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Posted on Apr 16, 2017

Morning glories—sermon for Easter Day

Morning glories

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Photo Credit: angeljt Flickr via Compfight cc

Easter Day, April 16

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;
Jermiah 31:1-6 ; Acts 10:34-43;
Matthew 28:1-10

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

“In the midst of life we are in death,” thus proclaims one of the anthems used in our burial liturgy. It’s also used on Holy Saturday…yesterday…the day before Easter. The day when Christ lay in the tomb…

“In the midst of life we are in death”…that’s true…all of Lent and Holy Week seek to remind us…to make us aware of…this truth. Of course, that anthem is used for burial because our burial liturgy is essentially an Easter liturgy, and—as Easter proclaims, the opposite of this is also true—in the midst of death we are alive. In the midst of tragedy, and devastation, and even unimaginable loss, there is still life. Death in life…life in death.

Hard to make sense of that, isn’t it? But it is true. And we know that it’s true because we live with this paradox of life in death in life everyday.

Denise Levertov captured this double…twinned truth in her poem, “Concurrence.”

Each day’s terror, almost

a form of boredom– madmen

at the wheel and

stepping on the gas and

the brakes no good —

and each day one,

sometimes two, morning-glories,

faultless, blue, blue sometimes

flecked with magenta, each

lit from within with

the first sunlight.

– Denise Levertov (Selected Poems, p. 138)

We are awash in new terrors each day…(people gassed, people bombed, people shot in yet another school, yet another act of senseless violence gone viral on video) so many new terrors each day that it has become “almost a form of boredom.” And yet, each day, there are also those one, or two morning glories…those glimpses of grace…connections with those you love…a touch…a smile…a simple kindness…life in death in life in death in life…

In the midst of death, two women walk in the predawn light to an unmarked tomb. Suddenly, there is an earthquake…a vision…lightening…blinding white…a rupture in their journey…a flash of life in the midst of their mourning.

“Don’t be afraid,” they’re told. “I know what you’re looking for, but he is not here…Look into the tomb…then go and tell the others. Tell them that he is going a head of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there.” Emboldened, they go… “with fear and great joy.” And that’s when it happens…That’s when they see him…in the midst of life…in the midst of death.

I love the fact that in Matthew’s telling of this, the women are empty handed. In Mark and Luke, they are carrying spices to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but here they are empty handed. They are simply going to see the tomb.

I love this detail, because every time I have met the resurrected Jesus (or more accurately, every time the resurrected Jesus has suddenly met me), it has been when…and probably because…I was empty handed. Profoundly so.

The times Jesus has suddenly met me…are always times when I’m not merely empty-handed…but I’m actually beyond my ability to help…beyond my own sense of competence…feeling completely impoverished and utterly lacking in any significant resources…going to a grave…sitting with someone dying, or someone giving birth…watching children grow before your eyes…watching parents age and disappear before your eyes…being confronted with “each day’s terror,” the faces of the victims, and experiencing vicarious trauma through that… and having absolutely nothing to offer, or do, or say…I’ve found that the one place where Jesus consistently meets me is at the edge of my own limitations…beyond my own capabilities.

The other place where Jesus meets us is in the turning to go to Galilee. And here, Galilee is not just a spot on a map. Galilee is where it all begins. Galilee is where we are first called, and named…It’s home…It’s the core…the source of who we are.

Galilee is where Jesus called us to that mountain and reminded us—what we always knew, but daily seem to forget—that God is one. That we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength. That we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Galilee is where Jesus reminds us—again—that it is the poor who are blessed…it is the meek who will inherit…that the peacemakers are the children of God, and those who hunger and thirst for justice…for righteousness…will be filled.

Galilee is where Jesus reminds us—again—that we are salt…that mysterious substance that disappears into and preserves and flavors and changes—makes better—whatever surrounds it…that we are light that shines in the darkness, light that cannot and should not be hidden.

Galilee is the core…the source…Galilee is where we remember who we are and to whom we belong. And the really good news? We don’t even have to go all the way there, we only have to turn around and start down that road…to turn from the path that leads to the tomb and start back and that’s where Jesus meets us.

A phrase that gets reiterated a lot here, is “wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome here.” You are welcome to participate as fully as you feel called and able in any of our services…our services to God and our services to our neighbors. And when I say that, I really do mean…”wherever you are” because I know that we are all at different places on the journey…some have lost loved ones…some have discovered new love…some are struggling with broken relationships, some are celebrating new ones. Some are full of energy and life, and some are just trying to get through the day. Some are grieving at death in life, and others are awakening to life in death. Wherever you are on that path…you are welcome here.

And these two movements: going to the tomb, and turning toward Galilee offer us a way of thinking about our lives together and our struggle to live faithfully and with integrity in this world. We do need to have the courage…the persistence …of these women to go to the tomb…to look into the darkened and death-dealing places of our world and to tell the truth about them. We need to be willing to peer into the tomb, because that is where we will see the first evidence of the resurrection…those flecks of magenta in the faultless blue of that emptiness.

And then we need to also have the courage…the persistence…to remember all that we have been taught…about who God is…about who we are…about how much God loves each of us…and how we are to love others in return…and then to turn and start back, once again, on that road toward Galilee…toward God…toward home. And Jesus—the resurrected Christ—will meet us and be with us, in life and death and life…always.

Amen.

Also informing this homily is Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining by Shelly Rambo

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Posted on Apr 5, 2017

Holy Week Reflection

Bloch, Carl Heinrich, 1834-1890. Peter’s Denial, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Rector’s Holy Week Reflection

For the past five weeks, we have been preparing for this holiest of weeks. On Sunday we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (and into the church) where the culmination of our journey takes place. Special observances of Palm Sunday go back at least as far as the pilgrim Egeria, who kept a diary of her travels to the Holy Land in the 380s CE. She describes a number activities and observances which, although modified greatly over time, continue to be observed by Christians today including: procession with Palms, Maundy Thursday foot washing, and Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. The Palm Sunday procession has taken many forms over time and in various parts of the world. It is often a stational liturgy, with the faithful gathering at some distant location and then processing to sequential stations where portions of scripture are read or reenacted often chanting refrains or portions of Psalm 118 as they go; at other times the congregation gathers outside the church and processes in joyfully to the strains of the ninth century hymn “All glory, laud, and honor.” On Sunday, we continue in this ancient tradition and gather outside the church (or in the Guild Room and hallway if the weather is inclement), where we hear the story of Palm Sunday and then we march triumphantly into the church singing that same ninth century hymn. Please gather outside, and as you process in, please find your way to your seat.

The triumphalism of this entry quickly gives way to the reality of the rest of the week with its focus on the Passion narratives. Of all the worship services in the Christian year, the services of Holy Week—Palm Sunday and Good Friday in particular—pose some of the most difficult and painful problems for us in our relationship with our Jewish siblings. The Passion narratives that we hear on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday make various references to those assigned blame by the early followers of Jesus: “the chief priests,” “the elders,” “the crowds,” and “the Jews.” Over centuries these passages have been used to vilify and abuse entire groups of people—people who are the neighbors we are called to love—and have led to many pogroms and eventually the Holocaust, even today bomb-threats against Jewish Community Centers and Synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and anti-Semitic graffiti continue to occur at alarming rates. As Christians, we must be responsible and attentive in both the hearing and proclaiming of our scriptures, mindful of the difficulties they pose. In 2015, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University wrote an important piece on how to avoid Anti-Semitism during our annual celebration of the Passion, entitled ‘Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism at Easter.” I commend it to your reading and copies are available on the table in the back of the nave. In it, she outlines six possible ways of reading these texts and the problems associated with each of them. She concludes: “Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.”

As we enter this holy time for Christians and Jews (Passover begins Tuesday 4/11), it is vital to remember that Jesus and his followers were Jewish, as were many of those to whom the four canonical gospels were written. The first century was a tumultuous time for Judaism, and so much of the language used in these scriptures is the language of an intra-family dispute—siblings arguing and assigning blame to secure and establish a distinct communal identity for itself. It is dangerous and wrong to take the terms from this time and use them as a guide to our own.

I hope that you will engage fully in all the liturgies of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and Easter Day, and I pray that from these liturgies of Holy Week you will draw both comfort and challenge to grow more fully into the love of God.

 

In faith,

Richard+

 

“Lord, your love is broken open among cheering crowds and traitor’s coins, deserting friends and hands washed clean, the mockery of power and the baying mob: as we follow your way of passion, give us the faith to bring our weak and divided hearts to the foot of the cross and the door of the guarded tomb that they might be opened, astonished and healed: through Jesus Christ, who carries the weight of the world. Amen.

Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Collect for Palm Sunday.

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Posted on Apr 2, 2017

Can these bones live?—sermon for 2 April 2017

Can these bones live?

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Photo Credit: James St. John Flickr via Compfight cc

April 2, Fifth Sunday in Lent:

Psalm 130;
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

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

O mortal, can these bones live again?

O Lord God, only You know.

We live in a deeply divided country.

I’m sure that’s not news to you. It’s just the truth. We all know this. For years, in the US, we’ve been shown maps of blue states and red states…occasionally someone does a county by county map that tries to show that we’re really all purple…but we all feel that the levels of polarization, and divisiveness seems to have reached historic levels. There’s not a lot we agree on.

One thing most American can agree on (seventy-one percent of us in a recent poll) is that the United States is losing its national identity…

Seventy-one percent think that our beliefs and values as a country are no longer clear…

We agree on that. What we disagree on is what those core beliefs and values are…or should be…it seems that the truths we hold are no longer so self-evident.

The good news is, that things like “Judicial fairness, [the] liberty and freedom granted by the Constitution, [and] the ability to achieve the American dream,” those are things that the vast majority of us agree are core to the American identity.

But there’s still a awful lot that divides us. For instance, whether we are, or should be, primarily a culture grounded in Christian religious beliefs…and the mores of our earliest European immigrant ancestors… Or whether we are, or should be, primarily mix of cultures and values from all parts of the world.

Republicans and Democrats in this poll responded very differently to those core identifiers.

Here’s something else most people agreed on, “More than half of Americans say the political polarization of the nation is extremely or very threatening, and another 34 percent say it is moderately threatening.”

We know these divisions are dangerous…but we have yet to see a way through them that we can agree on.

Can these bones live?

O Lord, only you know.

But let’s be honest…political divisions are just one facet of this divisive diamond.

It’s not just partisan politics that divide us: there’s a profound Urban/Rural split, there’s Whites and people of color, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, transgender and cisgender, the 1% the 99%, the religious and the spiritual but not religious, the employed and the unemployed, those with homes and those without, and let’s not forget the generational divides between the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, Gen-X’ers, and Millennials. Everywhere you turn you are confronted with the stark reality of people who see the world fundamentally differently than you do.

We are living in a time of tremendous disruption. Of monumental and possibly unprecedented change. A “paradigm shift” some might call it. All of the institutions that the those of you in your sixties and older grew up with, all the institutions that you were taught to rely on have changed, or crumbled, or been so reconfigured they’re almost unrecognizable. Those institutions (government, the church, education, the media, etc. …) were already changing so rapidly that my generation never really learned to fully trust them. And the generation that is now moving into leadership positions never knew those older iterations of our institutions and consequently have a new set of norms and expectations for how things work…what’s important…and how best to achieve it.

Can these bones live?

O Lord, only you know.

The prophet Ezekiel had an impossible task. His writing spans an intense 20 year period in Israel’s history…about 590 to 570 BCE…the earliest years of the Babylonian exile. During this period, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. And the Judeans, the people of the Southern Kingdom, were very literally a divided nation…part of them (the unskilled, the poor) remaining in Judea, in the countryside around Jerusalem, and another part (the court, the skilled, the educated) living in captivity in the urban centers of Babylon. What Ezekiel gives voice to is the profound challenge they faced, of how to maintain their communal identity, outside of their homeland, with no Temple—no central institution—and no real leadership.

When Ezekiel is taken by God and set down in that valley of bones there is no end in sight to this situation. Two or more generations would grow up with the reality of exile before they made their way back.

It was a time of tremendous disruption. Everything they knew was in flux…their faith in all their institutions, and all their leaders…their faith in themselves…their faith in God…had been shaken to the core…What even was the core? Who were they in this new landscape? Could they maintain an identity, or would they disappear forever…

The narratives of exile (the prophets: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and many of the minor prophets) resonate deeply for me now…they express this uncanny sense that I think many feel…the sense of being lost in a world not entirely of our own making…of being caught up in a world where things appear familiar, but, scratch the surface and they’re not. They describe this acute sense of being alienated from something central…something core… in a world of massive, and possibly cataclysmic, divisions. And they express a deep, passionate longing for genuine reconciliation, for true and abiding communities in which to live.

Can these bones live? O Lord, you know.

One of the powerful ironies of our time, is that we have so many choices about our communities…there are myriad communities that we could belong to…and yet…in the midst of all these choices, it is still community—real community— that we are starved for. Because we can choose to belong (or not) to any number of communities…we can often end up in a self-imposed exile surrounded only by people who are just like us… only seeing things that already confirm our own biases. And that starves us of true community…of life, and growth, and health.

We crave community. We are desperate for true community…community that doesn’t dismiss or paper over real difference, or that insists that others are welcome…but welcome only to become just like us…the communities we so desperately need are ones that hold those tensions…communities that are open to and safe for difference, that are generous with grace and plenteous with forgiveness.

All Saints strives to be such a community. And our community—our Parish is not just the worshipping communities that gather here on the weekend. People come here, week after week, to find healing in twelve step groups. People come here, week after week, to find wholeness, and challenge, and beauty, through music and arts groups. People come here week after week seeking a safe and hospitable place for their children in nursery school. About three times as many people come here each week to participate in one of the groups listed in the calendar as do who come here for worship.

And I think we share more with them than just our building…We share with them this hunger for community…a deep desire for a place where we don’t feel exiled from our best selves…from our core selves… a place where we can find healing, and wholeness, and support for our joys and our struggles. Where we can explore our relationships with God or our Higher Power, or however you define that…We share with them, and with so many others in our world, a deep and passionate desire for a place where hope, and beauty, and meaning can be found, and made together, even in the midst of so much that looks hopeless, and ugly, and meaningless.

Can these bones live? God knows…and this is God’s promise. This is the promise of Easter… “I will open your graves…and I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” This is our promise and our calling to live in community…in true community…in communion…with God and with all our neighbors.

Open our graves, O God, and may it be so.

Amen.

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Posted on Mar 28, 2017

Evensong for the Feast of Óscar Romero—sermon

Evensong

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By @carti_afc14 “”If they kill me, I shall rise again with the Salvadoran people” Archbishop Oscar Romero #elsalvador#oscarromero#myhero#truth#repression#voiceofthepeople#salvagram#monsenorromero#fmln” via @PhotoRepost_app

March 24: Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador, Archbishop of San Salvador, 1980

Revelation 7:13-17

John 12:23-32

Psalm 31: 15-24

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

 

There is a fairly well-known prayer attributed to Oscar Romero. It begins like this:

“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.The Kingdom [of God] is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”

The prayer is a mystery. It’s a mystery because while it is attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the words were never spoken by him. The prayer was written by another bishop for yet a third bishop to speak in a homily in celebration of priests who had died. The real irony being, that Archbishop Romero was still very much alive in Nov. 1979 when this “prayer” was first offered. No one is exactly sure how the words became attributed to Oscar Romero, but they have. Google “Romero prayer” and you will find it.

Probably it came to be attributed to him, because it resonates so strongly with things he actually did say. And we have an awful lot of what he actually said.

But let me step back and take a slightly longer view.

Oscar Romero is probably known to many of you. Some of the older people here (and I mean my age and up), can remember hearing about his assassination on March 24, 1980. Some of us remember growing up (or already being grown) in the era of the Cold War and hearing how it impacted the countries of Central and South America. I remember hearing frequently about the civil war in El Salvador, and the unrest and violence in Nicaragua…learning the difference between “Sandinistas” and “Contras”…learning terms like “disappearance” and  dirty war.” An estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared” in Argentina during the 70s and 80s. An estimated 75,000 lost their lives in El Salvador’s decade long civil war that some say really erupted with the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. As a teenager and young man, I remember being formed by movies like “Salvador” and “Missing” and album’s like the Clash’s “Sandinista.” I remember Raul Julia playing Romero in a 1989 biopic. Unlike many of the saints we celebrate in the Episcopal Church who are ancient or obscure, Oscar Romero has been an contemporary and visible part of our cultural landscape for much of my life.

He became Archbishop of San Salvador forty years ago, in 1977. Actually, this year is the 100th anniversary of his birth. He was considered a “safe” moderate choice by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Church was also caught up in the Cold War and wrestling with more or less radical Liberation Theologians and clergy who operated with a “preferential option for the poor” on one hand, and more conservative clergy who sought to support even oppressive governments for the sake of stability and not becoming Communist on the other. Romero was initially not trusted by the radicals, and the conservatives thought he could keep a lid on things.

But not long after he was appointed Archbishop, his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande was murdered along with and elderly man and an 16 year old boy. Romero urged the government to investigate the crime, but they did nothing.

The Sunday following the murder, Romero canceled all of the masses in the archdiocese, and celebrated one single mass in the cathedral. Over 150 clergy and 100,000 people are estimated to have attended and heard Romero call for an end to the violence.

For the next three years, Romero was increasingly viewed as the “voice of the voiceless poor.” He broadcast his weekly sermons on the church’s radio station, and used that medium to list all of the disappearances, tortures, and murders that had taken place. These sermons became immensely popular in the countryside, and deeply troubling in the halls of power.

In the midst of tremendous division…Romero preached the truth of what was happening, and also a message of hope. In a sermon from July 1977 he said words that still ring powerfully today.

“One of the signs of the present time is the idea of participation, the right that all persons have to participate in the construction of their own common good. For this reason, one of the most dangerous abuses of the present time is repression, the attitude that says, “Only we can govern, no one else, get rid of them.”

Everyone can contribute much that is good, and in that way trust is achieved. The common good will not be attained by excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for. We have to try to bring out all that is good in each person and try to develop an atmosphere of trust, not with physical force, as though dealing with irrational beings, but with a moral force that draws out the good that is in everyone, especially in concerned young people.

Thus, with all contributing their own interior life, their own responsibility, their own way of being, all can build the beautiful structure of the common good, the good that we construct together and that creates conditions of kindness, of trust, of freedom, of peace.

Then we can, all of us together, build the republic — the res publica, the public concern — what belongs to all of us and what we all have the duty of building.” July 10, 1977 

On Monday, March 24, 1980, Romero was celebrating a memorial mass at a small hospital chapel, for the mother of the editor of one of the few independent newspapers in El Salvador. Just the day before, on the 5th Sunday of Lent, in his sermon, he begged the enlisted men of the Salvadoran Army, to stop the killing…some heard it as an invitation to mutiny.

“Brothers, [he said]: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. […] No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. […] It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations. We want the government to understand seriously that reforms are worth nothing if they are stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I  beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

That same day, he told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” 

As he neared the end of his homily on March 24th, a sermon on the Gospel passage we heard tonight, a single shot rang out, and Archbishop Romero fell dead beside the altar. No one was has ever been arrested for the crime, although most agree it was carried out by one of the government death squads.  

1977 to 1980. Three years he served as Archbishop…actually not quite three years…but his legacy is eternal. There are many of us now, who wonder what it is that we can do in our world. Certainly not the world of Salvadoran Death Squads, but certainly a world where we hear all too frequently a refrain similar to “only we can govern…no one else…get rid of them.” The idea of participation in a common life that Romero spoke of…the right and duty of all persons to participate in the construction of the common good…remains timely, in part because that idea that we can even agree on the common good seems pretty threadbare right now. But Romero’s life and death reminds us that we all have a role to play, and that we must play it fully and faithfully regardless of whether we can see the fruit of our labors or not. And why this mysterious prayer…attributed to him…continues to resonate today.

“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of

saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession

brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one

day will grow. We water the seeds already planted

knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects

far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of

liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s

grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the

difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not

messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

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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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