Sunday, September 11, 2022

14 Pentecost, 2022-C: Coming home to God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 

Happy homecoming!  I give thanks that ours is a happy church to come home to – it’s one of Emmanuel’s most attractive qualities. 

It isn’t just that there is happiness here, which there is even in these COVID-affected times, but that there is a constant desire for and intention toward the happiness of the people in this church home on so many levels.

We rejoice to have among us those for whom Emmanuel is the home they come back to visit each year. We welcome you home.

We also rejoice over and welcome those siblings who have been or would be scorned, judged, or excluded from other church homes. We open our doors and our hearts to you.

At Emmanuel, we know that we are all sinners saved by the grace of God, which is what Jesus is teaching in these parables today.

Luke begins by telling us that tax collectors and other sinners were coming to hear Jesus speak. The very presence of these ungodly people caused the godly people around them to complain. Responding to their grumbling Jesus tells three parables. We hear two of them today. We’ll hear the third one next Sunday.

In these parables, Jesus reframes relationship and returns it to the proper order asserting that relationship begins with God and is made available by God to everyone.

In the first parable, the iconic story of the shepherd who leaves the whole flock to seek and recover a single lost sheep, we find a tender comforting image: the found sheep wrapped around the Good Shepherd’s shoulders being carried safely home.

Seeing ourselves as the sheep and Jesus as our Good Shepherd, this parable makes us feel like we matter, and we like that feeling. We like believing that if we were the one who wandered off and got lost, our Good Shepherd would leave everyone and everything else behind in order to find us, then carry us home, rejoicing - and  he would!

And while understanding the parable in this way makes us feel good, and loved, and valued, this parable isn’t about us – it’s about God whose nature it is to seek and save the lost, which here means out of relationship. This story is about God who rejoices each time anyone is reconciled back into relationship.

Sometimes our similarity with sheep is uncomfortably on target – which is why these parables are so effective. Sheep live in community, but much of the time their attention is focused on themselves – on finding and consuming that which will satisfy their hunger.

So, with their eyes looking down at the grass around their feet, they move from place to place - wherever the grass seems greener or more plentiful. Most of the time, the sheep doesn’t know it’s gotten lost until it finishes eating, looks up, and discovers that no one else is around. At that point, the sheep cries out – looking for a response from the flock or the shepherd. If there is no response, the lonesome sheep may panic and make dumb or dangerous choices. Or it may freeze, unable to make any decision at all, eventually dying of starvation right where it stands.

Notice in the parable that only one sheep in the flock knows it’s lost, even though there are 99 other sheep who, as the text says, are in the wilderness, which is Bible-speak for “lost”. Being part of a large crowd of sheep in the same place, doing the same thing, gives the flock a false sense of security.

This story, as sweet and comforting as it is for us, would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. You see, in Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised, “scorned as dishonest …” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65), unclean – ritually and actually – there were no showers out in those fields you know, so they stank.

The Scribes and Pharisees would have been appalled and angered by this parable. God is NOT a shepherd.

So… Jesus pushes it even farther casting God as (gasp) a woman! O.M.G!

An interesting thing about the story of the lost coin is that it doesn’t conjure up the kind of beautiful pastoral images the parable of the lost sheep does. As theologian Robert Farrar Capon says, most people don’t feel sorry for the coin which has been lost… and that’s the point.

The parable isn’t about the coin or us. It’s about God whose nature is to search diligently and work hard to find what had been lost.

At the end of each parable, Jesus says that all of heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents… one person who recognizes that she is lost and calls out to God for rescue; one person who turns his attention away from satisfying his own hunger and looks to God and God’s way instead.

Our relationship with God is THE relationship from which comes all our other relationships. God is our home.

God is the source of our happiness, and it is God’s Spirit that motivates us to grow our family, to expand our church boundaries to include and include, and include – even the blasphemer, the tax collector, and the sinner because God, whose love is beyond our comprehension, uses even our sinfulness to redeem. As St. Paul says, he was the foremost sinner who persecuted and killed Jesus’ followers, yet he received mercy, thereby revealing Christ’s “utmost patience” for all.

We who are followers of Jesus Christ are not a body of perfectly behaving, sinless persons. We are a collection of fully human, imperfect people, who forgive others as we have been forgiven and who welcome the least, the lost, and the excluded to the banquet table, just as Jesus did.

When Jesus says, “…I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" he isn’t talking about our behavior. He’s talking about our hearts. Our behavior is simply the outward manifestation of what’s going on within our hearts. 

We repent when we let go of all that hinders our relationship with God and prevents God’s love from growing in and through us. We repent when we open ourselves to receive the Love that chases after us, lifts us up, and carries us safely home.

That’s why coming home to our church matters. It’s where we learn and practice loving God, one another, and ourselves. At Emmanuel, we celebrate God’s amazing love for us and we do it among people who care enough to help us see when we have lost our way; people who will reach out and remind us to come back into relationship - to come home – and then rejoice when we do.  Happy homeoming. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

13 Pentecost, 2022-C: We're in good hands

Lectionary: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5,13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33 

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

C. S. Lewis once said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” 

Change is part of life. Granted, some changes are better than others and it can be hard to know which changes are good for us and which are not – but that’s where faith comes in.

For God’s people, there is nothing to fear in change. We’re in good hands as we heard in our Old Testament reading where The LORD says to Jeremiah: Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So, Jeremiah goes where God directs him, and there as he watches the potter reforming a pot that has spoiled on the wheel. Jeremiah hears the voice of God say: Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done? Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Telling the people through the prophet Jeremiah (twice, to be sure we hear it) that God’s plan is not fixed, God says: I will change my mind. God’s mind changes in response to the changes that happen in the world around us and in response to us and our choices.

That’s amazing, isn’t it?

On the downside, this means that we can never fully figure out God’s plan - it’s a moving target. We can never be absolutely sure that we know what to do to get it all right - but we aren’t called to be right. We’re called to be faithful.

On the plus side, this opens to us an amazing truth: that what we do and how we live matters and affects the plan of God…or is that a downside? Not if we are like clay in the hands of our Potter - clay that is malleable on the wheel where it is formed and re-formed into a vessel of the Potter’s design.

If you have ever worked with clay, you know that you have to pound the clay and knead water into it (it’s quite a workout!), or else the clay is dry, rigid, and unusable. By the same token, if we choose to be rigid about anything in our church life, we have chosen to make ourselves unworkable by the Master Potter, who honors our choices, even when they are regrettable.

Thankfully, God is always faithful to us, redeems our mistakes, and comforts us when the outcomes we set into motion hurt us. That is God’s covenant with us – to be our God, our Potter. Our covenant with God is to be God’s people – the clay that is formed and reformed in God’s hands according to God’s living plan of love for the world.

This metaphor of the Potter and the clay illustrates how intimately and actively God is with us. It also clarifies the trust we must have in the Potter, especially during the pounding and the kneading.

God has a plan of love for us and for the whole world. If we trust that, and if we trust God, who knit us together in our mother’s wombs and whose hand is laid upon us, we must be willing to let go of everything else – everything else - which is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel from Luke.

Speaking to a large, enthusiastic crowd of followers, Rabbi Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” You can almost hear the hearts of the people drop with a thud. Is God asking us to hate our family?

We’ll get to that. First, we need to hear the rest of this hard teaching.

Jesus goes on to say that we must bear our cross – the symbol of the death of all that matters to us - even our own lives - and follow him. But the hardest thing Jesus says today may be this: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

There are many things we possess, are attached to, and place before God’s call to us: our families, our reputation, our independence. We can be attached to our secrets, our self-image, our way of doing certain church ministries… even our ideas about God.

Jesus says that to be a disciple we must give up all of these and trust in God alone. We must shift our priority of loyalty (which is how the word ‘hate’ translates) to God before everything and everyone else – including ourselves.

We do not come first. They do not come first. God and God’s will for all of us come first – and we must trust God completely when we are called to choose. Only then can we be Jesus’ disciples.

Once upon a time, I was sitting in quiet prayer and study when my rectory doorbell rang. My dogs went crazy doing their protective, dog-thing: lots of noise and running around. I answered the door confident that whoever was there had heard the ruckus and knew I had 4-legged protection if I needed it.

On the other side of the door stood a large African-American man in a uniform with a name tag. He introduced himself and launched into his spiel about a risk-free plan for controlling the cost of monthly gas payments. I interrupted his presentation and informed him that this was a rectory belonging to the church not me, and anyway, it didn’t use gas as a utility.

He looked over at the church then back at me and said, “Oh. OK. Are you the pastor’s wife or something?” I smiled and said, “I’m the pastor.”

I never know how news like that will go over, so I waited and watched while he decided how he felt about it. After a moment, he asked, “What is your mission?”

When I looked at him kind of blankly he said, “What do you stand for? What do you believe in? I mean, are you followers of Jesus Christ who said ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life?’”

He’d obviously never met an Episcopalian before! 

Finishing the quote he started, I said: Jesus said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) Jesus also said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.” (John 6:44).

It pays to know a few Bible verses.

We shared a short conversation on what we believe as Christians, quoting the Bible often and faithfully. Though we were obviously speaking from VERY different denominational perspectives, we were truly and wonderfully grounded in and united by the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

As we shook hands and said goodbye the man began to pray. His prayer covered me with holy love, and I received it gratefully. When he finished praying, we embraced. We were no longer strangers, but members of one family – Christ’s family – having been reconciled by the sharing of the Gospel.

This encounter made very real for me the opening of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon which says, When I
remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. How proud Paul would have been of this disciple at my door.

I was blessed by my encounter with this man. It was an experience of oneness with God and another human being that broke down all divisions, all earthly barriers, and inspired me with hope. I made a mental note always to try to be open to the surprises of love God may send.

We are continually being formed and re-formed by God into disciples. As we grow and change at Emmanuel according to God’s plan for us, I pray we will be asking ourselves the same questions this man asked me: What is our mission? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? Are we followers of Jesus Christ?

I pray also that God will help us maintain our malleability so that we can be molded and fashioned into the kind of disciples who can be sent to create moments where oneness with God and another human being can be known and experienced, where we can inspire others with the hope that is the truth of the Gospel.

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

11 Pentecost, 2022-C: Rise up and rejoice

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

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

In preparation for a book study with our bishop next fall, I’m reading “Canoeing the Mountains” by Tod Bolsinger. In this book, the author uses the story of Lewis and Clark to illustrate the current moment of transition the Church is facing.

As the story goes, Lewis and Clark were sent to find and claim the Northwest Passage, which everyonebelieved would be a waterway connecting the east coast to the west coast. The assumption was that the rivers from the east would lead up the Rocky Mountains, then back down the other side and continue west to the Pacific Ocean. When they arrived at the Rockies, however, Lewis and Clark discovered that no such water passage existed. Their canoes were useless in this new reality. They had to adapt and change or die.

This is the state of the church right now, the author says. We too must adapt and change or die.

Adapting is something we’ve been doing a lot of and we’re tired of it. The thought of fully reopening our churches this fall causes anxiety for some of us. Will we have the volunteers, the passion, the presence we used to?

Our reality has changed, and we aren’t sure we know how to go. Thankfully, our Scripture shows us the way– Jesus’ way.

The gospel story from Luke, the physician, includes a story of physical healing, but it is so much more than that. Jesus is at the synagogue where he often was invited to teach. As he arrives, he notices a woman who is bent over. Jesus calls her over to him and without asking if she wanted it, he heals her, which enrages the religious leadership who remind everyone that the Sabbath is set aside for God. No work should be done, so Jesus, a rabbi, knows he shouldn’t have healed her. This is, after all, the way we’ve always done things…

Jesus’ reaction is priceless and affirms Dcn Jerre’s point last week that Jesus isn’t always “nice.” “You hypocrites” Jesus says to the leadership. You allow work for the sake of caring for your animals on the Sabbath, but you would deny this person, this daughter of Abraham, liberation from her bondage?

Interestingly, the laws on Sabbath behavior are varied and deliberately unclear, leaving room for things like caring for the needs of animals and some people. For example, babies needed changing, right? But because she was a woman, and clearly a sinner from their perspective given her infirmity, they would prefer to blame and dismiss her. But Jesus chose to use her to reveal the love of God in the world. That’s what all healings do.

I want to share the first part of this story from the King James version which I think says it better: “And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.”

A spirit of infirmity is a condition that is recognized only by how it manifests, in this case, the woman is bent over. Luke mentions that she has been this way for 18 years. Eighteen is the biblical number for bondage. Finally, Luke tells us that the woman could “in no way raise herself up.’ Liberating her would take divine intervention – which Jesus offered her.

By choosing her Jesus clarifies for everyone present that this woman, whom they judged to be sinful, is worthy in God’s eyes. By choosing to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus not only reveals the hypocrisy of the religious leadership who hold people in bondage to laws of their own devising, he also reveals the true purpose of the Sabbath accomplished in a new way, in his Way of Love. Finally, by naming Satan, Jesus shows that God has power over all, including Satan.

Luke tells us that when the woman was liberated and raised up, she immediately began praising God. By the end of the story, they were all rejoicing. They had church that day, didn’t they? It happened in a different way than they were accustomed to, but it was a true fulfillment of the command about the Sabbath – to come together into the presence of God and offer praise.

In our Bible study this week, the question came up: did Satan cause this woman’s infirmity? Jesus seems to indicate that. The answer is yes, but only if you understand who and what Satan is and is not.

I’ve said this before, but the reading compels me to say it again: the Hebrew term “the satan” (which has a small “s,” btw) describes an adversarial role, not a particular character. “ (Elaine Pagels). We capitalized that S and made satan into Satan - a red demon guy who is nearly equal in power to God and who spends his time doing harm to God’s people, ultimately trying to trick them away from their salvation.

It's important to note that the word “satan” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.” If the path is [the wrong one for us], the obstruction is good, thus “the satan” may have been sent by God to protect a person from worse harm. (The Origin of Satan, Vintage, 1996, pp 39, 40) If the path is [the right one for us], however, “the satan” is obstructing the will of God.

In our gospel story, the satan who bound this woman in infirmity was the belief that she was unworthy in the sight of God and that her infirmity was just punishment for her sin or the sin of someone in her family. Since she was getting what she deserved she shouldn’t ask for healing. That belief was an obstruction of the will of God, so Jesus cleared it from her path.

Her liberation from this obstruction was God’s doing. God raised her up, without her needing to ask, out of love - and her response was to praise God.

What I wish Luke had told us was how this woman’s life and service to God were changed by her liberation from bondage. I wonder how her synagogue community received this change. I wonder if or how this event affected this community’s approach to worship, to so-called sinners, or to God…

How does it affect ours?

The letter to the Hebrew’s reminds us that God’s call to us now may not look like God’s call to those who came before, but when God calls, the author warns, don’t refuse to answer – because God is shaking things up as they are right now and is building an unshakeable kingdom. It sure feels like that right now, doesn’t it?

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

Things are changing all around and within us. COVID hasn’t left us and despite the improvements in outcomes some among us are still suffering greatly from it and its long-term effects. Rather than wait till COVID is gone (which it likely never will be), we are called do more than find our way into the new normal that is emerging. We are called to co-create with God a better normal in which God’s unshakeable kingdom is revealed and manifested.

Awakening from our COVID slumber and planning for our program year beginning in September presents us with joy but also anxiety. So much has changed. Our familiar river doesn’t pass through this mountain.

At his final address to the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “When we fear we cling to what we know. We clutch at what makes us feel in control.  I would add that we return to the church programs, events, and systems we loved because we know how to do those. They are our familiar canoes.

We’re tired of the steep learning curve COVID imposed on us two years ago. We love our old familiar canoes, and we just want to get back to paddling.

That’s what being bent down looks like for us now. We can’t raise ourselves up from it, but Jesus can. 

Jesus knows our anxiety and weariness. He knows our inclination to revert to the comfort of the familiar.

He also knows our gifts and the plan of love for the world, so I promise, when Jesus touches us and raises us up, and we lift our gaze to see his face, we too will rejoice in the freedom we’re being given to live a new life on a divinely cleared path, one that enables us to show forth God’s powerful love in the world.

Rise up, Emmanuel, and rejoice. Amen. 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

6 Pentecost, 2022-C: Rhythms of prayer and action

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

En el nobmre de Dios que es creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

An interesting feature of our humanity is what is called, “selective attention.” The marvel that is our brain, specifically the visual cortex, filters out information deemed irrelevant.

A famous example of this is the gorilla video from a 1999 study on selective attention. In this study,
“subjects are shown a video of a basketball match, and are asked to count the number of passes that happen during a game sequence. During play, a person dressed in a gorilla costume crosses the shot. When asked to report on what they saw… subjects could report the number of passes observed, yet, incredibly did not report seeing the gorilla... In fact, people appear flummoxed when they are told the gorilla [was in the video], and are astounded when they watch the video back” and see it. (Source)  

Our story from Amos is about selective attention. It begins with a teaser about a basket of fruit, but quickly takes a darker turn with God saying: The end has come upon my people Israel.” Reading our sacred texts means being willing to prayerfully discern and share the Good News within it because it’s always there. So, where is in this story?

It might help to know that the “basket of fruit” reference is a wordplay in Hebrew. The word that translates as basket of fruit sounds like the word that translates as “the end.” God asks Amos, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ Amos says, “the end.” (No, that isn’t the good news yet.)

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

Hear this, God says: [I see] you trampling on the vulnerable, and oppressing the powerless. I see you practicing deceit with predatory lending so that you can build your own wealth. I see you selling junk food and passing it off as nutritious.

I see all of what you are doing, God says, and though I am the true vertical among you, you don’t see me. So, I will watch and wait while you bring yourselves to the only end you’ve made available to yourselves: your own undoing. When it starts happening, you’ll realize how wrong you’ve been and you’ll look for me to save you, but you have made me irrelevant so you don’t see me.

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

I admit this Psalm has been my prayer for a while now. I am not God, but I see these very issues playing out in our world today, and if social media is any indicator, I’m not alone in this. My recourse, our recourse, is to pray – to go into the presence of God where our hearts can be moved from “demolish them utterly” to “I trust in the mercy of God for ever.(More good news)”

The news has been so disruptive to my peace lately. In my busy-ness I’ve had to be intentional about stopping to pray and rest in the love of God, to listen for my Savior’s voice of comfort be strengthened by it and led back into peace – into Christ’s peace. I’ve had to make time to sit at the feet of my Redeemer, like Mary did in our gospel story, or risk being sucked down into the whirlpool of the chaos of the world.

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

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

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

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

Jesus was clear that Mary’s choice would not be taken from her. Choice is a sign of our freedom. Mary had the right to choose for herself. We all do (well, maybe not so much anymore if you’re an American woman, anyway).

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

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

As we head deeply into summer, we have the opportunity as a church community to rest and be restored by sitting at the feet of our Redeemer and listening to him. It’s easy to get distracted and busy preparing for the fall program year, or advocating for justice in our world, but Mary shows us that Jesus respects and affirms our choice of making time to sit at his feet and receive the one thing we need before we attempt to engage in our outward ministries.

It’s like breathing. We can’t breathe out our ministries until we have breathed in Jesus. It’s all about balance. We can’t just breathe in or out without passing out. We must have a rhythm of both.

One of the things I love about Emmanuel is that there are deeply spiritual people here, prayerful people, and also passionate advocates for justice and peace. While all of us have both qualities, some among us may be more inclined to advocacy than to centering prayer, others to prayer over action, but as a whole community, we have it all. Our task is to keep a balance of inward formation of our spirituality and outward opportunities for service.

This place is our center of holy hospitality. Each week we breathe Jesus in together. We make and share the holy food of Holy Communion with our friends and ministry teammates. Then, strengthened and restored by Word and Sacrament, we are sent into the world to love and serve in the holy name and loving way of Jesus.

There is so much injustice, insult, and damage to life out there, but if we try to serve without making time to sit first in God’s presence, we may end up doing more harm than good. So, for this moment, let us rest at the feet of our Redeemer, where we will receive the only thing that really matters. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

5 Pentecost, 2022-C: Called to show mercy

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

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

This week we collectively mourn the loss of life at the July 4th parade in Highland Park, IL. This latest
mass shooting, by yet another young white male, left 7 people dead including both parents of a 2-year-old child and left a 10-year-old child paralyzed from the chest down. As one eyewitness said, “It was a quiet, peaceful, lovely morning, people were enjoying the parade… to have that peacefulness suddenly ripped apart, it’s scary. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t find peace. I think we are falling apart.” (Source

It certainly feels like that sometimes. Thankfully, peace doesn’t originate outside of us, but within, where God in Christ dwells, within us individually and within our parish community, so it’s always there for us, to restore us when we feel lost or afraid or alone.

As we come together in this holy place today, we shake the weariness of this latest trauma from our hearts and souls and enter our worship asking God to “mercifully receive our prayers… and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also… to give us the grace and power to accomplish them faithfully.”

What are the things we ought to do…?

This can be a problematic discussion because it can degrade very quickly into a set of rules or laws that delineate specific things we can and cannot do. In the context of church life, that can reduce us to living lives of freedom-less obedience to a changing landscape of laws architected by the powerful, because as history demonstrates, the rules change as those in power change. Sound familiar?

Thankfully, the rules also change as people grow in wisdom, grace, and faith. The fact that I’m standing here as your priest in charge is evidence of the church’s growth allowing for the ordination of women.

There have always been those among us who must know and clarify every instance in which any specific rule does or doesn’t apply. It’s how the 10 commandments morphed into nearly 700 rules to live by. There have also always been those who misuse the rules in order to thin the herd: if you disobey our rules, you’ll be cast out of our community, or worse yet, cast into eternal damnation.

Please understand: I’m not suggesting that living in faith means living with no rules. On the contrary, I believe that rules - or canons as we call them in the Episcopal Church - customs, and traditions help us live together in peace, with fairness, and provide a firm foundation from which we can evolve and grow from generation to generation.

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

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

Right, says Jesus. Do this and you will live.

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

You all know this story. At the end of it, Jesus asks which of the three men who saw the dying man was a neighbor to him. The one who showed him mercy the lawyer says.

Right again, Jesus says. Now you go and do likewise.

But the question remains: how do we know what we ought to do? How do we know when to keep the law and when to set it aside for mercy’s sake?

The answer can be found in the story from Amos. God provides Amos with a vision of a plumb line, which is, of course, a vertical reference line: heaven to earth. From now on, God says, this is us. We are forever connected and from that connection you will know how to go.

This ties into the great commandment Jesus gave us to love God with all we are – heart, mind, soul, and strength. It’s a love that gives God preference over us, our understanding, and our rules. To love God in this way is to choose to be merciful in every moment, in any circumstance, and to trust in God’s ultimate plan of love for the whole world even when that world is fraught with violence and destruction.

Another important point in the Amos story is that the plumb line is in the midst of a community. This isn’t about our individual relationship with God but our relationship to God as a community of God’s people.

Has anyone ever experienced a time in church when some with power or influence pressed their own agenda onto the community? They might have honestly thought they were advocating for what was best for the community but they also forgot that God’s plan is often more than we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20) and sometimes it takes time to unfold, and that time can be uncomfortable or costly.

The letter to the Colossians reminds us that there will be moments each community needs to endure patiently. We’re in one of those moments right now as many of us feel like we just can’t or don’t want to endure any more pandemic restrictions that continue to hinder our in-person parish life. But as a people called to show mercy, we must prioritize the needs of those among us who are at higher risk from the virus variants over our own desire to be done with this pandemic.

I hope it helps to know that we are currently working to find the both-and solution to this moment. Pray for us as we seek God’s guidance on this.

As a people called to show mercy, we must remember that action is required. The law of the time prohibited the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan from touching the dying man, but the Samaritan touched him anyway, bandaging his wounds and carrying him to a safe place where he could heal. He even paid the man’s rent. The Samaritan didn’t offer thoughts and prayers, he offered aid.

When we think about it, we know what we ought to do. Each of us individually and us as a community - we know. The real question is: do we have the will to do it?

It sometimes feels like we’re spitting into the wind; like there’s more to be done out there than we can do. When we feel like that, we must remember that our hope is in Jesus Christ whose promises are true. So, we do not despair. We act, shattering the categories the world has about those who are or are not neighbors worthy of our mercy and care.

Mother Teresa says, “There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.”

We are those people. As the body of Christ, the Church, we are never alone, and we’re nourished regularly by Word and Sacrament, which means our strength is never depleted. Never.

As we transition culturally from a generation that goes to weekly church services out of duty or obedience to the rules to a generation that dismisses (some even abhor) the institutional church and its rules, it’s important to remember that the body of Christ is now as it has always been – a community of people in whom God in Christ dwells. When the world looks at us, they should be able to see us doing justice, acting mercifully, and walking humbly with God. (Mic 6:8)

The church in every generation is faced with situations that cause us to look beyond our rules, traditions, and customs in order to respond with mercy; in order to grow in wisdom, grace, and faith.

I close with a prayer borrowing some of Paul’s words to the Colossians. Let us pray...

May we be “filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may we be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to [God], who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (9-12) Amen.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

3 Pentecost and Baptism of Theodore: The wild whirl-windiness of God

 Lectionary: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62 

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

I want to begin with a shout-out to Jae, our Organist-Director of Music, for the music he chooses for us every Sunday, but especially this Sunday. The hymns today are replete with phrases and concepts to pray with and ponder. I have done so this past week preparing for today and I commend them to you to enrich your prayers this week.

The music is also the perfect enrichment for a Baptism, which we celebrate today. Standing firmly on the foundation of Jesus Christ, we open wide our hearts and arms to love all – all, all, all, all ,all, as Desmond Tutu would say, as he loved us. We pray that God kindles a flame of love in Theodore today, and in all of us, and confirms it daily throughout our lives. and confirms it daily throughout his life.

We pray that Teddy is continuously surrounded by the body of Christ wherever he is so that he is encouraged to discern his unique gifts from God, nourish them in the body and blood of Christ, and in his community of faith, so that he may serve God and neighbor, held in grace, prayer, and the power of love, all his days.

I want to hold up one phrase from our Sequence Hymn: “Where generation, class, or race divide us to our shame, [God] sees not labels but a face, a person, and a name.” (H-603, v 3) It connected immediately for me to our gospel story where Jesus has his “face set to Jerusalem.” Jesus was immediately personified for me. His labels of Messiah, Christ, God Incarnate – fell away and he became a face, a person, and a name.

Sometimes we forget the reality of Jesus’ humanity. It’s more comfortable to let him be just God who knew what was coming in Jerusalem, who knew what was on the other side of the crucifixion enabling him to endure it. But the reality is, Jesus was also fully human. He nursed at his mother’s breast, went to church with his family, ate dinner with friends, and willingly went to Jerusalem knowing he’d angered the Jewish and Roman leadership so much that both were out to kill him.

Jesus had disrupted the status quo and the powers that be were about to set it back again – and he knew it. Yet he went anyway.

The phrase “setting your face” to something was a commonly used idiom showing commitment and resolve to do something. It’s one of several idioms used by Luke in telling this story.

Another one is: “to bury one’s father” which specifically refers to a son’s duty to remain with his parents to care for them until they die. This phrase offers a variety of ways to understand it. Given how Jesus teaches, it’s probably all of them, so let’s take a quick look at a few of them.

First, this might have been an excuse, ‘I’ll follow you soon, but not now,’ kind of like St. Augustine’s famous wayward prayer: “Lord, give me chastity and self-control, but not yet” as he continued enjoying his roguish lifestyle.

It might have been Jesus speaking of spiritual life and death – let those who do not recognize me, keep doing what they’re doing – but you who follow me must do differently. You must love one another as I have loved you… which is probably why Jesus had such a strong reaction to the suggestion that they bring down fire from heaven to kill the Samaritans who refused them hospitality. Luke says Jesus rebuked them, something usually reserved for demons! You can almost see Jesus’ face-palm – I just told you to love one another…

It may have been that Jesus was reminding his listeners that, "No ministrations could help the dead. [It is the] living [who] need… the proclamation of God's kingdom" as theologian James Horn said. Source: Horn, James G., Lectionary Bible Studies, "The Year of Luke," Pentecost 1, Study Book, (Augsburg-Fortress, 1976), 46. Jesus followed this admonition with a suggestion to go and proclaim the kingdom of God instead.

Finally, in response to the follower who wants to say goodbye to his family before he follows Jesus, Luke employs the idiom "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." That was a hard “no” from Jesus. A more understandable example in our time might be a driver who tends to turn around to check on those in the back seat while driving. That driver risks veering the car off the road and crashing, killing everyone in his car. That person wouldn’t be fit to drive.

The Spirit calls us to go where we are led not to look back and cling to where we have been. As much as we’d like to think we’re all good at multi-tasking, we aren’t. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. We can switch back and forth, some more quickly than others, but Jesus is asking us to stay focused on just this one thing: proclaiming the kingdom of God on the earth through Jesus, the Christ.

In Jesus’ time, the man asking about saying goodbye to his family would need their permission to go. Go where? Jesus said, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." No responsible elder would let a young man follow a prophet to nowhere. This might have been a face-saving excuse, or it might have been Jesus re-prioritizing a cultural-religious norm: not even family takes priority over God’s call on your life.

I remember when I finally decided to go to seminary, getting yelled at by family members who said I was being irresponsible asking Steve to leave his job, the kids to leave their friends, and risking financial ruin – all of which happened. But you need to know that my whole family supported the choice to risk everything to answer the call God had placed on me. It cost them a lot, but the choice was clear for all of us. This is the kind of choice Jesus is asking the man in the gospel story to understand.

Being a Christian means living in the whirlwind of the Spirit who leads us. Sometimes, when we try to nail things down, we may be able to organize ourselves into a comfortable place, or convince ourselves that we’re properly in moral control of others who need it, but we also may be trying to tame the Spirit. As I said in a recent sermon, quoting Christopher Morse: “The Spirit’s working for freedom is revealed only by the free working of the Spirit.” It’s a continual discernment.

May we always trust the Spirit, in all Her wild whirl-windiness, to empower us and lead us as we love and serve in the name of God who is Trinity in Unity. Amen. 

 (Invitation of the family to the font for the Baptism)

Sunday, June 19, 2022

2 Pentecost, 2022-C: We are Legion too


Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39 

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

I confess that I have a complicated relationship with St. Paul, as many Christian women do. However, the particular part of Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read today is, in my opinion, one of his best, most inspired and inspiring teachings: that “in Christ Jesus [we] are all children of God through faith …There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; … all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.”

I hear something like this pretty regularly, and I hear it as the voice of God speaking within us, and it sounds like this: Why can’t we all just get along? Why is it so hard to understand that people are people? We’re all the same – just trying to live our lives and take care of our families.

Here we are in PRIDE month working for the freedom of our LGBTQIA+ siblings who simply want to enjoy the same rights the straight community already enjoys. Today is also Juneteenth, our newest national holiday, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation which gave freedom from slavery to African Americans.

Each generation must address whatever divides us. These are just two issues that divide us today. We have more. We’ve always had more. Humans are a divided race, and division leads to hate which leads to death and destruction of life. Jesus came to change that.

It was 7 years ago this week that a young white man walked into a Bible study at Mother Emanual Church in SC and killed 9 African Americans because he hated blacks. It was 6 years ago this week that a young white man walked into a gay bar in Orlando and killed 50 people because he hated gays, and probably Latinxs. A week ago there were mass shootings in California, Michigan, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, and two in Indiana - killing a total of 8 people and injuring 28. This past week an old white man killed 3 people at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in AL as they enjoyed a pot luck dinner.

We have to find a different way to live together. We have to do better than this.

In his letter, St. Paul is addressing the historic divide between Jews and Gentiles who are now becoming members of the nascent Christian community: do Gentile followers of Jesus have to follow Jewish law? Paul responds that all of us are one in Christ Jesus, so nothing divides us anymore.

This isn’t an easy transition to make. We, and by that, I mean humanity, continue to fall back into the confinement of division, even codifying it into laws, generation after generation, country after country.

But we, who are followers of the Way of Jesus, are called to live differently. We are called to be reconciled to God in Christ and to one another, remembering that it is only by being reconciled to God in Christ that we can live in peace and unity with one another.

The gospel demonstrates this with an amazing story rich in symbolic language. In this story, Jesus goes to a place which is opposite of Galilee - opposite not just in location, but also in religion. Gerasa is a Gentile country.

There he comes upon a man whose description leads us to believe that he was probably mentally ill. His behavior so frightens the local community that they tied him up and put a guard on him to keep him away from them, but he regularly escapes his chains (which symbolizes sin) and escapes to the wilderness – a powerfully symbolic word for the place where we encounter God who leads us to new life.

The man is forced to live on the margins of society, stripped of his freedom and enslaved by evil, which is what his nakedness symbolizes. He was scary, strange, and to be avoided.

But Jesus doesn’t turn away when he sees this untamed person. He approaches him, and remarkably, asks his name. Names are powerful symbols in ancient Jewish culture, expressing the essential nature of a person. This man called himself “Legion” a military word that symbolizes that he has lost his true identity and is controlled by powerful, destructive forces within himself. It also refers to the Roman legions that were controlling and destroying the Israelite people.

Like the demoniac, we are Legion too – and by we, I mean humanity. There are many powerful, destructive forces that control us from within and lead us to need automatic weapons of war to feel safe in the grocery store, or to shoot African Americans in prayer, or gay siblings and allies dancing at a bar, or churchgoers sharing a meal.

As the story proceeds, the demons within this man are sent into a herd of swine which run off a cliff and drown. It’s important to remember that although Jewish culture found pigs to be abhorrent, this isn’t a story about animal cruelty or the loss of livelihood of the owners of the pigs.

Let’s think about where else we hear about drowning. I’ll give you a hint – it’s a kind of important milestone for us Christians. In Baptism we are drowned into the death of Christ to be raised into the life of Christ.

Once this man is freed from his chains and the forces of destruction within him, he is healed, and it happened in a very Baptismal way. The swineherds who witnessed this ran off to tell everyone else what they saw. When the people came and saw the man sitting there with Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind” they were “seized with fear.”

Isn’t that a strange response? Maybe, but it’s not uncommon. In 1921, when we saw African Americans thriving in their newfound freedom in what was called “Black Wall Street” we massacred them and burned their city.

When healing happens, the system around the one healed tends to try to force them back into the way it used to be so they can continue on as before – even though that way was destructive to them.

This is something taught to recovering alcoholics and survivors of domestic violence. I used to use the visual example of a baby’s crib mobile. It spins well while everyone is in their place. If one person leaves the system that exists, however, the mobile tilts and can’t spin like it did and the dysfunctional system is disrupted.

In the gospel story, the people wanted Jesus to leave. He was disrupting their system.

The healed man wanted to go with Jesus – who wouldn’t? But Jesus sent him away. If that seems cruel, hold on. There’s a purpose to it.

Jesus sent the man home to declare - which translates as “to show” - what the love of God has done for him. This is a powerful part of the story.

This formerly untamed, scary, naked, chain-bound man was sent by Jesus to share his good news of reconciliation to God and his community. This man was an apostle – sent by Jesus – before Mary Magdalene witnessed the resurrection that first Easter, before the disciples’ Pentecost experience.

The first apostle was a formerly mentally ill, demon-possessed Gentile. How’s that for a God twist?

The gospel tells us that the man did as Jesus commanded him. He went home “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” We don’t know what happened in the long term, and that’s part of the lesson for us.

We do as we are commanded: we love God and one another as Jesus loved us. God does the rest in God’s time. God’s plan of redeeming, reconciling love isn’t ours to accomplish but to participate in, to foster.

We are lavish planters of the seeds of divine love. God does the growing and the harvesting – which we may or may not see in our earthly lives. We don’t lose hope because our hope is in Jesus; and we don’t lose patience because we trust in God’s inclusive plan of love and we, too, don’t want anyone, not even a hate-filled shooter, left out or lost.

I close with a prayer from Let us pray. 

In the image of God, you created everything and called it good! In abundant diversity, your likeness is found in us. We reject all messages that belittle or degrade any among us. And so in faithfulness to God and one another we proclaim: Sacred are our bodies of every size and ability. Blessed are our sexualities, drawing us towards love of many kinds. Beloved is every gender, revealing you in different ways. To our skin, beautiful in every shade, we say hallelujah! Praise God, our Creator, who blesses us with this world, these bodies, and our fellow creatures, all created good, very good. Amen. (Source)