Saturday, December 24, 2022

Christmas, 2022: God chooses us

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14-20

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

Tonight (today) we celebrate that Christmas is about God choosing us. God chooses life for us. God chooses joy and peace for us. God chooses redemption and reconciliation for us, and God chooses us to be partners in the reconciliation of the whole world to God. God chooses to be born in us again on Christmas, to dwell in us and renew us, to make us vessels overflowing with God’s own grace, mercy, and love for the world.

As author Marianne Williamson once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.” Source

That is the real meaning of Christmas – the manifestation of the glorious love of God in the world. Sadly, so much distracts us from that and instead, we get caught up in public and moral outrage over whether or not to use the Greek letter chi (which looks like an X) when writing the word Christmas, or whether to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. The shaming I see on social media about this is just nuts. And who remembers the Christmas coffee cup debacle a few years ago? The coffee company changed their cup to a solid color which led a pastor to accuse them of hating Jesus.

Focusing on the wrong thing, like buying presents we can’t afford, or moralizing over how others get Christmas wrong, leads us to miss the overwhelming, life-changing, world-changing good news of Christmas – that the glorious love of God is being made manifest in the world.

If it helps, the same thing happened that first Christmas.

According to the Gospel writer, Joseph, who is descended from the house of David, must travel to Bethlehem to register in accordance with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Mary, who is engaged to Joseph, is pregnant and near delivery, so they travel together.

Ordinarily, travelers like Mary and Joseph would have stayed with family or friends who live in the area. But Mary and Joseph can find no place to stay. The Christmas story, which we know so well, says ‘there was no room for them at the inn.’

Mary and Joseph were only offered a rough, dirty place in the part of the house where the animals were kept. The baby would have been placed in a feeding trough to keep him from getting trampled by an animal.

Joy Carroll Wallis, author and priest in the Church of England, suggests that Joseph and Mary were being shunned…their family and friends morally outraged, because Joseph showed up on their doorstep with his pregnant girlfriend and everyone knew it wasn’t his baby.

The Messiah was being born right under their noses, and they missed it because they were busy moralizing. They judged Joseph and Mary to be sinners whom they felt justified in rejecting and excluding, unaware that God had chosen them to be partners in the reconciliation of the world.

The judgment of God, who is the only real moral authority, is salvation in Jesus who is the Christ. By taking on flesh like ours, Jesus links heaven and earth, eternity and time, from ages past to this present moment reconciling us to himself and ensuring that everyone is included in God’s plan of salvation …the clean and the unclean, the Jew and Gentile, the saint and the sinner.

So many "religious" people would rather God offer grace only to those who deserve it. The truth is, none of us deserves it, and yet all of us receive it because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

A perfect example is the shepherds in the fields who were the first to hear of the birth of the Savior. In those days shepherds were seen as a group of dirty, low-class nobodies. Yet, God chose them to be the first to hear these tidings of great joy. God chose them to be the first to see the Christ-child. When the shepherds told about what they saw, the grace of God flowed through them so that all who heard them were amazed, and the shepherds themselves could do nothing but praise and glorify God.

Today, God chooses us. We are the believers described in the letter to Titus - people transformed by God’s love and, therefore, zealous for good deeds, remembering of course, that our good deeds are simply the manifestation of God’s grace moving through us into the world.

Tonight (today) we are reminded that Christmas is about God choosing us. God chooses to be born in us again, to dwell in us and renew us, to make us vessels overflowing with God’s own grace, mercy, and love for the world.

God chooses us because that is the nature of the extravagant love of God.

Like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, we must remember that God will love us, protect us, care for us, and bless us, while providing us with everything we need to do what God asks us to do. All we need to do is choose to trust God.

Merry Christmas! 


Sunday, December 18, 2022

4 Advent, 2022-A: Reciprocal love

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25 

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

I commend to you a non-profit group called StoryCorps whose mission is to build connections between people by sharing real-life stories. Most of the stories are about ordinary people doing ordinary things: a grandmother telling her grandchildren about falling in love with their grandfather; one friend telling another what their friendship means to them.

StoryCorps has produced several books of these stories. One of them is called, “Listening is an Act of Love” and, as they say on their website: “Everybody’s story matters. Every life counts.”

We have a similar mission as Christian churches – to build connections among all people, languages, races, and nations within the shared story of our redemption until the whole world is reconciled to God in Christ. It is true for us too, that listening is an act of love – reciprocal love with God.

We believe that all creation has been spoken into being by Jesus through whom all things were made. He is the Word of God, the reason or plan of God eternally active in creation. At Jesus’ Baptism by John God said, “This is my beloved, listen to him.” (Lk 9:35) Listen to him… Hear and respond to him...

We feel like we do listen to him – or at least we try to. We try to obey Jesus’ command to us to love God, neighbor, and self. We try to obey the rules of our faith as we live our lives in the world. But when God said, “listen to him” at Jesus’ baptism, we weren’t being told to obey Jesus. We were being invited to respond with our “yes” to him, reciprocating his love for us with our love for him.

In today’s Old Testament story, King Ahaz (whose name means, “has held”) demonstrates what happens when we do not reciprocate God’s love. Ahaz is a faithful Jew and holds fast to the Jewish law in Deuteronomy, the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:6) so when God invites him to ask for a sign from God, Ahaz says “no, I can’t.”

God, however, is ready to do a new thing and be known in a new way. God is waiting to save the Jewish people besieged by war, but Ahaz can’t say “yes” to God because he has put his obedience to a rule ahead of God’s offer of comfort. For Ahaz, this encounter is outside his expectations for who God is, what God wants, and how God acts.

Seeing this, the prophet, Isaiah, clears things up, proclaiming that God is already acting to save the people and will give them a sign. Look, Isaiah says, a young woman is pregnant, and by the time her child grows up, the city and the nation of Jerusalem will have been saved from their enemies. This child will be named Immanuel, which means “God with us” because he will be the sign of God’s presence, a reminder of God’s promise of salvation.

The story of Ahaz stands in contrast to the story of Joseph, who in the gospel story today, listens with reciprocal love.

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream saying what angels always say: Don’t be afraid… God is acting in this moment. Your Mary is pregnant and the son within her is from the Holy Spirit. When he is born, you must name him Jesus, actually ‘Jehosua’ in Hebrew – Joshua - which means ‘God saves,’ for he will save his people from their sins.’

Both Matthew and Isaiah proclaim a God who knows what the people need and acts to redeem even before they ask for it. This is how God has always acted.

The prophecy in Isaiah was not about Jesus being born of Mary in Bethlehem. It was about God - who loves us, is always present with us, and is already acting to redeem even before we ask.

In Isaiah, the young woman bore a son who was a sign that God would save the people from their enemies. In Matthew, the young woman bore a son who would save them from their sins.

The story of Joseph’s “yes” to God offers us so much to talk about, but for now, the gift I want to focus on is what it cost Joseph to say “yes” to God.

Nobody around their village would know - or believe - that Mary came up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. They’d have done what folks usually do – put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them. The obvious conclusion would be that someone besides Joseph got Mary pregnant.

According to the law, Joseph was supposed to have Mary stoned to death for adultery. His inclination, however, was to dissolve their marriage contract and “dismiss her quietly.” That would have spared Mary’s life, but it also would have destined her and her child to a lifetime of poverty, and shame.

When the angel asked Joseph to take the already pregnant Mary as his wife, Joseph knows saying “yes” to God means he will have to sacrifice his righteous reputation and live out his days as the pitiable man with the unfaithful wife.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he might have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask him to violate the very laws God gave his people to follow. He could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion. But he doesn’t.

When he awakens, Joseph gives his “yes” to God because he was righteous. Joseph was in right relationship with God. His conscience was pure, that is, aligned completely with the Word of God given to him.

In our Collect today, we asked God to purify our conscience, to align us completely with the Word of God who dwells in us. The voice of God within us, individually and as a community, leads us forward in the way we are meant to go. It tells us what our divine purpose is and how to live it out.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship from Jesus. We are by definition a gathering of apostles – a people sent on a mission. And what is our mission? To use everything we’ve been given, and risk everything we have, so that God can be made known, and God’s love made manifest in the world in new and unprecedented ways, until all people, languages, races, and nations are “restored to unity with God and one another in Christ.” (BCP, 855).

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly to the voice of God within us and respond as Joseph did, with our “yes.” Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

2 Advent, 2022-A: Peace in our believing

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12 

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

As a pastor and a spiritual director, I have the privilege of being invited into deep conversations with people when their faith is being challenged, or they’re experiencing a “dark night” where they feel no sense of the presence of God in their lives. Some are seeking faithfully to discern God’s path for this moment in their lives. Others are just trying to stay connected. 

In all of these conversations, what is foundational is the person’s relationship with God. Who is God to each of these? How do they relate to God and how do they experience God relating to them?

Some of us who grew up in the church learned how to understand and relate to God in certain “acceptable” ways. Others among us either didn’t grow up in the church, or grew up being taught awful, sometimes unfaithful doctrines that continue to affect how we relate to God. Still others have had personal, mystical experiences of God leading to an intimate, convincing relationship with God. Whatever religious doctrines or practices or theology we have, when life is challenging, it’s our belief in and relationship with God that carry us through.

(Photo credit: VM Sherer, "God" by Manuela Rivera Mulvey)

What I’ve noticed is that the challenging moments of our lives often affect our belief in God. I think of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich whose physical challenges led her into an experience of God that completely transformed her believing, and therefore how she related to God, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy and her equally famous proclamation that “God is not wroth” which she clarifies by saying that wrath is found in humans, but not in God who loves us mercifully, tenderly, and completely.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul is encouraging the members of the new Christian church in Rome to relate to one another differently: to live in peace and harmony. Jews and Gentiles, Roman occupiers and those they occupied are now members of a new community of faith. The Scriptures, he reminds them, foretold that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed through the Jews, but that it would reach all nations and peoples, and habitual enemies would live together in peace.

This is what we heard described in the reading from Isaiah. The coming of the king will signal the inauguration of a time of profound peace born of right relationship. In this new era, the peace will be so deep, so complete that even natural enemies will share cooperative, peaceful lives.

Looking around then and now, this seems like a dim possibility, but our belief assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. So, Paul exhorts the church in Rome to continue to hope and believe praying this beautiful blessing over them: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Peace in believing…

If we believe that God is just and kind, full of compassion and mercy, that God cares for those who suffer and hears their prayers, that God’s love for us is steadfast and sacrificial, then even when things have gone array, we can have peace in our believing. Even when the world has gone wrong, our belief that God chooses to be in loving, sustaining relationship with us will sustain our hope.

What gets in our way is sin, but that’s one of those words… How do we understand it?

I offer you what German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote just after WWII came to an end. Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to righteousness, that is, to right relationship. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Whipf and Stock Pub., 1948)

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John proclaims that the people need to repent so they can receive the grace about to come in the one who would come after him, the one who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching. They wanted what he was offering – a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

Even the religious authorities were coming, but when they arrive, John doesn’t mince words with them. Why was he so caustic with them? We can’t be sure if the Pharisees and Sadducees came to observe what John was doing in order to prepare an “official response” or if they were, like many others, coming to him drawn by the message of this new way of being. My guess is, it was probably a bit of both.

John’s prophetic teachings used apocalyptic language familiar to the listeners of the day. We have taken them to be punitive, but they really are promising and uplifting. Otherwise, why would so many flock to hear him?

The scariest thing John says in this gospel is probably this: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So let’s look at that more deeply.

The Messiah is coming. The winnowing fork enables him to separate fruit that is ready to be used, from the chaff. Chaff is a natural by-product of the process, and of itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t useful in its present form so it is burned.

The habitual association with hellfire and eternal punishment often clouds our thinking on this, but John says the chaff will be burned in “unquenchable fire.”

As we’ve discussed before, fire is biblical language for the presence of God. Think of the burning bush and of John’s proclamation that Jesus would baptize them with fire. God’s steadfast love and mercy cannot be quenched by us or anything we do. In God, whose mercy endures forever, all who aren’t ready in their present form will be made new by the unrelenting love of God.

We sin. That doesn’t make us bad – just human. Advent calls us to own that and repent, trusting that God loves us and stands ready to restore us to right relationship. When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, “the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love...”

Repentance opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, empowered by the grace of God’s unquenchable love. Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can choose to repent in the way John the Baptist taught and change the way we’re in relationship with God and with one another. 

Then we can live together in peace, and we will have within ourselves peace in our believing. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

23 Pentecost, 2022-C: The new creation

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25, Canticle 9, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19 

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

One of the greatest mysteries of our faith – to me – is us. We who are bound up in skin, so marvelously made that the intricacies of our physicality are still being discovered by science… we who are also temples of God’s own Spirit, dwelling places of the Eternal One. We are walking, talking miracles: embodied spirits - form and formlessness, time and timelessness dwelling in our humble, complicated, beloved selves.

Our mortal nature allows us to kiss a loved one, walk on a grassy field, swim in the ocean, and nap under a tree. The Immortal One dwelling in us enables us to know love that transcends time, space, and persons; and to connect to all creation and our Creator in mystical union.

Our Collect today addresses the wholeness of our natures: our mortal selves that hear and see and learn, and our spiritual selves that open to holy Scripture and find it a doorway to hope, and eternity. Most of us know what this feels like – that moment you’re reading something in Scripture you’ve read 100 times before, but suddenly, it breaks you wide open and you are flooded with joy, insight, and truth – the whole thing leaving you breathless and amazed.

This is the moment we recognize how corporeal God’s presence is in us and at the same time, how transcendent we and all creation are in God. Like I said, it’s a mystery.

In our Old Testament reading today, the Prophet Isaiah speaks to this mystery. God is promising a new thing, a new Jerusalem a new place where God’s people will live in joy and the things of the earth that bring sadness or distress will be transformed by the love of God. This transformation will be corporeal, such that “ the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…” It will also be transcendent: “Before they call, I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”

That is the new creation: the symbiotic dance of earth and heaven, God and creation, time and eternity. That is what we sing out in our moments of tranquility and what we cling to in faith when the world is crashing around us.

In the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in the gospel from Luke, we see Jesus guiding his students into this understanding ahead of their own trials. The plot to destroy Jesus is underway and Jesus knows what’s coming – for him and for them. The world is about to crash down around his disciples, so they need to learn how to look beyond the present moment on earth and embrace and ever hold fast to the eternal plan of God. 

So do we.

Has there ever been a time in earth’s history when there weren’t wars and insurrections? Nations rising against nations? Earthquakes, hurricanes, famines, and plagues?

Those aren’t the things to dread, Jesus tells his disciples because, before all of that, the powerful on earth will seize you and throw you in prison. You will be brought before kings and governors who will accuse you on account of me. This isn’t something to dread either, Jesus says, because it will be an opportunity for you to witness to the truth you know, the truth of the new creation prophesied by Isaiah fulfilled now in me.

Let’s pause here for a minute to notice something in this part of the story. Jesus says to his disciples: “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Jesus is promising his disciples that he will give them wisdom and the words they should use after he has been killed - which he also told them was going to happen. Did they wonder how he would do that? Do we? 

Do we remember that we are walking, talking miracles: embodied spirits - form and formlessness, time and timelessness dwelling in our humble, complicated, beloved selves because Jesus’ eternal Spirit lives in our mortal bodies, speaking for us, and acting through us in every moment of our earthly lives?

Corrie ten Boom was a perfect example of this. She was a Christian who put her own life at risk hiding Jews from the Nazis during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Her resistance resulted in her being sent to a concentration camp which she survived but most of her family didn’t. Corrie once said, “I know that the experiences of our lives when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work [God] will give us to do.” (Source)

When we surrender our need to judge, to escape suffering, or even to survive, and choose instead to embrace and ever hold fast to the redeeming love of God, we find life, hope, and true super-hero style strength. I think of saints like Corrie ten Boom, Catherine of Sienna, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – to name just a few.

As Christians, the end of anything is not something we dread or avoid or prepare to survive. It is for us, the revelation of a path to new life. Our reading from Isaiah shows us that God has been bringing new life from death for a very long time.

At the conclusion of this gospel reading, Jesus says, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls." This is often taken to mean that when we suffer, we “earn” our salvation, but that isn’t what Jesus is saying. Jesus never said stuff like that.

Jesus is saying that when we are suffering if we wait in the discomfort, we will awaken to the fact of the presence of God within us. When that happens, we become fully ourselves: human bodies housing the Divine Spirit. Then there is no circumstance, not a pandemic, not even death, that has power over us for we live and breathe in communion with God, according to the will and plan of God.

We can, therefore, let go of our desired outcomes, be undistracted by fear, and choose instead to be awake, aware, and alive in this present moment which is a gift from God. Embracing the hope of eternal life in Christ and holding fast to it no matter what we see or experience in the world is our faithful response.

I close with a poem about hope: 

“Hope is a state of mind not 
 dictated by what appears 
to be, but a promise 
built on faith. 

We look beyond 
fear. And begin to trust 
 what we do not yet see.

We listen 
for though we prepare
and plan
and strive to organize, Love 
will take us in
a new direction, a re-birth
beyond our comprehension. 

 In prayerful surrender
we discover who we are.
By faith we continue
to become
truly ourselves.”                                        Poem and photo: © Valori M. Sherer, 2009. All rights reserved. 


Sunday, November 6, 2022

All Saints, 2022-C: Bound together in Christ

 Lectionary: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31 

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

I love the feast of All Saints because it reminds us that our experience of reality in this world is only part of a larger picture. The larger picture, for Episcopalians, includes heaven and earth and all that is in them: the vast expanse of interstellar space and this fragile earth, our island home… along with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven (BCP, 370-371) who sing their praises with us each time we gather for Holy Eucharist.

In that larger picture, the will of God is the only reality, and that will is most simply and most accurately described as reconciling love, love that seeks, finds, and joins together all things and all people. We are, therefore, never alone. The saints who were, who are, and who are yet to be are united to us in and by God’s eternal love.

In our earthly lives, we witness and experience a world that often isn’t safe for us and it seems like we need to take care of ourselves even as we profess our belief in God’s redeeming love. The Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ ends up being reduced to a set of beliefs or practices that function more like ecclesiastical fire insurance (you know, staying out of hell) rather than as an invitation to live transformed lives.

When we are baptized, we are baptized first into the death of Christ, and everything we think we know about God, the world, and even ourselves dies there. In Baptism we are reconciled to God in Christ, becoming part of that larger picture of love. We take on the title and the identity of saint: one who shares life in Christ.

We are baptized into new life and we emerge from the baptismal waters already living a new reality. We then spend the rest of our lives sharing the Good News of that truth by living it so that all who know us know that God’s love is the true reality of the world.

In his book, “Proof of Heaven,” neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, M.D., admitted to being a C&E Episcopalian who wasn’t particularly spiritual – until he contracted E.coli and nearly died. Dr. Alexander talked about having a near-death experience in the hospital after which everything he understood about everything was changed. He said he was transformed by a Love he encountered in a place he calls heaven while his earthly body lay in a coma in a hospital bed.

He described his experience of heaven saying: “It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming part of it – without joining with it in some mysterious way (45) … Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else…” (46)

Dr. Alexander goes on to describe other worlds, higher worlds that “aren’t totally apart from us, because all worlds are part of the same overarching divine Reality.” This is reconciliation and it is what the world witnessed for the first time at Jesus' baptism when the heavens opened and the voice of God declared Jesus the beloved Son. It's what we continue to witness today at this and every Baptism.

Our earthly experience that we are separated from God is replaced by the reality of our eternal oneness with God in Christ, and that transforms how we live and the choices we make, which Jesus kindly outlines for us in today’s gospel from Luke.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” These aren’t declarative statements, they are descriptive. When you begin from your oneness with God, you will love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and bless and pray for those who harm you.

It’s the outcome of the reality of our oneness with God. As Jesus’ disciples in this moment of the Christian narrative, we can expect that the world’s response to us will be much like it was for those first disciples: we will be hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed by those who choose to live as if they are separated from God’s love, power, and mercy. When that happens, Jesus says, “Rejoice,…and leap for joy, for …your reward is great in heaven.”

Episcopalians don’t see this reward as something we collect upon the end of our earthly lives. We understand it to be an eternal reward, eternal – having no beginning and no end. It doesn’t start later, it’s happening now. The reward is that we are able to look beyond the circumstance of any earthly moment and trust the continual working out of God’s plan of redeeming love on earth as it is in heaven.

Our Catechism reminds us that we believe that “the universe is good… the work of a… loving God who
creates, sustains, and directs it. We believe that the world belongs to its creator; and that we are called to enjoy it and care for it in accordance with God's purposes. We believe that all people are worthy of respect and honor because all are created in the image of God…” (BCP, 846) We believe that the communion of saints is the whole family of God, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Living this larger, heavenly reality, in the face of a very different earthly reality isn't something we can do on our own. It's something we must do together as the church, the mystical body of Christ on earth.

Today, we have the great joy of baptizing Vincent Johnson into this heavenly reality, and we invite the heavens to open up as we all declare Vincent a saint, a member of the family of God in Christ among the communion of saints on earth.

I invite the family to join me now at the Baptismal font.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

21 Pentecost, 2022-C: Surprising redemption

 Lectionary: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10 

As news of the shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts HS developed this week, a letter written by the shooter, 19-year-old Orlando Harris, was found in his car. In that letter, Orlando said, “I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any family. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never had a social life. I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life.” Source

I’ve been an isolated loner my entire life…

We don’t know the circumstances of Orlando Harris’ life or what led him to the moment of violence he unleashed at CVPA. I accept that his note reflects his experience. There is also evidence of his family’s attempts to intervene to protect him and others. In the end, however, he was lost. His experience of being cut off from love led to death.

It’s that way for all of us. Our lives are rooted in our relationship with God, our Creator, and fortified in our relationships with others.

I wish Orlando had known that his cries echo the human experience. In our reading from Habakkuk we hear this desperate prayer: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence” and you will not save?”

I wish Orlando could have known God’s redemption as described by the prophet Habakkuk who moved from desperate isolation to steadfast faith, trusting God to answer his prayer: “I will stand at my watchpost… I will keep watch to see what God will say to me…”

And God told the prophet Habakkuk to wait.

Waiting can be the hardest thing to do when we are in pain or desperate. Holding still in the steadfast belief that God hears and answers our prayers, that God will find and rescue us when we are lost, is hard when God seems absent amid the destruction and violence all around us.

But God isn’t absent. God isn’t ever absent. And God knows better than we do how redemption will happen.

That is what Jesus is teaching us in today’s gospel from Luke. The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one. It even has a song that sings in our thoughts every time we hear his name: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you know it? I remember it from childhood.

The story of Zacchaeus teaches us that God’s redemption will almost always surprise us and that we should be careful about what we think we know about who needs it.

Zacchaeus was a Jewish tax collector who was, by definition, working for the enemy – the Roman occupiers, and getting rich from it. He was, therefore hated by his Jewish community and ostracized by them. In today’s parlance, he was a traitor to his own people and was profiting from it.

So when Jesus came to the wealthy city of Jericho, where Joshua won the battle that gave the Israelites their first home in the Promised Land after their exile, the Jewish people were happy to welcome him. Zacchaeus’ presence would have been an unwelcome part of this happy day.

Most of us grew up hearing that Jesus saved Zacchaeus that day, but the passage tells a different story. Many translations change the verb tense from present to future. Zacchaeus actually says, "Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor – not I will give… If I have wrongfully exacted anything of anyone, I restore four times as much – not I will restore, as our translation says.

Some scholars justify this intentional verb tense change by reasoning that if it were present tense, Zacchaeus would sound boastful which Jesus wouldn’t like, or that rich men in the gospels are usually lost, or that if Zacchaeus had been righteous all along it would diminish this as a salvation story.

But that makes no sense to me. The story is a much stronger story in keeping with the overall message of Jesus when it is read in the present tense as it was written.

Zacchaeus was a righteous tax collector, which is admittedly, a difficult concept to fathom. Zacchaeus found a way to survive the horrible reality of Roman occupation and even to profit from it, but he didn’t do that by stealing from his own people.

Even though they hated and ostracized him, Zacchaeus remained steadfast in his right relationship with his Jewish community – and this goes straight to the heart of Jesus’ continual admonition not to judge. The Jewish people in Zacchaeus’ community judged him as sinful – and they were wrong.

So, Jesus demonstrated what God’s redemption looks like – only it wasn’t for Zacchaeus. It was for the “household” (Gk: oikos) present – the Jewish people who were gathered near that sycamore tree. By proclaiming, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham…" Jesus freed them all of the prejudice that separated and divided them, reconciling Zacchaeus back into his Jewish community.

When he said, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” he was talking about those who put up barriers to relationship, as justified as they thought they were. Zacchaeus was not who was lost. He was already justified by his righteousness. It was the Jewish people gathered. They were the lost ones Jesus came to save, to unbind them from the sin of their judgment and the brokenness it caused their community.

Today as we all heal from the trauma of another school shooting, this one in our hometown, our community, it helps to remember that we too tend to pass judgment and when we do it fractures our community.

What led Orlando Harris, a child of God, to that horrible moment of destruction? We don’t know, but we can and must remember that we are not called to judge, but to reconcile. To do that we must recognize where prejudice is coloring our opinions and fracturing our community, and act to restore right relationship.

As Christians, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation established by Jesus. We do this instinctively when we let ourselves. As news of the shooting unfolded, the videos showed people embracing one another, holding hands, and tenderly touching tear-streaked faces. This is what being the hands and heart of Christ in a broken world looks like.

Let’s close with a prayer by our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson., called, “A prayer for God’s embrace.” 

 Let us pray. 

Surround us O God, surround us, 
Surround us with your loving embrace, when the weight of the world is heavy. 
Surround us with your tender compassion, when the weariness encroaches.
Surround us with your amazing grace, when all seems hopeless and lost.
Surround us with your abiding wisdom, when we are too well pleased with ourselves.
Surround us with your unfenced joy, when the sadness of the world overwhelms.
Surround us O God, with your very self, that we may rest secure in your everlasting arms. 


Sunday, October 16, 2022

19 Pentecost, Proper 24, 2022-C: Praying into the light of God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8 

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

Did you know that the roots of our Anglican-Episcopal tradition are Celtic? It wasn’t until 664, at the Council of Whitby, that the Anglican Church voted to shift from the Celtic tradition of the monks in Iona, to the Roman tradition under Pope Gregory the Great, thereby solving the perplexing problems of how to calculate the date of Easter and how monks should cut their hair.

It’s important to know our history especially as we celebrate Creation Season this year. In the creation-centered Celtic tradition, God is feminine in nature and the institution operates within a relational, monastic structure. In the Roman tradition, God is masculine in nature and the institution operates on a hierarchical, militaristic structure. 

Today we are both and evidence of that can be seen woven into our polity and our practices. How we pray, for example, reflects which tradition has had more influence in our experience.

Do we pray to God who outranks us and whose orders we must follow or be punished? Or do we pray to God whom Julian of Norwich described saying, “our heavenly mother, Jesus, may never suffer us to be lost, for we are his children. And he is almighty, all wisdom, all love…For now he wants us to behave just like a child; for when a child is upset or afraid, it runs straight to its mother with all its might.” (John Skinner, ed., Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 137).  Note: Julian icon written by Anne Davidson. Used with permission.

There are times we need God to be strong, protective, and ready to kick some opponent butt for us. There are other times we need the tender, loving God from whose womb we came and to whose womb we’ll return, as Julian said. Thankfully, we have both. God is all of that and more.

When we pray, it is always in response to God. When we think we need to ask God for help, or strength, or health, it is because God has nudged us to acknowledge our need and come close, trusting God to provide. There are times when our prayers seem to go unheard, and our pain or heartache remains undiminished… justice unobtained. We cry out to God, ‘Do you not care that this is happening? Where are you God? Why don’t you do something?’

When that happens, we remember our belief that God desires the reconciliation of the whole world, including those who cause us pain and heartache, which is why Jesus told us to pray for our enemies and for those who persecute us. They are to be redeemed also and we participate in their redemption by our prayer. What seems like a delay in God’s response to our prayer for justice may actually be the result of God’s continuing efforts to redeem a lost soul or the souls of those involved in the corrupt systems doing the harm.

Luke reminds us to pray always and not lose heart and Jesus’ parable contrasts God with the judges of the world, assuring us that God hears and answers our prayers. “Listen to what the unjust judge says… I will grant justice.” Jesus promises that God responds to our prayer for our sakes, not for God’s own sake, and that God will act quickly to give us justice. Do you believe that? Jesus asks his listeners… Do we?

Prayer is the way we go from knowing about God to knowing God. When we enter into a deeply prayerful relationship with God, we find that God’s desires soon become our desires. Over time, we begin to notice that our will submits more easily and more quickly to God’s will, and we become accustomed to experiencing a oneness with God, one another, and all of creation that is real and true. The things of the world that divide us (power, money, privilege, position) begin to look ridiculous in the context of the Love that connects us and makes us one.

Prayer is a discipline – a strength we build by practice. Setting aside time to pray alone every day and praying in community every week are important habits to foster and they are especially helpful when we find ourselves in crisis, whether it’s a crisis in our lives or a crisis of faith. That’s when our discipline of prayer carries us through, even when we don’t know what we believe anymore. And when we are experiencing the hardest of times, the emptiest of dark nights, the prayers of our community join with the prayers of the company of heaven to uphold us until we emerge victorious again into the light of God.

The way of God and the way of the world hardly ever agree as Jesus’ parable illustrates. That’s why we are wise to heed St. Paul’s advice to be steadfast in believing and guided by Scripture. It’s why we need to remember Luke’s reminder that we should pray always and not lose heart.

But how do we pray always? It seems like an impossible task. I think we are better at this than we might think.

We are praying when we rest quietly in the presence of God, when we read Holy Scripture, pray the Rosary, walk a labyrinth, or contemplate an icon. We pray when we lose ourselves in the magic of a sunset, or when we sing hymns to God. We pray when we joyfully tend to mundane tasks grateful for the gift of life and the ability to work.

When it’s hard to pray, and all we can do is wait in darkness, feeling no real connection to God or anything else, even that is prayer, because it is in the darkness that the transforming light of Christ, promised and delivered to us by Jesus, breaks in most dazzlingly.

I close with a prayer from St. Columba of Iona: 
Be to me, O God, a bright flame before me, a guiding star above me, a smooth path beneath me, and a kindly shepherd behind me, today, tonight, and forever. (St Columba 521-597AD, Iona)  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

14 Pentecost, 2022-C: Coming home to God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 

Happy homecoming!  I give thanks that ours is a happy church to come home to – it’s one of Emmanuel’s most attractive qualities. 

It isn’t just that there is happiness here, which there is even in these COVID-affected times, but that there is a constant desire for and intention toward the happiness of the people in this church home on so many levels.

We rejoice to have among us those for whom Emmanuel is the home they come back to visit each year. We welcome you home.

We also rejoice over and welcome those siblings who have been or would be scorned, judged, or excluded from other church homes. We open our doors and our hearts to you.

At Emmanuel, we know that we are all sinners saved by the grace of God, which is what Jesus is teaching in these parables today.

Luke begins by telling us that tax collectors and other sinners were coming to hear Jesus speak. The very presence of these ungodly people caused the godly people around them to complain. Responding to their grumbling Jesus tells three parables. We hear two of them today. We’ll hear the third one next Sunday.

In these parables, Jesus reframes relationship and returns it to the proper order asserting that relationship begins with God and is made available by God to everyone.

In the first parable, the iconic story of the shepherd who leaves the whole flock to seek and recover a single lost sheep, we find a tender comforting image: the found sheep wrapped around the Good Shepherd’s shoulders being carried safely home.

Seeing ourselves as the sheep and Jesus as our Good Shepherd, this parable makes us feel like we matter, and we like that feeling. We like believing that if we were the one who wandered off and got lost, our Good Shepherd would leave everyone and everything else behind in order to find us, then carry us home, rejoicing - and  he would!

And while understanding the parable in this way makes us feel good, and loved, and valued, this parable isn’t about us – it’s about God whose nature it is to seek and save the lost, which here means out of relationship. This story is about God who rejoices each time anyone is reconciled back into relationship.

Sometimes our similarity with sheep is uncomfortably on target – which is why these parables are so effective. Sheep live in community, but much of the time their attention is focused on themselves – on finding and consuming that which will satisfy their hunger.

So, with their eyes looking down at the grass around their feet, they move from place to place - wherever the grass seems greener or more plentiful. Most of the time, the sheep doesn’t know it’s gotten lost until it finishes eating, looks up, and discovers that no one else is around. At that point, the sheep cries out – looking for a response from the flock or the shepherd. If there is no response, the lonesome sheep may panic and make dumb or dangerous choices. Or it may freeze, unable to make any decision at all, eventually dying of starvation right where it stands.

Notice in the parable that only one sheep in the flock knows it’s lost, even though there are 99 other sheep who, as the text says, are in the wilderness, which is Bible-speak for “lost”. Being part of a large crowd of sheep in the same place, doing the same thing, gives the flock a false sense of security.

This story, as sweet and comforting as it is for us, would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. You see, in Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised, “scorned as dishonest …” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65), unclean – ritually and actually – there were no showers out in those fields you know, so they stank.

The Scribes and Pharisees would have been appalled and angered by this parable. God is NOT a shepherd.

So… Jesus pushes it even farther casting God as (gasp) a woman! O.M.G!

An interesting thing about the story of the lost coin is that it doesn’t conjure up the kind of beautiful pastoral images the parable of the lost sheep does. As theologian Robert Farrar Capon says, most people don’t feel sorry for the coin which has been lost… and that’s the point.

The parable isn’t about the coin or us. It’s about God whose nature is to search diligently and work hard to find what had been lost.

At the end of each parable, Jesus says that all of heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents… one person who recognizes that she is lost and calls out to God for rescue; one person who turns his attention away from satisfying his own hunger and looks to God and God’s way instead.

Our relationship with God is THE relationship from which comes all our other relationships. God is our home.

God is the source of our happiness, and it is God’s Spirit that motivates us to grow our family, to expand our church boundaries to include and include, and include – even the blasphemer, the tax collector, and the sinner because God, whose love is beyond our comprehension, uses even our sinfulness to redeem. As St. Paul says, he was the foremost sinner who persecuted and killed Jesus’ followers, yet he received mercy, thereby revealing Christ’s “utmost patience” for all.

We who are followers of Jesus Christ are not a body of perfectly behaving, sinless persons. We are a collection of fully human, imperfect people, who forgive others as we have been forgiven and who welcome the least, the lost, and the excluded to the banquet table, just as Jesus did.

When Jesus says, “…I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" he isn’t talking about our behavior. He’s talking about our hearts. Our behavior is simply the outward manifestation of what’s going on within our hearts. 

We repent when we let go of all that hinders our relationship with God and prevents God’s love from growing in and through us. We repent when we open ourselves to receive the Love that chases after us, lifts us up, and carries us safely home.

That’s why coming home to our church matters. It’s where we learn and practice loving God, one another, and ourselves. At Emmanuel, we celebrate God’s amazing love for us and we do it among people who care enough to help us see when we have lost our way; people who will reach out and remind us to come back into relationship - to come home – and then rejoice when we do.  Happy homeoming. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

13 Pentecost, 2022-C: We're in good hands

Lectionary: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5,13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33 

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

C. S. Lewis once said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” 

Change is part of life. Granted, some changes are better than others and it can be hard to know which changes are good for us and which are not – but that’s where faith comes in.

For God’s people, there is nothing to fear in change. We’re in good hands as we heard in our Old Testament reading where The LORD says to Jeremiah: Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So, Jeremiah goes where God directs him, and there as he watches the potter reforming a pot that has spoiled on the wheel. Jeremiah hears the voice of God say: Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done? Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Telling the people through the prophet Jeremiah (twice, to be sure we hear it) that God’s plan is not fixed, God says: I will change my mind. God’s mind changes in response to the changes that happen in the world around us and in response to us and our choices.

That’s amazing, isn’t it?

On the downside, this means that we can never fully figure out God’s plan - it’s a moving target. We can never be absolutely sure that we know what to do to get it all right - but we aren’t called to be right. We’re called to be faithful.

On the plus side, this opens to us an amazing truth: that what we do and how we live matters and affects the plan of God…or is that a downside? Not if we are like clay in the hands of our Potter - clay that is malleable on the wheel where it is formed and re-formed into a vessel of the Potter’s design.

If you have ever worked with clay, you know that you have to pound the clay and knead water into it (it’s quite a workout!), or else the clay is dry, rigid, and unusable. By the same token, if we choose to be rigid about anything in our church life, we have chosen to make ourselves unworkable by the Master Potter, who honors our choices, even when they are regrettable.

Thankfully, God is always faithful to us, redeems our mistakes, and comforts us when the outcomes we set into motion hurt us. That is God’s covenant with us – to be our God, our Potter. Our covenant with God is to be God’s people – the clay that is formed and reformed in God’s hands according to God’s living plan of love for the world.

This metaphor of the Potter and the clay illustrates how intimately and actively God is with us. It also clarifies the trust we must have in the Potter, especially during the pounding and the kneading.

God has a plan of love for us and for the whole world. If we trust that, and if we trust God, who knit us together in our mother’s wombs and whose hand is laid upon us, we must be willing to let go of everything else – everything else - which is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel from Luke.

Speaking to a large, enthusiastic crowd of followers, Rabbi Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” You can almost hear the hearts of the people drop with a thud. Is God asking us to hate our family?

We’ll get to that. First, we need to hear the rest of this hard teaching.

Jesus goes on to say that we must bear our cross – the symbol of the death of all that matters to us - even our own lives - and follow him. But the hardest thing Jesus says today may be this: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

There are many things we possess, are attached to, and place before God’s call to us: our families, our reputation, our independence. We can be attached to our secrets, our self-image, our way of doing certain church ministries… even our ideas about God.

Jesus says that to be a disciple we must give up all of these and trust in God alone. We must shift our priority of loyalty (which is how the word ‘hate’ translates) to God before everything and everyone else – including ourselves.

We do not come first. They do not come first. God and God’s will for all of us come first – and we must trust God completely when we are called to choose. Only then can we be Jesus’ disciples.

Once upon a time, I was sitting in quiet prayer and study when my rectory doorbell rang. My dogs went crazy doing their protective, dog-thing: lots of noise and running around. I answered the door confident that whoever was there had heard the ruckus and knew I had 4-legged protection if I needed it.

On the other side of the door stood a large African-American man in a uniform with a name tag. He introduced himself and launched into his spiel about a risk-free plan for controlling the cost of monthly gas payments. I interrupted his presentation and informed him that this was a rectory belonging to the church not me, and anyway, it didn’t use gas as a utility.

He looked over at the church then back at me and said, “Oh. OK. Are you the pastor’s wife or something?” I smiled and said, “I’m the pastor.”

I never know how news like that will go over, so I waited and watched while he decided how he felt about it. After a moment, he asked, “What is your mission?”

When I looked at him kind of blankly he said, “What do you stand for? What do you believe in? I mean, are you followers of Jesus Christ who said ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life?’”

He’d obviously never met an Episcopalian before! 

Finishing the quote he started, I said: Jesus said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) Jesus also said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.” (John 6:44).

It pays to know a few Bible verses.

We shared a short conversation on what we believe as Christians, quoting the Bible often and faithfully. Though we were obviously speaking from VERY different denominational perspectives, we were truly and wonderfully grounded in and united by the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

As we shook hands and said goodbye the man began to pray. His prayer covered me with holy love, and I received it gratefully. When he finished praying, we embraced. We were no longer strangers, but members of one family – Christ’s family – having been reconciled by the sharing of the Gospel.

This encounter made very real for me the opening of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon which says, When I
remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. How proud Paul would have been of this disciple at my door.

I was blessed by my encounter with this man. It was an experience of oneness with God and another human being that broke down all divisions, all earthly barriers, and inspired me with hope. I made a mental note always to try to be open to the surprises of love God may send.

We are continually being formed and re-formed by God into disciples. As we grow and change at Emmanuel according to God’s plan for us, I pray we will be asking ourselves the same questions this man asked me: What is our mission? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? Are we followers of Jesus Christ?

I pray also that God will help us maintain our malleability so that we can be molded and fashioned into the kind of disciples who can be sent to create moments where oneness with God and another human being can be known and experienced, where we can inspire others with the hope that is the truth of the Gospel.

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

11 Pentecost, 2022-C: Rise up and rejoice

 Lectionary: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17 

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

In preparation for a book study with our bishop next fall, I’m reading “Canoeing the Mountains” by Tod Bolsinger. In this book, the author uses the story of Lewis and Clark to illustrate the current moment of transition the Church is facing.

As the story goes, Lewis and Clark were sent to find and claim the Northwest Passage, which everyonebelieved would be a waterway connecting the east coast to the west coast. The assumption was that the rivers from the east would lead up the Rocky Mountains, then back down the other side and continue west to the Pacific Ocean. When they arrived at the Rockies, however, Lewis and Clark discovered that no such water passage existed. Their canoes were useless in this new reality. They had to adapt and change or die.

This is the state of the church right now, the author says. We too must adapt and change or die.

Adapting is something we’ve been doing a lot of and we’re tired of it. The thought of fully reopening our churches this fall causes anxiety for some of us. Will we have the volunteers, the passion, the presence we used to?

Our reality has changed, and we aren’t sure we know how to go. Thankfully, our Scripture shows us the way– Jesus’ way.

The gospel story from Luke, the physician, includes a story of physical healing, but it is so much more than that. Jesus is at the synagogue where he often was invited to teach. As he arrives, he notices a woman who is bent over. Jesus calls her over to him and without asking if she wanted it, he heals her, which enrages the religious leadership who remind everyone that the Sabbath is set aside for God. No work should be done, so Jesus, a rabbi, knows he shouldn’t have healed her. This is, after all, the way we’ve always done things…

Jesus’ reaction is priceless and affirms Dcn Jerre’s point last week that Jesus isn’t always “nice.” “You hypocrites” Jesus says to the leadership. You allow work for the sake of caring for your animals on the Sabbath, but you would deny this person, this daughter of Abraham, liberation from her bondage?

Interestingly, the laws on Sabbath behavior are varied and deliberately unclear, leaving room for things like caring for the needs of animals and some people. For example, babies needed changing, right? But because she was a woman, and clearly a sinner from their perspective given her infirmity, they would prefer to blame and dismiss her. But Jesus chose to use her to reveal the love of God in the world. That’s what all healings do.

I want to share the first part of this story from the King James version which I think says it better: “And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.”

A spirit of infirmity is a condition that is recognized only by how it manifests, in this case, the woman is bent over. Luke mentions that she has been this way for 18 years. Eighteen is the biblical number for bondage. Finally, Luke tells us that the woman could “in no way raise herself up.’ Liberating her would take divine intervention – which Jesus offered her.

By choosing her Jesus clarifies for everyone present that this woman, whom they judged to be sinful, is worthy in God’s eyes. By choosing to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus not only reveals the hypocrisy of the religious leadership who hold people in bondage to laws of their own devising, he also reveals the true purpose of the Sabbath accomplished in a new way, in his Way of Love. Finally, by naming Satan, Jesus shows that God has power over all, including Satan.

Luke tells us that when the woman was liberated and raised up, she immediately began praising God. By the end of the story, they were all rejoicing. They had church that day, didn’t they? It happened in a different way than they were accustomed to, but it was a true fulfillment of the command about the Sabbath – to come together into the presence of God and offer praise.

In our Bible study this week, the question came up: did Satan cause this woman’s infirmity? Jesus seems to indicate that. The answer is yes, but only if you understand who and what Satan is and is not.

I’ve said this before, but the reading compels me to say it again: the Hebrew term “the satan” (which has a small “s,” btw) describes an adversarial role, not a particular character. “ (Elaine Pagels). We capitalized that S and made satan into Satan - a red demon guy who is nearly equal in power to God and who spends his time doing harm to God’s people, ultimately trying to trick them away from their salvation.

It's important to note that the word “satan” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.” If the path is [the wrong one for us], the obstruction is good, thus “the satan” may have been sent by God to protect a person from worse harm. (The Origin of Satan, Vintage, 1996, pp 39, 40) If the path is [the right one for us], however, “the satan” is obstructing the will of God.

In our gospel story, the satan who bound this woman in infirmity was the belief that she was unworthy in the sight of God and that her infirmity was just punishment for her sin or the sin of someone in her family. Since she was getting what she deserved she shouldn’t ask for healing. That belief was an obstruction of the will of God, so Jesus cleared it from her path.

Her liberation from this obstruction was God’s doing. God raised her up, without her needing to ask, out of love - and her response was to praise God.

What I wish Luke had told us was how this woman’s life and service to God were changed by her liberation from bondage. I wonder how her synagogue community received this change. I wonder if or how this event affected this community’s approach to worship, to so-called sinners, or to God…

How does it affect ours?

The letter to the Hebrew’s reminds us that God’s call to us now may not look like God’s call to those who came before, but when God calls, the author warns, don’t refuse to answer – because God is shaking things up as they are right now and is building an unshakeable kingdom. It sure feels like that right now, doesn’t it?

Jesus demonstrates what this unshakable kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom in which God sees and heals all wounds – a grace offered even before we ask because God knows that some of us harbor deep inner wounds that prevent us from fulfilling God’s purpose for us. It will be a kingdom in which God will seek, call, heal, and empower whom God chooses, when God chooses; and no earthly authority, doctrine, or institution can interfere.

Things are changing all around and within us. COVID hasn’t left us and despite the improvements in outcomes some among us are still suffering greatly from it and its long-term effects. Rather than wait till COVID is gone (which it likely never will be), we are called do more than find our way into the new normal that is emerging. We are called to co-create with God a better normal in which God’s unshakeable kingdom is revealed and manifested.

Awakening from our COVID slumber and planning for our program year beginning in September presents us with joy but also anxiety. So much has changed. Our familiar river doesn’t pass through this mountain.

At his final address to the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “When we fear we cling to what we know. We clutch at what makes us feel in control.  I would add that we return to the church programs, events, and systems we loved because we know how to do those. They are our familiar canoes.

We’re tired of the steep learning curve COVID imposed on us two years ago. We love our old familiar canoes, and we just want to get back to paddling.

That’s what being bent down looks like for us now. We can’t raise ourselves up from it, but Jesus can. 

Jesus knows our anxiety and weariness. He knows our inclination to revert to the comfort of the familiar.

He also knows our gifts and the plan of love for the world, so I promise, when Jesus touches us and raises us up, and we lift our gaze to see his face, we too will rejoice in the freedom we’re being given to live a new life on a divinely cleared path, one that enables us to show forth God’s powerful love in the world.

Rise up, Emmanuel, and rejoice. Amen.