Fry Bread from Heaven

Sermon for Year A Proper 20; Exodus 16:2-15, NRSV

When I signed up to take nine high school youth on a Confirmation pilgrimage just this past August, only a little over a month ago, I had no idea how much I would be fed on the journey, on our cross-country travel to Navajoland.  I had no idea how hungry I was for a deep, spiritual, mystical encounter.  I had no idea how the wilderness of Arizona, the landscape of the desert, would speak to my soul—with stunning sunsets streaking across the horizon, with canyon walls shooting overhead, with the sand and sagebrush skimming my feet.  I had no idea that the story of the people, the Diné, the Navajo, would be a story so familiar to my ears.

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Our hard-working crew during our time on the reservation.

Our first night on the reservation this jet lagging, motley crew was fed a sumptuous feast of Navajo tacos.  Large pieces of fry bread—that doughy goodness—topped with black beans, ground beef, cheese, onions, lettuce, salsa, sour cream, all the traditional taco fixin’s you could want.  Then for dessert even more fry bread, now flowing with ice cream and honey.  We went to bed that night full and happy.

And then the next morning, at the end of a sleepily mumbled morning prayer, Mother Cynthia of Good Shepherd Episcopal Mission, recounted to us the origin myth of this magical fry bread that filled our bellies.  In the history of the people, of the Navajo, fry bread was a new phenomenon.  Before white settlers came west, this was not a staple of the native diet.  Before the white military came west and burned the tribal territory trying to starve the Navajo out of their homeland—the people had enough food to eat.  Before the white wave of cultural domination came west, the Navajo had never encountered the government rations of oil and flour—central to the fry bread recipe.  Yet during their wandering in the wilderness—while being forced three hundred miles from their homeland—, the tribe, the Diné, the people created something new from what had been given them—this Navajo fry bread.  Instead of being torn apart by western influence; instead of baking bread as the white settlers would have done, they created something totally new from ingredients they had never encountered.  They rallied around their ability to create something out of nothing; their ability to turn scarcity into abundance; their ability to turn their wilderness—a place where all hope was lost—into a moment of communal identity.

In moments of scarcity, in the years of oppression, in their time of trial, this Navajo fry bread became a symbol of resistance, a symbol of perseverance, a symbol that the people would never give up.  This Navajo fry bread became the bread of resilience.  And while on this Confirmation pilgrimage, learning about this  native culture, one of my youth so wisely, intuitively, and astutely spoke up and connected this fry bread story to another more familiar story for us—that of the manna in the wilderness, the bread of heaven, the bread of resilience (our Old Testament reading today, Exodus 16).

Over the past five Sundays we have been following the Israelites upon their freedom from bondage, to their hurried flight out of Egypt, and now to their wandering in the Sinai wilderness for forty years.  They have experienced suffering.  They have experienced slavery.  And now they are experiencing the brink of starvation, just as the Navajo would experience thousands of years in the future.  The Israelite people complain to Moses and Aaron (and really their qualm is with the Divine), “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3)  Although the Israelites have left the land of their persecutors, they have not found their home; they have not arrived in their own tribal territory; they have not glimpsed the land flowing with milk and honey.  Yet despite their grumbling, despite their complaining, God provides a feast.  Out of nothing comes enough for everyone.  In the evening God sends quail—meat to eat— and in the morning manna, bread from heaven: blessing God’s people—who thought they had only known scarcity—with an abundance that can only come from the Divine.  Out of their cries from captivity, out of their wandering in the wilderness, comes manna, the bread of heaven, the bread of resilience.

This gift from God symbolizes the strength of this community: their fortitude, their grit, their perseverance, their desire to remain God’s chosen people despite slavery, despite conquest, despite exile.  And even when doubt creeps in, the Lord reminds the Israelites of their sheer determination with the offering of the bread of resilience.  Out of the wilderness comes fry bread.  Out of the wilderness comes manna from heaven.  Out of the wilderness comes the Body of Christ: the bread of resilience.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus himself reminds us that just as manna was a gift in the morning, that he is a gift from the Holy One.  Jesus reminds us that just as manna was the bread of heaven, he is the bread of life (vv 32-25).  Jesus, this God made human flesh, this body broken for us, this gift from the Divine, is the bread of life, the bread of heaven, the bread of resilience.  Jesus Christ, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the bread of resilience is enough for us: enough to sustain us as we our bound in slavery.  Perhaps enslaved to our culture’s consumerism: finances that encourage taking instead of giving.  Perhaps enslaved to anxiety: worrying over another’s perception of you instead of the beloved child of God emanating from within.  Perhaps enslaved in a body that you were born into but has never truly felt like your own.  Jesus is enough to sustain us as we wander aimlessly in the wilderness.  Perhaps wandering around in the darkness as you mourn the death of a spouse.  Perhaps wandering between careers as your job falls out from under you.  Perhaps wandering in the midst of uncertainty as you await the results of too many medical tests to count.  Jesus, the bread of resilience, is enough to sustain us.

We remind ourselves that Jesus is enough to sustain us every time we gather together, at this altar, at this table, to thank God together; to celebrate the Eucharistic feast together; to partake in the bread of resilience together.  For the human spirit, bound together in communal love, is persistent, is determined, is resilient.  As resilient as the city of Houston: neighbors using their boats to rescue stranded flood victims.  As resilient as the people of Puerto Rico: whose island has been almost completely destroyed, but who come out of the storm singing hymns of praise to God.  Resilient as the people of St. Patrick’s: who have overcome economic recession, leadership transitions, and one of the most wicked winters Tahoe has ever seen.

So today let us rejoice in our own story of perseverance.  Let us remember we can in fact do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4:13).  Let us feast on God’s abundance and be sustained for the pilgrimage ahead.  Let us partake of the fry bread from heaven, the manna in the wilderness, the Body of Christ, the Eucharist feast.  Let us partake of that bread of resilience.

 

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The Guest List

A sermon for Year A Proper 23; Matthew 22:1-14

Our Own Last Supper

Perhaps the best photo from our wedding, our own “Last Supper”

Having been a bride only shortly over a year ago, for me the most difficult part of the planning process, was not picking the dress, or the cake, or the music, but it was actually hand selecting who would be invited to my wedding.  Nate and I had set ourselves a limit of 80 invitations, hoping that about half would attend our destination celebration in Scotland.  And considering I alone have over 45 first cousins, eleven sets of aunts and uncles, and then Nate bringing in his own family and all of our friends from college, and seminary, and more; agreeing on a guest list seemed like an insurmountable feat.  It was painstaking for us to have to choose.  The guest list wasn’t perfect, and in hindsight, there are a couple people for which I wish I had sent out extra invitations.  But all in all it was a joyous day, an unbelievable day, a sacred day.  It was a day that I am sure that held many similarities with our wedding feast in today’s Gospel from Matthew.

I can imagine that at the heavenly banquet (like at most weddings) there is good food, good dancing, and good laughs to be had by all.  There is probably a lot of catching up with old friends; a lot of sharing of past happy memories; a lot of celebrating all the love in the room.  But today’s Gospel, today’s wedding banquet, differed in one major way from any other marital celebration I have attended.  In that difficult moment of trying to decide who gets an invitation and who does not, the king, God does not set a limit.  God does not designate a number of attendees.  Instead God welcomes all.  God extends an invitation to everyone.

But before I get too warm and fuzzy, I have to admit I also struggle with this Scripture.  I mean Matthew has this habit of making texts quite a bit harsher than they need to be.  For example, of the seven times we hear the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” in the New Testament, six of the occurrences of this phrase are found in Matthew’s Gospel.  This guy obviously had a bone to pick with someone.  He had an axe to grind with the Pharisees (his audience for this parable and for the last two parables in his narrative).  For Matthew is probably the most culturally Jewish of our four Gospel authors, but he is obviously feeling like and outsider and butting heads with the religious elite of his day, who do not understand his renewed faith.  He butts heads with the scribes and the elders, the bishops and the priests, the vestry members, all religious insiders.  Matthew is trying to put a little fear of God in them.  In the process he is reminding us that as soon as we think that we are the only ones invited to the party, God invites those with whom we would rather not associate.  In both this parable from Matthew, and the same parable from Luke that I must admit is much kinder—with no burning down of cities or throwing guests into the outer darkness—; in both of these accounts, there are three waves of invitations.

First, the guests we would all think of: the family and friends; the crazy uncle who tries to break dance on the floor; the maid of honor who hopes she catches the bouquet; the college roommate who recounts some of your less than ideal life choices.  But all these individuals chose not to attend.  So a second round of invites go out, reminding everyone the wedding banquet begins and that their presence is requested.  But again those invited chose not to attend.  So a third wave of invitations go out, this time to some unexpected guests: to everyone in the streets, to everyone in society, no matter if we deem them good or bad, accepted or ostracized.  Invitations go out to everyone: to the homeless and the stay at home parent; to the lawyer and the outlaw; to the foster child and the class valedictorian; to the skiers and the snow boarders; to the republicans and the democrats and the libertarians and the socialists.  Invitations go out to everyone.  What kind of wedding crashers are these? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never attended this kind of wedding, or this kind of party period.  During our earthly feasts and festivities, there are always insiders and outsiders, welcome guests and just plain  nuisances.

However, at God’s opportunity to celebrate, everyone is invited.

I love this theme from today’s parable.  It is a theme of grace, a feast of grace.  This theological term that means everybody is extended an invite by God.  Everyone is welcome at the party.  In my experience, grace is a reminder that no matter how broken I am, no matter how good I am or how bad I am, no matter how much I have hurt or been hurt by those I love, no matter how many times I have sinned against God’s creation, the Divine still invites me to the heavenly feast.  The Divine still calls out to me.  The Divine still loves me.

John Wesley, an 18th century Anglican priest, also loved this theme of grace so much that he felt the need to name the multiple dimensions of grace, defining it in three stages.  First, this festive invitation, this abundant welcome, this love letter from God he calls prevenient grace.  “Prevenient grace is the grace that comes to us before we know God.  In prevenient grace God takes the initiative.”  It is that moment when God reaches out to us. God initiates relationship with us.

But our parable for today, this allegory, this metaphor does not end with God’s own initiative.  In fact it is our human response that begins to muddle this passage and makes it uncomfortable for us.  Yes, God begins the relationship, but we have to intentionally choose to respond to God’s invitation.  We can’t just throw away the save the date or forget to RSVP, or like the parable of the two sons from two Sundays ago, say of course we’re coming and then conveniently don’t show.  No God wants us there and God wants us to respond.  God wants an enthusiastic:  “Heck yes! What time does the party start?  I’ll be there thirty minutes early and I’ll bring the chex mix.”  John Wesley calls our response to God, justifying grace.  Justifying grace is a moment of repentance, of conversion, of screaming, “YES LORD!”  Wesley reminds us that in justifying grace we gotta do some of our own internal work.  We gotta be intentional in our own response.  God continues to welcomes us—as the king sends out that second round of invitations—, but we have to actively and consciously make the choice to attend the party.

Even in that moment, when we arrive at the celebration, the choice to follow Jesus; the choice to accept God’s invitation; the choice to transform our lives anew is not over.  No, instead we must actively choose to be a part of God’s community, the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, every moment of our lives.  This step is what Wesley calls sanctifying grace.  “Sanctifying Grace is a purifying and cleansing process that continues throughout our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.”  Sanctifying grace means that God’s Spirit is continually working on our daily lives.  Sanctifying grace means we will still make mistakes.  We will still be broken individuals.  However, unlike the guest without the party robe, we cannot remain silent when God calls out to us pretending like we are not in need of God’s grace.  This guest intentionally chose to separate himself from the party, to not undergo a change, a transformation, a visible sign that he continues to accept God’s help.  Yet God offers him grace again.  Even as the guest believes he is not in need of this party robe (that scholars believe may signify the traditional white baptismal robe, a unifier and equalizer as part of the Christian community), the king calmly asks the guest, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (Mt 22:12, NRSV)  The king, God calls the guest a friend, and God wishes the guest to answer.  But he chooses not to.  He chooses to remain silent.

Yet friends, our response to God’s invitation is anything but silent.  The response to God’s invitation is an affirmation of faith.  The response to God’s invitation is our baptismal response, “I will with God’s help.”  With God’s help we respond with generosity to the pain in our world, those suffering from wildfires and shootings and hurricanes, and too many tragedies to begin to name.  With God’s help we respond in love instead of judgement and exclusivity, welcoming those aching to join the celebration, the good and the bad, the accepted and the ostracized.  With God’s help we respond to the outsider in our midst: from an English as a second language learner to the Tahoe tourist; from the spiritual seeker to the child who has never stepped foot in a sanctuary.  With God’s help we extend the invitation of God’s grace to all, because that same invitation has been extended to us.

Thanks be to God!  No one was left off this guest list, and all are welcome at the party.

The Wolf Prowling at Our Door

A celebration of St. Francis of Assisi; Psalm 148:7-14; Matthew 11:25-30

A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

My friends, this morning I must admit, I have a lot of mixed emotions.  A lot of mixed emotions that have made today rather uncomfortable.  I am feeling rather weary and heavy-laden.  When I originally read today’s texts, especially our Psalm, I was overjoyed.  I was overjoyed knowing that this would be my first feast of St. Francis on the Lake.  I was excited to preach on the glory of God’s creation.  I was excited to preach on our role as stewards of this creation.  I was excited to preach on the power of God incarnate in every aspect of the world around us.  I was overjoyed because I would have the opportunity not only to draw on the writings of Francis and Clare, but of the Celtic Christians, and even of John Muir as he compares the glistening caps of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the bejeweled city of the heavenly Jerusalem.  I was overjoyed to bless my pup, Merlin for the first time and to bless all these beautiful and lively members of your own families on this celebratory day.

But friends, I have to admit, this morning this joy is mixed with something else.  This joy is mixed with grief, with sorrow, with anger even.  My joy is muted by the events that occurred late last weekend, by the tragedy that touched our state, by the shootings that happened in the city of Las Vegas.  And for a second I thought about not even mentioning Francis at all in my sermon.  But thank God as I griped about my dilemma earlier this week, a friend reminded me of one of my favorites stories about this saint from Assisi, that wandering monk of the 12th and 13th centuries; preaching and teaching throughout central Italy.  It is a story that I believe both reflects Francis’ love of creation and his peace making capabilities.

In the hills of Umbria, Italy, covered in green and sun kissed with Mediterranean light, sits the small medieval town of Gubbio (less than an hour’s drive from the pilgrimage center of Assisi).  However, during Francis’ day this beautiful city of Gubbio—sitting so quaint and picturesque in a valley encircled by hills—was in desperate need of help.  For this quiet town was terrorized by a wolf.  Under the cover of night he visited their village.  At first he solely devoured the sheep and goats of the townspeople but soon he graduated to dining on the townspeople themselves; picking them off one by one by one.  Having such an insatiable hunger, no prey small or large could curb the wolf’s appetite.  And the townspeople of Gubbio continued to be harassed by this wolf, and they knew of no other alternative than to kill the beast who prowled around at their doors.  So soon the villagers armed themselves with pitchforks and swords, with clubs and canes, ready for yet another attack from the vicious wolf; ready to put an end to the animal terrorizing their town.  Feeling so much fear and hatred for their fellow creature of God.

Yet thankfully this was not to be the end of this animal.  For Francis, the dog lover that he was, knew he had to intervene in order to save the lives of both the townspeople and the wolf.  So this holy man went out from the village of Gubbio, out into the hills to find the den of the beast.  And after Francis spoke with the creature (as he had a habit of doing with all of God’s creatures), he brought the wolf back to Gubbio not as a foe but as a friend.  A friend who was also hurting; whose hunger ate away in his belly as a drought was in the valley that year, and hunting was much leaner than it ever had been.  And God wouldn’t want this beloved creature to suffer anymore than God would want any of God’s beloved children to suffer.

So this Christian community banded together in the midst of all their mixed emotions, of fear and uncertainty, of anger and hatred.  In the midst of the uncomfortable reality of confronting the wolf, the people of Gubbio actually banded together as a community to feed this creature of God for the rest of his life; to care for this animal until his dying day; to transform this wolf from foe to friend with the simple choice of love.

Yet this love was not a complacent love; was not a passive love; was not a inactive love.  Instead this love was a love of creative problem-solving; a love that responded to the needs in its midst; a love that strove for justice and peace for all parties involved.

At first the people of Gubbio, these disciples of Christ, may have thought they only had two options: either they had the opportunity to repay hatred with more hatred, blood with more blood, violence with more violence.  Or the option to do nothing: to sit idly by as fellow children of God were massacred; to claim complacency because their family was not affected; to respond that now is not the time to talk about the issue and just ignore the agonizing pain in their midst.

But thank God for the wolf, and for us, they chose a third way.

My friends, in the wake of such a tragedy in our own state, in the aftermath of such a massacre, as the wolf prowls around about our door we too have a choice to make.  As Christians the kind of love God calls us to; the kind of love modeled by St. Francis; that kind of love is never complacent, is never passive, is never inactive.

As Christians God calls us to choose an option behind door number three.  An option that does not abuse these mixed emotions, that does not manipulate anger and grief for evil purposes or pushes them aside encouraging a culture of denial.  A culture of denial that continues to allow children to be gunned down in Colorado and Connecticut; that continues to allow families to be massacred who just wanted to see a movie; that continues to allow people who are out enjoying a club or a concert to be targeted and killed as they went about enjoying their lives cut so short.  But instead God gives us a third option, as modeled in the life of Jesus Christ.  An option that uses anger and grief, crying out from the depths of our souls, to save the soul of another human being; to say we will have no more part in it; to swear that this will be the last time we see such violence in our midst.

God gives us a third option.  An option that appears so difficult at first because it is so counter cultural.  But it is actually an option that is so easy and so light because it is so simple.  For it is the simple choice of love over hatred, of love over violence, of love over complacency, of love over passivity, of love over any other possibility.  The simple choice of love that creates the peace that passes all understanding.  It is the simple act of choosing love when our society tells us to seek revenge; when our society tells us to remain silent; when our society tells us that nothing can be done to solve the problem.  The third option, Jesus’ third way, is the simple act of choosing love so that we truly can become instruments of God’s peace.  Instruments who call our legislatures, who march and protest together, who demand gun control reform now and forever.

So this morning, let us harness these mixed emotions we are feeling.  Let us be like the disciples of Christ who have come before us; like that Saint Francis of Assisi who cared for every creature of God; like the people of Gubbio who faced their fear and fed their enemy; like the people of the Civil Rights’ movement who marched together for transformation; like the people of Polish Solidarity who overthrew the corrupt government in their land.  My friends, let us be disciples of Christ, the people of a third way, the people of today who are not willing to let peace wait until another tomorrow. Continue reading

Do not be terrified.

Proper 28, Year C; Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

The first time I felt I could call the Pioneer Valley home was at age seventeen, as I was discerning which university to attend.  On a snowy April morning I recall riding down route 47 with my mother and a family friend.  And as we drove over the town line into South Hadley, I saw a familiar sign that I have seen across this country.  It read: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”  And in that moment I felt at home, I felt safe, and I felt that this could be my new community.  In that moment, I felt that even as a southerner, even as an outsider, perhaps I would find welcome.

And today, I want to extend that same welcome to you. So whether this is your first time at Grace Church, or if you have been here for decades: you are welcome here.  If you are young or old: you are welcome here.  If you are a student, or a professor, or faculty and staff: you are welcome here.  If you are rich: you are welcome here.  If you are poor: you are welcome here.  If you are black: you are welcome here.  If you are white: you are welcome here.  If you are latino/hispanic: you are welcome here.  If you are gay or lesbian or straight: you are welcome here.  If you are transgender or do not ascribe to any gender: you are welcome here.  If you were born in this country: you are welcome here.  If you immigrated to this country and now call it home: you are welcome here.  If you are a Christian: you are welcome here.  But if you don’t identify as Christian: you are still welcome here.  If you are a woman: you are welcome here.  If you are a man: you are welcome here.  If you are a libertarian: you are welcome here.  If you are a socialist: you are welcome here.  If you voted for Donald Trump: you are welcome here.  If you voted for Hillary Clinton: you are welcome here.  If you are a human being, seeking a safe space today: you are welcome here.

My friends, the welcome of the Divine supersedes the welcome of any political party or affiliation, any identifying markers.  You all are welcome here.  One of the first steps of discipleship, is modeling ourselves after the radical hospitality of Jesus.  Meaning that all of God’s children are welcome here.  Yet today we find that being a disciple of Christ, walking in the footsteps of Jesus and of the saints that have come before us, does not end with this embracing welcome, this radical hospitality.

Being a disciple of Christ means not only a conversion of our minds to accept all who enter here, but it means something much more difficult, a conversion of our hearts—a level of deep introspection where we rise above the anxiety continually permeating our culture. For me the most pertinent line in the entirety of our Gospel reading for today is when Jesus speaks to his disciples: “Do not be terrified.”  Do not be terrified.  Do not be scared.  Do not be afraid.  Easier said than done though, right?  It is a normal human emotion that we all face.  Every single one of us in this room has experienced fear, maybe even more heightened over the past few days.  And when that fear finally and stealthily creeps in, it is difficult to push it back out of our lives.  Instead it begins to control every fiber of our being.  Worry pervades our thoughts of the future, our mind bouncing from one dark scenario to another, to another.  And as the anxiety continues to prevail, we become paralyzed, all of our movements must be calculated, controlled, confined so that we do not encounter that of which we are afraid (ultimately the fear of suffering and death).

Yet today of all days, this week of all weeks, Jesus tells us:“Do not be terrified.” How many times have we heard these words throughout our sacred Scriptures?  It is the running narrative of our Gospel, of our salvation history, of the relationship between God and humankind.  In the Old Testament we hear Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them,  for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Or Joshua 1:9: Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Or Isaiah 41:3: “But now, this is what the Lord says—He who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you and you are mine.”

And this story, this narrative of hope, continues into the New Testament.  In Luke 1:30 the angel Gabriel, sent from God, tells an unwed mother Mary, a woman on the margins: “Do not be afraid.” In Matthew 14:27, as Jesus walks on water, making the impossible possible, he cries out to a misfit group of Middle Eastern men:“Take courage!  It is I!  Do not be afraid.”  Or earlier in Matthew 10:26-27, as Jesus sends out the disciples to preach the Gospel to every beloved child of God, he encourages his followers: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”

My friends, too long as a country we have been afraid—hiding in the dark away from one another.  And now that fear has surfaced; that fear is manifesting itself across the United States; that fear finally has been brought to the light.  Yet even if we, as American citizens, have given into the fear in the past, we as Christians are called to rise above that terror now at the present hour.  As Christ encourages us in today’s reading from Luke, just as the world of the early church appears as though it is beginning to fall apart, we hear Jesus say to the disciples: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In these verses Jesus expels our rising anxiety as unnecessary, instead replacing it with the fortitude of the Spirit,“with the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering” (Nancy Lynne Westfield, Feasting on the Word). By not giving into the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day (Ps 91:5), we are able to do more than we ever could have imagined under the powerlessness that comes from paralyzing fear.

For our power does not come from political platforms, or social media, or temporal authority, or our own arrogance and pride.  But our power comes from Christ’s liberation of fear and death.  Our power comes from the transformative effect of God’s love.  Our power comes from the knowledge that God is working it all out, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth.  And we are capable, if we rid ourselves of the fear, to participate in God’s creative process.  We will have the privilege and the power to testify: to dispel hate, to speak truth in love, to welcome all into this place.

It is not an easy task ahead of us my friends, but if we find the endurance, we will gain the very souls we as individuals, and we as a country, had thought we had lost.  So do not be afraid.  Do not be scared.  Do not be terrified.  For today and in the days to come, we do not meet the challenge alone.  For we have Jesus to walk with us, and we all stand together to testify.

Amen.

Sensing Christ in the Midst of Doubt

The Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

It has been one week since Easter Sunday.  One week since children held delightfully decorated eggs in their hands, felt their weight, touched their smooth shells, and cracked some open for a sugar high only Christmas and Easter can duplicate.  It has been one week since we sang in joyful alleluias: voices soaring, bells pealing, trumpet and organ resounding.  It has been one week since that delicious lunch, or brunch, or dinner with a scrumptious glazed ham, or delectable roast chicken, or as many syrup covered pancakes as you could lay your hands on.  It has been one week since the guests were in town and smells faintly wafting through the house of your grandmother’s citrus perfume, or your grand-baby’s lavender lotion, or your father’s full flavored pipe tobacco.  It has been one week since we witnessed that beautiful celebratory scene unfold, that holy day to beat out all holy days—Easter Sunday.

Yet our scripture readings for today do not seem to allude to such a momentous occasion.  Today we are not met with continued celebration, with, “Alleluia Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed alleluia!” But instead we are met with the struggles of the early Church.

For example, in Acts the apostles are professing their faith in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.  Yet as we read in the verses before and after this particular passage, the apostles are not only met with insults and frustration, but with numerous imprisonments and death threats.  Then in our reading from Revelation, written a generation or even two after the Easter event, these seven churches in Asia are being encouraged that Christ will indeed come again, that their suffering, their persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire will one day be alleviated.  And in our Gospel story today, probably a story and a character with which we are very familiar, the budding Church is faced with new struggles.  This Gospel narrative is directed at an audience that has not physically witnessed the resurrection.  These early Christians have not seen Christ with their own eyes, have not heard his voice, have not touched the wounds in his side, hands and feet.  This is why we are told in the Scripture, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  All of the apostles and original disciples are dead and gone.  The witnesses of the resurrection are no longer present.  All that remains are their stories.  And those Christians that are left are called to have faith in an event that they did not see, taste, touch, hear or smell.

The apostle Thomas becomes a stand in figure for all of those in the early church who had to wrestle with their faith. Believing in a risen Christ others had seen, but they had not. A risen Christ who had once walked upon this earth, but had not walked among them.  A risen Christ who defies the natural world by overcoming the chains of death and living again.  The early Church struggled to find a balance between doubt and belief.

But friends, let us be honest today.  Let us own up to the reality of our own journeys of faith.  Even in the midst of the celebration of Easter, even in the midst of the joy, in the midst of the alleluias: doubt is real.  Disbelief is real.  Questions of faith are real.  And these questions arise in the Easter season just as much as any other season in the church year.  Just because Jesus Christ is Risen, does not mean these questions go away, pushed to the back of a dark and empty tomb.  We all, at some point during our relationship with God, experience doubt.

This doubt can take on many shapes and forms.  It can be outright disbelief in God, or a reluctance to speak the words of the Nicene Creed.  It can be a split second of uncertainty as to God’s Divine purpose for your life, or the skepticism of whether or not Jesus Christ did rise again from the dead.  It can be a mistrust of the Church,  or a fear that the Gospel might actually change us for the better.  All of these are moments, instances, of doubt.  And we all, no matter where we currently stand on our faith journeys, have fallen on this spectrum of disbelief at one point in time or another.  The name “Thomas” from our Gospel narrative, could just as easily be replaced with Sarah, or Chris, or Janet, or Alex, or Mary, or Tom, or you.  Doubt is not something new to Christianity, post the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  And the words of today’s Gospel, “Blessed are you who believe and yet have not seen,” are just as true to us in the 21st century, as they were for the early church of the 1st century.

Even two thousand years ago believers demanded scientific evidence.  All of our post-resurrection narratives, all of the post-Easter encounters with the Risen Christ, centered around empirical verification.  It is about seeing and touching Jesus.  In all of these narrative, this man that they thought was dead is somehow now with the disciples in flesh and blood, eating and drinking, talking and listening, physically present in the world.  Mary Magdalene does not know her teacher is present in the Garden on Easter Sunday, until he calls her by name.  Then all of a sudden she can see him.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus can not recognize Christ as they encounter him on their journey, until they sit down and break bread together.  Then they see this supposed stranger for who he really is.  And Thomas does not believe until he sees Christ enter that locked room, with fresh wounds from where the nails entered Jesus’ hands and feet.  For the apostles witnessing the resurrection, journeying towards faith in the Risen Lord, was a sensory experience.  Amidst their own doubt and disbelief, they wanted to see, touch, taste, smell and hear that their friend and teacher was alive.

Our own journeys are also sensory experiences.  We ourselves want to physically witness the resurrection. And although we are encouraged, “Blessed are those who have not seen,
And yet have come to believe,” we want to empirically probe our faith, to see, touch, taste, smell and hear our God.  And friends, this is exactly what we do in Christian community.  In the midst of our doubt and disbelief, we encounter the Risen Christ with one another.  Knowing that no matter how much uncertainty plays a part, we are lifting each other up.  We are strengthened in our faith and we come to know God through participating in our community and invoking all of our senses.

We hear the story of the resurrection told over and over again b listening to the faith journeys of our friends, by reading the words of Scripture aloud in this sanctuary every Sunday, by hearing the cries of those suffering and responding to their call.  We taste the resurrection in the breaking of the bread, our Eucharistic feast, in sipping a cup of tea with a fellow parishioner who is struggling, in scarfing down soup and stew in a group of young adults meeting and talking about their faith, no matter the pressure placed upon them on their campuses.  We smell the resurrection as we sniff the beautiful Easter lilies when we approach the chancel steps, as the aromas of burgers and hot dogs diffuses throughout the annual Pentecost picnic, as chrism oil lingers on the head of an infant, long after the baptismal blessing.  We touch the resurrection in a bear hug given at the peace, or chopping potatoes and beets during a youth retreat to Heifer Farm, or the newlywed kiss as two are given to one another in holy matrimony.  And friends, we do see the resurrection as well, even if we do not see a thirty-three year old middle Eastern Man who bears the marks of torture standing before us.  However,  we see the Risen Christ in the world around us: in the faces of both friends and strangers, in the rising of the sun every morning after the darkest of nights, in the renewal of the earth every spring after unexpected winter storm has blown through (frozen streams trickling to life, bulbs blossoming and blooming, a new energy reverberating throughout all of creation).

This is what we do with our doubt.  When we, like Thomas, cannot fathom that Christ is Risen we meet that doubt, that disbelief head on when we engage it with all of our senses. Testing it.  Probing it. Using our own incarnated humanness to meet the incarnated divine.  All I have to do is look around this church and I know that the Risen Lord is here.  Can you see him too?

The Time is Now: A sermon on the Climate Change Catastrophe

 

Donegal

Advent 1, Year C

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

I don’t know about you, but every year at this time I get a bit nostalgic.  With the Advent countdown to the Christ child now begun, I reminisce over Christmases past and the weeks of preparation beforehand—which usually involved eating way too many of my mother’s infamous coconut macaroons, following my father as we hunted for the perfect Georgia pine to place in our living room, and of course arguing with my brother and sister over who would get the last piece of chocolate from our family’s only Advent calendar.  But at the start of this year’s Advent season, at the commencement of the liturgical new year, and with the particular readings given in the lectionary today, I’ve been thinking of a holiday season a little further from home.

Two years ago about this time, my fiancé’ and I found ourselves on the northern shore of Ireland.  In County Donegal in December we experienced the wild weather of the British Isles.  Perhaps one of the most palpable moments was standing atop a rocky cliff, looking out and seeing the waves of the deep salt sea crashing around the old eternal rocks.  The wind whirling about me so intensely that I could lean forward into it—my feet planted on the ground yet all my weight, my entire body, suspended in mid air by the wind.  At that moment the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate

(a hymn often sung at Episcopal ordinations) filled my ears:

I bind unto myself today

the virtues of the starlit heaven

the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,

the whiteness of the moon at even,

the flashing of the lightning free,

the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

the stable earth, the deep salt sea,

around the old eternal rocks.[1]

These words that I had chanted time and time again throughout my journeys across the British Isles, never rang more true than in that moment, suspended in the air atop that rocky cliff in Ireland.  They are words ingrained in the Celtic tradition.  It is a theology that believes that the God incarnate—whom we shall celebrate in four weeks time—is present within creation, and that we as human beings are inextricably bound to this creation—in all of its enchanting beauty and terrifying power.  We are not above or separated from this good earth but we are wholly a part of it.

These verses of St. Patrick’s Breastplate rang true again for me as I read through today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel—verses full of vivid natural imagery:

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”[2]

For many of us today in our Western American context, this passage of Scripture is quite difficult for us to digest.  These lines may harbor fear and terror in many of our hearts, and we may hear these as words of chaos and turmoil.  Perhaps because—unlike those Celtic Christians whose daily lives were interwoven with earth, sea, and sky—many of us have the ability (or perhaps the luxury) to ignore the natural world, to shelter ourselves from the elements, to unbind ourselves to the power of God in creation.  In many ways the technological advancements of the modern age have fostered a loss of respect for our earth.  These words from Luke’s Gospel frighten us. Because in all honesty, they assume we no longer control the world around us; we no longer bind up creation; manipulate it; bid creation to do our will and ours alone.  Instead these words from Scripture depict a creation that breaks free from human bounds.

Have we not seen signs of such liberation already?  The environment responding to the burden we have placed upon it?  This generation has witnessed greenhouse gases increasing, our atmosphere disintegrating, glaciers receding, sea levels rising, fisheries depleting, crops dying, smog billowing, tropical storms raging, floods devastating, and perhaps even more than we dare to admit.  We have seen those signs of a world harmed by humanity’s controlling influence.  Instead of viewing the world around us as a reflection of the God incarnate, instead of holding respect for creation’s beauty and power, instead of protecting the earth of which God named us stewards at creation, not only our generation but also the many generations that have come before us have brought upon this earth the sad reality that is climate change.

Yet although the situation looks dire, although the numbers are frightening, although the solution appears impossible, if we inwardly digest our Advent readings for today we are called to imagine an alternative future for our earth. For we as Christians know that God can make all things new, that God can recreate the world as we know it, that God can restore humanity into right relationship with God’s creation.

A creation where we can see the star-lit heaven no matter where we live; where the sun’s rays offer life and not death for the vegetation of this earth; where the moon controls tides that skirt our shores instead of consume them.  A creation where the flashing of the lightning free and the whirling winds tempestuous shocks, signals the Son of Man coming on the clouds; where the stable earth gifts us with abundant food and shelter; where the deep salt sea is full of more creatures than we can count; and where we worship the presence of God in creation on these old eternal rocks.  We imagine a creation where the wolf and the lamb can lie down beside one another.[3]  A creation where “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[4]  A creation where God looks at all God has made and proclaims with voice echoing throughout the whole earth: “It is very good.”[5]

And this work, this cosmic reimagining, this recreation of the world as depicted in apocalyptic texts will be done by God with or without our help.  However, as Christians we are called not to be weighed down with the worries of this life, but we are called to be alert.  We are called to stand up and raise our heads.  We are called to pay attention, to take action, for God’s redeeming work is drawing near.  At the start of the new year in the liturgical calendar, at the commencement of Advent—when we feel ever more viscerally that God is with us—, we are called to recommit ourselves to the God incarnate, to make a new year’s resolution to care for creation.

My friends in Christ, the time is now. For commencing tomorrow, November 30th, is the United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in Paris, France.  It will hopefully be a moment in history when countries from across the globe can come together and unite on an approach to halt climate change in its tracks.  At such a crucial crossroads in time, we have work to do.

As Christians we pray.  In our prayers of the people we ask of God: “Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.”[6]  We also pray that those who are about to make such world altering decisions may be led by the Spirit to protect our planet.  As Christians we preach.  We allow the Gospel to speak truth in love.  We illuminate the words of our Sacred Scriptures to bring a moral vocabulary to the climate change conversation.  Using Genesis to speak of the goodness of God’s creation, and how we as human beings are stewards of creation.  Or the words of our apocalyptic writings—such as today’s reading from Luke or passages from the prophets like Jeremiah—reimagining a world made new and a right relationship between humanity and creation.  As Christians we witness.  We stand with our community against environmental injustice by joining together at the Global Climate March on the Amherst town common tonight at 6:00. Or by attending the rally for jobs, justice, and climate in Boston on December 12th, recognizing that climate and poverty are integrally intertwined.

On this First Sunday of Advent, at the commencement of a new liturgical year, when it is easy to reminisce as we reflect on the past coming of Christ—God incarnate brought into the world—, let us also remember that Advent is not solely a time to contemplate the past but the moment to look to the future.  It is the time to proclaim that Christ will come again, harnessing all the power and glory of the natural world.  It is the time to be alert, turning our attention to the cries of the world around us.  It is the time to stand up, raise our heads, and witness God’s redeeming love that reverberates throughout every corner of creation.

Amen.

 

[1] Hymn 370

[2] Luke 21:25, 27

[3] Isaiah 11:6

[4] Amos 5:24

[5] Genesis 1:31

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, 388.

 

The Good News in Good Friday

A sermon preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on the occasion of Good Friday.

 

 

(sung)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O–o–o–o

Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

Tremble,

Tremble,

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

 

(spoken)

Were you there?

Would I have been there?

If I really reflect

On whether or not I would have been at the foot of the cross,

I don’t know if I can honestly say yes.

I don’t know if I could stand listening to the wails,

Stand seeing the crumpled body of my friend upon the cross,

I don’t know if I could stand smelling the rancid mixture

Of his blood and his sweat.

I don’t know if I could have stood there wondering,

“Why?”

I don’t know if in that moment,

That crucifixion,

Whether I could admit I was his disciple.

Perhaps I would deny my Lord just as Peter had.

 

But thankfully,

Today we see the crucifixion through John’s eyes,

Who tradition names as the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross,

The one whom Jesus loved,

A follower of Christ who has been at his friend’s side

Since the beginning of his ministry.

 

John has seen the healings,

And heard Christ’s teachings.

He has witnessed the walking on water

And the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

He has heard the heartbeat of God,

Sitting on the left side of Jesus,

Leaning into his teacher,

As Jesus gives his disciples a command

And foreshadows his own death at their last meal together.

John’s are the eyes

Through which we do not only stare at that old rugged cross,

But perhaps also

The eyes through which we begin to understand its meaning for us.

 

As John stands there,

Looking up at his friend,

Wondering why this had to happen,

Believing that the crucifixion was the end,

Not knowing any other reality,

Would he have stood there trembling?

Trembling in confusion?

Trembling in fear?

Trembling in grief?

 

Or would he have stood there,

Trying to make sense of it all,

Replaying Jesus’ words over in his head?

Finally realizing what he had been alluding to this whole time.

 

“Those who love their life lose it,

And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Or perhaps the words at their last meal together,

Jesus said,

“I give you a new commandment,

That you love one another.

Just as I have loved you,

You also should love one another.”

And Christ urged the disciples further,

“If you keep my commandments,

You will abide in my love.”

 

As John stands at the foot of the cross,

He replays these words over and over,

Not fully understanding what they mean

But knowing they mean something,

Important.

Knowing that all he has lived for,

The truth which he seeks

Hangs in the balance of Jesus’ words,

Hangs in the balance of one word:

 

Love.

So simple.

Yet so difficult.

 

For the love of which Christ speaks in this Gospel account,

Commanded at the Last Supper,

Is so radical,

Is so liberating,

Is so limitless,

That it was a love

Enacted in his death on the cross.

 

The Good news in Good Friday

Is this sacrificial love of God

That John,

The beloved disciple,

Witnesses while staring up at his friend and savior

From the foot of the cross.

All of that love of which Christ has been speaking

Throughout John’s Gospel is fulfilled in this one event.

This event that is the culmination of the incarnation of God on earth.

This event that is the realization,

That Emmanuel,

God with us,

Is not about Christ’s birth in a manger,

But about his death upon a cross.

This event that is the understanding,

That God is love.

Because Jesus is human,

Because he can and will die,

He can reveal the fullness of God’s love in ways never before possible,

He can reveal God’s love in human experience.

And in his death,

Jesus gave up what we, as humans love most —

Life —

And forever redefining what true love is.

 

This Good Friday event,

This brutality,

This bloodshed,

This execution,

This crucifixion,

Is the climax of John’s Gospel.

Is the culmination of God’s purpose on this earth.

Is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission and ministry.

 

In his final words,

“It is finished,”

Jesus does not direct us forward.

He does not leave us searching for love in the future,

But he claims love for us in the present.

The realization of God’s love has been completed,

Now,

Today,

Good Friday —

Not three days from now.

It will not be finished,

But it is finished

God’s love for us is fully realized

In the event of Christ’s crucifixion.

 

Yet,

What does Jesus’ death mean for our lives?

If we put ourselves back in John’s shoes,

Not only do we find that God loves us,

But if we think back on last night’s Gospel reading,

Sitting on Christ’s left at the Last Supper,

Listening to the final heartbeats of God,

We discover what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

We discover the command,

To love one another

Just as Christ has loved us.

To love one another

With the same love that Christ has demonstrated for us

Upon the cross.

 

Love is not simply an emotion.

It is action.

It is not some abstract comment,

But is lived out in our daily lives as disciples of Christ

And was brought to its fullest in the crucifixion.

 

Love is so tangible,

So real,

That it fills every fiber of our being.

And it resonates throughout all of creation.

 

God’s love enacted through Christ

Is so powerful,

So radical

So limitless,

So endless,

And so freeing,

That as we stand at the foot of the cross with John,

We do not tremble out of fear,

Or confusion,

Or grief,

But today we tremble knowing

That God loved us so much,

That he gave his only son for us.

 

We tremble because

Through this selfless act of Christ,

We come to know the God of love more fully.

 

We tremble because

The Good news on Good Friday,

Is that God is love.
AMEN.