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Posted on Jul 8, 2018

Transformers—homily for 8 July 2018

Transformers

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Photo Credit: .hd. Flickr via Compfight cc

July 8, Proper 9:

2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10 & Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10Mark 6:1-13

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 Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

David stands alone in a field…facing a giant.

And unlike the fearful Israelites surrounding him, he is secure in his faith…his faith in God…his faith in God’s love and care and possession of him…his faith in God to be in control…and thus he transforms the fear surrounding him and slays the giant.

A powerful man with a gravely ill daughter, and a powerless woman plagued for years with a disease for which there appears to be no cure, both push through a crowd of fearful, anxious people, and reach out in faith…faith that even in their immense need and brokenness that God loves and cares for them…and in reaching out they transform a crowd of need into a cloud of witnesses.

For the past two weeks, we’ve heard stories of faith and fear…and today, again, Jesus stands in the midst of skeptical crowds…with the anxiety rising,  “how can he do this?” … Fear seeping in… ”Where did he get this?”…and today…for the first time…fear seems to have the upper hand…He is unable to do any deed of power, and is “amazed at their unbelief.”

Fear is a giant…we know this…and faith often seems small and insignificant in comparison.

Fear is ever-present…we know this too…Every day waves of fear constantly crash over us. Faith is there too…somewhere…we think…we hope…and yes, faith is important but…sometimes…maybe this time (we fear) …faith might be too little, too late…If even Jesus can’t do anything about it…

The fear that emerges in questions like: “How are you doing this Jesus?” “Why are you doing this?” Aren’t you the carpenters son?” today might transform into: “Why can’t you do anything about this?”… “Why aren’t you doing anything about this?” “That’s all you’ve got? An offhand comment about ‘Prophets not being without honor’ and then just walking away?”

But, there’s no single faithful response to fear…There are many ways Jesus could have handled this…he could have done what many of us might do—what many of our public figures do—when faced with a direct challenge to their position or their authority…he could double down. He could “stay on message,” “push-through,” try even harder to get them to come around…try to control the situation…but that’s not what he does.

And I’ve missed this every time I’ve read it. Having this faith and fear framework made me notice this time, what he does…what his response is…because he doesn’t just ignore it…what he does is way more interesting…

In the face of this fearful crowd trying to drain and tame him, he names what they’re doing—“there is no prophet in his own city…” “your own expectations are blinding you.” And then he gathers the twelve and gives them “authority over unclean spirits,” and sends them out. Instead of consolidating and reasserting his own power…he shares it…he redistributes it…gives it up…gives it to others, and sends them out to do the transforming work he’s been doing…

There are many ways of standing up to the ever-present giant of fear.

He sends them out with his authority, a buddy (that’s important), and some very simple instructions. Go to a place, tell the story, if they’re hospitable and receptive, hang out…do what I’m doing…if they’re not, move on…shake off that dust…don’t let the fear and the negativity congeal around you…don’t let it clog up your path and trip you up.

It’s a risky and remarkable move. And notice also what they don’t do. They don’t go out and try to convince people that Jesus is right…They’re not campaigning, or drumming up business, or even being evangelical in the sense of trying to convert people. But they are being evangelical in the sense of listening…and telling stories…sharing meals…and helping out…They’re operating like transformers…dialing down the fear, and pumping up the faith. Just by their presence.

What would change in the world if we did that? If we started to view our role in that way…as transformers…not clinging to power, but redistributing it…dialing down the fear, and upping the faith, the hope, in any situation… What would change?

What would the world look like if we each left here…grounded in an absolute unshakable knowledge that God loves us…what if we each left here grounded in the unshakable conviction that not only loves us, but that God loves everyone…without exception…

What would change if we went out with that knowledge, and really believing that God was active in the world…that God’s deepest desire is to draw the whole creation into reconciled, right relationship?

What would change if we left here with absolute clarity that our task—our faithful task—was to simply pay attention, and try to follow God’s leading in our lives…pay attention to and point out God’s movement in the lives of others…and then, if people were receptive we could stay and have a conversation…learn more about them…learn more about ourselves…and if they weren’t receptive?…we could just shake it off and move on. What would change if we did that?

What would change if all Christians did that? What would change if people from all faiths (and no faith) talked in small groups together about what we value, about how we discover love and find meaning in something that is utterly beyond us, yet as close as our own breath?

What would change? Maybe nothing…maybe everything.

We’re confronted by fear all the time. Some of fears are gigantic, and intractable…some are personal and insidious. And there is no one correct response to fear…Standing up to the giant. Reaching out in vulnerability…Listening to the truth from the powerless…Letting go of power, giving it to others…and shaking the dust off. All of those are faithful responses, what’s key is that as we respond with faith, faith begins to transform fear into courage, begins to transform brokenness into wholeness, begins to transform despair into hope. That’s what we’re called to do and to be…to be transformers for the power of God…so that God’s power do the work of transforming the world.

Amen.

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Posted on Jul 1, 2018

Leading with faith—homily 01 July 2018

Leading with faith

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Photo Credit: WiseWellWoman Flickr via Compfight cc

July 1, Proper 8:

2 Samuel 1:1,17-27 & Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 8:7-15Mark 5:21-43

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

How’s the battle between fear and faith going?

Last week, I highlighted the tension between fear and faith, and pointed out that faith calls us to go deeper than simply affirming that we love God and our neighbor as ourselves. When confronted with the fear that surrounds us, faith asks: Do I trust God to be in charge when fear seems to have the upper hand? Do I—can I—trust my neighbor? Do I trust myself? Can I let go, and really trust God’s relationship with all of us—God’s care for all of us?

These are challenging questions…and the tension between faith and fear hasn’t let up. “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus says again today.

So how is it with you this week? Who’s winning? Faith? or Fear?

Unlike last week…which was filled with these big, scary metaphors for faith and fear (David and Goliath—Jesus and the disciples in a boat in a storm), this week we’re offered a very tangible, down-to-earth portrait of this dance.

First there is Jairus, and then there’s this woman. Focus on her. Picture her. Suffering for twelve long years. I know you can picture her, because I know you’ve seen her. You’ve seen her on the news. You’ve seen her on the street. You might have even spoken to her. She is, in essence, the opposite of Jairus. He is a leader—he has power. He has a voice. He is visible, honored, has a place in society. And she does not. She is about as powerless as she can be…with no voice (save for her internal monologue)…and the only place she seems to have in society is one of making others uncomfortable, or being the one others take advantage of. She has every reason to be fear-full.  She has every reason to trust…no one. And yet, her first thought—at least the first one we hear—is one of faith…”if I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

“I trust that God is in charge and will provide. I trust this fellow human…this stranger…I have faith that I can do this.”

And what happens?

This miraculous…cosmic…ineffable…transfer of power…”Who touched my clothes?” he asks. He might have added “in faith.” “Who touched my clothes in faith?” Because clearly there are plenty of others touching him, as the disciples are quick to point out. But there is something different…special…potent about her touch. It’s… magnetic…compelling…it draws power from him….and he notices.

And it’s only after that power-full touch that fear makes an appearance.

“Who touched my clothes?” And she, “knowing what happened, came in fear and trembling…” it says. But wait. She comes in fear and trembling, but then she does what? Tells him “the whole truth.”

Have you ever told anyone the whole truth? Not the “I’m-going-to-give-it-to-you-straight-for-your-own-good” kind of truth. But the “this is what the deepest part of my soul knows and longs for…this is who I am—in all my brokenness and all my beauty.”

The first kind—the “I’m-going-to-give-it-to-you-straight-for-your-own-good” kind of truth is almost always a way of deflecting attention away from how really uncomfortable and vulnerable you’re actually feeling. It’s a fear-driven control mechanism.

The other kind: speaking the truth of your soul…is one of the most profoundly vulnerable…and faith-full acts we undertake. And you know when you’ve done it, or you’ve been fortunate enough to be present when someone else does it. There are few holier or more powerful moments in life. That kind of soul-baring, faith-full truth must have been what she revealed because Jesus recognizes it and affirms it… “Daughter (notice how close and intimate this relationship is now), your faith has made you well.”

It’s not that fear wasn’t present. Clearly it was, but she lead in faith…reached out in faith…spoke in faith…fear was there…but it wasn’t in control.

Fear drives us to seek control…fear want to be in control…often demands control…Faith is about letting go…faith is about turning control over to the only real power in the universe…God.

That doesn’t mean being passive…or disengaged…or a door-mat. In fact, just the opposite. This woman’s faith drives her to action…bold action…just as faith drives Jarius to action. Fear driven action…gets in the way…puts up walls…insists on it’s own way…In this story, fear of “troubling the teacher any further…” drives people to intercept Jesus on his path to help. Fear and “knowing what’s what.” “We have this figured out. The child is dead. I am in control…you don’t need to worry.” That’s a fear driven action. 

Faith is risky. It opens pathways…it expands horizons…it challenges the our fragile sense of control and keeping it all together. “Help me…my daughter is at the point of death…my life is out of control…I’m hurting, scared, lonely, vulnerable…and I want the same things you do…safety, health, the best possible life for our children…” Those are actions driven by faith.

Initially, this sermon started out in a very different place. It happens sometimes. I wanted to talk about David lamenting over Saul. And reflect on the image of kingship and power that this offers. David is a very complicated figure. He amasses tremendous power…makes horrible mistakes… triumphs over numerous foes through cunning, subterfuge, and military might…and faith…and I wondered which pop-culture figure he was more like…is he more like Michael Corelone in the Godfather? (He certainly shares some of those attributes), or is he more like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings (the destined king who only rises from unknown origins to be the Once and Future King). It was a dead-end, but in following it…I came across an article by Peter Kreeft from up the street at Boston College on “The Presence of Christ in the Lord of the Rings” which contained a stunning paragraph on this tension between the Cross and the Ring of Power that is exactly the tension between faith and fear.

“The most fundamental Christian symbol is the Cross,” Kreeft writes. “This also is perfectly opposite to the Ring. The Cross gives life; the Ring takes it.” Just substitute “faith” for “The Cross” and “fear” for “the Ring”.

Faith gives life; fear takes it.

“The Cross gives you death, not power; the Ring gives you [the shadowy, false promise of] power even over death. The Ring [fear] squeezes everything into its inner emptiness; the Cross [faith] expands in all four directions, gives itself to the emptiness, filling it with its blood, its life. […] The Cross saves other wills; the Ring dominates other wills. The Cross liberates; the Ring enslaves.” [link]

Faith offers up its Self for the sake of others. Fear tries to dominate others in order to save the self. Faith liberates. Fear enslaves.

So how’s it going with you? What do you need to let go of? And put in God’s hands? What do you need to ask for in faith? What bold, expansive, faithful action will you take this week?

Amen.

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Posted on Jun 24, 2018

Tough questions—homily for 24 June 2018

Tough questions

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Love Lets Go of Power, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55273 [retrieved June 19, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/taniwha/7186824/.

June 24, Proper 7:

1 Samuel 17:(1a,4-11,19-23)32-49 & Psalm 9:9-20
2 Corinthians 6:1-13Mark 4:35-41

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

 

Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

Tough questions.

Why am I afraid? Well…let me count the ways…or, no, let’s not. We have entire industries primed and designed for generating as much fear and anxiety in us as possible… there are tremendous, gigantic forces being deployed every minute of every hour of every day designed to make us fearful…and if it’s not right in our face on every screen we see, and every byte of news that we consume, then it’s in our own heads telling us all the things that are wrong…with the world…with us…

So I don’t need to tell you all of the things that I’m afraid of, or list all the things I think you should be afraid of…you already know.

But that next question: Have you still no faith?

Wow. I mean, is that what it means to have faith? To just not be afraid?

Is faith truly living without fear?

I know the author of the first letter of John encourages us to remember that perfect love casts out fear. But I don’t have perfect love. Not yet. And I can’t get that perfect love just by willing it to happen. The quote goes on you know, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…and whoever has fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18). So see, I have not reached perfection in love. Because I see the numerous Goliath’s surrounding us and I don’t feel like David most days. I feel like “Saul and the Israelites, who heard the taunts of this giant man, [and] were dismayed and greatly afraid.”

But I do have faith…is it the size of a mustard seed? Very often.

Is it the size of a mustard plant…? Not yet.

Is it capable of growth…? Yes. But growth is both something that just happens (as with the farmer’s field last week) and something that requires (what was that list we heard?) endurance, and afflictions, hardships, (occasional) calamities, (hopefully not) beatings, or imprisonments, or riots, (but certainly) labors, (a few) sleepless nights, (some) hunger; (a LOT of) patience, and kindness, (ever increasing) knowledge, (ever growing and deepening) practices of genuine love, (more and more) truthful speech, and (above all) the power of God.

Faith and fear and growth.

“Faith and fear are in perpetual tension […] with one another.”

One of my great teachers, Sam Portaro, who was the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Chicago for years said, “The opponent of faith is not doubt, but fear.” [Portaro, Sam. 2003. Conflict and a Christian Life. Rowman & Littlefield, pps 123-124]

The opponent of faith is not doubt, but fear. Just as fearsome Goliath’s opponent isn’t Saul but David.

“Faith and fear,” Portaro says, “are in perpetual tension….but faith is far more than a denial or dismissal of fear.”

Faith is a stance. A way of framing and asking questions that helps us grow towards that perfect love, and away from the fear that constantly tempts us towards fantasies of control.

Here’s how it works according to Sam. We all have this tendency to want the world ordered to our liking, and where there is no conflict because everyone agrees with me. But (as prophets keep pointing out) our ways and God’s ways are not the same. In the real world, we rarely agree with others, conflict is more the norm than the exception, and God clearly is able to tolerate a much higher level of diversity and messiness than I am. All of this makes me fearful… “I want to be in control, and yet [just like being in a boat in a storm] I cannot be in control.”

In this conflict between faith and fear, says Portaro, “I am called upon to decide. What shall I believe? Do I believe God is ultimately in control? Can I relinquish my own control and be confident that […] God will bring God’s own order out of the chaos around me? Do I have sufficient faith in God to let go?”

But it gets even harder…

Because faith is about loving God and loving neighbor, I also have to ask…“Do I have sufficient faith in my neighbor […]? Can I trust my neighbor in chaos? Can I trust God’s relationship with my neighbor?” Can I trust others? Can I trust them even when I’m uncertain of their motives? Can I trust them with things that I hold to be precious?” How much of modern society fractures because of we insist on answering these questions fearfully instead of working at being able to answer them faithfully?

But it doesn’t end there…faith is about loving God and neighbor as myself…so, “Do I have sufficient faith in myself to let go? Can I give up [my Self? …] Do I have sufficient faith in God’s affirmation of me, of God’s claims upon me?” [124] That’s the thing about David in this story…he knows himself. He knows about killing bears and lions…he knows to reject the ridiculous armor that Saul (out of fear) insists he wear. He has faith in God’s possession of him. How many of us have that kind of knowledge and faith in ourselves? I hope that we will all one day have it.

And what about hope, Portaro asks? … “Do I really want God’s will to be fulfilled? Do I truly want the fulfillment of my neighbor’s life? Do I genuinely want the fulfillment of my own life?” We often say we want all of that, but then when it comes right down to it…and it becomes clear that it will entail endurance, affliction, hardships, calamities…you know the list…we pull back, and start letting that fear voice back in and turn away from that perfect love.

So what about love? Portaro concludes, “Do I love God, or am I only infatuated with my own notion of God? Do I love—can I love—a God who looks and acts like my neighbor, a God who is incarnate in the perplexing and demanding diversity of my neighbor? Can I love a God who relates to the world from the perspective of a different gender or sexuality or race, a [different] political order? Do I love—can I love—a God who made me, who loves me more profoundly and more passionately than I can love myself?”

Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? The tension between fear and faith…opens up these and hundreds of other questions…they come to us in the midst of the storm…and in the midst of everyday life. Are we afraid? Yes. Are we faithful? I hope so…

“The practice of faith—any faith—“ says Portaro, “is not just a matter of trust in a particular person or truth. The development and practice of faith is a life-long process of making meaning out or our experience.” [Portaro, Conflict, p. 32]

That’s what we’re engaged in. That’s what this is all about. Helping ask and answer these questions…helping us grow in strength…in courage…in faith…in love…to go out and face all the giants in our world.

Amen.

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Posted on Jun 3, 2018

Acceptance—homily for 3 June 2018

Acceptance

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Photo Credit: Leonard J Matthews Flickr via Compfight cc

June 3, Proper 4

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20) & Psalm 139:1-5,12-17
2 Corinthians 4:5-12Mark 2:23—3:6

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

Our Children, Youth, and Family Minister, Kathy O’Donoghue and I have been listening to a new podcast recently.

It’s called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. They go chapter by chapter through all the Harry Potter books reading them not just as novels but “but as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives.” They do this by focusing on major themes like: commitment, love, loneliness, fear, generosity, betrayal, etc.

I want to stop right here, because I’m sure I’ve lost many of you. Some of you have never read Harry Potter, never want to read Harry Potter, and so you maybe silently rolled your eyes and started thinking about something else.

I’ve lost others of you because you’re already trying to surreptitiously check your podcast lists and making sure you’re subscribing to this, and just want me to stop talking so you can start listening to it…

I invite you all to come back…

What hooked me was in the first episode, when one of the hosts (who did go to divinity school) said. “I [grew] up in a non-religious household and never thought I would be sitting in a Bible study class learning how to understand this ancient text. [The bible] was interesting, but it never felt like it was mine. I didn’t love it.”

I’m going to stop there again…how many of you have had a similar experience with the Bible… interesting but not loving it…the bible is a difficult text. It’s not even a single text…it’s more like an entire library. [For a fun, and helpful guide, check out The Overview Bible]

“It never felt like it was mine.” I bet that resonates with a lot of us. The bible feels very distant a lot of times…thousands of years ago…contexts we don’t really understand….”The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” What does that mean?

Jesus makes this reference to something David did (he sort of gets it wrong by the way), and are we supposed to know what that’s all about?

It’s a difficult set of texts.

So the podcast host discovers in re-reading Harry Potter, that, “The same questions of love and fear and death and even resurrection that were showing up in the Bible class were showing up in the Harry Potter text. And the difference was that the Harry Potter books felt like they were mine. I could claim them in a way that I never feel like I could claim the Bible, because this was a text I had grown up with.”

Now I don’t know if we can make the bible feel like its ours in the same way that Harry Potter might be, or the Star Wars movies, or whatever your go to thing is (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that really helps you make sense of the world.

We all have sacred/secular texts…our beloved books, and movies and TV shows…the albums…the songs…the plays…all of those words…the narratives that we go back to time and time again to help us make sense of a world that really doesn’t make sense.

And one of the wonderful things about this podcast is they show us how to take these secular texts seriously as more than just a great story, but as a kind of mythology that helps us learn what kind of people we want to be…what kind of people we’re being asked to be…how to respond to the really desperate needs of the world.

“Treating a text as sacred,” says one of the hosts, “is […] giving ourselves permission through rigorous practice to really see ourselves through the text,” and therefore it become intentionally instructive.

And it does require some rigorous practice…it requires some curiosity…and some willingness to be open to change. Part of the challenge and the fun of treating any text as sacred and applying a rigorous practice to the reading of it is learning new things.

So we have these readings this week. The story of Samuel’s call. Portions of this Psalm. Part of the second letter that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. And these episodes in the Gospels of Jesus doing things on the Sabbath that some people are not sure he should be doing.

What themes stand out?

The theme that really stood out for me this week was “acceptance,” particularly in the character of Eli. Every time I read this passage in Samuel, I often imagine the first part of it as sort of a Monty Python routine…”you called.” “No, go back to sleep.” I love how Eli, gradually comes to this awareness…after the third time “he perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.” Eli is perceptive…sometimes. He’s the one who hears Hannah, Samuel’s mother, praying for a child (Hannah is barren). Eli hears this prayer and perceives that God will fulfill it.  He’s not, however, able to control his two sons. And God warns him that both of his sons will die, and his house will be cut off. Eli knows this, which makes his final conversation with Samuel so poignant.

First, he has to help Samuel have the courage to reveal what God said to him. Remember, Eli is essentially the only father Samuel has ever known. Hannah had no children before Samuel. And in her prayer to God she swears that if God gives her a son, she will dedicate him as a Nazarite (a specially dedicated class of priests), and sure enough, almost immediately after Samuel is born she gives him to Eli to raise. Which is an incredible act of acceptance on Hannah’s part.

So God tells Samuel that, “Eli and his family are done.” But it is through Eli that Samuel learns not hide anything God has said, even when it’s bad news. Eli is teaching Samuel how to speak truth to power…truth to power in love…which he will continue to do for the rest of his life. It’s an important lesson for Samuel…it’s how he learns to be a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

And then there’s Eli’s final response: Imagine that you’ve just heard what Eli hears: “God is about to punish the house of Eli for ever.” I would probably immediately start bargaining….what about this…what if I did that…couldn’t we arrange…

But no. Even the first time Eli hears this, he remains silent, and with Samuel…having confirmed that it was God who spoke to him, Eli simply says, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

Every week we pray the Lord’s prayer here. And we say the words: Your  kingdom come…your will be done.”

We pray that so easily…so nonchalantly…each week. How often do we let what that really means sink in? That’s what Eli says here. It’s what Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane… “take this cup away from me.” “I don’t want to do this… “yet not my will but yours be done.”

Wayne Muller, in his book on the Lord’s Prayer says, “This is the essence of prayer. The first part of prayer is the work we do each and every day, work with our hands and hearts to make the world safe and good, to heal those who are sick, to feed those who are hungry, to comfort those who are lonely, to create justice, to preserve the earth. Then, having brought our heart’s desire and our offerings to the table, we prepare ourselves to gratefully receive WHATEVER is given as a gift…The spiritual life is a life of surprises. We never get just the parts we want. When we are asked to accept something unexpected, when we are given something we had not sought or wanted, how do we meet it? Do we greet it with anger, frustration, impatience, (why are you doing those things on the Sabbath?) or do we welcome it as a gift, an opportunity to become more spacious, a dancing lesson from God?” (Muller, Wayne, The Lord’s Prayer: How We Find Heaven On Earth loc. 756, Kindle).

What are your sacred texts? The ones that teach you how to live and love, and be generous? And how can you apply some rigorous practice to them? So that God’s will might be done?

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Posted on May 20, 2018

50 Days Later—homily for Pentecost 2018

50 Days Later

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Photo Credit: Waiting For The Word Flickr via Compfight cc

May 20, Day of Pentecost:
Psalm 104:25-35,37;
Acts 2:1-11 or Exekiel 37:1-14Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-11John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

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

Fifty days ago we started with a group of disciples locked in a room, afraid to go out, terrified of what might happen next. Terrified because they had seen Jesus betrayed, and flogged, and executed. Terrified because they had all deserted him…denied him…and what if they come for us, too?

For fifty days we’ve gone back and forth in time…first learning of the resurrection from other witnesses…women who saw…something…men who wrote us letters about what they had seen and heard (1 John)…and then from the Risen Christ himself. We saw him come and stand among them…witnessed them touching him…eating with him…and saw how he “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:41). And if this were a movie, it’s at this point where we might get a flashback montage…to things Jesus said before he died… “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the true vine.” “Abide in me… apart from me you can do nothing”… “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”… “As you, Father, have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…”

We’ve also gotten some flash forwards…Peter, no longer terrified, but brazenly speaking to multitudes….to Israelites, and Gentiles, baptizing many…Phillip, no longer afraid in that upper room, but boldly heading towards Gaza, engaging with the Ethiopian Eunuch, baptizing him….The author of the first letter of John, written, probably around the year 100, probably from modern day Turkey or Syria…a long way from the center of our Easter story…proclaiming clearly what he has seen and heard…namely, that God is light and love and fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

For fifty days we’ve lived with the disciples in this upper room, locked in this temporal dramatic tension…remembering the things Jesus said before he died, and seeing into the future of this irresistible force…ordinary, flawed people going out and doing and saying extraordinary things. You’ve all seen movies and tv shows that do this…keep one of the central plot points veiled until the end…Lost, This is Us, are two that use this technique a lot…they create tension by showing us before the event, and after the event, and make us wonder…what in the world happened?

What turned this group of deniers…these cowardly, cringing “no, not me…I don’t know him” bunch into this irresistible force?

What happened?

The short answer is: The Holy Spirit happened.

One of my favorite, short-lived TV shows was Joan of Arcadia. It only ran for two seasons back in 2003-2004. It was about a teenaged girl, Joan, who moves to the town of Arcadia with her family, and begins to be visited by God. God appears to her as ordinary people…a cute boy, an old lady, a young girl, a pizza delivery guy, a Nigerian doctor, a janitor…and tells her to do certain things…get a job, take an art class, make friends with certain people…never with much explanation…God’s purpose in the show seemed to be to get us to recognize and understand the interconnectedness of all things.

To some it seemed silly or sacrilegious, to me it seemed to be pretty close to how the Holy Spirit operates, after all, God visits Abraham disguised as three weary travelers. God worked through Peter, and a Pharisee named Paul, and an Ethiopian Eunuch, saints, apostles, and martyrs…Holy Women and Holy Men…And while I’ve never spoken with anyone claiming to be God, I have had a lot of experiences of God speaking to me through other people—in how they cared for me, challenged me, loved me…in how they have “opened my mind to understand the scriptures” in new and more faithful ways.

And that’s one other piece of this montage that has been playing these past fifty days…the reminders you’ve gotten from me and others about the traditions that have been kept aflame here—this ship of faith—the necessity of remaining attached to a nurturing community…the many shepherds that serve in place of and on behalf of the Good Shepherd…the powerful stories from our scriptures that challenge us to listen better and be more loving in our own world. God—the Holy Spirit—works through all of that… through all of this…through all of us to bring about God’s dream of a just, verdant, and reconciled world.

In the last scene of the final episode of Joan of Arcadia, Joan is talking with God, who at this point is a goth rocker dude. And she’s agonizing about the coming showdown with the “big bad” a guy named Ryan, who may be the devil, or he may be as God says, “just a connection…mostly neutral…a human and every human, by virtue of free will, has the choice of how to direct his actions for good or evil…The universe is kinetic…[and E]very day,” says God, “you have to make a choice. Make it better or worse. Most people do a little bit of both. And there are those powerful enough to overbalance the scales on either end.” What God wants Joan to do is provide a counterbalance.

She complains, “I can’t do this alone…I have no weapons…The other Joan had an army, I don’t have anything like that.” God looks past her shoulder, and the camera cuts to a shot of Joan’s friends—are a rag-tag bunch of misfits currently arguing and throwing wads of paper at each other…Joan looks, sighs and turns back to God, ”So basically, I’m on my own.” God smiles and says, “you have everything you need, Joan.” And walks off.

Fifty days ago we were sitting in a room afraid to go out. And if this were the end of the movie, the moment when The Event was revealed…the overlapping scenes of the things Jesus said and did before he died, and the things his disciples said and did immediately after THE Event and far into the future would coalesce and resolve into that first scene again. Reminding us that we’re still there…locked in, afraid and feeling pretty alone…and then the wind would start to blow, and fire begins to rain down…and the door would be flung open…

It’s scary out there…I know that. I know that there are very real fires and very strong…very ill-winds blowing. I know there’s like ten thousand things that need to be done. I know that at times it all seems utterly overwhelming. I know that most of you feel not unlike the disciples did… “I don’t know enough,” “I’m not faithful enough,” “I don’t pray enough, or do any of the spiritual things that I’m supposed to do…”

I don’t feel equipped or ready to go out there and be the change.

I know all that…I feel all of that, too.

But

Take a look around. Take a look at the people here with you. Take a look at this place…remember the history that lives here…the traditions that are tended and passed on here. The opportunities for true belonging, for growth and support…that thrive here. Take a look at the beauty, and harmony that can be seen and heard here. Take all of this in..and hear me say…with all of the pastoral authority God has entrusted me with and you have conferred upon me…

Take all of this in and hear me say: You have everything you need…

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Posted on May 13, 2018

Minority Reports—homily for 13 May 2018

Minority Reports

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Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Ruth and Naomi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55328 [retrieved May 10, 2018]

May 13, Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 1
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13John 17:6-19

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

It can be comforting to live in a black and white world. A world where good people are good, and do well, and thrive…and bad people get what’s coming to them. A world where you can tell who’s good and who’s bad by the color of their costumes. It’s a world that is often presented to us in advertising… “look at how successful those thin, attractive people are! They must be doing something right…I want to be like them.” Its a world that is presented to us in the Psalm today.

“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *everything they do shall prosper.”

But the wicked…”they are like chaff which the wind blows away…the way of the wicked is doomed.” (Psalm 1)

It can be comforting…this easy to understand world…It can be seductive…this very simple moral calculus—if I behave and do what’s right I will get good things…and if I don’t behave bad things will happen—“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5) Simple. Clear cut. You’re either in…or your out…walking in the ways of the Lord, or blown away like chaff…it’s super attractive…except that there’s the flip side to it as well…

Because what if I’m not doing well? What if I’m no longer young, and have never been thin, or attractive? What if I’m struggling to get by? How do I know if I’m in the club? What if people who look like me, or dress like me are not held up as role models but instead are constantly represented as “less-than,” “inferior,” “bad?,” or just, simply don’t exist at all? Does this simple moral calculus mean that it’s somehow my fault? Am I counted as part of the wicked just because I’m not any of the things that define what is successful, or righteous, or good in this particular culture?

Black and white might be a comforting way to look at the world—for some. It’s a tempting way to look at the world—for some. It’s not a realistic way to look at the world. Because our world is not black and white.

If only there were some stories…some counter narratives…that undermined…that subverted…this all-too-simple, and potentially damaging narrative…if only our scriptures only contained stories like that…

How many of you have spent time studying the genealogy of Jesus? It shows up in two places…Luke chapter 3, and Matthew chapter 1. Luke traces the genealogy all the way back to Adam. Matthew just goes back to Abraham. The two don’t exactly match up, and Matthew does some very interesting things that Luke doesn’t.

Luke’s list starts with Jesus and works back in time, listing only fathers—the paternal line. Matthew starts with Abraham and works forward in time and has some interesting additions: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah—the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…Who’s Tamar? A woman. And not just any woman. Tamar is a gentile—probably a Canaanite who was not married to Judah. Tamar’s story never makes it into the lectionary because it’s PG-13 at best, and that’s maybe too bad because it’s a great—problematic—story that works as a counterpoint to this dominant narrative (See Genesis 38).

Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son, but he died with no children. And as was the custom, she then married the next son. He died. The same with the next, so Judah got concerned and wouldn’t let her marry his youngest son. Which, in that culture, at that time, was an improper thing to do.

Then Judah goes to a festival, and Tamar (feeling wronged) disguises herself, and meets Judah on the road. Judah thinks she’s “a woman who works near festivals,” wants to “transact business with her.” She says, “what will you give me.” He says, “I’ll give you a lamb.” She says, “No, I want your staff and  “seal-cord” (sort of how you would sign your name).” He says, “fine.” They go off. She gets pregnant.

Months later, she’s showing and people say, “Judah, what’s up with your daughter-in-law? She’s been running around.” Judah says, “Take her out to be burned,” (terrible, I know). Tamar says, “Wait. I have proof of who the father is.” And pulls out Judah’s seal cord. So now everyone knows, that not only did Judah fail in his duty in not letting her marry his youngest son, he is responsible for her pregnancy. So, to his credit, when confronted with this he says, “She is more in the right than I.” She’s vindicated, and gives birth to twins (Perez and Zerah), one of whom is the ancestor of King David—and of Jesus.

Tamar is an outsider in every sense of the word. She’s an outsider making her way in a culture that is not her own. And she’s held up by Matthew—and later tradition—as someone who exhibits great faith, greater faith than the men around her.

A few lines later in the genealogy, Matthew mentions Salmon father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth. Two more women. Rahab might not be familiar, but Ruth should be. We’ll hear some of Ruth’s story later this year.

Rahab was also a Canaanite, and (according to her story in Joshua 2), but unlike Tamar, also worked in “the oldest profession,” who aided Joshua in the conquest of Canaan. In Jewish tradition she is held up as an exemplar of faith. But I’m sure the Canaanites (if any had been left to write a history) would have told a different story of her betrayal. The point isn’t to figure out if she was “good” or “bad” the point is that the inclusion of her story in this grand narrative raises questions, and complicates the story in instructive ways. She’s a stranger…trying to navigate her way in a dangerous world. And her presence serves as a constant reminder of the very troubling, and violent, history that we have all inherited.

Ruth’s story is actually closer to the “rags to riches” narrative that we’re familiar with (See the Book of Ruth). There’s a famine in Bethlehem so Naomi and her husband go to next door to Moab where their sons marry Moabite women. All the men die, and Naomi and her daughters-in-law are left penniless. Naomi tells both of them to return to their families in Moab, but Ruth refuses. Instead, she leaves her family, and the only homeland she’s ever known and comes with Naomi back to Bethlehem. Then the headline might read: “Poverty-Stricken Foreigner Finds Favor in the Eyes of a Prominent Rich Man.” (New Interpreters Study Bible. p 384). She’s gleaning in the field (picking up the leftovers) catches Boaz’s eye. Naomi and Ruth conspire to get her next to Boaz and…long story short…Boaz marries her and she becomes the great-grandmother of King David. 

Another outsider…another stranger…another story outside of and slightly askew from the dominant structure. The fact that she is constantly referred to as “Ruth the Moabite,” underscores this. Moab was “the wrong side of the tracks,” it was the neighboring country,  and everyone knew that nothing good came from Moab…to put it in terms that some of us might be more familiar with—Star Wars—calling her “Ruth, the Moabite,” is like saying “she’s a nobody, from Jakku.”

It’s true our scriptures are filled with voices that uphold the dominant narrative…that the good are rewarded…the wicked are punished…our ancestors who edited these texts put this Psalm first for a reason…it’s aspirational. But they also included minority voices…voices that question, and challenge, and move us to think and interact with our world in more nuanced ways. The most extended, comprehensive critique of this black and white narrative is the Book of Job. Job is also an outsider…from Uz…which again, is a little like saying, “if there is a bright center in the universe, Uz is the planet that it’s farthest from”… Job has no claim to being part of the “in crowd,” nevertheless,  he is “blameless, and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1) and yet, horrible things happen to him…and his whole story is an extended argument about how this could be. It’s never really resolved. But I don’t think the Bible was ever intended to be a rule book with cut and dried answers for all of life’s questions. It’s an invitation to enter into a conversation with God and one another about what really matters in life….How we can go about faithfully determining what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s challenging, and often perplexing, but it’s one of the best tools we have to prepare us for being sent out.

We are being sent out into the world…”we do not belong to the world”, as Jesus says, but we are still in the world. But this world we’re being sent into is not a black and white one. It’s not even grayscale…it’s multi-hued…it’s a riot of color and shades and tones…let us go into it with eyes and hearts open, listening for and telling the stories that need to be told.

Amen.

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