Sunday, July 14, 2024

8 Pentecost, 2024-B: Our prophetic message to the world

Proper 10 Lectionary: Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

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

I love the prophets in our Scripture! To me they are like artists, painting doorways to the truth. As with other forms of art, it often takes some education to fully appreciate their work.

Amos is known as the prophet of social justice. He was a herdsman and farmer who lived when Israel was divided into two kingdoms: the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos lived in Judah and God sent him Israel, where Jeroboam was king, to prophesy.

The northern kingdom of Israel then was kind of like Galilee was in our Gospel reading. Today, we might see Hollywood or Washington D.C. similarly. These are places of earthly excesses, even decadence, populated by circles of rich, materialistic cosmopolitans, who believe they earned their own fortunes and, therefore, deserve the enjoyment their fortunes afford them. They show little to no mercy for those in need among them. In fact, they hardly notice them.

It was to people like these that Amos prophesied in Chapter 6: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, …who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (v 4-6)

Amaziah, the priest of the temple, begged Amos to leave Israel and prophesy somewhere else. Stop saying bad things about us, Amaziah said. This is the king’s territory, and we are beloved, favored, and blessed by God. That’s why we have it so good.

Amos responded, yes, you are beloved of God, which is why you, of all people, should know how you are to live in relationship to God and one another. You have gotten lost in the satisfaction that comes from earthly wealth, power, and privilege. You believe that you deserve the blessings you have and that you can kick back and enjoy them. But your power and privilege are an illusion. And when the illusion fails, you’ll realize that you have nothing because you chose to live in the absence of God, which leads only to nothingness.

Amos uses prophetic language to describe this nothingness saying, your wife will be sold into indignity, your kids will have no life in them, you will lose all you hold dear – including your land (which, for the people of Israel, meant their identity). You will even lose the dignity of your life and your death. 

But God, who is steadfast in love and mercy, always responds to human hubris, offering mercy and a way to go. In the vision of the plumb line, God asks Amos, ‘What do you see?’ ‘A plumb line,’ answers Amos. Right, says God. “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (v 8-9)

In other words, by the mercy of God, all that the people cling to, all that seems desirable to them but leads to their destruction will be removed. All may seem lost because those things – the luxuries, the power and wealth, the success, and the esteem of others– had seemed so important.

But God, who loves us with steadfast love, knows that these things are to us humans like pills are to an addict. They trick us into believing that we are satisfied and happy even as they are destroying us.

We become so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of those suffering around us – the hungry, unhoused, infirm, and alone. Since we also convince ourselves that we are the source of our success, we conclude that they should earn their own and we don’t need to share with them any part of ours. We even tell ourselves that it’s for their own good that we don’t share – they should learn to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – presuming, of course, that they even have boots.

In our gospel story, we see what this kind of self-focus and the attachment to earthly power can do to us. The story of Herod’s murder of John the Baptizer is a difficult story because it includes the worst of human behavior: incest, debauchery, murderous manipulation, misuse of power, and the death of an innocent. We want to cry out – how can those people let this happen? Why doesn’t anyone stop Herodius or Herod from committing this great wrong?

They don’t because they’re so preoccupied trying to amass or keep their own power and the luxurious lives they’ve become accustomed to, that they don’t care about the horror being played out right in front of them. Speaking truth here isn’t worth the risk of losing what they’ve worked to gain for themselves.

Sound familiar? That’s because people are people - in every era of human history.

We, who are followers of Jesus Christ, must go a different way. We are called to walk the way of love, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry often says, the way of kindness, graciousness, and community.

But detaching from our hubris and self-sufficiency is a lot like detoxing from an addiction – it’s painful at first. The body and mind fight against it. We cling to the false reality we’ve created for ourselves because it is preferable to the truth that is coming into view – the truth that all of those things we thought mattered, the luxuries, power, wealth, and esteem of others, lead us to nothing… leave us as nothing.

It feels like desolation, and, in fact, it is desolation, blessed desolation, the total destruction of a false reality we had made for ourselves. From that place of desolation, we call out to God who is already there waiting to hear and respond to us in mercy and love and to show us what we ought to do, as our Collect says.

We believe that our salvation is in Jesus Christ, the second person in the Trinity of God, who came to live and minister among us, and gave his life for our salvation. Jesus did it and it has been done – once, for all. There is nothing we can or need to do to save ourselves. No amount of obedience or good works can save us. Indeed, they are the fruits of our salvation, not the means to it.

We need to remember that when we do anything good it’s because the grace of God has been lavished upon us, compelling us to do our part in Christ’s continuing work of the redemption of the world. When we do anything good, it’s because the Spirit of God, the viriditas of God, lives in us and touches the world through our grateful hearts and willing hands. When we do anything good, it’s because we have “heard the word of truth,” which is another way to say Jesus. We have believed in him and surrendered ourselves and our lives to him. 

It is through Jesus that we have wisdom to understand what we ought to do and it is by his grace that we can do it. The rules that guide us have to be reinterpreted in each age to make room for a compassionate response to the changes in the world. Jesus did so much of that during his ministry: healing on the Sabbath, touching a bleeding woman to heal her, calming and restoring a demoniac. Jesus showed us how the law is meant to serve humans, not the reverse, through the grace and mercy of God.

Right now, we are witnessing an increase in the passage of laws that criminalize being unhoused and other laws that forbid people from feeding them; laws that forbid giving water to asylum seekers; laws that forbid doctors from providing life-saving surgeries for pregnant women and best practice medical care for trans children.

These are not in keeping with the way of love and we must speak our truth about it, no matter how many modern-day Amaziahs try to make us stop. We have a message to prophesy, a message of the unfathomable, inclusive, compassionate love of God for all people.

And no matter how many Herods of today manipulate their way around what’s right - or even lawful- destroying lives they neither notice nor care about; we won’t stop calling it out as wrong. As Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” 

We have the light of truth in us. It is the very Spirit of Jesus given to us so that we can continue his reconciling work in the world. So, no matter how impossible or desolate the path to peace and love seems to our earthly minds, we’ll continue to pray for and gratefully receive the grace and power to do what God would have us do. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

7 Pentecost, 2024-B: Ready, receptive, transformable

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 begins at 27' 25"

Lectionary, Track 2: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 

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

I want to begin today with a discussion of one of my favorite saints: Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in the 12th century (1098-1179), so, the medieval era.

Hildegard was sickly from birth and throughout her life. If anyone knew weakness, it was Hildegard. Beginning from about the age of three, Hildegard began having visions. Though she was hesitant to share her visions, she eventually trusted someone enough and told them. This prompted the formation of a committee of theologians to authenticate her visions – which they did.

One of the things I love about Hildegard was how grounded she was in her faith. I can only imagine that this woman’s visions, and interpretations of those visions, were so quickly authenticated because her articulation of them was congruent with her Christian faith. This can be witnessed in her many writings.

Hildegard was a mystic. Her writings were prophetic, apocalyptic, theological, botanical, and medical. She was also a poet and composed music for her poetry. She was, in other words, a polymath, a female one no less, ahead of the Renaissance.

Hildegard described her visions as reflections/voice of the living light. The visions came as images which she then interpreted in words. She heard the voice of God not with her ears but in her spirit. Hildegard “saw” that within all creation is a Divine life force, the breath of God, ruach, as it is called in Genesis. This, she says, is why everything in creation reflects and glorifies God.

That same life force is in us like sap is in a tree. Without it we would die. By it, we have within us the ruach of the Divine who fills and transforms our bodies and spirits, connecting us to all creation and motivating us to nurture and care for ourselves, one another, and all of creation. As Hildegard said in her prayer: “O Holy Spirit, … you are the mighty way in which every thing that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, is penetrated with relatedness.”

By observing nature around her, Hildegard “saw that there was a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform its light and warmth into energy and life.” Source. She called this process: viriditas (greening).

I would suggest that this is our faithful posture during this long, green season after Pentecost: to be ready, receptive, and transformable. It is also the theme of our Scripture readings today.

Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. This is Paul speaking about himself in the 3rd person. Was it false humility? It often is with Paul, but this time, I don’t think it was because this portion of his letter is so authentically mystical.

Paul talks about being caught up to the third heaven, a realm beyond human comprehension where God is fully present. What Paul is describing here is a unitive experience: complete connectedness, oneness with the Divine and all that is, where somehow the truth of all things is known.

When the experience ends and our mortal nature returns, we have no words to describe it. Paul said, he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” We couldn’t if we tried, but Paul, being Paul, is a Pharisee and so the words he can find to use are very rules-based.

Still, he manages to communicate a very, very important message from his experience. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul was not accustomed to being weak. He was an elite, wealthy, educated, religious authority with the power to hunt down and kill those he deemed to be heretics. But in this letter, we see that Paul was ready, receptive, and transformable. His acquiescence culminates in his effusive statement: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

How profound that is! We need to make room in ourselves for the power of Christ to dwell in us. Our hubris, our sense of self-sufficiency, our willingness to divide heaven and earth and relegate God’s power to the heavenly realm while we maintain power over the earthly realm - has to go!

Like Paul, we too, as a people, are unaccustomed to being weak. Our culture worships strength, even brutality, in sports, politics, and, sadly, religion.

Look around in the world as we have it today. Who is crying out “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud” as our psalmist says. Who are those voices among us now?

It is us. We are not disconnected from the families in Ukraine or the Middle East enduring war or from the families in our own city besieged by gun violence. We are connected to the descendants of slaves who continue to battle discrimination and enslavement through economic and political structures that exclude them and privatized prisons that profit from exiling them. We share a life force with the indigenous people who continue to live in imposed poverty and exile from their homelands. We are also one with those whose pride forbids acquiescence to true weakness, who squeeze God out because they don’t trust in the mercy, love, and power of God to transform.

In Ezekiel, we see how God responds when our hubris squeezes God out of our collective hearts. Ezekiel speaks of a God who cares so much about the people who, in return, care so little for God, themselves, or others. The people have become impudent, stubborn, and rebellious. In response, God reaches out to them through a person, Ezekiel, with a message. Hildegard might describe this as the life force of God reaching out through the prophet to renew the dying world. But be advised, God said, they are a rebellious people who may refuse to hear you.

This is similar to what Jesus tells the disciples when he sends them out. There may be some who won’t welcome you or your message. If that happens, Jesus says, don’t try to fix it or force it. Just leave and, as Taylor Swift would say, shake it off.

At our Bible study this week, one of our studiers suggested that Jesus took his disciples to his hometown on purpose, to show them, before he sent them, that even he wouldn’t always be welcomed, despite the many healings he’d already done. When our Scripture tells us that Jesus could do no deeds of power there, it wasn’t because his power was diminished but because the people were unwilling to receive from him. They were not ready, receptive, or transformable.

Jesus sends us now, with the same authority he gave the disciples, to heal the brokenness in our world. We, too, won’t always be welcomed and sometimes, we have to just shake it off. We aren’t sent with a scorecard to record our successes. We’re sent to bring the viriditas within us, the life force of God within us, to heal the world around us.

We often read these healing stories the way we watch movies like Harry Potter - like it’s a fantasy. Healing is magical and we don’t have magic.

Well, I’m here to tell you, yes we do! We have the power of God’s healing life force, viriditas, within us, and we’re already using it! 

When someone comes to us broken by grief, or insecurity, or fear and we comfort them or remind them of their worth, God has extended viriditas through us to them. When someone is wounded by racism, sexism, or homophobia and we work to transform the systems that oppress them, God has healed the world through us. When we sit with someone who just needs us to be present, without solving anything, God has extended the viriditas that is in us to them.

Some healing is physical, but it is also spiritual, emotional, and personal – and we know how to do it. We just have to wake up to the power of God’s viriditas in us and commit to go wherever and how-ever God sends us to heal the world, remembering what Julian of Norwich said, that “We are not just made by God. We are made of God.”.

I close with a prayer from Hildegard’s feast day, which is September 17. Let us pray. O God, by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.