Sunday, June 20, 2021

4th Pentecost, 21-B: Reason to rejoice

Lectionary: 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41 

Last week I talked about feeling drowned in an ocean of love. Today our readings take us to the other side of that coin – feeling drowned in a storm. Most of us can recall many times we felt like we were in the midst of a “storm” in our lives and, like the disciples, called out: “Lord, do you not care that we are…” perishing, hurting, trapped, scared… The Good News in this gospel is that our faith assures us that God is always there with us, knows what’s happening, how it’s affecting us, and is already acting to redeem. 

The reality is sometimes God doesn’t swoop in and calm the storm. When we pray like the Psalmist does, “Have pity on me, O Lord; see the misery I suffer…” and the storm rages on, we may wonder where is God? Are we not worthy or praying right?

Sometimes we know and can feel the presence of God in the midst of the storm. Other times it isn’t until we look back that we can see God had been there with us, carrying us through. At all times, it is truly a matter of our faith – our trust in God, God’s promises, and our great value to God.

We know that the plan of redemption, the reconciliation of the whole world to God, is still in progress. The created world and all of us in it, haven’t yet reached the divine goal of unity and harmony. There will, therefore, be storms within and without, but just like in the creation story in Genesis, God continues to calm the chaos waters and establish peace and safety for the created.

For now, the world can be a scary place. Weather storms can ravage our sense of safety, destroy our homes, and remind us of how small and powerless we humans really are. News stories tell us how human enemies of all kinds threaten our peace with personal and national violence. We hear about or experience how easy it is for hackers to steal our personal identities, shut down governmental processes, and disrupt the rhythms of our lives.

In response to this sense of vulnerability, people have sought ways to establish a sense of safety for themselves against the potential storms of life: preppers with their underground shelters stocked with food and ammunition, companies selling online security against identity theft. But in the end, we’re still vulnerable.

Steve and I have had our identity stolen several times over the last few years. One thief even tithed what they stole from us, offering $600 to a Christian charity from the $6,000 they stole by cloning our credit card! And just this past week my church email was hacked - again.

On a side note: be assured that I will never ask for money for myself or a ministry by email. Episcopal priests don’t do that. We use the proper channels for such a request: the vestry and the treasurer. If you get an email that looks like it’s from me, don’t call the number they provide, don’t open any links, don’t buy any gift cards, and – please – don’t send any money!

As I mentioned in our newsletter, people have found ways to steal and swindle throughout the ages. That stems from the ‘me-first’ mindset that is the opposite of everything Jesus taught us and the opposite of what our tradition offers: thou shalt not covet, steal, or kill.

Historically, political or military domination have been, and continue to be, a major threat to our communal safety. In personal relationships, domination always points to abuse.

One young man I know worked out until he looked like Michelangelo’s sculpture of Hercules, and he was as strong as he was beautiful. When asked about it, though, he admitted that his goal was to be able to “beat up” anyone who threatened him. It didn’t work. The someone who attacked and nearly destroyed him used brains, not brawn, identifying and exploiting his emotional vulnerabilities.

In today’s Old Testament reading, David takes a similar approach against Goliath, who was a Philistine, and therefore an archenemy of the Jewish people. Goliath is huge, well protected by armor, experienced in battle, and unmatched in his javelin and personal combat skills. He believes David, a scrawny, sheep-herding kid with no battle skills who refused to wear armor and carried only a slingshot, would be an easy victory.

In those days, wars between countries could be decided by a single fight between men. This was one of those times, so the stakes were high. Saul warns David that he’s no match for Goliath and David’s response was golden: “The LORD, who saved me [as a shepherd] from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”

That’s why this story is so appealing. The scrawny underdog runs into the battle, stands up to the giant bully, claims victory in the name of God, and fells his opponent with a single rock shot from his slingshot.

David knew and trusted that God was with him, that God had sent him on this mission, so he ran into the thick of it with his only battle skill: a slingshot. As it turned out, it was enough.

Our meager gifts are enough too – especially when taken together as a community of faith. All churches will experience storms, some worse than others. When that happens, it is our faith that God is with us that will carry us through, because we know God has a purpose for us.

The church can and should be (if you ask me) where we learn the spiritual disciplines and prayer practices that enable us to respond faithfully like David did: certain of God’s presence and calling, to run into the storm before us and open a path for God’s redemptive love to act.

Whatever storms the church faces, we are enabled to respond using worship, Scripture, tradition, and reason. Right now, the church is being attacked by those who co-opt our Christian identity and use it to foment hate and division; and they practice a kind of coercive control God has never asserted over us.

As followers of the one who spoke peace to the wind and the waves, we are called to respond with holiness of spirit and genuine love in the face of affliction and hardship, with patience and kindness amid calamities, and with continual rejoicing even when we are in sorrow. As St. Paul reminds us, when we have lost everything, we have lost nothing that matters, because we have everything when we have faith in God who created us, loves and sustains us, and gives us purpose.

In the beginning, when chaos waters covered the earth, God brought order to the chaos, creating the firmament, the land, and all that dwelled therein. When Jesus calmed the chaos waters of the Sea of Galilee, he was doing what only God can do, and those who witnessed it were filled with reverence and awe at the sight of it.

Whatever chaos we experience, whatever our storms, Jesus is with us, doing what only God can do. We don’t have to be worthy or strong or well-armed because we are beloved, redeemed, and sanctified by God. 

The ultimate grace of God is the gift of life itself, and God’s presence in us, through Jesus, our Emmanuel. For that we rejoice continually.

I close with a prayer from Steven Charleston, retired Episcopal bishop and member of the Choctaw nation. He posted this prayer on his Facebook page last Tuesday: 

 “Still I will rejoice and give thanks. No matter how difficult my life may be at the moment, no matter what may come in the days ahead, still I will rejoice and give thanks. I have been blessed by the gift of life. I have been given my chance to walk this beautiful Earth, to see its wonders and learn its hidden wisdom. I have loved and been loved. How can I be anything but grateful? How can I not offer my thanks to the Spirit? As a family in faith, each with our own story to tell, each with our own burden to bear, let us offer this common message of hope, of renewal and resolve, to all who struggle: no matter what tomorrow may bring, still I will rejoice and give thanks.” 

Amen and amen.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

3rd Pentecost, 2021-B: Called, equipped, and sent

Lectionary: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,14-17; Mark 4:26-34 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.

I have had the privilege of experiencing being drenched in what felt like an ocean of love – not just once, but many times in different stages of my life. I remember feeling it as a child when my Puerto Rican grandmother and I would do needlework together; when my Irish grandfather walked me home from school sporting his Shillelagh stick which I believed could fend off any threat.

I remember feeling it when my husband and I exchanged our wedding vows and each time I held my newborn child for the first time or watched him hold them. I remember feeling it when my family kneeled at the communion rail to receive my blessing as a newly ordained priest.

It’s a feeling that is at once fulfilling and disorienting. My experiences of love have changed my life. They have changed my world. That’s what love does – it changes lives and it changes the world.

It continually amazes me that we have been invited by the author of all love to share this amazing, fulfilling, disorienting experience with others, to scatter it like seeds upon the ground.

In the first parable in our gospel today, Jesus describes the kingdom of God being as if someone scatters seeds upon the ground. That someone is us – the Greek word used there means “human.”

We scatter the seeds of divine love. While we sleep and while we wake, God is doing the work of bringing the seeds we scatter to stalk, then to fruit. When the fruit is ready, we are sent to harvest it.

After all of these years preaching this parable, this is the first time I was led to notice that the Greek verb in this phrase translated as: “goes in” ...with the sickle, is actually the word for apostle (apostellō). An apostle is one who is commissioned, that is, equipped and sent on a mission.

God creates seeds of love and gives them to us to scatter in the world. Then we wait while God grows those seeds to their maturity and they become a resource that can nourish and heal the world. When that happens, God sends us to collect those resources and put them to use in the world.

This has to be the most perfect description of Christian discipleship I think I’ve ever encountered - an unending cycle of love begetting love. We are the fruit of the seed someone else sowed long ago. We were nourished by God until we were ready to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. Then we were collected up and sent by our sower to become scatterers of the seeds ourselves – and the process repeats from generation to generation.

The other parable in our gospel focuses on the seed itself. The seed, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed. In God’s care, this tiny seed becomes the greatest of all herbs with large, strong branches that provide safety and comfort for other creatures and creation itself.

I learned from my Puerto Rican grandmother the importance of knowing the properties of herbs, earth medicine as she called it, and have spent time learning and studying them. The seeds and flowers of the mustard plant are bright yellow and as spicy as the color implies. We know it as prepared mustard: ground seeds mixed with vinegar, for use on hot dogs and hamburgers, but this herb has been used for centuries as an antiseptic, to boost a faltering appetite, to soothe inflammation and swelling, and as a decongestant bath for colds. 

Rich in vitamins A, B-complex, and C, mustard greens offer a variety of health benefits from immune system strengthening to heart, lung, and kidney health. Agriculturally, mustard seeds, which can grow in wastelands as well as in gardens, are planted to cleanse and restore pastures.

That’s a lot of benefit from a tiny herb – which is part of the point of the parable. In God’s love, this tiny herb can produce far-reaching fruits that benefit all that God has created: us, our animal kin, and even the earth we share. Who knew such a tiny seed could have so much to offer?

We have the benefit of scientific research that explicates exactly what the benefits of this ancient herb are, but that doesn’t help us to be any more or less faithful than those who don’t know the science behind it, because behind the science – before, after, and in the science - is the plan of God. Knowledge is helpful, but being aware of and faithful to God’s call to us, what I call our divine purpose, is what really matters.

In this parable, we are the sower and we are the seed. The divine purpose of the sower is to scatter the seeds and collect the fruit when sent. The divine purpose of the seed is to be transformed into a resource for the healing and nourishing of the world.

As we can see from our OT reading, when we stray from our divine purpose, we do harm to ourselves, to others, and to creation. After Samuel anointed Saul as king, Saul was corrupted by the power of his kingship and God’s people were suffering, so God told Samuel to go anoint another king.

As instructed, Samuel visits Jesse the Bethlehemite. As Jesse presents son after son, God cautions Samuel against making judgments from a human perspective reminding us all that our sight and knowledge are limited.

David, the youngest, least respected, least qualified son wasn’t there, so Samuel asked for him to be brought to them. When David arrives, Samuel hears the voice of God choose him and anoints David right then and there.

It would be some time before David would actually take the throne. There would be a time of waiting first, while the divine seed, who was David, could be brought to maturity so that he could bear fruit for the kingdom. As we know, David led Israel to a period of lasting prosperity, regional power, and peace.

Like David, each of us is called, equipped, and sent according to God’s plan for us. Since we know that our knowledge and understanding are limited we must not judge the value of anyone’s divine purpose – even our own – and no one is in a position to say ‘my purpose is better than yours.’ As silly and juvenile as that sounds, it pervades our human experience. Hierarchies are contrived from this notion, and it is the root of classism, racism, sexism, all the -isms.

Diversity, on the other hand, is a divine gift and Pride month offers us the perfect opportunity to remember and celebrate that. As St. Paul reminds us, we must not regard anyone from a human point of view because Christ has died and is risen. Now every one of us is a new creation in him… “for we are convinced that one has died for all.” …for all.

We are the current step in God’s action plan of love. By scattering the particular seeds of love God has given us, we also are letting go the potential outcomes we want or expect in favor of the outcomes God has in mind.

In the meantime, we trust God, scatter the seeds we are given, then wait… and watch… listening for God’s prompting to us to go harvest the fruit, then putting that fruit - the resources God has created - to work in the world for the benefit of all. 

That is how love changes lives. That is how love changes the world. Amen.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

2 Pentecost, 21-B: Choose to love


Lectionary: 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15); Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35 

Our lectionary today presents us with a wonderful opportunity to delve deeply into the topics of sin and forgiveness in the context of the identity and ministry of Jesus, the Christ.

In our Old Testament lesson, Samuel is old and ready to stop being the prophet and spiritual leader of the people of Israel. His sons, however, aren’t faithful and the people don’t want them to take over after Samuel, so they demand Samuel anoint a king for them. The countries all around them had kings and now they wanted one too.

This cut Samuel to the quick because he felt like it was an indictment against his leadership. God is their only king and Samuel had led them as a servant of God.

God intervenes in Samuel’s suffering, however, and assures him that it is God they are rejecting, not Samuel or his leadership. Warn them, God says, knowing they will do what they choose.

In the end, they chose to have a king so, against his better judgment, Samuel brought them all to Gilgal, the place where the Israelites celebrated their first Passover after crossing the Jordan into the promised land. Gilgal had become for them an important place of memorial and pilgrimage where they often gathered to remember what God had done for them. It was at this sacred site that Samuel anointed Saul as their king.

Samuel thought their desire for a king was sinful. Our Prayer Book would affirm Samuel’s concern. Our Catechism defines sin as “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” (BCP, 848) If sin is the choice to seek our own will instead of God’s, then the actions that result from that choice are the evidence of sin, not the sin itself.

Our choice to sin causes a disruption of the relationships we have with God, one another, and the world. When we see the effects of that choice, we are called to repent and return to righteousness, that is, to right relationship.

That is what the Law of Moses (the 10 Commandments) was meant to do. It is not simply a codified set of behavioral controls, but a means of guiding us back to right relationship by showing us the evidence of our sin – showing us what it looks like when we have gone astray in our faithfulness. It looks like stealing from someone, killing them, coveting what they have, dishonoring them, their family, or God, etc. When we see that happening, we know we need to repent.

We talked at Bible study this week about the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day. If we aren’t keeping any day holy, if we aren’t setting aside time to restore our relationships with God, one another, and the world, then we are sinning - actively or passively choosing to separate ourselves from God and our faith community. The effects of that choice eventually will be seen in our actions. Seeing the evidence of our sin opens up for us the opportunity to repent, to seek or offer forgiveness, to be reconciled with God and one another.

In our gospel story today, Jesus issues a scary warning: “whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin…” He said this in response to those who said that he, Jesus, has an unclean spirit and did his amazing work by the power of Satan.

Jesus quickly dismisses their claim by pointing out the irrationality of the adversary working in Jesus or anyone else to destroy itself. But his next phrase, “Truly I tell you…” indicates this is what they (and we) really need to pay attention to because it’s important.

Jesus states very plainly that people will be forgiven their sins, but (he says) the one who reviles the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness…” I often hear this discussed as meaning that this is the one sin God won’t forgive, but what exactly that sin is, isn’t terribly clear, so it leaves many of us wondering how to avoid committing this unforgivable sin.

Let’s consider, for a moment, who Jesus is. We believe that Jesus is the full and perfect revelation of God. And what is the nature of God he revealed? According to our Catechism, the answer is: God is love (BCP, 849). We believe that God is love and that Jesus brought salvation by the forgiveness of our sins.

Interpreting Jesus’ statement in our gospel, then, as something God does – withholding forgiveness - misses the point. Jesus is very clear that people will be forgiven their sins – even the blasphemies we utter. But, he says, the one who separates from God, the one who reviles or denounces God – that one can’t have forgiveness, not because God won’t give it, but because they can’t receive it.

This is what happens when we separate from God, the source of our life. The more separated we become the more “other” God becomes to us and the more likely we will hesitate to repent, to change our direction, and reorient toward God.

We begin to fear God whom we no longer know intimately. Our fear furthers our sense of separation and the process goes on and on.

Also, the longer we are separated from God the more we wonder if God would allow us to reconcile even if we wanted to, aware as we are of the hubris that led us to sin in the first place. When someone sins against us we tend to get mad or retaliate. It makes sense to us that God would do the same.

That’s why Jesus’ statement is so comforting: we will be forgiven. That’s God’s to do and it’s been done. We have been saved by the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus Christ who has reconciled us to God.

We celebrate this truth every Sunday. This altar is our Gilgal – the place of our pilgrimage, where we gather to remember what God has done for us. As we say in our Eucharistic Prayer: “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption, O Father, in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” (BCP, 363)

Then we ask God to sanctify us that “we may faithfully receive [the] holy Sacrament, and serve [God] in unity, constancy, and peace. This is when we make the choice to open ourselves to receive the gift being given to us.

In the same way that Jesus said the world is wrong about sin, we’re also often wrong about forgiveness. I share with you from the world’s current fount of wisdom on forgiveness: Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Forgiveness,” he says, “is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. You can say: "I am willing to forgive you for stealing my pen, and after you give me my pen back, I shall forgive you." This is the most familiar pattern of forgiveness.” But, Tutu says, we “don't forgive to help the other person. We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves…”

I would add that the reason is: it is only by forgiveness that relationships can be restored and we can be reconciled.

“Forgiveness,” Tutu says, “takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness… to try. It isn't easy…” but until “we can forgive,” Tutu says, “we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.” Source

“From the beginning,” our Catechism says, “humans have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.” (BCP, 845) We all make personal choices to sin, but we also live in a global family where the evidence of our collective sin is plain. Whether we actively choose to sin or passively allow sin we see evidence of to continue is also our choice.

The good news is that we are made in the image of God and we have been redeemed, that is, set free to make choices that reflect the image of God, who is love, and who dwells in us.

That’s why it’s so important to pray and to lean in when we see the evidence of sin and bring the presence of the Spirit of God, who dwells in us, into that circumstance, into that relationship, so that all can be restored and reconciled.

We don’t always get to see the healing and reconciliation. Sometimes that happens outside our view, maybe even in the next life. But we trust it will happen because God has promised it.

Breathe in us breath of God and inspire us to know what is your will, then guide us to do it our part in your eternal plan of redemption. As for us, may we choose to love. Amen.