Friday, April 2, 2021

Reflecting on Betrayal at the Triduum

 We are in the middle part of the Triduum...the Three Days...which lead up to Resurrection Sunday aka Easter. These days are of special importance to me as this is typically the time that I find myself confronted with questions, thoughts, epiphanies that have often greatly shaken and shaped my spiritual journey and helped move me toward deeper understanding and empathy for others.

This year has (so far) not been the same type of internal shifting. I'm not sure if it's just weariness from a year of pandemic living or arriving at a place in my seminary career where I'm supposed to be winding down and yet I have "things," papers and projects, that I have no energy for and yet I have to do them. Church's are not open and so I watched my diocesan's service and got my own tub of water and stuck my feet in it to attempt to have some sort of "felt" experience of the Maundy Thursday foot washing...only to tune into another service where the preacher was denouncing the practice. Church in the year of pandemic has been...as the French say..."interesting." 

So, whatever is going on in me, the shifting doesn't feel as if we're going to my spiritual nerve center this time. And I think that's OK.

What I am thinking about is Judas. 

"What?!" you say, "You're thinking about the betrayer and not our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ???!!!" 

Yes, that's right. I'm thinking about Judas. 

Throughout Holy Week, where we've been treated exclusively to the Gospel of John's account of the events of Jesus' final stand in Jerusalem, we've seen Judas the thief, Judas the complainer, Judas the betrayer. He is the one who receives the bread from Jesus, the bread that Jesus "dips into the dish"(John 13:26a) and hands it to him, announcing that "this is the guy who is about to stab me in the back" and yet the other disciples seem to be oblivious to this. They're all still pre-occupied with the idea that somebody might betray Jesus and doing an internal inventory of their hearts. They are so focused on themselves that they don't see what's just happened. And how could they see it? We're told Satan entered into Judas at that moment, but it's not like there is some physical forked-tongued, horned creature that manifests before their eyes. That's not how Evil works. It's much more cunning. It's odorless. Tasteless. But highly infectious. 

And while "Satan entered into him" (John 13:27a), and Judas goes off to fulfill his part in the unjust arrest and persecution of Jesus, I think there is some secondhand spreading of the sin of Judas that we, those left with these Gospels, might want to consider. 

Judas played a particularly active role in carrying out evil against Jesus, but the other eleven succumb to something we might think of as maybe not as egregious and yet sinful. Note how they all clutched at their hearts and kept asserting that they would never betray Jesus. I mean, Heaven forbid they do such a thing, right?

And yet...they did betray him.  Peter denied knowing him, and Phillip and James and Andrew and all the rest? When the Roman soldiers showed up and broke up their gathering in the garden to arrest  Jesus, they stood by and watched. Yes, Peter attacked Malchus and cut off his ear only to have Jesus tell him to put away the sword. Violence isn't the answer. And Jesus, still modeling Love for his disciples, gives himself up to the authorities and tells them to let the other men go (John 18:8). And apparently, they went. Away. Hiding. For John, this fulfills the Scripture...which can be traced to Psalm 41:9:

"Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me." 

We can play a game of "What if all the disciples had claimed to be Jesus?" just like in the film clip "I am Spartacus!" It certainly would have undermined the mission of Jesus to fulfill the task of dying on the cross to save the world. But I'm not thinking about that. Where my mind has been going today is how much have I or you or we been like one of those eleven? How have we been so worried that we might stand accused of being "the betrayer" that we get self-absorbed and fail to see when the betrayal is happening right before our eyes? 

That was brought to light today for me when I was doing a social justice walk that centered around John's Gospel for Good Friday (note: this is a terrible Gospel to reference if you want to do any sort of interfaith work with Jews for an obvious reason). We were walking through Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown section of D.C. Here, amidst the beauty of the trees, we contemplated Pilate's actions in carrying out the demand to have Jesus crucified (another aside: Pilate gets a very sympathetic treatment in the Gospel of John even though the Roman Emperor finally dismissed him as Governor because he was even too cruel and sadistic for the Romans!) The priest who offered a short homily on this passage noted how laws get obeyed and are left unquestioned and unchallenged until someone notices that there is something not right about the law and stops refusing to go along. Such was the case of the Loving couple from Virginia who finally challenged the ban on interracial marriage, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that paved the way for marriage equality for the LGBTQI+ community. Certainly, I have had my eyes opened in the past decade to the inequity in the justice system. As the daughter of a judge, I was brought up to believe that courts were neutral territory, the one place where the minority mouse could roar like a lion and be heard. 

Sadly, I have seen over and over and over and over how this American ideal is not a reality. I have listened to so many stories on the news and in person with my friends about how the system does not treat people of color as mighty mice allowed to roar but rather as pesky rodents that need to be put away...sometimes forever. It has been sobering and saddening. With the trial of Derek Chauvin going on in Minnesota, and the quest for justice in the murder of George Floyd, all of this is very much on mind. 

Recognizing and naming the racism in the systems in our society is the start. The next step is to work to change them. How will I make efforts to push for the sentencing of people who are black and brown to be the same as for whites? How will I stand with black and brown people who feel overpoliced on the one hand, and underserved by the police when they really need it on the other? These are some of my questions. Maybe you have your own. But I think considering them, continuing to listen to communities of color, are part of the work of not being like the disciples who move on and don't get in the way of Jesus' arrest. I know how easy it is to do that and how intimidating it is to step into those situations. I also know we cannot look away or take comfort in our own self-righteousness any more. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Meeting Jesus in the Parking Lot

 


It was a cold and icy night (really...it was!) in Alexandria. I had just driven up the street from the seminary to pick up a wonderful meal prepared with love by an Afghani refugee. It was not just dinner for me: she had prepared meals for others in the dorms who are left to fend for themselves on Saturday night.

As I climbed out of my car, I heard a shout. It was a man walking into the parking lot toward me. At first, I thought it might be one of my fellow seminarians. But as he came closer, I saw he was a middle-aged Chinese man. He was motioning with his hands and pointing to his head and ears. I couldn't tell if he was deaf or what was going on, and the COVID protocols of mask-wearing wasn't making things any easier. He opened his phone and showed me an address: 3221 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
OK. I asked if he was trying to get to that address. More wild, nonsensical arm motions, as if he was shoveling or something. Shoveling? Circle? Huh?
I typed out the address where he was on my phone. He squinted, read it, and looked exasperated. He started making more circles. He made a motion like eating.
"Are you hungry?" He shook his head no. Some more gestures that told me nothing.
"I'm really sorry," I said, holding a bag of Afghani dinners in the freezing drizzle. "I don't understand what you're asking. Are you trying to get to that address?" More pointing at his head, circles, shoveling.
Feeling terrible both that I couldn't understand his arm motions, and that I was holding other people's dinners that were getting colder by the second, I finally motioned for the man to follow me. I tried to get him to come inside at least the common room area of my dorm (to stay warm). He wouldn't, so I told him to stay outside and I would be right back. He started calling someone (all the names on his phone were Chinese symbols). I quickly ran to the rooms of people waiting for their dinners. It was reduced to a knock on the door and leaving the food outside their door as if they were all on quarantine. I found the man waiting for me as I was on the way to the last dorm. I stopped again to see if he was able to reach someone. Clearly, no.
"Do you want me to drive you to that address?" He pointed to me, then to himself. I figured this was the best we were going to do to get to "Yes, that's what I need you to do for me." I told him to wait one moment, ran the food up to the last person, and on the way out, I alerted a classmate to what was about to happen. Living in Florida, I am extremely cautious about taking men I don't know in a car. I wasn't scared. Just cautious.
I plugged in the address to Waze. He also showed me a video he had shot of the destination.
"Ah, OK!" It was Alexandria Commons. I knew exactly where we were going.
As we drove there, someone called him back. An animated but relieved sounding Chinese conversation ensued. Then he held the phone toward me.
"Hello? Do you speak English?" Obviously, no. The woman passed the phone to someone else.
"Hello? You are with our friend?"
"Yes, I am driving him to 3221 Duke Street."
"Oh, thank you! Yes, we're a restaurant. Thank you! Can we give you something to eat?" I tried to decline, but they insisted, so I asked for a noodle dish.
When we arrived he (and the chef and the hostess) were all very happy. He insisted on having a couple of selfies with me. They were insisting on me having dinner on the house.
The hostess, who was a young Asian woman named Amy, wanted to know where I found their friend.
"He wandered onto the campus of the Theological Seminary." She noticed my ID card which was hanging outside my coat. From there, we determined that he had gotten turned around trying to find his way to the restaurant. Turns out that he lives in one of the large apartment complexes way up at the other end of Seminary Road. Amy was so happy that I agreed to drive him on a night when nobody wants to be on the road.
"I was going to drive to Baltimore this evening," she told me, "but it's too icy."
"Oh, no. This is not a night to drive to Baltimore!"
As I was leaving with my food, Amy wanted to know if I work at the seminary.
"No, I'm a student."
"Oh? What are you studying?"
"Well, I'm preparing to become an Episcopal priest."
"Oh! So, is that like Catholic?"
"Well, sort of. We left the Roman Catholic Church a long time ago. We're the Episcopal Church."
I thanked them for the food in the only Chinese I know learned from watching too much "Sagwa" on PBS. My grateful friend followed me back out to my car for one more selfie. And we waved good-bye.
Despite language barriers, the language of God is love...which tonight came in the form of rescuing a lost man, delivering him to his friends, and a very delicious noodle dish for dinner from grateful people. My Afghan meatballs, for which I am also grateful, will wait for tomorrow's lunch.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sermon During a Troubling Epiphany Season

 

Sermon for St. Thomas
2nd Sunday After Epiphany (MLK Jr./pre-inaugural of Biden/Harris)
January 17, 2021
Readings Ps. 139; 1 Sam 3:1-10; John 1: 43-51

 

Welcome to the season of ‘A-ha!’

That’s what it means to have an “Epiphany.” An “A-ha!”

What we didn’t fully understand, now we get it.

What we didn’t see clearly, now comes into focus.

All of that is certainly true for the prophet Samuel in our Epistle reading and it is also true in our Gospel. Samuel doesn’t fully grasp that God is calling him; Nathanael doesn’t believe there’s a great one coming out of Galilee.

In fact, he scoffs at Phillip’s “A-ha” and declaration: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.” 

Nathanael’s answer?

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

 

Understand that Nazareth was a tiny very rural village in Galilee. So this is a little bit like saying, “Can anything good come out of Metcalf?”

Nothing of great importance could possibly come out of such a place. Undaunted Phillip responds: “Come and see.”

Phillip has already heard the call and experienced his epiphany. He’s insistent that Nathanael must meet this new Moses. 

When Jesus lays eyes on Nathanael, he exclaims:  

“Here is truly an Israelite with no deceit!”

We can almost see Nathanael’s jaw drop, and his eyes get big. We sense that his heart must be pounding a little faster. This Jesus, who he was so ready to dismiss as a nobody from Nazareth, has sized him up as an Israelite of great stature.

Nathanael stammers, “How do you know me?”

Great question, since the two had never met before. And yet Jesus has more knowledge of Nathanael than Nathanael has of himself. It’s as if he knows Nathanael’s “sitting down and rising up” (Ps.139:1) Suddenly it is starting to dawn on Nathanael that this man, who tells him “I saw you under the fig tree,” is someone he must respect: he is a Rabbi. He is God’s Son. He is a king of Israel. The one moniker he has yet to utter is that he is meeting the Word made Flesh…the one who had come to earth to dwell as one of us. What he knows is his life is changed in this encounter.  

These epiphanies…and “A-has” are wonderful, and finding God is amazing. But we also see how hard it is to perceive God. It takes a nearly blind Eli to interpret this voice calling for Samuel…and it takes Nathanael getting past his skeptism to meet Christ. We don’t always get the message the first time, and once we do, the challenge is how do we respond to a call. Once called by God, there is no other option but to follow and walk in a new path with no guarantee about the outcome. Now, the church likes to talk of “call” as applying to those of us who seek to enter ordained ministry. I have been asked countless times now to tell my “call story” to committees or groups of strangers.

But God calls more than those who are entering the sacramental priesthood. The call of God extends to everyone to “do justice. Love kindness and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8). Serving God and living into following Jesus is not a spectator sport. God seeks out true disciples to love and serve in their communities, to do the work of lifting up the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoner, and liberating those who have been oppressed. This is the work of love…and it is not easy. But just like the prophet Samuel and the disciple Nathanael…it is the proper response when one has made a true commitment to follow God and respond to that commandment to “love God, love neighbor, and love yourself.”

I can’t think of a better time for us to hear that call of Love than right now. Amidst the anger and destruction and the violent attempts to overthrow the government…there is still a call from the One who knows us completely to live in Love. 

I’ve been reading Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s book “Love is the Way.” It’s an autobiography with lots of reflection and Christian teaching. He has a chapter called “The Real E. Pluribus Unum”… our national motto of “Out of many-one.” In it, he speaks of the division we’ve had in the country, where we are more “pluribus” than “unum.” And he acknowledges the Anglican Communion has had its own share of in-fighting.  

A few years ago, when Bishop Curry was in England for the Royal Wedding, there was a press conference featuring him and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. As you might expect, one of the reporters wanted to know how these two men could be sitting together and participating in such a high-profile wedding while there was still disagreement between them on the topic of same-sex marriage. And Bishop Curry without missing a beat told the journalist, “We follow Jesus. He teaches us the way of love; he didn’t teach us the way of agreement.”

Jesus…the Prince of Peace who specifically calls us to love our enemies…seeks a specific type of love. As Curry says, this call of Love is deciding to commit to do what is best and right and good…as best as you can figure it out…for the other person. You don’t have to like your enemies. But you do have to decide that working toward a common goal of civic order that reflects goodness, justice, and compassion ultimately reflects the will and love of God for all people.

Goodness. Justice. Compassion.

This is the way of love that has been missing for too long. The call to us now in this season of Epiphany is to tune our ears and listen and follow the command to love and respond like Samuel to that call with “Here I am.”  The Word of God from John’s Gospel is still with us. We are to remain open to those “A-ha” moments when we find Christ in the other and stand for goodness, justice and compassion.  

To be Christ’s disciple isn’t about being a cheerleader for our Savior. It’s about Christ stirring us into the action of bringing heaven and earth closer together, and rejecting the attempts to draw us into isolation, selfishness, and greed.

The hymn lyricist Cecil Frances Alexander says it best:

Jesus calls us from the worship
of the vain world's golden store;
from each idol that would keep us,
saying, "Christian, love me more."

 

In the name of God…F/S/and HS.
 

 

 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sermon--Blue Christmas 2020

 For the congregation of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA. The scripture text I was working with is Psalm 23 in the King James Version. 

***

If there ever was a year when this Blue Christmas service is needed, 2020 definitely would be it!

This has been the year of the mask, the Purell, the hand soap, and toilet paper shortages. Too many people have been sick and far too many have died from COVID…from friends, church members, uncles, aunts, cousins, people’s moms and dads. COVID has wreaked havoc on our lives…changed the way we shop, go to school, do our jobs, even go to church. And in an almost too cruel twist of fate, this viral pandemic has collided with the ongoing struggles in the nation over race and racism. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry describes it, these times are our midnight hour, which is the darkest hour of the night.

These are the times for Psalm 23.

This one is probably the most well-known of the psalms. And this version…the King James Version…is the classic form of the psalm. In fact, my practical theology professor…the Rev. Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard…told us to memorize this rendering of the psalm. She told us it will be important because in any ministry we might have, we might find ourselves in a hospital room with grieving Christians from another denomination and this is the version of Psalm 23 they will want to hear. It is words of comfort.

It is a song of reassurance.

It is the one that tells us the eternal truth: God is with us at those moments when we feel adrift in a sea of grief and can only sing the blues.

“The Lord is my shepherd…” The psalmist uses the imagery of the shepherd leading and encouraging the flock along still waters. I’ve seen shepherds at work when I was on a trip to France with my spouse. It was a small village, and the shepherd was moving the sheep along a street heading toward the pasture on a mountain. The sheep were pretty content to follow him…except when they would stop to snack on the flower beds of some of the houses. Then the shepherd would drop back, encourage these hungry sheep to keep moving along, not with a beating but with a guiding nudge of his staff. Eventually, the flock arrived at a fountain in the middle of the town square, and he let them take a drink before they continued their journey toward the green pasture of the mountain side.

Shepherd, for the psalmist, has additional meaning beyond the shepherd of sheep. Many a biblical scholar notes that the kings of the ancient world were called shepherds of their people. It was thought that the job of the worldly leader was to guide and direct the populace with the same skill as a shepherd. So, to say that the Lord is my shepherd once again places God as the true guide and authority to lead one along and  restore the life force—the soul-- to a place of resting and feasting.

Before we get to the banquet table in the psalm, we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. The Hebrew for this description is “deep darkness,” a sense of danger and death. This is the midnight hour of the psalm. This type of darkness is one that can leave us frightened for the lack of being able to see our way out of our troubles. And yet…the psalmist tells us “I will fear no evil” because God is there and remains present even when we haven’t asked. 

God keeps gently guiding us through this dark spot.

God is there with the food bank worker distributing bags and cans to families in need because COVID forced parents out of their jobs.

God is there with that nurse checking on patients in the intensive care and emergency room and being one of the only people able to hold the hand of a person struggling to breathe.

God is with the scientists and medical researchers who have put their skills to work to get us a vaccine.

God is with us to keep us moving toward the psalmist’s vision of the banquet table, where we will be beyond the things that trouble us, where we will lay down those things that keep us divided and bring us to the other side of pandemics. Because even when it is midnight, stars of bright light poke through the gloom to remind us that God is nearby.

To keep Christmas in this Coronatide it’s important to not only keep looking for those lights, those signs of God’s presence in the acts of kindness of others, but to remember that we can be those lights to one another.  “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Lord will lead us through our valleys to a day when we will again feast together.


Friday, October 23, 2020

Senior Sermon: St. James of Jerusalem

 Well, this is my one and only time that I will be in the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, and it is to preach my senior sermon to a camera, and the seven or eight people on hand functioning as lector, cantor, organist, deacon, presider and sacristans. This is NOT what I had imagined for this big moment in my seminary career. But then, I also didn't imagine we'd be hampered and hemmed in so much by a viral pandemic. 

Hopefully, the link will post here. I am picking this up at my sermon. The Gospel lesson from Matthew 13 is short and details Jesus' rejection at Nazareth:

"He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief."

Here's the link to my sermon.  

The text follows:

 

“Who is Jesus Christ?!”

That was the question posed to me by a bishop of the Episcopal Church.

My rector and I had travelled two and half hours to have this meeting. It had come after a long time of me doing everything I could think of to avoid following a call to the priesthood.

But my study of Scripture…my experiences of being in leadership roles both inside and outside the church…working with massage clients…and being told by my atheist friends that I was the one Christian they could stand left me with no choice.

I had to trust God…and go before a bishop.

His question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” was not so much a question. The way he posed it was quite demanding. And so I smiled and told him the truth, my truth:

Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever.

I know this because I believe Jesus’ death and resurrection signals to us…to me… that there are no powers and principalities or bullies and tyrants in this world who can destroy the greater power of a love that knows our sitting down and rising up (Ps.139). It is a love that knows pain and suffering…stays  hangs with us through difficulty. (note: I made this word substitution on the fly as I was preaching and as it turned out, it was a powerful and spirit-filled choice). 

Simply put: Jesus and his work on the cross prove that death doesn’t get the last word, and that Love really does win.

Unfortunately, my earnest and heartfelt statement went unheard. What I had said did not conform to the catechism.

All this bishop could see was my gender non-conforming dress, my broad shoulders, my buzz haircut.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that moment in my journey when I read this Gospel story.

Jesus is going before his hometown folk in Nazareth. He has been teaching and healing in other towns, and he has sent his disciples out to do good works. He’s warned them that they will face opposition so “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

So here he is in his childhood Temple, sharing his wisdom, speaking his truth and raising up the names of the prophets and calling on the assembled gathering to get back to right relationship with God. And while they might have been curious at first…all they could say is: Aren’t you Mary’s son? And your daddy, he’s a carpenter, right? And then these men and women are your siblings?

They could not…or maybe they did not want to hear him.

It’s as if their minds were already made up about who he was and what he was about what they already thought they knew.

Jesus’ own hometown rejected him.  

 Now one of those siblings who we hear was present is named James, the ancestor we are honoring today. James is referred to as “the brother of Jesus”. This can lead to many sidebar discussions about what exactly is meant by “brother.”

Is he Jesus’ full brother?  A younger Half brother? An older Step brother? Do we go with what St. Jerome said and call him a “Cousin” of Jesus?

For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that James had a brotherly kinship with Jesus…and became a loud and proud confessor of Jesus as Messiah.

James was given to constant prayer and was considered by many to be virtuous…. thus earning him the name “James the Just.”  

As we heard in today’s readings, James as the bishop of Jerusalem, played a major role in settling the dispute over whether the Gentiles entering this emerging faith around Jesus needed to convert to Judaism…meaning they needed to be circumcised.

Upon listening to the testimony particularly of Paul and Barnabas, James declared that the Gentiles did not need to convert…and it had always been God’s plan to include the Gentiles. But…in perhaps a finding a delicate balance in this disagreement…he did encourage these new members to avoid such practices as eating food offered to pagan idols  as that could lead to idolatry…and hence away from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Many became believers in Jesus because of James. That did not sit well with one particular high priest. According to the Christian writer Hegesippus…James’ religious opponents begged him,

“Please persuade the people not to go astray by believing in Jesus as the Messiah.”

They took James to the pinnacle of the temple and demanded that he preach a sermon denouncing Jesus. Instead…he told his truth…maybe even described Jesus as the greatest liberator from oppression ever, freeing the captive from whatever real or imagined prison was holding them back…maybe he spoke words of hope to those who had felt rejected.

For being that bold in his profession of his faith…his opponents threw James from the pinnacle and when that didn’t kill him, they cudgeled him to death. So this bishop seen as virtuous and devout spoke his truth about Jesus…and it was violently rejected.

But even in this case…love wins. The death of James so offended the Jews in Jerusalem that the incoming Roman Governor removed that high priest who had killed their beloved James.

There is always going to be opposition to love.

As Jesus shows us this work of bringing Love into the world will not happen easily or overnight or even with one election.

To bring about Love takes persistence.

To bring about Love takes courage.

To bring about Love means speaking your truth.

And it takes constantly returning to the source of our strength and remembering why we are who we are and whose we are. 

Because for every one person who refuses to see us or hear us, there are so many more still seeking and desiring to know that there is such a love that is--as our presiding bishop says--liberating and life-giving.

Don’t be silent. Don’t let anybody turn you back. Keep going in the name of Love.  

 


Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Love That Makes Us Free


I’m in the middle of a class right now on the life and writings of the theologian and mystic Howard Thurman. Thurman is one of the leading religious thinkers in 20th century American Christianity. He was born and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, and was the first African-American to complete eighth grade there and go on to high school in Jacksonville. His father had died when he was a boy, and his mother had to work to support the family so his maternal grandmother helped to raise him and his two sisters.  And it was this lady, his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who pointed Thurman to Jesus.
Ambrose was born into slavery in north Florida. She couldn’t read or write, so Thurman would read the psalms and the Gospels to her. She never wanted to hear Paul’s Letters…because white preachers on the plantation would only cite Paul’s words about slaves obeying their masters. In the hands of these preachers, the Bible became a weapon.
But Ambrose told him that…once a month…a black preacher…a fellow slave from another plantation would come preach to them. And it was that preacher who spoke the truth: he said, “You’re not slaves: you are precious in the eyes of God as God’s own children.” Thurman said when his Grandma Nancy would tell this story, her spine would straighten up as that deep profound love of God filled her body with self-worth.
It was from this preacher…Ambrose learned to distinguish for herself the difference between liberty and freedom. She taught Thurman that liberty is what someone else gives you. BUT freedom was the love of God found within yourself.
It’s too bad that Paul’s Letters left such a rotten taste in her mouth because today’s portion from his Letter to the Romans confirms that same message of what it means to be free.
We hear from Paul that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…that will separate us from the love of God. God’s love has no borders or boundaries…cannot be legislated or segregated. It is higher than mountains and lower than the seas. It is the coolest most refreshing drink to sustain us on the hottest most humid days of life.
And we can’t earn it because it just is. If we allow ourselves to feel loved that strongly, that deeply, that much…Yowse, my friends! That’s freedom! That’s power! For you, for me, for everybody.
 Acknowledging and accepting that God has loved us, does love us, and will always love us wipes away fear.
Fear is what motivates those in positions of power to act in ways that hurt and devalue another person.
Fear is what paralyzes us from taking action to help somebody.
Fear is what starves us of the Love that frees us.
If God is for us…whether we are the powerful or the powerless…than who can be against us?
Nobody. Love gives us freedom from fear and puts us in right relationship with each other.
I think that’s critical to our Gospel lesson as well. As the commentators note…what Jesus is telling us about the kingdom of heaven is we can find it in things like a trash tree…or in this case…a trash bush. Seriously: farmers in the First Century who had laid out perfect rows for their crops wouldn’t have been happy to have a mustard bush growing like kudzu in their field!
And that’s Jesus’ point: The kingdom of God is about a love that is wild and free…disorderly and disruptive.
It’s the love of unwanted leaven that makes an amazing sourdough. It’s a love that gives up old habits, and former beliefs, to gain something new and greater.
It’s a free love found in little things, ordinary things, unwanted things.
And notice that when he asks, “Do you get it?” everyone tells Jesus, “Oh, yeah, we understand what you mean, man!” 
But…did they really?
Do we really understand how deeply God loves that even a trash tree symbolizes the kingdom of God?
Have we grown so used to the order of the way things are that we can’t even imagine how they should be? 
I think at a time of this viral pandemic…that’s a pressing question for the Episcopal Church, not just St. Thomas, but the broader Episcopal Church.
Right after the Fourth of July, three Episcopal priests…the Reverends Winnie Varghese, Stephanie Spellers, and Canon Kelly Brown Douglas…released a letter called “Speaking of Freedom.” It was an open letter to our denomination. These women, distinguished leaders and preachers…two of them Black and one of South Indian descent, placed the challenge before us as Episcopalians to address our history as the church of the powerful…and the slave-owners. 
Their letter calls on us to be the baptized beloved community we say we want to be. Really fulfill the promises we make with each baptism to resist evil, return to God, and respect the dignity of EVERY human being.
The truth is we often don’t do those things.
We all fall short of living into and promoting the freedom found in the Love of God.
What would it be like for the Episcopal Church to fully show up for Jesus?
Tap into our inner freedom that knows the love of God’s kingdom is like that unwanted mustard seed growing big and wild in that otherwise ordered field.
These women of our church are challenging us: can we white Episcopalians yearn enough for Jesus and God’s message of radical inclusion to let go of the things that keep us separated from our siblings of color…and finally live fully into our baptismal covenant so that we can be free?
Good news! I’ve seen it happening.
White Episcopalians I’ve known in Tallahassee who never spoke out on any social justice issue are now posting links to anti-racism resources on Facebook.
I’ve seen videos of white friends joining in marches right here down Remington Avenue for Black Lives Matter. I call such actions praying with one’s feet.
Paul has already declared to us that God loves us beyond all human comprehension with a love that frees us in such a way that nothing can stop us. This is the love that empowers us and frees us to have the courage to look closely and critically at our church’s history. Such an examination may feel disruptive and uncomfortable. But God is for us. And like that unruly mustard seed…such a push for an honest examination will grow a healthier, more vibrant, more loving Episcopal Church.
And so we pray,
O God of peace, open our hearts, guide us in your path, and lead us as your children to live more freely and fully into your commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. For it is in the loving that doubt and fears give way to faith and hope. Trusting in you and your love, we are made free.

(To see the service and hear the sermon, click HERE. Make sure it's for July 26th.) 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Comfortable Words in an Uncomfortable Time: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached for online Morning Prayer worship, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA.


These last few lines from our Matthew reading this morning are among my favorites in Scripture. I remember when I was a child in my church up in New Hampshire hearing our curate Rich Weymouth read them aloud right before the offertory. His voice conveyed such tenderness and kindness that it felt like a friend was pulling up a chair, wrapping their arm around my shoulders, and giving me reassurance that everything was going to be OK.
The disciples needed to hear these comforting words, too. Jesus has told them they’re gonna face resistance. Even when they’re speaking words of love and freedom…some people will not want to hear it. This God work is not easy.
To illustrate this…Jesus paints a picture of this resistance. This generation…his generation…are a people who don’t respond appropriately to anything… good or bad. Play the flute, be joyful, dance and be happy...this generation sits on the sidelines and mutters they don’t take part in such silliness. Come crying and mourning at loss and death? This people shrugs and laughs it off: it’s no big deal. They say that John the Baptizer’s religious practice of self-denial is demonic…and Jesus’ ultra-inclusive religion of love is not orthodox enough. Nothing will satisfy or convince this generation. They know better. Good luck to the disciples dealing with this mess!
Why aren’t the people convinced? Why do they resist so much? Why are they afraid to turn around, to change?
I feel like these are the same questions that we are wrestling with today. We celebrated Independence Day, but it hardly feels like a time of celebration. Racism is still dividing us, and we are caught in the net of a viral pandemic that has left many of us feeling very dependent. I’ve been shocked as I watch videos of grown men and women going ballistic in a grocery store when a teen-age clerk asks them to put on a mask. It makes no sense to me.
I know people who have or have had COVID-19. Some have died, some are still suffering from constant headache and short-term memory loss. Others have recovered relatively unscathed but may have lingering effects crop up years down the road. I can’t ignore how COVID-19 has exposed the gaps in our healthcare system and is disproportionately affecting racial minorities and the poor. All that makes me cringe as I watch the unmasked person screaming at the store employee while hurling packaged meats and loaves of bread to floor.
Is this rage really because of a request to put on a mask?
In seminary, one of the things they ask us to do is to pay attention to people and listen with what they call “our third ear.” It’s a way of being compassionate in times of high emotions and anxiety. And while I can’t say that I would have the patience to engage a person screaming at me and throwing things on the floor, I think that behavior might be pointing to something larger than a mask and more universal to all of us.
I think we are scared. This virus makes it impossible for us to go about our lives as we always have. We can’t gather together. We can’t sing in groups. We can’t go out to eat or drink. Businesses are closing. Unemployment benefits go unpaid. We are facing the uncomfortable truth that we are not in control. And when doctors and scientists come to us and say, “Put on a mask and keep social distance,” we become like that generation who thought John the Baptizer had a demon and Jesus was a glutton and drunkard.
But still…the doctors persist. The nurses keep emphasizing the public health advice. And now, even more politicians on both sides of the aisle are saying we must accept the reality of this virus, so please wear a mask in public.
Yet the resistance to these instructions continues.
So, do we give up? Do we say as Paul wrote to the Romans that we know what we ought to do, but we do the thing we hate?
We are living in a time of trouble on so many fronts. Life is hard, overwhelming and scary. Change is difficult. But Jesus’ message is that we must keep pressing forward even though we will suffer at times and may even lose a friend or two along the way. That’s part of the cost of discipleship…which brings us back to those comfortable words.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Taking just a minute here…Imagine for a moment what troubles you? What makes you uncertain?
Now think of what it feels like to have someone be with you in that place of discomfort and fear. A friend or a loved one who listens attentively and stays with you in that place.
Now…imagine for a moment another person…someone who is a stranger to you. Are they feeling troubled? Do they feel anxious? As you listen to them…what are they telling you?
Ask yourself: what might I do to make their burden a little bit lighter?
This is where the Spirit of God is meeting us in this time. When we can find fellowship and kinship with another…when we can hear in their experiences echoes of our own…we come closer to living out our faith as Christians to be the true friend to another child of God.
The tasks and the difficulties before us…our race relations or COVID-19…are no less weighty…but we are not alone. Jesus is with us. He’s teaching and leading us in how to take care of one another and have compassion even when we meet with resistance. This is what it means to walk the path of Love.
We who have ears to hear, listen.