms will happen. They are not our fault or of our own making. It’s the reality of a world that is in the “almost but not yet” time, the New Age, the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus.

We will be tossed by storms, but when that happens and we are afraid, we remain together in the boat and watch for Jesus who will walk towards us, hand outstretched, ready to save, because Jesus is coming. Jesus is always coming.

It is our nature as humans to seek stasis. We like things to be comfortable and predictable, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our worship rituals are an expression of this.

The challenge comes when the world doesn’t cooperate, when storms arise out there, or even in here. Storms toss us into deep water and like a child learning to swim, we turn and grab for the side of the pool, thrashing if we have to, to get ourselves to safety.

That’s what I picture when I hear this story and think of Peter out there on the water – sinking. Peter… thank God for Peter! He’s so us!

The story goes like this: Jesus has just finished feeding the 5,000. Imagine the spiritual high an experience like that would create in the disciples. When the crowds are gone, Jesus compels the disciples to get on the boat without him and set out. Jesus goes off by himself to a mountain to pray.

When it was evening, Jesus returns from his prayer and sees that the boat has been carried far from land and is being battered by a storm. Aware of his disciples’ predicament, Jesus waits until morning to act. They must endure this storm through the darkness of night.

Do you hear this symbolism? Matthew is a genius writer.

Most of us have experienced nights like that. Whether it’s an earthly circumstance that we must suffer through or a dark night of the soul that envelops us, those nights can be terrifying and seem endless.

When I divorced my first husband who was terribly abusive, we had to establish a visitation schedule as all divorcing parents must. My ex used the exchange time as an opportunity to threaten me, so the court established that our child must be exchanged at my aunt’s home and someone had to be present to protect me and witness the exchange.

On one occasion, I was waiting at my aunt’s house for my child to be returned. The deadline time came and went with no word. This was before cell phones so figuring he was en route, I waited, getting more and more distressed as the time ticked on.

Finally, my ex called my aunt’s house to tell me that he was not going to return our child. He said he decided I needed a break and was doing this for my own good. I reminded him that the order required him to return her and his violation would be considered kidnapping – a stipulation of our agreement since he had previously threatened to kidnap her.

It was a Friday afternoon at 4:30 so he knew I couldn’t reach the court to enforce our agreement. There was nothing I could do until Monday morning, so I went upstairs, knelt down on the blue-black, indoor-outdoor carpeting of my cousin’s bedroom, and prayed.

I hadn’t prayed in a long time and wasn’t sure God would hear me, or that God was even there. I was completely broken, helpless, and had no clue what to do. I had no words to pray with either. I just stayed there on my knees, hoping God would show up and guide me - and God did.

I “heard” in my soul that I should wait; that my daughter would be returned to me and all would be well. A peace fell over me and though I was still terrified, I obeyed. It was the longest two days of my life. I felt like Peter sinking on the water.

I called my parents to let them know what happened. My father wanted to jump into action, hire a private investigator to find my child, contact my lawyer to get an emergency hearing, and other things I couldn’t hear because I tuned him out. I couldn’t manage his storm while I was being tossed about in my own.

I told my father that we would wait until Monday and ask the court to enforce the order. He responded by shouting that I was crazy; that by Monday they would be long gone never to be found again. My fear exactly.

I stood firm trusting in the peace that still wrapped my soul. On Monday morning, I called my lawyer and told him what happened. He called for an emergency hearing, for which my ex was late, and I had my daughter back in my arms by lunchtime.

There is no terror, no storm, no dark night of the soul that we ever go through alone. Jesus is there so we need not be afraid, his hand outstretched ready to save.

To “save” is not to direct our soul to eternal bliss and away from eternal damnation, despite what some Christians have said for so long. To be saved is literally: to make sound, to preserve safe from danger, loss, or destruction. That’s what Jesus did for Peter then and it’s what Jesus does for all of us now.

When God is acting, it will often defy our ability to understand or explain. The laws we’ve discovered or developed to calm the chaos of our world are helpful, but incomplete, and easily overcome by the love of God in action. What shouldn’t be able to happen does happen.

Once a man came to me for prayer. They found a mass on his esophagus, and he wanted me to offer prayer and a blessing ahead of his surgery the next day. He said he was terrified because he was now the same age his father was when he died of esophageal cancer.

We met and I offered healing prayer, anointing with holy oil, and a blessing ahead of his surgery. As always, we asked God to remove the mass, knowing that God’s plan may or may not be to remove that mass, but Jesus said to ask for what we needed, and that’s what he needed.

The next day, I met him and his wife at the surgery center to pray before they took him back. They told us it would take about four hours, so I went back to work. His wife assured me she would let me know when he got out of surgery so we could pray and give thanks.

An hour later, the wife called me to tell me they were bringing him to recovery. I rushed to the surgery center to find the man and his wife happily chatting. Seeing my surprise, they told me that the doctors opened him up and found no mass at all, so they closed him up and sent him to recovery. They were both on a spiritual high having received a truly miraculous answer to their prayer.

Sometimes the love of God in action can’t be explained, only accepted with thanks. This man and I continue to share this story – to confess the Good News we know, not so that we will be saved (Paul got that wrong), but because we are saved, we have been made sound, preserved from danger, loss, and destruction by Jesus. All of us have.

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves or anyone else. Only God can save and Jesus, who is God, already did it – once for all (Paul got that one right).

So, let’s be brave and share the many ways God’s love has acted in our lives and in our world, to remind people that we are already saved and that we are loved beyond our comprehension by God in Christ who is always with us, in every joy and in every storm. Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

7 Pentecost, 2023-A: The prodigal church of a prodigal God

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. 

If there is a creature to whom my soul is attached, my prayer connected, it’s a turkey vulture. That’s right… I said a turkey vulture. The turkey vulture connected with me most powerfully in 2016 while I was on spiritual retreat.

For most people the turkey vulture is ugly with that wrinkly red skin on their heads; and gross because they eat dead, rotting road kill. It’s true, they aren’t beautiful like an eagle, or elegant like a hawk – until you see them in flight. The wingspan of this raptor is 5 ½ feet long with finger-like feathers that spread out and touch the wind as they ride the thermals and updrafts with effortless grace and wisdom.

The turkey vulture has one great weakness, though: it’s feet and talons are weak, so it can’t swoop down to grab and kill prey like hawks and owls do. That’s why it feeds on dead animals, which seems like a disgusting way to have to go and makes one wonder what eternal sin they are being punished for (seriously, I don’t believe in that…).

In reality, turkey vultures serve an immensely important role in the big picture of creation. Their powerful digestive juices allow them to eat dead animals without getting sick, thereby saving other animals from the spread of dangerous infections and harmful bacteria. Their featherless heads, while not classically beautiful, allow them to eat their food without picking up harmful bacteria or infection.

Sunlight helps disinfect their heads and feathers, so in the mornings, turkey vultures gather in great numbers, raise their heads and lift their wings, and allow the sun to cleanse them. It’s an amazingly beautiful sight – these magnificent birds doing a prayerful sun salutation.

The scientific name for turkey vulture is cathartes aura, which means ‘golden purifier.’ Ancient Greeks considered them symbols of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, good and evil – all in one physical body.

I see them as the perfect illustration of St. Paul’s discussion in today’s portion of the letter to the Romans. Life and death, flesh and spirit – all transformed in us because of our relationship to Jesus, who is the Christ. Since, as Paul says, “the Spirit of God dwells in” us, we are spirit and matter, good and evil, death and life – all in one physical body.

From the turkey vulture, we also learn that what we might consider to be waste is actually a valuable part of God’s life-giving plan and evidence of the interconnectedness of all creation. We may judge road-kill as waste, but the turkey vulture sees it as sustenance!

There is no such thing as waste in God’s economy. 

By being itself, and doing what God created it to do, the turkey vulture contributes to the health and well-being of the earth and the creatures of God who live on it. Everyone has a divine purpose, even those we might judge as worthless, gross, useless, or bad - a point made plain in the Parable of the Sower.

There are many approaches to understanding this story. Some see us, God’s people, as the seed which has been sown. Some of us grow shallow roots that fail to sustain us in times of trouble. Some of us are distracted and choked by wealth and worry. Some of us grow in good soil and produce abundant fruit.

Then there are those who see us as the soil – footworn hardened paths that can’t receive a seed; or rocky ground too shallow to sustain life; or so crowded with fear and burdens that anything that takes root chokes and dies; or ground that is nourished, tended, and ready to receive seed.

All of those interpretations are fine with me, but the one that compels me today is the one that focuses on the sower as God. If the Sower is God, then God scatters the seeds of love extravagantly, freely, on hard, rocky, thorny, and fertile ground alike. If the sower is God, then the fruit of these seeds is relationship, recalling Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Theologian Dick Donovan spoke of this parable as, “a story of God's prodigality [because] (‘prodigal’ has to do with lavish or wasteful expenditure).” In God’s economy, there is no waste, and in God’s abundance, there is no end to the seeds of love to be scattered.

The fruit of the plants that grow, which is relationship, is valuable, for however long they live. Do we judge relationship with a baby who dies a wasted effort? Of course not!

When I was in seminary, one among us was diagnosed with cancer just months before we graduated. He walked with us but died a few months later. His bishop ordained him on his deathbed. When my friend asked why, the bishop responded: Some ministries are short, and some are long. I’m here to ordain those who are thus called by God.

What if we suspend our typical judgments of the soil and the plants before us and open our eyes to see and understand God’s purpose in them?

A young woman I know was born in rocky soil. Her parents were drug addicted and her family was the
picture of abusive dysfunction. This young woman left home as a young teenager hoping to find a better life. But she was unprepared. She had never learned the basic things so many of us take for granted, like how to read, how to brush her teeth, even how to use a chest of drawers to store clothes. She never learned or saw modeled how to earn money legally or how to be in a relationship that wasn’t abusive or exploitive.

But this young woman, as abrasive and repulsive in appearance and behavior as she was, is a child of God with a divine purpose. So is the homeless person begging at the street corner, or the addict panhandling on the sidewalks downtown, or the person obsessed with money, power, and prestige.

How, then, does a follower of Christ respond?

Well, for one thing, we don’t condemn. St. Paul writes “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” which to me, means everyone, since Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, is the one “through whom all things are made.” Who, then, can exist apart from him?

Each of us responds to God’s call to us according to God’s plan for us. God called me to be a priest, Jerre to be a deacon, and you to be a teacher, artist, musician, farmer, writer, or whatever!

The same goes for each church, each body of Christ in the world. Each church must continually discern its unique call from God and respond to that call.

So, whether person or church, we respond by setting our minds on the Spirit of God who dwells in us, and letting our weakness be the place God connects us one to another. This is the principle behind AA – alcoholics helping other alcoholics to find healing and wholeness.

This is also what connected me to the young woman I mentioned. I knew the abuse she lived because I had lived some of it too. This enabled us to connect in a real way and begin a journey of healing from which both of us benefitted.

When we connect with one another, weakness to weakness, the power of God’s healing love works through the faithful to transform death to life. Guaranteed.

Perhaps we might respond by sharing from the abundance of our riches, bringing our fertile soil, along with some water and fertilizer to their plot. Or maybe, with their permission, we pluck them up and transplant them somewhere in more fertile soil.

Not everyone is privileged to have been sown into fertile soil, but everyone is beloved of God and has a divine purpose. And the beauty of life in the Spirit is that everyone can be made whole, reconciled by the power of Jesus Christ and his glorious resurrection from the dead.

That is the Spirit who dwells in us, therefore, we are one means by which God accomplishes this in the world today. It is our responsibility as individuals and as the church, the body of Christ in the world, to know and own our weaknesses; to know and own our divine purpose.

We gather together each Sunday to worship God in community, to partake of holy food as God’s holy people, being made one body, one spirit in Christ. Together we discover how the unique gifts God has brought together in this community are meant to be used to bring God’s transforming love to all, but especially to those beloved ones sown in hard, rocky, or thorny soil.

We do this like God does it – extravagantly. Not only is ours a Prodigal God, but ours is a Prodigal Church. We sow the seeds of God’s love lavishly, even wastefully, trusting that there is no such thing as waste in God’s economy.

Let us pray. 

Creator of all, that is give us the courage to be like you: lavish, even wasteful sowers of your seeds of love in the world. Give us ears to hear and understand, and by your Spirit give us grace to see with your divine eyes, that we may recognize the goodness you proclaimed is in all you have created. You have chosen and empowered us by your Holy Spirit. May our fruit acknowledge the truth that we and all creation are in a continual process of sanctification and reconciliation within your abundant, steadfast, and everlasting love. In Jesus’ name we pray this. Amen.