Sunday, September 19, 2021

17th Pentecost, 2021-B: The birth of servanthood

 Lectionary: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37 

I grew up with 3 sisters, 17 first cousins, and a slew of what we called non-bloods, who were like family, but not biologically related. In addition, there were our aunts, uncles, second cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents. Since our families were from tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods in NYC we saw these extended families often.

Depending on who was hosting the gathering, the kids either ate with the adults at the main dining table or had a separate table set up in the living room. At my Puerto Rican family’s houses “the kids’ table” was a blast! We could cut up, relax, be silly, and enjoy our segregation from the adults – who were laughing like crazy at their own table. We loved it. 

My Irish family were wound a bit tighter. When you walked into my Dad’s eldest sister’s house, for example, there was plastic on all the furniture and she hovered nearby constantly cleaning up around you every time you moved. The kids didn’t speak unless spoken to, didn’t make a mess, and didn’t have fun. At dinner we were segregated to “the kids’ table” but the message was different: that we were the low-ranking members of the clan and the main table was for the high-ranking members.

This is where I learned the absurdity of classism. I was the same person but treated vastly differently by the two sides of my family.

I also learned about racism during my childhood, since the Irish half of my family openly despised the Puerto Rican half of my identity, calling my mother racist slurs at just about every opportunity while trying to persuade me to own only my Irish identity – “the only one that matters,” they would say.

My Puerto Rican family wasn’t free of racism either. From them, I learned a whole hierarchical structure of which Latino countries were at the top of the ladder of respect and which were at the bottom. My grandmother’s indigenous background put her near the bottom of that hierarchy, a fact that was used to abuse and oppress her during her lifetime.

So, at this point in my life, I have little patience for anyone who applies absurd distinctions meant to separate and diminish some in favor of others. It remains a favorite practice in modern culture, so we’re as much in need of a shift in perspective now as Jesus’ disciples were in today’s Gospel where Jesus is laying the groundwork for the birth of servanthood.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” he says. Jesus demonstrates his point by taking a child in his arms and declaring that whoever welcomes this child, who has no rank, no power, and no prestige, welcomes him; and further that whoever welcomes him welcomes God who sent him.

It’s interesting to note that the word translated as “child” also means “servant” so whoever welcomes the servant, welcomes God who sent him. Jesus confirms this shift in perspective later in Mark’s gospel,saying, “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Mk 10:45) Jesus is the servant of all, the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah, who calls us to love one another as he loved us and to serve one another as he served us.

The timing of this lesson from Jesus is important. Jesus and the disciples are back in Capernaum, Jesus’s hometown, and the house they’re in is probably Peter’s, so the child is likely someone in Peter’s family.

Jesus has completed the last of his healing ministry and is focusing now on preparing the disciples for his entry into Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, abused, and ultimately murdered. This is the second of three times Jesus tells his disciples about the path that lies ahead of them, the path of the suffering servant. Something new in this second time is the notion of him being betrayed.

Jesus is speaking in the third person, however, so it’s easy to understand why the disciples might be a bit unsure of what Jesus is saying will happen and to whom. Jesus has referred to himself frequently as the Son of Man, but the disciples also would have been familiar with the term “son of man” since it appears in the Torah hundreds of times.

For Christians, this term is understood as representing Jesus and the fullness of his humanity. For his disciples, however, this name was not yet connected to Jesus.

Since Jesus has already smacked down his #1, Peter, pretty hard for decrying the path he is describing to them, the others decide to stay silent. But Jesus isn’t letting them off the hook. He asks them what they were arguing about as they walked to Peter’s house.

You can almost see their eyes widen as glances shoot back and forth among them. They had to know they were busted, so what do they do now?

In keeping with his ministry of love and spiritual development, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them what they and the future church dedicated to him will need to live in the world he’s about to die to save: servanthood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In my years serving as a priest, I have seen the beauty of this when it is lived out and the tragedy of it when it is not. As the letter from James points out, when we are operating from wisdom, which as we said last week, isn’t about knowledge as much as being in intimate relationship with God, the fruits of our works will be good and peaceable, absent of partiality or hypocrisy.

The tell-tale sign of moving off the path of faith and truth is that conflicts and disputes will arise. When they do, the only faithful response is to “submit to God” as James says in his letter, to draw near to God who will draw near to us and restore our wisdom, our peace, and our path.

Another sign of being off the path of faith is anxiety. As we prayed in our Collect, “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love and hold fast to those things that are eternal and eternally true; and what is eternal and eternally true for us is Jesus, who calls us to serve in his name.

What I love about this gospel story is the way Jesus acted so gently with his disciples who didn’t get it, were afraid to ask about it, and were about to have to deal with it without him. Jesus was brutally honest in his prophecy about his own suffering and death. I’m sure he knew how hard it was for his followers to shift from their expectation of Messiah to Jesus’ embodiment of it; from their life-long goal of taking the seat of power to Jesus’ command to be last of all.

So he takes a child, embraces it, and invites his disciples to do the same. What a homey example of divine presence. Children may have been without rank, power, and prestige in ancient Jewish culture, but they were much loved and valued.

It’s not so different today. Whose heart isn’t warmed and broken open by the innocence and guilelessness of a child?

Jesus, who would have noticed that he’d silenced his disciples with this smack-down of Peter, takes a different approach this time, a gentler one. By sitting down Jesus takes the familiar posture of a rabbi who is about to teach. This helps diminish his disciples’ anxiety because they know what to expect.

Rather than scolding them for engaging in absurd distinctions meant to separate and diminish some in favor of others, Jesus takes and embraces a child, connecting the qualities of that child to his teaching. By doing this, Jesus reaches beyond knowledge to the experience of love: his core message.

This child, this servant is me, he teaches. Welcome me and you welcome God who sends me. Be like me. Be like this child, this servant. Then whoever welcomes you, welcomes God who sends you. You can almost hear the sigh of relief from the disciples and feel the warmth of love filling that room.

It’s hard to shift from the habits of our thinking, especially when the world affirms them so strongly. We won’t always get it right or get it quickly, but Jesus will stick with us, gently showing us the way to go.

Let us pray… Loving Jesus, pour your grace over us so that each one of us, and all of us together, may feel the warmth of your love filling us to overflowing. Then send us out on the path of faith you have set before us that we may serve faithfully, peaceably, and without a trace of partiality. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

16th Pentecost, 2021-B: The path of truth

Lectionary: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 

I just love it when the Gospel ends on such a high note, don’t you? :)

So often, when we read this passage from Mark, we zip past the hard parts, like “Who do you say that I am?” or the part where Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” or that shame statement at the end. We aren’t ashamed of Jesus so we aren’t worried about him being ashamed of us. And we’d be able to answer Jesus’ question “Who do folks say that I am” with the certainty of 2000+ years of affirmation.

The niggling that happens in us, though, is that Peter answered correctly “You are the Messiah,” the one God anointed to bring salvation to the whole world. Then, somehow, he went way wrong.

Peter truly loved Jesus, of that there’s no doubt. His concern about Jesus being rejected by the Jewish leadership and undergoing great suffering is reasonable and loving, but Jesus rebukes him for it with a hard smack-down: “Get behind me Satan.”

Jesus knows time is getting short and he’s showing some frustration with his disciples, particularly Peter, for not getting it. What did Peter miss? What are we missing?

Let’s start with who we say Jesus is. Like Peter, we truly believe Jesus is the Messiah. The problem often is, how we understand “Messiah.”

Peter, along with the Jewish people, were anticipating a new King David to use military prowess to free them from Roman occupation and establish them as a world power once again. That, they believed, would enable them to live in peace and prosperity, as their forebears had during the reign of King David.

Jesus’ understanding of Messiah was different. He didn’t come to conquer but to serve. He didn’t come to save a single race of people but all people for all time, unifying everyone into one household – the household of God.. This is what he had been demonstrating in his ministry all along – eating with sinners, women, and tax collectors, healing Gentiles and Jews alike.

When Peter answers Jesus’ question, he’s speaking a truth he doesn’t fully understand. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah. He knows that the world is different and will never be the same because of Jesus, but his attempt to rebuke Jesus reveals Peter’s utter lack of wisdom.

As we heard in our Old Testament, wisdom isn’t about knowledge as much as the knowing that comes from being in relationship with God. I love the personification of Wisdom as a woman who shouts in the streets where ordinary people will hear. “She calls out to the ‘simple’ (who don’t know better), to the ‘scoffers’ (who take pleasure in cynicism) and to ‘fools’ (who despise knowledge) – all of whom reject her. (Source)

Peter knew better, but his reproach to Jesus revealed that he would set aside the grace of the knowing that came from being in relationship with Jesus in favor of knowledge given to him by people who didn’t have the kind of intimate relationship with God he had. In other words, he rejected Jesus who had, as Wisdom said, poured out his thoughts and made his words known to Peter.

We tend to hear Jesus’ smack-down of Peter with 21st-century ears, so let’s clarify why Jesus called Peter, the one upon whom he would build the church, “Satan.” First, I need to point out that the word, “Satan” is not a proper noun. It had a small “s” until later translations, As theologian Elaine Pagels teaches, “the satan” means “one who throws something across one’s path.”

In Jewish understanding, if the path is bad, the obstruction is good, thus “the satan” may have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm. (The Origin of Satan, Vintage, 1996, pp 39, 40) If the path is righteous, however, as was the case in today’s gospel, “the satan” is blocking the path of the will of God. This is what Jesus says Peter is doing: “Get behind me… for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark tells us that after rebuking Peter, Jesus calls the crowd and disciples together to pour out his thoughts and make them known to all of them. If you want to be my follower, Jesus says, then you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

So I wonder… how do we do that today? How do we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?

Last week we talked about prayer, that in prayer we give God the priority. That is the simplest, most do-able form of self-denial. Give God the priority.

The more we practice that the more quickly we recognize when we, like Peter, have become an obstacle in God’s path. And we all will, at some point, discover that we’re the obstacle. The good news is, that Peter wasn’t thrown out of the club, and neither will we be. Like Peter, we will be lovingly formed and reformed so that we can be sent out to share the good news we know.

When we take up our cross we are intentionally carrying in our hearts and consciousness the symbol of death, which for us is also the symbol for new life. Only to a follower of Jesus would that make sense because Jesus transformed death into the gateway to new life, resurrection life in him. Taking up our cross, then, is how we live continually in the new life he gave us.

Following Jesus means continually listening for the wisdom of God speaking in us, guiding us on how to respond and relate in our world. How do we respond to people or situations that frustrate or anger us? What picture do our responses on social media, in traffic, or the church parking lot paint of us?

It’s popular right now to be simple, or cynical, or to abhor facts. All you have to do is spend 10 minutes online to see how many people are choosing that path. It’s understandable, and sad when you think about it.

When someone chooses to be simple, to not know better, then they can avoid accountability. If they choose to be cynical, they don’t run the risk of relational responsibility. If they choose to abhor facts, they get to recreate reality into one they can cope with or feel like they can control.

As followers of Jesus, we know better and we tread a different path, a path of truth, which is the path of life. Any truth we learn brings us into deeper relationship with him, which leads us into deeper relationship with one another.

Loving God, being in intimate relationship with God, connects us to all our relations on earth and in heaven, past, present, and future, known and not yet known to us, and our church is our home base for that.

Today is Homecoming at Emmanuel. When I think of coming home, I think of being where love is, where we are accepted for who we are. At its best, home is where disagreements can happen without damaging the bond of love, because the love that holds us together, is Jesus.

Today is a great day to come home and celebrate the love of Christ embodied and lived at Emmanuel. We welcome those who live far off and those who are near, as we celebrate the grace that comes from being in relationship with one another, and with God who loves us and makes us one. Amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

15th Pentecost, 2021-B: Be opened

 Lectionary: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Video of my sermon

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

I am SO glad to be here with you! I have to say, I’m still a little surprised that I live in MO and now own a home here! This was never on my radar. Steve and I have two grandsons in GA and we were planning to buy a house in the GA mountains to be near them. 

Then God intervened.

I had been a rector for 10 years and loved it, but when I took my sabbatical in 2016, I discerned a call to Interim Ministry, so I got myself trained and began serving as an Interim Rector – a ministry I completely loved.

Interim ministry is what brought me to serve at Calvary in Columbia. Canon Doris, who was my seminary classmate and remains a dear friend, contacted me in NC and asked me to come to MO and serve as an Interim at one of two churches. I didn’t hesitate to tell Doris, no. I have two grandsons in GA and am not interested in moving farther away from them.

Doris called back three months later and said these magic words: just pray about it. I did pray and clearly heard God’s call to me to open to an option beyond my plans.

I arrived at Calvary 8 days before the pandemic shutdown and loved every minute of my ministry there – as strange, different, and challenging as it all was during COVID-tide. God was right – again.

As my ministry at Calvary began to come to a close, Doris called again asking me to discern a call to serve here. No, I said (again). I want to get back to GA and my babies. Ok, she said, just pray about it.

There were those magic words again. Well, not magic as much as wisdom.

When we enter into prayer we give God the priority, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Like the woman in our gospel story whose child needed healing. A non-believer, this woman knew that she was in the presence of love when she was with Jesus, and she knew in the depths of her soul that his love could heal her child, so when Jesus refused her request for healing, she persisted.

Every time I read Jesus’ initial response to the Syrian woman, I ache over the meanness of his words. Why would he deny her request so offhandedly? And why would he call her a “dog”- a common racist slur against her people?

It’s an uncomfortable reality, but if we believe, as our Presiding Bishops often says, that if it isn’t about love it isn’t about God, and if we believe that Jesus is the full revelation of the character and nature of God, then we must enter the discomfort and stay in it until we discover the revelation of love Jesus is offering.

People disagree about why Jesus made that horrible response, so let’s pause for a moment, zoom out and look at this gospel from a wider lens. We’ll get back to this, I promise. 

There are two very different healing stories presented to us today, but both take place in Gentile territory. In the first story, a Syrian woman from the Phoenician seaboard violated all kinds of protocols by approaching Jesus, a man who is not her family and speaking to him. What she asked for, however, was not for herself but for her child.

This woman was motivated by love for her child and that, along with her faith in the love she perceived in Jesus, wouldn’t let her give up. It’s also the only time the Scripture records Jesus losing an argument – and it was to Gentile, who was a woman!

Jesus didn’t perform any healing ritual or prayer in this story. He just told the woman to go home, that her daughter was well. The faith that led her to beg Jesus for healing in the first place also carried her home with no proof that he had done what he said – but he had.

The second healing story of the deaf man is radically different. It’s important to note that his deafness would have been considered punishment for a sin. Remember when, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn 9:2)

In this story, friends of the man born deaf brought him to Jesus and begged for his healing. Jesus takes the man away from the crowd and performs a very specific healing ritual. Clearly, Jesus could have healed this man in the same way he had healed the Syrian woman’s daughter, with a word, but he chose a different course. Touching the man’s ears and tongue, then raising his eyes and his prayer to heaven, Jesus sighed - a signal of physical release and an embodied symbol of the breath of God which breathes life into the world.

“Be opened,” Jesus said, and he wasn’t talking to the ears, but to the man. Whatever may hinder you from your wholeness, whether it’s yours or someone else’s belief in your unworthiness, or the idea that God loves some whom God created more than others, be opened now. Come into the presence of love. Be opened and receive the grace God is offering.

In my experience with healing prayer, I’ve found that people often assume God won’t work a miracle for them because a) God doesn’t do that anymore, or b) even if God did do that, surely God wouldn’t choose them.

To these I say those magic, wise words: “just pray about it.” Give God the priority, trusting in God’s love and mercy. I am a witness to many truly miraculous healings of bodies, minds, souls, and churches.

Jesus says to the body of Christ today the same thing he said to the deaf man: “Be opened” for, as Jesus’ mother once said, “nothing shall be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37) Everything is possible and will probably include options beyond our plans.

In our Scripture story the deaf man did open and was made whole. Mark tells us that he spoke plainly, but like most of the healing stories, the transformation that resulted from Jesus’ healing reached beyond the man into his community where folks were “astounded beyond measure” by what they witnessed.

And what they witnessed wasn’t just the healing of a deaf man, but the truth that God acts in the world to heal and reconcile. That is our witness too. God is still acting in the world to heal us and make us whole.

So then, why does the gospel present such different accounts? I think it’s because Mark is showing us that God meets us where we are. For the deaf man, who was probably Jewish, ritual had meaning and would help him “be opened” to the healing. For the Gentile woman, ritual might have been strange and a stumbling block to her being opened.

Now we can return to the racist slur Jesus used. I think he used it to break down entrenched barriers between the Gentile and Jewish communities of his time. In order to break down entrenched barriers we must first notice they exist. Jesus’ startling statement worked like a charm – then and now.

The Jewish hearers of Jesus’ slur would have been in full agreement. Syrians are dogs; they don’t deserve what belongs to us. The Syrians listening would have heard the old, familiar discrimination. It was the way of their world: the Jewish people hate, exclude, and deny the Canaanites.

Jesus’ words and actions tore down entrenched, divisive barriers of culture, race, gender, and age. His healing demonstrated that a Gentile girl and a deaf man were as worthy of God’s love and mercy as anyone else.

Jesus met each one in our gospel story where they were, just as he does for us now.

As we begin our life of faith and service together, let’s “be opened” and let God’s healing love and mercy set us free from all that binds us, all we’re blind to, and all that separates or divides us. Let’s be “astounded beyond measure” by what God is ready to do in and among us and through us in the community God has placed us here to serve.

Let us pray…

Fill us, most merciful God, with the power of your Holy Spirit, and free us from any bonds that continue to restrict our freedom to fully love you, one another, and our neighbors. Enter our hearts today and our dreams tonight and show us your will for us as your disciples in this time and place. Loosen our tongues to speak your truth. Strengthen our hearts to birth your love into reality no matter the cost; and make each of us to shine with the celestial light that is the mark of your saints in heaven and on earth; for the love of your Son, our savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

12th Pentecost & Baptism, 2021-B: Baptized into a Eucharistic life

 Lectionary: 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58 

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

How blessed am I to be able to preach Baptism on my final Sunday as Interim Rector at Calvary?! It’s a priest’s dream come true to welcome new disciples into the fold and we are blessed to welcome two babies and an adult at our Rite II service today.

Starting with Jesus’ own baptism, we believe that each Baptism marks a new reality of divine-human co-existence - the Spirit of God dwelling within our human bodies.

As Episcopalians, we don't use Baptism as a form of ecclesiastical fire insurance (that is, keeping ourselves out of hell). We don't use it to avoid the pain and suffering of life. We don't even use it to avoid death.

In fact, when we baptize, we are intentionally entering into death – the death of Jesus - so that we might live in the power of his resurrection. (BCP, 306) Baptism, you see, is about how we live, not what happens when we die.

As the author of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us: “Be careful… about how you live…” Be aware, be intentional, for in Baptism, we choose to live resurrection lives, lives in which we are united with the author of all life; lives of hope, forgiveness, and transformation, In Baptism we choose to live in community, dedicating ourselves and our gifts to serving all people and all creation, in the name of Christ.

Baptism is full initiation into the body of Christ. As a parish, we pledge to support and love these new Christians as they grow into their full stature in Christ. That means creating opportunities, programs, and means by which we are all continually formed in our faith.

Theologian Paul Tillich says that in Baptism, we are “struck by the grace of God.” In that moment, he says, we know - in a way that is beyond human understanding - that God loves us with an “incomprehensible love.” Being struck by grace transforms us, all our relationships, and, therefore, how we live in the world.

It’s important to remember that our Christian journey doesn’t lead us beyond our human propensity to sin. At some point we will all lose our focus and make mistakes. To his credit, King David modeled how faithful believers respond when confronted with our sin: by owning it and trusting in the mercy and love of God to reconcile us back into the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace.

The system of thought that underlies my interim ministry is Appreciative Inquiry, which teaches that what we focus on becomes our reality. We can choose to focus on what we don’t have or what we wish were true, or… we can look deeply at what we do have, without judgment, and find the gifts present – because there are always gifts to be found. Such is the grace of God.

Living in the truth of our reality enables us to see and move forward on the path of grace God is setting before us. So, here is our reality: Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life…. I am the living bread that came down from heaven… it is my own flesh I give and my flesh gives life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

This co-abiding, this co-existence is continually accomplished and strengthened through our other sacrament: Holy Communion. As Episcopalians believe in the real presence of Christ in this sacrament. Real. Presence. It’s astounding when we think about it.

Theologian Henri Nouwen, says, “the Eucharist is the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable. That is the truth of Jesus [he says]. So human, yet so divine; so familiar, yet so mysterious…” (Source, p. 82-83)

If you ever doubt that, watch a young child receive communion. They come up with hands and eyes raised, a big smile on their face, ready to receive whatever is being given out. They may not know what it is, but they know they want it!

I’ve watched parents pull their children’s hands down and the resulting disappointment on the child’s face. One time a parent came up to me, with their child still loudly protesting their exclusion from Communion. I asked the parent why they didn’t want the child to have Communion and they said, “they don’t know what’s going on in the sacrament.” I responded, “Neither do I, do you?”

In Communion, the realms of earth and heaven become one for a moment that is real, tangible, and repeatable. Using the simplest of events (a shared meal) and the most common food (bread and wine), Jesus gave us a way to re-member, to come together and be reconnected to and refueled by his Spirit.

In a Eucharistic Prayer I wrote, which we have used in the Rite Place service, we pray: “you gathered your friends together, as you’d done so many times before. The meal was simple: bread and wine. In your hands and by your prayers, however, this simple food became holy food, the food of life.”

Eating the food of life, which is the real presence of Christ, transforms us into the current locations of the co-existence of the human-divine reality instituted in Jesus. Recognizing this and living accordingly is how we live a Eucharistic life.

Like King David, we’ll sin along the way. We’ll make mistakes, break communion, even manipulate to get our way. But our comfort lies in being part of a community that is bound together by the love of Christ who is always with us. 

(Note: for Rite I and online guests): Now, as a community, we will renew our own Baptismal vows in solidarity with those we are welcoming into the fold later on at our Rite II service. The Renewal of our Baptism is found in the service booklet on page 6 or in the Book of Common Prayer on page 304.

(Note: for Rite II): Now, as a community, let’s welcome our new family through the sacrament of Baptism, on page 6 in the full-service bulletin or on page 301 in the Book of Common Prayer.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

10th Pentecost, 21-B: The next born of a new reality

Lectionary: 2 Samuel 11:26-12, 13a; Psalm 51: 1-13; Ephesians 4: 1-16; John 6:24-35

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

I love the Collect we prayed at the start of our worship today. It reminds us that we are the church, the body of Christ in the world. Yes, we are individually members of this body, but the wholeness of the truth of who we are and why we exist is beyond any single person. 

The reading from 2nd Samuel reflects the truth of this by reminding us that what one of us does affects all of us, and the consequences are long-term - for good or for ill. God isn’t orchestrating these outcomes. We are. We set into motion events that lead to other events and the circle of those affected grows over time.

When we sin, and we all will, our humble repentance, like David’s, is important. “Acknowledging our manifold sins” as the ’28 Prayer Book says, reminds us of our humanity, which while beautiful and beloved, is imperfect and prone to seek our own wills rather than God’s. Repentance also helps us remember our utter dependence on the goodness of God.

Our Psalm today is a great example of how it feels when we realize we have fallen into sin again. It feels awful. We know that we have disrupted not only our relationship with God, which really matters, but also our relationship with others, and their relationships with others, and on and on. We have set off a disruptive wave and we know we have no power to stop the momentum or undo the damage.

So we ask for cleansing: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” A clean heart is one that is completely in line with God’s will, which is the only path of life for us.

We must be careful not to hear this only as a personal prayer, but also as a corporate one. As Bp. Tom Wright says, there are no individual Christians. By definition, a Christian is a member of a body: the body of Christ.

We all begin our Christian journey in Baptism, drenched in the love of a church community that helps us learn to live the truth that the glory of God dwells within each of us, and within all of us as a church, and does so for a purpose. As Bp. Wright says, “The church exists primarily… to worship God and to work for [God’s] kingdom in the world…The church [he adds] also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform.”  (Source)

Then, in our Confirmation, we affirm our commitment to live with “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” as our epistle writer says. We know that living in that way can be challenging because the world teaches and encourages a very different message: to look out for number one, to exert power, even violence, to achieve our own interests, our own goals.

In the body of Christ, the church, however, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.” The diverse gifts within the church community are nourished and formed to maturity so that God can use them – all of them - to accomplish God’s purpose which is the generation of love, the very essence of God, so that all things are drawn by that love into communion with God.

One of the most important and effective ways we build ourselves up in love is by gathering in community to be nourished by Word and Sacrament – joining our humanity to Christ’s divinity through the holy food of Communion. This is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel lesson from John.

Having just fed the 5000, the people find Jesus again, and they are still hungry. Knowing their stomachs are full, Jesus targets their true hunger: spiritual alienation. Referencing a story they all know – the story from Exodus where God sends manna from heaven, Jesus claims himself to be that manna in his stunning concluding statement: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus, who is, as our Creed says, fully human and fully divine, is the firstborn of this new reality: a human body that is the dwelling place of God. Jesus is the ultimate antidote to spiritual alienation.

If we believe that, and if we eat and drink of his nature, then he abides in us and we in him, making us the next born of this new reality. We aren’t born this way, as Lady Gaga would say. We are re-born into it through our Baptism and continually nourished in it by the holy food of Communion. Each time we take that spiritual nourishment, Christ’s divinity is manifestly joined to our humanity, and he literally dwells within us.

We are not the living bread. We are where he dwells. Each time we eat and drink in the nature of our Savior in this holy meal we strengthen our union with him and with one another. This is what prepares us as a church, and individually as members of it, to go into the world with strength and courage carrying God’s love to all with gladness and singleness of heart. (BCP, 365) 

Poet Marianne Williamson says, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” (from the poem: Our Greatest Fear) I remembered this poem while visiting my daughter in Atlanta this week. I made a quick trip to help her and her family pack to move to a new house and job in south GA. Being with my grandsons, one of whom is three and the other who is three months, I was reminded of how evident the glory of God is in the miracle of their new lives and the potential their lives promise.

That reminded me that each one of us, and all of us who are created of God, are truly miracles bearing unimagined potential. Then, of course, I remembered what a blessing it is to be part of the body of Christ known as Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia, MO, where we are very diverse, each of us uniquely gifted to live the life to which we have been collectively called.

All of our gifts are necessary which is why we work continually and intentionally to lead our lives in a way that is worthy of our calling: in “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” As messy as it sometimes gets having such a variety of perspectives and gifts in one body, the truth is we are, as a whole, greater than the sum of our parts because the wholeness in which we dwell is Christ himself.

I close with a prayer from the Church of England, brought to my attention by one of our wonderful vestry members who served as chaplain at our last meeting. Let us pray: 
Gracious God: Grant that your people may have in them the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, and guide us into harmony of relationship through loving-kindness and the wise use of all that you have given; for you are drawing all things into communion with you and with each other by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.   (Source)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

9th Pentecost, 2021-B: Divine provision

Lectionary: 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21 

En el nombre del Dios quĂ© es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

 In my work facilitating with churches, there are two realities my partner, Martin, and I remind churches of: 1) Baptism: God is always with us; and 2) Communion: the abundance of grace, wisdom, insight, and joy that results from intentionally connecting ourselves to God. 

While providing a means for discerning and clarifying a church’s divine purpose and listening for the ways God is guiding them to live that out, I spend a lot of time reminding the faithful to get out of their heads and into their hearts. 

If we could think our way through life, we wouldn’t need faith or God. But we can’t. With all of our gifts of intellect and experience, we must, in all humility, remember that “our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, nor our ways God’s ways” to paraphrase the prophet, Isaiah. (55:8)

Our goal, then, as people of God, is always to have our heads, that is, our thoughts, connected to our hearts, where God is continually speaking to us, individually and as a church community. This is the gift of our Baptism, and what the epistle writer refers to as being “rooted and grounded in love.” It is in this state we can “know the love of Christ that surpasses [mere human] knowledge.”

I have the privilege of witnessing how often churches are surprised by how much grace, mercy, and faithfulness God is always offering, even in what seems like the worst of earthly circumstances. When we make space for God in all of our planning and doing as individuals and as a church, God works in us, and we “accomplish abundantly far more” than we could ever have asked or imagined.

God loves us so much more than we can fathom – all of us, all of humanity – and is ready to provide all we need to establish peace, harmony, and unity on the earth, as it is in heaven. This is affirmed for us in today’s gospel story of the lavishness of divine provision: the feeding of the five thousand.

This story harkens back to the story of Elisha who fed 100 people with 10 barley loaves and some grain. Elisha’s men doubted how such a small amount of food could feed so many people, but Elisha told them that Yahweh had promised there would be enough and even some leftover – and there was.

In the gospel story, there were even more people to feed and less food to give them. Jesus used the opportunity to test his disciples, who would have known the story of Elisha. Rather than trusting God, however, the disciples tried to figure out how they could feed the crowds, only to realize that they couldn’t.

Jesus wasn’t disappointed with them for resorting to their default – their own thoughts. This test was his gift to them to free them from the limits their thinking put on their faith. If we allow it, this story frees us too.

Taking the offering of insufficient earthly food, Jesus blessed it and gave it to his disciples to give to the people. Do you hear the Eucharistic language in this?

John tells us that everyone who ate was satisfied. Clearly, they weren’t using those little wafers we use for Holy Eucharist. :)  In fact, the bread in this Communion was barley loaf – the food of the poor.

When the people had eaten and were satisfied, the disciples gathered up what was leftover, and it filled 12 baskets. As you know, the number 12 is symbolic and refers to the 12 tribes of Israel – the people of God.
The image is of containers (baskets) holding new people - people whom God brought to be fed – and it included women and children, sinners, and maybe even some Gentiles.

I imagine some present would have been unhappy about including everyone gathered on the grass. Some of them probably wouldn’t have been deemed worthy of the resources they were using up, yet Jesus fed them all - an important lesson for our time.

After feeding the crowds, Jesus withdrew by himself to the mountain. “Mountain” is Bible-talk for the prayerful place where God’s will is revealed.

Jesus must have stayed in prayer for a very long time because the disciples finally decided to leave for home without him. They got about halfway across the lake and the wind picked up, making their journey difficult and dangerous. Do you hear the symbolism? 

The community of disciples are on a vessel in the Sea of Galilee. John says it was dark, and he’s speaking of spiritual darkness not just the absence of daylight. John describes a wild wind, which is symbolic for the Holy Spirit of God, blowing where it wills, stirring up the water, making it rough.

Like the creation story in Genesis, where God calmed the chaos waters of the earth, in John’s gospel story, Jesus, the Incarnate God, calms the chaos waters in hearts of his followers; and he does it by speaking a powerful phrase: “It is I” he says, (in Greek, ego eimi – which means I AM). 

I AM is how God self-identifies in Scripture: to Abraham saying, “I AM the Lord (Gen 15:7), to Jacob saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father;” (Gen 28:13); and to Moses saying, “I AM who I AM. Tell them I AM sent you." (Ex 3:14) In this gospel, Jesus is claiming his divine identity saying, I AM here – don’t be afraid.

Yet, it’s true that when we draw near to the presence of God and our hubris gives way to true humility the experience is, at first, terrifying, just as it was for the disciples. It’s terrifying because the illusion that we have control of and power over our lives, crumbles. It’s terrifying because we realize that we have been standing in the place of God in our lives and ministries and how very foolish and dangerous that is. It’s terrifying because what we were so sure we knew about God, ourselves, our church, our future, is washed away in the power of the presence of the living God.

That’s when Jesus comes to us and calms the fearful storms in our hearts saying “I Am here” (ego eimi). Don’t be afraid.”

Like the disciples, the minute we invite Jesus into our vessel, whether that vessel is ourselves or our church, we find that we’ve arrived at the place we were trying to go. We’re standing on dry land, in the presence of our Savior, who grounds us and roots us in love.

It’s comforting that the apostles, who actually saw Jesus perform his many miracles, were still prone to moments of spiritual darkness. Those moments are to be embraced, not avoided or feared because it is in the dark spaces that God seeds and roots new life in us.

Like the disciples, we’re a faithful group, beloved of God, but we aren’t immune from moments of spiritual darkness and trouble – and thanks be to God for that – because those moments are a gift. They remind us that we believe that God is always with us and that God can take our insufficiencies and work miracles with them.

Let us pray… God of love and mercy, we seek your presence; not because you are ever absent from us but because we are often absent from you. Open our eyes to the reality of your presence in and among us, that we may enjoy the abundance of grace, wisdom, insight, and joy you continually offer us. In true humility, we offer our hearts and minds to be connected in you, so that in every moment we may know you, feel you, hear you, and heed you. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

7th Pentecost, 21-B: In small and big ways

 Lectionary: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29 

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

In today’s gospel, Mark inserts a flashback on the death of John the Baptizer between the stories of the sending of the twelve disciples on their first mission journey and the story of their return and report from their time out there. It’s a strange insertion in that it is very detailed, right down to the conversation between Herodias and her daughter, whom some believe was Salome.

What was Mark’s purpose? I wasn’t able to find any satisfactory answers from the commentaries, except for the accepted idea that it was to elucidate the cost of being a follower of Jesus. But John wasn’t a follower of Jesus. He preceded Jesus to prepare the way for him.

If I were to posit why Mark inserted this right here, I’d say this flashback also was a foreshadowing of what we who are sent by Jesus will find in the world.

In his time, Jesus’ ministry was growing, and that was making Herod nervous. Jesus was becoming even bigger than John was and John’s success had scared Herod into protecting John. Now Jesus, who was also a righteous and holy man, had a following that was even bigger than John’s and the tetrarch was scared of what that would mean for him.

Mark is also foreshadowing the way the kingdoms of earth and heaven would interface. There are three things we can notice here. First, Mark shows how pride, revenge, power, and politics act when confronting the kingdom of God - and it isn’t pretty.

In this story, Herod gets caught up in a party, responding to a child’s dance. It’s important to note that the word used for this child is the same word used for the little girl Jesus raised from the dead saying “Talitha cum” which means she was very young.

This also had incestuous implications since the little girl was Herod’s niece, cousin, and step-daughter. Her father was Herod’s half-brother and her mother was his wife and his cousin. It’s no wonder John had been openly critical.

Then the morally corrupt Herod made an outlandish promise: Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it… even half of my kingdom.” When Herodias’ daughter said she wanted John the Baptist’s head, Herod was “deeply grieved.” Revenge is ugly and even the unholy Herod knew it was going to destroy a righteous and holy man, and it wounded whatever soul was in him.

Mark tells us that “out of regard for his oaths” Herod did as Herodias’ daughter asked. I don’t think Herod was as much motivated by honor as by his impotence to respond to circumstances he created while also saving face and whatever life he had left. His wife wanted this, and his people would see him as weak if he backed off, so he ordered John’s execution.

Mark also demonstrates that sometimes it will seem like corrupt leaders are having their way destroying all that is good and fair and righteous. When that happens, Mark shows how we are to respond. When they learned of his beheading, John’s followers “came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” They did what was right by the one unjustly murdered, but they did not act violently in response to the violence of the world.

That’s a hard lesson for the followers of Jesus to learn and practice. Innocent people still die at the hands of corrupt and unholy earthly systems. We believe, however, that despite what it looks like at any moment, the plan of God is in place, and God is already acting to redeem all that has gone awry.

That doesn’t mean we sit idly by while God fixes things. On the contrary, we are called to be co-creators with God, partners in God’s continuing work of redemption and reconciliation. Together we can make heaven present on earth in small and big ways.

As the author of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, we have been lavished with grace, wisdom, and insight by God who, “according to his good pleasure… set forth in Christ a plan.” That plan will happen in God’s time but the goal is plain: “to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” In other words, the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

He goes on to say that “we, who… set our hope on Christ” are to “live for the praise of his glory” a phrase he repeats twice. As I read this portion of the letter, I have a picture in my mind of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, stepping out of his pulpit, arms waving, as he pivots first this way then that, dancing and singing, like David did, this hymn of praise, bringing honor to God and to the church.

I’m no ++Michael Curry, but I, too, have a song of praise to share. We all do! Here’s some of the Good News we have to share: 

We who set our hope on Christ have been marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit! The blood of Jesus runs through our veins infusing our earthly bodies with divine life. We have been lavished with grace, wisdom, and insight so that we can be co-creators with God, vessels who carry God’s healing love into the world. Our God is a God of mercy who hears the cries of those who suffer, including our animal kin and even the earth itself, and Jesus sends us out now just as he sent those first disciples– with power over unclean spirits.

How do we understand and relate to unclean spirits today? “Unclean” refers to that which is immoral, dishonest, corrupt, or unfair. According to my Greek Bible, “spirit” refers to “That which is recognized by its operations or manifestations, as it is seen in life.” (E.W. Bullinger)

So, where are these unclean spirits in our time? 
Here are just a few: 

In Columbia and cities across the U.S., we can’t miss the reality of homelessness and the overall neglect of persons suffering from mental illness and PTSD who live on the streets. I regularly see plastic drink bottles filled with urine discarded on our city streets and I wonder… while we seek ways to deal with the larger issue of homelessness, why don’t we at least provide public bathrooms and showers for their basic human needs? 

Last week as we celebrated our Independence Day, my Facebook page was covered with pictures of people trying to keep calm their pets who were terrified by the fireworks. My email had been receiving notices for weeks about the damaging effects of fireworks on animal life, especially birds (and y’all know how I love my birds!). I continue to wonder why, if we have silent fireworks, we keep using the ones that sound like bombs going off? We all know the havoc they wreak on our animal kin.

Finally, the U.N. is warning that the number of people worldwide who starve to death each year, about 9 million people, may double due to the pandemic and they’re asking wealthier countries to help. This, while a couple of billionaires vie for the personal victory of being the first to go into space.

Every age has its unclean spirits. Thankfully, we make vows to step in and address those in our time and place. In our sacrament of Baptism, we renounce “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” (BCP, 302) An evil power is anything that causes suffering, division, or increased labor on those less powerful than they. The institution of slavery in the US comes to mind, the vestiges of which continue to impact our African American sisters and brothers today.

We also vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. That gives us so much latitude to be who God made us to be, individually and collectively, and to lavish on those around us: people, animal kin, and even the earth itself, the graces God has already lavished on us.

We can make an impact on how the kingdoms of heaven and earth interface today in small and big ways. As individuals and as a church, all we need to do is continually call upon God that we “may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and… have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

I close with this prayer from our Confirmation Rite: 

 “Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service… Send us forth in the power of the Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” (BCP, 309, adapted)