Sermons

Thursday
Jan102019

Feast of the Epiphany - January 6,2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

I grew up in a church-going family and so we had a similar routine every Christmas Eve. At around 5 pm, we’d have Christmas dinner and later, at 10 pm, we’d go to the late candlelight service at church. So, with some time to spare In between dinner and church, my father, who always came up with plans that would make me the family groan, would gather us for a time of Christmas carols. Now, the first year he devised this plan, he had us all play our instruments. I played the trumpet. My brother the cello. My sister the clarinet. Now, my brother he was, and is, a gifted musician. But my sister and I, well let’s just say, imagine the honkiest, out of tune, trumpet and the squeakiest woodwind, and you’re in the right ballpark. Not the most glorious of Christmas celebrations.

 

The next year my grandfather joins us. He owned a baritone recorder. So, this year, my father’s plan was for us all to play Christmas carols on recorders. My grandfather played on his baritone. My father played on a tenor. My brother and sister played on the standard soprano recorder. And somehow my father got me a sopranino recorder. It’s this little tiny thing. Even more painful to listen to than a normal recorder. I’m pretty sure all the dogs in the neighborhood were howling when five shrill, poorly tuned, recorders tried to play Angels We Have Heard On High in four part harmony.

 

In year three, my mother intervened. No more instruments. The compromise she and my dad arrived at was we would just sing. And, while none of us were Pavarotti, this was way better than the previous two Christmas Eves. Out came our little John Hancock insurance company Christmas Carol books and we sang. Now, at this point, we’re all grumpy teens or preteens and so we’re not all that thrilled with this but the one song my brother and I tolerated most was “We Three Kings.” The reason why is one of would get to sing the fourth verse…

 

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom;

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

 

It seemed so incongruous on Christmas Eve, so gloomy and sad on Christmas, and we’d ham it up. (Singing in mock sadness) “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” It didn’t make sense on this night of Christmas. This night about Baby Jesus and this night with the expectant joy of gifts the next morning.  And thirty or so years later, I’m still not sure I get it.

 

There are two stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible. We sometimes merge them together. But Luke and Matthew tell the story quite differently. Luke’s version is the Rated G one, the one we read on Christmas Eve with angels, and shepherds, and cattle lowing. Matthew’s version of the story is much different. It actually is kind of gloomy. It’s full of fear and violence and political intrigue. In the part we heard today, the vassal King Herod is afraid there is a potential rival to his throne. So, he sends these unsuspecting magi to do his dirty work. Find where this child is so he can eliminate him. The magi almost do just that but, only due to a dream, know to go home by a different road and not report to Herod. And if we were to read on in Matthew, we’d find it doesn’t get better. Herod, in his anger and violence after not hearing from the magi, orders that all baby boys  in the land be killed, and the baby Jesus only survives because his family flees south to Egypt. Luke’s story has the vibe of Harry Potter but Matthew is full on Game of Thrones.

 

So, who are these magi from the east? These pawns in this political game. It’s interesting to me because it’s rather ambiguous. In the Middle Ages, they were imagined as three kings from all across over the world. But the text says they are from “the east” and doesn’t even say there were three of them, just that they offer three types of gifts. They are called wise men in the translation today but I don’t think the Greek word magi requires that we understand them as men. The image up in our stained glass that shows one of these magi with a more indeterminate gender seems appropriate. Biblical scholars lean towards us seeing them as Persian court advisers who made their recommendations by looking at the stars. There are similar court advisors in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we used to call the Old Testament. But I think the ambiguity remains. We don’t get to know exactly who these magi were. And sometimes when a character seems ambiguous in the Bible, it is an invitation for us to imagine ourselves in that role.

We are the magi.

 

Indeed, the passage today invites to consider two paths. The way of Herod and the way of the magi. Herod was motivated, out of a fear for a loss of his privilege, to rampant violence, killing children. There are parallels with our current President, who also so operates out of a fear of the other, that he ordered that immigrant children be separated from their families and imprisoned. But, we too, of course, have some Herod in us too.

We too allow our fears to overtake us at time. We too make choices to protect our privileges at the expense of others and also at the expense of the earth. Even if we are not physically violent, we operate out of other subtler forms of violence.

 

Our other choice, the way of the magi, is better. But it isn’t necessarily any easier. It requires us to make the hard choice to leave places that seem familiar and safe and head towards the light. Star following is hard business. We do get to the light eventually and get to revel in it but eventually we need to head back by another road. When we truly come to Jesus, the only way forward is a different path.

 

A friend of mine this week shared with me this great poem by Jan Richardson that I think captures this well.  It’s called the “Blessing of the Magi.”

 

“There is no reversing

this road.

The path that bore you here

goes in one direction only,

every step drawing you

down a way

by which you will not

return.

 

 

You thought arrival

was everything,

that your entire journey

ended with kneeling

in the place

you had spent all

to find.

 

 

When you laid down

your gift,

release came with such ease,

your treasure tumbling

from your hands

in awe and

benediction.

 

 

Now the knowledge

of your leaving

comes like a stone laid

over your heart,

the familiar path closed

and not even the solace

of a star

to guide your way.

 

 

You will set out in fear.

You will set out in dream.

 

 

But you will set out

 

 

by that other road

that lies in shadow

and in dark.

 

 

We cannot show you

the route that will

take you home;

that way is yours

and will be found

in the walking.

 

 

But we tell you,

you will wonder

at how the light you thought

you had left behind

goes with you,

spilling from

your empty hands,

shimmering beneath

your homeward feet,

illuminating the road

with every step

you take.”

 

I so dig this poem because it captures so much about the story of the magi and what the life of deep faith in Jesus really looks like. The sacrifice the magi made to go the Christ Child but also the hope and curiosity and excitement they had. The freedom and wonder and blessings they experienced as they arrived. The daunting reality they felt as they were called to move forward in faith without knowing where it would lead. And the reality that, as they stepped into the darkness only responding to the gentle inklings shown to them in dream, they found the light of Christ was still there. In them.

 

When we come to Jesus, it doesn’t give us the comfort of answers. It gives us the comfort of God’s presence, of God’s light. That the light of God floods into us so we become the star. We become the light. We become the Epiphany, so full we are with the love and the Spirit of Christ.

 

Isaiah knew this reality in his time. He said

 

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth,

and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

 

We now rise. We now shine.  For our light has come.


 

Friday
Jan042019

Christmas Eve Service - December 24th, 2018 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

The Holy Family did not want to be traveling. Indeed the road they were put on was dangerous. Unsafe. Dark. Cold. Long. But they needed to make the trip because the powers-that-be forced them to do so. Their oppressors sought control and threatened violence. So, the family went, against their will. When they finally arrived at their destination, things weren’t really any better. Indeed, in some ways, they were worse. Some different political players and issues but the same degradation and repression. So, they had the constant need to look over their shoulders. The constant fear. It remained every day and every night. The Holy Family I’m referring to here is the family that lives in sanctuary here in Cambridge through the work of the the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition.

For those of you who don’t know about this, many folks here from St. James’s participate in this ministry of accompaniment. An undocumented Central American family lives at another church here in the city town and folks from this church go and spend shifts caring for them. Providing for their needs and creating as much of a sense of peace as they can in a world where you do not know what the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will do next. Hopefully, one day, this family will have their own home and live in peace. But for now we have to do our best to offer that. We provide the stable. We provide the manger. We provide the sanctuary.

The Christmas story… Mary, Joseph, and the baby… we misrepresent it quite a bit. Mary and Joseph are always well-groomed and well-dressed… looking down adoringly at the baby. They usually look like affluent white Europeans. Not the poor, stressed, terrified Jewish refugees that they were. The animals get portrayed as quiet and well-behaved. The animal food trough, known as a manger, where the baby is laid is somehow just full of clean hay. Everything is this pristine, anesthetized fairy tale. But that’s not it. It was messy and dirty and unpleasant. And more, in the Gospel of Matthew, we see that Joseph and Mary’s life gets threatened to the point that they need to flee to Egypt. Joseph and Mary were immigrants living under the thumb of a repressive empire, cast out by their own community because of an out of wedlock pregnancy, and fearing for their very lives. A Disney movie, this is not.  

And so, into this difficult world on that dark night in that depressing little stable, that is where Christians believe God came into the world.  The Christ Child, the Incarnate One, who millions understand as their Savior, he entered the world as an immigrant in sanctuary.

Over the weekend, the American government was partially shut down over the President’s desire to erect a wall along our southern border. Most folks in this room including me think that’s wrong. That it’s born of a racism and of a lack of compassion that is antithetical to the best American and Christian values of welcome. And I imagine there is also a minority in here tonight that disagree…

that have a sense that building a wall is a reasonable way to create security.  I’m not going to dig too far into this tonight beyond pointing out that, if God enters the world as an immigrant in sanctuary, then it invites us all to think differently about immigrants and walls and sanctuaries. That that is where God is. And that is where we go to meet God. That is where holiness and hope and healing can be found. That’s how we need to think about immigration. As the place where God is. And so the place we should be too.

But then, when we go, it is not just all about duty and responsibility. Going because we should. No, that’s when the wonder and the magic of Jesus sneaks in. 

Returning the Gospel story, I want to talk about the shepherds. So, they too get white-washed… both literally as well as metaphorically. We imagine them as these pleasant little men with their shepherd crooks. In reality, they more likely to be the other kind of crook. Shepherds were rough around the edge types… troubled enough that they were kicked out of the community… out to the wilderness, where the only work they could find was watching over loud, dirty animals. But it’s these guys who get called by the angels to come back to the community… to come to the sanctuary of the immigrant God. They probably thought they did not deserve this one bit. Their whole lives they had been sent away. They had no expectation of a return to community. But now they are welcomed back.

These guys are the first volunteers to work a shift at that sanctuary. And all they had to do was show up and live in the amazement and wonder of that holy moment.

We too are invited to come to the sanctuary. To stand and revel in the goodness and the love. And here’s the thing, Christmas.. when we show up... it’s a bit of a contagion. Christmas gets in us. Jesus gets in us. And then the sanctuary of the Christ Child becomes our sanctuary too.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary which welcomes us even when the world (and maybe our own minds) tell us we don’t deserve to be welcomed.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary where we can feel a deep friendship with God and with each other, especially when we find ourselves alone or when our relationships elsewhere are broken or hurtful.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary that gives us strength and peace of mind when our health of body deteriorates.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary which gives our life meaning when it feels like it doesn’t have a meaning, and shows us that we matter when we feel that we don’t.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary where unconditional love isn’t just offered to us but it explodes into our hearts and souls and lives.

On this most holy of nights, we come once more to the sanctuary. Rejoice, because it will be for us and it will do for us more than we can imagine because it is the sanctuary of our God.

Thursday
Dec202018

Advent 3 2018 Sermon -- The Rev. Matthew Stewart

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us”

I love that prayer. Every year, in the third Sunday of Advent, we hear those words. “Stir up your power”  Now I am going to confess what goes on in my head whenever I hear it.  For whatever reason, those words make me think of the Bob Marley tune- “Stir It Up.”  And so that reggae rhythm and backbeat start to bounce around in the back of my mind. It’s not exactly the kind of vibe and spirit that we think of for Advent. Advent is quiet. Advent is contemplative. Advent is austere. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” It’s not bouncy and energized like reggae. And if I have poisoned this collect for you forever, I do apologize, sort of.

But sort of not, you see, interestingly, in the Middle Ages, the prayers of Advent almost every week had that phrase “stir up” in them. In Latin, it’s “excita.” Related to our word excited. And so in the liturgical life of the church of the Middle Ages, in Advent, folks were constantly asking God to stir things up. To energize. To rouse. To bring life and power into the world. But when the English writers of the first Book of Common Prayer begin adapting the earlier Latin language, they decided to minimize the frequency of that word… way less stirring up in Advent. There are many beauties and wonders of our Anglican tradition but a desire for more emotion and transformation and holy chaos… that’s never really been our thing. Peace and tranquillity. That’s more the heartbeat of the Anglican and Episcopal tradition. 

But I wonder if we need to recover some of that feeling of energy and bounce for Advent. A little less quiet reserve. A little more passion. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us”

So, what should our prayer be here? What do we think God should be stirring up in our world? What should God be stirring up in us?

Today’s modern prophet is an Iranian-American. She wrote the text from today after the 2016 Presidential election when the “build the wall” language was deafening around the country. She writes to immigrant women that are coming to America that America belongs to them. Not just that it is kind or compassionate to welcome immigrants in need. Not that natural born citizens who are the “true owners” of America should, out of the goodness of their hearts, share from what is theirs.  No, in today’s modern prophet reading, America belongs to those who were born outside of it. America belongs to those who long for it. America belongs to those whose prayer it is to come to it. America belongs to those that wait in darkness and long to share in its blessings. Not to those who have already drank so much from its wells.

 “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us”

The prophet John the Baptist challenges those with power and authority, in today’s Gospel, not to accumulate what the fullness of their power and authority can afford them. Tax collectors and soldiers aren’t to do what was just the common practice of that day to force victims to give up extra moneys. Those with power aren’t to take disproportionate amounts of the wealth of a people. It is the very opposite of the way of God for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.

 “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us”

The prophet Zephaniah envisions a future where God leads exiles home. Where oppressors are dealt with. Where the scattered are reunited. Where the marginalized are glorified. Where disaster is removed. Where God is envisioned as a warrior… but a warrior who “exults with loud singing as on a day of festival.” I love God as a warrior who sings. I really love that image. God is the one who with power and might comes into our midst to make things right but does it with a song. That God sings justice into being. That God sings healing into being. That God sings reconciliation and community into being. That God is always singing a song of joy, and when we listen for that song: in our hearts, in our communities, in our relationships, that song is one we can join in. And as long as we are singing God’s song, no matter how dark it may get, our hope can never be taken away.

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us”

 

Thursday
Dec132018

Advent 2 2018 Sermon -- The Rev. Matt Stewart

I had a change of heart this week on John the Baptist. Honestly, in the past, I’ve never been that big a fan of him. This week and next, we hear from this older cousin of Jesus who comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And next week it gets even more judgmental and intense where he says to a crowd that has come to seek his baptism. To them he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  I’ve never had much use for John because his brand of judgment seems so foreign to me and to my understanding of the loving way of Jesus. Harping on about sins and end times is just not where my piety and faith takes me and so I haven’t found John that compelling a figure in the past

But this week, I found myself appreciating John anew for a couple of reasons. First of all, when I thought about his sort of weird distinctiveness in the Gospels, he’s kind of an interesting side character. The Scriptures say he lived out in the wilderness, wearing camel hair clothing and eating locusts and honey. You know if this was TV or the movies he’d be that character you kind of like even though he’s not all that rational or pleasant… the John Goodman character in the Big Lebowski or the Hound in Game of Thrones… that’s John the Baptist… there’s something there even amidst all unpleasantness. 

But, the other reason I like him more is because of how he’s been mistranslated. Returning to what we heard in today’s Gospel, it says John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The issue here is that a lot of those words don’t capture the original Greek well at all.

For starters, there is the word rendered “repentance.” I imagine some of you know this already but the original Greek word here is metanoia which literally means ‘go beyond your thought’ or ‘change your mind.’ For the earliest Christians, metanoia meant a reshaping of not only one’s thoughts but one’s life. It wasn’t until later that it came to be poorly rendered as repentance… which leans much more in the direction of guilt and remorse than personal transformation.

Also it helps to understand what “forgiveness of sins” is. I won’t take you into another trek down into Bible nerd-ery but suffice it to say, it’s accurate to translate “forgiveness of sins” as “release from those tragic realties which hold us down.”  So, John’s message ISN’T fundamentally about creating feelings of guilt, or unworthiness, or shame. No, John comes to challenge his hearers, and us, to be open to being changed.. that our minds… that our hearts.. that our ways of being and living would become more and more whole… and more and more free… more and more released to grow and to thrive.  

One of the many ways Christianity has fallen short is by minimizing salvation as some sort of transaction designed to appease an angry God, rather than knowing salvation to be an ongoing process of growth and transformation… where we are constantly evolving into more and more loving and beautiful individuals… in a more and more loving and beautiful world.

When you think about it, it is an outrageous claim that John is making... that amidst a world of empire and violence… that transformation can happen. We look at ourselves… our own shortcomings… our own foolishness… our own fears… our inability to get out of our own way… and the idea that we could be radically reshaped for the better… it can be hard to see.  And we look at our world… and try to imagine positive change… even more hard.

But in this same kind of world John evokes the language of the prophet Isaiah

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

In a pre-industrial world… before there was the kind of construction equipment like we see outside our church walls right now… for Isaiah, to claim that valleys would be filled and mountains made low.. That is saying that God will do the impossible. That God will open pathways for exiles to return to home when they see no way home… and that when it looks like nothing good can come to us… that is when the Saviour does come.

Our modern prophet for this week says something similar, albeit from a decidedly different vantage point. Asher O'Callaghan is a transgender Lutheran pastor. The text we read from him today talks about the beauty of those whose gender is trans or non-binary. And as our collective understanding of gender expands, I think maybe, even for those of us who are cis-gendered, it allows to have more a lovely, lively and fluid understanding of what it is to be human. That all of us are inexhaustibly diverse and flexible in our own selves. You know the ancients would talk about the idea of the microcosm. That each of us is a small version of the whole world. 

The famous second century Christian theologian Origen said, “You yourself are even another little world and have within you the sun and the moon and even the stars.” You are a little world.

There is way more to each and every one of us than we can possibly imagine. In some ways, the entirety of all that God makes can be found in each and every one of us. And so what that means beyond how amazing we are is just how much we can always be changing and growing. Asher O’Callahan writes, “God created us. All different sorts of people for all different sorts of relationships. Created from love to love and be loved. In God's image we live. God is still creating you.”

God is still creating us. God never stops building us up where we are weak. Never stops lifting us up when we fall. Never stops breaking down the walls that separate us. Never stops asking us to stretch ourselves in ways that will be uncomfortable but will allow for love and relationship to flourish.

God never stops loving us. Never stops connecting us. Never stops saving us. 

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

'Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon Advent 1 2018 - Matt Stewart

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

My first emotional response when I read that passage this past week wasn’t fear or confusion. It was exhaustion. Jesus’s challenge to us to “be on guard” and to “be alert at all times,” I just found it tiring. I feel like life all too often demands that I be on guard. Be vigilant. Be on top of my schedule. Be on top of my kids. Be on top of my professional obligations. Be on top of my personal obligations. Be on top of my to do list. I don’t particularly like the idea that Jesus wants me to be MORE vigilant. And the demands on my life pale in comparison to most of those in the world. The undocumented immigrant. The young black male. The transwoman. I’ve got it comparatively easy. What is Jesus up to here? And how does this jibe with other things he says like, “Do not worry” or “Be not afraid’

Well, I think maybe I’ve got it wrong here. Got it wrong about the kind of “being on guard” and the kind of “being alert” that Jesus wants from us. I don’t think that Jesus wants a brand of alertness born of worry and fear. Indeed he says in today’s Gospel, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” So, then, what is this kind of alertness and awareness that isn’t driven by worry?

Well I wonder if the prophets give us a sense of what this looks like. Throughout the church season of Advent, we hear from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. This week it’s Jeremiah. And then, here at St. James’s, we thought this year for Advent, we’d add in some present day prophetic voices to our readings. Thanks to Meredith Wade, we have four weeks of modern prophets as well as ancient prophets. Today we heard from James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook.”

So, what does a prophet do? A prophet names with clarity the brokenness and darkness and pain of the world even when others don’t want to hear it. James Baldwin, back in 1963, named how white people, even those who might on some level know better, fail to be able to live with the reality that black folks are not inferior. Tragically I’m not sure much has changed there over the past 50 years. As for Jeremiah, he spent his life traveling around telling everyone how Jerusalem would fall for its faithlessness. No one wanted to hear Jeremiah what had to say. They tossed him in a hole. But Jerusalem did fall.

But here’s the flip side of prophecy. The prophets always also hold on to a vision of hope… a vision of something better that is both coming in the future and also is already present. Light coming into the darkness. And light already in the darkness. This tricky prophetic balancing act, I think it might be that alertness that Jesus asks of us. Of naming what’s wrong in the world and in ourselves with honesty and vulnerability but never being overcome by it because we know that God will make things right and God does make this right.

And you know this prophetic way of living in the world… this way of Jeremiah, and James Baldwin, and chiefly for us found in Jesus… this kind of alertness I think actually isn’t just fear-free but actually does open up for us a deep joy. Somehow. In the breaking of bread at the altar, there is joy. In the relationships we cultivate, there is joy. In figuring out how to live and be when there’s constant construction not only literally outside these walls but also always in our lives, in that chaos, there is joy. In the hard conversations and exhausting demands of life, even there there is joy.

[In a few minutes, we’ll hear from Lisa Hayles. On this Pledge Ingathering Sunday, Lisa will share about why she is choosing to make a financial pledge to St. James’s for 2019. How this place is for her prophetic… asking her hard questions and giving her the hope and joy not only just to make it but for her life to flourish. And then for the communities and worlds in which she walks to flourish as well.] And there are so many stories like Lisa will share in this place. St. James’s is a truly prophetic community… a community that doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff… racism, transphobia, classism, green justice… there’s not an -ism that this place won’t touch. But it’s also a place that allows to face all that stuff not with a sense of exhaustion but with a spring in our step born of the abiding joy that the Spirit pours into us. A sense that Jesus makes things right and so the twinkle in our eye and the hope in our hearts is never taken away. This is what Jesus does at St. James’s Episcopal Church. Amen.

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon Last Sunday of Pentecost - Matt Stewart

For better and for worse, the American holiday season is upon us once more. I long ago gave up on talking much about consumerism or the Santa Clausification of the world that happens at this time of year. It feels to me almost too obvious to complain about it… you know, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  But I will say that when I got up from my family’s Thanksgiving Day meal on Thursday and headed into the living room… and the kids were watching the newest Netflix Santa movie it did cause me to have a little bit of nervous twitch.  I am absolutely not ready this year mentally for Christmas or any of the myriad Advent and Christmas preparations that need to happen both in my personal life and also here in the church. I used to be, in late November, beginning to switch gears. I even used to be one of those annoying folks who got all the Christmas shopping done before December.  But I am not even close to any of that this year. 

For this reason, I appreciate that this one of those anomalous years where the church calendar doesn’t switch us into Advent immediately the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Most years it is that way. We begin Advent, that season of longing for the coming of God and God’s way, four days after Thanksgiving most of the time. But this year, with Thanksgiving being on the early side, we get one week before Advent starts. This Sunday we are celebrating the church feast that is traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday… and here, in our desire to move away from needlessly masculine and therefore exclusive language, we are now calling it the Feast of the Reign of Christ. 

And, to even more shift us out more of holiday thinking, the Gospel reading assigned for this particular year is one that we usually hear on Good Friday, Christian Black Friday. The conversation that we heard today between Pilate and Jesus; it comes immediately before Jesus is tortured and executed on a cross. It’s not exactly the part of the Jesus story that fits into the “Ho ho ho” and twinkling light vibe that is beginning to emerge around us. 

Pilate says, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate says, “So you are a king?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I like the fact that we’ve changed the name of this day from Christ the King to the Reign of Christ not just because I think it’s a helpful step in trying to be less patriarchal and sexist in our language but also because Jesus doesn’t seem all that interested in being called a king. Rather he invites Pilate and those that are listening into a deeper brand of reflection. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus cares about truth and belonging to the truth moreso than being labeled as a King. I wonder honestly if this whole Christ the King Sunday is a good thing. You know it’s pretty modern invention. It started in the Roman Catholic church in the 1920’s as a sort of a response against challenges the church was experiencing vis a vis modernity. Call Jesus a king to assert authority when the authority of the church was starting to come under attack. Protestant denominations including ours fell into step with this throughout the 20th century. But, given how Jesus responded to Pilate, I don’t know that he’d be all that thrilled with our relatively modern innovation of Christ the King Sunday. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  It harkens back to the moment in the Hebrew Scripture when the Hebrew people were a clamoring for the stability of a king. Prior to this they had a looser and more egalitarian form of government with Judges. But they want to feel like the other bigger nations around them that had kings. And God gives them a king: first Saul, then David. But God is not all that thrilled with it. God wants them in a more egalitarian, more countercultural way of being in community for the people. A way of living where they would trust more deeply in God and in each other, rather than a structured, traditional hierarchy that would inevitably fall into oppression, social stratification, and violence. But the Hebrew settle for the broken ways that human power typically operates. 

Jesus absolutely does not want us to settle for any kind of king that oppresses, any kind of king that exercises authority through manipulation or violence, any kind of king that fails to be always inviting us into a new consideration of truth. “For this reason, I came into the world to testify to the world- to testify to the truth.”

But, of course, the question then is, and it is what Pontius Pilate ask Jesus right after this, “What is truth?”

It’s a question that people of faith are always asking in every age but today, in this era of “fake news,” in this era where all forms of media including social media deluge us with so much information such that we are paralyzed by our oversaturation, in this era where the helpful insights of postmodernity have been corrupted and the genuine realities of injustice and suffering in our world are obscured and ignored. In this world where not only Presidents and other tyrants but also WE evade hard truths in the interests of protecting our own worldview and ego.

To us who have made a choice in way or another to let Jesus show the way to live, he says, “Belong to the truth and listen to my voice.” But Jesus doesn’t define truth as a particular set of principles or creeds. He doesn’t define truth, as many of us might want in our political climate, as being rooted in facts. He doesn’t even define truth as something static and or something we can claim intellectually and feel the comfort of mastery or completion.       

The truth for Jesus is elusive. He communicates it in parable and image rather than didactic assertion or explicit teaching.

Now it’s not that we can’t know some things about truth. For Jesus, truth is also wrapped in loving relationship, with God and each other. For Jesus, truth never benefits some at the expense of others. For Jesus, truth is always bringing to the center those from margins. For Jesus, truth always leads us to know that we are enough and that we have enough. And that we can always be even more.

For Jesus, truth sets us free. But it doesn’t sit idle, truth is found in that wild Spirit of God which ebbs and flows, which dashes and dances amidst our lives and amidst our world. Being a follower of the truth doesn’t really give many answers, it just carries us ever deeper into the mystery of love.

The mystery of love is probably my best stab at describing what that reign of Christ, too, what that kingdom of God is.

You know every Sunday we start off our worship with the priest saying something like, “Blessed be God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” And the gathered community responds, “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever.” It’s one of those lines that most of us don’t think about much. But to say “Blessed be God’s kingdom” is in some sense to proclaim that the wonderful life-changing live-affirming inclusive mystery-laden love of God is still the fabric of our lives and is still the fabric of the world even when it seems like everything is falling apart or everything is already broken. To say “Blessed be God’s kingdom” is our radically countercultural way of saying yes to God and God’s love in the face of world that says no to that love. Blessed be God’s kingdom now and forever. Amen.

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon November 4th, 2018 -- Matt Stewart

Today is the Sunday on which we celebrate All Saints Day.  For those of you who might be a little newer to the tradition, All Saints is this day where we do a number of things. First of all, we remember what a friend of mine calls “the Big S” saints… those famous folks from the history of Christianity who demonstrate to us in some way how to live a faithful life… but we also remember the “Little S” saints as well.  Folks from our own lives, either dead or living, who have shown us the light in some way.  In just a few minutes, those that want to will be invited to come forward and light a candle in remembrance of the Little S saints from their lives that have died.  And lastly, All Saints Day is about us too. How we are already living lives as saintly followers of Jesus and how we might be called to go deeper down that path. All Saints is this wonderful messy mishmash of a feast that brings together what God has done in Christian community in the past with what God is doing in Christian community now. And it brings together those that are followers of Jesus in this world now together with those that have gone on into whatever is beyond.

 

Now, this year, the Gospel reading prescribed for All Saints Day is the raising of Lazarus. Like many of the stories of the Gospels, part of what makes it compelling is how much is going on it.   We’ve got Mary’s incredible if incomplete faith in Jesus, kneeling at his feet believing he could have healed Lazarus before his death. We’ve got the moment where the normally stoic Jesus of John’s Gospel breaks down in tears for love of Lazarus. We’ve got the central amazing moment where Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the tomb, demonstrating the power of God to bring new life out of death. But what I was most struck by this year is how the story ends.  “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

 

When you see images in art of the raising of Lazarus, it usually renders Lazarus as coming out of a tomb wrapped with white cloths everywhere except his face. But the text expressly says that his face is wrapped in a cloth. When you imagine it, it kind of has this appropriate for Halloween season mummy kind of vibe to it. Lazarus is alive and out of the tomb but he’s still bound up… still enveloped in the fabric of his death. And Jesus, he doesn’t finish the job. He leaves that to the community... to his followers. When Jesus stops, Lazarus is alive but he’s still a mess. Jesus has done the impossible, bringing life from death. But the completion of the resurrecting work- that is what he asks of his disciples. That is what he asks of the saints. That is what he ask of you and me. “Unbind him, and let him go.” For whatever crazy reason, God asks us to complete the unbinding and freeing work of Jesus’s resurrection.

 

So, what does that look like in reality… in our lives now? Where are the places that Jesus has called forth new life that we’re to follow up on… to continue the work? What does God want of the saints now? Well, surely, there are lots of ways to tackle these questions but three brief answers occur to me today.

 

One, when I think about the candle lighting ritual we’re about to engage in, remembering loved ones who have passed on… I’m reminded of just how important memory is… just how important holding on to our history is…  Not that we reject change to protect history… but that we remember those who have gone on as they can show us the way forward now.  Remembering how Jesus has opened tombs in the past can give us the eyes to see the new tombs being opened now… Every saint is, at some level, a historian.

 Two, I was struck by a quote I stumbled across this week. It comes from Leonard Cohen’s wild and risqué book Beautiful Losers. It’s a little long a sermon and it uses male language way too much for our 21st century sensibilities but humor me because I think this long quote is worth it.  Cohen writes, “What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is the caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.”

Balancing monsters of love. Not those who are separate from the world but those who love it deeply in all its complexity and messiness, and those who coast around gracefully amidst all its imperfection and transitoriness. In order to be one of those saints who sees resurrection, we need not only to know our history but, to be deeply and passionately IN the world, loving the world. Really loving it, “tracing with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape.”   

And one last bit of wisdom… from Mina, our baptismal candidate for today. I met with Mina a couple weeks ago in preparation for today. To talk about baptism. Now, baptismal preparation can be kind of like pulling teeth. You meet with the parents of a baby to be baptized and ask them why they want their kid baptized and they’ll say it’s because they were baptized. You then ask them what it will mean for their life and you begin to hear the crickets chirp. And so, you go into baptismal preparation meetings these days expecting to do a lot of teaching and often to be met with blank stares and nods. So, I go into meet Mina over at Panera Bread. I ask her the question, “Why do you want be baptized?”  And, unlike my normal experience, I get this tidal wave of her colossally profound reflections and questions.  She shares with me about her life. She shares with me the wide array of things she looks for in a faith community for it to be a place that would nurture her faith. She tells me about this about comparison study she’s done on different belief systems and worldviews. She talks about the parts of Christianity and the Episcopal Church that make sense to her and what she still wrestles with. Unlike most baptismal preparation, I did not have to do most of the talking. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone as ready to be baptized as Mina. Honestly, there was so much in that hour long conversation that I can’t remember the half of it. But one thing that stuck with me that she said is that one thing that she looks for in a church is the “practice of inclusion.” The practice of inclusion. Now I don’t know exactly what she meant by that but I was struck by the idea that she’s not looking for inclusion as a statement of belief but as an ongoing practice. You know, if you drove around Greater Boston and got a nickel for every church that had an “All Are Welcome” sign outside, you could probably buy yourself a Tesla when you were done. But whether welcome is genuinely practiced inside those churches… who knows… 

Inclusion and welcoming as the communal practice of churches and as the individual practice of the saints from those churches in their daily lives, I think that’s perhaps the truest brand these days of the unbinding that Jesus calls us to. Of the freedom and new life that Jesus wants us to join him in manifesting. A welcome that brings life-giving freedom.  

In God’s economy, particularly in our world today, I believe we are called to offer a life-giving welcome to those who are the victims of hatred and violence, and we are called to offer a life-giving welcome to those who are paralyzed by the hatred in their own hearts. We are to called to offer a life-giving welcome to immigrants and a life-giving welcome to those who scapegoat immigrants in response to their own insecurities. We are called to welcome those very much like us and to those very different from us. To welcome those whom we think highly of and those whom we have a lot of trouble valuing. Friend and family and stranger and enemy.

In a world of division and tribalism and separation, the practice of inclusion is not a mealy-mouthed evangelism strategy for those of us who are too shy to share our faith, but rather a way we can spread Jesus’s powerful, transforming love. That loves that frees our hearts. Frees our minds. Frees our lives. And, it just might, if we can learn to do the hard work of unbinding, free the whole world.

 

Friday
Dec072018

Sermon October 21st, 2018 -- Matt Stewart

In the early 1980’s, the people of St. James had a conversation about their mission... about who they thought they were as a community at the time, and about what they believed the Spirit was calling them to do and to be. And so, out of that time of discernment, in 1983, St. James changed its tagline, its motto. Previously, Saint James had identified itself to the world as “The Church of the Paul Revere Bell.”  But (and I’m guessing here as to what folks were thinking at the time) my suspicion is, as proud as the people of St. James rightly were of their history,  (it’s really groovy to have that bell over there) that the people of St. James felt that mission and their tagline should be more about how they were in the present and what they felt called in the future.  And so out of the time came the mission statement that we also find in today’s Gospel reading… “Not to be served, but to serve”

And that mission statement… it stuck… often times these sorts of things will come and go… a church vestry will have a committee that will carefully craft a statement… they’ll present it to the congregation… the congregation will smile and nod… and three to four years later… no one will really remember it.  But, more than thirty years later, “Not to be served but to serve” remains a central articulation of itself for St. James. And I absolutely believe it’s apt. St. James does a LOT of service. Distributing food at pantries, and supporting families in sanctuary, and hosting progressive scout troops, and having hard conversation about oppression and bullying in the world and in the church, and visiting prisoners, and doing faith based community organizing, and I’m I’m forgetting and missing things both from the present and the past. This is a church that serves a LOT.  You know, when clergy come into a church, their first order of business is meeting the leaders… And usually by the second week, they’ve pretty much talked to everybody.  I’m wrapping up my third week, and maybe I’ve connected with a third of folks that lead the ministries in this place. This place does service and so that tagline makes all the sense of the world.  “Not to be served, but to serve.”

That being said, I must say I’m a little wary to talk about service without some framing.  I say this because the Christian word for service is deeply related to the word slave… Indeed both words come up in today’s Gospel. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” And, of course, the church has a horrific history with this language. Justifying America’s original sin of slavery based off passages like this. Telling battered wives to return to their abusive husbands because it was their service and their cup of suffering to drink. These ideas of service and slavery and sacrifice and self-denial have been horribly misappropriated to justify all manner of injustices in the past. And, while we certainly have made progress, we still have a long way to go. We’re just beginning to grapple with all the ways that power and privilege are weaved into the fabric of our culture in ways that maintain inequities and only dole out opportunities in the most  uneven of ways. As a person of privilege, I am guaranteed, I think, to fall terribly short when talking about what a healthy brand of Christian service or “slavery” could look like. I can speak to what service isn’t but I’m not so sure how much I can speak to what it truly is.

But, of course, if we waited to have conversations about challenging topics until we figured it all out, we’d never speak. So, here’s my best stab right now at what we can say Jesus asks of us as those who serve… as servants.

For starters, I do not believe Jesus ever takes away our freedom. There is always a choice. There is no forced servitude. Jesus was incredibly persuasive to those he met and taught… and he remains incredibly persuasive with us today.  ut he was and is never coercive. We CHOOSE to be servants so, on some level, the word slave simply doesn’t work.

Another thing that I think is crucial is that Christian service is never dehumanizing… It never puts the servant in a place where we are made less… where we’re devalued… rather I think it actually fills us up.  Makes us more the person we are meant to be.  More enlivened than drained.  More integrated with God and with the communities we walk in rather than separated from them or subjugated under them. If what you find yourself doing in your life is this radical drain on your sense of self and your sense of being beloved then chances are: it’s not the service that God wants you to be about.

If you’re someone who wrestles with your sense of self-esteem, who doesn’t always feel you deserve blessing and joy… if you’re someone where part of you thinks you deserve to suffer and so your service is a way of beating yourself up. That’s not what God wants for you. God does not wish suffering on any of us, for any reason, at any time. God’s love is utterly forgiving and utterly accepting. God loves you for who you are and wants you to love yourself every bit as much.

 

Now, this doesn’t mean that Christian service is supposed to be easy all the time… there is sacrifice asked of Christians occasionally.  But I don’t think that radical self-denial is supposed to be the norm… you know Jesus himself just spent seven days walking that Holy Week road of suffering toward the cross.  Before that he spend three years roaming the countryside with his friends, talking with and healing people… and before that, thirtyish years with his family. Sometimes we glorify suffering as if Jesus spent thirty three years hanging from the cross. It’s simply not the case.  God certainly doesn’t desire that our sacrifice should outstrip Jesus’s.

But, we certainly are called to stretch ourselves. Both as individuals and as churches.  And to think in new and creative ways about service… about how Jesus served and how we should. There’s this church I visited last year in Indianapolis that fascinated me… it’s a church with some money that sits sort on the border of a more affluent downtown area and this incredibly poverty-stricken residential area.  And when you walk into the church’s office you see a sign up on the wall that’s shocking at first. It says “Don’t help.” Your first thought is this is some incredibly heartless place, but it’s actually born of this church’s long and deep reflection on the best way it can engage in service.  The pastor of this church had spent roughly fifteen years, in the past, building feeding ministries and clothing ministries and other social services. And, after fifteen years, he realized his work had had almost no impact on the community… there was more poverty… more hunger… no more jobs… more despair. Indeed, he realized that the feeding ministry was actually disempowering. It’s hard to be the constant recipient of help without feeling less than… without feeling a sense of valuelessness and disempowerment. And so they just blew it all up and started over. They stopped ministries that “helped” and started ministries that went out into the neighborhood. They went into the communities and learned about people’s gifts and capitalized on those. When it turned out a lot were artists, the church hosted dinners so the artists could build relationships and find ways to receive a better incomes from their gifts. When it turned out a lot these folks in poverty were really highly educated, the church again hosted meals so folks could connect. These folks started a mentoring and tutoring business for the neighborhood. 

I’m really fascinated by this approach to ministry which, for the record, is often called Asset Based Community Development because it does, in indirect kind of way, help. But it’s not a brand of helping that creates an “us vs them” dynamic… a better/worse dynamic… it’s a brand of helping that is both empowering and also connecting. This church builds relationships with people as a central piece of this service. And, in this, not only were those in the neighborhoods given a new sense of purpose and of hope but so was the church.

I’m not really sure that Jesus ever wants us in brands of service that aren’t utterly wrapped up in building new relationships. Relationships, of course, are what support and challenge us. They are what build us up and, when necessary, break us down. They are what allows for the building of that collective power than is necessary for social transformation. They are what gives us the capacity to hold onto hope in the face of all the brokenness and tragedy and evil of the world. And they are, I think, the only road to becoming the same of the kind of lover of the world that Jesus was.

I think it’s telling that Jesus says, in the Gospel today, that we are to be slaves OF ALL.  Not slaves of those that have the power or resources to own us. Not slaves of our community or family. Not even slaves of God. Jesus says slave of all. I think Jesus wants us to situate ourselves as servants of the whole world that we might be opened to the whole world in love. That our souls and minds and hearts might expand, that we might reach that place where every person we meet and every moment we experience is blessing. Amen.

Thursday
Sep062018

Sermon for Proper 17 Year B First Option 9-2-18

Proper 17B 2018

September 2, 2002

Click here to listen to the sermon. 

In the name of our one living God who creates abundantly, loves extravagantly, and sustains eternally: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

          Week in and week out the preacher is called to preach on the lectionary lessons.  The tricky part is to find a unifying theme that would tie together lessons that were composed individually over hundreds of years by different cultures in various circumstances.  Sometimes it’s a snap.  Other times I am tempted to Google to see who was on the committee that picked the Sunday readings! This was one of those weeks but prayer and patience usually see me through.

          I learned that this Sunday’s lectionary selection is the only week in all three lectionary years that a reading from the Song of Songs was chosen. That in itself warrants attention.  When I have heard sermons on today’s text they have preached by treating the lesson allegorically – in one case I recall as pointing to the love between Jesus and the Church. Now that is a stretch!  That is what my homiletics professor in seminary would call “Trampoline Preaching” – jumping so hard on a text so that you can bounce as far away from it as possible!

          Let’s face it – it is about two lovers- a man and a woman who long for one another both spiritually and physically.  If you read the whole Song of Solomon, you will immediately note that it is set in and celebrates nature. It speaks of the beauty and bounty of God’s Creation and celebrates our human existence as part of that Creation. Perhaps one of the lessons we can pull out from this text is that we humans - if we are to live with integrity - must not only acknowledge our oneness with nature but also our dependence on it.  We must celebrate with thanks both our Earthly home and our human sexuality.

          Truth be told, our very existence is the result od earthly love, passion and desire.  All of us are born of an act of nature and at our end we return to the earth when we die – another natural act.

          Today’s lesson needs also to be seen in light of our degradation of the earth as we pollute the air and water we depend upon.  It challenges us to see how we distort and abuse our human sexuality. It reminds that we are part of and dependent upon those very gifts of the natural world that we are greedily destroying.  Our power over our natural world has its limits. When we ignore and exceed these limits we destroy the very things that make our lives possible.  Do you remember the poisoning of the water supply in Detroit?  That poisoned our children as they drank from the water fountains at school!  That is only a minor example.

          Psalm 15 is one of my favorites. It teaches us how to live in God’s House.  It beckons us to live with respect and honesty in our relations with one another. It condemns what we call “pay to play” politics and heaping contempt upon others as a means of political or financial gain. Again, this has resonance in the world we live in today.  We are all called to live in God’s tent.  Indeed, there is room for all – but only if we accept that invitation with humility and gratitude.  Too often we try to make God’s tent ours alone and shut out others so that we may have more.

          Our Epistle from the short Letter of James is basically an introduction to and summation of the chapters that follow it. It calls for patience and self-restraint in dealing with one another.  Intemperate speech and stirring up anger within the community do not further God’s purposes. This another admonition that has resonance today! Rather, the author advises his readers to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”  What good advice for our times!  One’s ability to stir up confusion, doubt, fear, anger – indeed even hatred and violence- has been amplified a thousand fold by our new technology and the world-wide web.

          James also reminds us of another great biblical insight – true love for our Creator, for the world we have been given and for our very being is empty unless we translate that into action! “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

          If we want to do an inventory about where we are under this standard – whether as a person, a community, a business, or a nation – look at the balance sheet – both the income side and the expenditure side!  Look also at whom we embrace and invite into community with us.  Maybe – and perhaps most especially – look at the level of contentment and joy.

          In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is asked a seemingly innocent question but he responds forcefully and with anger.  Why?  I think it is because he knows it is not an honest question but one meant by the Pharisees to “put him in his place”.  While it is good sanitation to wash before eating not everyone has the means and resources to do ules.so.  For the Pharisees, this was a religious tradition from the Temple rules that they adopted for daily life.

          Tradition is good but like everything it can be abused.  Tradition can be called to justify restraining, oppressing or demeaning others.  I remember hearing the phrase – “the normative power of the actual” meaning that which is is right!  That is an abuse of tradition.  If anyone has any doubts about this, just ask women, people of color, the LGBT community, people who come from different places and cultures.  Traditions can indeed be used to oppress and constrain others.

          I was thinking about this sermon as I watched the Burial Office for Sen. John McCain this morning at the National Cathedral in Washington. Did any one here also watch it? It brought back for me the many funerals I officiated at over the years. It brought back memories of the Army and of being in Vietnam.  It was a wonderful dignified service with great music and liturgy.  There is a reason I am an Episcopalian!

          But something seemed “off”, something seemed “missing”’ something seemed “not quite right”. Watching the politicians, celebrities and newscasters pouring out of the Cathedral after the service, it suddenly struck me. Where were the men with whom he was imprisoned for years?  Where were their families?  Where were their widows and orphans?  Everyone seemed powerful, affluent and privileged.  Tradition can indeed be used to paper over our neglect for our neighbor.

Amen.

Thursday
Sep062018

Sermon for Proper 16 Year B First Option 8-26-18

Proper 16B 2018

August 26, 2018

          In our first reading we hear of Solomon at the height of his glory.  He has accomplished what the Lord would not permit his father David to attempt – he has built a house for God. The history of the Ark is worth reviewing to cast light on our readings today.  It was built in the Sinai Desert to house Yahweh as He led his people from slavery to freedom and safety. It was carried through the parted waters of the Jordan into the Promised Land. It was carried around the walls of Jericho before they came tumbling down.  When it was captured by the Philistines it did nothing but bring them woe – they couldn’t get rid of it fast enough and sent it back. After the victory over the Philistines and Saul becoming king, it was shunted aside and parked like a used car on a corner lot with a farmer named Abinidab. When David learned it brought Abinidab luck, he brought into Jerusalem.

            Today we learn of its enthronement of the Ark in the grand temple that Solomon has built with his immense wealth (conveniently next door to his palace.)  Solomon offers praise and prays that God will always be faithful to God’s people.

          We can see Solomon’s wisdom in his praise and prayers.  He notes that God’s promise of David’s lineal succession is conditional.  It depends on his children looking to their way and walking before God as David had done.  As happy as Solomon is to see the glory of God filling the Temple, he questions whether the Lord God creator of all can limit His dwelling to this spot on earth.  He knows that “even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less the house I have built!”  He also knows that the Creator of all cannot be asked to limit his attention to the Israelites.  He knows that foreigners will come to pay homage to God and that all peoples of the earth will call upon God’s name.  He prays that God hears them also.  Solomon wisely knows that no Temple, ritual or doctrine can fully encompass the wonder of God.

          While we humans are limited to living in a particular time, place and culture, God is not.  Entirely local gods – limited to a particular place and time and culture – lead to exclusionary ethics, to limiting or denying hospitality to others and to denigrating or even dehumanizing others.  Solomon wisely knows that God is bigger than that.

          It is informative to know that the Book of Kings was not written in Solomon’s times.  Most scholars concur that it was composed 500 years later during the Babylonian Captivity.  Solomon’s beautiful Temple and Jerusalem lay in ruins.  The last King of Judea died more than a generation ago and the throne was gone.  The authors of the Book of Kings attributed this to the kings and those in power forgetting God’s ways and the ethics of a Universal God of all Creation.  At the same time there were others in the community who wrote a different history attributing their current state to failing to follow the laws and rituals strictly enough.  Their God was an increasingly local God one limited to their people and culture.

          A theologian friend once said that people often prefer religion to God.  Now I don’t think these are opposing concepts.  Indeed they should be related in a vibrant and living way.  But to many, religion is about rules and power and control.  Rules can be controlled and enforced by those in power.  The certainty and confidence such religions inspire is illusory but it is comforting and it does given one a sense of certainty and of things being in control.  God for many can be too overwhelming and uncertain leaving them without a sense of security and order.  In today’s world there are both those who embrace a universal God who is bigger than our imagination and there are those whose God is a local God limited to their time and culture and place.

          We are hearing a lot in our public discourseand will be hearing more in the coming months about “a war being waged on religion.”  Personally, I do not think that is at all the case.  I think it is no coincidence that those speaking most loudly about their religious freedom being under attack often belong to religious bodies that are authoritarian in doctrine and practice and hierarchical in structure.  I also think is not a coincidence that many of these religious bodies exclude women from positions within this hierarchical structure. Where in this is the wonder and majesty of the God of all Creation?

          Our second reading from Ephesians has a lot of militaristic imagery based on the weaponry of the Roman soldiers of that time and a theme of a world filled with images of cosmic and demonic powers.  It is language that may make many 21st century western people uncomfortable.  We don’t live in that first or early second century world where people thought that God was up in heaven and we are on earth and the space in-between was filled with a chaotic blend of chaotic and demonic forces.  We can also recognize without belittling others that there are forces beyond the individual that are destructive and harmful.  There are forces of greed that would resort to violence or exclude others in order to gain power, that would value wealth over justice, that would incite fear in order to exclude or persecute others.

          The letter to the Ephesians tells that small Christian community to stand firm in their beliefs, to pray and to lead a disciplined life as protection against the forces that would devour their community.  We. too, need a prayerful awareness of the love and justice of the God of all creation in order to speak out for justice, especially justice for those whom others would silence, diminish exclude – or worse.

          I think this is what John is getting at in today’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus is speaking the strong language of hyperbole.  The words he is using were meant to be shocking if taken literally.  Cannibalism was no less repulsive then than it is today.  Drinking blood is a major violation of the Jewish purity law.  Drinking human blood was unthinkable.  The language points to violence and physical brutality – something that did happen on the cross at the hands of those whose power Jesus challenged.

          But it points to more.  It points to the truth that our best protection from the forces of evil and injustice is to put Jesus at the core of our very being.  It allows us to see clearly and to have the values and ethics that will lead to true peace and justice.  When the many were frightened of this and left, Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” Peter’s answer is the greatest statement of faith.  When we have experienced the love and forgiveness of the living God, where else is there to go?  Jesus empowers us to see ourselves, others and the entire Universe as God’s beloved Creation.  That indeed protects us from the dark powers that would have us see otherwise.  AMEN