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Posted on Aug 20, 2017

Uncovering demons—sermon for 20 August 2017

Uncovering demons

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Photo Credit: Tristan K. Flickr via Compfight cc

August 20, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15):

Genesis 45:1-15 & Psalm 133 or
Romans 11:1-2a,29-32Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

The line that really arrested me this week was that first line from our Psalm. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Or let’s update it with more inclusive language —Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity! It got to me, probably because with all that we’ve seen and heard this past week, this image of living together in unity seems impossibly unrealistic. Like a dream… It IS a dream… It’s God’s dream… and it’s our dream…It’s the goal of our shared journeys together… but it’s certainly not where we are right now. Many times this past week—well, for much longer than that really—I have felt like crying out, like the Canaanite woman,“Have mercy on us, Lord; because WE are tormented by a demon.”

We are possessed by the demons of racism… and white supremacy. And these demonic forces have been especially active in the past few weeks… and months. So this idea of us all sitting around and getting our Kumbyaya’s out seemed pretty dreamlike.  But then also this week, I came across the words of writer and activist Adrienne Marre Brown who reminded me that “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.”

Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered.

This possession has had us in its grip for a very long time.  And what feels like

an upsurge in hatred and violence is really the unveiling of structures of oppression that have been active for centuries …but are now nakedly on display in ways that we haven’t seen for a while.

Things are being uncovered.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful book by Tony Horwitz called Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. In it, Horwitz traces “how poisonous and polarized memory of the past [has] become” in the US. Because, we hold on to very different versions of the past depending on whether we’re black or white, northern or southern, upper class or lower class.  And these glaring and seemingly irreconcilable  differences are beautifully highlighted in an exchange Horwitz (a white man) has with a black female basket weaver at the Market in Charlestown, South Carolina.  In the midst of a Confederate Remembrance Celebration, Horwitz asks her what she thinks of all of the white people around her celebrating what is known in the south as “the war between the states,” (or even “the war of northern aggression”). And looks at him fixedly and replies, “They can remember that war all they want. So long’s they remember they lost.”

The demons that possess us have ensured that for far too long, far too many people have continued fighting that war by other means. The failure of reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, voting restrictions, stop and frisk… on and on… Help us Lord, we have a demon.

The demonic system of racism changes and morphs but continues to exert itself …continues to possess and torment us.  “so, what feels new,” says Marre Brown, “is [this] unveiling; [and] the heaviness [that we might feel]is the increasing weight of the truth becoming undeniable as more [and more] people believe it,” she says.

Things aren’t getting worse. They’re being unveiled. And more and more of us are unable to look away… or stand idly by (and by us, I do mean people who look like me… people of northern european descent… who have been raised and conditioned to think of themselves as “white”  …To think of “white” as not just “a category”…but as the universal category…“the norm.”

But “white” is just one category among many with both a particular and a shared history….with its own cultural assumptions and values…its own successes to celebrate and its own sins to lament and repent of.

Things aren’t getting worse, they are getting uncovered…but so what?

What are we to do? What is our faithful response in this moment when we are increasingly aware of the demonic both among us and within us?

Crying out, “Have mercy on us, Lord, save us,” is a good place to a start.

As is remembering (what we heard last week) that God is not far away… but right here with us… in the boat… hovering over the deep… in the midst of the storm.  And if we can remember that, and remember what Jesus tell us in those times: “don’t be afraid,” we might begin to act; trusting that with God’s help we can continue and even extend the work of exorcising these demons from our bodies, and dismantling the racist structures in our communities.

The conversations we need to be having about systemic race and violence look an awful lot like the conversation between the Canaanite woman and Jesus…these conversations will be full of missteps…and corrections…full of hard truths and glaring realizations. Full of faith.

But unless you’re Jesus, one conversation won’t be enough. This is ongoing work. 

What has helped me this past week is remembering that the work of becoming aware of my own complicity in racism, and working at actively being anti-racist is a long, slow process. It is not something that one conversation, or one rally will achieve.

No single march, no one-day anti-racism training, no book-study or webinar No removal (or even transformation) of any particular confederate monument…not even a single sheet cake…as positive as those things are—none of them—by themselves—will suddenly exorcise the demons of racism. Doing the work of reconciliation —which is our Christian duty—and especially racial reconciliation— means first of all, being brave enough to become aware of our own unconscious, internalized racism.

And that requires: a safe space where honest and hard conversations can be held.

It requires courageous vulnerability to speak and hear uncomfortable truths.

It requires humility and wisdom to proclaim and confess clearly the things we (and again by “we” I mean “people who are white like me”) the things we have done and the things we have left undone.The evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.

It requires a community to hold all of this…A community committed to practicing the way of love…the way of non-violence…not committed to being perfect, or “getting it ‘right’” but simply being committed to continue coming together and remaining active in the work… of awareness and dismantling.

Being committed to the process… Being committed to repenting and returning WHEN (not if, but when) we fall again into sin.

That is work that, like many of you, I have been personally involved in for a long time, and now I want to be very clear that I am openly and actively committed to continuing it. It’s work that I hope others will join me in. Because I believe that All Saints is the kind of safe space where this essential, faithful, and courageous work can take place.

We have many, many resources in this diocese to facilitate these types of conversations, and if you would be interested in exploring with me how we might engage some of those resources here at All Saints, in the coming months and years, please let me know.

Talking about race, and racism is hard. Like the conversation with the Canaanite woman, it is fraught and frightening. But it’s also essential to revealing the faithfulness underneath.

Remember: “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.” And in this time Adrienne Maree Brown concludes, the thing to do is “we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Amen.

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Posted on Aug 13, 2017

Adrift—sermon for 13 August 2017

Adrift

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Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937. Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55904 [retrieved August 10, 2017].

August 13, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14):

Genesis 37:1-4,12-28 & Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b
Romans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33 

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

How do you know that it’s Jesus?

How do you know, when you’re in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of the night?

How do you know when you’re in the middle of a crisis—a death, an illness, a turbulent time?

How do you know when you’re in the midst of a transition—going from one shore to another…from one place to another?…one stage of life to another?

How do you know that it’s really Jesus who is coming to you? Who is leading you, reaching out for you? How do you know?

We’re not very good at recognizing God at work in our ordinary, daily life. And, this story suggests, we might not be very good at recognizing God during the crunch times either.

The disciples have just participated in the feeding of the 5,000. Seen five loaves and two fishes turned into enough to feed the multitude with twelve baskets full of broken pieces left over. And then they are told to get in a boat and head for the other side.

And Jesus goes up the mountain by himself to pray…to be with God…to commune with God. That’s part of the problem…because that’s where we assume God is, right?…up on the mountain top. Far away…out of reach…Not down here with us.

So there they are…in the boat…alone…battered by the waves and far from shore…far from Jesus…

Completely without the one whom Matthew makes a big deal out of  calling “Emmanuel,” “God with us.”

The disciples are literally (but also) figuratively, “at sea.” Far away from the presence of God.

Is that a familiar feeling? Being far from God…or maybe feeling like God is far away from us?

If you spend time practicing the disciplines of prayer (private and corporate),

receiving communion, being grateful, studying scripture, working for the common good, resting—observing the Sabbath—

if you dedicate time to practicing and becoming skilled in those disciplines you do gradually become more aware of God’s presence around you all the time.

But I suspect most people, even most Christians, in the midst of our busy lives, probably feel separated from God more than we feel connected to God.

We feel spiritually adrift most of our days.

But because we’re generally so competent in every other area of our lives (or we like to pretend we are), and because we can generally rely on our competencies to get us through whatever we need to get through, we hardly notice how much “at sea,” we are in our spiritual lives.

Occasionally we might wonder, and maybe check our heading, correct our course a bit, but mostly a lot of people are drifting, and hoping, and trusting that, “if we don’t mess up too badly,” we’ll get to where we think we’re going.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus means by “you of little faith,”…relying on our own abilities to get through our daily life, rather than becoming aware of God’s presence in all of it…maybe by “little faith” he means more like “shallow faith.”

The shallow faith of only sensing, knowing, and turning to God when the chips are down. Jesus calls us to something deeper than shallow faith. Not walking on water, but walking with God every day of our lives.

We usually become acutely aware of how shallow our faith is—become aware of being adrift—when the storms come…

When the crisis starts

When the stress start to mount…

Then those low-level feelings of separation from God—and each other—can turn into unbearable feelings of alienation, depression, fear…

But are we any better at recognizing Jesus—God—in the midst of a storm than we are in the midst of our “normal” life?

This story today suggests—not really.

Where were you God?

Where are you God? are common laments during times of crisis. Very often, the more “at sea” we are, the further away from God we feel. And the more we turn to relying on only ourselves.

That’s certainly true of the disciples. They are not afraid of the storm. A few of them are experienced fishermen…They’ve been through storms…they know the drill.

They are relying on their own ability and getting by—just like all of us who struggle through the rough seas of our lives. Sure, they’re cold, and wet, and miserable, and maybe feel like they’re at the mercy of forces they don’t understand and can’t control; but they’re not terrified…they’ve got it together. At least, until they see Jesus.

And then…”It’s a ghost!”

Well, what would you think?

What could possibly do such a thing? What in the world could move over the water like that?

For the ancients, and especially for Jews, water represented the chaos that opposes creation.

And the only thing that can and does tame it…that is continually shown as triumphing over it…is God.

Moving over it in creation, unleashing it during the Flood, drowning the Pharaohs’ army in it. God “tramples the waves,” and “walks in the recesses of the deep” according to Job.

So, for the disciples in that boat, there is only one thing that can move over the surface of the water like that…God.

But they don’t recognize him.

Because they knew God was far away. They knew they were on their own. And they were doing fine…until they weren’t.

But they weren’t really used to seeing God in their every day life, so they don’t recognize Jesus—Emmanuel—God with us. When he comes to them as only God can.

To make this really clear, Matthew has Jesus say, “Take heart. It is I,”

Now, “It is I,” is perfectly fine, very mundane translation, but it doesn’t reveal the full impact of that statement.

The Greek for “it is I” is “ego eimi”… which is how the Hebrew phrase YHWH is translated into Greek. When Moses asks God at the burning bush what should we call you, God (in Greek) would respond, “ego eimi”—I AM.

In other words, what Jesus says here isn’t “Take it easy, it’s just me.” He says—while hovering over the deep in the dead of night… “take courage, I AM, do not be afraid.”

But they still don’t get it.

Peter immediately throws out this question…the same kind of question that Satan asks Jesus in the desert when he puts God to the test…”IF it is you…” “IF you are the Son God”…turn these stones to bread, throw yourself down, command me to come to you on the water.” He’s testing God…testing his own unbelief…

That’s the doubt. That’s the shallow faith. Not noticing the strong wind, and becoming frightened. The message of this story is shouldn’t be “if Peter had had enough faith he could have walked on water.” That is a shallow and harmful interpretation because it encourages us to link faith only with the miraculous—the supernatural. And it’s especially harmful because when that shallow faith runs hard up against the very real storms of life…aging, disease, accidents, death…and we start to sink, we can start to feel guilty that “we just don’t have enough faith” to overcome these things.

But that’s not the message…Peter’s lack of faith isn’t that he can’t walk on water…it’s that he fails to recognize and believe that Jesus is—in the midst of the storm—mediating and revealing the presence and reality of God with them. Always.

As one commentator puts it: “Faith is not being able to walk on water—only God can do that but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.” (New Interpreters Bible.  V. VIII p. 329-330).

May we have that faith…to see and know God’s presence with us not only during the stormy times, but every day of our life.

Amen.

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Posted on Aug 12, 2017

Helping our Children Understand Racism, Violence and Fear of the Future

Helping our Children Understand Racism, Violence and Fear of the Future

Kathleen O’Donoghue, Children, Youth and Family Minister

 

Dear families of All Saints Parish,

Fear. It is palpable today. People everywhere, of all races and social groups are feeling it.  Regardless of how far away you live from the terrible events of this weekend in Charlottesville, VA and other violent events across our country, we all experience anxiety and fear about a world seemingly out of control and our children feel this even more.

How then, can we start a conversation with our children about some of the issues that seem to dominate these acts of violence and fear toward vulnerable people?

Many suggest that these are issues of hate or xenophobia or anger and hostility that have overtaken us as a country. Some think it’s about a lack of addressing hateful ideologies, countries threatening nuclear attacks against each other, poor gun control, some believe it’s a lack of mental health services, or just evil in the world. All of these things may be true in some respect, but I believe under it all is the foundation of fear.

Our task as parents, educators and clergy, I believe, is to help expand our children’s understanding of the world, while at the same time helping them to feel safe in it during tumultuous times. Here are some thoughts on how to begin these conversations.

  1. Spend time with your children and youth. Kids of all ages hear things from friends, online and on the TV and may be worried by themselves in their rooms on their devices. Additionally, isolating oneself often magnifies the fear they have; thinking no one else is worried about the state of the world. Could you increase your connections in your family? This can just be casual family time, eating together, reading or playing a board game.  You modeling a calm presence is very important to your children and their feelings of safety.
  2. Limit, if possible, your children and youth’s exposure to graphic images and disturbing details of awful acts. If you feel you need to watch those videos or Facebook Live feeds to understand what is happening, you can do that out of both eye and ear range of your kids.  There is something to be said however, for protecting your own hearts from this graphic coverage as well. I am not saying not watching it makes it go away, but that seeing it yourself only increases your own injury as you try to care for your children’s spirits.
  3. Make information you choose to share developmentally appropriate for your child’s age. Kids cannot tolerate the level of chaos we see everyday. The youngest child might only need to know that people are making bad choices to hurt each other instead of talking about what they are afraid of. An older child might be able to hear that some people have been increasing hate rhetoric against certain people groups and we don’t understand why. They might also be able to hear that the Black community is particularly afraid of this because it seems to be happening to them more than other communities. This morning’s news from Charlottesville might be shared with teens in saying that some very hateful groups intentionally want to hurt people they feel are inferior to them. Teens will have seen much of this information already and the best way to allow them to process this information would be to ask them what they have seen or heard and then ask what they are thinking or what they want to understand better.
  4. Understand that this is a time to triage and respond to a crisis, but the larger longer conversation about racism and fear of the unknown is just as important. Our conversations today is about white supremacists and leaders threatening nuclear violence against each other, but generally fear permeates our lives and seems to either make people rise up and protect others, or reach out and attack. How can we create a more resilient, less fearful spirit in our children today and as we move forward?
  • Not surprisingly, I would suggest coming to church! Find a solid foundation for yourselves and your children in a community that will allow you to wrestle with the tensions of faith and justice, belief and fear. Sit with those who believe in a merciful God who understands the flaws and weaknesses of humanity and still wants the best from us. Pray with us for God’s mercy and grace.
  • Bring your kids to church. We are available at All Saints Parish to talk with your children and youth, individually or together, about how this violence and fear affects them. What would you like to see happen at our church about this? Please ask us and we will make it happen!
  • Be the change you wish to see. Go outside and meet someone who is not like you and start a conversation about this! Reach out to someone and do something kind and unexpected for them! Write a card of appreciation to your Police Department, telling them you think and pray for their safety every day (and then do that!!!) Send a card to a pastor in a nearby church, thanking her or him for their ministry in the community during these fearful times.  Show up at a rally with or without your kids, as age appropriate. Demonstrate that you are standing in solidarity with those who are feeling unsafe.

How have you already addressed this with your children and youth? We would really like to hear your ideas and what you feel we can do to help you in this challenging work during these difficult times.

Here are some resources for your use in talking with your family about this terrible topic of fear and violence  and some alternate responses.

A really great resource from Dr. Laura Markham:

http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/talking-with-children-about-racism-police-brutality-and-protests

Age-specific resources on talking with kids about Race and Racism:

http://creativewithkids.com/resources-for-talking-to-kids-about-race-and-racism/

Basic discussion on white supremacism:

www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/10-things-everyone-should-know-about-white-supremacy

Some information on the nuclear threats between US and North Korea:

www.politico.com/story/2017/08/09/north-korea-nuclear-missle-threat-explained-241451

NY Times piece on Philando Castile’s death:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/philando-castile-falcon-heights-shooting.html?_r=0

A thoughtful audio piece from WBUR, Chicago:

http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2015/06/22/charleston-shooting-race-relations-violence

God’s blessings upon each of you today and everyday, giving you strength and wisdom in your life and in your family’s life.

Kathleen

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Posted on Aug 1, 2017

The Subversive Kingdom – Sermon for July 30, 2017

The Subversive Kingdom

July 30, 2017, Proper 12A

Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Sermon by Sarah Brock

 

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.
The kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure.
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant.
The kingdom of heaven is like a net.

Have you understood all this? .
.
.
.
.

Are you sure??

Given their track record, I have to wonder if the disciples truly understood what Jesus was trying to tell them with these parables. But they at least had the advantage of context. Jesus fires off a series of similes here to connect with individuals from a variety of backgrounds: farmers, women, land owners, merchants, fishermen. He uses language and circumstances that were integral to the everyday lives of his audience. And, each model he presents offers a small taste of God’s kingdom.

Unlike the disciples, we have the significant disadvantage of distance in time, in place, and in language; making it even more challenging to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us with these models.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

These first two parables are often paired together because they have so much in common. Both indicate a small, humble beginning that transforms into something of great size and hospitality.

The mustard seed is the tiniest seed that grows into a tree that welcomes the birds to nest. The yeast is mixed in with flour, unnoticed until it reacts and grows into enough leavened dough to feed over a hundred people. But, these parables are not only about the power or impact of the smallest members.

The mustard tree begins life resembling a weed more than anything else and grows into a relatively small, bush-like tree often as wide as it is tall with a crooked trunk. This is no tall, strong cedar, representing power and majesty. Jesus could hardly have chosen a more scandalous tree to represent the Kingdom.

The yeast in the second parable is also not quite what is heard by our modern ears. Like me, those of you who are bakers probably buy your yeast in tidy little packets or jars from the grocery store. However, this is not what Jesus is referring to here. The leaven Jesus is talking about was a fermenting bit of dough saved over then hidden and kneaded into flour to make bread. Leaven, with its secretly penetrating and diffusive power is most frequently used as a negative symbol of corruption and sin.

Both the mustard tree and the yeast offer models of a kingdom with small, unexpected, and subversive beginnings. Offering the comfort that God’s kingdom is taking root even if you can’t always perceive it. But, also a reminder of the discomfort in the unconventional, unexpected, and even controversial ways in which the Kingdom brings about life and justice.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Like the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast, these two also have a great deal in common in that they both speak to the value of God’s Kingdom. But again, there is a subversive element threading through these models.

There is the ethical question implicitly embedded in the timeline of the parable of the treasure. Buying a field where you’ve already stumbled upon buried treasure- who does that treasure really belong to? The previous or new owner of the land? Jesus seems to be offering an analogy not only of the immense value and joy of the kingdom of heaven, but also of humanity’s ownership (or lack thereof) of the kingdom.

Then, in contrast to the unexpected and unintentional discovery of the treasure, Jesus continues by comparing the Kingdom to a merchant carefully seeking out one individual pearl. Effectively highlighting the roles of humanity and God in bringing about the Kingdom; continuing to turn worldly ideas of possession and human power upside down.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into the baskets but threw out the bad.

Jesus finishes with one final reminder of divine providence and lack of human control and power over God’s Kingdom.

Have you understood all this? .
.
.
.
.
Are you sure?

Even with a deeper look into the context and nuances of these parables, they are still only models to help us wrap our heads around a complex, somewhat abstract event. And, as much as they help us to understand and communicate what is beyond words, models still have limitations in conveying the fullness of their subjects.

Love is an open door.
Love is blind.
Love is a battlefield.

But, do any of these models really do justice to what it truly is to love and be loved?

Grief is like the ocean.
Grief is a passage not a place to stay.
Grief is like a snowflake.

But, do any of these really name what it is to lose something or someone we don’t know how to live without?

A topographical map doesn’t touch the feeling of looking out at the vast expanse below from the top of a mountain after an exhausting hike. Or the sense of smallness and powerlessness of walking through a narrow canyon while only a thin strip of sky peaks through above.

We long so much for the comfort and safety of understanding, that we fail to look for the subversive aspects of the models we rely on and we fail to look for the ways in which they fall short.

It’s easier and safer to picture a grand American Elm, growing tall and strong on our street in Boston. A packet of active yeast from the grocery store down the street is tidy and manageable. But, in looking for the Elm, we may miss the beginnings of a mustard tree. That little packet of yeast doesn’t carry the same history and power for feeding people as the starter dough that’s been passed from kitchen to kitchen. We just might miss being caught in that net if we’re too busy deciding for ourselves who does and does not belong.

This week I have a two part challenge for you and for myself. First, what parables would you tell a friend or neighbor to talk about the kingdom of heaven? Second, what are the models that you hang your faith on? It might be a model for who God is, how you understand the Trinity, how you you explain sin or suffering, or any number of starting points. I mean look at how many parables Jesus tells throughout the Gospels! Take a moment to sit with these models. What are the challenging or subversive bits that are hiding beneath the tidily packaged surface?

Have you understood all this? .
.
.
.
.
Are you sure?

May you find a home among the branches and nourishment in the bread.
May you find treasure hidden in the field and redemption by the Merchant. May you be caught up in the net.
May you answer ‘yes.’

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Posted on Jul 9, 2017

Yoked—sermon for 9 July 2017

Yoked

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Photo Credit: Ludie Cochrane Flickr via Compfight cc

July 9, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9):

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 & Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

It’s another one of those paradoxical images that Jesus presents us with.

Yokes are those wooden or metal things that go over the heads of animals (usually oxen or mules) and make them pull together.

Usually yokes are metaphors for endless, thankless toil…subservience…oppression… In the book of Leviticus, God reminds the Israelites that God is the one who “brought you out of Egypt, so that you would no longer be slaves…broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with your heads held high.” (Lev. 26:13).

Slavery and tyranny are yokes.

Yet, today Jesus gives us a more positive image of yokes…his yoke…which he assures us is easy. Jesus is focusing on a slightly different aspect of yokes…the relational one. Because the primary function of a yoke is to bind two animals together. Once bound they can then plow, or pull, or move in the same direction…increasing the power…and the force of the work, because they’re doing it together.

Jesus wants us to be yoked together with him…helping him do his work.

Let me offer a midrash on yokes. A midrash is a way of interpreting scripture used by many rabbis. This particular midrash comes from Rabbi Robert Zimmerman (you may have heard of him…he’s also known as Bob Dylan).

He sings:

“You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,

You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  [
Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music]

We are all yoked to something. And what we’re yoked to might be oppressive, or it might be redemptive…but were all yoked…you gotta serve somebody.

That’s why very wise spiritual directors often say, “if you want to know what people really care about…what’s really important to them—what they are truly yoked to—take a look at their checking accounts, their calendars, and (these days) their web browser history. These things tell us what we are truly yoked to.

So think about that…You gotta serve somebody….So what are you are yoked to? What are the things that captivate your interest?…that command your attention?…are they simply things that you consume?…or are they things consuming you?

Here’s another question…how are you yoked to Jesus? To God? What about that relationship? When you take a look at all of the things that command your time and attention (and yes money)…where is God in all of that? How are you nurturing and developing and growing that relationship?

It is so easy for that relationship to drop off the calendar…slip from the radar…and keep moving further and further down the priority list.

Benedictine nun Joan Chittister writes: “It is so easy for good people to confuse their own work with the work of creation. It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important than what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer ever remember why we set out to do them in the first place.” And she reminds us of the “ The hard fact […] that nobody FINDS time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer.” (Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p 30-31).

You gotta serve somebody…it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…” What is it that we learn…when we allow ourselves to be yoked to Jesus? The way of prayer is the place where most of us begin… And what do I mean by prayer? My favorite definition of prayer is “wasting time with God.” It might appear to all the world like the most unproductive way to spend your time…but that’s sort of the point. By the way of prayer, I mean taking time—every day—to be open to God…open enough to changed by God…open enough to begin to understand all of the ways that we are yoked to God and to one another, individually communally.…

Yes, prayer is sometimes talking to God…but more often it’s just listening. You probably know the story of when Mother Teresa was asked what she said to God in prayer? She replied, “I don’t say anything, I just listen.” So then her interviewer asked, “so what does God say to you.” She said, “God doesn’t say anything, God just listens.” It’s fine to talk to God in prayer, but the real function of prayer isn’t to get God to change (although we often act like it is), the function of prayer is to change us…it’s to enable us to put on the mind God…to bind ourselves to the yoke of Christ. Taking time every day…to be with God…to feel yourself yoked to God…Through our regular practices we come to understand that prayer is less something we do, and more like the filter through which we see everything. Prayer is what makes us conscious of God’s presence, and binds us more and more fully to God’s will.

We’re all yoked to something…many things actually. What are the things that you are yoked to? Are they destructive or redemptive? Do they open up spaces for real listening and silence, or are they just filling the space with more noise? Do they help you remember who you are, and why you’re here, or do they try to convince you that you’re not enough…? Remember, you gotta serve somebody, and we have the assurance that if we take Christ’s yoke upon us, and learn from him…that his burden will be light…and we will find rest.

Amen.

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Posted on Jul 2, 2017

Binding relationships—sermon for 2 July 2017

Binding Relationships

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Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Sacrifice of Isaac, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville.

July 2, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8):

Genesis 22:1-14 & Psalm 13 or
Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

The story in Genesis 22 is known in Judaism as “The Binding of Isaac,” Akedahrather than the “sacrifice” of Isaac.

 

Think about some of your relationships…the minor relationships that you engage every day…you walk into a store to pick up something…and you’re in a very brief relationship with the salesperson that lasts for as long as the transaction takes place. It would be rare if you kept that relationship going after that transaction happened…might even be a little creepy.

How many of your relationships are transactional like this? I have something you want…you have something I need….we’re in a relationship in order to facilitate the transaction. How many of your relationships are structured this way…Probably more than we’d like to imagine…think about your job…would you actually be in relationship with the people at work if they weren’t paying you? Maybe your would. Work, school, family might be transactional as well… some families do behave that way… “as long as I get what I want…I’ll put up with them.”

Now, for some family is something that no matter how crazy and dysfunctional they are, they’re still your family and when they need you…you come running…but for others, family is simply the people you grew up with and your real family are the people you’ve chosen to be with as adults…the ones you share experiences with…the ones you trust…deeply.

For many people their relationship with God is very transactional… “God, I need something…so I will do this for you, if you do that for me”…We all fall into this occasionally. “If you get me out of this situation I’ll go to church every Sunday” or whatever.

Do you have relationships that are not based on any kind of transaction…no quid pro quo…Relationships that are based solely on trust? That no matter what happens you still want…or need to be in that relationship?

Abraham and God have been in a relationship for a very long time…it’s been a relationship based on both transaction and trust. It’s a relationship that has had its ups and downs. God has promised offspring  as numerous as the stars…and Abraham has mostly gone along…

Sarah finally had a child, and last week Abrahams first son…born to Hagar was sent off into the desert, which means the totality of the entire promise of this relationship between God and Abraham is now focused on Isaac…And just to amp the stakes up even higher…Isaac has probably reached puberty…it’s hard to know how old he is in this story, and commentators offer ranges from 13 to 37 but certainly he’s old enough to know what’s going on…and to comply or resist.

So the promise has all but been fulfilled. Isaac is of an age where he can have children. Abraham will have a son who will give him heirs…the transaction (if that’s what it is) between God and Abraham is all but completed. But, there’s still a question…There is no guarantee that Isaac will follow God in the same way that Abraham has. There’s no guarantee that Abraham having received all that has been promised will continue to follow God. If this were a relationship based purely on transaction…Abraham could say…I got what I came for…thanks. Go find some one else to lead. But thats not what happens.

Because God is not really interested in transactional relationships…God wants real deep trusting relationships. God wants to be in deep, trusting, loving relationship with all of us generation after generation after generation. But there’s never guarantee that the next generation will continue that relationship. There’s always a temptation to give up the depth and revert back to the transactional.

There are centuries and centuries of commentary on this text exploring every conceivable aspect of it. Every word and syllable. Every nuance has been explored and continues to be explored. So I’m not offering anything new, but what caught me this time is God’s desire for non-transactional…trusting relationships…and the amazing risk God takes to have them.

On the surface this seems like a completely insane test…Here’s the promised son…now get rid of him. But think about at what God is doing…God knows that God will provide a ram to substitute for Isaac…Abraham doesn’t know this, but God does. What God doesn’t know and what apparently God can’t know, is how Abraham and Isaac will respond to the relationship now that the transaction has been effectively completed. God has no idea what the two of them will do…will they continue with this relationship…or abandon it now that they got what they wanted? That’s the real question..and here’s the amazing, risky thing God does.

God places the entire promise…the entire future of the covenant completely into their hands.  God places all of God’s own hopes and dreams and plans in the hands of Abraham and Isaac and says: “you decide…are we going through with this, or not?” And God makes it really, really easy, and tempting, to say, “no.”

God could just “make it so.” But God doesn’t…God let’s them decide the fate of the promise…That a huge risk. A few clues that helped me think about this…

First: It’s not in our text but in the original Hebrew, God says something like “please,” “Take, pray, your son…your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up” (Alter, p. 108) It’s not a command, so much as it is a request…”Will you do this for me?”

Second: There’s no suggestion that Isaac puts up a fight, or struggles…There’s a repeated phrase in the text…”and the two of them went together,” which can mean that the two of them were united in one purpose…being bound to the promise of God…bound to trusting God regardless of any transactional promise.

And finally, at the conclusion the messenger says, “now I know, that you fear God…” that you trust me with out conditions. Before this, God didn’t know that this would be the outcome. But God took a risk.

God takes this amazing risk…and puts the entire future of the promise into Abrahams and Isaac’s hands. Now, we have no idea what would have happened if Abraham or Isaac would have refused, or had said, “no.” Presumably, God would have had to find someone else…someone who was worthy of that kind of trust.

Abraham and Isaac is an extreme example, and none of us would want to have this kind of extreme test laid on us…But the fact is, God exhibits this kind of radical trust in us all the time. God is always placing the future of God’s own promise into our hands…never knowing how we are going to respond, but trusting that we can respond, and hoping that we will respond, in the right way.

And if we don’t uphold that trust? We don’t know what would have happened if Abraham had balked. We don’t know what would have happened if Isaac had resisted. We don’t know what would happen if we turn away from that trust…except we do. The entire history of the world is the history of God trusting us with the future of the promise…putting it lovingly into our hands…and watching what we do with it.

For Christians, every week as we come to the altar to receive Communion, that trust…that precious promise that the world is and will be God’s realm of peace, and justice, and shalom is given to us…the divine, and eternal hope of that promise being fulfilled now and forever into the future, is placed into our hands…flows into our bodies…to use as we will…May we be worthy of that trust, and good stewards of that divine promise,  today and every day.

Amen.

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