Sermons

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


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.”