Sunday, June 23, 2024

5 Pentecost, 2024-B: Receive the peace

Note: You can watch this being delivered live at Emmanuel Episcopal Church during our Sunday, 10 am service of Holy Eucharist, live-streamed on our YouTube channel. 

Lectionary - Track 2: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

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

Whirlwinds and stormy seas. Stillness and peace. The imagery in our readings today is so relatable. We all know what it feels like to have to weather a storm which can be happening to us or within us.

Storms happen. They’re part of life. In every storm, God is present, aware of the storm and its effect on us, and never fails to help. God’s word still calms whatever chaos we find ourselves in today.

In our Old Testament reading, “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” Wind, breath, from the Hebrew word ruach has always been a reference to the Spirit or Essence of God. A whirlwind, however, is a turbulent wind, a swirling, often destructive maelstrom. This story illustrates Job’s confusion and fright as God reveals and smacks down Job's hubris.

The whirlwind was part of Job’s journey into right relationship with God. This storm didn’t threaten Job’s life – it saved it. Hubris will destroy us – and others, as the Psalm illustrates so well. But God will stop our proud waves with “a whisper.” In the stillness that results from this breathy, softly spoken word of God, our joy is restored, and we realize that God has saved us from ourselves and brought us to safe harbor: which is God.

Paul affirms this in his letter to the church in Corinth. Quoting Isaiah (49:8), Paul reminds us that God has said, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” This is that day, Paul says. The time is now.

The time is now to open our hearts completely to the grace of God. In order to do that, we’ll have to die to a few things. We have to die to our hubris, as Job did. We have to remember that God is God and we are not and only God can save.

We also have to die to the notion that God is other, out there. Objectifying God has done so much damage to us. God is our creator who breathes life into us. Scripture tells us that God is steadfast, faithful, merciful, and of great kindness. Yet, we have created and weaponized a frighteningly vengeful, punitive, distant God, out of our fears and sense of unworthiness. Objectifying God also leads us to objectify one another, which does its own kind of damage as we can see with homophobia, racism, sexism, all the …isms that divide us and result in the oppression of some by others.

In the story of the stormy sea in today’s gospel, Jesus directly addresses our objectification of God. The traditional approach to this story is that it is a story of Jesus’ divine spirit being made known to the disciples. With a word, Jesus can calm a storm. Even the wind and sea obey him.

That is true, but it is only one side of the story, the outer side. I would like to invite us to go to the “other side” of this story, the side that speaks to the storms that happen within us as we journey into right relationship with God, self, and other, much like Job did.

The context is this: Jesus has just finished teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God, that is, what right relationship with God and one another looks like. He does this through a series of parables, which he explains in private to his disciples.

As I mentioned last week, the disciples come from a tradition that promises a Messiah who will set them free from oppression. Jesus has just begun teaching them that this liberation, this salvation, is so much bigger than they imagine. It is not just liberation of the children of Israel, but liberation of all people.

While they’re trying to wrap their heads around that, Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side” meaning the other side of the Sea of Galilee – the Gentile side. This was more than a geographic relocation. It was a journey into right relationship with God, others, and even themselves.

Following Jesus meant they had to choose to leave behind what was familiar to them and head toward what seemed a less than desirable destination. They did go, but it wasn’t long before they began to experience a great windstorm within. This storm was so strong they thought they might die.

Does following this teacher mean their death? Yes. It does.

It means the death of their small understanding about God. It means the death of their understanding of their own identity as God’s chosen people and their habit of seeing others as unworthy, unclean, and unwelcome in the kingdom of God. It means the death of their expectations about the Messiah and salvation. And it means the death of their objectification of God.

In the midst of this interior, existential storm the disciples cry out to Jesus: Teacher, don’t you care that we’re perishing? Why did they call out to their teacher instead of their Lord or Messiah? Because they wanted to understand but their minds were in a whirlwind. Jesus replies, “Peace! Be still!” to the disciples – to storm within them. Then he asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 

The disciples have to let this death happen. So do we. It won’t destroy our life; it will save it!

But they still didn’t get it – or at least the gospel writer didn’t. I suggest that the great awe that filled them was that reverential fear mixed with wonder that always happens in the presence and power and overwhelming love of God. It creates a kind of whirlwind in our minds, spinning us off balance until we let go and let God be God for us and in us.

It is the peace of Christ that calms all our storms. When storms happen, and they will happen here and there as long as we live, we can remember and cling to the foundations given to us in our Scripture. In Ezekiel, God says, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. (37:14) In Joel, God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” (2:28) Then, of course, there is Jesus, who, in the gospel of John, breathed his own spirit into us saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (20:22)

Journeying into right relationship with God is our choice, and we make this choice knowing that we will have to die to our need to understand so that we can live into being the truth of who we are, the truth that we are vessels of God’s own Spirit, dwelling places of God, embodied Love.

Being this truth is only the first step. Then there’s the doing – as Jesus did - being present to others as they are tossed about by their inner and outer storms and giving voice to the spirit of God in us to speak peace to them.

When I studied in England as part of my doctoral work, I visited Coventry Cathedral where I watched a video of King George VI speaking to the people of England from the bombed-out rubble of that beautiful church destroyed by the Nazis. He called for a response of peace and forgiveness. It was transforming.

A month later, in his Christmas message, King George quoted a portion of the poem, “The Gate of the Year” by Minnie Louise Haskins. Here’s what he shared: 
 “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ 

And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And [God] led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”  Source
Whatever our storms, whether in the world around us or within us, let us faithfully put our hands in the hand of God and receive the peace and salvation only God can give. Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

4 Pentecost, 2024-B: Our high calling

Note: You can watch this being delivered live at Emmanuel Episcopal Church during our Sunday, 10 am service of Holy Eucharist, live-streamed on our YouTube channel. The sermon is at 29:21.

Proper 6, Track II: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4,11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,14-17; Mark 4:26-34 

En el nombre de Dios, creator, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

“Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness and minister your justice with compassion.” This is the high calling of the faithful followers of Jesus, isn’t it? To be faithful and loving, to act boldly and compassionately in the face of injustice.

This has always been a hard task for God’s people to accomplish. Our own understanding is so small and it takes time for us to move beyond them as God continues to expand the boundaries of love around us. We often resist, delay, and even rebel against this expansion of our understanding and our practices. Often, when by the grace of God we see injustice, we hesitate and consider the effect tending to the needs of the one who is suffering the injustice will have on us.

It’s always been this way, and as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, once famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It does eventually, and not because of anything we do, but because it is the plan of God who is always faithful.

That’s what the parables in today’s gospel are all about: God’s faithfulness to the process of expanding the boundaries of Love. Jesus describes this process in terms of seeds and trees, a metaphor people then and now can understand.

These parables reflect back to the reading from Ezekiel in which God takes a tender branch from the giant cedar tree and plants it on a high mountain, Bible-speak for the place where God is encountered. God’s plan for that seedling is that it will become a marvelous cedar with boughs so large and so strong that it will be able to house and comfort winged creatures of every kind, Bible-speak for all the peoples and nations of the world.

That’s the process: God creates the environment where all peoples and nations live in harmony. This is the household of God.

Our part in this process is, as our Collect reminded us, to proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion. Our forebears in the faith have never agreed completely on what that means and how we do it, but each generation tries to be faithful to that call. We all succeed and fail to some degree, but the process continues because that is the nature and promise of God.

Today’s gospel offers a shift in Jesus’ ministry and message. Previously, Jesus had spent his time preaching in the synagogues and temples. In this passage from Mark, Jesus takes his message out of the churches and into the communities where people of all descriptions can hear him: women, children, Gentiles, slaves. Everyone who is “other.”

The message Jesus is now proclaiming is about expanding their understanding of the boundaries of God’s love. Salvation isn’t just for the Jewish people but for all peoples, all nations.

The parable of the seed is the introduction to this expansive understanding. Jesus teaches that someone (meaning people, not God) plants a seed. It grows in the darkness under the soil, out of sight from the one who planted it, and they don’t know how it grows. Tending the seed does matter, but God’s love, God’s grace isn’t limited to that, as anyone who has seen a flower emerge from a sidewalk crack knows.

Steve and I have discovered a Rose of Sharon auspiciously planted by some unknown source in our garden. It’s in the perfect spot and grows taller every day. It excites us to see it because we didn’t plant it or tend it. It just happened. When the earth bears fruit it’s because God made it happen.

The second parable, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, is a familiar story about the way God chooses the least to accomplish so much. By the grace of God, the tiny mustard seed grows to become large and strong enough to be a comforting home to the birds, much like the cedar tree in Ezekiel. The references in this story are the same and Jesus’ listeners would have “heard” Jesus’ message that the household of God is for all people, all nations.

This is not what the people awaiting the Messiah were seeking. They were seeking liberation for the Jewish people from occupation by their enemies, but Jesus was teaching them about liberation for all.

Back to our backyard garden… Steve and I are thrilled everyday watching the birds eat from our many feeders and playfully bathe in our bird baths. With that thrill, however, comes constant vigilance for squirrels who are steadfast in their quest to steal the birds’ food. No matter what barriers we put up, eventually the squirrels overcome them. They’re persistent little critters. They’re probably also the source of the Rose of Sharon.

Whether we like it or not, squirrels are created of God, so they too have a place in the environment we occupy. Perhaps instead of only working on barriers against them, we might repent and tend to their needs, embracing them rather than other-ing them. 

Are the dots beginning to connect?

This was at the heart of Jesus' message. Some people ate up Jesus’ message of the expanding boundaries of Love evidenced by the huge crowds who were gathering to hear him. Others resisted his message. For them, inclusion in liberation can’t happen for the “others” – the Gentiles, foreigners, slaves, and women - until it happens first for us.

Sound familiar? It’s a theme that keeps repeating in the generations of our forebears and continues in our generation. This week we mark Racial Equity week in the midst of PRIDE month. These are just two of the “others” of our time who cry out for justice and compassion. We are called to respond by embracing them and tending to their needs.

We also must speak the truth. White supremacy is so baked into our culture that we’ve allowed ourselves to lose sight of its trajectory from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 which freed only the enslaved persons in Confederate states, to the 13th amendment, ratified in 1865, which outlawed slavery in the US, to the backlash of black codes, Jim Crow laws, and redlining practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, to the School to Prison Pipeline today. This path represents the arc of injustice. We have much still to do toward racial equity.

Remembering that we are in the middle of PRIDE month, we acknowledge that we have much to do on this injustice as well. Come to our PRIDE picnic on June 30 at 5 pm to build relationships and share resources that will help us embrace and tend to the needs of our LGBTQIA2S+ siblings in Christ who are suffering or still healing. Go to the PRIDE page on our website (under the Welcome menu tab) where you will find resources to educate and heal us all.

We definitely have much to do, and it’s OK if we start small, as long as we get started. Dr. King once said: "Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step." And as Bishop Deon said at the End Gun Violence rally last Sunday, “The time has come. The time is now.”

If we take the first step God will show us the next step, and the next one…, and by the grace of God we will grow into the fullness of our strength, offering ourselves, our church, as a place of comfort and safety to all peoples, all nations.

This is the path given to us at Baptism: striving for the justice and dignity of every human being. It is the path that bends toward justice. 

So I ask our Equity and Justice pillar of Faith In Action to help us determine what our first step will be. I will support you in that endeavor. And I ask everyone at Emmanuel to commit to take that first step together. 

The time has come. The time is now. Amen.