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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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Posted on Jun 25, 2017

The water of life—sermon for 25 June 2017

The Water of Life

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Photo Credit: Viking Visual Flickr via Compfight cc

June 25, Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7):

Genesis 21:8-21 & Ps. 86:1-10,16-17
Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

When the water of life, wanted to be known on earth, it bubbled up in an artesian well, flowing freely without effort or limit, giving itself generously and abundantly to any who wanted it.

And people, who were thirsty for this water, who had wandered in the desert, drank deeply from this well and found health and healing, deep joy and great satisfaction. They called others to come and experience these miraculous waters. And others came and also drank. And more and more came. And before long it became necessary to build a wall around the well to protect it. And with so many people coming and going some became worried about the purity of the water, and others became focused on the potential economic benefits. And so fences were put up in addition to the wall, and gates with locks appeared, and then set hours with an admission fee was added. And the people still came. So they wrote laws about water rights and property ownership, and of course they needed to collect taxes to maintain the administrative infrastructure that kept the well running. And still the people came. Those who were there first got very rich, and became powerful, and those who came later were put to work. And everyone was busy processing, or selling, or buying the water, and what no one noticed was that it was no longer the water of life. The water of life had become distressed at all of the conditions placed on it, and it left, and started bubbling up in another place.

A few people realized what had happened and they left everything set out to find the water of life again…which they did…and this cycle has continued to this day.

[I have found two different versions of this parable, both mention that it was reportedly Carl Jung’s favorite. I have adapted it for this homily. The two original versions are here: and in Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert A. Johnson].

Where do you find the water of life? What are you prepared to give up in order to find or follow it?

Our scriptures were written by people intimately acquainted with the desert, and the nomadic cultures of the desert…consequently wells show up all over the place—today literally and miraculously.

Wells are vital communal gathering spots. They are sources of life and sustenance…and they are where people encounter the divine—the water of life.

This isn’t the first time Hagar has met God’s emissary at a well. Hagar is an Egyptian slave woman, she is Sarah’s property. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is barren, and she gives Hagar to Abraham planning to claim the child of that union as her own—so that “I (Sarah) shall be built up through her,” is how the line reads…and if you’ve read or watched Handmaid’s Tale you know how this story goes…

Abraham and Hagar conceive Ishmael, and Sarah, becomes jealous and mistreats and bullys Hagar, so Hagar flees, and finds herself by a “spring of water,” where God’s messenger tells her to go home, it’s going to be OK.

The abuse continues and finally when Sarah sees Ishmael—“playing” is not the best translation, there’s a pun buried here. Isaac’s name means “laughter” and what the text actually says is Sarah saw Ishmael laughing or really “Isaacing” i.e., acting like Isaac…acting like the heir—when Sarah sees that she tosses them both out. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p. 103) And at the climax of Hagar’s anguish, the Divine hears and appears to reassure, to guide, to sustain. And Hagar’s eyes are opened to see a well of water—the water of life. It is often in the midst of the deserts of our lives…when things seem most dire that we are able to discover the water of life.

Our scriptures are written by people who understand the desert and wells…Our scriptures were also written by people passionately dedicated to trying (and failing) to live into the promise of being God’s chosen people—of trying (and failing—over and over) to follow the Torah…of trying and failing (over and over and over) to care for and share the water of life. Our ancestors in the faith have built many, many structures around the wells that we have found.

The multiple law codes in scripture, the 613 mitzvoth (the commandments or precepts that shape the moral and religious life of many of our Jewish siblings), the rabbinic teachings, are often referred to as “building a fence around the Torah.” Protecting the source by making it easier to uphold the positive practices and harder to break the negative ones…so, for example: if you’re not supposed to spend money on the Sabbath, it’s even better if you don’t even touch money. Jesus does this with the sermon on the mount…You have heard it said, don’t murder, but I say…if you’re angry with someone go and be reconciled…deal with the lesser before it escalates…

Building structures around what is vital is a natural and to some extent necessary and good process. When we encounter the water of life, we naturally want to keep it flowing…We construct things that make it easier for us—and (we hope) for others—to access it…We create language around it, establishing ever more precise terms for things (that’s not a plate, it’s a paten, that’s not a cup it’s a chalice, this isn’t a poncho it’s a chasuble…We come up with doctrine and dogma (a sets beliefs about the water). We establish forms for worship…

This happens in every profession not just the church…It’s just that in church we call it “spiritual formation” while in the secular world it might be referred to as “life-hacks.”

Anywhere people find meaning, and community, and connection…walls, and fences, and custom, and language develop around it…and alongside all of that come gatekeepers, and authorities, and judges. What happens is that paradoxes develop…so that what is a deep well of life-giving water for some, is an empty form for others.

The structure (and even the length) of our service? The way we do baptisms, the way we do communion, wafers or bread, sipping or intinction…Deep well for some, empty form for others.

The hymns that we know and love? Deeply meaningful for some…teeth-grinding for others…

The old, new, traditional, contemporary, gendered, non-gendered way-too-specific, not-nearly-specific-enough language that we use…water of life for some, wet blanket for others.

These structures—the fences and the walls and the guidelines—aren’t bad…in many ways they are incredibly important…and we do this all the time…in every area of our lives…

Jesus does this himself…remember all of the guidelines last week? Two by two, no money, just the clothes you have, find the ones who will listen to you, shake the dust off your feet…be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…and Jesus also consistently reminds us that doing all this will create opposition…especially as you begin to realize and point out that the water everyone else is drinking is just water…not the water of life…that the structures that we have built in our hopes to create a more perfect union are unhealthy…unjust…fallen…sinful—being aware of that and speaking about it will create some divisions, in case you hadn’t noticed…

And Jesus and Paul are also consistently reminding us that ultimately even the structures that have been given us…to sustain us through the deserts of this life…even those will ultimately have to go. Even those things most dear…the things we cling to…we will have to let them go in order to slip fully into the water of life. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism so that we too may walk in newness of life.”

The water of life flows freely and without limit…it is given abundantly to any who thirst…

Where do you find it? And what do you need to give up in order to continue following its flow?

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Posted on Jun 18, 2017

The Benedict Option—sermon for 18 June, 2017

The Benedict Option

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Totila, king of the Austrogoths kneels before Benedict. By Spinello Aretino. Source

June 18, Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6):

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7) & Ps. 100
Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35—10:8,(9-23)

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

 

 

I want to tell you the story of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. A colossus of military might. A dynamo of economic forces. The pinnacle of civilization. But for all it’s power and grandeur, this empire was falling apart. There were grave threats from foreigners—foreigners who roamed the steppes of central Asia, and who seemed to emerge from nowhere to strike terror even at the very heart of the empire—savagely attacking the great symbols of its economic and military might…its secular temples. Consequently, the military of this empire was engaged in many frontier wars.

There were terrible social ruptures. It was an empire of many, many cultures but very little actual unity. What unity there was was enforced through brutality or coerced through the provision of vapid entertainments. These ruptures were made worse by an immense gap between the haves and the have-nots. The well to do, did pretty well. The rest, subject to floods,  droughts, famine, disease, not to mention endemic violence—did not do well. And they became unmoored from their communities. They became refugees, migrants, day laborers. These people were also viewed as a potential threat and were watched, administered, and repressed or imprisoned. The religious leaders weren’t much use. They were either cozied up with the empire, or were too embroiled in their own theological disputes to offer any critique.

Of course, you know which empire I’m talking about.

Rome.

It was into this world that Benedict of Nursia was born in 480. St. Benedict—known as “founder of western monasticism,” is credited, by many, with no less than “with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages.” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict. p. 15) Don’t you want to know how?

At the conclusion of his influential 1981 book, After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, warned of the dangers of drawing “too precise parallels” between historical periods—particularly between Rome and the contemporary US. Nevertheless, he praised Benedict, and the men and women who followed him, saying: “What they […] achieved was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained[…],” and he concluded, that this is what really matters now…“the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us…We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” (After Virtue, p. 263.)

New and local forms of community within which the moral life can be sustained…and passed on to succeeding generations.

I’ve long thought, “that’s a really compelling idea for a church.” To be the kind of community within which civility and the intellectual, artistic, and moral life can be sustained. Is that what All Saints is?

One of the core principles of Benedictine spirituality and practice is hospitality. “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.” That is how chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict starts. And the Rabbis remind us that “Hospitality is one form of worship.” (Chittister, Rule, p.140).

We’re offered two glimpses of hospitality today…Abraham running out to meet these strangers…offering them “a little water,” and “a little bread,” yet providing them with freshly made bread, and tender meat—this lavish feast. And Jesus and the twelve going from town to town reliant on the hospitality of others. We’re given an opportunity to reflect on both giving hospitality (Abraham) and receiving hospitality (Jesus and the twelve).

Which role are you more comfortable in? I don’t even have to think about it. I’m much more comfortable in the role of providing hospitality, than being the one in need. And yet, if we are to be a kind of community that truly sustains the moral life, Benedict and our readings offers us a profound challenge.

Have you seen this cartoon that is a parable of Episcopal evangelism? There’s a fish tank on a beach, right next to the ocean, with a “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign right next to it. And the caption reads: Episcopal evangelism “is liked unto an aquarium set by the ocean’s edge. Any fish from the ocean are invited to jump into the aquarium if they happen to be passing by and feel like it.”

via SIZZLE

But notice what hospitality in the scriptures looks like…Abraham sees the three strangers and runs to meet them…bows down and practically begs them to come in.

Jesus looks at the crowd and sees people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd…and he sends the twelve out to offer them healing…and hope.

When I look out at the world today, I see a lot of strangers…I also see crowds of harassed people. People who feel helpless, who are trying to make some meaning out of their lives…when they’re not just struggling to get by. People who are hungry for hope, and justice, and peace.

People are come here…through choirs, and pre-schools, and twelve step groups…because of our space…We have a tremendous gift…this building…that we share…but I wonder if it’s just the space…or if maybe people are drawn here because they sense something deeper…something bigger…something life-giving here?

I think we all sense that…and we each have gifts…things that we bring here, and things that we receive here…things that we can share.

It’s dangerous to draw parallels between very different historical eras…our contemporary world is not at all like that of the fifth century when the Roman empire was changing, and Benedict wrote his rule. Our world is not remotely similar to the world of first century Judea, ruled by that same Roman empire, when the twelve went out as laborers into the harvest. Our world is not similar to the mythopoetic world of Abraham and divine visitors…Our would is not like theirs. At. All…except in all the ways that it is.

Benedictine nun and author Joan Chittister says, The Benedictine way of life, the way of hospitality, simplicity—the rhythm of rest, work, and prayer, grounded in the scriptures  … “is credited with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages.” And then she goes on: “In an age bent again on its own destruction, the world could be well served by asking how.” (Chittister, Rule, p. 15)

How these local communities sustained the moral life was this, she writes:

“Benedict called the class-centered Roman world to community and calls us to the same on a globe that is fragmented. [Benedict’s] Rule called for hospitality in times of barbarian invasions and calls us to care in a world of neighborhood strangers. It called for equality in a society full of classes and castes and calls us to equality in a world that proclaims everyone equal but judges everyone differently. [It] challenged the patriarchal society of Rome to humility, and challenges our own world … whose heroes are…military powers and sports stars, the macho and the violent. Benedictine spirituality calls for depth in a world given over almost entirely to the superficial and tinny…It offers a set of attitudes to a world that has been seduced by gimmicks and quick fixes…[it] is good news for hard times, [because] it teaches people to see the world as good, their needs as legitimate, and human support as necessary. It doesn’t call for either great works or great denial. It simply calls for connectedness[…]with God, with others, and with our inmost selves,” (Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily 3-4).

I don’t want All Saints to become a Benedictine monastery, but I do want us to live as deeply as possible into our call to be a community that constantly strives for depth, that continually fosters the intellectual, artistic, and moral life of our broader community, that that joyfully seeks and receives the gifts of others… that remains hungry for deeper and deeper connections with God, and with others, and that is emboldened to go out and share these gifts with the world.

Amen.

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