Sunday, July 19, 2020

7 Pentecost: The first step

Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23, 16-19; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

En el nombre del Dios:creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

We’ve been hearing some heavy-duty teachings from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel lately. Two weeks ago, Jesus issued a divine call for change in the way we live together in community and promised to be with us, yoked to us, bearing the weight of that change and guiding us forward on the right path.

Last week Jesus, the religious rebel, called us to be servant-listeners. He called us to go beyond our traditional and habitual understandings and take the word of God into our hearts where it can have its effect so that we can respond from that transformed understanding as Jesus did: upsetting the status quo in order to bring justice, peace, and love to all of God’s people who hunger and thirst for it.

Today’s gospel continues with another powerful teaching from Jesus, this time piercing the heart of the apocalyptic tradition in Judaism which, by the way, was carried into Christianity and lives vigorously today in Christian understanding. Having just told us to listen differently, like infants (innocently, openly, and continually), Jesus tells the Parable of the Weeds, a story about living in the presence of good and evil in the world and in the church, perhaps hoping we’d practice what he just preached.

In this teaching, Jesus uses images familiar to his listeners. In those days you could sabotage a harvest of wheat by throwing in seeds of bearded darnell, a weed-grain that looks a lot like wheat at first but is bitter and a bit toxic in its maturity. The roots of this weed would wind together with the roots of the wheat, making it impossible to remove until the threshing.

Jesus clarifies through the parable that the separation of the weeds from the wheat is a divine task, not a human one. So, what are we supposed to do, just wait and do nothing? We’ll get back to that question a bit later.

Much of the commentary and discussion about this parable talk about the judgement of God being terrible - the weeds being thrown into the fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth, and they warn us that God’s justice is like that. This seems to be a persistent human tendency to project onto God the character of a punitive enforcer who threatens harsh suffering for some and enlightened blessing for others, even though Jesus, who is the second person in the Trinity of God, demonstrated by his life and ministry quite the opposite character.

Jesus demonstrated a loving, forgiving, humble character. When the law would have allowed him to punish sin, as in the woman caught in adultery, he didn’t do it. Instead, he forgave people their sins - even from the cross as he died.

God is steadfast in God’s commitment to reconcile those who are evil, that is, those who by their intention or actions cause division, harm, or sadness, those who build systems that make the burdens of others heavy or oppressive. We affirm the same in our Catechism where we proclaim that our mission is to “restore all people” the wheat and the weeds “to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, p 855)

God’s stated plan, God’s promise is the reconciliation of the whole world. The wheat are dwelling places of the presence of God, imperfectly in our humanity, but that’s OK. God knows our ignorance and weakness and has our backs. The weeds are lost - and we know how Jesus felt about leaving the many to go after even one who is lost.

So, the wheat and the weeds must live together, entwined together in the roots of our humanity, because God seeks to redeem and reconcile all. That doesn’t always happen, however, as we well know. Sometimes the weeds die in their evil state, unrepentant.

When that happens, the parable says, the angels of God separate the wheat from the weeds and throw the weeds into the fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. There are two very important concepts to unpack here.

First, let’s consider the fire. How is fire used in the Bible? There’s the famously burning bush through which God spoke to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus (v 1), and in Exodus 24, the “appearance of the glory of God was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain for all the people to see (v 17). In Luke 3, John the Baptist declared that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v 16).

Fire is biblical language for the presence of God. When the weeds are thrown into the fire, they are thrown into the presence of God where, of course, there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who believe in their own power will resist dying to self, but in the presence of God, who is love, the revelation of the harm they have done will leave them full of remorse as their system of denial or justification fails, and they know their guilt. Weeping and gnashing of teeth often happens before repentance.

When we are in the presence of God, no matter how unworthy we are or we feel, the pervasiveness of God’s love saturates us and we can only - finally - love back. It is the ultimate healing. It is reconciliation.

Then, as the parable says, those who have been brought back into right relationship in the fire of the divine presence, will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God. God’s plan of redemptive, reconciling love is for the whole world. God’s judgment isn’t terrifying, it’s salvific!

In the parable, the weeds are the children of the evil one. Hearing that from our 21st century perspective, we may miss the point. Remember, Jesus called himself the Son of Man. We call him the Son of God. Similarly, the children of the evil one those who are in relationship with and agents of those who sew division, pain, and heap unfair hard work upon those they can oppress.

The children of the evil one are those who participate in malevolence or maintain malignant systems. All of us have been and are participants in systems that are rife with what are called the “seven deadly isms:” racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and individualism.

We, who are the church, clearly have lots of reconciling work to do. Trying to dismantle all of these systems at once would be impossible, but that is no reason to give up. God has raised up for us in this moment two -isms to attend to: individualism and racism. These -isms, however, are interconnected, bound together at their roots, and attending to one will have an effect on them all.

God has been calling us, in very overt ways recently, to wake up from our collective sleep and recognize that our economic, educational, public safety, and even our religious systems are racist, that is, they discriminate against people of color. Recognizing how and where our familiar systems are racist is only the first step, but it’s the most important one we can take right now. And we take it by listening to the voices of those who are being oppressed - listening as Jesus taught us to do in last week’s gospel: as servant-listeners who prioritize God and other over self. Listening like infants: openly, continually, without defensiveness or blame.

Until we as a people can recognize and acknowledge the inherent racism in our systems, no amount of work by individuals to dismantle them will be successful. Bound together as we are at the roots of our humanity, we must live and act as one, unified, anti-racist, anti-individualist body to dismantle those unjust, oppressive systems and build new, just ones.

This first step is a hard one, and it’s scary. A familiar oppressor is often preferable to an unknown future, even when that future promises freedom. Thankfully, “in hope we were saved” as St. Paul says, so we can “hope for what we do not see…with patience” and keep going. As Dr. King said, “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Source.

The twin pandemics of coronavirus and racism have revealed to us two of our most potent -isms: individualism and racism, and the time for healing action is now. The path for healing is the redemptive, reconciling love of the Triune God who gave us our mission: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ by promoting justice, peace, and love. (Book of Common Prayer, 855)

We can do this only through the power of the love of God in Christ who is yoked to us, dwelling in us, guiding our every step. As always, we pray before we take a first step, so I offer this prayer, adapted from our Noonday Prayer service.

Let us pray. Redeeming God, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts, to direct and serve us according to your will, to comfort us in all our afflictions, to defend us from all error, and to lead us into all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 107)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

6 Pentecost, 20-A: Servant listeners

Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

One of my favorite things about Scripture is that there is always new revelation awaiting the one who reads it openly, innocently, receptively. The problem most of us tend to confront when we read Scripture is that we’ve been taught to understand and visualize the stories in a singular way. God is that grand-fatherly old man with a long white beard, like the image created by Michelangelo in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Jesus is a very western looking Palestinian Jew: light-skinned, sometimes with light or blue eyes, and smooth, wavy hair that goes to his shoulders. And the Holy Spirit almost always looks like a white dove.

Culturally agreed upon images and traditional ways to understand Biblical stories tend to develop over time. By itself, that isn’t a bad thing, as long as we remember that the revelation of God to humankind is continual, so clinging to traditional images, understanding, and practice for habit’s sake, or out of fear of leaving “orthodoxy” limits our freedom to grow and God’s freedom to grow us. The “truth” has not been established by any system or religion or forebear in the faith. The truth exists only Jesus Christ who is living and active in the world, and in us.

When we hear the Parable of the Sower from our gospel reading today, most of us were taught to picture God as the sower and ourselves as the soil. We listen asking ourselves, which type of soil am I? I want to be the good soil that produces fruit!

But when we listen to the parable that way, I have to wonder… where is the challenge that Jesus almost always included in his teaching parables? Where is the twist in the plot that points to the counter-cultural nature of God’s reign?

So, let’s expand the window through which we are looking a little bit. Our gospel reading starts with the words that same day, which refers to what has just happened in the previous chapter. The Pharisees have accused Jesus of being a law-breaker because he healed a man on the Sabbath and allowed his hungry disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath. They also accuse Jesus of healing a demoniac by the power of Beelzebul. Jesus responds to these accusations by calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and an” evil generation.” Heavy duty!

This is where our story today picks up. Jesus is a religious rebel who challenges the traditional understanding of his time, and in spite of the opposition to Jesus by the religious leadership, huge crowds continue to gather around him, hungry for what he has to offer.

So, what is Jesus offering in today’s gospel story?

Jesus begins his teaching saying, “Let anyone with ears listen.” This is obviously not a literal request. They probably all had ears! But Jesus is asking them to listen differently… freely, innocently (like an infant); to open themselves and go beyond their traditional, habitual understanding.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus describes the sower as an extravagant gardener who casts seeds everywhere: on soil, pavement, into thorns…everywhere. The sower tosses the seed out in such a way that it’s possible new life might take root in the least likely of places. Why isn’t the sower more careful? the listener is thinking. What a waste of seed.

If the gardener is God, which is the traditional approach to this parable, then God is extravagant in speaking the plan of redemptive love into the world and there are four ways we listen - but only one of those ways is obedient. To be obedient isn’t simply to do as we’re told but to hear, take the word of God in so it can have its effect on us, then respond from that transformed understanding.

Here are the four ways Jesus says people tend to listen. See if any feel familiar.

First, there are the very busy listeners who are persistently on their way somewhere. These listeners can be very “devout (and sometimes very demanding) about the correct way to understand God and Scripture, but in the end, the busy-ness of their lives snaps up their attention like birds eating seeds off the sidewalk, and they produce no real fruit for God.

Next are the on-fire-for-Jesus listeners. They are faith-filled, passionate, and ready to get stuff done! But somehow, it never gets done. They don’t actually take in the Word, so they aren’t transformed by it. Their passions remain only in their thoughts, so they don’t make any real changes in their lives or in the world. They burn out quickly and sit back until the next passionate awakening, only to repeat the pattern. They too produce no real fruit for God.

Then there are the cell-phone listeners. They’re looking at you, but listening to the phone in their ear. Money, position, and other self-centered concerns distract them, take priority, and become the focus of their time and attention. Witnessing the good news and magnifying the reign of God become what they can manage to fit into their spare time - and everyone knows, there is no such thing as spare time - so these listeners also produce no real fruit for God.

And finally, there are the servant-listeners. These listeners put God and neighbor before self and therefore, produce continual fruit. Servant-listeners realize that obeying God doesn’t mean giving up their free will or freedom, but rather expands their understanding and widens their reach. Servant-listeners listen openly, innocently, and so they are able to hear and understand “what things they ought to do” (as our Collect says). The Word of God transforms them so they see and understand differently, more completely. As a result, they realize that it is God who gives them the “grace and power faithfully to accomplish” those things, so they surrender their plans and their habits and offer themselves fully to God.

Servant-listeners produce fruit humbly and continually because their minds are set on the things of the Spirit, as St. Paul says. They have detached from seeking the rewards of the world, which gives them true freedom because the rewards of the world are manipulated and sold to us by those who stand to gain from them. An example is the shampoo company that coined the phrase: lather, rinse, repeat. By convincing us that we needed to wash our hair twice every time in order to be beautiful, they doubled our use of their product. Our hair was no cleaner or more beautiful than it had been before, but we bought the concept and they raked in the money.

It’s a simple example, but there are other more malignant ones that are part of our traditional and habitual experience. For example, colorism, which is discrimination based on skin color. It can happen across races and within the same race. Did you know that Queen Elizabeth I used to eat arsenic crackers to help her maintain her ghostly whiteness? Why? Because whiteness had become associated with purity and goodness - and we continue to buy that bill of goods today.

This deception lives out now in something called the “school to prison pipeline.” According to “the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students… Trouble at school can lead [a student of color] to their first contact with the criminal justice system. And in many cases, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system — often by having students arrested at school.” Source Children of color become terrified of getting in trouble at school, making them more vulnerable to bullying because white students know the students of color have to avoid getting in trouble.

In his 2018 study* called: “The color of punishment: African Americans, skin tone, and the criminal justice system” Harvard sociology professor, Ellis P. Monk says, “it isn’t just being black that makes a person more likely to be sentenced to jail in the US, it’s how black they are. A person’s lifetime chance of having been arrested, the study found, is directly proportional with the darkness of their skin… After accounting for differences like gender and level of education, [Ellis] found that African Americans have an overall 36% chance of going to jail at some point in their lifetimes. Dark-skinned African Americans, meanwhile, have a near 66% chance. That’s a full 30% increase.” Source

We’ve been sold a bill of goods for generations that black bodies are impure, bad, or dangerous - and it’s time we stop buying into it. It’s time for us to be servant-listeners and stop judging our neighbors by the standards of the world, standards that were intentionally manipulated to further the wealth and power of an elite, self-centered group.

Jesus was a religious rebel who challenged the traditional understanding of his time, showing us how to do it in our time. As it was for Jesus it will be for us: there will be opposition to upsetting the status quo, but there are crowds gathering around our country and around the world who are hungry for the freedom of the truth that is found in Jesus Christ.

How will we listen and respond? In truth, we are, each of us, all four of the listeners Jesus speaks about at different moments in our lives. Together, however, we can choose, in this moment, to be a church of servant-listeners. That is my prayer and my hope. Amen.

Art: Goddess Sun(flower)

* Study citation: Ellis P. Monk (2019) The color of punishment: African Americans, skin tone, and the criminal justice system, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 42:10, 1593-1612, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2018.1508736

Sunday, July 5, 2020

5th Pentecost, 20-A: Wisdom's divine dance

Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an.mp3 audio format.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

There’s a tiredness known now as “COVID-fatigue” which is, in part, why we’re seeing so many people going out without masks, ignoring social distancing, and taking risks that make no sense as the pandemic resurges among us. I’m hearing people say things like: ‘I don’t care if I get it or not,’ or ‘I’m willing to take the risk,’ or ‘some people are going to get it and some won’t, that’s just the way it is now.’

COVID-fatigue also shows up as irritability over little things as couples and families isolating together can attest. And there’s a growing fatalism taking hold: ‘why am I bothering? The numbers just keep going up. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway.’

Part of the fatigue derives from a feeling of helplessness. The answer to the problem still evades us. There’s no vaccine to stop it and no magic medicine to treat it.

We’re tired. We’re tired of isolating. We’re tired of Zoom meetings. We’re tired of not being able to hug loved ones, travel safely, or take a summer vacation. We’re tired of not being able to eat out, party with friends, and go to the beach. We’re tired of not being able to worship together at church, sing hymns, and share communion. We’re tired.

What if this were to go on for centuries?

If that were to happen, then white people might have some sense of what black people in America have been experiencing. This is our moment of awakening to how it feels to have our lives and freedoms restricted with no clear solution to the problem, and no end in sight.

I expect the same kind of fatigue will soon start showing up in complaints from people who are tired of hearing about racism, but until every one of God’s children of color is treated with the respect, dignity, and advantage God’s white children enjoy, the discussion and justice-making work must go on.

Thankfully, our Collect today offers us the motivation to keep on working for justice and wholeness even though we’re tired. As our Collect demonstrates, ours is a trinitarian relationship of God, other, and self, moving as one in a divine dance, the individual parts in unity with one another. Three moving as one. If any one of us falls out of step or leaves the dance, the whole is affected.

It’s like a mobile that you see over a baby’s crib. The ornaments rotate slowly in a peaceful, circular dance, but if one of the ornaments is cut off the whole mobile tilts out of balance and soon, it can’t rotate anymore.

In the same way, no matter how tired we are, it isn’t just about us. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. Everyone else in God’s creation is part of us. Therefore, what we do or don’t do affects the whole of us.

So, we wear masks and practice social distancing, not just for ourselves but for those among us who are at risk of harm from the coronavirus. And we stand with and listen to people of color who are crying out with pain from of the effect of generations of racist policies that have restricted their lives and freedoms.

Even now, there are counter-voices claiming that the coronavirus isn’t a real thing but a political ploy. This is nothing more than intentional ignorance.

Then there are the voices that claim we are in a post-racial society, we had a black president after all, they say. They deny racism exists anymore except when it can be abused by people of color who “play the race-card” to get what they want without earning it. This kind of gaslighting has led to all kinds of passive-aggression in response to real injustice.

It may help to know that intentional ignorance, gaslighting, and passive aggression in response to injustice isn’t new. Jesus confronted the same thing in his time, and it frustrated him too as we heard in today’s Gospel from Matthew.

The setting is this: John the Baptist is in prison. Jesus, who had been a follower of John, is out on his own now preaching. When John hears that Jesus is out preaching, he sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah they have been awaiting. Jesus tells them to tell John what they see and hear: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

This is where today’s lectionary picks up. The greatest prophet ever is in prison and Jesus knows where all of this is leading - for John, for himself, and for God’s people - and he’s frustrated.

You’re acting like a bunch of children, he says. The children of Group A say to the children of Group B: we celebrated a wedding and you wouldn’t come dance with us. Yeah, says Group B to Group A, well we held a funeral and you wouldn’t mourn with us.” This doesn’t sound like much to us, but it was a huge violation of the hospitality law for them and it would have been a great disruption to their community.

For us it sounds more like this: We sang our anthem at the football game and you wouldn’t stand and sing with us! Yeah, well we keep mourning murdered black bodies and you just look away and complain about protestors.

There’s no satisfying people who are so polarized, and Jesus uses John and himself as an example: John is called demonic for not eating or drinking while I’m called a glutton and drunkard for eating and drinking.

“Yet” he says, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Jesus’ choice of the word “wisdom” alerts his hearers to a powerful biblical concept found in Joshua, Solomon, Job, the judges, Proverbs, and the whole wisdom tradition.

As the religious and cultural authorities respond with violence to those like John who call for change in the way the community lives together, wisdom, the justice-maker of God, is vindicated by her deeds: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Yet, the people refuse to see or acknowledge the divine call for change. They refuse to dance in unity with one another and with God, choosing instead to fight and complain about those other people, deepening the divide between them.

Then our lectionary jumps a few verses - skipping over Jesus skewering his own people. Jesus compares them to the famously wicked towns of Tyre and Sidon. We’re not wicked. We’re not like them! Today it might sound like this: “We’re not racist. We’re not like those slave-traders and plantation owners.”

Jesus hurt some feelings speaking a truth they didn’t want to hear, so he offers a public prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants...” Awakening to truth is hard for those who think they already know it, but it is God’s will that we do, and that we open ourselves to learn as infants do - continually and innocently. This isn’t about blame, it’s about justice.

But it all feels so hard, so heavy… and we’re already tired. So, Jesus restores us to the divine dance, reminding us that we don’t do this alone. We do this as we do everything, with God and one another.

Jesus’ next words of comfort are some of my very favorite, which is why I use them so often at the offertory sentence (in Spanish and English): “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…”

This isn’t Jesus telling us to stop carrying our burdens, just to stop trying to carry them alone. Jesus offers to yoke himself to us to bear our burdens with us and to guide us on the path we must go to establish real, lasting justice.

COVID-fatigue has just begun for some of us. Racism-fatigue is centuries long for others of us. We are all tired, but we are motivated to change the way we live in community together even knowing there will be no magic medicine to make this quick and painless.

The only way to get through the long-term changes that will be required of us is to go together, in a divine dance of unity with one another and with God, humbly, gently, innocently, and for as long as it takes.

Our way will be made successful. God promises it - and God always keeps God’s promises.