Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pentecost 4B, 2012: Jesus was not a hammer-person

Lectionary for Proper 7: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

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

Abraham Maslow, founder of Humanistic Psychology, uttered in 1966 what has come to be known as the ‘Law of the Instrument.’ Maslow said, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

It is a temptation for us to live like that, claiming our right and power as hammers, and justifying our pounding of the nails in the world as “natural.” Everyone knows that hammers pound, and nails get pounded. Euro-American history is rife with stories of hammer-people, wealthy, powerful aristocrats who owned property and people and justified it by counting themselves as benevolent, compassionate hammers.

One of my favorite TV shows is Downton Abbey – which illustrates the hammer-ness of humans, although I will say that at least these hammer-people have very good manners. In this TV series, The Earl of Grantham, who is master of the mansion, considers his life’s work to be the maintenance of the status-quo. An imperfect, but truly likeable man, “his Lordship” as they call him, is compassionate about and toward his servants. He even dances with them at a Christmas ball he throws in their honor every year – a ball they have to prepare before they can enjoy it. Still – it’s a party in their honor!

But every once in a while, a hammer-person rebels against the hierarchy that privileges them, and raises up a nail-person to equality with them. In Downton Abbey, that person was the Earl’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, who ran off and married the chauffer. The beauty of this TV story is that love opens the way for this family, now made up of hammers and nails, to find peace and live together in unity, even in their diversity.

Hammer-people are not just part of our history, however. They are an all too tragic and much less genteel part of our present. According to an article by Tony Maddox, Executive VP and Managing Dir of CNN International, somewhere between 10 and 30 million of the most vulnerable people in our world are trapped in slavery right now. The United Nations estimates the total market value of human trafficking at 32 billion dollars. In Europe, criminals are pocketing around $2.5 billion per year from slave trading. (Source:

Yes, hammer-people remain among us today, using money, influence, drugs, and violence to pound their nails, make their fortunes, and preserve their status quo.

Jesus, on the other hand, was not a hammer-person. Jesus had no use for earthly power, and he made a particular point of caring for the vulnerable and the powerless and calling us to do the same.

Jesus did not enter into conflicts over power or money, nor did he try to gain or protect an earthly fortune. He refused to return violence with violence and he commanded us to “turn the other cheek” when we confront violence.

Jesus didn’t use earthly power because he didn’t need it, as we can see from our gospel reading today. In this story, Jesus is teaching huge crowds from his place on a fishing boat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I’m told that this position would provide Jesus good acoustics for his preaching.

After a full day of teaching the crowds, plus time set aside to teach his disciples alone on the meaning of his messages, Jesus told the disciples to send the people on their way. Then he told them to set course for the other side of the Sea of Galilee – the Gentile side.

As they and several other boats began this journey, a windstorm rose up and began filling the boat with water. Throughout the crisis, Jesus remained asleep in the stern of the boat.

The disciples began to panic and woke Jesus up. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind. To rebuke, surprisingly, is to give honor to (in the Greek). First Jesus honors the wind, then he calms it saying simply, “Peace, be still.”

Jesus doesn’t engage in a power struggle with the wind. This isn’t a battle of Jesus’ power over the wind’s power. Jesus simply uses the authority of his divinity to bring order to the chaos.

Jesus demonstrates what true power is. No hammer. No nail. All of creation is honored and all life is preserved. That’s how God does it.

God bless the disciples, however, who still don’t get it. I say bless them because they show us the way we too will go – slowly, but continually growing in our understanding and faith.

After calming the storm, Jesus looks at his disciples and sees the terror still on their faces. First they were terrorized by the storm that threatened their safety. Now they are terrified by their Teacher’s ability to control the weather.

“Why are you afraid?” he asks, “Have you still no faith?”

They’re working on it. So are we.

For too many people, you see, Jesus is magical not divine. They pray to Magic Jesus expecting him to see their needs, wave his magic God-wand, and fix all of their problems. They believe, however, that this can only happen if they’re really good, that is, well-behaved. According to this way of thinking and believing then, anyone who has problems or suffers the storms of life must not be good enough or well-behaved enough for Jesus’ love, right? Wrong.

Our gospel story shows us that Jesus didn’t bring magic to us (which is earthly, and a lie). Jesus brought salvation (with is eternal, and the truth).

This gospel story is about the presence of God who is now, always has been, and always will be our refuge and peace in the presence of any storm. As we prayed together in our Psalm: we believe that whenever we cry out, God delivers us from our distress, stills our storm to a whisper, and quiets the waves of our seas. Then we are glad because of the calm, and safe in the harbor of our Lord. (Ps 107: 28-30)

It is important, therefore, that we heed St. Paul’s advice, and not accept the grace of God in vain, that is, without the respect due to God and the response called for from God. That’s what obedience is, after all: hearing the voice of God and responding to it.

And that voice, the voice of God, is within us. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s true and it’s simple: Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit who dwells in us as individuals and as a community. If we want to hear the voice of God, all we have to do is listen deeply and prayerfully.

How do we know that it’s God’s voice we hear, and not our own will tempting us to be hammer-people again? That’s simple too. First, we stay in community and listen together. What any one person hears will be affirmed in the community.

Then we strengthen ourselves by worshiping together and sharing in the Word and Sacraments.

We work together with Christ, making room for the Holy Spirit to work through the church’s ministry, putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, setting all captives we encounter free from whatever imprisons them.

And we commend ourselves without reservation to whatever storms the world offers in response to our work, remaining steadfast in our commitment to keep our hearts, our minds, our eyes, and our ears open to God who speaks peace to us all.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pentecost 3B, 2012: Sermon by Kheresa Harmon

Lectionary for Proper 6: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

A Tree Grows in Lower Manhattan

When the nose of the first jet punched the face of the North tower, the inhabitants of the Bradford pear tree spread their wings and flew – far, far away.

Only the insatiably busy worms, grubs, and insects remained sheltered under the velvety green canopy that separated them from the world of steel and glass. A pungent organic odor filled the air as the leaves and limbs of the sheltering tree were scorched by balls of fire. Large shards of glass and chunks of falling cement severed limbs. Layers of thick, choking ash soon blanketed the charred remains of the skeletal stump of the tree.

Weeks passed. Workers who were sifting through the remains of the twin towers unearthed the seemingly lifeless 8 foot stump of a tree. From the looks of it, there was little hope for life.

The 17th chapter of Ezekiel drops us knee-deep into the miserable muck of the exiled Jewish community. The fledgling kingdom of Judah had rebelled against Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar responded by deporting King Jechoiachin, the aristocratic religious leaders – including the young priest Ezekiel, and most of the residents of the kingdom. To make matters worse, Zedekiah had become a Babylonian vassal, and he had begun conspiring with Egypt to break the grip of Nebuchadnezzar. Gone were the days of the Davidic monarchy. The exilic community now found itself struggling to eke out some semblance of a life – as prisoners of war. From the looks of it, there was little hope for a real life.

The exilic community was mired down in miserable muck, but muck is more than it seems. It is rich with nutrients – the stuff that nourishes new life.

God was moving quietly within the muck of misery to create a new life for God’s people. God revealed God’s plans for God’s people to Ezekiel, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest the winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.” Salvation was beginning in the muck of exile.

Jesus was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is likely that he had this passage from Ezekiel in mind as he taught his disciples and the crowds by the sea. When we encounter Jesus in the fourth chapter of Mark, we discover that the locus of Jesus’ teaching ministry has changed. After healing the man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus departs from the institution and begins teaching in the open – on hillsides, on houses, wherever the crowds congregate. The face of Jesus’ audience has changed, too. The crowds that congregate around him are no longer limited to his disciples and other Jews. The time is right for Jesus’ message to be shared in the open with anyone who has ears to hear.

In the tradition of the rabbis, Jesus sat down, this time on a boat, and began to teach his followers that God was doing something new in the midst of them.

Jesus employs a series of three seed parables, or picture puzzles (as defined by Dr. Robert Funk), to teach his followers that Kingdom of God has come near. But, the new kingdom would not be what they might expect.

Jesus’ audience would have understood the concept of a kingdom as the area ruled by a king, by the scope of the area ruled, by the number of years ruled by a king, and by the wealth and military force of the king. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus was the antithesis to this. It was the reign of God. It was where God is at work in the world. It was in Jesus himself. Jesus’ listeners, including his inner circle of the Twelve, did not understand him and could not see the Kingdom of God easily.

Jesus’ response to the misunderstanding was a promise in the form of two parables, the parable of the seed and the parable of the mustard seed. Take heart, he seems to say. God is at work in your midst right now. God is present in me. If you do not see that, do not fret. Think of the seed.

The farmer sows seed. The farmer lives his life from night to day. The farmer will work alongside the seed, but the seed itself will grow as God created it to grow. The soil will seem to yield nothing, yet the seed that has been planted is growing underground. Suddenly, when the time is right, a green shoot will push up through the soil, and the ground will be blanketed with new green growth. The growth will be abundant, and one day the harvest will be ready. New creation will come about.

The scorched stump of the Bradford pear tree seemed dead. To the workers who unearthed it, the stump was the only hope that life might begin again. The wounded 8 foot stump was removed and transported to the Arthur Ross Nursery in the Bronx, where it was painstakingly pruned and fertilized. Waiting began. From the looks of it, there was little hope for life.

Something new has happened, and it is happening. The new age began with the birth of Jesus Christ. The new age continues. As persons who have been reconciled by God and to God, we are participants with God in bringing about the Kingdom of God in our world today.

Our epistle reading is a powerful reassurance that, as person redeemed and transformed by the blood of Jesus Christ, we are already experiencing the fullness of life. When we look through resurrection lenses, we see the new creation that God has begun. And, we are invited to participate in it. As persons who are in Jesus Christ, we have been given the privilege and responsibility of participating in the growth of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Grow shall the Kingdom of God! Jesus compared it to the growth of the mustard seed. The mustard seed appears in Jewish folklore as the tiniest, most fragile of all the seeds. When cultivated properly, it can grow up to 12 feet in height. Under its canopy could animals seek refuge from the wilderness sun. On its branches could birds build nests and bring forth new life. From the medicinal properties of its leaves could women and men seek healing from physical illness.

When Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to the growth of mustard seed, he must have remembered the image of the tree in Ezekiel—the new tree of life created by God from a sprig that would grow large enough to provide shelter and shade to every living creature.

It is an image of the living Kingdom of God, and we have been invited to participate in it. When we do, we can fully experience the righteousness of God, the justice of God, the mercy of God, and the peace of God. When do participate in the reign of God on earth, we can experience the healing of our minds, our bodies, and our relationships. When we do participate in the reign of God on earth, we can truly sit at God’s table. When we participate in the reign of God on earth, we can taste real reconciliation—the kind of reconciliation that is rooted in God’s love, that springs forth from God’s forgiveness, and that can happen only in community.

On June 8, 1972, canisters of napalm pelted southern Vietnam. The ferocious flames fed voraciously on a tiny village, vaporizing straw huts, chickens, women, and children. Kim Phuc was nine years old, and napalm’s burn temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius incinerated her clothes. The napalm should have burned her skin off her body; instead it charred her flesh. Kim’s face was untouched. As the hungry inferno devoured the village, Nick Ut pulled out his camera. The image he captured on film was that of nine year old Kim, running, burned and naked, through the burning village.

Kim should have died. Three days later Kim’s parents found her in the hospital morgue – alive. Seventeen surgeries mended some of visible wounds, but hatred and bitterness seethed inside her. When Kim was 19 years old, she became a Christian. Her relationship with Christ began to change her life, and Kim learned that she must learn to forgive . . . and to seek reconciliation.

A glass of coffee helped Kim learn how to forgive the men who nearly killed her. One day Kim filled a glass with black coffee, which represented her anger, hatred, bitterness, pain, and loss. She poured a little out every day. One day there was no coffee left to pour. She filled the glass with water. Every day, with intentional patience, she wrote down all of the names of people who caused her suffering and she began to pray. “The more I prayed,” she wrote, “the softer my heart became.”

Kim forgave, and Kim has dedicated her life to promoting peace and reconciliation around the world. In 1997 she founded the Kim International Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists the most innocent victims of war, the children. The Kim International Foundation provides medical and psychological assistance to millions of children around the world. And, Kim has intentionally worked to seek reconciliation with persons who nearly killed her. She is now friends with John Plummer, a pastor in Virginia, who was instrumental in coordinating the airstrike on her village. Kim participates in the reign of God on earth.

The Bradford pear tree had been ripped of its leaves and limbs. It had been scorched and reduced to a stump. But, the roots of the tree remained untouched. Life was there, and it fought to live. That’s what God designed it to do. By the spring of 2002, tiny green shoots emerged from the old wounds on the trunk of the Bradford pear tree. In December 2010 it was returned to Manhattan. It is now 30 feet tall, and its foliage canopies a portion of the memorial pool.

We must let our roots of faith run deep into resurrection soil, for the deepest roots receive the most nourishment and thrive. May it be so through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Shelby Star article: It isn't easy being inclusive

Note: I wait to publish these on my blog until they have been published in the paper (as a courtesy to the Shelby Star). The Star changed the title of my article. I post it here with my title. Here is the link to the article in the Shelby Star:

Each year in January, Americans honor slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered for his work advancing the human rights of people of color and calling for their full and equal inclusion in the social, political, and religious systems in America. With all the progress we have made since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, however, we still struggle with the sin of racism.

That’s because it isn’t easy being inclusive. Yet this is our calling as God’s people, and it requires extraordinary effort.

It is also our tradition. In the Book of Nehemiah, the priest, Ezra, went against the religious tradition and authority of his time, and read from the Torah to people assembled at the Water Gate, a location outside of the temple precincts. Women, children, “and others who could understand,” people who would have been excluded from temple worship, were given the opportunity to hear Scripture and enter into the joy of relationship with God.

But Ezra went even further, building a platform so that all the people could see and hear him as he read. He enlisted the help of thirteen priests to walk among the people teaching them about the Scripture they were hearing. What an extraordinary effort to include the excluded!

In the epistle to the Corinthians Paul discusses the grounding of the body of Christ in our baptism: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1Cor 12:12, 27)

Paul uses the ‘one body, many members’ metaphor to show how all who are baptized in Christ
are called to live together in unity while honoring and maintaining the great diversity present
in the individual members. For Christians, Paul says, our unity is tied to our interdependence. “The eye cannot say to the hand, nor the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (1Cor 12:21-22) On the contrary, Paul says, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” (1Cor 12: 25-26)

Christians have been dealing with disagreement over who should be counted among the faithful since the earliest days. Paul wanted to include Gentiles in his ministry, but Peter refused to allow it, until God spoke to him in a vision about eating with the Gentiles and sent him to the household of Cornelius. Peter obeyed God and, as a result, hundreds were added to faith that day.

We are heirs of that first great Gentile mission, beneficiaries of their faithfulness to God’s call to be truly inclusive. Now it’s our turn to be faithful, seeking out those who are excluded and going to extraordinary measures to include them, living together in unity even as we honor our diversity.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday: Participating in the life of the Trinity

Lectionary: Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

It’s Trinity Sunday – the most feared day for preachers! Honestly, I find every Sunday I preach to be fearsome. Breaking open my heart and mind to hear the word God wishes to be proclaimed to this people is difficult because my earth-centered mind wants to speak of what I think, what I’ve learned about – but it’s my spirit-centered heart that truly knows and it has few words to offer
So, let’s start with this: the Trinity is a mystery. The bad news is: this is a mystery we can never fully understand with our minds. The good news is: this is a mystery we can fully experience in our spirits.

And that is the dichotomy being discussed in our lessons today. Let’s start with Nicodemus. Jesus seems quite peeved in this story that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, cannot understand his teaching.

Why is Jesus frustrated? I think because Nicodemus doesn’t even see the dichotomy. Nicodemus is so stuck in his head and caught in an earthly perspective that he can’t even conceive of the spiritual truth Jesus is offering him.

Paul understands this dichotomy extremely well and tries to explain it in his epistle to the Romans. He uses language familiar to his listeners, discussing the interplay between flesh and spirit.

Flesh refers to the earthly perspective, the body, the material, that which can be seen, touched, and analyzed. He places this perspective in direct contrast to the spirit – the “pneuma” (Greek), “ruach” (Hebrew).

Spirit is the life force that comes from God, the life that God breathed into ‘adam (humankind) in the beginning. It is the wind that blows where it wills, as Jesus said to Nicodemus. This life principle cannot be seen, or controlled, or understood. It can only be heard, and experienced, and shared with God.

Nicodemus, like the rest of us, has this in-dwelling Spirit, but is totally unaware of it. Like so many of us, what Nicodemus knows about God he learned from, in today’s terms, Sunday School and seminary. What Nicodemus knows about God is what he was taught about God and that knowledge is safe, sure, and ultimately controllable.

But Jesus is telling him that that isn’t enough. You must be born from above” Jesus says, and he goes on to describe the pneuma, the ruach of God: “You can hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” That kind of knowledge isn’t safe, it isn’t sure, and it isn’t controllable.

Jesus is trying to direct Nicodemus toward the kind of experience of God found in today’s reading in Isaiah where the prophet is describing a vision. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne…” Isaiah says. Beings from another world, heavenly beings, surround God and sing God’s praise saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”

In this experience of the presence of God, Isaiah’s eyes are opened and he realizes his own smallness and sinfulness – and by sinfulness, I’m referring to Paul Tillich’s understanding of sin as a state of being, a state of separateness from God.

Isaiah confesses this new understanding, crying out, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips.” In other words, Isaiah now realizes that what he has known and said about God is not pure, it is not truth – and now, in the presence of God, who is ultimate truth, Isaiah understands.

And yet, proclaims Isaiah, even in my sinfulness “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Now that his eyes have been opened, Isaiah has been born of the spirit. He no longer sees from an earthly perspective. He is no longer of the flesh. He is of the spirit.

And heaven responds by sending an angel to bring him heavenly communion. The seraph flies to him and taking a piece of coal from the altar of God, places it on his lips and declares, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Your sin is blotted out. Remembering Tillich’s assertion that sin is separation from God, the seraph declares, “Your sin (your separation) is blotted out.” What separates you from God is gone. You are one.

Now THAT’S holy communion!

Only after this holy communion, this rebirth of Isaiah in the spirit, did Isaiah hear the voice of God ask, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah wasn’t ready to be sent until he had experienced this holy communion with God. Neither are we.

How powerful would it be if our Sunday communion did the same for us?

We believe that our in Holy Communion, we consume the real presence of Christ. We take Christ into our bodies and he becomes part of us, empowering us, and strengthening us to serve.

We have been discussing for weeks now in our Sunday worship how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s own gift to the world, the very same Holy Spirit who filled the disciples that first Pentecost, then sent them to preach the good news to all nations; the third person of the Trinity.

The disciples could be sent because they had been re-born in the spirit, just as Jesus was trying to explain to Nicodemus. They had been in holy communion with God, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Which leads us back to the Trinity.

We tend to like to settle into a safe and comfortable understanding of God. The Father is that guy with the long, white beard and outstretched hand who sits on a throne up on in heaven waiting to judge us when our lives are over.

Jesus is the son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter from Jerusalem who taught and healed, and eventually died on the cross, then rose again, and ascended into heaven.

The Holy Spirit is a bit harder for most of us to grasp and picture. We aren’t sure what the Holy Spirit actually does, apart from that Pentecost thing we read about last week.

We get the Three-ness of God but we aren’t so clear on the Oneness, the Unity.

A recent headline in The Onion, one of my favorite satirical online publications, read: “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity.” The story read like this:

HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services on April 20. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo."

The thing about satire is it exposes our folly. The truth is, many of us live as if God were already a heavenly duo, opting not to dwell on our lack of understanding of or experience with the Holy Spirit.

The problem is, there is no life for us, there is nothing for us outside of the truth of God as Trinity in Unity. Everything the world, that is, the flesh, offers to us is an illusion. It isn’t real and it isn’t ultimately satisfying. As St. Augustine of Hippo famously said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Our goal today isn’t to figure out the mystery of God as Trinity in Unity. We can’t. Besides, we’re Episcopalians – we don’t do that (solve mysteries… we live in them). Our goal is to open ourselves to the awareness, the conscious awareness that God, who is Trinity in Unity, dwells in us. When we begin to acknowledge that, astounding things happen.

What once separated us from God has long since been blotted out by the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. Now we participate in the life of the Trinity through Christ who reconciled us, who restored us to unity with God - which is why understanding the Unity of the Trinity matters.

Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God again – nothing but our own lack of awareness, our own lack of willingness to know and live that truth. That’s what frustrated Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus. I pray it won’t be the same for us.

I pray that at our holy communion today, the consecrated host will be for us like a bit of heavenly coal from the altar of God that transforms us as it touches our lips and makes us ready to be sent. I pray that our community, and each of us in it, hears the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send?”

And I pray that we, being born of the spirit, will answer, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” Amen.