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

Tremble

Palm Sunday Sermon, April 9, 2017

audio without the beautiful congregational singing:

http://www.gracechurchamherst.org/the-rev-sarah-syer-4917/

“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?”

Tremble. Tremble. Tremble.  What did the authors of this spiritual, the African-American slaves of the 19th century; what did they mean by this one word forever imprinted on our souls?  Were they trembling out of fear for their lives?  Or trembling out of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice?  Were they trembling in anger, witnessing their friend nailed to the tree?  Or trembling out of joy for feeling the expansive, encompassing love God has for both you and me?  My friends, I want to know: why were they trembling?  For to me this one word holds so much weight.  This one word represents the heaviness of Holy Week.  This one word connects our own human narrative to the Gospel narrative.

Our Sacred Scriptures are saturated with “trembling.”  Throughout the Bible we hear the word again and again.  Like Hosea 10:11:  They will walk after the LORD, he will roar like a lion; indeed He will roar and His [children] will come trembling from the west.”  Or perhaps Psalm 99:  “The LORD reigns, let the peoples tremble; [God] is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!”  Or Philippians 2:12 “So then my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

There are references to trembling throughout the Bible, and our Holy Week narrative is no exception.  We will hear the Greek word σείω three times this week.  Yet our current English translation may make it less than obvious.  At the beginning of our procession this morning—and at the end of our Gospel reading from Matthew—we heard the verse: “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.”  Then in the passion narrative we will hear today—and echoed back again on Good Friday: “At that moment [when Jesus died] the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”  And then again in one week’s time on Easter morning: “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”  The city was in turmoil…. The earth shook…. The guards shook…. The Greek word σείω, found in all of these phrases, can actually be translated as “trembled.”  The city, the people of Jerusalem “trembled.”  The earth on that Good Friday “trembled.”  The guards at the tomb of Jesus “trembled.”  

But friends, is all of this trembling really a bad thing?  Could it be both positive and negative?  Could it represent both fear and joy?  Could it encompass both shouts of “Hosanna,” and cries of “crucify him?!”  I mean yes, let’s be real, trembling, physical trembling can be rather uncomfortable—sweat beading, heart racing, body quivering.  But aren’t these the same physical responses those we produce as we are falling in love?

We all know first hand that trembling has some pretty bitter moments, but could there be a sweet side to the sound as well?  Just hearing this word I flashback to times of trembling throughout my life.  The time when I shook in fear in my family’s storm cellar as the tornado sirens wailed and the winds howled.  Or the time when I watched Veronica’s granddaughter Rose bounce up and down on the toes of her newly shined shoes, overcome with excitement for the hunt to find the most glorious Easter eggs.  Or the time when side splitting laughter seized my soul.  When in slapstick comedy fashion (for the third time this past Monday) I face planted in the snow while skiing down the slushy slopes.

Trembling could be anxiety, that moment your legs shake uncontrollably in your chair as you wait for your final exam to be handed out.  But trembling could be anticipation, that moment when you quake as you walk across that stage receiving a piece of paper that represents four years of hard work.  Trembling could be distress, that moment when you heave with tears and sighing as you process the news that your partner of forty plus years has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease.  But trembling could be sheer surprise, that moment when your heart flutters and you become weak in your knees as the love of your life gets down on one knee and asks you one simple question.  Trembling could be anger, when your body shudders upon watching the violence of chemical warfare done to the suffering people of Syria.  But trembling could be joy upon seeing the hundred of thousands of people across this world, marching together this past January, mobilizing so that those in power will know we support the dignity of every human being.

My friends, trembling is sheer sensory overload.  It is when we fully give into the moment; when the emotion physically overtakes us; when we are totally present with the scene unfolding before our eyes.  And yes—as I am sure we all have experienced, and to which our Scriptures can attest—trembling can be both bitter and sweet.  And this week, this holiest of Holy weeks, you are invited to experience the sensory overload along with Christ’s closest followers; to fully give into the moment; to allow all of the emotions, all of the highs and lows of this week, to overcome you.

We are invited to join with the children of Judea, and flutter in nervous excitement as we crane our necks to see over the crowd while Jesus enters the streets of Jerusalem.  We are invited to join with James and John while they reel in rage as they drag our rabbi, our teacher away from the Garden of Gethsemane.  We are invited to join with Mary Magdalene and quiver in joyous anticipation as we prepare and share the Passover meal together with those we love.  We are invited to join Peter, and shiver with cold and fear as we await in the early hours of the morning, the sentencing of our friend.  We are invited to tremble in agony as they crucify our Lord.  We are invited to tremble with disbelief as that man—who is more than a man—appears before the tomb in seven days time.  We are invited to let every emotion of these last steps of Christ wash over us and overtake use; to feel the weight of this week and tremble, tremble, tremble.

This Holy Week we are invited to tremble in awe of a God who would do anything for us, even to the point of death on a cross.

“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Listen to the audio: http://www.gracechurchamherst.org/the-rev-sarah-syer-12217/

Several times in seminary, I heard there were two dualistic types of discipleship: the actives and the contemplatives.  The actives being the go-getters: creating new programs, organizing peoples, perhaps even initiating marches across the country and across the world.  The contemplatives being the spiritually centered ones: spending time reading, reflecting, and praying on behalf of others.  Listening with open ears and hearts for the voice of God in their midst.  Both models of discipleship are needed and desired within the Body of Christ.  We must have both action and contemplation.

Yet taking a look at our calling as disciples of Christ, I think we tend to lift up one form of discipleship over the other (not surprising considering our cultural context).  We live in a world that undervalues contemplation.  Instead we are taught we always have to be doing something; busying ourselves with tasks both big and small.  Even though this is the cultural norm, this is not the sole model we witness in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew (although at first glance it might appear so).

Sometimes for me this Bible passage feels so ambitious for us to replicate.  The disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, drop everything to follow Christ. They are called out of their boats, out of their careers, out of their comfort zone, and they take their faith into immediate action.  Yet today’s Gospel reading is much more complex if we look to the main character.  Even after Jesus has been baptized by John in the River Jordan, and wanders in the wilderness for forty days (you think that’d be long enough), he does not go immediately; he does not begin his ministry immediately.  Instead in the first verse of this passage the Scripture states, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.”

Jesus withdrew.  Taking time to process all that has happened to him in the last few chapters.  Taking time to listen for the voice of God, his Father.  Taking time to discern what he was called to do; how he was called to reach and teach God’s people.  Jesus withdrew and took time for contemplation.

And this is not out of character for Jesus. Dare we ask: “Was he even an extrovert?”  In fact, Jesus withdraws several times throughout the jam packed Gospel narratives.  He is exacerbated both with his disciples and with the crowds.  For example, in Mark 1:35, “In the morning while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  Or Luke 5:15-16,“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”  And Matthew 13:1-3, “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.  Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.  And he told them many things in parables, saying; “Listen! A sower went out to sow…”  Or who can forget those moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus withdraws from the disciples and prays to the Father for strength to meet what is coming.

In these moments of quiet contemplation, Jesus was able to understand his calling, to discern his vocation.  As Frederick Buechner would say, in Christ’s moments of solitude: Jesus found where his deep gladness would meet the world’s deep need.  But what is this deep gladness? This rootedness in who we are?  And how can we ever hope to find it ourselves?

From the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd century to the modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, this deep gladness is a pearl of great price: not one paid but acquired through quiet times of deep thought, reflecting on how indeed God knit you together with the Divine’s unique and special image.  This uniqueness is personality and temperament but it is also how we reflect on our strengths, and sometimes more so, our limitations.  Our deep gladness resides in the working out of salvation, not from an original sin point of view but from an abundant life perspective.  A perspective that leads to self discovery, self awareness, and ultimately action.  Building up the body of Christ with the deep feeling of knowing how your unique image of God mixed with divine interventions allows you to find gladness and begin to mend a very broken world.

In his times of contemplation, Jesus was able to find his deep gladness, his inner strength, his true vocation in this world.  And from this contemplation, and only from this contemplation, Jesus was able to begin his ministry.  Our Gospel for today begins with contemplation: “Jesus withdrew,” and then ends with action: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  His solitude led to social justice; his reflection led to redemption; his contemplation led to action.  “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Like Jesus, without discerning where our deep gladness lies, we can never truly give of ourselves and transform the world around us.  My friends, do we take the time as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, to listen for the word of God breaking forth into our hearts?  Let’s be honest, we at Grace Church do a phenomenal job with the action piece—with creating awareness in our communities, with marching alongside our sisters and brothers, with protesting injustice in our midst.  I do not want to halt us from this work, but I want to remind us from where such work must stem.

Now more than ever, when there are so many voices vying for our attention—from the media, to politicians, to those espousing messages of hate—; now more than ever, we need to learn to listen.  We need to hear the Word of God, the voice of the almighty stirring the silence of our hearts.  Now more than ever, we need to “double down on prayer,” as our own Bishop Doug Fisher would say.  Now more than ever, we are called to discover where God has empowered us, as individuals and as a community, so that we can empower others.

Your calling should ask you to be your unique self so that you serve as a member of the Body of Christ.  This calling, this vocation, must be about being before doing, which means that vocation is not synonymous with career.  Yes, it could be incorporated into your career. You could be a hospice nurse: walking with others in that liminal space between death and life.  Or you could be a family lawyer: helping children who are normally subjected to a corrupt justice system, to find the love they so desperately need.  Or (as so many of you are) you could be a professor: educating students to open their hearts and minds to understand the other in their midst and around the world.

Yet, like the disciples, vocation can be totally separate from your intended career.  Perhaps your vocation is being a grassroots organizer: creating networks that challenge our politicians on climate change.  Or being a nature photographer: portraying how God speaks to your soul so that maybe others can see the transcendent before their very eyes.  Or maybe being your church’s resident historian: preserving our past so that we can continue to discern our future.

All of us, now more than ever, must discern where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.  We must double down on prayer so that we can double down on social justice.  Then, and only then will we be able to hear exactly where Jesus is calling us to follow, exactly where we must go, exactly where we can meet the world’s deep need and usher forth the coming kingdom of God.

Amen.

The Darkness has not Overcome it.

“The light shines forth in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it.”

At Christmas I always feel super nostalgic, and so today I wanted to share some past memories with you.  As a child I was afraid of the dark.  For everything seemed much more terrifying in the dark: the normal all of a sudden paranormal.  Whenever night rolled around, I was afraid there was a monster in my closet that hid behind my clothes ready to devour me should I let it know I was sleeping.  I was afraid that whenever I felt a chill in the air, a ghost was wandering on by (like that M. Night Shyamalan film I watched too young: “The Sixth Sense”).  I was afraid that a thief would break into my house and enter the bedroom I shared with my sister.  And that’s why I connivingly chose the bed furthest from the door.  Because in loving older sister fashion, I thought the thief would get to her first so I could sneak out the window next to my bed.  I was afraid of the dark, because of the strange shadows cast in the corners of the room; because of how loudly the old floorboards creaked in the house when all was silent; because of the inability to see clearly the familiar yet now foreign shapes surrounding me.

Now I would guess that many of us as children, at one point in time, experienced this fear of the dark.  Yet I also would venture to say that this very same fear continues into our adulthood.  Maybe not the fear of physical darkness; maybe not the fear of the actual oncoming of night, but we as a culture are afraid of the dark.  We use darkness all the time as a metaphor for those moments in our lives that we would rather avoid.
Perhaps your darkness is the loss of a loved one this holiday season—whether it be through death or divorce or a move across country–attempting to avoid the grief by keeping so busy with shopping, baking, and wrapping the gifts, the sorrow can’t catch up with you.  Perhaps your darkness is sheer outrage at the state of our country, trying as you might to reconcile how we have ended up in this situation.  And jokingly, Or maybe not so jokingly, thinking fleeing the country is better than remaining.  Or perhaps your darkness is depression: hiding from your coworkers that you didn’t really laugh at that joke, that you didn’t have a relaxing vacation, and that you are most certainly not having a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

As a culture we do not think highly of these shadowed moments in our lives.  So more often than not, especially during the holiday season, on this holiest of holy days, we try to deny that they exist.  And we often cite our Scripture as supporting our view of the darkness.  In the Old Testament darkness is associated with Sheol, the underworld, with death.  During the ten plagues locusts darken the sky and blot out the sunlight.  And during the night nomadic people must be on their guard for bandits or sexual predators or murderers.  We do find these references in Scripture, yet the Word of God, as well as Christmas Day itself, is a bit more nuanced than that.  The darkness can be a scary space but it can also be a liminal space, a spiritual space, a space where the divine enters in and we meet God face to face.

What is the good news in darkness?  What if the darkness we fear wasn’t really that dark at all?  For example, in our sacred scriptures one evening in the wilderness, Jacob lays down his head on a stone and wakes in the night to see angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.  Generations later while the Israelite slaves are running for their lives from the Egyptians, during the darkest of nights, God separates the Red Sea and guides these children across and away from danger.  In our nativity story from our Gospels narratives, angels and shepherds come to Bethlehem on that silent night to see that baby Jesus lying in the manger.  Then three magi only know their path by the illumination of a star.  They can only see the way and move to that lowly stable under the cover of night as the rest of the world is sleeping.  The darkness is not always a dangerous place because it can also be a mysterious and mystical place where God is revealed to God’s people.  “The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it.”

My friends, there will be darkness in our lives.  There will be those moments in time that we would rather avoid, those situations that we would rather pretend like they just don’t exist.  Yet God has not abandoned us in the darkness.  For our Gospel reading for today does not say the darkness did not overcome it, or the light at only one point in time shone out of the darkness.  But this translation instead states that the darkness still has not overcome the light and that the darkness never will.
God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh, the light of the world,
Jesus came in the midst of darkness and remains with us in the midst of darkness.  For the light of God in Jesus Christ can actually work within this darkness.

As Psalm 139 reminds us: for the Divine One, “The night and the day are both alike.”  And at the very beginning of it all, in Genesis chapter one, God creates the night as God separates the light from the dark.  And all of it is good.  Although the darkness may feel foreign to us at times, it is not foreign to God.  God knows it well, for God has walked with us on this very earth in the form of Jesus, the babe lying in the manger, who we celebrate today.  The Divine knows our pain and our suffering.  God sees clearly in the dark the plight of the poor and the flight of the refugee.  God hears clearly in the dark the cry of the black mother mourning her dead son and the wailing of the women of Aleppo.  And God knows our own darkness.  God knows our fear our anger, and our sorrow—those emotions we as a society have denounced as negative.  Yet no matter how often we try to push them down, they continue to bubble up to the surface.  For they have something to tell us.  We do not have to be afraid of the dark, for Christ will always be there with us.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And well, you know the rest.

Sometimes in the dark, that is actually when we see the light of Christ most clearly and brightly, for there are no other lights vying for our attention.  That is actually where we finally see God face to face, for every other face is blurred in the shadows, foreign and unknown to us.  That is actually where we meet our Maker and begin the hard inner work of the life of faith that is much easier to deny in the light.  Where is your darkness this Christmas or perhaps Christmas seasons of old?  Where is God moving your soul through sorrow, anger or fear?  What are the difficult questions God is asking you of yourself and of the world that you would rather avoid?  What work is the light of God doing in you and through you in the darkness?
The light shines forth in the darkness this day and always.  And the darkness will never overcome it.  Instead Christ, the one true light, will be with us in the midst of the darkness: guiding us, illuminating us, and yes, challenging us, but never ever abandoning us.  So no matter how much it may grip you, do not fear, the Lord is with us.  In both the brightest of day and the darkest of nights, Emmanuel, God is with us.

So let us take a moment, no matter what we are feeling, no matter what fears arise.  Let us take a moment to celebrate that mystery of God with us today: that bouncy baby boy cooing and perhaps screaming in the manger.  Mother and father are exhausted, and yes, perhaps a bit fearful at what is to come.  But they are also happier than they could have ever imagined.  Joy and fear in this moment coexist.  Let us celebrate that God chose to walk with us and never leave us.  Let us celebrate the birth of the God incarnate, Jesus Christ, that will forever be the light of our lives no matter how dark it gets.

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.