Sunday, June 25, 2023

4 Pentecost, 2023-A: Congruent with Jesus

Lectionary (Proper 7): Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39 

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

Many of you know I began my career as an artist. Artistic vision is so much a part of how I see the world, God, and life. Growing up, I loved making animated flipbooks. Remember those? Each page in the book had the same picture with a slight change that created movement as you flipped the pages.

When I hear our Collect for today, I imagine our request for perpetual love as a flip book of our lives – each page showing how we lived love into being and action, each page slightly different than the page before, creating a visual of the movement of love through the course of our life. What holds our pages together is the lovingkindness of God.

I believe that God is the source and structure of our love for one another, for ourselves, for the world, and even for God, and our readings today give us a few ways to understand that structure, as well as the character of God, so let’s take a look…

Our Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah shows us how God moves to restore love when it has been lost to human foibles. Abraham and Sarah, desperate for an heir, move outside of God’s plan for them. As a result, Sarah’s slave, Hagar, is sexually assaulted - taken against her will and impregnated by Abraham. The tradition that justified this was nothing less than acceptance of patriarchal oppression.

A modern-day depiction of the evil of this tradition is found in “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. In that story, the Handmaids of Gilead are impregnated against their will in order to provide children to the ruling class of men (Commanders). The barren wives of the Commanders then take the child as their own.

I can’t imagine anyone watching this series or reading the books being satisfied with the fairness or faithfulness of such a system. Neither can I imagine it being any different in Old Testament times. No matter how culturally or religiously justified, we know when systems are evil, oppressive, and wrong.

As often happens, one wrong leads to more wrongs. Power does that. After bearing Abraham’s son and only heir, Ishmael, Hagar recognizes her power and lords it over, Sarah, who is shamed and disgraced by her childlessness, until she bears a son, Isaac, and takes back her power. In her privilege, Sarah banishes Hagar and Ishmael to die in the wilderness.

Throughout this story, Abraham, the only character with any real power stands by impotently. Everyone in this story fails in the faithfulness category – except God – which is the point. God goes to Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, delivers them from the certain death of their bodies and souls, providing water and a promise to make of Ishmael a great nation. Like Sarah, Hagar also will be the matriarch of a great nation.

When we focus on our own desires, our power, our privilege, or when we stand by not acting to right an apparent wrong, we make a mess of things. Only God, whose loving-kindness is steadfast, is able to redeem us from the messes we make. In order, to do that, however, we must remember Paul’s wise words from the letter to the Romans: that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus. Our life is in him and nothing can separate us from this life-giving love for we are marked as Christ’s own forever by our Baptism.

In our gospel reading, Jesus is getting real with his followers. It always makes us uncomfortable when our soft, fluffy, loving Jesus reveals his sharper edges, but he does that here.

You may remember that last week, Jesus gave the disciples authority to proclaim that in the reign of God, which is overarching, all-embracing, and includes everything that is, heaven and earth have been joined into one divine, cosmic reality. The disciples were being sent out into this new reality to restore the helpless and harassed to wholeness of life, wholeness of spirit, and wholeness of purpose, in Jesus’ name. They were being sent as co-creators of God’s redemption for the world.

Today’s gospel story picks up with Jesus finishing this teaching. Every truth that humans have covered up and every evil we have justified will be uncovered, exposed, and ultimately redeemed by God’s love.

When Jesus says, I am come not to bring peace, but conflict, he’s making it clear that following him and his way won’t be easy. The keepers of the status quo will hate you and fight against you as their exploitive, oppressive systems are exposed. Even those closest to you. Your father, your mother, members of your church and community will become like enemies to you, but stand firm in your faith and fear not, for God is already acting to redeem.

Then Jesus offers the most beautiful assurance. You are so valuable to God, who knows you so intimately, that even the hairs on your heads are counted! Think about that: every single aspect of who we are, even those aspects we don’t know about ourselves, are known to God, who values us and cares for us, which is why we can stand firm on the foundation of God’s loving-kindness.

One would think that sharing the good news of God’s redeeming love would bring honor and praise, but if human systems are to be transformed, they must first be dismantled, and that rarely happens without a fight – even in the church. Those with power, wealth, and influence, those benefitting from the status quo don’t let go of it easily – even when it’s the right thing to do.

Human history shows us that it often takes violent conflict to bring about change. Think about the start of our own nation 250 years ago, the Civil Rights movement 60 years ago, or the LGBTQIA+ movement happening now. In the end, everyone benefits when human dignity and freedom are won. Everyone, even those who clung to the status quo with clenched fists.

Jesus concludes this teaching with a straightforward statement, once we get the translation clear. The word we translate as “worthy” is better translated as “congruent.” It’s a long-standing habit of the church to motivate us by undermining our sense of worthiness, and for that, I apologize on behalf of the church. Didn’t Jesus just finish clarifying our worthiness in his story about the sparrows?

We are worthy. The question is: are we congruent with Jesus? Are we in harmony with him?

Whoever seeks earthly sources of protection and community rather than finding those in Jesus, is not congruent with him. Whoever does not bear the burdens of the world with loving kindness and forgiveness, as he did from the cross, is not congruent with him. Anyone who seeks to direct their own lives apart from Jesus will find themselves in a mess of their own making. Anyone who loves in Jesus’ name despite the very real pushback the world will inflict upon them, will discover that Jesus is pleased to dwell in them and redeem them, and through them, the world.

Now that’s good news!

I’ve talked to many folks around here who are asking what’s taking God so long? Where is God in Ukraine? Where is God in the attacks against women and our LGBTQIA+ siblings? Being resourceful, we’re tempted to resolve these problems on our own, like Abraham and Sarah did. So, I’m here to tell you, whenever this temptation rises up, hear the wise words of my former spiritual director, Sr. Elizabeth: Don’t feed it. Don’t fight it. Don’t fix it. 

 God has promised redemption of the whole world in Jesus Christ. Trust that promise. When the inevitable conflict happens, we must continue to trust while God redeems even those fighting against us, for all are children of the one God who reconciles the whole world back into love.

We are congruent with Jesus when the flipbooks of our lives contain page after page of truth-telling in response to oppressive, harmful, exclusive systems in the world today; when our loving kindness is repeated so frequently as to seem seamless, uninterrupted when we watch it played back. There will be glitches in there – we are, after all, human. But God redeems those too because such is the character of God.

Let’s pray: Thank you, most gracious God, for the foundation of your loving kindness. We pray that we may be as reverent of one another and of you as you are of us. Give us grace to reflect your love and make it as real on earth as it is in heaven. We pray this in the name of the Trinity, who is Unity. Amen.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Trinity Sunday & Baptism, 2023-A: In the image of God

Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 2 (Rite I) and Canticle 13 (Rite II); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20 

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

It’s a wonderfully complicated day today. We gather to celebrate the baptism of Maeve Nash, welcoming

her into the Christian family. It’s Trinity Sunday, the day we ponder the mystery of God who is Trinity in Unity. It’s #wearorgange Sunday, complete with a march at noon to end gun violence as we remember those who lost their lives to it. And it’s the first Sunday in PRIDE Month.

As only God can do, our lectionary today is perfect. We begin with the story of creation from Genesis 1. God created and created and created like a mad artist; each creation leading to another burst of creative love revealing yet another dimension of the nature and character of God.

The creation story culminates with God’s creation of humankind… “in the image of God” they were created, male and female. While all of creation is infused with the breath of God’s creative love, only humans are created in God’s own image, and more than that, we are given responsibility to care for the rest of creation.

Please don’t let the phrase “have dominion over” trip you up. It can and does mean rule over, but it also means “noble.” God made humans noble in relation to all other creation. To be noble is to have higher moral principles and ideals.

Dominion is not the same as dominance. Dominion is relational. Dominance is hierarchical. Dominion is other-centered. Dominance is self-centered.

God did not make us the most important or powerful among the created. They made us the most trusted. God chooses us to care for creation in the image of God who created, sustains, and blesses all of creation out of love.

While we’re at it, there are two more phrases in our gospel text to clarify. The first is: “Go, therefore, and make disciples.” We had a lively discussion about this at our Bible study this past week. It’s the word translated as “make” that has led to so much coercive action by churches that may or may not have been trying to do the right thing. The problem is the word isn’t “make” – it’s “teach” (literally). Teach others to be disciples.

That’s exactly what we are going to promise to do for Maeve as we baptize her. We’ll promise to teach her – as her community of faith – to be a disciple of Jesus.

The second is the word translated as “obey.” Baptize them, Jesus says, in the name of the Trinity, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you. The word “obey” has also led many in the church to focus on enforcing compliance with rules, which is sad, because what Jesus actually said here is better translated as “observe, keep, maintain.”

So, the question is, observe, keep, maintain what? What did Jesus command? The answer is simple and is becoming about the only thing in my sermons lately – Jesus commanded us to love.

Love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. Love our neighbor as ourselves. Love one another as heloved us. Love our enemies. Love - in all its many, complicated forms. When we gather to worship and share Holy Communion, we reconnect ourselves to God and to one another, because answering Jesus’ command to love isn’t easy. In fact, it often seems impossible.

Every day we hear of another shooting somewhere in our country. Every day.

Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for our children. Our culture has politicized this so much that it’s become nearly impossible to have reasonable discussions about it – but we must, and church is where those difficult discussions have to happen, because church is where the love of God has dominion in our hearts.

Church is where the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ unites us into one body, one spirit. It’s where we recognize that the only true power is the power of God and that power is the power of love. Church is where we greet one another with a holy kiss – something only family did in St. Paul’s time.

We are the family of God in Christ in this time and place in the world. We baptize people and teach them how to love as Jesus commanded us to do, remembering that no matter how impossible or horrible the world seems at any moment of our experience, it is a beloved creation born of God’s love and it is our responsibility to care for it, to restore it to peace and unity, and to teach others to do the same.

I once served a church that held the first PRIDE event in that deep southern town – about 15 years ago. It was a picnic, a PRIDE picnic. We invited the local gay community as well as supportive groups like PFLAG to come and share information on how to be supportive allies. We grilled food, painted faces, and played games.

You can see why this was so threatening. Yet apparently it was. Protestors from Westboro Baptist Church and some other local church groups showed up to scream condemnation at us using foul language – in front of the children. Horrible words were graffitied onto our church doors and walls with black paint. They tried to disrupt our worship the next morning with a bullhorn screaming derogatory names and accusations at our faith community.

Is this how they interpret Jesus’ command to love? It didn’t feel a bit like love. It felt very much like hate.

Our LGBTQIA+ siblings in Christ are currently under attack. They are not being loved as Christ commanded, and tragically, it is most often by those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus, as holders of higher moral principles and ideals. They delude themselves.

We are witnesses of their terrorizing and dehumanizing of God’s beloved children, and as witnesses, we must call out what we see as hate, not love. We, the church, have a responsibility to love – and to teach others to do the same - in the name of God who created us all, in the name of Jesus who redeemed us all,and in the name of the Spirit who sanctifies us all.

Today, as we sacramentally welcome the newest member of the Christian family, we will also renew our own Baptismal vows – vows that call us to worship together, to seek Christ in ALL others, to love and respect their dignity as fellow nobles, all of us caring for God’s creation.

These are not vows we take lightly. They are our signposts, our guides on how to live as Christians, how to love as Christians in the world as it is.

It won’t be easy. Hate is strong, but love is stronger, and Jesus promised to be with us always – to the end of the “breathing of breath,” the end of human life. While we have life, we have Jesus; and having Jesus means having the wholeness of the Trinity.

Let us pray… Spirit of the Living God, who dwells in our noble human bodies, fill us to overflowing with your divine love, so that the world in which we stand is continually nourished by your living water. Open our hearts and minds, that we may keep your command to us to love. Give us courage to call out hate and restore relationship as we go, teach, and baptize in your name, that your peace may heal our troubled and broken world. Keep us connected to you and to one another, now and always. Amen.