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.