Testify

A Sermon for Advent 3 Year B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles

Until I met my husband, the extent of my legal knowledge was pretty slim.  It was mainly a compilation of television shows—like “Law and Order” or “CSI”—or a remnant of the information I retained from that year af AP government in high school.  But in order to love my husband, I also had to love his best friend and best man: Greg.

Now thankfully Greg is easy to love, and he is a man I admire and respect immensely.  I’ve learned a vast amount from him.  For Greg is a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia.  And he views his job, not just as a way to make money, or an opportunity to obtain status in our society, or an avenue to put to use his amazing debate skills, but for Greg defense law is a Christian vocation.  It is as an opportunity for him to try to enact some of God’s justice in a very broken American legal system: a system that arrests and convicts people of color at an exponentially higher rate; a system that thinks life sentences should be delved out for strike three of a minor crime; a system that is really based on how the defendant presents to a jury.

So many of my conversations with Greg consist of talking about whether or not his client should take the stand.  Will the jury be able to hear this individual’s testimony?  Or will they be resistant?  Will they only see the fact that the person on trial is black?  Or mentally disabled?  Or looks like a criminal?  Will the jury be biased against the defendant?  Or will the audience believe the testimony?

I have a feeling that if John the Baptist was giving his own testimony today—as recounted in our passage from the Gospel of John—, the jury would be biased against him.  I mean, he looks off-kiltered.  He seems crazy… Right?  He has ragged hair, a mangy beard, dirt under more than just his fingernails, leathered-looking skin from days in the desert sun, a profuse aroma I dare not describe, and those dark brown eyes seemingly piercing through our souls.  If John was called to testify today, this middle-Eastern man would not measure up well on the witness stand.

Yet this disheveled, off-kiltered, crazy man—this beloved child of God—, “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1:7).  And what I find beautiful, and vulnerable, and utterly authentic about this beloved child of God, is that he never tries to be someone he is not.  Although we today honor him and call him, “Saint,” and, “prophet,” and, “the Baptist,” he is in so many ways, just John.

Even the religious authorities of ancient Judea ask him to clarify: “‘Who are you?’…” He confessed, ‘“I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’  He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him,  ‘Who are you?  Let us have an answer for those who sent us.  What do you say about yourself?’” (John 1:19-22).  And John’s answer is not to define or defend himself, but to be a witness, to testify to the light, to declare from out of the wilderness Emmanuel, our Lord God will come.

And so why did people of 1st century Palestine believe this disheveled, off-kiltered, crazy man?  Why did people wait around to hear what he would say?  Why did people flock to the River Jordan to be baptized by John?  How could this disheveled, off-kiltered, crazy man so ardently and convincingly testify to the light?  It is because he let his little light shine so brightly that it invited others into the Divine light.  So that they themselves could recognize it, experience it, believe it.  John chose not to hide his inner light by trying to be someone he was not—by ignoring both his gifts and his limitations—, but instead John honored the glory of God, that image of God found within himself.  And he lived into the witness the Divine was calling him to be.  As he testified to the light coming in Christ, he also embodied the light of the Divine.

He was just plain old John, and that is all God needed him to be.  John’s testimony was believed (even though people were probably biased against him), because he was beautifully, vulnerably, authentically the witness God needed him to be.

And my friends, God can do the same of us.  We may think we are not special, or important, or sufficient witnesses.  We may think we are not enough, or are lacking the faith, or do not possess the courage, yet God calls each and every one of us to testify to the light.  John has empowered us so that we can empower others.  John lived into his light so that the light may be multiplied in others.

Throughout our life times we each have the opportunity to testify to the light of God, Emmanuel breaking forth into the world.  We each have an individual, or even a whole audience, a whole family, a whole community, a whole state, a whole country we are called to reach.  And yes, it may be intimidating to admit this.  It may bring about fear, insecurity, feelings of insufficiency.  Yet if we create holding space, if we set aside time to listen, if we wait o-so-patiently (as we already have been this Advent season), we are actively making room for the Holy Spirit to work within us.  We are making room for the breath of the Holy One to stir our very souls.  We are making room for the image of God found within us to shine forth and overcome the fears of our own hearts.

When we allow ourselves the opportunity to stop and wait (as I imagine John had a lot of time to do as he wandered around in the wilderness), we can do remarkable things through Christ who strengthens us.  We can allow our own lives to witness to the Word of God.  We can learn to trust that when that time comes, God will give us the courage and the capabilities to testify to the light.

And this light isn’t limited to John, or to us here at St. Patrick’s, or to the Episcopal Church, or to the Christian tradition even.  It is a light for all people.  It is a light for everyone we encounter.  It is a light—as our reading from Isaiah reminds us—for the least of these: for the oppressed and the brokenhearted, for the captives and the prisoners, for those in debt and those who mourn.  We are called to share God’s good news, to take part in the wideness of God’s mercy, to testify to the light when we notice anyone in need of God’s love.

We testify to the light when we see someone struggling with food scarcity in our community and we partner with organizations, such as Project Mana, to distribute much needed nutrition to families in our midst.  We testify to the light when we see someone captive to drug or alcohol addiction and we stand beside them in the search for sobriety, offering God’s forgiveness and grace.  We testify to the light when we see someone alone during this holiday season, and instead of ignoring their pain and isolation, we offer healing hospitality by inviting them to Christmas Eve worship and dinner with the family.  We testify to the light at the grocery store and the post office, at the university and the hospital, with our coworkers and our children, with our significant others and complete and utter strangers.  In every moment we are willing to witness, with every person who is willing to listen, we testify to the light.

We testify to the light when we make the choice to invite others into God’s transformational love.  We do not know who will listen.  We do not know who God will place in our path.  We do not know who might be in need of our unique gifts and talents, of our limitations and shortcoming, of our unique perspectives.  But this Advent season, in the midst of our waiting, we have the opportunity to discern what kind of witnesses God is calling us to be.  We have the opportunity to transform our hearts from one’s living in human fear to one’s living in God’s glory.  We have the opportunity to let the light break forth into our own lives so that we can be and share the light of Christ with others.

 

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God’s Love Endures Forever: Practicing Gratitude in Troubled Times

A Reflection for an ecumenical Thanksgiving Service
Psalm 107:1-16, 23-32

As a baptized member of the body of Christ, I have always felt that water has such palpable, mystical properties.  And over my couple of months here, I have quickly realized that the waters of Tahoe are mightier than I ever could have imagined.  It is it’s own beautiful force to be reckoned with.  For the properties of this lake change in the blink of an eye.  And it has given me new insight into verses 23-32 of Psalm 107.

There are afternoons when I sit on the beach and all is glassy stillness, as if even the sun has slowed its setting.  And then there are days—like the storm that rolled through last week—that remind me of the words to an ancient hymn, St. Patrick’s breastplate.

“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.”

In this holy place I am privileged to witness “the deeds of the Lord, [God’s] wondrous works in the deep” (v. 24).  I witness the power of God in creation in both the moments when the storm was made still, “and the waves of the sea were hushed” (v. 29), as well as in the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, and how the waves of our primordial lake swirl around the old eternal snow-capped rocks.  Here, in this liminal space, in this pilgrimage place I witness the power of God in creation day in and day out—during both those serene and those stormy moments.  And everyday I am grateful to witness the works of God’s hands.

But of late, more often than not in those stormy, rocky, tumultuous moments life has thrown our way this fall—from hurricanes, to wildfires, to mass shootings—, in the middle of such atrocities where it feels like we all shall be swallowed up whole, the power of God in creation I get to witness, the power of God I am grateful for is the power of God in community, in the Body of Christ.

Where do we turn when we feel like all hope is adrift?  We turn to our community.  Where do we come when we don’t feel like we can go on any longer?  We come together in community?  Who do we rely on when our homes are flooded or burned or our loved ones are lost?  We rely on our community.  The power of God in creation in some of the most deserted, imprisoned, storm ridden moments of our lives, is found in the resilience of humankind congregating in Divine community.  The power of God in creation is found in the moments when those baptismal waters are still washing over us, still working on us.  Recreating us.  Returning us to the Divine image found within ourselves but also reminding us of the image of the Divine found in all of the faces surrounding us.

As the last couple of verses of our Psalm for today remind us, real gratitude, real resilience, real perseverance is practiced in community.  We thank the Lord in community.  We thank the Lord as an ecumenical congregation.  We thank the Lord together from all corners of creation.  For no matter how stormy the seas become, God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Keep the Light on

Sermon for Year A Proper 27
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25:1-13

My friends, the past couple of months spent here in Tahoe have been such a blessing for me and for my family.  Everyday I feel abundantly grateful to live in this beautiful place—enjoying early snow showers skimming the nearby peaks; loving the serenity of our lake at sunset; relishing in the shade of the redwoods and pines along my walk to work.  And I feel abundantly grateful to serve this amazing community—finding exponential joy in a rambunctious All Saints’ day celebration; discovering camaraderie in congregants as if we were long lost friends; learning to listen to where the Spirit is taking us along this pilgrimage together.

Yet although I have felt so blessed in my time here, it also has been a rough few months, hasn’t it?  I mean, everyday I turn on the news, and it seems like another tragedy has struck, another catastrophe has erupted, another cataclysmic event that leaves us reeling and asking, “When will it stop?”  In the past few months we as a country have experienced three disastrous hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  We have experienced one of the most devastating wildfires on record—42 dead, 8,400 structures burned, more than $1 billion in damage.  We have experienced two mass shootings—60 lives lost in Las Vegas, and (only shortly over a month later) 27 individuals massacred as they worshipped the Lord in the beauty of holiness, as we are doing here in this very moment.

It has been a trying time, my friends.  It seems like the darkness has been creeping in.  And in all honesty, over this past week some hopelessness has settled in my soul.  The news from this shooting in Texas this past Sunday has been debilitating, exhausting, paralyzing my prayers before they can even surface to my lips.  In such depths of despair, no words or actions seem like enough.  I have know idea what to say or do.  It feels like all hope is lost.

Yet throughout this week, as I have been ruminating over these past events and over our Scripture passages for today (worried about finding the right words), music has been a ray of hope that kept surfacing in my soul.  I’ve had that old Sunday school song stuck in my head: “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning./ Give me oil in my lamp, I pray…”  And I’ve been reflecting upon the hymn we just sang during our Gospel procession:

I want to walk as a child of the light;
I want to follow Jesus.
God sent the stars to give light to the world;
The star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all;
The night and the day are both alike.
The lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

For me this particular hymn is a reminder that no matter how despondent we become, no matter how dark it gets, no matter how hopeless the situation seems, that Jesus, our light, is still shining forth and showing us the way out of even while we are immersed by the encroaching darkness.  And because we as Christians have chosen to become children of light, we are called to spread that very same divine light.  We are called to carry our torch for Christ.  We are called to bear our oil lamps as we wait patiently for the bridegroom.

That is exactly what is happening in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew.  There is prolonged period waiting in multiple contexts.  First, in the early Christian community for which this Gospel was written, believing that the Jesus who had suffered, died, and risen would be back in their lifetimes to bring about the kingdom of God.  But they are soon struck with the reality that this will not occur within their generation.  Second, in the trajectory of Matthew’s narrative, in this particular moment in the Gospel message, Jesus is teaching his twelve disciples and closest friends on the Mount of Olives.  He is warning them about the end, that the time is near, that something dramatic and tragic and catastrophic is about to occur.  In reality all of their confidence in this holy man, in this Messiah, in this Savior is about to be extinguished as Jesus will soon be dead and all hope seemingly lost.  Yet Jesus urges these disciples to wait, “For they know neither they day nor the hour,” when the darkness will dissipate and the divine light will break back into their lives.

And Jesus communicates the importance of this waiting in a third context: in the form of a story, in the parable of the ten bridesmaids.  In this allegory we find a group of young women standing by in expectant anticipation for the coming of the bridegroom, for the procession to the wedding banquet to begin.  And the only difference, the only differentiation in this group of young women—between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids—is that five of these individuals know they must be prepared to wait.  So they bring extra oil for their lamps to get them through the night.  They refuse to let the light go out.  They refuse to let the darkness overcome them.  They refuse to let the hope be lost.  No matter how long they have to wait for the bridegroom, for God to enter in, their expectant anticipation never turns to anxious anticipation.  They rest.  They sleep when needed.  They experience a serenity of the soul.  For these bridesmaids, they are prepared.  They possess a reservoir.  They have kept enough oil on hand to keep the light burning throughout the darkest moments of the night.

However, for the other five women who forgot to bring extra oil for their lamps, upon waking from their rest they are ill-prepared and are thrown into a fury of anxiety.  They demand the other women to share their oil.  They run out into the dead of the night.  They miss the bridegroom and the procession to the party in its entirety.  What if they had asked forgiveness for forgetting to bring enough oil, forgetting to hold the torch?  What if they had relied upon their sisters’ lamps for light and joined the procession anyway?  What if they had responded to the bridegroom’s coming with excitement instead of anxiety?  Then they could have easily joined in on the festivities.

The expectant anticipation of the five wise women does not mean doing nothing.  But it means coming prepared to meet the Divine.  It means bearing the light to all of God’s children—laboring towards love and mercy in our midst; rolling up our sleeves to do the work of discipleship.  It means knowing that the kingdom of God is not yet in this world of destructive hurricanes and devastating wildfires and mass shootings, but that the kingdom of God is also just around the corner, coming in from the night air, ready to greet its guests and lead all to the heavenly celebration.

As disciples of Christ we are called to prepare to wait.  We are called to stick together, to lift one another up, to remind each other that there is a reservoir of God’s love even when it seems like all hope is lost.  As disciples of Christ we are called to remember our past when we thought the darkness would never end, to read and recall the stories of Scripture—as our Old Testament reading for today reminds us:

For it is the LORD our God
Who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt,
Out of the house of slavery,
And who did those great signs in our sight.
He protected us along all the way that we went.

No matter how long we resided in the throws of slavery; no matter how long we wandered in the wilderness without a home; no matter how many days we questioned the Divine providence; God never left us alone in the darkness.  For as the hymn so artfully communicates Psalm 139: “In [God] there is no darkness at all;/ The night and the day are both alike.”  As disciples of Christ we are called to walk as children of light, children of resilience, children of hope for a world that cannot see any flicker of a flame shining forth from the darkness of this day. Our lifework, our mission, our calling is to keep the light on: to draw upon our reservoir of oil—our community, our sacraments, our sacred scriptures, our music—during the hardest of times.  Our calling is to keep the light on: to care for and ease the pain and suffering in this world, to work towards justice and peace for all people, to contribute to keeping the hope alive for those who don’t have the power (or the patience) to hope for themselves.  Our calling is to keep the light on: to direct that flickering flame to the God moments still present in the middle of chaos and devastation, in the midst of hurricanes and wildfires and mass shootings.  Our calling is to keep the light on.

We don’t have to bring about the kingdom of God by ourselves.  We don’t have to host the banquet.  We don’t even have to try to be the bridegroom.  We just gotta carry our lamps and keep the blaze burning in our heart.  Keep the darkness at bay.  Keep the hope alive.  Keep awake.  Keep the light on.

Love your neighbor… and yourself

Sermon for Year A Proper 25
Matthew 22:34-46, NRSV

It would be great if human beings were great at being human,
And if all of humankind were made up of kind women and kind men.
It would be wonderful if common knowledge was knowledge commonly known,
And if the light from being enlightened into every heart was shined.
It would be glorious if neighbors were neighborly,
And indifference was a forgotten word.
It would be awesome if we shared everything
And being greedy was absurd.
It would be spectacular if the golden rule was golden to every man
And the good things that we ever did was everything that we ever can.

Amen.

My friends, the golden rule, our Gospel Passage for today, is perhaps the Summation of our Christian Scripture, of Jesus’ mission and ministry here on earth.  These words are so crucial to God’s good news that this is the second time Jesus emphasized this so-called golden rule.  During his famous Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:12,  Jesus says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  And then today’s, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a direct quote from the Old Testament, from Leviticus 19:18.  So I would reckon to guess that these are some of the most well-known verses of the Bible.  For the golden rule permeates our culture.

Just in google searching this phrase, I discovered the golden rule of driving, the golden rule of customer service, the golden rule of advertising, the golden rule of algebra, the golden rule of accounting, the golden rule of… well you get my drift.  Then on youtube there were four Tedtalks with “The Golden Rule” in their titles.  This is not counting how many times speakers cited the concept during their presentations.  Then during my husband’s weekly ritual of Friday night college football viewing,  I witnessed a Marriott commercial quoting this golden rule.  It was really quite beautifully worded:

“It would be great if human beings were great at being human,
And if all of humankind were made up of kind women and kind men.
It would be wonderful if common knowledge was knowledge commonly known,
And if the light from being enlightened into every heart was shined…”

Sound familiar?  Yes, the prayer at the beginning of this sermon was actually a poem from a Marriott advertisement—kicking off its new campaign entitled (yep you guessed it):  the “Golden Rule.”

So basically this golden rule is everywhere.  It saturates our society.  We all know it.  I assume we all believe it, and that we all try to follow it.  But even though we all know it, even though we all believe it, even though we all try to follow it, the Golden Rule isn’t that easy.  It isn’t that effortless.  It isn’t that simple.  I myself get really frustrated when I read this Gospel passage.  It is not because I disagree with the theology, but the older I get the more I realize this idealistic treatment of one another is actually really difficult to achieve (even if at first glance it seems so straightforward).

Yet Jesus could have fooled me in how smooth his answer was for such a complicated question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  Jesus has somehow laid out in front of us all of sacred Scripture summarized  into a couple of simple statements—the two greatest of the commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

But as much as this passage permeates our culture, I find that there is still so much conflict, still so much injustice, still so much pain caused by fellow human beings.  Neighbors across Lake Tahoe suffering from skyrocketing housing prices and food insecurity.  Neighbors from around our nation failing to converse across the political divide.  Neighbors across our world fleeing from civil war ravaging their countries.  In numerous circumstances such as these, a golden age to stem from such a golden rule seems so unattainable, seems so far-off, seems so elusive no matter who we consider to be our neighbor.

So what hasn’t been sinking in?  Why hasn’t this Scripture saturated our societal soul?  While processing and ingesting these two greatest commandments—the love of God with all of our being and the love of neighbor as ourselves—we forget there are more than two parties in need of our love (not solely love of God and of neighbor).  We entirely forget the third member of the equation in need of love: that seemingly obvious yet anonymous “you” in the verse.  If we can even begin to understand “love your neighbor as yourself,” we first have to understand how to love ourselves.

For if we don’t love ourselves, if we continue to ignore our own brokenness, our own wounds, our own pain, we continue hurting our neighbor as we ourselves have been hurt.  Author Parker Palmer comments on this knowledge of self constantly in his writings.  To quote him: “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.”  If we ignore the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse we have experienced throughout our lifetimes, it only percolates below the surface of the societal masks we’ve learned to wear so well, until our own suffering lashes out at those around us—our own brokenness breaking the hearts of those we supposedly love.

So if we forget the third member in the equation of the two greatest commandments—if we forget to love ourselves in the process—, then we will never truly grasp what it means to love another, to love our neighbor.

This is not to say that God requires us to be selfish, or narcissistic, or vain individuals.  No, not at all!  This kind of love of self is not self-centeredness but self-acceptance.  And this self-acceptance is something that has yet to sink in within our society (as much as we think we understand that beautiful golden rule).  Instead we live in a world that denigrates ourselves, and then in turn we denigrate our neighbors.  We live in a society where we are not smart enough, or rich enough, or successful enough, or beautiful enough, or fit enough, or young enough, or old enough, and the list just goes on and on and on…. We live in a culture of comparison and competition.  We live in a world that tells us to be someone we are not; someone contrarying to whom God created us to be; someone who will attempt to live up to all of these ridiculous societal expectations and yet will fall drastically short.  So we then learn to (or can’t help but) take out on our neighbor our own deep and underlying disappointment and shame.  Making him or her feel all the pain we ourselves are experiencing.

But thanks be to God, the converse of this situation could also be true.

Friends, we as a people, we gotta be kind to ourselves, be compassionate with ourselves, be accepting of ourselves if we ever expect to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We gotta wrap our heads around the idea that God wants each and every one of us just as we are.  God wants us to live a whole, integrated, undivided life.  God wants to use both our gifts and our limitations to reach out to our neighbors.  God wants to use our truest selves to spread that divine unconditional love to all of God’s children.  We gotta let it sink deep into our souls that this golden rule (that we all know so well) will shine forth from the inside out, encompassing every corner of our globe, when we love, and honor, and cultivate the treasure of the image and likeness of God found within ourselves.

Only then will our deep gladness begin to meet the world’s deep need.  Only then will humankind be made up of kind women and kind men.  Only then can we commence that golden age where every human being will be able to love one another.

 

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.

IMG_8458

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.

 

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