Sunday, July 17, 2022

6 Pentecost, 2022-C: Rhythms of prayer and action

 Lectionary: Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42 

En el nobmre de Dios que es creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

An interesting feature of our humanity is what is called, “selective attention.” The marvel that is our brain, specifically the visual cortex, filters out information deemed irrelevant.

A famous example of this is the gorilla video from a 1999 study on selective attention. In this study,
“subjects are shown a video of a basketball match, and are asked to count the number of passes that happen during a game sequence. During play, a person dressed in a gorilla costume crosses the shot. When asked to report on what they saw… subjects could report the number of passes observed, yet, incredibly did not report seeing the gorilla... In fact, people appear flummoxed when they are told the gorilla [was in the video], and are astounded when they watch the video back” and see it. (Source)  

Our story from Amos is about selective attention. It begins with a teaser about a basket of fruit, but quickly takes a darker turn with God saying: The end has come upon my people Israel.” Reading our sacred texts means being willing to prayerfully discern and share the Good News within it because it’s always there. So, where is in this story?

It might help to know that the “basket of fruit” reference is a wordplay in Hebrew. The word that translates as basket of fruit sounds like the word that translates as “the end.” God asks Amos, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ Amos says, “the end.” (No, that isn’t the good news yet.)

Remembering from last week that God is the plumb-line in the midst of the community, this story from Amos shows us that God sees what’s happening on the ground. God repeats, “I will never pass you by” which is interpreted to mean, I am in the midst of you I am in the midst of you (Ah, there’s the good news). Being in the midst of you, God says, what I’m seeing from you is not just, not compassionate, and not right.

Hear this, God says: [I see] you trampling on the vulnerable, and oppressing the powerless. I see you practicing deceit with predatory lending so that you can build your own wealth. I see you selling junk food and passing it off as nutritious.

I see all of what you are doing, God says, and though I am the true vertical among you, you don’t see me. So, I will watch and wait while you bring yourselves to the only end you’ve made available to yourselves: your own undoing. When it starts happening, you’ll realize how wrong you’ve been and you’ll look for me to save you, but you have made me irrelevant so you don’t see me.

The psalm picks up the theme of calling out the tyrants for their cruelty. “You love lying more than speaking truth. You love all words that hurt.” O that God would hear our prayer and demolish you utterly…”

I admit this Psalm has been my prayer for a while now. I am not God, but I see these very issues playing out in our world today, and if social media is any indicator, I’m not alone in this. My recourse, our recourse, is to pray – to go into the presence of God where our hearts can be moved from “demolish them utterly” to “I trust in the mercy of God for ever.(More good news)”

The news has been so disruptive to my peace lately. In my busy-ness I’ve had to be intentional about stopping to pray and rest in the love of God, to listen for my Savior’s voice of comfort be strengthened by it and led back into peace – into Christ’s peace. I’ve had to make time to sit at the feet of my Redeemer, like Mary did in our gospel story, or risk being sucked down into the whirlpool of the chaos of the world.

The story of Mary and Martha in our gospel from Luke is often discussed in ways that pit Martha against Mary in a competition for holiness. I often hear people say, “I’m a Martha” or “I’m a Mary.” The truth is, we’re all both. We all have our gifts to offer in our ministries, and there are times we must all stop and sit at the feet of Jesus for the renewal of our souls.

The other biblical stories of Martha and Mary illustrate that these sisters possess a great gift of hospitality. They are a team – and their home is a center for hospitality and friendship. Martha’s frustration in this story is that her teammate, Mary, isn’t doing her part, leaving the burden of the whole ministry to Martha who tries to hold it up alone, but finds herself bitter and resentful about it.

Jesus responds with a soothing: Martha, Martha… you are worried and distracted by many things, but there is only one thing that really matters. Look, Mary has chosen the good part. Jesus’ word was relevant for her and claimed her attention.

Why our translators changed the word here from ‘good’ to ‘better’ escapes me and is part of the reason we hear this as a competition. Mary didn’t choose a better part than Martha. When Jesus called Mary’s choice good, he was saying it was admirable, deserving of respect and approval, and he gave it all of that.

Jesus was clear that Mary’s choice would not be taken from her. Choice is a sign of our freedom. Mary had the right to choose for herself. We all do (well, maybe not so much anymore if you’re an American woman, anyway).

When I picture this story, I see Mary sitting with the other disciples having a conversation with Jesus. They all seem happy and relaxed. Martha is not in the room with them. She’s visible through a doorway to another room where she is preparing food. Her back is to Jesus which means Martha can’t see Jesus, and as the story from Amos teaches us, when we can’t see God, we can’t move in justice, compassion, and right relationship.

To all of us who are worried and distracted by many things, Jesus assures the Martha within us, and it sounds something like this: Y’all know me well enough to know that I don’t need a fancy dinner, just time with you and our friends in your home. Be still sometimes, all you Marthas. Just be with me. You have no praise to earn, no expectations to meet. You are already beloved. Come and be with me. I will fill your emptiness, restore your hope, and prepare you for your work in ministry. (Yet more good news)

As we head deeply into summer, we have the opportunity as a church community to rest and be restored by sitting at the feet of our Redeemer and listening to him. It’s easy to get distracted and busy preparing for the fall program year, or advocating for justice in our world, but Mary shows us that Jesus respects and affirms our choice of making time to sit at his feet and receive the one thing we need before we attempt to engage in our outward ministries.

It’s like breathing. We can’t breathe out our ministries until we have breathed in Jesus. It’s all about balance. We can’t just breathe in or out without passing out. We must have a rhythm of both.

One of the things I love about Emmanuel is that there are deeply spiritual people here, prayerful people, and also passionate advocates for justice and peace. While all of us have both qualities, some among us may be more inclined to advocacy than to centering prayer, others to prayer over action, but as a whole community, we have it all. Our task is to keep a balance of inward formation of our spirituality and outward opportunities for service.

This place is our center of holy hospitality. Each week we breathe Jesus in together. We make and share the holy food of Holy Communion with our friends and ministry teammates. Then, strengthened and restored by Word and Sacrament, we are sent into the world to love and serve in the holy name and loving way of Jesus.

There is so much injustice, insult, and damage to life out there, but if we try to serve without making time to sit first in God’s presence, we may end up doing more harm than good. So, for this moment, let us rest at the feet of our Redeemer, where we will receive the only thing that really matters. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

5 Pentecost, 2022-C: Called to show mercy

 Lectionary: Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

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

This week we collectively mourn the loss of life at the July 4th parade in Highland Park, IL. This latest
mass shooting, by yet another young white male, left 7 people dead including both parents of a 2-year-old child and left a 10-year-old child paralyzed from the chest down. As one eyewitness said, “It was a quiet, peaceful, lovely morning, people were enjoying the parade… to have that peacefulness suddenly ripped apart, it’s scary. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t find peace. I think we are falling apart.” (Source

It certainly feels like that sometimes. Thankfully, peace doesn’t originate outside of us, but within, where God in Christ dwells, within us individually and within our parish community, so it’s always there for us, to restore us when we feel lost or afraid or alone.

As we come together in this holy place today, we shake the weariness of this latest trauma from our hearts and souls and enter our worship asking God to “mercifully receive our prayers… and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also… to give us the grace and power to accomplish them faithfully.”

What are the things we ought to do…?

This can be a problematic discussion because it can degrade very quickly into a set of rules or laws that delineate specific things we can and cannot do. In the context of church life, that can reduce us to living lives of freedom-less obedience to a changing landscape of laws architected by the powerful, because as history demonstrates, the rules change as those in power change. Sound familiar?

Thankfully, the rules also change as people grow in wisdom, grace, and faith. The fact that I’m standing here as your priest in charge is evidence of the church’s growth allowing for the ordination of women.

There have always been those among us who must know and clarify every instance in which any specific rule does or doesn’t apply. It’s how the 10 commandments morphed into nearly 700 rules to live by. There have also always been those who misuse the rules in order to thin the herd: if you disobey our rules, you’ll be cast out of our community, or worse yet, cast into eternal damnation.

Please understand: I’m not suggesting that living in faith means living with no rules. On the contrary, I believe that rules - or canons as we call them in the Episcopal Church - customs, and traditions help us live together in peace, with fairness, and provide a firm foundation from which we can evolve and grow from generation to generation.

What I don’t believe is that obedience to rules or traditions can lead us to eternal life. That path can only be found in the heart, which is what (I think) Jesus was demonstrating in today’s gospel.

The lawyer in this story asks Jesus: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking what the law says. Familiar with the law, the man answers by quoting from Deuteronomy (6:5): You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.”

Right, says Jesus. Do this and you will live.

Luke says that the next question the lawyer asked was to justify himself, in other words, to affirm for himself that he is doing it right according to the law. Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan.

You all know this story. At the end of it, Jesus asks which of the three men who saw the dying man was a neighbor to him. The one who showed him mercy the lawyer says.

Right again, Jesus says. Now you go and do likewise.

But the question remains: how do we know what we ought to do? How do we know when to keep the law and when to set it aside for mercy’s sake?

The answer can be found in the story from Amos. God provides Amos with a vision of a plumb line, which is, of course, a vertical reference line: heaven to earth. From now on, God says, this is us. We are forever connected and from that connection you will know how to go.

This ties into the great commandment Jesus gave us to love God with all we are – heart, mind, soul, and strength. It’s a love that gives God preference over us, our understanding, and our rules. To love God in this way is to choose to be merciful in every moment, in any circumstance, and to trust in God’s ultimate plan of love for the whole world even when that world is fraught with violence and destruction.

Another important point in the Amos story is that the plumb line is in the midst of a community. This isn’t about our individual relationship with God but our relationship to God as a community of God’s people.

Has anyone ever experienced a time in church when some with power or influence pressed their own agenda onto the community? They might have honestly thought they were advocating for what was best for the community but they also forgot that God’s plan is often more than we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20) and sometimes it takes time to unfold, and that time can be uncomfortable or costly.

The letter to the Colossians reminds us that there will be moments each community needs to endure patiently. We’re in one of those moments right now as many of us feel like we just can’t or don’t want to endure any more pandemic restrictions that continue to hinder our in-person parish life. But as a people called to show mercy, we must prioritize the needs of those among us who are at higher risk from the virus variants over our own desire to be done with this pandemic.

I hope it helps to know that we are currently working to find the both-and solution to this moment. Pray for us as we seek God’s guidance on this.

As a people called to show mercy, we must remember that action is required. The law of the time prohibited the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan from touching the dying man, but the Samaritan touched him anyway, bandaging his wounds and carrying him to a safe place where he could heal. He even paid the man’s rent. The Samaritan didn’t offer thoughts and prayers, he offered aid.

When we think about it, we know what we ought to do. Each of us individually and us as a community - we know. The real question is: do we have the will to do it?

It sometimes feels like we’re spitting into the wind; like there’s more to be done out there than we can do. When we feel like that, we must remember that our hope is in Jesus Christ whose promises are true. So, we do not despair. We act, shattering the categories the world has about those who are or are not neighbors worthy of our mercy and care.

Mother Teresa says, “There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.”

We are those people. As the body of Christ, the Church, we are never alone, and we’re nourished regularly by Word and Sacrament, which means our strength is never depleted. Never.

As we transition culturally from a generation that goes to weekly church services out of duty or obedience to the rules to a generation that dismisses (some even abhor) the institutional church and its rules, it’s important to remember that the body of Christ is now as it has always been – a community of people in whom God in Christ dwells. When the world looks at us, they should be able to see us doing justice, acting mercifully, and walking humbly with God. (Mic 6:8)

The church in every generation is faced with situations that cause us to look beyond our rules, traditions, and customs in order to respond with mercy; in order to grow in wisdom, grace, and faith.

I close with a prayer borrowing some of Paul’s words to the Colossians. Let us pray...

May we be “filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may we be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to [God], who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (9-12) Amen.