Sunday, February 20, 2022

7 Epiphany, 2022-C: Fastening our souls to God

Lectionary:Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38 

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

In our Collect today, we prayed that the Holy Spirit would come to us and pour into our hearts her greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and the source of our life because outside of God’s love, there is no life, only death. 

As Episcopalians, we believe that God is love and that all life is created, sustained, and maintained by the
love of God. St. Julian of Norwich illustrates this beautifully using the image of a hazelnut saying, “I saw three properties about this tiny object. First, God had made it; second, God loves it; and third, that God keeps it…he is the Maker, the Keeper, the Lover.” She goes on to say that this revelation was meant to “teach our soul to cling fast to the goodness of God…[that] what delights [God] most, is when we pray simply trusting his goodness, holding on to him, relying upon his grace.” (John Skinner, ed., Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 10-11)

Love requires relationship, and it begins with God. The Trinity of God is a dynamic relationship – an active, expressive, complementary way of being. Love reconciles, restoring harmony and wholeness, to whatever or whoever is separated or divided. Wherever God sees division, God acts to redeem, filling the gaps with God’s own self.

What is so important for us to remember as followers of Christ who embody his spirit, is that we are the current vehicles of this redeeming, reconciling love on earth. God looks through our eyes, responds in our hearts, and acts through our hands.

The word for love used in our gospel reading is Agape – a familiar word, I think, for most of us. Agape love is full of goodwill. It is deliberate – a choice to pay attention to someone else, have regard for them, and respect them. Agape love is reflected in our Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.

Agape love is also self-denying and compassionate. It places the other ahead of self. It joins us to another in their suffering because to have compassion is to suffer with someone. (Com = with, passio = suffer) Agape love means being willing to share someone else’s nightmare and bear light into their darkness – even when drawing near to them puts our comfort or our safety at risk.

Part of the problem is that we have only one word for the many faces of love. Agape love is not attraction – romantic or physical. That’s eros. It isn’t about liking someone. That’s philia. And it isn’t about being bonded by empathy. That’s storage.

In this teaching, Jesus is calling us to a particular kind of love: agape love. Theologian and author Allen Myers defines agape love as: “the divine, selfless love which will go to any length to attain the well-being of its object.” Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 26. And we don’t have this kind of love unless God gives it, hence our prayer in our Collect today: pour into our hearts your greatest gift, God, which is love.

In this continuation of his beatitudes sermon, Jesus is teaching a new way for us to bear love into the world – one that goes against our natural inclination. Did you know that biologically, humans have a part of the brain specifically designed for making judgments? The role of this part of the brain is to divide input into binary categories that enable us to differentiate between what or who is safe and what or who isn’t.

It’s a built-in survival mechanism designed by a loving God by whom we are marvelously made. When fear and self-centeredness take over, however, this kind of bifurcation extends into our cultural consciousness and we find ourselves constantly challenged by our propensity to create categories of “us” and “them.”

Over time, prejudices develop around those categories. Soon the “other” becomes the enemy – which literally translated means, ‘not friend.’ This is the kind of judgment Jesus warns us against when he says, “Do not judge…”

It’s important to remember that in our gospel story Jesus is speaking to a people who are currently oppressed and know what it feels like to be hated, dismissed, ignored, and disrespected. They are the “them” in their culture and they’ve already had a long history of being the targets of oppression and genocide. They know who their enemy is.

To survive, they separated themselves, marking their separation with circumcision and ritual practice. Jesus is calling them (and us) to reconciliation rather than separation – even when that separation is meant to ensure our survival.

Jesus’ way of love calls us to trust God for all we need, including our survival. This is the kind of love that was demonstrated by Joseph in our reading from Genesis and it’s what the Psalmist is calling us to – a love that isn’t distracted by those who don’t love, tempting us to abandon our way of love.

Truly, none of us can do this easily or successfully all the time, but we know when we aren’t there, don’t we? We know when disdain or indifference or hate infect our hearts. We know when we allow unjust systems that benefit us to go unchallenged.

So what do we do? Well, we’re Episcopalians, so we pray together. In all our diversity, what unites us is our worship. So, we pray in community, drawing ourselves closer to God and nourishing ourselves with Word and Sacrament. Our common prayer opens a pathway for God to act in us and through us in the world.

As Julian says, “Prayer fastens the soul to God,” uniting our will to God’s will by “the deep inward working of the Holy Spirit.” In her vision, God spoke this to Julian: “Pray inwardly, even though you feel no joy in it. For it does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing, yes, even though you think you cannot pray. For when you are dry and empty, sick and weak, your prayers please me, though there be little enough to please you. All believing prayer is precious in my sight.'”

Prayer is how we cooperate with God in the continuing work of reconciliation. There are so many examples of this, but I’ll offer just this one: when we pray God’s lavish blessings over those we’d rather not love, that prayer changes us, enabling us to receive God’s greatest gift into our hearts. It allows us to draw nearer to them and establish relationship with them. Once that happens and we begin to know the person, we are set from the prejudices that held us bound and we are free to love.

When we separate ourselves from anyone or any group of people, it’s easy to depersonalize them and dismiss the fact that God’s spirit dwells in them. It’s easy to make them “other” and oppress them.

A glaring example of this is found in our own history: Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1788, declared that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. The "Three-Fifths Clause" as it was known, thus increased the political power of slaveholding states furthering and justifying the oppression of African American people. There is currently legislation being considered that targets the rights of transgender people. It’s like we never learn…

We who follow Jesus know by our faith that we are loved, and from that eternal well of love there is endless refreshment. That’s why we can be the bearers of God’s redeeming, reconciling love into the world.

In Jesus' time as in our own time, the world doesn’t always welcome agape love. The systems of the world are designed to provide an elite few with power, privilege, and wealth. They don’t want to share opportunities or resources and they don’t want equality. Those benefitting from the unjust systems of the world will often kill the bearer of agape love knowing they pose a threat to the status quo, and they are prepared to work together to stop anyone who tries to take their prize from them.

Dr. King knew that. He talked about it in his last speech in Memphis. Like him, all bearers of agape love must trust God completely. We do not fear, because as Julian of Norwich says, “In [God’s] love [God] clothes us, enfolds us and embraces us; that tender love completely surrounds us, never to leave us.” (Feast of Anglican Spirituality, 137)

I close with a prayer from the Rev. Shaneequa Brokenleg, Racial Reconciliation Officer in the Diocese of South Dakota. Let us pray…

“Oh God of all comfort and giver of every good thing, we pray that you fill us with the desire to be your hands and feet in the world, so that the hungry are filled with good things and all may experience your reconciling love. Amen.” (The United Thank Offering Book of Prayers, 51)

Sunday, February 6, 2022

5 Epiphany, 22-C: Call and response

Lectionary: Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13], Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11 

En el nombre del Dios que es trinidad en unidad. Amen.

We talk a lot in the church about being called, and most of the time we share a similar understanding of what that means. Through our prayer, through one another, through contemplative insight, through dreams, through repeated patterns in our experience – we feel God tapping us on our shoulder or nudging us from within to act as the ambassadors of Christ we are through our Baptism.

The choice is always ours whether or not to acknowledge that tap on the shoulder then consent or refuse to act on it. God never forces us, but God does keep on tapping - mostly gently, though sometimes we hear folks joke about needing to be clobbered by a spiritual 2’ x 4’ in order to pay attention.

That’s the key – learning to pay attention to the voice of God in the many ways God speaks to us. Our discernment, as I’ve mentioned before, is individual and corporate because, as theologian Terry Holmes said, Episcopal spirituality lives in the “tension between collective truth and individual insight.” and we continually discern the voice of God in both ways.

If we listen to today’s Scriptures only as stories about being called, or being obedient, or as a miracle story about fish, then we’ll miss the revelation they offer us about the nature of God who chooses to act in the world by calling imperfect, sinful people into intimate relationship for a purpose. We’ll miss the revelation about the character of God who provides for that called purpose with such abundance it’s almost ludicrous.

In Luke’s gospel today, we see both – the importance of trusting the voice of God when God speaks, especially when we’re tired and the request doesn’t make any sense to us. It also demonstrates God’s response to our faithfulness – a lavish, loving response.

Did the fish miracle actually happen? We could ask the same about most of the stories in our Scriptures. As Episcopalians, we rely on tradition as the context in which we interpret Scripture. Terry Holmes defines tradition as the passing “down from generation to generation within the community the church’s… understanding of God’s ways with humanity… [it] is the product of the ongoing reflection by the church of her experience of God, and consequently it is a living, changing body of thought.”

So, while Episcopalians reject Biblical literalism, we do take the Scriptures very seriously, including the miracles. People often try to explain the miracles in order to understand them, or they dismiss them completely. When we do that, however, we are attempting to shrink the ineffable into something comprehensible, forgetting what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (55:8-9)

The catch of fish miracle, whether you interpret it as actual or symbolic, is about the nature and character of God, who is present in the person of Jesus, the Christ. It is also about our call to be in intimate relationship with God, to be made human bearers of the power of divine love on earth, partners in the continuing work of the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

The setting is the north part of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a huge lake, near the region of Genessaret. Jesus is teaching on the lake’s shore and the crowd starts pressing in on him.

Noticing that there are two boats nearby, Jesus approaches the fishermen, who were cleaning their nets, and asks Simon Peter to take him out into the water. I’m told that preaching from the water in that part of the lake amplified the sound, making it easier for the gathered crowd to hear.

It would be understandable if Peter had resisted Jesus’ request. They were all tired, frustrated by their lack of catch, and ready to go home, but Peter responds in faith and does as Jesus asks.

Once they are a little bit away from the shore, the rabbi sits to continue his teaching. Now Peter is up close, watching Jesus preach and engage the crowds. He’s listening to Jesus as the word of God issues forth from this man who is already having such a strange effect on him. Something is happening in Peter, but what it is isn’t clear yet, so he watches, and listens, and waits.

When Jesus finishes his teaching, he asks Peter to head out to deep water and let down his nets again… the nets they’d just finished cleaning and stowing. Peter, who is an experienced fisherman, reminds Jesus, who is a carpenter, that they been out all night; and there were no fish to catch out there.

Yet, Peter obeys again. I want to point out that the word translated as “obey” literally means to hear and respond. Peter hears the call from Jesus and chooses to respond. The outcome was amazing: their nets captured so many fish that the other boat had to be called out to help them haul it all in.

Peter’s response to all of this was to fall to his knees aware of and confessing his sinfulness. When we are in the presence of the power, significance, and wholeness of God, we become keenly aware of how weak, insignificant, and broken we are by comparison.

Peter recognized this about himself and it drove him to his knees in humble surrender, crying out "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

Jesus comforts Peter saying those words that always come from heaven right before a call is issued: “Do not be afraid.” Then Jesus issues Peter his divine purpose: “from now on,” he says, “you will be catching people.”

Notice that a call from God is a proclamation of a divine truth. Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, Peter, want to catch people with me?” He said this is who you are now – a catcher of people. Then through the course of his relationship with Jesus, Peter was formed, empowered, and equipped to answer this call, to live into his divine purpose, which he did, and it was amazing.

Scripture teaches us that there is a process that happens when God calls us, and it goes like this: God taps us on the shoulder or nudges us from within and we discern the call. We respectfully decline, believing we are not worthy or able to answer it. God comforts us, empowers us, and sends us. We obey and are amazed.

Discerning a call from God takes practice, like any other spiritual discipline. For a few of us, like Moses or Isaiah or Mary, God speaks the call plainly. For most of us, however, it will be a still, small voice, a nudging, a tap on the shoulder.

The noise of the world tends to drown out that still small voice, so it’s important to acknowledge the earthly judgment about hearing God’s voice. For some, it is a diagnosable event requiring psychiatric intervention, but for most of us, it’s a traditional means of conversation between the Creator and the created. We aren’t crazy when we hear the voice of God. We’re faithful.

That’s why our Episcopal approach to discernment in the tension between collective truth and individual insight matters. It is our continual calling as individuals and as a church community to listen for God’s proclamation of truth for us - who we are and what our divine purpose is in this place and time.

If we choose to pay attention to God’s call to us and obey it, God will form us, empower us, equip us through the church, and send us out - and it will be amazing. Amen.