Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas, 2014B: Birthing the way of humility

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

I was born in NJ, in Dec, in a blizzard, at 3:30 in the morning. The story of my birth is one of our family’s “legend” stories because of the extreme and dangerous circumstances of it. If you’ve ever been in a car driven by my father, you know what I mean. Add to that the blizzard and my mother in labor and you can see the
beginnings of a legendary birth story.

Through the years, I’ve noticed that people LOVE to share birth stories – especially the dramatic ones. We love the details, like how much labor the mother endured, what kinds of medical interventions (if any) saved the day,
whether or not the father keeled over from the gory reality of the birthing or from being overwhelmed by the miracle he was witnessing.

Car issues, weather issues, near misses… We love birth stories.

While it’s true that each of us is unique and wonderfully made in the image of God, and beloved of God, there is no birth story like the one we celebrate tonight. The reason is this birth story isn’t legendary – it’s true, and it changed everything for everyone, for all time.

This birth story is not only dramatic, it’s transformative. God became a human so that we could come to know God, intimately, actually, as one of us. Our relationship with God was transformed from a relationship with a scary, celestial being to one with a member of our own family, a brother, and a friend.

God became a human so that we could be lifted up out of our self-imposed exile in lowliness and reconciled to God whose deep desire to be in relationship with us has been the subject of our Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation.

The story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth marks the historical moment when that reconciliation happened. God and humanity became one in Jesus. Think about that - the splendor and magnificence of the Almighty God in heaven was made one with the simplicity and humble reality of creation on the earth.

This really is good news! Being reconciled to God in Jesus became our reality in this birth story. And the lessons from this story are so many….

• humility (as in: do what you are commanded – as strange, uncomfortable, or risky as it sounds),
• trust (how many times does heaven tell us: Do not afraid when it comes near?)
• faith (nothing really is impossible with God)
• action (tell everyone and watch how they are amazed by truth).

But the one that stands out this evening is humility. To be humble is to hold a modest estimate of your own importance. It also means to be of low rank (socially or politically), to be unprivileged.

In this gospel story, all of the main players displayed humility. For example, even though Joseph was a descendent of David, he was not privileged and held no rank. He was a simple tradesman engaged to a peasant woman. Joseph and Mary really didn’t have a choice but to obey the edict to register in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. There was no privilege his familial connection to King David, so he was not exempt from the trip – which was dangerous for a woman late in her pregnancy.

So they traveled the 90 miles, and arrived at the home of Joseph’s kin, only to be turned away. Being pregnant and unwed, Mary would have been judged harshly by her in-laws. Her very presence brought shame to the family.

The family wasn’t heartless though, they were just people of their time living according to the norms of their culture. Remember, judging an unwed pregnant woman persisted until only recently – for some, it persists still.

Anyway, Mary and Joseph were not invited to stay in the guest room (which is how the word “inn” translates). It didn’t mean a public hotel. It was a manger. Back then houses were typically joined to a manger which was used for storage and to shelter animals – kind of like a modern day garage or pole barn.That’s where Mary delivered her firstborn son – cast out by her in-laws, an embarrassment to them, with only a feeding trough to cradle her newborn.

Both Mary and Joseph knew the importance of this birth, but neither insisted they be privileged because of it. They simply accepted what came and allowed God to act in it.

Next there are the shepherds – a humble lot in that they too had no rank and no social standing. In fact, they were generally despised by “decent folk” exiled to the fringes of society. It was to these humble ones that heaven announced the good news first, making them the first witnesses of the miracle of the Incarnation.

They were also the first evangelists – the first to tell of the amazing, transformative birth story that changed everything for everyone for all time…and all who heard them telling about this birth story were amazed. What amazed them? Was it the details?

When the angel stood among the shepherds (notice the angel wasn’t hovering over them as most art depicts this scene), the shepherds saw the glory of God shining all around them. I wonder how they described that when they described this birth story.

In the moment, the shepherds were terrified. The angel acknowledged that, then comforted their fear. Suddenly a whole lot of heavenly being appeared - praising God – but instead of being scared all over again, these humble shepherds knew they were in the presence of truth, and that this thing that was happening - this baby born in Bethlehem – was a truth worth telling.

Finally, there is God, who certainly has the privilege, rank, and importance to have had a different birth story, but God chose to come among us in humility. As one commentator says, “The birth of Jesus was a decisive energizing toward a new social reality.” His birth upset the status quo and earthly systems where those in authority “lord it over” others. (“Birth, A Guide for Prayer,” Bergan and Schwan, St. Mary’s Press, 1985, 26) His birth established a new way. The way of Jesus is a way of humility. As followers of Jesus, this is our way too.

Being a humble people means not overestimating our importance, but not underestimating it either. And that’s good news!

We are not God, which means we are not required to (nor could we if we tried) guide or control the world, other people, or even ourselves. That is the sin of hubris – which is the lesson of first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. God invites us instead to relax, relent, and rest in the love and care of God.

Nor are we to underestimate the value of ourselves or any other person, creature, or resource God has created and given us as gift. That is a sin too. We know this, because the story we re-tell today, the story of the day God and humanity began to coexist in a real, manifest way, reconciles those exiled to the margins and lifts them up as the first to partner with God in the reconciliation of the world to God in Jesus Christ.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. This is humility.

God humbled God’s self, and sought out humble partners to bring about the reconciliation of the whole world to God on that first Christmas Day. Not much has changed. God is still seeking humble partners in the continuing work of redemption. May God find us to be humble partners, ready to serve.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 4B, 2014: Partnering with God

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

As many of you know, Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child. Mary has been a constant presence, strength, and inspiration for me as I have grown in age and spirit. She has truly been for me, theotokos, the God-bearer, bringing Christ into my life and experience in very real ways.

These experiences taught me that I, too, am a God-bearer. We all are. The Spirit of Christ dwells in each of us, and we are called to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan.

The Church’s teachings about Mary – whether or not she herself was conceived without sin and whether or not she conceived Jesus as a virgin or by her husband – have been a source of disagreement and debate throughout our history. For Episcopalians, belief in the doctrines of the immaculate conception, and the virgin birth are certainly accepted but not required.

Remember, we have only two dogmas: that God is Trinity in Unity, and that Jesus Christ, who is the second person of the Trinity, is the Savior. Everything else, including what we believe about Mary, is up for discussion.

For example, Episcopalians believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist. How that happens, whether the molecules of the bread and wine are physically altered or not, doesn’t matter. We acknowledge that it’s a mystery.

The point for us isn’t so much HOW God does it but THAT God does it.

And the point of this gospel story is that God took human form. And the human body God chose to inhabit was born of Mary, the daughter of Joachim and Anne, from Nazareth.

What’s amazing about our Christian narrative is that God invites us into active participation from the beginning. From to stories Genesis through to this gospel from Luke, God seeks our partnership, our companionship, our relationship.

Tradition tells us that Mary was a devout Jewish peasant girl just shy of marrying age. Already engaged to Joseph, Mary was heading into a fairly typical and predictable life, the only complication being that her husband-to-be was a good bit older, which meant she might end up widowed at an early age. Having sons would safeguard her from a widowhood of poverty.

In this gospel story, the one we read today, St. Luke tells us that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel. I want to stop here and have us check our assumptions about what this means. When I imagine this scene, I imagine Mary in her room alone, and the angel, Gabriel, comes and he has big wings and is surrounded by a heavenly light – he looks like an angel. But Scripture tells us that angels are hard to recognize.

When Mary saw the angel she was “stirred up” (which is how the Greek translates there). Perplexed is not wrong it isn’t. But it leaves out the accompanying physical sensation that often happens when the veil between heaven and earth is lifted. It’s an excited state – on the verge of overwhelming.

So there is Mary, alone in her room, and all of a sudden, there’s a man there, and he says to her, “Don’t be alarmed… you’re safe… for God’s grace is lighting upon you.” This phrase brings to mind what happened when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and on the disciples at the first Pentecost. It’s how God does. God lights upon us, gently, like a dove.

Then the angel prophesies to Mary: ‘You will conceive and bear a son. You will name him Jesus (which in Hebrew is Joshua, and it means ‘YAHWEH is salvation.’ It also means ‘deliverer’). He will be great, like his ancestor David was, but of his kingdom there will be no end.’

Mary asks how this could happen since she had, at this time, not known a man and she was not yet married. The angel’s reply was that the Holy Spirit would “overshadow” her and she would conceive a son, like her elderly cousin Elizabeth had just done, because “nothing will be impossible with God.”

We need to remember that the spirit of God also overshadowed Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Peter, James, and John, on the mount of Transfiguration. This is also how God does.

Then Mary gave her “yes” saying: “Let it be to me according to your word” and Gabriel left her.

When God chose to become one of us, God chose to partner with us in order to accomplish the plan of salvation. This was no small invitation. Mary would be called upon to submit her whole self – her body and her life – to this.

Back then, childbirth was a risky business, and Mary was only about 14 years old – on the young side for childbearing. In addition, being favored by God sounds like a good thing, but it didn’t mean she would avoid pain and suffering. To the contrary, by saying ‘yes” Mary invited a whole lot of pain and suffering into her life.

Being found pregnant before her marriage to Joseph would have ruined Mary’s reputation and could have cost her her life. She could have been stoned to death according to Jewish law. Or, she could have been divorced by her fiancĂ© and cast out from her community, ending up alone, exiled, and destitute: which is basically a death sentence for a woman of that time.

So you see, this was no small invitation and no small “yes” given.

Mary’s “yes” to God eventually led her to witness the execution of her first-born son. It was also the death of her expectation about salvation. Jews in that time believed that a Davidic king would come and free the Jewish people from Roman occupation. God had something else in mind…

And sometimes, the death of what we think and what we expect is what makes the accomplishment of God’s unfathomable plan possible. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said we had to die to ourselves in order to live.

Death and resurrection are at the core of our Christian narrative and it’s why you’ll often hear me say, “We’re Christians. We don’t fear death. Death for us is simply the doorway to new life.”

In her new book called “Pastrix,” Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber says: “God chose to reveal who God is by slipping into skin and walking among us as Jesus. And the love and grace and mercy of Jesus was so offensive that we killed him… But death could not contain God. God said “yes” to all of our polite “no thank yous” by rising from the dead. Death and resurrection. It is the Christian story as it has been told to [us], starting with Mary Magdalene, the first one to tell it; and as it has been confirmed in [our] experience.” (p xvii).

At the tender age of 14, Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim, gave her “yes” to God and died to herself. She bore the Christ into human life, making room for the plan of God’s salvation to be manifest in the most unexpected way.

Partnering with God means trusting that we too are favored by God – which literally means that God will make us acceptable for the purpose God has for us. Partnering with God means going where God leads, no matter how the path looks at any given moment, trusting that God will only lead us to salvation- and not just us, but the whole world.

This same invitation was extended to us at our Baptism and is given to us again today - and it’s no small invitation for us either. Like Mary, God calls us to submit our whole selves, our bodies and our lives. Like Mary, we will be made acceptable. We have no reason to believe that we will be spared pain and suffering. Mary wasn’t, neither was Jesus.

We aren’t here to avoid anything. We’re here to welcome everyone and everything as a gift from God; even the hard things. We are here to live the fullness of life promised to us by our Savior and to fulfill our purpose as partners with God in the plan of salvation.

Magnify our souls like Mary’s was, O Lord, and may our spirits rejoice in God our Savior. For God has looked with favor on us, his lowly servants, and from this day all generations will call us blessed. The Almighty has done great things for us and holy is his name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Give Thanks and Pray: Pastor's article for The Shelby Star

By: The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:16-18) It seems like St. Paul is asking the impossible. How can we do this in the real world?

First, we can remember that prayer is more than we sometimes allow. As our response to God's call to us to be in relationship, prayer is a discipline, a strength we build through practice.

There are many kinds of prayer: adoration is prayer without a goal, just going into the presence of God and resting there, as in centering prayer. Praise is glorifying God simply because the love and grace of God causes gratitude to overflow from us. In prayers of thanksgiving we acknowledge our awareness of God's many blessings and in penitential prayer we confess our sin, those things that put a barrier between us and God and promise to amend our lives. In prayers of oblation we offer ourselves, our lives, and all we do, to God, in union with Christ, for the working out of God's purpose in the world. Intercessory prayer brings before God the needs of others, and petitions bring our own needs to God. There are prayers of healing, often accompanied by anointing with oil.

We pray by reading Holy Scripture as in the discipline of lectio divina, using Rosary or prayer beads, walking a labyrinth, or contemplating an icon. When we watching a sunset paint the sky and it fills us with joyful awareness of God's majesty, creativity, and tender love for creation we are praying. When we sing hymns to God or listening to music that inspires us to love and serve. we are praying.

We pray by joyfully tending to mundane tasks, grateful for the gift of life and for health which enables us to do them. We pray when we hear and respond to the cry of a neighbor in need, respect the dignity of a homeless person, or protect the innocence of a child.

When we pray we are submitting ourselves and our world into the care of God, seeking only God's will. That’s different from seeking to bend God's will to ours by rattling off our lists of things or people we'd like God to change.

Jesus told his disciples about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” in the parable of the unjust judge (Lk 1:1-8) Jesus teaches us that unlike the unjust judge, God will act quickly to grant justice. God cares deeply about the powerless, unimportant widow and God desires a close relationship, granting respect and dignity even to the least, unlike the unjust judge.

What God ultimately desires from us is relationship which is why prayer matters. It's how we go from knowing about God to really knowing God. When we enter into that kind of relationship, we realize that God's really does live within us and we begin to see the world with God's eyes, to hear with God's ears, and to love with the heart of God. Then we begin to see how very possible it is to give thanks in every circumstance, to rejoice and pray without ceasing.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent 3-B, 2014: Welcome the transformation

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, known as Rose or Gaudete Sunday, also known as Mothering Sunday. The word 'gaudete' comes from the Latin and we translate it as “rejoice” but it means 'to welcome and to be filled with joy.' The form of the word is the
imperative, so we are commanded to do this. So no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, frustrated or hopeless, God is commanding us this day to set that aside and open ourselves to be filled with joy – joy that anticipates the saving action of God who comes with great might and bountiful grace to help us; joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God.

In the third week of Advent we read from the prophet Isaiah. It’s a very familiar passage, probably because Jesus quoted this passage when he read from this scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, and declared it fulfilled in himself. This took place after Jesus’ baptism by John and his 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. So he came back to Nazareth, went into the synagogue and began to teach. When the people heard Jesus declare this Scripture fulfilled in him, they were enraged and tried to drive him off a cliff, but he “passed through the midst of them” and went on his way to begin his earthly ministry – a ministry which fulfilled the rest of what the prophet Isaiah claimed would happen to one whom God has anointed and upon whom the Spirit of God rests.

The identity of the speaker in this Isaiah passage isn’t known, which is significant. Jesus heard himself identified in this passage. I suggest that we should too.

Since we are the bearers of the Spirit of God in Christ, a gift given to us in our Baptism, we too have the Spirit of God resting upon us. We have been anointed in our Baptism and some of us at Confirmation which means we too have been called to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners – just like Jesus did.

Let’s stop and reflect on what this call means for us as individuals and for our ministries at Redeemer today.

Who do we know here in Shelby, NC who is oppressed?

Anyone who has lost hope: the battered woman, child, or elderly person who believes the lies their abuser told them – that no one will believe them, or help them, or even care about them; the person addicted to alcohol or drugs whose life seems to be spiraling out of control into devastation; the gay person whose God-given identity is used by some to harass, shame, even fire them from their jobs; the wealthy person whose self-sufficiency and habit of power mislead them into thinking they deserve or have earned their gifts and that they get to decide how those gifts are used; the working poor trying to do the impossible - raise a family on minimum wage; the person constantly on the brink of homelessness or struggling with chronic food insecurity or real and present hunger; the people in our country who witness the deaths of unarmed men of color and wonder if Dr. King’s dream will ever be our reality. To these, God calls us to proclaim the good news of God’s bountiful grace and mercy and God’s readiness to help and deliver us.

Who do we know who is brokenhearted?

Any person who has forgotten, or has never learned, their belovedness to God and to us; and any community that is breaking or broken apart. God calls us to bind these up – to pull together the broken pieces and repair the breaks.

Who do we know who is captive or in prison?

Anyone who lacks the freedom to choose, to live, and to love. There are people in actual jails and prisons, then there are those in a different kind of captivity. We can be held captive by our beliefs, our habits, our expectations, our fears, our insecurities, our memories, and our arrogance. We can be the prisoner of an unethical employer, therapist, physician, family member, or life-partner. Our prison cell can be construct3ed from memories, exile, or discrimination. It is to these God calls us to go, bear the light of Christ to them, and walk with them on a God-guided journey into freedom.

The prophet Isaiah also reminds us that we are called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the time of jubilee when all debts are forgiven, when we harvest what we haven’t sown, when relief and rescue are apparent – but it’s only part of our message.

The other part is the day of vengeance of our God. The word translated here as “vengeance” also translates as “to be reassigned.” The prophet Isaiah is describing a process by which God restores shalom, which is the wholeness and completeness of creation as intended by God.

We have come to understand this passage to be about punishment because for those whose gifts of power and privilege are being reassigned, it feels like punishment. It looks like that too to those who are witnessing it. They tend to judge the moments within the reassignment rather than trusting the whole of the transition that is happening.

Shalom is being restored, and for some it will be liberating, but for others it will feel like punishment. God is making all things right again, and refuses to be blamed any more for what we made wrong. By God’s great power and bountiful grace and mercy, everyone and everything that is out of step with God’s will, is already being transformed; and justice and peace are already being restored in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our world. The challenge for us is to remember this truth even in the midst of discord, suffering, oppression, and brokenheartedness.

The bottom line is: God doesn’t hate anyone whom God has made. All people, all nations belong to God and are beloved of God. It isn’t God who forgets that – we do.

So then, we aren’t the only ones who are waiting during Advent, are we? God is waiting too. God is waiting for us to welcome the transformation God is already working in us. God’s waiting must be joy-filled too, because God knows that when this transformation is complete, shalom will be restored. The reconciliation of the whole world to God will be complete. Justice and peace will abide on the earth just as it does in heaven. The oppressed, brokenhearted, and those in prison will know freedom and light – the light of God’s salvation, who is Jesus the Christ.

But that hasn’t happened yet. It’s happening now, but it isn’t finished. And so we wait… with joy-filled expectation, welcoming all God brings to us, knowing we are partners with God in this work, and trusting the process of transformation that was started when Jesus picked up that scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and said “this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Let us pray…

Stir up your power and with great might come among us now, O Lord.. We welcome you. We trust you. We love you. We know we put up roadblocks. Let your bountiful grace and mercy… help us to take them down – to take down all barriers between us and you, and between us and one another. Deliver us from all our barriers to Love, so that we may heed your command and rejoice to proclaim your good news to the hopeless, bind up the brokenhearted, and walk into freedom with those held captive to anyone or anything. In your holy name we pray this. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Feast of Christ the King, 2014: Remaining loyal to Jesus

Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

In our first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is warning the rich in the community that disregarding the poor among them will destroy them. These people have been given authority and resources to care for God’s people but they have made themselves, their desires and their will, the priority.

The needy have been dismissed, dispersed, cast out from their sight and their experience. One doesn’t have to help those one doesn’t even notice.

Ezekiel warns them that God will reclaim the scattered and disregarded of the flock. Notice, Ezekiel doesn’t tell them they have to do it. He says God will do it. This is that moment when the parent takes over the job you were supposed to do, but didn’t. “I’ll do it myself…” and you know that won’t turn out well for you.

Ezekiel also offers to the needy the comforting reminder of God’s abiding presence and involvement in their lives. Ezekiel assures them that God will send a shepherd who will care for them properly since those with the authority and resources given to them by God failed to do so.

Ezekiel’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus who is David’s descendent. And Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats which harkens back to Ezekiel’s prophesy. As commentator Chris Haslam says, the godly, who are the sheep, have fulfilled God’s expectation to reach out to the disadvantaged. The goats, on the other hand, have ignored the needy.

Jesus clarifies that all people are God’s people and that he, himself, is our promised shepherd. This, Jesus says, will be evident when “the Son of Man comes in his glory.”

Taking Ezekiel’s prophesy to its fulfillment, Jesus says that whatever is done to anyone in the flock is done to the shepherd himself. That is the twist, the shocker in this parable. The poor, the needy, the weak, the very old or very young, women, foreigners – these were counted as unimportant, unworthy of attention, resources, or concern. Jesus turns this cultural habit of dismissing the least among the flock upside-down using the reconciliation he has provided us, the oneness we have with God in him saying, what you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me; and what you failed to do to care for the lease of these, you’ve failed to do for me.

Using apocalyptic language familiar to his listeners, Jesus illustrates the consequences of our choices. The sheep who have fulfilled God’s expectation to care for the least are called blessed and invited to come into the kingdom: life in the fullness of the presence of God where God’s will is being done on earth as it is being done in heaven. This is an eternal reality “prepared from the foundation of the world” as Jesus said.

The goats, on the other hand, have chosen to focus on themselves, thereby separating themselves from their reconciliation to God. And whenever we are separated from God, living outside our reconciliation, we are unhappy, frightened, adrift in darkness, hungering for relationship and thirsty for comfort – and every moment of that feels like an eternity.

Redeemer has been faithful to God’s call to the church. We feed and clothe the needy through our Shepherd’s Table ministries. We visit the sick and infirm through our pastoral care ministries. We welcome the stranger being the only church for miles that welcomes the LGBTQ community and their God-given gifts just as God made them. We are a loving magnet for people with autism and Asperger’s. We are, as one new member described it, like the island of misfit toys – all are truly welcome to come here, deepen their relationship with God, discover and nurture their gifts, then serve the world with us in Christ’s name.

Our ministries at Redeemer have not been without cost, however. Angry, homophobic protesters have disturbed our peace and cost us at least one family we hold dear.

But we don’t do our ministries for any reward or to build a reputation among those who hold local authority and have access to resources. We do them because the light of Christ’s love lives in us and if we reach our hands out, that light extends from us into the very bodies and souls of those we serve. We do them because we are moved by the need of those God has drawn near to us, knowing that God is in them as much as God is in us.

In his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining the family and leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only [they] will be blessed who remain… loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.”

On this our patronal feast day, we can look at the life God is living in us through our ministries and be glad. As we struggle to meet our own costs, we continue to reach out and feed the hungry all around us. We suffer the condemnation of friends in our local community whose fear and judgment of some of God’s people have also divided them from us. In fact, the same can be said of members of our own family of faith.

It is at times, sorely tempting to restore peace at the cost of justice. But as our former Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning once said: “there will be no outcasts in this church!” There may be some who choose to separate from us. That is their choice. And the consequences of staying the course Jesus set before us may be steep and frightening at times, but stay it we will, until the end.

When we started the Shepherd’s Table ministries four years ago, food would come to us from out of nowhere. God provided abundantly to us so that we could provide as abundantly to those in need. Witnessing this provision of God launched many of our members into spiritual renewal. The grace of God overflowed in us and we experienced great joy, unity, and even the reconciliation of some who had been estranged.

Shepherd’s Table guests began coming to our church to worship with us in response to the welcome they received at the meal. This still happens, but less so now.

Recently, we have begun to shift our concern to ourselves again. Our pledge drive has some of our members worried – and rightly so, we don’t have enough pledged yet to run this church in 2015.

But where is our faith in God? Where is our trust that God’s will is being done right here in us as it is being don in heaven? Where is our loyalty to Jesus and his expectation of us?

Yesterday I got a text from a member who had been in the narthex getting something ready for today, when a man knocked on the door. The member was frightened at first, kicking herself for forgetting to lock the door while she was in there alone. But as it turns out, this man had come bringing 500 pounds of food for our food pantry. This food was meant to go somewhere else, but they were closed, so he wondered if we could help him unload it for us!

God always provides – not by magic, but by us opening our hearts and our minds to the new thing God is asking from us. So taking Bonhoeffer’s advice, we must hold on and persevere, remaining loyal to Jesus and his word until the end. And Jesus’ word is this: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pentecost 22: Eternal coexistence

Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

I’d like to begin by calling our attention to the Collect once again (BCP, 236) O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…

Episcopalians don’t focus much on the devil, and the reason is our focus is rightly on our Savior, not the one who slanders and distracts from him. The word ‘devil’ comes from the Gk: diabolos, which means slanderer, false accuser, the one who divides. Our Collect reminds us that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, that is, Jesus came to reconcile us to God, to rejoin all that had been divided, to remember what had been dismembered.

We talked a few weeks ago about the Hebrew word ‘satan’ which many modern-day Christians understand to be a kind of spiritual monster who has the power to trick us and snatch us away from God and our salvation. But in Jesus’ day ‘satan’ which in Hebrew means, tempter or distracter, was anyone or anything that led us away from the truth and off the path of righteousness. And righteousness, simply put, means right relationship.

Remember that famous moment in our gospel reading a few weeks ago when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:23) In that encounter Peter was unable to see or understand that the path of righteousness for Jesus was the road to Calvary.

Neither Peter nor anyone else could have imagined that Jesus’ death on the cross would not be the end but rather the beginning of the final chapter in the story of our salvation. So Jesus called him ‘satan’ and told him to get behind him, to follow the one who knew the way. That was a pretty harsh sounding thing for Jesus to say to one of his most trusted followers.

Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel sounds pretty harsh too. But like his encounter with Peter, Jesus needs this message heard, so he doesn’t speak softly.

Most scholars agree that in parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. the bridegroom is Jesus; the bride is the church; the bridesmaids are the members of the church; and the Lord is God the Father. Keeping that in mind, a wedding in ancient Jewish culture was a very big deal. It was a week-long party the whole village enjoyed together and everyone had their role to play.

Being chosen to be bridesmaid was a great honor. The bridesmaids were unmarried women whose role was to light the way for the bridegroom, kind of like runway lights, as he came to collect his bride to marry her.

As with most parables, there are surprises and twists in this story. The first one is that the bridegroom is delayed. Anyone who has ever been to a wedding where the bride or groom fails to show knows how awful that is. Barring an accident or medical emergency, the jilted partner is humiliated, and the anticipated joyous celebration transforms into a day of shame.

In this parable, the groom is so delayed that everyone falls asleep. Imagine how the bride and her family are feeling... The next surprise is that the groom shows up at midnight. This would never have happened in real life, but remember, this is a teaching story.

He’s here! someone shouts. Come out to meet him! The bridesmaids’ lamps are needed more than ever in the darkness of this early hour, so they scramble to trim their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids, who didn’t bring extra oil, ask the wise bridesmaids if they can borrow some of their oil. No, say the wise bridesmaids. There won’t be enough for you and for us.

That’s harsh. Where is their generosity?

Go buy some more oil, the wise ones tell the foolish ones – which they do. But when the foolish bridesmaids return with their oil and ask to be let into the party the Lord (God) says, “I don’t know you.”


Jesus concludes the parable saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Well, that’s confusing, since both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids fell asleep. In fact, everyone did.

So what’s the point Jesus is making? I agree with the commentators who say the point is about being ready – but I don’t think it’s about being ready to die. I think the point is about being ready to live and fulfill our God-given purpose.

In the parable the purpose of the bridesmaids was to light the way so the groom (Christ) could find his bride (the church). What made the wise bridesmaids wise wasn’t that they remembered to bring extra oil. It was that they realized they if they shared their oil, the path would be lit with 10 lamps, the traditional number, but those lamps would burn out before the bridegroom found his bride.

If they kept their oil, their 5 lamps that would stay lit and the bridesmaids would fulfill their purpose faithfully – even though they might be judged for doing so.

So, what about the shut door? Does God ever shut the door to us?

Remember, Jesus, the rabbi, was speaking for impact in this parable. And remembering also that to ‘know’ in Hebrew usage meant to be intimate relationship with…the Lord said to the foolish bridesmaids, I don’t know you. We are not in intimate relationship.

This isn’t a condemnation. It’s a fact… and it’s meant to wake us up from whatever slumber we have settled into. For example, some church members, come to worship just about every Sunday and participate in most every parish event we hold, but they never enter deeply into relationship with God choosing instead to remain in a superficial, socially acceptable, comfortably undemanding relationship with God.

To those bridesmaids, the Lord says, ‘I don’t know you.’

Other church members seek baptism and confirmation thinking this will get them or their children into heaven, but they don’t come to church to worship God in community and they don’t participate in formation events or church ministries which help us grow into our spiritual maturity.

To these bridesmaids, the Lord also says, ‘I don’t know you.’

And if there’s any message God has communicated to us in Scripture, in the Incarnation, and in the church it’s that God wants to know us deeply and intimately, and dwell with us eternally.

St. Paul tries to get this same message across in his letter to the brand new church in Thessalonica. The bridegroom is delayed. Most everyone was expecting the second coming of the Christ to happen immediately but it’s been almost 20 years now since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. And as the years pass, the people struggle to understand, wondering if those they love who were dying would be resurrected and be with them in heaven on the last day.

Paul assures them that they will be, saying that Christ will descend from heaven and we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds together will all who lived before and died… and be with the Lord forever. This passage is not a description of the rapture (which is a false doctrine). It’s a good first attempt at a description of the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.

Paul, a Jew and a Pharisee, is using language typical of his time and education. ‘Cloud,’ in Paul’s day, was biblical language for the presence of God. Remember… in Exodus, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way…” (13:21) And again, in the gospel of Mark: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.’” (9:7) And in the gospel of Luke (borrowing from the Book of Daniel): “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (21:27)

Reminiscent of Isaiah, the apostle Paul describes this union as God coming down and us being raised up into a new reality – an eternal co-existence. As one commentator says, “Paul doesn't emphasize spiritual geography here. He doesn't talk about going to heaven, but rather being ‘with the Lord forever.’ That's Paul's concern–– being with the Lord.”

That’s what heaven is: being in intimate relationship with God. And that’s what we’re called to do here, now, together - be in intimate relationship with God and in right relationship with one another, a relationship grounded in the love of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

We don’t achieve heaven by anything we do or know. and we don’t get there after we die. We receive it now, as the gift it is, given to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Living in heaven means living the fullness of life - all the good and all the bad - in the presence and the grace of God; not judging any single moment or any person, but trusting in God who has promised to redeem all things, all people, all creation.

Dwelling in that beautiful and amazing reality - eternal co-existence with God - we are compelled to share the good news of it so that, as the psalmist says, “the generations to come might know and the children yet unborn that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that [everyone in every age] might put their trust in God…” (78:6-7)


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pentecost 20, 2014: Incarnate Love

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

Our gospel lesson today offers us a very simple lesson: We are to love. Jesus tells us that we are commanded to love with our whole selves… but the command to love God and neighbor as you love yourself carries a presumption of privilege.
Jesus is talking to the Pharisees – a wealthy, educated, powerful group of men who operate from within a patriarchal society. Love God and love others as you love yourself, Jesus says to them. This would include: decisions that put the success of God’s plan ahead of your own, a difficult task for the rules makers; and actions that favor the other, not yourself, giving them the better portion, the better deal, the place of honor at the table.

Imagine how hard this command must have sounded to a person who is used to dismissing someone who is a slave, a female, a child, a non-Jew - and getting cultural affirmation for it.

Current events tell us it’s still that hard to hear.

Love radically. Move beyond tradition and let your love be far-reaching and thorough. That’s the command.

Jesus is using the word ‘love’ here as a verb. It’s active. It’s relational. And it’s real. This kind of love can be seen, felt, and shared.

Love, Jesus said. Sadly, I don’t think the Pharisees heard him. The religious leadership were bent on stopping Jesus and his movement in order to preserve their small understanding of God, themselves and God’s plan of salvation. Jesus’ radical message of love was threatening to disrupt their religious system; and as an occupied people, about all they had holding them together was their religious system.

The guardians of that system were nervous. They kept trying to trip Jesus up – to catch him breaking Jewish law or show him misunderstanding the scripture. But every time they tried this, they ended up being the ones tripped up. As we saw in the gospel last week and this, they get tripped up by their small, divisive, earthbound perspective.

Granted, the world had taught them to be divisive in their thinking. Their survival as a people with a particular identity depended on them segregating themselves and protecting their language, traditions, and worship in the face of constant attack. But over time, the walls they had built to protect and fortify themselves, had become the boundaries of a prison that held them bound, made them blind, and led them away from God, and God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.

They had come to believe that being religious was the same thing as having a relationship with God. It isn’t. And they seem to have forgotten that salvation would come to the world through them. At some point, they were going to have to bring down those walls and let the world in.

Jesus was letting them know that that time had come. The promise of salvation for the whole world was being fulfilled - now.

To give them opportunity to open their minds and hearts to this, and to invite them back into right relationship with God and neighbor, Jesus asks them about the Messiah: “Whose son is he?” They reply correctly: “The Son of David”

This isn’t a hard question. Scripture is pretty clear on this. It also isn’t a trick question, like their questions were for Jesus.

Then Jesus quotes Psalm 110 to them. Having confirmed that the Messiah is the son of David, Jesus then asks these learned religious leaders: how then he can call him Lord AND be his son? The answer is: it’s impossible… No one can be God and the son of a human at the same time… Right…?

Yet standing right there before them is Jesus, who is the Christ (which means Messiah). But they were blind, imprisoned in their expectations so they didn’t have eyes to see or ears to hear.

Jesus is the living answer to this question, the manifest reality of the mystery of the Incarnation, fully human and fully divine proving once and for all time that it’s not only possible, but accomplished.

I feel kind of bad for the Pharisees who had this sprung on them. In a way, it was the ultimate trick question. It took the church over 600 years to find its way through this and the bottom line is – it’s still a mystery. No wonder they dared not ask Jesus any more questions.

We can’t comprehend it because it isn’t comprehensible - at least not while we’re incarnated ourselves. The best thing we can do is live in the mystery and let it live in us. To do otherwise would lead us to fall into the same trap as the religious leadership of Jesus’ time.

There are many things we can know and more is yet to be revealed to us. That’s the promise: continual revelation to us of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But the wholeness of it, the full revelation of it, has already been given to us in Jesus Christ who is God Incarnate.

We are the love of God incarnate in the world today. We know that loving like Jesus commands us to do requires more from than we have in ourselves. It isn’t in us to love our enemies, to trust God in the throes of a dark night of the soul or some earthly crisis, or to surrender to God’s plan when ours seems so right.

While it’s true that it may not be in us, it is in God who, our faith assures us, lives in us; and not just in us, but in all people - in all times. And so, by the power of the presence of God in us, we can forgive all people, all things, past or present.

As our psalmist says, “Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another...” God is our refuge. Whenever our earthly journey leads us to feel lost or attacked or unloved or unworthy, God is our refuge. When our earthly journey traps us or imprisons us, blinds or deafens us, cutting us off from God and one another, God is our refuge.

By the mystery of the incarnation, we are reconciled to God; and made one body, one spirit in Christ, with God and with one another, and all we can do in response is surrender to the love and rejoice.

I love how medieval mystic Meister Eckhart describes this in his poem called, “But He Wanted Me”

I could not bear to touch God with my own hand
when He came within
my reach,

but He wanted me
to hold

How God solved my blessed agony,
who can understand?

He turned my
body into

(Source: “Love Poems from God” translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin Compass Press, 2002, 106.)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pentecost 18 and Baptism of Ava Sheridan: Showing up

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector
En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Virginia Avonne Sheridan (whom we lovingly know as Ava). For Episcopalians, Baptism is full initiation into the body of Christ, the Church. It is an invitation into an identity, a way of living in relationship with God, self, and neighbor.

At our baptism, we mark the beginning of a life-long journey of becoming who we already are, who God made us to be. We do this in the safety of a community devoted to loving us, and helping us to discover, nurture, and practice our gifts.

When we baptize a baby, we are reminded that God’s grace is offered to us ahead of our ability to respond. That grace also follows us and guides us through each moment of our lives.

One day, Ava, like all of us, will have the opportunity to confirm the vows being made on her behalf today. Until then, we will steep her in the love of God in Christ made manifest in this community of faith.

Some people answer the invitation extended at Baptism with a “Yes,” but it’s a yes in concept only. ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ,’ but when the time comes to live like a Christian they don’t show up.

This is what Jesus is teaching us in the parables from our gospel reading. When we answer our invitation with a ‘yes in concept only’ we are making light of the invitation and the one extending it.

Jesus talks about one who, instead of going to the king’s banquet, went to work on his farm. He was distracted by the busy-ness of life which took priority of his time. By not showing up, this one denied himself the opportunity to go deeply into a relationship with God and his faith could grow no roots.

Another one went to his business – the place where he was the boss, where he made his own decisions. Rather than answering the invitation from God to be transformed, this one chose to remain in his comfortable habit of believing he was the authority, he knew best for himself. As a result, he never developed the humility needed to take up his cross and die on it – without which there could be no resurrection life for him.

The ones in the parable who seized the slaves, mistreated and killed them, are those who disrupt the work of the true followers of Christ. We can identify these pretty easily in our own time. Their attacks against those who are working to build the kingdom of heaven on earth are personal, destructive, even fatal at times… to their reputation, their self-esteem, their health and well-being.

The good news, though, is that God will not be stopped. When the invited guests (the chosen ones) don’t show up, God simply reaches past them and invites others to the banquet. In fact, everyone is invited, good and bad, because that’s the nature of God – generous beyond reason.

But then there’s that one in the parable who refuses to put on the wedding robe (an allegorical reference we understand to mean to “put on Christ”). This is the one who answers the invitation in concept only, showing up but not really participating, only to discover that his choice has led him into darkness.

Thankfully, the invitation from God is eternal. It is extended by God again and again because, as the Psalmist says, God’s “mercy endures forever.” (v 1). When we disobey or lose our way, which we all do, God does not abandon us but waits patiently, lovingly for us to repent and return.

This is why we live together as a community of faith. When we lose our way, God extends a hand through someone in the church to help us find our way back. During our inevitable moments of doubt, the prayers of our community uphold us while God transforms our doubt into faith. When we descend into darkness, which every mature Christian will at some point, the light of Christ shines in our community of faith and all we have to do is draw near it and we’re bathed in the warmth and comfort it provides.

But being a Christian isn’t only about us. It’s also about being committed to loving and serving others in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s about “showing up” and working to change systems that fail to respect the dignity of every human being, no matter how unpopular that work is judged to be “out there” …or even “in here.”

The community of faith, therefore, must strive to live in harmony, as St. Paul calls the church in Philippi to do. There are enough assaults on us from the world. We don’t need to be assaulting ourselves as well.

St. Paul says, “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:5-7)

Becoming a Christian is a life-long endeavor and it takes a community. As theologian N.T. Wright says, there are no individual Christians. We are by definition a body: the body of Christ.

And into this body we now bring our sweet Ava. God grant that her experience of us may always be that we are a place of love, friendship, peace, and justice; a place where we can all grow into the fullness of our true selves.


I now invite the parents and God-mother to bring Ava to the Baptismal font where she will begin this amazing, life-long journey in faith.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Pentecost 17, 2014: Divine connection

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

On Friday, I attended our bishop’s teaching on “The Wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi” at Valle Crucis. Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis with a traditional blessing of the animals – traditional, because Francis’ connection with creation was unique, mystical, and still inspires the world who remember and re-enact his ways.

Hear Francis’ own words on this connection:

“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments –
he got so excited

and ran into a hollow in his tree and came
back holding some acorns, an owl feather,
and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, ‘Yes, dear,
you understand:

everything imparts
[God’s] grace.’” (“Love Poems from God,” by Daniel Ladinski, 53)

Francis experienced that all things, all people, all of creation provided an opportunity to connect with God whose grace flowed through these connections, and Francis was passionate about making them. Francis taught that we must learn to identify what he called our “false self” and strive to live only from our “true self,” which we learn from these divine connections.

+Porter said our false self is what’s on our resume: the things we’ve done, the degrees, titles, and positions we hold, and any categories we conceive, like liberal or conservative, rich or poor, orthodox or progressive. For e.g., +Porter said, ‘You watch a certain TV news show – which means you must think like this, and vote like that.’

When we operate out of our false self we end up only encountering the categories we hold,
not the people we meet.

Our true self, according to Francis, is simple: we are beloved of God. All of us. Our true, he says, self is rooted in Christ and, therefore, can’t be taken away by any person or any circumstance.

Living from our true self, as uniquely gifted by and beloved of God – no greater or lesser than anyone else on the earth – upsets the status quo which holds that earthly wealth is earned and the privilege it affords is an entitlement, a reward for hard work and a life well lived.

The false self believes there are “right people” and “wrong people.” The true self sees the divine presence in all people and is, therefore, moved to love and serve them.

Francis, who was born into privilege, angered his father by taking his monthly allowance and giving it away to the poor; something his father considered wasteful. Francis refused to take over his father’s lucrative cloth business choosing instead to devote himself to God. In response, Francis’s father went to court to remove Francis’ claim on his fortune so that Francid couldn’t waste it on the poor.

Francis responded by stripping himself of his fine clothes and laying them at his father’s feet in the town square. Disowning himself, Francis said, “I have no father, but God the father.”

To be fair, it wasn’t that Francis despised money or reputation or power. What concerned him was the power those things tend to have over us. For Francis it was about freedom: do we own the money or does it own us?

Francis also was not interested in “playing church.” He actively avoided institutionalization. When Franciscan brothers would build buildings to facilitate their ministries, Francis would go and literally tear them down.

Don’t misunderstand: church buildings are fine, but the church is not its building, and having a beautiful church doesn’t guarantee that the fruits of the kingdom can be found there. And Jesus warns us what will happen if that’s the case.

Our church building, this building, is a place where we encounter God, where we’re nourished by Word and Sacrament, and part of a community where we can safely discover our true selves and how God is calling us to serve.

Francis’ father never forgave him for deserting his fortune and the future laid out for him. In fact, every time Francis came into the town square, his father would curse him, spit on him, and berate him, calling him worthless, a fool, a failure.

Francis knew in heart that he had to answer God’s call to him, but his father’s words reached his heart and touched his place of self-doubt, a place we all share. It got to where Francis took a companion named Alberto with him every time he went into town. When Francis’ father would begin his destructive tirade, Alberto would tell Francis, “That isn’t true.”

+Porter said the lesson here is: we all need someone to help us follow our calling. That’s the church.

The world, and that includes Christians with a worldly view, will resist and even thwart the work of faithful followers of Christ, because it doesn’t make sense to them that the last will be first and the first will be last (Mt 20:16), or that we should give to everyone who begs from us (Lk 6:30), or that we must love our enemies and pray for those who abuse us (Lk 6:27-28), or that the stone rejected by earthly builders would become God’s own cornerstone (Mt 21:42).

Jesus turned the world and our expectations of the reign of God upside down, and that continues to unsettle us. As a result, even faithful people seek peace and security from things that can’t really offer them, like membership rolls, annual budgets, and endowments. They get trapped by the trappings of money, power, and a vision that is familiar, comfortable, and under their control.

According to St. Francis, these people have lost their way and it is up to us, the community of Christ, to help them find their way again. We do that by being channels of God’s grace in the world.

As Francis said, we have been “called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” This is our heavenly calling, the one St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Philippians.

Notice that the prize isn’t heaven. It’s the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus – a call to encounter and connect with God, with one another, and with the world from a place of truth, free from the things of earth that trap, bind, and constrict us.

This kind of divine encounter can be difficult because it brings us to “those things of which our conscience is afraid” as our Collect says, things like: ‘I could be wrong... or, I might have done wrong… or, I might have been betrayed by someone I trusted…’

A divine connection leads us to confront our well-fortified earthly and church systems, systems which categorize, judge, and divide us; systems over which we think we have control but which actually steal our freedom. These are systems of the false self, as Francis would say, and they lead to death, because they are not of God in whom alone is all life, all freedom, and all truth.

Finally, a divine connection leads us to follow the example of our Savior who showed us how to love and forgive even those who abuse and harm us, and called us to live together in unity and love, even as we trust God to provide us what we need to accomplish our work in the world.

“Give us this day our daily bread…”

The church, our church, is where we learn and practice love - God’s love – which is always bigger, wilder, more generous, and less containable than we might like it to be.

The church is the womb of God on earth where we are continually born into new life. In this womb we can safely confront any nightmare, any betrayal, any fear, and discover our true selves: our gifts and God’s purpose for our use of them during our time on earth.

The church enables us to take this journey into love together, knowing all of us are all imperfect
and all of us need to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. We journey together trusting in the redeeming love of God to guide us, heal us, nourish us, unite us, and ultimately, prepare us to go out and connect, heal, and unite others into this love.

I close with this poem from St. Francis:

“God came to my house and asked for charity.

And I fell on my knees and
cried, ‘Beloved,

what may I give?’

‘Just love,’ [God] said.
‘Just love.’
(“He Asked for Charity,” in “Love Poems from God,” Ladinsky, 33)


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pentecost 14, 2014: Forgiven and forgiving

Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

I shared an article with the vestry at our last meeting as our teaching last week and I’d like to share it with you today. The title is, “You’ll find what you’re looking for” and it’s by Joseph Yoo. It’s a midrash. Yoo talks about a midrash about the story we read from Exodus today which we read today. And here it is: 'As the Israelites were walking across the Red Sea, two of them noticed that now it was safe to walk at the bottom of the sea but it wsn’t completely dry. In fact, it was muddy.

"Ugh," muttered the one. "What in the world is this muck?" And the other said, "There’s mud everywhere. Ugh. This is just like the slime pits of Egypt." And the two grumbled and mumbled all the way across, and because they never once took the chance to look up they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone was singing songs of praise.'

So Yoo concludes: “You’ll find what you’re looking for. If you seek to find negativity, you will surely find it. If you seek to find mistakes, you will definitely find them. If you focus on blemishes, you’ll only find blemishes.”

In our story in Exodus, God said to Moses, the leader of the people: “Stretch out your hand.” Unclench it, open it to receive the gift I’m giving you. Go where I lead you, even if it’s into the muck first, for I have promised to lead you to the Promised Land. Take my people with you. Some are going to grumble. God says to Moses, ‘Do as I tell you even though you can’t imagine why… (remember our discussion last Sunday about trusting God).

There are some who can look up and see the miracle going on all around them. Some who know why there’s singing on the far shore. Those are the spiritually mature, the “strong” as St. Paul calls them. Then there are those who can’t look beyond the mud sticking their feet to the ground. Those are the spiritually “weak” or immature. And Paul said the spiritually weak and the strong will coexist in the churches. One of our purposes as a church community is to live together and journey together into spiritual maturity.

Welcome all, St. Paul says, but not so that you can quarrel over your opinions. Stick to the good news: the good news that on the far shore they’re singing praises and there’s a reason why; the good news that Jesus reconciled the whole world to himself by the forgiveness of our sins - and that’s no small thing.

We are forgiven – something we know best when we repent and our hearts are filled with the grace of God’s mercy and the joy we know when that happens within us is what compels us to go out and forgive others so that they too will know that same joy of entering into the mercy of God.

We are forgiven - and we must forgive as well. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…”

A couple of things about forgiveness: The repentance of the sinner isn’t relevant to our choice to forgive. They might. They might not., Sometimes offering our of forgiveness may be what breaks the bonds that keep them from owning their sin; bonds of shame and guilt. There are times, we simply have to let it go and trust God to keep God’s promises to us; promises of justice and redemption – for them and for us.

Forgiveness sets us free, and also sets the one who sinned against us free – free to enter into the mercy of God. God will work out all the details. We must remember that God seeks to reconcile with the sinner – who in the end, is all of us.

We all sin. We all need to be forgiven. We all need to be forgiving.

Jesus makes this plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t pay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him.

When the slave-owner learns about this, he gets angry: You wicked slave! I forgave you all your debt ... “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he could pay his entire debt” which, according to the amount of the debt was never. So this was punishment for eternity.

Then Jesus gets real with his listeners: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." That’s a serious admonition and we really should take it seriously.

Forgiving from the heart isn’t just speaking the words followed by back-biting and shared resentment-building among your clique later, somewhere outside. This kind of forgiveness takes Christian maturity. It requires us to look up from the muddy muck in which our feet are presently stuck, and see the miracle going on all around us, and go toward that far shore where praise is being sung.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the best for the offender and those hurt by the offense. Both are worthy of grace; both are worthy of love.

Redeemer knows what is required for forgiveness from the heart. We’ve been given lots of opportunities to practice this and grow in our collective spiritual maturity. Some individual members have done that more than others. But as St. Paul says, we must neither despise nor judge one another for we are all moving into our maturity, each at our own pace, each being led and directed by the Holy Spirit.

We can’t change the past but we can forgive it, we can let it go and be free – free from the pain, the hurt, the anger, and the desire for revenge. When we forgive we let go our need to be right, our habit of complaining, and our justification to hate. It doesn’t matter whether everyone, or even anyone, agrees with our memory of the past and it doesn’t matter how well we can explain why we hurt or attacked someone else.

What does matter is what we do in this present moment. Do we choose to hold onto our anger whether or not it’s righteous, and our betrayal? Do we choose to stay stuck in the mud and smother our present lives under the weight of old guilt or resentment?

Or do we choose freedom? We can all choose freedom. It’s as simple as that – making a choice.

Our own Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again. It is always easier to practice forgiveness when we can recognize that the roles could have been reversed. Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.”

And so we work to forgive anyone who has hurt us, harmed us, betrayed us, angered us, ignored us, made us feel ugly or worthless or embarrassed. We work to forgive those who shut their eyes and cover their ears to the truth – to our truth – whether it’s because they can’t hear it or because they won’t hear it. We work to forgive those who should have known better, and should have loved us better, but didn’t – or couldn’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone – from the heart. When we make the choice to forgive, I commend this poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive”

“I will forgive you.
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them.

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

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.
You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count.

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

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

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”


Monday, September 8, 2014

Invocation given at Moral Monday, Shelby 09/08/14

O God, we know that we are all made in your image and are, therefore, reflections of your love, mercy, justice, and grace. Look with compassion on us as we gather here today; take away any arrogance and hatred which may infect our hearts; break down whatever walls separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle to accomplish your purposes on earth, today and every day.

We pray for our President, our judiciary, and all of the political leadership in this great state and across our country. Grant them wisdom and grace, courage and integrity, compassion, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our sisters and brothers of every age, race, gender and sexual orientation; the educated, the uneducated, the lost, the found, the rich, the poor, and everyone in between.

Remembering that you created us all, love us all, and call us all to love one another as you have loved us, we humbly turn to you, relying on the strength of your steadfast love for us, and we commit ourselves in this moment, to accept our responsibilities as citizens of one family – the family of God, in all our rich diversity- that we may all work together for the well-being of our society and serve you faithfully in our generation. In your Holy Name we pray. Amen.

Article in Shelby Star: Radiate Love

Published August 29, 2014

I read a book years ago called “Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia” by Dennis Covington. It’s a true story about snake handling Christians in the Sand Mountain area of Alabama, near where AL, GA and TN share a border. The story begins with a pastor who gets drunk and deliberately tries to kill his wife by placing her hand into a crate full of rattle snakes. Though bitten several times, she lives, and he goes to prison.

The Sand Mountain believers live out a rigid devotion to the law as they find it in Scripture. For these believers, the Bible is literally understood. Everything you could want to know about how to live, what to eat, how to dress, how to cut your hair (or not cut it if you’re a woman), they say, can be found in the Bible. Their faith centers on Mark 16:16-18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

For the Sand Mountain folk, there’s no question, no alternative. You do what the Bible tells you, and they believe the Bible tells the saved to handle snakes and drink strychnine. They refuse medical treatment and heal snake bites by prayer and laying on of hands. This is what is called the ‘Galatian error’ which St. Paul addresses in his epistle to that church: “Stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom…” (Gal 5:1)

As individuals and as a Christian community, we are called to freedom, which is to live being guided by the Spirit of God. This is risky, however, because it means letting go of all the safety and certainty the law and the world seem to provide and steadfastly refusing to be divided again by gender, race, class, sexual orientation or any other worldly and ‘lawful’ distinction.

Living a life of faith means trusting that Almighty God, who is always faithful, can and will act to redeem and restore “shalom” the way things ought to be. It means working to learn how to hear God who is still speaking to us, not only in our hearts, minds, and bodies, but also in and through our varied and diverse communities.

Living in the freedom of our faith requires that we remember how we all came to have salvation. We are saved because God acted to save us, and God acted to save us because God loves us. Our salvation is a gift freely given by our loving Lord, Jesus Christ. The only thing we can actually do is respond to that gift in faith and humble gratitude, living the life of freedom we were given and opening the way for all people to do the same.

While it can be tempting to spend our lives chasing after spiritual law-breakers,” that isn’t our purpose. We aren’t called to judge. We’re called to manifest the love of God in the world. As Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can only live your life radiating that love.”
Radiate some love. It’s transforming.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pentecost 13, 2014: Trust God

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14 ; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

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

We began our worship together with this phrase: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… Today is a special day in the life of the Church of the Redeemer and the Word of God given to us today carries a special message which is perfect for us to hear today.

Let’s begin with the reading from Exodus. Why is God so specific in the instructions to the Israelites? Obedience. God is calling the people to obedience, which means to hear and respond.

God is saying: ‘Will you trust me, just trust me, even if you don’t know why I’m asking all of these things? Will you trust me, and keep trusting me over and over – no matter what you see or experience. Trust me to always be with you, to always take care of you. Then gather together as a community and remember this. Celebrate it. Celebrate the relationship we have – a relationship where I care for you and you trust me to do it.

Then the psalmist calls us to sing, rejoice, dance, and play – to give thanks to God in the congregation, which means in church, and rejoice in the relationship we have with God. Monk and theologian Thomas Merton once said: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything [God] has given us – and [God] has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of [God’s] love, every moment of existence is a grace…”

Then in the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us to love, love, love, love, love. Live honorably in the light of the love of God in Christ which is in you. If you trust in God for all you need then you no longer have to steal someone else’s spouse in order to feel loveable, or drown your pain and emptiness in lcohol or drugs, or overindulge in things that can’t satisfy the hunger you know is within you.

Wake up, Paul says. Wake up and remember the relationship you have with God. The freedom you seek isn’t freedom from rules. It’s the freedom to rest in the peace of God’s steadfast love and care. So, live together in peace, he says. Stop quarreling.

Then in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us how to live as a community committed to reconciliation, because sometimes, living in a community of faith is going to be hard. People who are used to being selfish or controlling or downright abusive out of their fear or insecurity, may choose not change when that behavior is challenged.

When a person sins against you, Jesus says, and refuses to be reconciled even after you have spoken to them; even after you have brought witnesses to support you; and even after the church community affirms their experience of the sin; then, let that one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. That is, cast them out from the community and have no contact with them.

Jesus uses this moment to remind his followers of his previous teaching on binding and loosing. We can bind or loose, but if we are doing that from our own strength, our own understanding, then we are the proud whom God resists because it is our will, not God’s will, we are manifesting.

The verbs for "bind" and "loose" are in the perfect tense in Greek which would translate literally as: what we bind on earth is that which is already bound in heaven; and what we loose on earth is that which is already loosed in heaven. Author and theologian Leon Morris says, “The point is not that Jesus is giving the church the right to impose its judgment on heaven, but that God is giving the church the ability (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to discern judgments that God has already put in place in the heavenly realm. (Morris, Leon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992), 469)

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That’s why Jesus says that when two of us agree about anything, it will be done because it is the will of God revealing itself to us in community. This isn’t God doing what we ask. It’s us waking up to and discerning God’s will for us. And we do this together.

After our worship service, we will go down to our Parish Hall and discern God’s will for us in this moment of our common life as a community of faith. Having gathered as a community to give our thanks and praise to God and remembering our relationship with God and one another, we go down to this meeting in peace, trusting in God with all our hearts remembering that God is always with us, caring for us and calling us to be faithful.

I close with one final bit of wisdom from our heavenly prayer partner, Thomas Merton (to whom we give thanks for his prayerful wisdom): “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” Amen.

Note: Merton quotes from:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pentecost 12, 2014: Ardent in spirit

Lectionary: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer

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

What a rich lectionary we are blessed with today! After three weeks of not preaching, I’ve been feeling a bit over-inspired all week.

The letter from Paul to the Romans is flush with good advice on how to live in Christian unity and I really wanted to preach on this, especially given that we’re having a congregational meeting next Sunday on this very topic. But try as I might, this was not the sermon God let me write for today.

There are, however, two terms Paul uses that I’d like to discuss before we go the sermon God did choose. Paul instructs the new Christian community in Rome to “Hate what is evil…” (Gk: evil is what causes pain or sorrow, what is cruel toward self and/or others).

Paul also tells them to be “ardent in spirit” also translated as ‘fervent in spirit’ as they serve the Lord. (Gk: ardent is more an image like boiling water). Please keep these in mind as we delve into the richness of today’s gospel from Matthew.

In today’s reading, Jesus makes his first prediction, and it isn’t a pleasant one. Jesus says outright that he will “suffer greatly at the hands of the Sanhedrin, be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Modern Christians are accustomed to viewing the elders, high priests, and scribes as Jesus’ enemies, but for the disciples, these people were the defenders of their faith, their trusted leaders. How could Jesus say they’d do that to the Messiah?

They were so focused on the suffering and death part, it’s as if they didn’t even hear the part about being raised on the third day. Peter certainly seems to have missed that part because he pulls Jesus aside and says “God forbid it!” God forbid what – the resurrection?

But really, who can blame them? How could anyone have envisioned the resurrection? How could anyone have envisioned that the salvation of the world would take a path that seems to go very wrong, according to earthly standards anyway.

The thing is, it is exactly in those moments that we realize God is most present, redeeming all things! That’s the whole point of the story in the book of Exodus! God says, ‘I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cries, I know their sufferings, and I have come to redeem them.’

Now the Christ is giving his disciples a heads-up: the path is going to seem to go very wrong, but the divine plan is at work. So believe. Stay with me, and keep going.

That’s why, when Peter reacts out of his habit, out of the vision of redemption to which he is bound, Jesus breaks the bondage in Peter using some very direct language: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And the teacher’s pet falls down in dishonor.

It is one of my great regrets that the translators made this word a proper noun : Satan, with a capital ‘S.’ It isn’t. It’s just a noun, a regular noun with a lower case ‘s’ and it means: tempter, distractor, adversary.

Over time in our Christian narrative, artists, like Botticelli interpreted the works of authors, like Dante Alighieri (“Inferno”) and ‘satan’ morphed into Satan, a human-like being with horns, cloven feet, a tail, and an evil expression on his face to match the evil intent in his heart.

Please remember, the story of Lucifer, the fallen angel, is a legend. It is not Scriptural.

So in the gospel story, Peter is just Peter, who, at this moment, is ‘satan’ to Jesus, because he is reacting from a vision of redemption that is too small, too restrictive – too human.

We all do that. We’re all ‘satan’ for Jesus sometimes. At some point in our lives, we all shrink the wildly extravagant, loving plan of God’s redemption to a plan that better fits the vision to which we are bound – a vision created from our intellect to soothe our discomfort, or one that fits the prevailing cultural opinion to ensure our belonging.

In the end, it’s a human vision and it is evil, that is, it is causes pain and sorrow to ourselves and others and is a stumbling block to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

God’s plan of salvation, as given to us in our Scriptures – Old and New – is salvation for the whole world. Wherever we limit or shrink that, we are being ‘satan’ to Jesus.

Whenever we judge a person or group to be unworthy of the grace and mercy of God, and exclude them from full participation in the body of Christ, we are ‘satan’ to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

Whenever we steal someone’s hope or judge their suffering according to earthly standards, we have become a stumbling block to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

Whenever we measure the success of the institution of the church chiefly by its budget or membership numbers rather than it’s ardent spirit, it’s boiling passion for justice and love, then we are ‘satan’ to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

The world is an effective tempter – a ‘satan.’ It promotes a perspective of independence and self-sufficiency. Then when we try to surrender ourselves to the will and care of God, it can be a struggle. But the truth is, we don’t have the means or wherewithal to save ourselves. No amount of rules following, or earthly successes, or human effort can obtain it.

In his book “Rediscovering Holiness” J. I. Packer says, “Only at the point where the insufficiency of natural strength is faced, felt, and admitted does divine empowering begin… the key to God’s strength is our own weakness. Through humble dependence on Jesus Christ we find the strength to put off our old life and to grow into our new one.” (“CITE,” )

That is the moment of our resurrection – as individuals and as a church. When we confront the restrictive, egocentric ‘satan’ of our humanity and surrender to the limitlessness love and mercy of the divine within and all around us – only then do we truly live.

We re-discovered this recently through our ministry of the Shepherd’s Table. We started this ministry with nothing but an ardent spirit, a boiling over of hope, love, and zeal to serve the Lord. No money had been saved up or set aside.

We began our journey in faith and were awed by the powerful, abundant provision of God. Food would appear out of nowhere. Many of us experienced real spiritual renewal witnessing the miracle of this ministry.

Somehow, over time, the ministry became work and not a miracle of faith. The work became harder and the joy faded into worry.

Then we hit that wall in June – the “insufficiency of [our] natural strength,” as Packer put it, and by God’s grace we remembered that it’s God’s ministry and God will provide for it – and that God will use us to do that if we open ourselves, “give to the needs of the saints and associate with the lowly.” We become ‘satan’ to Jesus when we think we’re doing it ourselves rather than God doing it through us.

The good news is, Jesus didn’t banish Peter for being ‘satan,’ did he? That moment didn’t mark the end of their relationship. In fact, it marked the beginning of Peter’s spiritual maturity – a deepening of his relationship with Jesus. This was a process which happened over time – just like it does for us.

Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man would come in glory and “repay everyone” for what had been done. Many interpret this as a threat of punishment, but the Greek translates “repay” as a giving of self… Jesus promises to come and give of himself which is why those standing there would see the kingdom before they died. We all will – if we believe and set our minds on things divine.

The path of life that leads to our spiritual maturity will inevitably lead us to suffering and death, just as it did Jesus. It will also lead us to new life, resurrection life, because Jesus has already established that path. This is the gift Jesus gave us. This is our good news.

So whether the path we’re on at the moment is one of joy and light or darkness and death, we believe that we are walking in the presence of God, according to the will of God, and for the glory of God whose redeeming love never fails us. We believe that when we stray from the path which we will, Jesus will come, give of himself, and show us the way to go.

And St. Paul has given us some great suggestions on how to reset our thinking and actions to get us back on the path of life.

So on we go, together, in faith, ardent in spirit and bound in the love of Christ. Amen.