Sermons

Thursday
May022019

Easter Vigil - April 20, 2019 - The Rev. Julia Matallana Freedman

Bruce Springsteen: “We’ve been traveling over Rocky ground, rocky ground, We’ve been traveling over rocky ground rocky ground.”

I have always found it interesting that the same earthy, and ordinary material--rock--can be taken as both a metaphor for burden or a metaphor of transformation, a symbol of new life, after Christ’s resurrection, after a new day. I have a young daughter who is just beginning to speak and I find it no coincidence that earlier this week she said the phrase, “big rock” with such impressive clarity. Yes, it is a big rock! Big rocks can be a sturdy foundation, a step up in order to increase our visibility, to change or expand our perspective. For instance, in genesis Jacob uses a rock as his pillow, which can’t have been comfortable. After his divine dream he then uses this rock to build an altar of praise to God. The Psalms speak of the cornerstone, the critical piece at the center of a stone archway representing God’s faithfulness and salvation to a people who are often wandering away. In the gospels a fasting Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, his steadfastness, a sign of Christ’s divine ability to defeat evil and overcome death.

It is easier for us to see the promise of a new day on this side of the resurrection story. Holy Saturday is the in-between day. And I hope you might relish the inbetween-blueish-purplish-brownish - hues of the color grey. Because, friends, so much can be captured in the texture and the nuance of the “inbetween.”

Big rocks can also obscure our vision. It can be rolled over a tomb entry way separating us from a resurrected Christ and deflating our hope. For the three days of rocky ground, of mourning, the women wept, people prayed and cried out to God. There was the loss of a son, the loss of a friend. Beyond the personal and relational loss there was also a political and religious sense of loss because Christ had promised to inaugurate a new reign in heaven and on earth, he was now dead. This stone marked the loss of a spiritual leader, and the loss of a radical revolutionary.  A big rock was rolled over the tomb entrance, marking the death of a supposed saviour? Let us consider the felt loss by those who loved and believed Christ. They believed he had come to bring about a different Kingdom. Which had more political insinuation than we might be comfortable with. For instance, The Lukan gospel account begins with the Angel visiting Mary and says, the Lord God will give the child the throne of his father David,33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Else where, Old Testament writings indicate a Savior’s ability to abolish the injust acts of the kingly leaders. And instead Jesus does not go down as a typical imperial force. Instead he dies as a criminal. Mary, mother of Jesus, Joseph, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, they traveled the three days of “rocky ground,” which I suspect might have felt more like an avalanche at the time--it's the kind of pain that runs so deep, you believe it is never going to end.  

Yes it is a big rock! Clearly, the dual function of this ordinary material is plenty throughout scripture. It’s uses, metaphor, and symbolism can be both dark and weighty and supportive and glorious.

Jazz, spirituals, and the blues all occupy a genre that embraces “The Inbetween”, it inherently captures both deep human suffering and an abiding faith in God, regardless of one’s own felt pain. In fact, it is no accident that our own Holy Saturday liturgy is imbued with the genre.

W.e.b DeBois explains that the classic “Spiritual songs tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” Liberation theologian, Dr. James Cone, goes on to explain that “DuBois perceived something else in the beauty of the spirituals - an affirmation of life. Through hope --a faith in the ultimate justice of things.....DeBois was fascinated by the tension in the spirituals between hope and despair, joy and sorrow, death and life, and by the ability of black slaves to embrace such polarities in their music….” (The Spirituals and the Blues, Cone).

Like the classic slave spirituals, jazz and blues help to convey the tensions of Holy Saturday. tensions between death and life, between an entombed Christ, and a risen Christ. The tension between a Kingdom both here and not yet. The tension between a big rock that deters, blocks, and impedes, and holds us back, but also a big rock that is rolled away to offer us life in the resurrection. Truthfully, I probably could have just read Dr. James Cone’s entire book up here because he formulates this relationship between Blues and Jazz music with Black religion so insightfully. I am hardly able to do his thinking justice here, but if you would allow me to share one last quotation from him:

“Blacks found hope in the music itself--a collective self-transcendent meaning in the singing, dancing, loving, and laughing. They found hope in the stoic determination not to be defeated by the pain and suffering in their lives. James Baldwin called this hope an “Ironic Tenacity!” “I’ve got the Blues and I’m too mean to cry.” “The blues,” as Ralph Ellison Put it, “is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near tragic, near comic lyricism.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone).

If your faith in the resurrected Christ does not bring forth any tensions then you might actually be doing it wrong. During the liturgy, we pray, every week for, “God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and yet, even on this side of the resurrection story, there is still injustice, death and evil. On this Holy Saturday, perhaps you find yourself leaning toward one side of The Inbetween or the other. Perhaps this day you are leaning toward the sorrow, mourning, and entombed-ness of the Risen Christ. Or perhaps you find yourself on the joyous, celebratory side of The Inbetween. In either case, tomorrow we will sing the St. James-ian hymn, based on Psalm 118, we will sing that the “stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone.”

“Stars have faded, the sky is still, suns in the heavens and a new day is rising….A new day is coming, a New day is coming. We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground….” - Bruce Springsteen

 

 

Thursday
May022019

Maundy Thursday - April 18, 2019 - JT Kittredge

Good Evening.

There’s a lot going on in this service tonight: Agapé Supper, Foot Washing, Eucharist, and Altar Stripping. In each of those elements there’s much to explain or interpret or comment on. The other of the Holy Week services—Palm Sunday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday—are similarly rich. However, somewhere years ago I heard that it was best in these heavyweight services to get out of the way and let the liturgy speak for itself. So, I’ll try to keep this brief.

I’ll begin by taking a step back and asking why we have these services, what they might offer us. For myself, they offer a way to enter more fully into the meaning of Christ’s Passion than sermons or books or podcasts could. I spend too much time living in my own head, and the Holy Week liturgies let me experience the Passion with my senses.

Here is where I find the idea of sacrament, as opposed to symbol, helpful. A symbol represents something, but sacraments, if you believe in them, partake in some way in the reality of the thing represented.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, but it’s a kind of Frequently Asked Questions for the Christian Faith, Anglican Edition. It’s well written, illuminating, and a great read during tedious sermons.

In answer to the question, “What are the sacraments?” it says, “The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

And to the next question, “What is grace?” it answers, “Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”

So, is the Foot Washing we are about to enact together a sacrament? It’s not on the traditional list, and no one has elected me pope, so I’m not qualified to rule on that question. But if it is a sacrament, what is its inward spiritual grace? That’s also open to interpretation, but I suggest that it is to enter fully into what Jesus means when he says in tonight’s Gospel passage, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

It’s that passage, by the way, which gives us our name for this holy day; “maundy” comes from “mandatum,” the Latin word for commandment.

I think that the question of sacrament or symbol is best left to those you who are brave enough to come forward to wash and be washed. Are you conscious of grace? Do you feel changed? Because that’s one of the claims made of sacraments, that they actually change the person who receives them in some way. In some woo-woo, unmeasurable, imperceivable, yet real way.

Even if you don’t feel different, you may be different; the action of God is sometimes hard to discern. And the efficacy of a sacrament depends on God’s grace, not on ourselves.

Remember what the Catechism said, “unearned and undeserved.”

If you choose do to participate, you may find it awkward and even uncomfortably intimate. I usually do. You may find it actually more awkward and uncomfortable to let your feet be washed than it is to wash others. I think that there’s a lesson there, in that, while it may be “more blessed to give than to receive,” there is grace in being able to receive, as well. On the cover of our service booklet, it says, “Not to be served, but to serve.” I wonder if it should say, “To serve and allow ourselves to be served in love.”   

Sacrament or not, the Foot Washing is a powerful rite, but we shouldn’t let it overshadow what follows: the Eucharist. Even though we celebrate it together every week, tonight is its special moment: Holy Communion, the Origin Story.

What actually happens to the bread and wine during communion has occupied legions of theologians for centuries. Technical terms like transubstantiation, consubstantiation, trans-elementation, and sacramental union are thrown around. The Anglican tradition has contented itself merely with maintaining the doctrine of the “Real Presence” —that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are really present in the elements in some way that is beyond our understanding.  

There’s a quatrain that’s attributed to the founder of the Anglican Church, Elizabeth I:

Christ was the Word that spake it,

He took the bread and brake it,  

And what the Word did make it,

That I believe and take it.

When I repeated that verse to my partner, he responded, “In other words, ‘What he said!’” It answers none of the philosophical questions, which is precisely the point. The sacrament means what Christ meant it to mean.  The aspects of inward and spiritual grace ascribed to communion are manifold: forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, union with all Christians living and dead in the body of Christ, and a foretaste of the banquet of eternal life. I won’t try to expound on them, because I couldn’t do them justice, and because I would rather let the sacrament speak to you itself.

Instead, I will repeat an adage that I heard years ago from the priest Robert Rae and that has stayed with me since: “the most important acts of Eucharistic devotion are chewing, swallowing, and digesting.” I take his point to be that the power of Communion is not as a symbol, but as an act. It doesn’t happen in our intellect, but in our guts.

And I will leave you with another quotation I first heard a few years back that has also stayed with me. It was attributed to St Augustine, and I tracked it down to one of his sermons on the Holy Eucharist. Here it is, somewhat abridged, “If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! … Be what you see; receive what you are.”

In the name of Christ.

​Amen.


 

Wednesday
Apr242019

Easter Sunday - April 21, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

Last Sunday, we heard a story of darkness. A story with a grand march of royalty into a city rife with foreboding. A story where fearful and petty political figures schemed to protect their status quo. A story where violence and betrayal were in the air. A story where the innocent hero seemed to be walking towards suffering and death. A story that was coming to its end. Lest there be any confusion I am, of course, referring to last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones.

As always I promise to be as spoiler-free here as possible. So, much of that episode of Game of Thrones is set in a castle called Winterfell which is ancestral home of the Stark family. They’re main characters in the show. So, quite often throughout the history of the show, when they’re not engaging in political intrigue in throne rooms or heading out onto battlefields with dragons, members of the Stark family go down to the crypts below the castle where their ancestors are buried. The crypts are dark with only the faint twinkling of candlelight and statues of their forebears to accompany them. The Starks often find themselves traveling down to those crypts in times of confusion or anticipation, hoping to find comfort and clarity in the quiet dark. Sometimes they get the answers they seek. Sometimes they just find new questions. Sometimes they find a strength they need. Sometimes they come to new realizations about the world. And sometimes they come to new realizations about themselves. But something always happens in the cold but fertile dark of those mysterious crypts. Something always changes.

You might just see where I’m going here… As the Easter story goes- the body of the crucified Jesus was laid in a cold tomb under the ground on a Friday a couple thousand years ago… and then sometime in the mystery of the darkness of the second night after that, Christ was raised from the dead and the tomb was empty. Something indescribable and unfathomable happened. Something changed. And then we get where today’s Gospel story picks up. The passage today started, “On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.”  In that first turn of phrase “On the first day of the week, at early dawn,” literally the Greek is “deep dawn.” I like that a lot- the women came to the tomb at deep dawn. At that twilight moment before sunrise when light and dark still kiss… where all of the world seems to have that different hue and therefore different vibe to it… that’s when those women became the first witnesses to the resurrection. Not quite fully in the darkness of the tomb but neither fully out of it either. We imagine Easter often as this well-lit, resplendent affair with images of a glorious Risen Christ charging out victorious from the tomb with beams of blinding light behind him. And maybe there’s some truth to that sort of image but it’s not how the Gospels portray the resurrection. Resurrection is a more murky, mysterious, poorly lit kind of affair. Something does happen. Something does change. But it’s not something we can easily see or hang onto or comprehend.

It’s for this reason that I’m sympathetic to the skepticism of the men later in the story. Again, after the women have experienced that Christ is risen they share that with the disciples, but the men don’t believe them. Now in the past, when I’ve thought about this part of this narrative, I’ve simply just thought the men were putzes… both just in general for not taking the women seriously but also for not realizing that, all throughout the Gospels, it’s women who understand and see Jesus first. In the Gospels, when women speak, usually something insightful is said. But, when a man speaks, it tends to be someone who just doesn’t get it. For this reason, I’ve thought the disciples were foolish for not listening carefully when the women shared something new about Jesus.

But this year I’ve been thinking about it a little differently. You know these men were grieving the death of their teacher and friend. And the women come and say, “He’s been raised.” I’d probably be just as skeptical. Indeed if someone told me at a funeral wake that a loved one of mine had been raised from death, I’d think it a pretty cruel joke. The disciples should have listened to the women but I understand why they didn’t. Resurrection is not easy to believe or to comprehend or to see.  

You know, probably for everyone in this room who believes that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, there’s someone who doesn’t. Many good and faithful Christians conclude that the story of the resurrection is more of metaphoric affair… connoting some bigger reality without being historically true. And then there are those who just don’t know what to make of it all. I’m not going to try to direct you one way or the other because I want to talk about something even more bonkers. That, literal or not, that we all share in that resurrection. The Christian proclamation on Easter is not that God did something anomalous 2000 years ago. Something not in keeping with the normal order of things in raising Christ from the dead. No, rather, it’s that 2000 years ago God unveiled or unleashed a deeper reality in the cosmos. That Christ is Risen and so are we. That Christ was raised to new life and so is the whole world.  

It’s why we heard that reading from Isaiah this morning... that reading where we hear his dream of a better world... a world where the non-violence is so pervasive that wolves and lambs feed together and not on each other. A world where the health care is so good that everyone lives to be at least a hundred. A world where people know only joy and delight... where all tears and all pain are gone. That’s what we heard in the Isaiah reading today. And, though it might not be immediately obvious, that’s an Easter story. Because God not only intends to end the darkness in our personal lives, God intends to end all the darkness in the world... to transform it all. To make this new

heavens and new earth that Isaiah talks about.

Now obviously we’re not there yet. The world is not yet all redeemed. We live in a world where, just this past week in a tragic accident, a beautiful house of worship was burned with fire and we live in a world where throughout the past year multiple other houses of worship have been riddled with gunfire. We live in a world where the climate and the delicate balance that holds our whole planet together is being toppled by our irresponsibility and selfishness. We live in a world where political leaders no longer even feign they have conscience, or compassion, or even simple civility. We live in a world where fear and hatred are not only embedded in our social structures, but those things are getting even more deeply enshrined at this time. We live in a world where homelessness, human trafficking, poverty, racism, food insecurity often elicit no more than a shrug from those of us with privilege and wealth, because we isolate ourselves and fail to be in solidarity with those with less. We live in a world where we are constantly shaking our heads at the next horrible thing that’s in the news or in our lives. It can seem like evil and death not resurrection and new life are the deepest realities of existence.

And yet, on Easter, we claim and we reclaim and we proclaim that death never has the final word. We don’t get to know when God will bring about this whole Easter plan. When the whole world will be reborn and transformed. When love will fully win out over hate and life over death. And indeed we don’t even know exactly what it will look like. Isaiah and the prophets were poets not soothsayers. New life comes in murky darkness. We don’t see it coming and we don’t comprehend it fully in those times when it has already come. But here’s what we do know. In the resurrection, a face, a personality is mapped onto and into God’s redemptive power that flows throughout the universe. The Risen Christ is the way we see and access and enter into that love that never dies and that love that makes all things new. New for us. And new for the world. Perhaps what we should say at the beginning of every Easter liturgy is “Alleluia. Christ is Risen. The whole world is risen indeed. Alleluia.”


Tuesday
Apr022019

The Fourth Sunday in Lent - March 31, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

One of my more vivid memories from my time back in seminary was this one time when I heard the school’s librarian preach. He was this quiet, mild-mannered, unassuming kind of guy who you’d rarely hear speak. He was on the preaching schedule for some midweek service and he made his way up into the pulpit, slowly futzed around with his manuscript placing it on the book stand. And he looked up at the congregation and said, more loudly than I had ever heard him speak before, “The master or father figure in the parables of Jesus is NOT God.” I can’t remember anything else he said after that because I was initially just shocked by his energy and uncharacteristic vehemence. It wasn’t until much later in the service that I started thinking about the content of his what he said. That when we think about Jesus’s parables and there is a father or a master, we shouldn’t think of that person as referring to God. It’s a little out there when you consider it.  In today’s extremely well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son, how do we think about it? Basically, we are either the younger son and the father is God, welcoming us back with open arms whenever we turn away… or we are the elder son, jealous of the way that God is so merciful and giving to others when we fail to remember that all those blessings are ours too. How could the father in this story not be God?

 

Well, I think this librarian was engaging in some level rhetorical hyperbole.  Exaggerating to make a point. He was referring more to the work of Biblical scholars who grapple with parables where the father/master figure is more judgmental and condemning. Those are places where it makes more sense to not equate the master with God’s true nature.  

 

But there may still be something here for us in today’s story, too.  Now, I do think we can and should think about the father in today’s parable as telling something about the inclusive welcome and absurd generosity of God. Absolutely. That is our God. But I also think we can play with this story in a new way.  Do something a little different with a narrative that many of us have heard so much that it’s hard to engage with anymore in a way that is creative. So, let’s do something different and think of ourselves not as the younger son or the elder son but as the father. Us as the father. We’re the one who throws the party for those who have lost track of their belovedness. We’re the one who runs out with joy to greet the younger son in love, when he doesn’t that he’s welcome anymore. We’re the one who also goes out to that angry, self-righteous older son to help him grapple with his jealousy and confusion and hatred.

 

Now, we go out not only to welcome although that’s part of it. We go out not only with joy and love although that’s part of it. We go out because we need to go out for ourselves. We go out because we, as father, need the son.

The father needs the son every bit as much as the son needs the father. Our full flourishing cannot happen in any one place. No matter how beautiful it might be. No matter how great the people might be. No matter how many amazing encounters with God we might have in that place. The father would not be the father if he simply remained at the feasting table waiting for others to show up.

 

This Lent at St. James’s we’ve been offering a discussion group that we called Caritas. Today, our discussion is being led by Isaac and Jesse from Nuevo Amanecer (Nah-way-vo Ah-man-eh-sehr). This is a fascinating ministry over in East Boston where folks have gone out into the community and starting by listening and connecting. And then new “ministries” have emerged out of those conversations and relationships. It’s worth hanging around after worship and coffee hour to hear their story because they enflesh what this going out can look like.

 

You know, the fuller name of our Lenten offering is Caritas: From Charity to Relational Solidarity. When we were putting this program together, we tried to come up with language to articulate this shift we’re perceiving in our call to mission at St. James’s.  From a kind of serving that is more utilitarian to a kind that is more interpersonal and connective.

We wrestled with the language here and the best expression we could come up with was “relational solidarity.” It isn’t exactly the most elegant turn of phrase and if any of you can come up with a better word here, I have a crisp one dollar bill to give you.

But, even though we might be able to do better in terms of our vocabulary, you know, “relational solidarity” ain’t that bad. Indeed, I think it might be a phrase that doesn’t tell us how we should “do outreach and mission” but actually be a way of grappling with the very mystery of God. Today. we have our Indaba partners here with us from Marshfield and Boston. To build relationships. And they’ve brought with them a prayer. The Indaba Collect. It begins like this, “Holy God, as we look to the Trinity- the unity in diversity- give us the courage to embrace your image in each other.” “As we look to the Trinity- the unity in diversity- give us the courage to embrace your image in each other.” If God is Trinity, three in one in some way that we can’t fully process… then what we can say is that the transcendent fabric of reality… the heartbeat of the cosmos, is somehow a brand of relational solidarity. To enter into deep relationship with God, with friend, with stranger… it’s not just a tool to get something done. You know we think about solidarity as a way to get to something else that is justice, or as a way to build power to bring about something else that is the common good.  

I’m not knocking any of that at all but, at the core of it, relationships are the end goal. The relationships are where God is and, in some sense, what God is. And we all, like the father in the parable, can constantly run out with joy into those relationships, and find God there. My podcast guru Richard Rohr puts it this way, “Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else. In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian. A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.”

 

Now, for this season of Lent, we are taking some time in every worship service for quiet reflection. So, for the next five minutes we’ll be sitting in silence. You can use the time in whatever way seems best for your heart and mind and soul. One possibility is to take a look at the reflection text and question that the folks from Nuevo Amanecer (Nah-way-vo Ah-man-eh-sehr) gave us. They get us thinking about how one might go out for relationship.

 

 

Thursday
Mar212019

The Second Sunday in Lent - March 17, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

This immigrant was presumptuous. He believed God told him to uproot his family and move to another land. It doesn’t seem like he had good reason to move. Now he had a reasonably good and safe life. He had financial security. But still he chose to emigrate. Still he believed God was calling him to be an immigrant. And maybe Abraham the immigrant wasn’t crazy given that Judaism, and Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins to his decision to leave southern Iraq and head to the promised land of Canaan.


Later on today, after our worship, our Caritas discussion group will be led by Jeanne Gallo, Sunny Robinson, and Sister Linda Bessom. They recently returned from the US/Mexico border and will be sharing with us about the often horrifying experience there of immigrants coming to this country from Central America. And those immigrants DID have economic and safety reasons to emigrate to escape brutal poverty and violence.


Obviously, it’s because of this discussion group that I am choosing to focus in on Abraham as an immigrant… or Abram as he’s still known as in today’s first reading.  And you know, there are implications that this great patriarch of our tradition is an immigrant that seem almost too obvious to require articulation. But, in our current political climate, where racism and xenophobia, and its promulgation, has made it to the highest seats and tweets of power in our country; and, across our whole world, where it feels to me like there has been an unleashing of a truly demonic level of hatred-- most recently seen in the shootings in mosques in New Zealand.  We’ve come to a time when preaching the obvious is sadly necessary.


So, God loves Muslims and immigrants every bit as much as everyone else. If God chose to bring three major world religions out of the travels of a wandering Aramean, then Muslims are to be valued and loved every bit as much as Christians, and immigrants are every bit to be valued as those that remain in the country of their origin. If God tells Abraham that he can take up residence in this foreign land of milk and honey, then we see that those who are born outside wealthier countries have every bit as much right to take advantage of the prosperity of those countries as those that are born in them… because the whole world is God’s. Citizenship is not ownership.


And, of course, if God loves and cares deeply for the immigrant, we should do. If God loves and cares deeply for the immigrant, then compassion and welcome not hatred and exclusion should be our ethic as a people and as a country.


But further I want to dig back into that Hebrew Scriptures reading because it’s interesting and, frankly, kind of weird. So, a little setting of the stage for the story. A few chapters earlier in Genesis is where Abram follows God’s call to leave Haran and travel to the land of Canaan. And he actually travels around a lot.

He makes it to Canaan but then has to leave and go to Egypt because of a famine. He then returns with his brother Lot but they have a disagreement, and so they each move to another part of the country. Abram is all over the place. And it is, at this moment, that today’s story picks up. Abram has this mystical vision where he hears God. And God promises that Abram will have a long line of descendents and will take up residence in this land. Abram does have faith but this still does not make any sense to him as he has no children and his life has been so nomadic. And here is where the story takes what is, to us, a bizarre turn. God tells Abram to get animals, cut them in two, and lay their halves out  separated. Abram does this and then falls into a deep, mystical sleep. And then, while Abram is some ambiguous state of consciousness, a fiery pot and torch appear and somehow pass between the pieces of the sacrificed animals.


Making sense of this is one of those things that you can’t really do without some study. So, what seems to be going on here is that there was this ancient near Eastern practice for making contracts between two parties. They would sacrifice animals, separate their parts, and then both parties, after making an agreement, would walk between the divided animals. And the purpose of this ritual was to say, “If either of us renege on our promise, may what happened to these animals happen to us.” From our modern vantage point this seems needlessly violent and abhorrent. But in an era when written contracts weren’t possible, it was the practice.


So, with this backdrop, God seems to be setting up Abram to do the same thing. To enter into a binding and conditional agreement with God to receive this blessing of descendents and land. But then Abram falls into the sleep and it is only the fiery pot and torch, which are symbols of God and God’s presence, that pass through the ritual space.  What looks like it’s going to be a conditional relationship becomes an unconditional one. God will bless Abraham no matter what.


Now, this is good Protestant theology. Martin Luther would be happy here. Grace not works. That sort of thing. Blessing comes to us not because we earn it or deserve it but simply because it is in God’s loving nature to give it.


But I do find it interesting that Abram has this mystical moment of clarity that God loves him and God will bless him only after he has gone out on his journey. After he has committed to this life as a wandering immigrant. I say this as someone who is a bit of homebody. I joke that, for my four years as an undergraduate, I lived out in the midwest in Amherst, Massachusetts and, for three years of my seminary, I lived in the deep south… that is Manhattan. Beyond that, the other 40ish years of my life have all been in eastern Massachusetts. I’m no wandering immigrant. But even with that, I know that the little bit of travel I’ve done awakens things in me. For centuries, folks have gone on pilgrimages to open themselves to God. More recently, mission trips have been crucial piece in the spiritual lives of both youth and adults. There’s something about going, about being a pilgrim, about being a wanderer, about being an immigrant, that opens us or shakes something loose in us or gives us new eyes to see how God is pouring out blessing, how God is there with us, how God is inviting us into relationship, how God is loving us.

And so, I think every time we build a new wall it is not only a limitation on our ability to be in relationship with others. It is not only a limitation on our ability to give and experience hospitality and compassion. It is, further, a limitation on our ability to engage in that deeply human practice we need to travel, to move, to go to new places where we know further God’s love.

----------------------

We now will spend five minutes in quiet reflection as part of our Lenten practice of listening to God in silence. There are lots of ways you can use this time. You could seek, in a more meditative way, to empty your mind of thoughts and distractions. Or, if you want, you can use the time in a more reflective way to consider how God is calling you to be an immigrant and a traveler or to be part of making the world better for others who are immigrants and travelers.


Tuesday
Mar052019

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany - March 3, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

During this church season of Epiphany, we’ve been going up and down mountains. And this Sunday, the last Sunday of Epiphany, we go back up a mountain in the Gospel story known as the Transfiguration.  It’s a story that I like very much but also one that I always wrestle with a lot. It’s a relatively significant narrative moment in the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry but not one whose function and purpose, at least for me, is as obvious other stories like Christmas, or Good Friday, or Easter, or even his baptism, or his time in the desert, or his Ascension. After last Sunday’s Oscars, I found myself thinking that if the life of Jesus was a movie, I wonder if the Transfiguration wouldn’t get axed by the film editors because it’s confusing.  But fortunately we get the Director’s Cut in the Scriptures, so we get to explore what this quirky, mystical set of encounters is about.

Now, throughout the centuries, there have been lots of takes on what the Transfiguration is about. Some intriguing. Some not so much to me. But a few years back, I stumbled across someone talking about the Transfiguration as a time of transition in the life of Jesus. And that has always stuck with me. Remember, at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, he focuses on traveling around the Galilean countryside with his friends. Preaching and teaching.

Healing the sick and the broken. Proclaiming the Good News of the coming of the Reign of God. And he organized a movement of people to follow him and do the same things. Sometimes by joining him in his travels and other times inviting folks to stay in their communities, where they would love God and each other and serve the wider neighborhood.

That, in a nutshell, is what it looks like Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry.  But then came the time that Jesus began to think it was time for something different. To go to Jerusalem, in what we know would lead to his capture, torture and crucifixion... followed by resurrection and ascension. Today’s Gospel story, the Transfiguration, comes at this time of transition. This pivot point for Jesus when his life, his ministry, his mission all shifted in a new direction.

And this for me is the hook that connects the Transfiguration with my life, and hopefully with yours. Because we all have so many times of transition in our lives. Going to kindergarten for the first time or heading off to college. Starting a new job or retiring from a job. Getting married or getting divorced. Moving to a new home or a new geographical location. Or there’s all the loss we endure in this lifetime: our physical or mental health, our financial security if we ever had it to begin with and, of course, the loss of those we love to death.  

There’s so many times of transition in life. Indeed, we are always changing in some way or another.  It’s just a question of how much transition is happening at any one time. My little guy, Duncan, he gets worked up when it’s time to head from one activity at school to another so his teachers say he has trouble with transition. The reality is we all have trouble with transition.

And so this is the lens that I bring in looking at the Transfiguration. What do we learn about how to be in times of transition from Jesus’s experience in it.  So, as the story goes in Luke, Jesus climbs a mountain with a few of his closest disciples and friends to pray and to get away from it all to open himself fully to what’s next.  And, as the story goes, it gets wild quick. He’s transfigured in something like blinding white light. And then somehow Elijah and Moses are there. Moses representing the law and Elijah the prophets, sort of representatives of the whole history of Israel, all that God’s done for the Jewish people up to that point is right there on that mountain.

      Next his friend Peter pipes up and his response to all this is kind of funny.  He says, ‘How about I pitch us all some tents?’ Peter tries to kind of lock down the moment.  Hunker down because it’s all so hard to manage. But Jesus doesn’t hunker down. He remains open,

open to the moment, open to the mystery, open to God on that mountain.  And then God does come in a new way, as they’re all shrouded in this mystical cloud and then this voice is heard, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

      In this time of transition, this very hard time of transition because Jesus knows full well not only that things are changing but even moreso that going to Jerusalem probably means his death. Even as he faced death, he still was able to make space to let God in.  Or maybe more to retain a posture of receptiveness that made the transition, though hard, a place for blessing and transformation. In this moment, Jesus knows that his history, the whole history of the Jewish people, is there for him. In this moment, Jesus knows that the presence of God, while in some ways imperceptible in the haze of a cloud, is nonetheless also right there for him.  Jesus knows there is a hard road ahead of him but, from the vantage point of the mountaintop, he can see beyond that to a place of hope and possibility. To go on in his calling and mission however daunting it might be.

And further, I wonder a bit about how Jesus was so open in that time of transition. I was chatting a little bit about it with a friend of mine this week. He’s a Christian spiritual director but he grew up Buddhist and so he brings to bear a lot from that tradition as well. I told him I thought was going to preach about times of transition and he brought up the Buddhist notion of impermanence-

that we spend a lot of time trying to cultivate these fixed notions of identity. I know often I preach about Jesus helping us become our best self or truest self or what have you.  But my friend posed the question that maybe all this identity talk is misguided. He quoted to me Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron (Peh-ma Cho-dron) who writes, “With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view….  When things start to fall apart in your life[,] you feel as if your whole world is crumbling. But actually it’s your fixed identity that’s crumbling. [And t]hat’s cause for celebration. The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armor. When that happens, it feels like a crisis because it is a crisis—a fixed-identity crisis….”

Maybe I’ve got it wrong when I say I think Jesus had a clear sense of his mission.  Maybe it was much more that Jesus was just unfettered by all the fixed identities that we lay on ourselves.  And so he was able to be attentive to the leadings of the Spirit wherever they might lead him. It wasn’t clarity of vision. Or clarity of purpose. Or clarity of identity. None of that stuff that we bring from places like the business world and map onto Jesus. Maybe it was just that he was supremely free. And so supremely responsive to people. And to the world. And to God.

Times of transition shake us up. And they can be unbelievably hard. They can be absolutely crises in our lives. But they also be something utterly transforming and utterly amazing. Richard Rohr puts it this way, “Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”   


Thursday
Feb212019

International Sunday - February 10, 2019 - Sylvia Weston

There are many personal stories connected to the sermon today and I have woven in a few snippets: - like when I searched for the Readings in the calendar year and began to formulate themes such as - Prophets - The Word,  The Heart!   You better reconfirm with Matt that these are indeed the Readings  for Feb 10th.  Meanwhile, out of the blue, I  pulled out some paperwork from my book shelf:  one was  a paper I wrote on:  Isaiah’s Vision - and guess what:  another  that I wrote on Paul and his Damascus encounter with Jesus!  I am all set now, I thought.

 I received  Matt’s reply with the assigned Readings for Today.  Surprise, the Readings were different..  -  It was (Isaiah 6 - Isaiah’s Vision - and Paul’s Epistle  and Luke.))  Matt said, if you want to change it and stick with the ones in the Prayer Book, let me me know.  No, i’ll work with the New Readings; I’ll just pray that the Holy Spirit will give me a Word  to speak.  Am pondering -  Now  I need a New Theme. In a prayerful mode I uttered  Please help me Lord, as I need to begin afresh..   (Why did I come upon those 2 papers I wrote some  10 or 11 years ago? ) I don’t know.   I only know that The WORD  of GOD is Real.  They are all connected - all ONE:  The Word, The Prophets - and the Heart to Heart Connection that is made as we read/or Hear, Listen. and encounter  The Presence of  God -  as we  live and stand in The Holy. 

So this brings me to my  personal story - connected to the central Message:  I had visitors one evening and  as I  watched over my 5 year old nephew and 7 year old niece,  (just the 3 of us)  -and while the 2 played, I heard my nephew’s voice singing:  I listened intently and here are the words:      “Follow the Prophets, Follow the Prophets, Don’t go astray!”

I said : Adonai - What is that?  (Yes, his name is Adonai!)  Where did you learn this song? Can you teach me?  He continued with a few more renditions.  I couldn’t believe my ears; It was awesome!  The message I learned from this child is that I must pay attention -  to the Prophets.   I must pay attention to The WORD..   It’s all connected to Truth - to  a Name - to God , to Son of God— and that Name is JESUS  - and to the Holy Spirit!   

Today we hear The Word from Isaiah, Psalm, Paul and Luke..  What is the message you want to write on our hearts today, Lord?  It is amazing how the Holy Spirit takes wings and transport the Prophets into Moments of Holy - Divine  Presence, as it did with Isaiah at that Time when he entered the Temple..  Isaiah’s Theophany is Real! He SAW, He Heard:  “Holy, Holy. Holy is The LORD”,  he CONFESSED/Repented - “Woe is Me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”

He is FORGIVEN , TRANSFORMED and Renewed!   He Hears The VOICE of GOD!!  He RESPONDS!  Scripture tells us of many other similar Encounters and Conversations:

    You recall:  Moses,  Joshua, Jeremiah, Gideon - Mary - Mother of JESUS,  and those who heard the Voice of JESUS - Peter, Nathaniel, Philip, Mary Magdalene - and many others.. all mentioned in Paul’s epistle.  The prophetic prophets are rooted in The WORD!  The Word Became Flesh in Jesus.. the Given NAME.  He Became Like Us - so that in Our Becoming, we can be Like Him.  “Don’t you know that The Spirit of Jesus lives in You?” (1st Corinthians 3:16. ) “You are God’s Temple, the Spirit of God lives in you.”  “We have this treasure in the human body - Jesus Christ,”  And to the Galatians:  “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”  And so we too, like Isaiah Worship, as we are drawn into God’s Holy Presence,  we Praise Him and sing:  “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord - God of Power and Might!”   We do this every Sunday during the Eucharist.   As Isaiah is drawn into that Heavenly Sphere, so too, we are drawn, so too, we respond and are renewed by the Holy Spirit of God!

Francois Bovon, one of my Professors says:  “Luke, in his Gospel relates how well  The Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah & Paul about Jesus..  Luke considers that both agree on Truth, both are witnesses of JESUS.”  The Name above all Names;  Not only does His Name have Presence, it also has POWER/STRENGTH..  “Today, as in other Times, the Divine WORD remans true.  The Holy Spirit spoke well, because it’s WORD of long ago is still pertinent Today!”   Let us LISTEN. This JESUS, of whom Isaiah and Luke tell us in their Message today, saw the NEED when He taught the people who gathered to hear him.  He begins a dialogue with The Disciples:  How are We to Feed So Many?  Was this a Test?  I believe so.   (And here is where I confess I got mixed up with the two sets of Gospel reading.)  I listened very intently to Matt as he read the Gospel at the 8:00 A.M. service. I realized I was using another of the dialogues Jesus had with His disciples - the one where he tells Peter to “Cast your net into the deep.”  Well, being with Jesus and learning of-  and from Him, you would think that Peter’s Becoming has grown to the “Perception level” and he would surrender:  “Yes, I will…”  - for in all of the teachings, He does something NEW!   Jesus knew HOW he would feed the people..  He wanted to know how the disciples will respond to the current need.   Not only is Perception of utmost importance,  But the connection , and as we grow in  Relationship with Jesus  - that is  the BECOMING:  it is Important.  How deep/strong is their FAITH in God;  their FAITH in Jesus?  How is that growing in us?  Jesus says:  “I am In You and You are in ME.”  Jesus commissions us as he did  His Disciples - Feed The Hungry, Heal the Sick - Bless, Help and Love…  

Scripture says:  “Don’t you know that The Spirit of Jesus lives in You?”

Paul in his Epistles/Letters and visits to the various places, after his Conversion often remind them: “As one untimely born, HE appeared also to me.  I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God, I am!”

“But when God who had set me apart before I was born, called me through His Grace; Pleased to reveal His Son to me, to Proclaim Jesus among the Gentiles…..”  “I was not given this Commission by human hands, but by God Himself.”  In his Damascus encounter,  when Paul asked  “Who are you Lord?” -  He Heard the voice:  “I AM JESUS.  GO-…”  Paul travelled to many Nations to Tell of The Love of  God…of Jesus..  He received the assurance:   “Do not worry about how you are to speak..  It is not You who speak, but The Spirit of Your Father, which speaks through You.”  The message:  “Jesus Christ died, was buried and was Raised up!”  I to have seen Him!

Indeed we are called to follow The Prophets…to learn and Do The Word and to respond. I wonder  what was pressing on Isaiah’s heart on that day?  What burden?  The passage dates his Vision “In the year that King Uzziah died:  “I saw The Lord. …”  God is Here. God is  THE KING!   GOD is on His Throne.   Who will GO and DO His Message of Compassion, of LOVE..of Praying,  WHO will Speak  for the oppressed?   Who will show Mercy? Who will walk the mile with My People?  Who will speak Healing in His NAME?  WHO will see that there is Food to feed the Needy..   Who will extend a Hand and offer Forgiveness?   God says:  Will You GO for Me?  Will you answer God’s call?   God’s  promise of His Grace is abundant and given  freely.  The Holy Spirit of God lives in You and will give you the Word to Speak.  God’s faithfulness is True and Everlasting!

Wednesday
Feb202019

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 17, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

It is sometimes said that preachers have one thing they preach about. One, or maybe a few themes, that they are always coming back to. I try not to fall into this trap. I hate to think of myself as repetitive or, God forbid, boring. But, if I’m honest with myself, there are some things I often fall back on. And one of those is joy. The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John where he says, “I have told you these things so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” That’s often bouncing around in my head.  And I come back to it quite a bit.

 

And so with that I’m caught off guard a little bit by today’s Gospel where Jesus says, “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”  It doesn’t make the top 10 list of Jesus’s most fun teachings.  “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” In this next year, St. James’s will be thinking about its communication and how it shares itself in the world as the new parish hall and building grows around us… but I bet this Gospel won’t get too much consideration for a new church tagline. ‘Woe to you Porter Square.” Probably not.

 

What’s Jesus up to here?  Well, it’s helpful to know a little bit of Biblical backstory. In some of the early portions of the Hebrew Scriptures in books like Deuteronomy, there is this theology that gets called “blessings and curses.” There’s something to it, I think, but for its earliest hearers it got crassly and hurtfully misunderstood as implying that, if you were good and faithful to God, it guaranteed worldly success, and affluence and riches, and happiness. And if you weren’t faithful, then you’d be poor. Then you’d be sick. Then you’d be marginalized.  And what makes this thinking not only wrong but hurtful is that lended those that had privileges to think they earned them and those that didn’t hadn’t. That those in poverty or illness or other form of destitution deserves that somehow.

 

And so, later in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the prophets there is a reaction against this. That sometimes “bad things happen to good people.” Indeed tragedy is often utterly random and takes no account of its victims. And the ancient prophets remind us that injustices were often put in place by those in power to protect their privilege.  

 

Jesus picks up on this prophetic reaction to blessing and curses theology and takes it even a step further. And as he does so, I find he is not only responding to the misunderstanding of ancient Israelites but also to misunderstandings of 21st century Christians… misunderstandings of you and me.  When I’m preaching about joy… or about healing… or about peace… or about shalom… or about wholeness… or about finding our true identity… it can sound quite like a religious spin on modern pop psychology. And Jesus was no self-help guru. This is not to say that following Jesus doesn’t take us to a place of joy and healing and wholeness, But that sort of thing is secondary.  Jesus was calling together a communal way of love and interconnection. A beloved family. An utterly inclusive community of love with God at the center as generative source and as the one who is worshipped… and then out of that comes joy and healing and peace. Communion with God and with each other and with stranger and enemy and all creation. That’s first. Our individual psychological, and physical, and spiritual health, it’s a byproduct of being drawn into that beautiful divine mystery that Jesus called the reign of God. Whenever we think it’s just about me, or whenever it’s a dividing some us from them, we’ve lost the bigger picture of what Jesus is inviting us into. And all of us, definitely me, fall into that trap.

 

And so it’s for that reason that I think Jesus hits his disciples over the head with his teaching about woes and blessings. One Biblical translation I liked rendered the word woe as danger.  So, Jesus is saying,

 

“It is a danger to you when you are affluent because the contentment there is hollow and full of poverty.

It is a danger to you when you are healthy because your body will, at some point, betray you.

It is a danger to you when you are in a good place emotionally and you try to settle into that place, because the rug very well may be torn out from under you by the world.

 

It is a danger to you when your root too much of your sense of dignity in your standing in the community, how you are perceived by others, because that will fall away and you will not be remembered.

If is a danger to you when you are insulated from suffering, death, and dying, when you live as if you are immortal because you are not.

 

But you are full of abundance and blessing when you are poor, because you reach out to God without the false security of financial resource.

You are full of abundance and blessing when your body is in any need, because God does bring relief.

You are full of abundance and blessing when you suffer in your heart or in your soul, because God will be your solace.

 

Here I want to try to hold two things that are in some level of contradiction. On the one hand, I believe it to be true, what liberation theologians call God’s preferential option for the poor. The stories of the Bible and the lived- experience of saints past and present demonstrate that God shows up particularly with those that suffer… those in need… those that have less. It’s not that poor people are universally morally superior to those with means. It’s simply that poverty so breaks God’s heart that that is where God goes. It occurred to me this week that we could call our God a God of Injustice… because wherever there is injustice, God is right there. This is one thing that I think is absolutely true. And, at the same time, there is a poverty in all our lives that brings God to us. I think of Mother Teresa saying the poverty of the west is an equally desolating poverty of love and loneliness and spirituality. All of us have some parts of our life where there is loss and lack and woe. I think about members of our congregation who aren’t with us today because of illness or trips to the hospital. I think about members of our congregation who aren’t with us today because of an illness that is unlikely to be cured. I think about members of our congregation who are currently away at the funerals of loved ones. I think about members of our congregation who have some means but still live with constant stress about finances. I think about members of our congregation whose relationships are breaking. I think about members of our congregation who are alone. For all of us, there are times when life is not as it should be. And in those times we more acutely hear Jesus’s call into the loving community of God.

 

One last dive into today’s Gospel from Luke. It’s interesting to contrast this story with how Matthew tells it in that Gospel. In Matthew, it’s the more well-known Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is up on a hillside preaching down to the crowds, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…”  In Luke, Jesus comes down off the hill onto a level place… a plain. He’s in this huge crowd… a crowd of disciples and those that have come to hear Jesus and those that have no idea what’s going on. There’s folks from near and far. There’s folks that are Jewish and folks that are not Jewish.  Given the size of the crowd, surely there were people that were younger and people that were older… people that were lighter skinned and people that were darker skinned… people that were queer and people that were heterosexual or cisgendered… you name it… they all were there. And Jesus was right there with them.  He comes down from the mountain… enters the crowd… healing emanates from him… and, as the story goes, he looks up at them. He sees them. And he says, “Blessed… are… you…” Blessed are you. In Matthew, it’s “Blessed are those who… yada, yada, yada.” In Luke, it’s “Blessed are you.”

 

Jesus comes down to the level plains of our lives, scatters healing love indiscriminately, looks into our eyes, tells us we are blessed and loved… and then helps us to see… right there on those level plains where we find ourselves… that those places that seem empty and depressing and hopeless to us… right there… Jesus shows us how that all- inclusive community of God is where we already are. We just don’t see it.

 

Last week, St. James’s awarded its Absalom Jones award to Kendall Gedeon for her work with the Food Justice Team and the Helping Hands Food Pantry. Now Kendall is organized and bright and charming. She’s got a lot of gifts. But the stories that I hear that impress me most are about her being part of an intentionally relational part of the food pantry. She goes out way to have conversations with guests. And that relationship building in the food pantry is not secondary to the handing out of food, but is every bit as important because it creates dignity, it identifies gifts and blessings, and it creates a mutuality that breaks down the us versus them dynamic that prevents community. Kendall does what Jesus does. She comes. She looks folks in the eye and connects with them. And though she probably uses different words, she reveals that they are blessed.

 

May we go and do likewise.


 

Tuesday
Feb052019

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 3, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

Today, I am going to hold myself to a higher standard. In the Gospel reading we just heard, Jesus is standing up and challenging people in a way that enrages them. They charge after him, forcing him back, and then, according to the original Greek, they try to “cast him down headlong.” However, in a miracle of elusiveness that can’t be put into words, Jesus somehow slides through the angry crowd and goes forward on his way. The low hanging fruit here, that is very hard for me to resist, is to make a Superbowl football joke. Jesus... not getting thrown down... going forward through his opponents... A timely but cheesy sports joke; it’s hard for me to refrain. But I will. A higher standard.

Seriously, today’s Gospel is indeed an interesting story of competition and, we might say, mutual rejection. Jesus’s rejection of his kin’s tribalism and then their rejection of him. It’s not the easiest story to wrestle with. To be honest, after last week’s Annual Meeting, with all the positive energy there... looking forward to a new building and all the possibilities it opens for us... the time of affirmation and gratitude... I was hoping that this Sunday’s readings would have more of a “ra ra” vibe to them. But instead we get this hard moment in the life of Jesus when he has returned to his hometown. It’s not long after his baptism and his time in the desert. And he’s begun to make a name for himself in other towns, healing and proclaiming the Good News. And the people he grew up with are happy and proud to have him back. As Luke tells this story, they’re not immediately dismissive of him. They’re actually impressed with the grace and beauty and power of his words. They’re a little confounded by the fact that this is the son of the local handyman Joseph. But Luke doesn’t tell the story as if they initially are rejecting Jesus. Indeed, what is rather surprising is that Jesus seems to reject them first. He tells them stories from the Hebrew Scriptures of when God’s healing and mercy came to foreign Gentiles but not the Jewish people. Not them. It was a smack in the face for Jesus’s Jewish community. Imagine... a guest preacher comes in here to St. James’s and tells us how God does great things with other churches but not with us. This is what Jesus does here. Why?

Well, Biblical scholars debate this. It would be irresponsible to say we can know definitively what’s going on here. But it seems like Jesus saw in his people a love that was not expansive. They loved Jesus. He was theirs. But it was a tribal brand of love. They wanted their rock star back for themselves. They had no desire to share Jesus with others nor did it necessarily even occur to them that they should. But for Jesus a non-inclusive love was no love at all. And so, drawing on the wisdom of the stories of their shared Jewish heritage, he shows them how they are not living up to their ideals. He tries to shock them out of their insular worldview. God is for all and so I am for all, he says. And sadly, they don’t get it. At least, at that point, they don’t. They reject Jesus; casting him out of the community; and seeking to throw him down, maybe off a cliff. Jesus rejects their inability to love and welcome expansively so they reject Jesus.

We, at St. James, do seek to be welcoming and inclusive. And, I think this community genuinely has reason to be proud of that. Perfect at it, surely we are not. But we do have a community that deeply understands how much inclusivity is not a cute little liberal capitulation to culture, but rather at the very heart of the Gospel, at the very core of the nature of God and God’s love. Again, St. James’s does fall short in being inclusive at times, and we all fall short individually of it. But we do strive to do the hard work on ourselves to be more inclusive. And I think that is more what we should be proud of: not for how welcoming or not we actually are, but for our willingness to do the soul-searching, sometimes painful, continuing work to be more welcoming and inclusive. The work that Jesus’s hometown isn’t up for in today’s Gospel.

But I want to take this idea that Jesus rejects people in a little different direction. The question I want to ask you is: what is Jesus rejecting in you right now? What is that piece of how you live or think or act that Jesus would have harsh words for? What narrative are you locked into that, no matter how much truth or loves lies in it, Jesus would challenge because it deafens you from hearing the narrative of someone else where God also can be found? What balloon of yours would he pop? It’s not a pleasant kind of question to consider, but one that I think we all must ask of ourselves from time to time.

For me, I’ve gotten a little better over the years with hearing rejection and criticism. But it still stings sometimes. For me, there are parts of my psyche that want excessive control and mastery over my world. There are parts of me that want to feel like I know everything I need to know. Parts of me that are wrapped up in my ego and pride. Parts of me so afraid of failure that I don’t even want to try. Parts of me that care too much about how I am perceived by others and not enough about how I am perceived by God. Those are some of the balloons in my head that Jesus has to keep on popping. We’ve all got ‘em.

But this is when I need to remind myself that this brand of rejection of the broken parts of me are not because they are all bad, or because I am bad. No, this kind of rejection is indeed a blessing because it also me to face my shadows, love them as part of my humanity, and grow beyond them thanks to the grace of God. I was reminded this week of a piece in Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards. Falling Upwards is this great book where Rohr articulates what the journey of faith looks like in the second part of life. A lot of what we talk about in the church really is about the brands of self-discovery, prayer, and call to action that people of faith in the first half of life move through. If you are someone with a little bit of gray in your hair, you might consider checking out Falling Upwards.

Anyhow, in this book, Rohr is talking about facing our darker sides and he writes, “Our mistakes are something to be pitied and healed much more than hated, denied, or perfectly avoided. I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you.” Jesus’s rejections are not to make us feel bad about ourselves...that’s what the world does but not Jesus... no, his rejection is a mirror he places in front of us so we can see the illusions, the thought patterns, the ways of living and being that hold us back from becoming our best selves... that hold us back from connecting in love with others and the world... that hold us back from entering more deeply into the mystery of God.

So much holds us back, mires us in a drab status quo. But with God there is always more, and so I think when we choose to enter into the brands of spiritual growth that Jesus makes possible for us, we too become more- increasingly boundless like God is boundless. People who are spiritually mature, in some ways, their identities seem well-defined, solid, and reliable. But, in other ways, I think their identities are less clear. More mercurial. They know how to zig when everyone else only zags. They know how to find that perfect word that didn’t occur to anyone else but perfectly captures the moment. They are more wide-open because, some of the old bounds, the old brands of self-definition have fallen away. It is clear there is just so much to them. They are so caught up in God’s boundless love that they too are boundless in love. So caught up in God’s boundless wisdom that their wisdom is boundless. So caught up in God’s freedom and joy and playfulness that they find play and joy even in times of sorrow and pain and challenge. There is always yet, another wonderful thing with God. And that is what Jesus opens us too.


Wednesday
Jan232019

Baptism of Our Savior - January 13, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

(On this Sunday, Wells William Hardie-Futrell was baptized. The sermon is a letter for Wells.)


Dear Wells William,


You were baptized at St. James Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 13, 2019. You were nine months old and looked quite sharp in your white shirt and striped dress pants. And you were your typical charming, smiling, engaging self, and your parents and family were there looking on adoringly.


In the church service, your parents and godparent made promises to put you in situations and communities that would encourage you to grow spiritually as well as emotionally and physically. And then the moment came for your baptism. We all marched over to the large baptismal font and there you were baptized. I got to hold you in my arms and pour water on your forehead saying, “Wells William, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” After that, I was given a special type of holy oil called chrism, and I anointed you, putting the oil on your forehead in the shape of a cross saying, “Wells William, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever.”


You might wonder, Wells, as you get older, what was the point of it? Why get baptized? Very good questions.


For starters, baptism is about joining a faith community, the church. So, it makes sense to talk about just what your parents got you into; what church really is.

       

Now, God's church is full of people and we're not any better than anyone else. We make mistakes. We don't have all the answers. We try to be hospitable to each other and to our neighbors but sometimes we do fail. And sometimes we even hurt each other by accident or on purpose. None of us are perfect. Wells, you didn’t join the perfect community.

       

And, on top of that, there are sacrifices that need to be made as a baptized member of the church. Being part of the church means being at worship on Sundays. Worshipping together is an important part of how Christians grow in faith. This might mean you miss out on other opportunities, like sleeping in or playing sports that meet on Sunday mornings. And, furthermore, baptized Christians need to make sacrifices all throughout the week, not just on Sundays. Jesus calls us to follow him at all times. In the Episcopal church, we articulate these responsibilities in the Baptismal Covenant. That set of promises says we need to make time during the week for prayer and for studying the Bible. That we need to admit when we make mistakes and ask for forgiveness. That we need to proclaim to other people God's goodness even if we feel embarrassed about it. That we need to put others before ourselves as if we were their servant. That we need to work in our world to make it a place of justice and peace for all people. That we need to make choices that put the protection of Mother Earth over our own wants and needs. It’s quite a high calling. Jesus asks quite a bit of his baptized people. All of us, at one time or another, will wonder if it's worth the cost. All of us, at times, think about giving it up.

       

But, Wells, what we Christians find is that, ultimately, it is worth it. That the benefits of the baptized life far outweigh the costs. First of all, when you're part of the church, you find you have a whole additional family-- your church family. Now, like any other family, there will be difficult and awkward moments. But, overall, like most families, the church is a place where we do love each other. A place where we care for one another. A place where we support each other in hard times and laugh together in good times. Wells, in the church, you gained a family to love and support you, and help you grow closer to God and to mature into the person God wants you to be.


And further, baptism is more than just about the community of God you joined. It’s also about your own relationship with God. On the day you were baptized, the church heard the story of when Jesus was baptized. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’" (Luke 3:21-22) A lot happens in those two verses. First of all, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus. The Holy Spirit is many things but it is, in part, the power of God. What gave Jesus the ability to do amazing things. Then this voice of God from heaven says that Jesus is beloved and that God is pleased with him.

In Jesus’s baptism, he got power to do whatever he needed to do, and the encouragement of knowing that God loved him and was pleased with him.


Wells, baptism is the same exact thing for you. In it, we know that God gives you the ability to do anything you need to do. And, in it, God tells you how much God loves you and how much God is pleased with you. Sometimes in life we don’t think we can do it. Sometimes in life we feel alone or unloved. Sometimes we get down on ourselves. But God never gets down on us. God never leaves us alone. God never gives us things to do that we can’t do. Wells, God gives you the power to do more than you think you can. Wells, God loves you more than you can imagine no matter what mistakes you might make. Wells, God is absolutely well-pleased with you. God thinks you are amazing. Never forget that.


With delight and excitement at the amazing person you are now and the amazing person you will grow up to be,

(The Rev'd) Matthew Stewart and the whole community of St. James’s Episcopal Church