Monday, June 26, 2017

Pentecost 3A, 2017: Seamless uninterrupted loving kindness

Preached as supply at All Saints Episcopal Church, Gastonia, NC... a wonderful, welcoming, open church.

Lectionary: Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. (Sorry, I hit record after I'd said this...)

When I was a kid, I loved to make flip-book cartoons. Remember those? Each page in the book had the same picture with a slight change to create movement as you flipped the pages. It was an early form of animation – and how Mickey Mouse got his start!

When I hear our Collect for today, I imagine our request for perpetual love as a flip book of our lives – each page showing how we lived love into being and action, each page slightly different than the page before, creating a visual of the movement of love through the course of our life. I imagine the cover and binding of our life-book as the lovingkindness of God.

I believe that God is the source and structure of our love for one another, for ourselves, for the world, and even for God. And our readings today give us a few ways to understand that structure, as well as the character of God, so let’s take a look…

Our Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah shows us how God moves to restore love when it has been lost to human foibles. Abraham and Sara, desperate for an heir, move outside of God’s plan for them resulting in Sara’s slave, Hagar, being raped (which is the only name for it – being “given” is nothing more than a patriarchal euphemism).

Hagar bears Abraham’s son and only heir, Ishmael. As the story goes, Hagar becomes proud and boastful once she has Abraham’s heir and she lords it over her mistress, Sara, who is shamed and disgraced by her childlessness. Then, by God’s grace, Sarah births a son, Isaac. This moves Sarah from the margins of her community to the center of respect and prominence. In her restored status Sarah asks Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael – serious payback for Hagar’s taunting during Sara’s shame.

Each woman in this story illustrates so well the foible of human preoccupation with status, and the destructive outcomes that can result.

Thankfully, also in this story, God demonstrates how to stand on the foundation of loving kindness in the midst of human frailty. God doesn’t punish Abraham or Sarah for getting Hagar involved against her will or for setting their own plan in motion instead of waiting on God’s plan to unfold. Instead, God gives them what they deeply long for – a son and heir, the first of their descendants which God has promised would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Furthermore, in order to clean up the mess Abraham and Sarah made by involving Hagar, God goes to Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness where they have been banished and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation as well. God delivered Hagar and Ishmael from certain death in the wilderness to abundant life. Like Sarah, Hagar now would be the matriarch of a great nation.

Then in our gospel reading, Jesus is getting real with his followers. You may remember that last week, Jesus gave them authority to proclaim that the royal dominion of God, which is overarching, all embracing, and includes everything that is, has joined heaven and earth into one, right here, right now – which meant they, the disciples, were being sent out to restore the helpless and harassed to wholeness of life, wholeness of spirit, and wholeness of purpose, in Jesus’ name. They were being sent as co-creators of God’s redemption for the world.

Today’s gospel story picks up with Jesus giving them the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say. It isn’t going to be easy, Jesus tells them. People won’t hold you up as icons of anything good. In fact, the opposite will happen – just as it did for Jesus himself.

The keepers of the status quo will hate you and fight against you – including even those closest to you. Your father, your mother, members of your church and community – will become like enemies. But stand firm in your faith and fear not, Jesus tells them, for God will always act to redeem.

Every truth that humans have covered up in their foibles will be uncovered by God’s love. When you need guidance, God will whisper it to you and that you must proclaim from the housetops! And whatever happens in the world, remember that God loves you so much and so thoroughly, that even the hairs on your heads are counted!

Think about that: every single aspect of who we are, even those aspects we don’t know about ourselves, are known and matters to God. That’s why we can stand firm on the foundation of God’s loving kindness. God’s got it. The reality of this new age, ushered in by Jesus, is this: earth and heaven, the temporal and the eternal, have been made one in Jesus, the Christ. As Jesus explains to his disciples: what happens on earth, happens in heaven. If you acknowledge me or deny me on earth – in the temporal – that is also what happens in heaven – in the eternal. So fear not and let love live through you.

One would think that sharing the good news of redemption would be work that brings honor and praise, but if human systems are to be transformed, they first msut be dismantled, and that rarely happens without a fight – Even in the church. We can look at our world’s history and see that change and cultural transformation, for example, feudalism in the West and caste systems in the East didn’t happen peacefully.

Those with power, wealth, and influence wouldn’t (or couldn’t) let go, and those without were unwilling to be exploited and disrespected any longer. It was usually rebellion or a rising up of the oppressed that brought about change. Think about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s, or the Pride movement happening now.

This is something we need to be cognizant of right now as we see the chasm between the rich and the poor in our own society widening to what appears to be a not too distant breaking point.

How wonderful, then to have this Scripture lesson brought up for us today. The Good News of redemption through God in Christ is that God redeems every human foible and everybody wins! Remember, God’s covenant to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled, and then some, redeeming the mess they made for Hagar, the slave, making a great nation of her son Ishmael too.

If we are to be co-creators of God’s redemption, we must learn to approach the world differently. Jesus says, if we are to be worthy, we must love him, and not cling to our earthly relationships and safety net systems.

Another way to hear Jesus’ final teaching in this story is like this: Whoever seeks earthly sources of protection or affection or relationship instead of finding that in me, is not congruent with me. Whoever does not bear the burdens of the world with loving kindness and forgiveness, as I did from the cross, is not in harmony with me. Anyone who tries to live apart from me will find themselves in utter ruin, and anyone who loves in my name despite their very real fear of the personal ruin the world will inflict upon them, will discover that I am pleased to dwell in them and redeem them, and through them, the world.

Now that’s good news!

Like Abraham and Sara, we may find that God’s promised redemption is taking so long that it seems it might not happen at all. Sara was, after, all, in her 80’s when she got pregnant. Most of us would have believed that either God didn’t come through or that we misunderstood the promise - by the time we’re maybe 70. Being resourceful, we would work to resolve the problem on our own, like Abraham and Sarah did.

So, I’m here to tell you, whenever this temptation rises up, and it will, I commend to you the wise words of my spiritual director, Sr. Elizabeth: Don’t feed it. Don’t fight it. Don’t fix it.

God’s got it. God has promised redemption of the whole world in Jesus Christ, and as my Old Testament professor used to say, “God always keeps God’s promises.”

We are worthy, that is, in harmony with Christ when the flip-books of our lives contain page after page of kind and loving responses to every situation the world presents to us. Loving kindness repeated so frequently as to seem seamless, uninterrupted when we watch it played back. There will be glitches in there – we are, after all human. But God redeems those too because such is the love of God.

Sisters and brothers, we are the means by which the loving kindness of heaven happens on earth. It’s us. It’s Christ in us. How awesome is that? I admit, it’s scary, too – but awesome!

Let’s pray and let the Spirit enter: Thank you, most gracious God, for your loving kindness, which is the foundation upon which we stand here on our earthly pilgrimage. We pray that as we write the pages of our life books, we will reflect your love and make it as real on earth as it is in heaven. May we be as reverent of one another and of you as you are of us, recognizing that in Jesus, the Christ, we have been made one. We pray this in the name of the Trinity, who is Unity.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pentecost 2A, 2017: Proclaim. Pray. Heal.

Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8

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You can also view this sermon on YouTube HERE.

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

During my year-long sabbatical after leaving parish ministry, I discerned a call to increase my ministry as a spiritual director. In this ministry, I get to have deep, meaningful conversations with God’s laborers in the field, both of us listening deeply for the voice of God for them and for the world.

One of my roles as spiritual director is to lay down my own defenses so that I can enter deeply and quickly into a mutually trusting relationship with the directee. This enables me to recognize those moments when the directees walls come up – their defenses – which stop the flow of love between them and God, them and the world, or them and themselves.

When this happens, I mention it, bringing it into our sacred space for reflection and discussion. It isn’t about judgment, but about intention. Both of us are intentionally paying attention so that whatever stumbling blocks or hindrances come up, the directee has opportunity to notice them, listen for the voice of God, then make a choice about how to proceed.

This is precisely the process I see happening in today’s gospel from Matthew. In fact, I see it in the entire 9th chapter of Matthew which chronicles Jesus’ healing ministry in a variety of its forms.

First, Jesus heals a paralyzed man by forgiving his sins, thereby restoring him to his family, his community and his life. Then he calls Matthew, the tax collector (and author of this gospel), who was hated by his own Jewish people, restoring him to wholeness and holding up mercy as a priority over proper religious practice.

Next he raises a dead girl to life and stems the flow of blood, the source of life, from the hemorrhaging woman. Then Jesus opens the eyes of two blind men, and restores the voice of a mute man riddled with demons.

And this is where our gospel story picks up. Matthew summarizes that Jesus had gone to all the cities and villages, teaching as a rabbi would, but his teaching was a new proclamation. He was heralding the good news that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.

I want to pause here and look at those words: “kingdom,” “heaven,” and “at hand.” The Greek word we translate as “kingdom” means “royal dominion.” “Heaven” translates as “overarching, all embracing, including everything that is.” And “at hand” translates as “to draw near, to join one to another.”

Jesus is announcing something we need to hear as much today as they did back then: that the royal dominion of God, which is overarching, all embracing, and includes everything that is, has joined heaven and earth into one, right here, right now.”

See if this sounds familiar... “on earth as it is in heaven…” In Jesus heaven and earth, flesh and spirit, have been eternally joined together - made one - and when we live that truth, we are laborers of the harvest, physical locations of the powerful, healing love of God for the world – just as Jesus was first.

For Jesus, healing wasn’t just about fixing problems. It was about restoring anyone and everyone who was helpless or harassed to wholeness of life, wholeness of spirit, wholeness of purpose.

I think we often hear these healing stories and distance ourselves from them in our ministries, believing surely we can’t do what Jesus did – but that’s a mistake. Didn’t Jesus say we would? “...the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these...” (Jn 14:28) Greater than raising the dead and healing the sick? Yes. Seriously.

Seriously. If we remember that God is always the actor and we are simply God’s agents, earthly locations of God’s creative love, laborers of God’s harvest, then we recognize like Sarah eventually did, that absolutely nothing is “too wonderful for the Lord.”

Jesus says, “As you go, proclaim the good news…” Check. We can do that… as long as we don’t have to evangelize – right? Jesus says, “…heal the sick.” This is harder, but probably most of us feel like it’s possible. Jesus says, “…raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Whoa! Really?

Doesn’t that feel like it’s impossible? Well it isn’t. Consider this: if a person can’t take the next step in their lives, they need to hear the hope we have to proclaim. These are the paralytics we are called to heal.

Then there are those among us who suffer from cultural hatred - the LGBTQ community comes to mind. While some in the religious world justify their continued exclusion by citing proper religious practice, we are sent to show mercy and inclusion, just as Jesus showed Matthew.

I’ve known people who are living on the outside, but dead or dying on the inside, teetering on the edge of suicide or homicide. These are the dead whom we can raise to life.

Have you ever known someone who desperately needs their eyes need opened to the truth of their value to God and to us? These are the blind we are called to heal.

What about someone so tortured by memories of past abuse that their identity as beloved is lost? These are the lepers among us who need cleansing.

Or those whose early lives were so crazy they can’t make sense of a sane world, so they can’t live functionally in the present? The good news we herald is the means by which today’s demons are cast out.

We are called to notice and heal the pain of the world.

This week we witnessed the raw pain of Philando Castile’s mother at the acquittal of the police officer who killed her son. It’s also the anniversary of the mass racist murders by Dylan Roof at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. Whatever you believe about these events, racism lives, and the pain of the African community is real.

Our Baptismal vows call us to strive for justice for all people, respecting their dignity. I don’t know what the answer is here, but I do know we have much work to do, and prayer is where our work begins, but not where it ends.

Meantime, there are laborers already working on the harvest right here at All Saints. I know of at least two laborers who devote themselves to those who are helplessly addicted to alcohol and drugs. These two know and herald the good news that there is freedom from addiction and new life worth living. I know of two others here who are voices for the voiceless.

Our world offers us plenty of harvest, if we choose to be laborers. What hinders us?

I think we assume that we really can't heal the blind or the mute and raise the dead; or that we don’t have demoniacs anymore (now we have psychiatric diagnoses). I also think that many of us believe that God isn’t doing today what God did in the days our Scripture was being written.

But I’m here to tell you, that’s just not so. God is working miraculous healings all the time, right here, right now, through the laborers who choose to be sent into the harvest.

There is preparation for us to do, however, before we head out there healing the world in Jesus’ name. First, we must answer Jesus’ summons to us to come to him in prayer. There is where we receive the power to intentionally notice what is hindering someone from the free flowing of God’s love in them and through them to the world.

We don’t remove the hindrance. God does. God is always the actor. We are simply the physical locations of the powerful, healing love of God for the world. Jesus embodied this first. We embody it now.

Secondly, we must be willing to give as freely as we have been given. The good news was given to us as a gift. We didn’t earn it and we can’t lose it. It’s ours because God loves us all and desires wholeness for us all. It’s unfortunate that this translation of Scripture uses financial language here: “You received without payment; give without payment.” It’s a poor rendering of the message. A better translation is: “Freely you have received; freely give.”

So I say to you: freely give to anyone and everyone who needs the good news that they are included in in the over-arching, all embracing royal dominion of God… the good news that everything that is, in heaven and on earth, has been joined as one in Jesus the Christ.

This means that redemption is God’s response to all the pain in the world, and we, as agents of Jesus Christ, are co-creators of this redemption, if we choose to be sent into the harvest.

Now, let’s make and partake of the holy food and drink that strengthens us for our work: the body and blood of Christ. We must take Jesus in, not just in our thoughts and beliefs, but into our very bodies, which is our invitation to him to work through us to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons.

For truly nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday, 2017: Hearts on fire

I enjoyed supplying with my St. Mark's Chester (SC) family again today. Here is my sermon - extemporaneous, therefore, in audio only. Enjoy!

Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 13; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

If the player below won't work on your device (it's mp4), click HERE (mp3).