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Posted on Mar 26, 2017

Listen Closely—sermon by Nicholas Hayes, intern

Listen Closely

 

March 26, Fourth Sunday in Lent:

Psalm 23;
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

Last fall, GBIO, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, was gearing up for the next phase of our campaign for comprehensive criminal justice reform in Massachusetts. As part of the process, we held several meetings for leaders from across our membership, to prepare them to engage their congregations. Now GBIO encompasses about forty congregations from the metro Boston area, spanning most of the lines that divide our city: race, class, religion, neighborhood. Our diversity is an incredible strength, but it also sometimes poses challenges. At one of our meetings, just such a challenge came up.

Leah, one of our senior leaders, was facilitating a conversation about how to raise interest in congregations about criminal justice reform when a white woman from a suburban congregation spoke up. “We’ve talked a lot,” she said, “about how the criminal justice system disproportionately hurts people of color, and in GBIO, our urban congregations. I know all those statistics. For me, that’s why I feel it’s so important to do something about it. But I worry that makes it difficult for many in my congregation to care about it. We’re a pretty privileged bunch, and I doubt many of us can really relate to the issue. How should I handle that?” This provoked a lively conversation. Several people, including Leah, brought up the importance of listening to the stories of people with personal experiences of injustice in the criminal justice system. That was why we needed to bring people from our suburban congregations together with others unlike them.

After the meeting wrapped up, another woman from a white suburban congregation stayed behind to speak to Leah. She had remained largely quiet throughout the conversation. “I needed to tell you something. I’m part of a suburban white congregation, and I live a comfortable life, but not everyone in my family does. A close family member of mine who took some hard knocks is in jail now, and it’s been so awful for him. I know a few other people in my congregation closely affected by this issue. We don’t really ever talk about it in my congregation, but I bet if you asked, you’d find it affects more of us than you realize. I was nervous bringing it up, because I don’t want to suggest our experience is equivalent, but this issue isn’t only an urban issue, or an issue for people of color. I think it’s important for us to listen to others from very different backgrounds, but this may also be an opportunity to listen to our own stories. Then maybe we could have more empathy for others, and ourselves.”

Leah, when she reported this encounter at our next core leaders’ meeting, was quite struck by it. “We talk a lot about the importance of listening in GBIO,” she said, “but it hadn’t occurred to me we needed to do listening work around criminal justice in our suburban congregations too. Until she spoke up, I’d been totally blind to that. We need to listen more closely.”

“Surely we are not blind, are we?” At first glance, today’s Gospel seems to be all about blindness, and sight—who sees, and who doesn’t. It tells of a blind man who Jesus heals, and draws an ironic contrast between him and the Pharisees. The blind man, long dismissed as a sinner on account of his disability is the one who sees Jesus for who he truly is. The Pharisees, confident that they know how God works, are blind. Though it may be all too easy for us, in hearing the story, to judge them, the Gospel challenges us to ask their question of ourselves. “We are not blind, are we?”

Yet if we look more closely at the Gospel story, we find it is as much about listening as it is about seeing. It begins and ends with an encounter between the blind man and Jesus. But the long middle section recounts, in essence, a series of failures by others to listen to the healed blind man. First, his neighbors, who question him intensively when they notice he is no longer blind. Some of them refuse to believe he is the person who was formerly blind, even as he repeats “I am the man!”  And those who do believe him seem to doubt his account of what happened, and of who healed him.

So to settle things they bring him to the Pharisees, who also ask him questions but fail to really listen. Many cannot believe his account that Jesus heals him, because they are convinced Jesus is a sinner, and so they conclude he must not have been born blind—in spite of his assurances. The Gospel says that they did not believe he had been born blind, and had received his sight, until they go over his head and hear it from his parents. Hard pressed to argue with his parents, they call the healed blind man back and again question him, wanting to know what Jesus did. In exasperation, he says ““I have told you already, and you would not listen.” When he then testifies that Jesus must be a prophet from God, they dismiss him. “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” Like Jesus’s disciples at the beginning of the reading, they too assume that his disability was a punishment from God, a sign that he or his family were sinners.

The Pharisees’ encounter with the blind man is a cautionary tale. They can’t see what is before their very eyes—God’s work, and God’s very person—because they won’t listen. They won’t listen either to Jesus himself, or to the blind man, who bears witness to him. By contrast, the blind man is one who listens. He listens both at the beginning, when Jesus tells him how to have his sight restored, and at the end, when Jesus finds him again and tells him who he truly is.

To see, we must listen. So to discover how we are blind, we ought to ask: What are we not listening for? Who are we not listening to? And what is keeping us from listening?

 This Gospel gives us a hint about what to listen for, and whom to listen to. The one in whom Jesus works, and the one who truly sees him, is a blind man: a person who has suffered much, and been pushed to the margins by those around him. It is a refrain throughout the Gospels  that the marginalized and the suffering are the ones who see Jesus for who he is. They are particularly beloved of him, not in spite of, but because of, their suffering.

I think this is what Jesus’s remark to his disciples at the beginning of this Gospel really means. The disciples, like the Pharisees, assume the blind man’s disability must mean he’s a sinner. His suffering is a punishment, caused by God. Jesus refutes this assumption, denying that anyone’s sin is responsible for the blind man’s blindness. Instead, he sees, it is “that God’s works might be revealed in him.” While our translation might suggest that God caused the blind man to be blind so that God could heal him, the original Greek suggests something else. What Jesus is doing here is not providing another cause for the blind man’s suffering, but reframing what it means. Suffering, he teaches, should not be seen as a punishment from God, but as an occasion for God’s work. Which means God is to be found especially in suffering, and among those who suffer. To them we must listen if we are to see God.

Jesus’s disciples, like the Pharisees, also reveal what keeps us from listening. As Jesus says, they believe they see. Both see no need to listen to the blind man—before or after his healing—because they are confident they know all there is to be known about his suffering; they have an explanation and are content to rest with it. Their explanation is particularly pernicious—it effectively blames the victim, and in the name of God no less. While such an “explanation” of suffering may seem outmoded, alas this is far from the case. We members of the gay community will not soon forget the ways in which many Christians in the US claimed AIDS was a divine punishment for our sins.

But I think it’s more than just this kind of misguided theology that gets in the way of listening to suffering. We have, today, many non-theological explanations that allow us to blame the victim: the claims that the poor are poor because they are lazy, that blacks are in jail because they are violent, that Muslims are rightfully persecuted because they are inclined to terrorism. And even when we don’t blame the victim, we have many other ways of assuming “we know all there is to know” that keep us from listening. If we are confident enough in our explanation of poverty—whatever it might be—we can attempt to “solve” poverty without listening to poor people. A move which nearly always results in disaster. If we let ourselves be led only by statistics or stereotypes, we might make ourselves blind to the suffering of those who we wouldn’t expect to suffer. As we learned at GBIO.

If you wish to see God, listen to suffering. Listen especially to those on the margins—whether in our city, or in this community. Listen even to the marginal parts of yourselves, those parts which you lock away and try to forget. But listen also where you do not expect to find suffering. Do not assume you already know. Do not assume you already see clearly. Listen first.

And lastly, do not listen only for suffering. As Jesus teaches us, suffering is where God is at work, even if we cannot initially see how. One thing I have learned, over and over again, as an organizer is that listening carefully to the story of another person’s suffering inevitably also reveals their strength, their resilience, their agency, their sources of hope, their experiences of grace. If we listen only for suffering, we turn the sufferer only into a victim, which denies them their agency and dehumanizes them. It also prevents us from seeing how God may be at work in their lives. The blind man wanted others to know that yes he had been born blind, with all its attendant hardships. But he also wanted others to know that God had healed him, and that he put his faith in Jesus. To listen faithfully, we must listen for both the hurt, and the hope, the suffering, and the grace in others’ lives and our own. If we do, we may begin to see how God wants us to collaborate in the work God is already doing.

So as we continue to journey through Lent towards Easter, let us each ask ourselves: “How am I being called to listen? And who am I being called to listen to?” Take care. If you listen more closely, you may see God.

Nicholas Hayes

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Posted on Mar 12, 2017

Everything changes—sermon for 12 March 2017

Everything changes

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March 12, Second Sunday in Lent:

Psalm 121;
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

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

 

Everything changes with Abram.

And this is remarkable mainly because there is absolutely nothing remarkable about Abram. When the twelfth chapter of Genesis starts, he’s barely even a minor character—more like an extra.

All we know about him is that he is one of three sons of Terah, and a descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. And that he’s married to Sarai, but, we’re told, she’s barren and has no child…so we know that this storyline isn’t going to go far.

He’s a migrant, having left his homeland “Ur of the Chaldeans” with his father. They’re headed for the land of Canaan, but are currently settled in Haran.

That’s it. There is nothing that singles him out. But the whole story from creation through destruction and recreation has zoomed in on him.

And everything changes.

The curses of the past eleven chapters…that began with the serpent last week: that he would crawl on the ground and be hated by humans; and Eve that she would experience pain in childbirth; and Adam: that he would toil in difficult labor; the curses that continued and multiplied in the intervening chapters…

Cain killing his brother Able, and being cursed to live east of Eden in the land of Nod. The whole earth falling into corruption and being destroyed with only Noah and his family being saved. After the flood there are other violations of  the covenant that God establishes and some of Noah’s offspring are cursed with enslavement.

There’s the attempt, by the humans, to build a tower to heaven “to make a name for themselves,” and for this hubris God curses them with being unable to understand one another…a curse that only begins to be reversed at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit enables everyone to understand everyone else.

But it starts here. With Abram. Everything changes with Abram.

Because with him…the curses begin to turn blessings…”I will make you a great nation…and I will bless you…and you shall be a blessing…and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Now, that’s not to say that it’s all hugs and puppies from here on out. There will still be sacrifices, and stolen birthrights, and deceit and betrayal…brothers turning against one another…brothers sold into slavery…an entire people become enslaved…then liberated…then wandering for generations in the wilderness. There will be judges and kings, some who try to do what’s right, many who actively try to cling to power and do great harm…most just do the what they can with what they have. There are personal betrayals, families torn apart, civil wars, empires rising and falling… “violence, strong language, adult content.” 

None of that changes…but everything changes with Abram.

These promises, in the opening lines of Genesis chapter 12, begin to undo…reverse…the curses of the earlier chapters.

Rabbinal scholars note that these “extraordinary promises come like a bolt from the blue, an act of God’s grace alone; [because] no indication has been given as to why or even whether Abram merits them.” [Jewish Study Bible, p. 29].

It’s almost as if God, who has been working in one medium, suddenly shifts to another. The cosmic…mythic…grand gestures—creation, flood, towers to heaven…suddenly become the slow working out…over generations…of God’s purpose…God’s continued call to be in relationship, loving relationship, with God and with all of God’s creation.

It’s almost as if God has figured out that with us, the grand gesture doesn’t work.

Oh, we always want it. We’re always searching for that magic bullet, the ONE thing that will make everything alright. The right job, the perfect partner, the….you know, if I could just have one good hour to get everything done that I need to then everything would be fine!…the leader who will fix everything…

All of those temptations. They don’t work. They never have.

I wonder if this is part of what Nicodemus is searching for… “we know that you’re a teacher who has come from God because no one can do these signs…these miraculous things…apart from God.” Is the subtext here, “if you’re God, or someone really close to God…can’t you do something about all of this?” The Roman oppression, the poverty, the disease, the needless death…? Come on…give us a break! Help us!

How many of us have wondered the same thing… “we’re not doing so well down here, God…why aren’t you doing anything?”

But God, beginning with Abram, takes a very different tack, and Jesus continues on this same path.

It’s a long, slow, difficult path…it’s the path of being in relationship. Not sanitized, romanticized, imaginary relationships, but real, demanding, heart-wrenching, way-too-vulnerable relationships.

Do you know the very first thing that happens to Abram, after he sets out from Haran and goes to Canaan? There’s a famine and he has to flee to Egypt, and then there are a number of battles to be fought, and…oh right…his wife is barren…This is not the easy path that God has chosen…nor is it one that Abram enters into without any without misstep.

It’s a path that leads to frustrations and challenges. It’s a path that leads to misunderstandings, and denial, and betrayals…it’s a path that will lead to another garden…the Garden of Gethsemane, with another temptation, and another seemingly impossible choice…It’s a path leads to the cross…it always…ALWAYS…goes through Good Friday.

For Abram, there comes a horrible moment when he is asked to sacrifice his son, his beloved son…that moment looks different for everyone, but Good Friday always happens. The famine hits…the disaster comes…the denials and the betrayals multiply…The dream dies…the hope is extinguished. Good Friday always happens.

But so does Easter.

So does Easter.

Everything changes with Abram. And everything has changed because of Jesus. The world is still full of darkness and curses, full of temptations and empty promises…But everything has changed. Because the promise that we will be a blessing…that others will be blessed because of us…and that we will be blessed because of others…the promise that new life will always emerge from the emptiness of the tomb…that promise is sure…and continues to be worked out…to be lived out…not because of anything special that we’ve done. because God has chosen to walk this path with us.

The only thing required of us is that like Abram we continue to say “yes.” “Yes,” to walking with God past the temptations of the grand gesture…the quick fix…walking with God up the narrow path…through the valley of the shadow and into the promise of Easter.

Then we will see…then we will know…that truly everything has changed.

Amen

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Posted on Mar 5, 2017

“Hear, O Israel…” Sermon for 5 March 2017

Hear, O Israel

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Photo Credit: FotoGuy 49057 Flickr via Compfight cc

March 5, First Sunday in Lent:

Psalm 32;
Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

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

“Hear, Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might…”

And you know how the rest goes…

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself…”

We’ll…not quite.

Here’s how it continues…”And these words I charge you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall rehearse them to your [children] and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on your way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as circlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and in your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Alter Translation)

It’s known in Hebrew as the Shema, (from the word “to hear”—Shema Israel—Hear, Israel); it has been called the creed and the catechism of our Jewish siblings.

It’s part of our creed as well. This we affirm…that God is one, and this is what we are to do…love God with all our heart and all our being (really our “life-breath” our essence) and all our might. And we are to teach this to our children, and remember this when we rise, and when we fall asleep, when we leave and when we return…this knowledge and practice should always be at hand…should always be before us.

It’s Jesus (the divine son of God, and the Jewish Rabbi) who long after this confrontation in the wilderness we hear about today, adds the familiar coda to it…a summation of the whole rest of the Torah which reminds us of the whole reason God puts humans into creation in the first place…we are put in the garden…in creation…”to till it and keep it.” We’re here to take care of…creation and each other…to be the servants of…all of creation. And Jesus sums this up by adding a phrase to the Shema, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these,” he says (Mark 12:31)

The Shema—this creed—this core value—is what lies behind, and beneath, and echoes through this whole conversation that Jesus has with this “tempter.”

His first response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” comes from Deuteronomy 8, and is taken from a long passage warning not to forget God—not to forget these core values—in times of prosperity.

In the wilderness God fed the Israelites with manna in order to “make you understand that that one does not live by bread alone,” but now, you’re about to enter into the promised land so:

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is [God] who gives you power to get wealth.” (NRSV)

Do not say to yourself, “my power and the might of my own hand have gained this wealth.”

It’s all gift…everything is gift…but we are often tempted to take credit for all kinds of things…

The next two temptations: to religious pride, and to political power (isn’t it interesting that the last temptation is framed in a way that presumes that “all the kingdoms of the world” are already under demonic control…) to these temptations Jesus responds with other quotes from Deuteronomy, this time from the chapter 6 which begins with the Shema. And again with echoed warnings about forgetting what we’re supposed to be about.

When the LORD your God, “brings you to the land that [God] swore…to give you—[the] great and goodly towns that you did not build, and houses filled with all good that you did not fill, and hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant,” (sounds like the world we have all been born into), “you will eat and be sated. Watch yourselves, lest you forget…” (Deut 6:10-12, Alter trans.).

Watch yourselves, lest you forget…but we always do. This is supposed to be the core…the non-negotiable teaching…That God is one and that we are to be in loving relationship with God and with all God has created…we are to “till and keep” creation…loving God and loving our neighbor…and how are we doing with that?

Jesus easily deflects these temptations because he’s Jesus, but also because he is grounded in scripture and never, ever forgets this core principle.

But in the midst of multiplying temptations we forget, we take credit for it all ourselves, we just get it wrong. We act much more like the humans in the Genesis passage.

This is not a simple story, and deserves a longer study, but three details stand out that illustrate how humans typically respond when we forget this core truth. The first is: by amending the command. God says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;” except this one.

But that’s not the way the woman says it. She corrects the serpent…God didn’t say we couldn’t eat of any tree, God said we can’t eat of this one, but then she adds…“nor shall you touch it.” But God never said that. She adds another injunction to the divine command…She’s never seen talking to God, so we have no idea where this comes from, and maybe it’s meant to be helpful (if we can’t eat it, better to not even touch it) but it sets up the rest of the temptation.

The second detail is that once the serpent responds she starts to overthink the situation.

She sees that it’s good for food, and that it’s pretty to look at, but not just pretty…it’s actually  “lust to the eyes” (“delight” is a little too restrained here—she’s got an intense desire “to see” and “to know”)…so she takes the fruit (although I like to imagine that she touched it first because, remember she thinks she’s not even supposed to touch it), and when nothing bad happens then, she thinks “Ok…might as well eat it.”

The third detail is this: “She took of the fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” He’s standing right there the whole time. He doesn’t correct her. He doesn’t argue with her. He doesn’t tell the serpent to take a hike…he just goes along.

So here we are this morning; the vast majority of us living in houses we did not build, filled with things that we by and large did not make. We eat our fill of food we did not grow. We’re happy when the Dow goes up—when our silver and gold is multiplied—and it is so very easy to forget God, to think “my power and the might of my hand did this.” As our society become more complicated, and more fragmented, our temptations multiply and out opportunities for sinning…for “missing the mark”…expand exponentially…temptations to subtly amend those core demands “we can till and keep this part of the garden…but not that,” “we’ll serve them but not them”, “we’ll love God and our neighbors when it’s convenient”…Temptations to overthink…to act too quickly…too rashly…Temptations to stand aside and do nothing…to keep quiet…to wait…It’s a long list of possible temptations…a great litany of things…things done and things left undone, right?

How do we stay connected? To God, and to one another? How do we return to that core teaching? How do we continually remember that God is God and we are not? How do we remember that we are to work with God in tilling and keeping the world…in tending and serving our neighbors? Lent is a time to really work on these connections. To reconnect with this core…to hear once again the call to love God and our neighbors in new ways; to reengage with the practices that give life, and to put aside those habits that deplete life.

May God’s grace and mercy fill us and strengthen us to face our temptations, and remember that the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And we are to love the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our being and with all our might…” And that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves…Always.

Amen.

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Posted on Mar 1, 2017

Ashes—sermon for Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ashes

Unfortunately, this sermon was not recorded.

By Carl Spitzweg – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link

March 1, Ash Wednesday:

Psalm 103 or 103:8-14;
Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

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

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,”wrote Thomas Merton.

Think about that. A tree gives glory to God in simply being what it is.


“The more the tree is like itself, the more it is like [God],” said Merton. And, “if it tried to be like something else which it never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore would give [God] less glory.”

A tree doesn’t need to do anything other than be what it was created to be. The same is true of every animal, every bird, every insect, every leaf and larvae, every cephalopod and crustacean, every amoeba and algae.

The diversity of life on this planet (and possibly on other planets) is not a sign of imperfection. But a sign of the divine perfection…unity in diversity…each created thing perfect in “its own individual identity with itself.”

“This particular tree,” writes Merton, “will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do…”

Take a look around at all the stones, the wood, the glass, and as you walk outside today, notice all the life around you…”each particular being in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what [God] wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by [God’s] Love and [God’s] infinite Art,” says Merton.

But what about us?

What about you and me?

That’s trickier…“Trees and animals have no problem,” Merton says, “God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.

“With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.”

Or, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Mother Night)

Ash Wednesday is our annual reminder of this…one of our many wake up calls to become careful with, to become aware of, all the things that we pretend to be…

and to ask…is that really who and what God is calling me to be? Is that really who and what God is calling us to be? Is that who God needs us to be?

Or are we simply being obstacles for one another…(as St. Paul says), are we putting obstacles in our own way, obstacles of pride…giving alms so as to be praised, praying so as to be noticed and admired, fasting for show…

“serving our own interests on our fast day…fasting only to quarrel and fight”

Storing up treasures…actual treasures, and ego treasures…for ourselves…our false selves and not for God and the sake of God’s realm of shalom.

These are all examples of what Merton calls “the false self” in action…The false self is that illusory person who shadows all of us. The person I want myself to be…rather than being the person God knows me to be…

The false self, says Merton, “is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love”—it’s the one that say: ’I can do it on my own.’ ‘I got this.’ ‘I don’t need anything.’ ‘God has nothing to do with this…’

Our spiritual work…the work we do with God…is largely about shedding this false self, and revealing more and more the true self underneath.

Think about this as you come forward for the imposition of ashes, because there is a double sign at work here. The ashes are a reminder of one aspect of our true selves…we are mortal…we are part of the created order…we come from dust and to dust we return…our physical bodies are part of what is deeply true and sacred and holy about us…the ashes that we use are made from the palms that you waved in celebration last Palm Sunday…every ending is a new beginning…and nothing is lost in God’s economy.

The ashes are also a sign of our false selves…that so much of our egos…the false self we wear around as a show to others…is as shadowy…dusty…transitory as the ashes themselves…and just like the false self actually covers up something deeper, and much more luminous. For those of us who are baptized, the transitory cross of ashes is placed over the permanent cross of chrism that was made at baptism…the sign that marks us as Christ’s own forever. The ashes cover up that mark…the sign of our true selves…our true identity in Christ.

This Lent…as you receive your ashes, and as you wipe them off later…I pray you will spend time contemplating what has been covered up, and what is longing to be revealed…what of the shadowy ashes of your false self can you let go of? What of your true self will you have the courage to let God reveal? So that all of us can give glory to God by living and being as we were created by God to be.

Amen.

All Merton quotes taken from “Things in Their Identity,” by Thomas Merton. In, New Seeds of Contemplation. 1961. New York: New Directions. pp. 29-36

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Posted on Feb 19, 2017

#resist—Sermon for 19 February 2017

#resist

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https://flic.kr/p/8xemDL

February 19, Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 119:33-40
Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

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

There’s a word that’s been popping up in my media feed a lot lately. It’s also word that also appears in today’s Gospel.

Anyone know what it is?

Resist.

I’ve seen various admonitions to “resist” in the past several months…I have to admit my favorite has been the homage to Carrie Fisher. Just after she passed away I started seeing pictures of her on posters and t-shirts as Princess Leia with the phrase “A woman’s place is in the resistance.”

This word, “resist” shows up on Jesus’ lips today. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”

I have to admit this is one of those phrases in the gospels that caught me up short…this whole passage, in fact, is difficult and troubling…It follows from the Beatitudes…and contains all that we heard last week and again this week. This whole list of “you have heard it said…one thing…but I say…something else.” And often that “something else” is hard to hear. And it might make us wonder…Does he really mean all this? Or is he just being hyperbolic?

“You have heard it said don’t murder…but I say if you’re angry you’re liable to judgement”…

“You have heard it said, don’t commit adultery..but I say if you even look at another with lust you’ve committed adultery in your heart.

“You’ve heard it said don’t swear falsely…but I say… don’t make vows at all to anyone but God.

And then there’s today…”you have heard it said an eye for an eye…but I say don’t resist an evil doer.” Does he really mean all this? Well, I think we have to proceed on the assumption that, yes, he really does mean exactly what he says. That we are to live, not in ways that are easy or necessarily comfortable but in ways that are honest, and just, and true to the values of the Beatitudes.

But then he goes on to describe all these actions that look and sound to me very much like they came straight out of the “non-violent resistance” playbook of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Every example he lays out can be read as a form of non-violent resistance. Being struck on the right cheek, scholars point out, presumes a back-handed slap. Offering the “other cheek” is not returning the violence in kind—not retaliating, but neither is it just abjectly taking it. [Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 12].

Being sued for one cloak and giving up your only other cloak as well…in effect stripping yourself naked is also not retaliatory, but still reveals the unjustness—and the shame—of the situation.

Going the extra mile is not simply overdoing it…Soldiers were only allowed to conscript people to carry gear for one mile…going the second is a form of non-violent resistance…like the second slap, or the second cloak, this second mile is a way of highlighting some injustice, and responding with strength but without a similar kind of violence. Much like sitting in a “white’s only” section of a bus, or a lunch counter, or marching to the sea to collect salt, or across a bridge to register to vote. All these…as far as I can see…are acts of resistance.

And yet, he says… “do not resist an evil doer.” So…I have to wonder what does this mean?

The Greek word used is anthístēmi which means to take a complete stand against…a 180 degree contrary position. It was used in military terminology to indicate taking a firm stance against.

Could this be what Jesus is warning us against? Entrenching ourselves in our opposition? Becoming the exact opposite of whatever it is that you oppose…that you’re resisting…only results in becoming what we oppose.

As usual, Jesus is showing us a different way…a way through rather than a way against. And he does so by referring back to the core of the law…the essential and non-negotiable value that he is the living embodiment of…love.

We prayed this morning, “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love.” Love not just for self. Love not just for tribe. Love not just for community, or country…but love for God and the world…love for self and for neighbor…love for friends and for enemies. Love for the sake of love.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article asking a variety of people what they meant when they used the word “resist,” today. My favorite response came from a 30 year old Rabbi in North Carolina named Dusty Klass. She responded by saying:

“For me, to resist means resisting the temptation to assume, to decide who a person is before spending time with him or her. Resist writing other people’s stories for them. Resist the urge to hide, to click over to something else when that difficult truth pops up on your screen. Resist the opportunity to just keep walking, to avoid eye contact. And more than anything, resist the ease of just being angry — dig down past that anger, toward the pain.” 

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? … And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Love your neighbors AND love your enemies, and pray for all…especially those who persecute you. Jesus never says that love is the easy way, or the comfortable way. Love isn’t the easy way…. it’s the only way.

Don’t resist an evil by becoming evil. Don’t resist what is hurtful by returning the hurt—by becoming what is hateful…don’t become so firmly entrenched in your own story that you start dictating what other people should or shouldn’t think, or do, or support…

Instead, stand firmly on the foundation that we have been given. The foundation of God’s love revealed through Jesus Christ. And draw from that the strength that only God—that only love—can give. The strength to stand firm and with vulnerability…the strength to offer yourself humbly in the the service of others…the strength to not merely remember, but to actively proclaim with all of our lives that love is the way…the only way…”the true bond of peace and of all virtue,” and without it whatever we do is worth nothing.

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Posted on Feb 12, 2017

Sermon for Absalom Jones 12 February 2017

Talking about race

Regrettably, the Evensong scheduled for February 12 celebrating the Feast of Absalom Jones was canceled due to a snow storm. Below is the text of the homily Richard had prepared to preach.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absalom_Jones

Absalom Jones, Priest 1818

February 13

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

 

In Harrodsburg, Kentucky…population 8,340…about an hour southwest of Lexington on the corner of Short and Chiles Streets stands St. Phillips Episcopal Church. It was built in 1860…and one of the first ministries it engaged in was tending the wounded during the battle of Perryville. A local legend has it that on the day following the battle in October 1862, one of the Confederate commanders, Leonidas Polk…who was both a Confederate General and an Episcopal Bishop, retreated with his troops to Harrodsburg (a pro-Confederate town in a Union controlled area) where he saw the church’s doors open. He entered and asked that the bell be tolled, and then he prayed for men on both sides, “friend and foe” alike. There is a large historical marker outside the church commemorating this event.

St. Phillips’ is also a neo-gothic building, like All Saints, but modeled more like a small country church, but the pulpit and altar are in the same relationship. When you stand in the pulpit at St. Phillips, you notice an odd architectural feature—running down the side of the building, is a small raised gallery, separated from the rest of the congregation and only one seat wide. It’s is raised and marked off by a railing. It’s part of the architecture, but nevertheless it stands out as odd. When I asked what it was for, there was some shifting and uncomfortable glances, and finally a muttered response… “that’s the former slave gallery…you know…where the slaves would have to sit.”

St. Phillips might have some uncommon stories and distinctive architecture, but it is not really unique in the Episcopal Church. It is full good, faithful people with hearts for the Gospel and for mission. They have an amazing feeding program that serves about 200 meals each month. They are an almost entirely white congregation, with a complex history…just like most of the rest of the Episcopal Church.

And it’s telling that the story about Bishop General Polk praying is commemorated by a historical marker out front of the church, and retold on the parish website, but the lingering reality—the palpable ghost—of a slave gallery, is only mentioned in embarrassed side conversations. In many ways it is a microcosm for how we (and by we I mean white people like me) continue to deal (and not deal) with race. Praising some of our good reconciliation work, while ignoring or diminishing the fact that we continue to just pick around the edges of the really hard work of actually confronting our own history, and dismantling the racist structures we continue to live with and in.

I feel this tension within myself as I stand here tonight. What do I, a white man, in a predominantly white congregation have to say about Absalom Jones? Maybe I should have invited one of my (few) African-American colleagues to preach? But then isn’t that just asking a person of color to preach about race, so I don’t have to? Speaking about race and racism is uncomfortable, and it’s something I as a white person don’t do nearly enough. Partly out of fear…I don’t want to appropriate Absalom Jones for my own purposes, not do I want to say or do anything racist. And yet…I know that there are times when…out of fear, or ignorance, or simply out of the white privilege that covers me like a protective cloak wherever I go…there are times when I speak and act in ways that are deeply hurtful to my siblings of color (or neglect to speak or act, which can be equally hurtful). And so I decided that I needed to preach tonight…about Absalom Jones and about race in America. I hope that by doing so, I can do justice to and walk humbly with God and this saint of the church.

Absalom Jones was born into slavery in 1746, in Delaware. At sixteen his family was sold off and separated. Absalom was taken by himself to Philadelphia where he was put to work in a shop, but was allowed to attend an all-black night school (previously he had taught himself how to read). He married an enslaved woman in 1770 and saved enough to buy freedom for both of them, by 1784. He served as a lay preacher for the black members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philly. He was a dynamic preacher, and an great evangelist, and the black membership grew.

One Sunday in November 1786, the vestry decided, without warning, to segregate the growing black congregation to an upstairs gallery. When Jones and others arrived at church, ushers attempted to move them from the main floor to the balcony. Insulted and indignant Jones and the others got up and walked out of the church as a body.

The next year he, along with Richard Allen, formed the Free African Society which cared for the sick during a yellow fever epidemic. From this emerged the African Church, which voted to separate from the Methodist church and align itself with the Episcopal church, with Jones as their leader. The African Church was received into the Episcopal Church on October 17, 1794 by Bishop William White. It became St. Thomas African Episcopal. In its first year, St. Thomas grew to over 500 members. The next year Bishop White ordained Jones a deacon, and in 1804 a priest. Making Absalom Jones the first priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church. He died Feb. 13, 1818. [HWHM, p 220]

170 years after the white members of St. George’s attempted to segregate the black members to the balcony, and 100 years after St. Phillips had built and begun to use their segregated black gallery, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11:00 on Sunday Morning.” It still is. Now there are a host of reasons for this, and we at All Saints do not intentionally practice segregation…the sign out front proclaims “All are welcome” and that is true.

But given the state of our world 230 since that Sunday in November when Christians attempted to segregate Jones and other blacks within their white community, we have to ask seriously, how far have we actually come? If we are to truly live into this commandment that Jesus issues tonight—and every night for the last two thousand years…the commandment that we are perpetually far too selective about enacting—that we love one another as he has loved us…that we love our neighbor as ourselves…if that we are to be true to that call, and that commandment, then we cannot simply be satisfied with honoring a handful of black people during the shortest month of the year and hoping that racial relations will simply get better.

As long as we continue to put historical markers up about reconciling generals, while at the same time only reluctantly looking at the reality of the impact of slavery…the reality of Jim Crow…of segregation…and dismissing or ignoring the ongoing reality of white privilege and white supremacy, then race relations will not get better and we will never fulfill Jesus’ commandment. This is our work to do.

In the recent documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (which I strongly encourage everyone to see), author James Baldwin says, “the history of Black people in America, IS the history of America. And it’s not a pretty picture.” The history of Absalom Jones, and Bishop White, and Bishop Polk, the history of slavery and emancipation, the history of Civil Rights and mass incarceration, the history of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the history of blacks and latina/os and Asians, and Native Americans is our history. And we must see it clearly and courageously. Of course we need to work with our siblings of color, but we cannot expect them to do our work for us. It’s our job to understand how white privilege and white supremacy works…It’s our job to do the work of repenting from the sin of racism. No one can do that for us.

I admit, it is frightening to look, with eyes wide open, at the past and the present of race. And I know many of you have begun and continue to do work around dismantling racism. I thank you for your courage, and encourage you to please continue. There are many opportunities for you to learn about and get involved in diversity and anti-racism work. Province One, the New England province of diocese in the Episcopal Church is hosting on online event on how to implement General Convention Resolution 182 which “urges the Church to enter into dialogue, listening exercises, strategic partnerships, and internal analysis to address systemic racial disparities and injustice in the Church and the wider culture.” That online event is Tuesday February 21 and there is information about it on the board in the cloister and on the table in back of the church. There is also an anti-racism training at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul the weekend of March 10 and 11th. 

I am currently taking an online course through everyday feminism on Healing from Toxic Whiteness. It’s a ten week course that can be done at your own pace. If anyone is interested in joining me, please let me know. I’m sure there are many other opportunities that you may know about, and if you can recommend any, please share them with me.

There is no quick fix to repenting from the sin of racism. It’s hard, and scary, and it takes focused, intentional, and ongoing work…work done individually and communally. But because we strive to follow Christ, and Christ’s command to love one another, and because racism is a sin…we have no choice but to do this work…to repent and to keep repenting until all God’s children are free.

I’m grateful that you are here tonight. I’m grateful to Chris and the choir. I hope that celebrating the feast of Absalom Jones might give us white people the courage to continue this work that God has given us to do, and our world so desperately needs us to do. With that in mind, let us pray again the collect for Absalom Jones saying together:

Set us free, O heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of thy servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which thou hast given us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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