Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pentecost 9C, 2013: Rebellious hospitality

Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

When we were younger, my husband and I did a lot of entertaining. We loved it. Our house was known as a place where great dinners and fun evenings could be had – and we had them often.

We were working parents, stretched to the limit on time and energy. Plus, my work was such that at any time I could get an emergency call and have to run out to the shelter or the hospital to help a victim of violence.

Sometimes, I would work so hard on the details of a dinner party that I’d exhaust myself. I’d gripe at my family, feeling unsupported and unappreciated. When the guests arrived, however, we were the perfect hosts, even though I was yawning by 9:00 pm.

I remember knowing then something was wrong with that picture, but the expectations for hospitality from me kept leading me to the same place. I was supposed to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan wearing my pinafore apron, high heels, and a smile. These were the expectations I learned growing up.

All of our readings today speak to us about hospitality. Looking at this very familiar concept through the lens of our Scripture readings, we can see that hospitality really is textured, vacillates between gift and sin in our lives, and in the end, demonstrates a manifest truth of our redemption.

For example, in Genesis, three guests show up unexpectedly. Some say they were three emanations of God, others say they were angels from God. Not knowing who they were, Abraham asks the three not to pass by, but to stay, rest, and receive his gift of hospitality. Giving hospitality in Abraham’s day was a big deal, it was expected. So Abraham had Sarah make fresh bread, and told his servants to kill a calf and prepare a feast.

One texture in the fabric of hospitality this story shows us is time: imagine how much time was dedicated to hospitality for these guests… time enough to make bread, time enough to kill, clean, dress, and cook an animal. Another texture is humility. While the preparations were being made, Abraham put aside his own plans for the day, washed the feet of his guests, and sat them under a shade tree where they could rest.

The Psalm describes for us another texture in the fabric of hospitality: generosity. The psalmist asks, “Who may dwell in your tabernacle?” You may remember that a tabernacle is a moveable habitation for God. In ancient Israel, the tabernacle held the Arc of the Covenant as it moved from place to place until the temple was built where it was permanently housed.

So it was, in a real sense, a church on the move. Think about that – one week you go to worship where the Arc is parked, the next week, it’s been moved somewhere else. Who can be a member of such a church? The answer is: anyone who abides with God upon God’s holy hill.

To abide with God is to live according to the will of God; and ‘holy hill’ is a biblical term for the presence of God. The hospitality of generosity involves welcoming into the worshipping community anyone whom God calls to live according to the will of God, in the presence of God.

St. Paul discusses yet another texture of hospitality in his epistle to the Colossians: proclamation. Paul tells of the sacrifice he made of his own life, mimicking Jesus’ sacrifice of his life, for the sake of making “the word of God fully known…” proclaiming that the mystery, which had been hidden
had been revealed to us who believe.

In fact (and this is the important part), Paul says this mystery abides in us: “the mystery which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The hospitality of proclamation is us offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, because we know that through Christ the “tabernacle” of God is our very bodies. We are the church on the move, and our purpose in moving about is to make known the “riches of the glory of this mystery” proclaiming it and teaching it to everyone so that they can know it too.

In the Gospel story Martha is preparing a great feast for her good friend, Jesus, and his disciples. Martha is devoting much time and care to the feast she will serve them. She’s doing very much as Abraham was doing in the Genesis story.

But as we know, with Christ, things are always unexpectedly transformed. In this case, Martha’s sister, Mary, chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet as he teaches which is something only men are supposed to do.

Mary’s choice upsets Martha’s careful planning schedule costing Martha experienced help in the kitchen. As the dinner begins to fall apart, so does Martha.

So Martha marches out to her good friend, Jesus, and (my guess is) feeling unsupported and unappreciated, and maybe a bit jealous, Martha asks Jesus to make Mary do what’s expected of her. ‘Tell my sister to stop acting like a man and help me in the kitchen like she’s supposed to do.’

And this is where Jesus reveals the transforming texture of his hospitality: rebellion.

”Martha, Martha,” Jesus says soothingly, “you are worried and distracted by many things.” I would restate that like this (and this is totally my Midrash)… ‘Martha, you know me well enough to know that I don’t need a fancy dinner, just time abiding with you and our friends in your home. All we need is food enough to sustain us. Be still, Martha. Be with me. You have no praise to earn, no expectations to meet. You are already beloved.’

Martha had gotten lost in being the perfect host. Her motivation was good – she truly loved Jesus and wanted to offer him great gift, one she knew well: hospitality. But her gift became her sin when she lost sight of the true priority: it wasn’t about what she could give Jesus, but what he could give her: “… there is need of only one thing [Jesus said]. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.”

If only the world had listened and obeyed! Maybe we wouldn’t still be arguing about the place of women or gays in the Church today. Jesus made this point pretty clearly in our Gospel story. He was emphatic that his followers should be agents of his transforming love in the world and he rebelled against the religious and cultural expectations used to exclude anyone from seeking the better part.

Jesus opened the door, but sadly, that didn’t last, and by the second century, women had been pushed back to the margins of church life. The window opened by Jesus was slammed shut once again by the church’s leadership.

The newly emerging body of Christ ceased to be rebelliously hospitable and returned to its familiar ‘We’ve always done it this way’ protocol. Twelve hundred years later, St. Thomas Aquinas summed up the church’s traditional theological stance on women, fortified by the science of his time saying: "Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness [of God] in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence, such as that of a south wind, which is moist." (“Summa Theologica” I q. 92 a. 1)

Many people don’t recognize the Spirit of God in themselves or in others. They were either never taught or encouraged to look for it, or as we’ve just heard, they were taught falsely – sinfully - that they did not have it.

I call on us as followers of Jesus Christ today to hear our Redeemer’s call to practice rebellious hospitality, welcoming everyone into our church, knowing that if they are breathing then the Spirit of God lives in them.

I call on us not just to welcome them, but also to feed them (actually and spiritually), to wash their feet, and give them a safe, loving place to rest so they can be still and be with God and discover their belovedness.

I also call on us to proclaim that the glory of the mystery that was once hidden but is now revealed is that Christ is in us – all of us.

Finally, I call on us as followers of Jesus Christ today to be intentional about seeking the one thing we need - individually and corporately: time spent abiding with God and one another, listening for the voice of God within and among us, being strengthened for service, so that we can live as agents of Christ’s transforming love in the world.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pentecost 8, 2013: Sermon by Michele Wiltfong, Aspirant for Holy Orders

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
Preacher: Michele Wiltfong, Aspirant for Holy Orders

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Being the youngest of three children, I held an interesting place in my biological family. I always thought my sister was the prettiest of us and my brother was the most caring. I was always kind of the black sheep of the family because I never really acted like my siblings and certainly did not do what my parents expected me to do. I would go about my life studying and I started working at the age of thirteen. We were a regular middle class family with a roof over our heads and clothes on out backs, but they were certainly not name brands.

As different as we are, all three of up learned one of the legacies that my father left behind when he passed away - the desire to advocate for those less fortunate than we are. A popular quote going around Facebook right now is "I don't give because I have in abundance. I give because I know what it is like to have nothing." My father would often speak to local farmers who were paid to not harvest their fruit or who let the less than perfect fruits and vegetables fall to the ground that would not bring as much money. He would ask them if he could pick up the rejected produce and donate it to the local food bank or needy individuals. Often the response from the farmer was "Whatever as long as I am not expected to help you gather it or deliver it." My father would then gather all he could in the bed of his pickup truck. Sometimes some of the hired hands around the farm would help him gather because he would bring them warm clothes for the winter. He would then make the stops to those people he knew needed these items just to put another meal on the table for their children.

I started my working life as a cook and dishwasher at a neighborhood golf course. We would cater weddings for hundreds of guests each weekend. I would watch as the serving line ended and clean-up began. The plates would come back to be washed and the leftover food would get thrown in the trash. Trays and pans and platters of perfectly good food went out in the garbage. I was horrified, but I did not know what could be done about it. The owners of the course did not care because the food was already paid for. I asked if there was a better system for finding a use for the food instead of throwing it away. I was basically told to mind my own business and do my job. I knew, from that point on, what I would do to try to make a difference in the lives of those who could have benefitted from that pan of green beans or that platter of cheesecake.

In today's Gospel, we hear Jesus being tested by the lawyer who wanted to trip him up by asking him the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered that question with a question, "What is written in the law?" The young lawyer then answered with the great commandments written in the Bible. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself." People often get into debates about "Who is my neighbor?" Being a good teacher, Jesus tells us who our neighbors are by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Two religious leaders see the man beaten on one side of the street and intentionally cross the street to avoid him. Perhaps it was so that they would not become ritually unclean by touching a man who is bleeding or so near death. Perhaps they feared they too would succumb to the same punishment if they walked down the street passed this man. None of that mattered to the Samaritan. He didn't ask, "Did he deserve this or will I get sued for helping him? " No, he just went about helping him to heal by pouring wine and oil on his wounds and bandaging them before taking him to an inn for respite and recovery. He told the innkeeper he would be back to take care of whatever other expenses he might incur. The Good Samaritan did not just drop the man off and forget about him. He said he would return to see what else was needed.

Brian Konkol, Lutheran Pastor in Wisconsin, writes, "While the parable of the Good Samaritan provides a wonderful lesson in response to a specific question (who is my neighbor), we are often left wondering how to advance life-giving communities alongside our neighbors. For example, while people of faith are often spectacular at providing relief in times of crisis, we often fail at long-term work that is necessary for lasting social justice." He asks, "What if the parable continued and the Good Samaritan paid similar expenses day after day for victims?" So often we get involved in helping someone until it becomes a burden on time or finances, then we say, "They need to stand on their own now. I've done my share. Do they even appreciate my help?" The short term effort would be focused on relief from the current symptom, but the long term solution would be to try and prevent people from being victims in the first place.

Showing mercy and justice are not just about providing food to the hungry or clothes to the naked one time. It's about hearing God's call on our lives and living into the people God is calling us to be. It's about living in faithful obedience, as a community, to be merciful. This often flies in the face of our individualistic thinking and acting society, but if we listen and "get ourselves out of the way", we can hear where God is calling us to make a difference - no matter how large or small.

Jesus asked the lawyer who presented him with these questions meant to trick him, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The lawyer could not bring himself to say the Samaritan, but said, "The one who showed mercy." Jesus said, "Go and do likewise." That can seem like a hard instruction, but if we love others with all their human imperfections as God loves us, it should not be so hard after all.

There was a poem by an unknown author titled The Other Side of the Desk I was given when I began working at DSS. It helps me remember the dignity of the person on the other side of the desk and I would like to share those poignant words with you.

Have you ever thought just a wee little bit
of how it would seem to be a misfit,
And how you would feel if you had to sit
on the other side of the desk?
Have you ever looked at the man who seemed a bum,
as he sat before you, nervous -- dumb --
And thought of the courage it took him to come
to the other side of the desk?
Have you thought of his dreams that went astray,
of the hard, real facts of his every day,
Of the things in his life that make him stay
on the other side of the desk?
Did you make him feel that he was full of greed,
make him ashamed of his race or his creed,
Or did you reach out to him in his need
to the other side of the desk?
May God give us wisdom and lots of it,
and much compassion
and plenty of grit,
So that we may be kinder to those who sit
on - the - other - side - of - the - desk.

What would we want to happen if the tables were turned and we were lying in the ditch, beaten and left for dead? Where is God calling us to be the Samaritans of our time? Where is God calling us to ask more questions in our own lives and receive more questions in return? Where does God want to break us open and use us for the social justice that is so desperately needed in society today? Jesus defied all convention. Where and to whom in our lives are we called to do the same thing?

"I do not give because I have in abundance. I give because I know what it is like to have nothing."


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Pentecost 7, 2013: Spiritually powerful lambs

Lectionary: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16); Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

Author Marianne Williamson once wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

This, I think, points to a primary modern-day temptation: the temptation to be spiritually powerless; to look away from the power of the Spirit of God that dwells in us until we have ignored into non-existence.

You will often hear me say that what we believe is really true: that we have been reconciled to God in Christ and are, as we live and breathe, dwelling places of the very powerful Holy Spirit of God… that God chooses to work in and through us to cure the sick and set people free from whatever holds them bound… that we will dream dreams, have visions, and prophecy, that in the name of Jesus, we will bear one another’s burdens, welcome the outcast, and proclaim the Good News of salvation to the least, the lost, and the lofty… and all this as we live in the peace of Christ, a peace which surpasses our understanding.

Ahhh… but that’s what scares us, isn’t it? So we throw boundaries around the mystery, create laws and institutions that contain the wildness of the Spirit of God in us, and rather than building families of faith, we promote clubs of Christian certainty.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns us not to be fooled. There is no club, no certainty. And don’t be used by religious people who are only interested in boasting about their numbers saying, ‘Look how many have joined our church!’

What matters isn’t membership rolls or the ability to follow the rules a particular religious club prioritizes, because they don’t even follow their own rules. What matters for us, Paul says, is being the new creation we are in Jesus, who sends us out to manifest the glory of God that is within us, and to help those we meet learn to see that same glory in themselves.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is about to send 70 followers into the harvest, but first he tells them to pray for themselves: “…ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The reason is, prayer is where we learn and practice humility. It’s where we surrender ourselves and our wills to the will of God. Praying before they went would help the 70 remember that it’s God’s harvest, not theirs.

God has done the work: planting the seeds, growing them in the womb of the earth in secret, nourishing them, and bringing them to the moment where they are ripe and ready for harvesting. As the psalmist says, “Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people.” (66:4)

Then Jesus sends the 70 out, two by two (because we don’t do the work of God alone) as bearers of God’s powerful, redeeming love into the world to transform it, to reconcile it, to re-create it… not by attracting new members into a church, or by coercing obedience to any doctrine or rules, but by sharing Christ’s own peace with everyone they meet – everyone, that is, who will receive it - because some won’t. When that happens, Jesus tells them to wipe off the dust from their feet in protest against them.

Some people interpret this to mean that Jesus is giving his followers the authority to determine who is worthy to receive the gift of salvation. If they receive you, they are worthy. If they don’t, they aren’t.

I don’t agree with that interpretation. What comes to my mind as I hear Jesus’ words is… trying to talk to members of the Westboro Church about the inclusive love of God for all of God’s people… or trying to talk to fundamentalists of any ilk who have closed their hearts and minds to faith in God, clinging instead to a certainty they have created and communally applied to a god of their own making.

What I hear is Jesus asking us to make our objection to their closed hearts and minds clear, then walk away – reminding them that the kingdom of God is here, whether they accept it or not, and no matter how they distort it. We are to entrust them to the redeeming love of God, then go about our work.

In Galatians, this point is taken even farther: when you find someone who is lost according to the law of Christ (which is love of God, self, and neighbor), “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” In other words, do not be tempted to violence or coercion.

Bear the burden of their lost-ness prayerfully, for a burden it is. These lost ones have distorted the love of God until it looks like oppression or hate, trapping themselves in lives that lack the peace of Christ, doing harm to themselves and other children of God.

Speak the truth to them and pray for them. Today’s Collect is a good way for us to begin: “Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection…”

When the 70 returned, they were amazed and excited to tell Jesus about what happened: “In your name even the demons submit to us!” Or as I would say it: “This stuff is really true!”

In response, Jesus cautions them to remember that what they should be rejoicing about is the unity of their spirits with God’s Spirit and their wills with the will of God, not a newfound power over anyone or anything.

“Do not be deceived,” it says in Galatians, “God is not mocked.” In other words, if you make God unreal and claim God’s power as your own (or as it says in the epistle: “If you sow to your own flesh”), what you will reap will be your own corruption. 19th century historian and moralist Lord Acton said it famously like this: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

Jesus calls them wolves and instructs the 70 to go out like lambs among those wolves. You don’t need to be powerful, you just need to be faithful. The power you carry into the world belongs to the Lord of the harvest, and this power doesn’t destroy – it transforms, it reconciles, it re-creates.

So I ask us, who are the laborers in God’s harvest today, will we trust the plan of redemption, lay down our defenses, and go out as lambs among those wolves? Will we throw off the boundaries we’ve placed around the mystery and let the wildness of the Spirit of God work in us to transform, reconcile, and re-create the world?

God’s plan of redemption is for the whole world, and it is already underway. Eternal life, which is life in the eternal presence of God, is ours right now – not after we die. The peace of Christ is also ours – right now. We have been reconciled to God in Christ and to one another making us one body, one spirit in Christ.

These are gifts given to us by our Savior. And this stuff really is true!

As believers, then, we don’t have to figure out how God will redeem those we think need it or demand when God should do that. We only have to surrender ourselves and our wills to God, trusting in the plan of redemption, so that we can be faithful laborers who bear a power beyond measure, the power of God’s redeeming love, into the world.

So the question for us is, how do we do that today? And the answer is – together.

Being reconciled in Jesus Christ makes us one body, one spirit. We live as a community, a people dedicated to our purpose of reconciling the whole world to God.

As Bp. N.T. Wright says: “There are no individual Christians.” We are a body… the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, we breathe in the strength of the Spirit here at our spiritual home, the Church of the Redeemer, and breathe it out into the world through our missions and ministries.

We manifest the Jerusalem described in the Isaiah passage: a place of spiritual comfort, satisfaction, and nourishment; a place where the Lord God is met and provides succor to all who are wounded or hungry or exiled or hated.

Let it be for us, Lord. Let it be that we bear your redeeming love into the world. Make us instruments of your reconciling love, a spiritual home where laborers are gathered and strengthened to work in your harvest. Let it be for us, Lord.