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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 Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.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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Posted on May 28, 2017

Left behind—sermon for 28 May 2017

Left Behind

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Photo Credit: stevienichx Flickr via Compfight cc

May 28, Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36;
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

 

The endings of the gospels fascinate me, because they all end in such different ways.

Mark, the earliest one, ends abruptly with the women standing at the empty tomb seized with terror and amazement. [The longer endings probably got added later].

Matthew ends with a command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and a promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Because Luke and the book of Acts were written by the same person, as a set, the passage we heard today is like a hinge…the end of Jesus’ story and the beginning of the story of the early church—the story of the Spirit in the world. Luke’s is the only version with the Ascension.

And just before he ascends Jesus also gives set of instructions…“you will be my witnesses…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Not “go and make disciples” (which can be interpreted as pretty imperialistic) but “Go and be witnesses.” In other words: “go and see, and tell, and share.”

We are to be witnesses…but “witnesses to what,” exactly?

And in John, something completely different happens.

In John there’s this lovely breakfast on the beach with Jesus and the apostles, and this cryptic conversation with Peter where Jesus asks three times, “do you love me,” and Peter answers three times, with increasing exasperation, “Yes, Lord, you know I do,” and Jesus tells him to “feed (or tend) my sheep.” And then Jesus says. “Follow me.” Which Peter does, but then turns around and sees “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (presumably John himself), and asks, “what about him?” And Jesus says, Don’t worry about him. He’s going to stay here. What he actually says is, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

That word “remain” is the same word that gets used throughout John chapters 14-17 (the chapters we’ve been hearing for the last three weeks…the chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse”), but there it’s often translated as “abide.” As in “abide in me as I abide in you.”

To abide…is to remain…and “To remain,” says one scholar, “is to be one who survives [survives] Jesus and the horrifying events of the cross.” (Rambo, p. 102).

The cross is the traumatic event that we have all survived. We experience the resurrection as well…but we are left…we remain…here…to witness.

“I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” Jesus says of the disciples, and of us. He is no longer in the world, but we are…We are the ones who abide…We are the ones who remain. We are the ones who, to reclaim a contemporary phrase, are left behind.

It’s amazing to me how prevalent this trope is in contemporary pop culture. Not just the ridiculously popular Left Behind novels of the past twenty years, but all of the post-apocalyptic dramas that we have: The Leftovers, the Walking Dead franchise, The Handmaid’s Tale; all of the teen dramas (Hunger Games, and Divergent…are all about being the remnant…the ones who remain after the cataclysmic event. This feeling of remaining…of having survived a trauma…and being left behind is palpable and pervasive…and telling.

Shelly Rambo, who teaches theology at BU, has written a remarkable book called Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, wherein she explores this metaphor in the context of trauma.

Through decades of research with veterans, and other survivors, we have come to understand that trauma, in Rambo’s words, “is what does not go away. [Trauma remains] It persists in symptoms that live on in the body, in the intrusive fragments of memories that return. It persists in symptoms that live on in communities, in the layers of past violence that constitute present ways of relating.” (Rambo p. 2)

We live in a world of trauma, and many of us are survivors of it…and we remain…to be witnesses.

Trauma can be individual, and communal, and generational.

Just this week, another community and many more individuals experienced a trauma in Manchester. More dead, and more who are now left behind. Manchester is added to the list of recent traumas: the suicide car bomb in Aleppo, the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt, The St. Petersburg Metro bombing, the Camp Shaheen attacks in Afghanistan, the mass shooting in Libya, and those are just the deadliest out of the 100 terror attacks that occurred across the world just in the past 30 days. (according to wikipedia)

Add to this the over 30,000 violent gun related deaths in the US each year… the statistics that 1 out of every six women has been the victim of rape in their lifetime, the statistic that over 10% of children in the US live with an alcoholic or addicted parent… Add to this the people who grow up in poverty, or who grow up in abusive households…all of them carry those traumas in their bodies.

Then there are the communal and generational wounds…the devastating impact that the trauma of slavery and segregation continues to have on entire communities and on individual black men in particular through the traumatic recurrence of racist violence…The communal and generational wounds suffered by the people in the gay, lesbian and transgendered communities…the everyday sexism endured by women…

The point is not that everyone suffers (we all do), nor that all suffering is alike (it’s not)…my point is simply that there is a LOT of trauma out there. When we talk about people who have experienced trauma, we only need to look around. Because if you’re not a survivor, then someone sitting next to you is. They are your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, as well as those faces on the news.

And every incident of trauma means that there are those who are left behind…who remain…to witness. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That’s us. We are the witnesses to this…to the trauma, and to the surviving…Which are the two oscillating movements of the Spirit, says Rambo.

The Holy Spirit, she says, persists through trauma…it moves between death and life…“attending to the suffering [the losses, the grief, the chaos] that remains long after an event is over” —”tracking the undertow,” she calls it—and it moves between life and death sensing life…pointing out “the forms of life that appear tenuous and fragile.”

Attending to the suffering—tracking the undertow—and sensing the ever emerging signs of life…however tenuous. That is the work of the Spirit. That is our work. That is what it means to be witnesses.

To be witnesses of this sacred story, she writes, “is the work of making love visible at the point where it is most invisible.” (Rambo 170)

To witness to Jesus’ story of life, death, resurrection, and ascension is to “to receive it for the truth that it tells: love remains, and we are love’s witnesses.”

It’s always tempting to write our own story as a story of triumph…of overcoming…but the ends of the Gospels point to something different…something deeper…

The story of our faith is not often or even necessarily a triumphant story…more often it is a story of remaining. Very often, despite all of the hymns with joyous and conquering alleluias…our story is really more like a cold and broken alleluia….but an alleluia nonetheless. To witness is to see and understand our Christian story as neither tragic nor triumphant, but rather as a story of “divine remaining, the story of love that survives.” (Rambo 172)

Amen.

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Posted on May 21, 2017

Good News for Idolators—sermon for 21 May 2017

Good News for Idolators

May 21, Sixth Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 66:7-18 ;
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Sermon by Nicholas Hayes, Seminarian Intern

 

 

At an intersection along a back country Michigan road, about 30 minutes from the town where I grew up, stands a small, ramshackle, faded white church. I’d drive by it a lot growing up, when my parents and I would make our monthly pilgrimage from our 8,000 person town to the “big city” of Ann Arbor. The church was one of the landmarks I’d anticipate seeing along the way.  What made it memorable was the large sign that loomed over it, which looked like it might have been lifted from a truckstop: “Only Jesus saves from the fires of Hell! Repent and believe in Him! ”it proclaimed to those driving by, in large black, block letters.

 

As I grew older, it came to appreciate the absurdity of such a road sign, not least on account of its contrast with the next sign along the road: “Dinosaur Park, next right.” But when I was younger, I would feel a mounting sense of dread every time we would approach it. And even as I began to find it funny, in my teen years, the discomfort never quite went away. By then, I had started to have more personal and direct encounters with the same brand of Christianity that would put a sign like that on the road. To me, that sign became the symbol of what “evangelism” was. “Evangelism” was about hell, and judgment, and the demand to  “believe…or else.” “Evangelism was about fear.

 

Whether it’s a street corner sign, a street corner preacher, or an episode of the 700 club, I’d venture to say a large number of us have experienced that kind of evangelism. That may be why, for many of us Episcopalians, evangelism is so often an uncomfortable subject: the evangelism of fear has made us afraid of evangelism. It’s not something we’re particularly keen to talk about, or do. Even though we’d love to see more people in our churches, our preference is for newcomers to find us, and like us, and decide to stay—rather than for us to go out and find them.  That certainly sometimes works, and it seems a whole lot less problematic than other kinds of evangelism. But on the other hand fewer people seem to be naturally “finding” Church these days. As Bishop Gates suggested in his meeting with our vestry two weeks ago, church communities are no longer something many people seek to belong to by default, in the way they used to. If we want to preserve our communities, we may need to get better at evangelism.

 

But surely filling our pews isn’t the only reason evangelism matters. If we look at the practice of the first Christians, evangelism—actively “sharing the good news of Christ”–was absolutely central to their understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Our selection from the letter of Peter this week features the mandate to give an account of the hope that is in you. And in today’s Acts reading, we see Paul almost literally preaching on a “street corner”—the street corner in this case being the Areopagus, also known as  “Mars Hill,” one of the central public spaces in Athens. Paul’s “Mars Hill” sermon to the Athenians is one of the most famous examples of evangelism in the New Testament. But it represents a very different vision of evangelism, and its importance, than the one held up by that road sign. And it’s a vision that’s still quite relevant today.

 

In sharing the good news with the Athenians, Paul is not concerned so much with hell, nor with unbelief, but with idolatry. Paul’s evangelism is a response to idolatry. Just before this passage, the Scripture tells us that when Paul came to Athens, he was “deeply distressed” by all the idols he saw, and Paul begins his sermon by speaking of the Athenians’ religion.

 

Rather than simply condemning the Athenians’ idolatry, Paul takes it as a sign of a hunger for God, and appeals to that underlying hunger. He interprets the famous Altar to an “Unknown God” on Mars Hill as an expression of the Athenians’ own recognition of something beyond their idols, and suggests that God is already intimately close to them, yet not recognized as such. What Paul does is give that unknown God for which they already long a name, and suggest God is much greater than any of the idols imagined by human imagination. Only then does he testify to the marvelous things that God has done for him and his community in raising Jesus from the dead. This is not an evangelism of fear. In the language of the first letter of Peter, Paul “gives an account of the hope that is in him, with gentleness and reverence.”

 

Now at first, Paul’s approach may seem very far removed from the present. Idolatry in the literal sense isn’t exactly one of our problems; to the contrary, our society seems less religious every day.  But I think Paul means something deeper than mere “statue worship” by idolatry. Idolatry, for Paul, means worshipping in God’s place things that are not worthy of our worship, not only because they are not God, but because they are not even worthy of us, as God’s children.” That is the real significance of the Athenians’ idolatry. And idolatry of that kind is alive and well today. The late novelist David Foster Wallace—an atheist who eventually converted to Christianity—captured its features particularly well in a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, called “This is Water.” As it’s that time of year, I’d like to share some of it with you:

 

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, Wallace wrote, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing nd the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

St Paul and David Foster Wallace may seem an unlikely pairing. And yet I think they are each on to something profound about us human beings. We are natural idolaters, but our idolatry is also the flip side of something deeply good about us—our insatiable hunger for the infinite, for what we as Christians know as God. Our hunger for God is a product of the Spirit, which works in all of us. But unless that hunger is kept oriented towards its true source, we will seek to feed it by turning to an idol, with which our ego becomes defined—money, beauty, power, knowledge, even a violent image of God (as in the evangelism of fear). And the idol will eat us alive, and drive us to eat each other alive. that’s why it is so important to anchor ourselves as individuals in spiritual practices that call us constantly out of our false selves back to our Source, practices that teach us how to love, how to be free.

We don’t have to be Christian, or religious at all, to recognize how true this picture remains today. Idolatry is alive and well in our culture, and this is no less true of us as Christians than it is of anyone else. The idols are different than they were in Paul’s day, but idols they remain, and some days it feels like they eat us alive. At the same time, at some level, many of us recognize the emptiness of our idols, and their destructive consequences. And nearly all of us hunger for “something more.” People are searching for ways to connect to something greater, to teach them how to love, and how to be free. Many have simply stopped looking to organized religion to do the job. Hence our “spiritual but not religious” moment.

But religion may yet have something to offer to that spiritual hunger. One needn’t be religious to find an anchoring spirituality, but how much more surely we anchor ourselves if we practice in community with others, upon the firm ground of an ancient tradition. We need not believe that our Christian faith tradition is the only path to God to recognize that it is a remarkably rich one. The person of Jesus gives us a model of perfect love to imitate in our lives, and a sign in which to hope, that God’s love is stronger than anything, even than death. The prayers we learn, the table we share every Sunday, the works of service and justice we perform for each other and others are the ways we keep ourselves anchored in God. And the language of our tradition gives us a way to see and to name the ever-present work of grace—of the Spirit–in our lives for what it is, and to try and bring our lives into greater conformity with it. As Christians, our faith tradition, and our faith community, is a gift we can offer to others. Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill offers a model of how we offer it to others. Rather than relying on fear or judgment, we meet others where they are, connect to their spiritual desires, and give an account of the hope that is within us.

So as prepare to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in our midst, on Pentecost, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves: Where is the Spirit already at work in the world around us? Beneath the idols of our culture, which we all know too well, where is the Spirit stirring up hunger for God? And how shall we connect to that hunger, and offer our tradition, and our community, as a gift to it? Wow shall we go out into the world, and give an account of the hope that is in us?

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