Sermons

Wednesday
Sep112019

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 8, 2019 - Rev. Matthew Stewart

For the last month or so, we’ve been looking at some of the hardest teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. And perhaps we’ve hit the climax here this Sunday, Sunday School Kickoff Sunday, with Jesus saying, “To follow me you have to hate your kids and your momma.” And as if that wasn’t rough enough, he also says give up all your stuff.  

 Now, sometimes we preachers can dodge the homiletical bullet by just choosing to focus on one of the other Biblical texts we heard. But this week in Jeremiah, we hear God threatening evil against Jerusalem for its misdeeds and the little New Testament letter Philemon is Saint Paul is asking a slave owner to be kind as he sends an escaped slave back to his master.

 So, oy, I guess we’re back to momma hating. What’s Jesus up to here? How does what he says make any kind of sense alongside of Jesus elsewhere saying we should love God and love neighbor and even love enemies. On face value, it seems Jesus is saying we should love everybody with the exception of our family whom we should hate. 

 Now, Jesus is trying to shock us here. But I think it is a bit more palatable, or at least a little more comprehensible, when we take a deeper dive on how he is using the word hate.  It is still contrasted with love but remember, in the Biblical world, love is much more what about what you do than what you feel. Much more about where your loyalty lies and how you shape your life around those loyalties. One commentator put it this way, “What is demanded of disciples is that in the network of the many loyalties in which all of us live the claim of Christ and the Gospel not only takes precedence but, in fact, redefines the others. This can and will necessarily involve some detaching, some turning away.”

 So, hate here isn't the same sort of deal as how we use the term today. Jesus’s, what we might call holy hating, has absolutely no relation with how white supremacists treat people of color in this country or how folks in Washington respond to immigrants and refugees or how those espousing “Straight Pride” talk. That kind of hate and its associated brands of violence and cruelty is absolutely at odds with what Jesus teaches. 

 No, the kind of hate that Jesus advocates. It’s much more about a sharp committed detachment. Not an enmity or  spite. Not about a fear-driven refusal to be compassionate. Not about demonization or callousness. 

 No, when Jesus says hate your family as well as give up all your possessions, he’s saying part of what we all need to do with those that things that matter to us in this world is to let them go. Even to some extent let go of the people in our world that matter to us. Let go because often the way we cling onto particular people or things isn't really love. Or, it's not a particularly great brand of love. A love muddied by our brokennesses and fears. In the time of Jesus, you clung to your family because they were the only safety net there was. 

 Love of family was very related to love of possessions in Jesus's day. A love born of a need for financial security and safety for your life. In other words a love fueled by a fear for one's own well-being not a purer love rooted in affection and care.

 Our loves are no better. We parents sometimes hold back our kids out of our fears or push our kids too hard out of our failed dream. Romantic relationships where neither partner flourishes because insecurities don't allow space for a healthy balance of individuality and interconnection. All kinds of doubts and fears and pains often hide in the structures, rules, and values of family systems. As they say, the turn of phrase dysfunctional family is redundant. 

 So, I think when Jesus says hate your family he is not only challenging us to put God first, although that's certainly part of it. But even more, he's challenging us to do the very hard work of restructuring our lives to open our hearts to the Spirit that is always opening us to a better brand of love. This kind of focused, strategic hating is so we can love better. So we can join in God's work with us, freeing us from what the Jesuits call disordered attachments. Probably our Buddhist friends understand the importance of detachment better than we Christians do but it always has been part of our tradition as well. Early Christian thinkers drew on the Stoic value of apatheia, apathy, for their sense of what part of a healthy spirituality looked like.

 Nowadays we value passion and drive and counsel people to lean in or be “all in.” And there is absolutely something to that. But sometimes being too close makes us lose perspective. We can't really see what we love when there is not some level of critical distance. We get so close that we miss out. 

 Sometimes we need to step back to really love. Sometimes we need to let go to really love. Sometimes we need to step away from something that is wonderful and good so we can have a more wide-ranging experience of God's blessing. Followers of Jesus are invited to love their family, and their neighbor, and their friend, and the stranger. They are invited to love those similar to them and those different. And they are invited to love the world. And they are invited to love God. And, while it does involve difficult choices with our time and resources in the moment and sometimes it requires us to act like we hate things and people important to us, in the end, it's a unitive joy-filled kind of affair. We can love everybody and the world and God and ourselves. And the dividing lines between those things blur and we find ourselves free to love in this big expansive way that we didn't think we could-- a kind of huge, wild love that isn't just a few folks and things in our lives. It's this big love that has no boundaries. Or to be more theologically precise, when we choose to open ourselves to God and God's unbounded love then that love becomes our love. Our messed up love is transformed to be very love of God. And then we become better all the way around for others and for ourselves. Life becomes easier and brighter. We become more ourselves. We live seeing others not as rivals to be compared against but partners whose well-being is wrapped up with our own well-being. God's inclusive, generous, expansive, and connecting love can blot out everything that keeps us down. Everything that keeps us separated. Everything that keeps us afraid and in pain. God's love truly can make our lives better and the whole world better.  

 But we do need to make difficult choices to live into that love. We’re not wired that way by default. We need to take the risk to step away from our familiar safety nets to live into that bigger love. We need to step out in faith so that our love is always more and more transformed by God's. Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Tuesday
Aug272019

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost - August 25, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

Louise was eighty-eight years old when I first met her. She was one of those lifers in the Episcopal Church. She had been a clerk on the vestry for thirty years. She had been the director of the Altar Guild for fifty years. She had sung in the choir for eighty years. Even in her late eighties, Louise remained spritely and alive. She still made her famous raisin squares and invited folks with no other place to go to come to her family meals. While she did tell me she couldn’t be bothered with using female language for God, she nonetheless had an amazing capacity to tolerate and even appreciate change. I don’t know where that came from. Probably that she was a woman with a disciplined practice of daily prayer.  

As Louise aged into her nineties, she began to have problems with her back and her posture. Every year, she was a little more hunched over. It caused her pain that she needed to constantly manage. It restricted her mobility. But also, and this is what she’d talk to me about, it impacted her ability to see.  Her posture had her facing the ground and so she couldn’t spend much time looking out without it hurting her neck. And so, while Louise continued to get out and about, she wasn’t free anymore to see the world around her and the people around her in the way she had previously.

Of course, it’s today’s Gospel that has me thinking about Louise. In it, Jesus spots a woman who has been bent over for eighteen years, calls her over, and heals her so that she can stand up straight.  What Louise reminds me of is that being hunched over doesn’t just cause physical pain. It doesn’t just cause mobility challenges. It actually impact your ability to see the world and connect in the world. Jesus’s healing in today’s Gospel, like many of his healings, does a whole lot more than just curing pain. It restores the woman’s dignity. It restores her ability to see others and be in relationship with them. It restores the woman’s ability to do things that she enjoys and gives her life meaning. In a culture that in ways even worse than ours, segregated and looked down on those who those with physical disabilities, Jesus freed this woman to return as a full member to the community.

Indeed, this was a healing about freedom. Freedom for the woman to live the life she wanted. Freedom for the woman to be fully welcomed in community. Freedom for the woman to be herself. Freedom for the woman to see and connect to others, and to the world, and to God. And this is what the religious leader in today’s story failed to understand when he criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. You know, one of the trends in modern Biblical scholarship is to be a little more sympathetic to the religious leaders who were Jesus’s antagonists. To try to understand where they are coming from.  

This is in part to protect us from the trap of anti-Semitism that often has emerged from seeing the Jewish leaders in the Bible as bad guys.  But it also just plain makes sense. The religious leader of this synagogue has allowed Jesus to come in and teach. Mid-sermon some woman walks in. Jesus cuts off his sermon mid-sentence and walks over to the woman to heal her. The religious leader is probably thinking, “Couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?” After all today’s the sabbath. The day to attend to God. The day for holy rest. It’s not entirely unreasonable or uncompassionate for him to think that this healing could be put off for the moment. Both for the rest of the folks listening to Jesus teach who he’s now ignoring and also for observance of the Sabbath honoring God. 

But Jesus will not wait to heal. Jesus will not wait to free this woman from this infirmity that has her bound. And this, to my mind, isn’t Jesus breaking the rules of Sabbath.  This is actually him adhering to them more fully. You see, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people were called to remember two big stories from their history as they observed the Sabbath. The first was God resting on the seventh day of Creation. That’s the one that we tend to know. But the second and no less important one, is the Exodus. God’s freeing the Hebrew people from bondage. That’s part of Sabbath observance too.

This is the third commandment coming from Deuteronomy, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”  

Sabbath is both a time for holy rest and also, I would suggest some forms of holy work… all within the broader context of God wanting to give us all healing and freedom and wholeness. Jesus hated that the rules of the religious establishment didn’t lead the woman in that direction. Indeed, their rules became ones that enforced the status quo, that were a means of social control and oppression. Whenever any rule, religious or otherwise, doesn’t lead to freedom, it is not in alignment with the way of Jesus. 

Whenever children at the border are separated from their families, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever social norms about gender keep folks from living and expressing themselves as they are, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever folks who look like me hoard our resources and don’t share them so others can flourish, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever the community allows some in and holds others out, that is not the way of Jesus.

Whenever our own thought patterns make us feel less about ourselves and so we don’t claim our well-deserved place in the community, that is not the way of Jesus.

  Healing and wholeness and being free. It is what Jesus wants for all of us. It is what Jesus offers to all of us.  And so the Sabbath is both a time where we make space to receive those gifts for ourselves and also a time where we get equipped, equipped to go out into the world and dismantle all those oppressive systems that prevent others from receiving those gifts as well.

The April before last, Louise died. She drew her last earthly breath at a nursing home surrounded by family and friends. And she was perched up in her hospital bed in such a way that she could see them all of them. She could see all those who loved her and were right there with her. She too was healed.


Tuesday
Aug062019

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - August 4, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

A few weeks ago, a few friends of mine took me along for a trip to Iceland. Iceland is a place of amazing natural beauty. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to see things like dormant volcanos, and bubbling hot springs, and adorable puffins.  But probably the highlight of the trip was this big hike we took. You walk past a whole bunch of waterfalls and eventually make your way to walk out onto icefields from one of the many glaciers of Iceland. And I’m one of those people like many of you for whom nature can give me this sense of the presence of God. The beauty. The awe. It can take us beyond ourselves. And this hike was that for me. 

So, we’re out there on this icefield in the middle of nowhere, except there is little hostel there right up next to the glacier. A place where you can unroll a sleeping bag and sleep on the floor. We didn’t stay there but we did stop by to refill our water bottles and, in the process, our phones picked up on the hut’s wifi. And so, with the disturbing magic of modern technology, my phone knew I was on an Iceland glacier and so proceeded to offer me a bit of related news. And that was that elsewhere in Iceland they were preparing to memorialize the death of another glacier. 

Back in 2014, this glacier called Ok (pronounced Auk) died due to human-caused climate change. One of the amazing things about glaciers is they have such a massive accumulation of ice and snow that they are always moving. But, if too much melts away, they stop and become what glacier scientists call “dead ice.” In a week or so, a plaque will be installed at this former glacier. It will say, “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it. August 2019 415ppm CO2.”

So, here I am, standing in the middle of God’s beautiful creation and my Iphone’s reminding me that we are destroying it. This land of living ice will become a land of dead ice if our species doesn’t radically change the way we live in the world. 

And, of course, there is so much more that is being killed off by climate change. Lots of animal species go extinct each year and we’re starting to lose mammal species in particular. People in the poorest parts of the world suffer most from climate change. Poverty and starvation will increase. Languages will be lost to climate change as fringe communities on islands and coastlines need to relocate as refugee. Biodiversity and human diversity will diminish.

It isn’t partisan hyperbole to say we are entering into a climate apocalypse. 

Further we Christians have another reason to be horrified at climate change. Climate change is hurting the planet. Climate change is hurting other species. Climate change is hurting our species. But climate change is also hurting God. You know, we Christians believe that God was most incarnate, most present in the world, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But we also believe that God, through God’s indwelling Spirit, is somehow in us and in the world. In the planet. The destruction of our world is a reenactment of sorts of Good Friday. Yet another set of nails driven into the incarnate body of the Divine. All creation is soaked in Christ and so I think if Matthew 25 was being written today, Jesus might add one more line, “Whatever you have done unto Mother Earth, you have done unto me.”

So, what do we do? How do we live in this time? Well, I certainly don’t feel like I have the best of answers here but this week, while I was driving my fossil fuel burning car around, I found myself a podcast that gave me some new ideas. It’s by Adrienne Maree Brown who Lauren quoted from last week. The podcast is called “How to Survive the End of the World.” And she explores in it how to live and feel and be in times like this. And, as an aside, it’s good stuff even of those of you for whom the apocalypse that seems most pressing to you isn’t climate change.  Maybe something else is making your life fall apart. Racism or oppression. Addiction or the loss of health or job or the death of loved one. Life falls apart a lot. And so Maree Brown and her sister share a lot about how they live in the face of it all. And I want to share two particular things they talked about that jumped out at me. 

The first is that we shouldn’t avoid the apocalypses of the world but rather that we should sit and face them. Indeed, this is very much in keeping with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. It’s a part of his teaching that we don’t like to hear very much when he says stuff like, “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light” or “For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world.”  Apocalypse was something challenged his hearers to wrestle with. We don’t like to hear it much so we only read those passages for a few weeks in December. But maybe we should hear it more. The world, at least as we know it, is ending. And what Adrienne Maree Brown says is, even before we try to do something about it… you know, a lot of us activist types want to jump up and go do something, make some change… and we can and should do that… but, before we do those things, we need to sit with apocalypse and grieve it. And as communities grieve and lament together. And you know, that communal piece, I think it’s really important. Therapists are beginning to see that more and more folks are coming to them with what now is being termed “Climate Grief.” This brand of depression that comes from seeing how our earth is being destroyed, and also feeling an immense sense of powerlessness because the powers that be don’t seem to care and so the collision course we are on seems inevitable. There are multiple folks in our congregation here at St. James’s that wrestle with serious Climate Grief.  And that’s why I think the grieving together… the communal naming and lamenting of climate apocalypse… is so important. Because doing it together not only gives us the comfort of not going it alone but also provides the space for healing. A healing that isn’t about ignoring the truth or expecting a supernatural intervention but a healing where we are freed to live authentically and even with a joy right in the face of that which is so horrifying.  

And this gets to Adrienne Maree Brown’s second idea. Her newest book is called Pleasure Activism. In it, she talks about how activist types, and all of us really, sometimes feel like we should feel bad all. The world is full of pain so I should be sad. The world is full of injustice so I should be constantly unsatisfied. The world is broken so I should not feel good. But Brown says, “Nope.” The best activists are those that claim pleasure. That do face apocalypse honestly but also do not fail to laugh, do not fail to enjoy life, do not feel guilty to feel embodied pleasure. Indeed some of her book and her podcast is little racy for all the ways she thinks we should seek after pleasure in our lives.

And I think she’s right. I don’t think this some kind of hipster hedonism but right in line with the teaching of Jesus. I think part of what Jesus meant in today’s Gospel about “being rich with God” is not some sort of world-denying asceticism. Jesus isn’t saying here to love God means have lives devoid of all sensual pleasures. No, I think being rich with God is where we are in love with God and of all God’s blessings, we are love with the world and all the world’s beauties, and we are even in love with ourselves… all the wonders and quirks of our fleshly, embodied selves.  All of it is the complete joy that Jesus wants for us. Because not only did he talk about facing the end of the world but he also said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” 

Facing apocalypse and knowing complete joy. Knowing real powerlessness in the face of death and having complete confidence in the reality of new life. We follow a Savior who calls us to action for justice and who invites us to savor times of just sitting at his feet. We follow a Savior who says it is the end of the world and yet do not fear for “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”


Wednesday
Jun122019

The Day of Pentecost - June 9, 2019 - Meredith Wade

Good morning! As you might have gathered, this is the last official Sunday of my ministry with St. James’s. And when Matt first asked me to preach this particular service, I thought, how could I possibly do justice to the two years I’ve spent here in one sermon? How can I thank you for the ways you have shaped and changed me, whether intentionally or unwittingly? And the truth is, I can’t. But I want to thank you for one thing in particular, a gift you might not realize you’ve given. It’s only recently that I’ve fully begun to receive it.

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to fail.

It would be too easy to stand up in front of all of you, and talk about how I succeeded here. I could list all the things I accomplished with the Food Justice Team, all the ways we grew and learned together, all the moments that prove I am smart enough, capable enough, and good enough for this work. That would certainly fit the mentality I had when I first walked through these doors, driven by a roaring engine of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m not trying to belittle myself here. Even Holly, our then-rector, didn’t know exactly what form my role would take, what she expected of me, or how she would evaluate my progress. The question I saw behind everyone’s eyes - and not because anyone was outright saying it - was, “Are you accomplishing what we called you here to do?”

I’ve been an anxious overachiever since grade school - I’m used to worrying about what other people think. But this fixation on whether I was doing what I had been called here to do and whether I was doing it well carried a new - and significant - moral weight: it was no longer just my own reputation or future career at stake, it was also the health and well-being of the St. James’s community, and the community of guests who rely on our food pantry to get through the month. My learning curve as an activist and organizer suddenly took on a very tangible form of collateral damage. Each mistake or miscalculation now had a face - usually an older woman of color, often an immigrant, always someone with gifts and soul beyond what our current economic and political system can see. Talk about a heavy burden.

And while much of the weight I began to carry in my work here was rooted in a strong call towards social justice, there is also a uniquely capitalist bent to the fear of failure that rattled my body and brain during my first several months. Calculated inputs of time and effort, which lead to predictable results, feed into what we now understand to be unsustainable economic growth. And I was surprised at how easily these models and standards of productivity could be applied to activism. Surely the outcomes of organizing could not always be known in advance - and yet, I have felt a strong pressure - as much from myself as anyone else - to explain my work in terms of easily digestible concrete outcomes.

The thing is, when you are working towards a root-deep transformation in culture, you can’t always see progress on the surface. Eventually, I realized that pretending I knew how things would shift, that I had all the answers or that they were even have-able, was a greater hindrance than it was a help. To do community-based work, that taps into people’s hearts and desires and mobilizes them towards a common goal, you have to be able to connect. You have to be honest about your own heart’s desires, or risk manipulating the hearts of others. You have to be able to fail.

And fail I did. There were the meetings that went totally off track, complete with screaming kids in the sanctuary next door. There was the confirmation class I was woefully unprepared to co-teach, try as I might to connect the sacraments of baptism to the concept of solidarity. There was the community potluck at the food pantry that devolved into unattended children popping the balloons we’d just spent 20 minutes inflating. Suffice it to say there were a lot of days sitting in my office wondering how the hell I’d gotten here, and who tricked these people into hiring me when clearly I had no clue what I was doing.

But in a recent conversation with John Bell, my supervisor and an essential pillar of the Food Justice Team, he reminded me that in all of these cases, failure was part of the work. If I had spent hundreds of days showing up for what I believe this community can be, and not failed at least as many times, I would’ve questioned whether I’d even tried. Failure is an opportunity to learn not just what works and what doesn’t, but what metrics actually matter. adrienne maree brown talks about building movements that are an inch wide and a mile deep. Those Food Justice Team meetings where only three people showed up? Let me tell you how deep their commitment, thoughtfulness, and courage runs. That chaotic potluck? A reminder that even if we weren’t ready to start something new, we could bring warmth and authentic connection back to the spaces we normally shared in the food pantry.

Jack Halberstam says that failure is a uniquely queer enterprise, that it allows us to dream beyond capitalism’s measures of productivity and success. It makes room for us to bore holes in the toxic positivity of American culture, positivity that at times functions as a brick wall between ourselves and authentic connection with each other. This life is not easy. We are not always surefooted. If we do anything worth our salt in this world, we are going to fail, and fail often.

Roxane Gay says that in these dark and tumultuous times, hope is a cop-out. Simply hoping allows us to ‘abdicate our responsibility’ for what comes next. I have often been guilty of squeezing my eyes shut and hoping for the best, rather than taking a step - however shaky -

into the unknown to discover what is possible. If success means never taking risks big enough to make a mistake, I don’t want it. We are called here not to live safely within what we have seen to be possible. In fact, there is reason to believe that limiting ourselves thusly is killing us. We are called here to take risks worthy of all that we stand to lose, which is to say, all that we have the privilege of loving in this world. And the only way to know we are taking steps big enough is to fail.

As I move on from this particular role at St. James’s, I want to say thank you for holding space for my growth, for being willing to try things differently, and for being fertile ground to fall on, over and over. As you carry on following God’s call towards justice, authenticity, and community, I invite you to honor your failure as a sign you are taking steps that matter. Fail big. Fail often. Fail in pursuit of a world more beautiful than our own. The stakes are too high not to.


Tuesday
May282019

The Sixth Sunday of Easter - May 26, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

What is your favorite sequel? Either from a movie or from a book or from a television show. And what is it about that sequel that makes it good for you? How does it relate to the original? How is it similar? How is it different? What makes it your favorite?   


I wish I had a clever, off the beaten path kind of answer for this question. But, to be honest for me, it’s The Empire Strikes Back, a fairly common answer for folks like me who grew up with Star Wars as the epic narrative of our childhood.


What got me thinking about this this week is, that while Game of Thrones is ending, they’ve announced that there will be three to five spinoffs from that show. Indeed we find ourself to be in an era of sequels. Harry Potter, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead already have started prequels. Once the main Star Wars saga ends in December, we’ll get more movies and shows in that world. Star Trek has new shows now and more are in the pipeline. And the number of superhero movies and shows that are coming boggles the mind.


Sequels are nothing new, of course. But it seems like there are just a lot more of them these days. And maybe it’s just that there’s more media content in general but it seems to me there’s also a distinctive trend going on right now too. Game of Thrones, and Star Wars, and the Avengers, they’ve all been these sprawling huge epics that are, strangely enough, all coming to an end at about the same time… and so all of them are firing up sequels that are smaller. Not trying to continue the scale of the original story. But rather to tell new stories that keep elements of the original but maybe focus more deeply on a smaller number of characters, or be more comic, or maybe just go in some quirky new interesting directions.


Quirky sequels. It’s actually how I found myself thinking about today’s Scripture readings. You know, we’ve come to that time in the church year where we’ve already heard about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s the big epic narrative in our Christian tradition. And so, as the Easter season goes along, we get these smaller stories of what happens after the resurrection. And they can seem, at least to me, a bit anticlimactic sometimes. But when I think about these stories as quirky sequels. Text that are compelling because they feel a bit different… a bit off the beaten path… Then that kindles some new interest for them in me.


So, I want to start with the John passage as quirky sequel. It’s actually set just before the crucifixion but it’s Jesus talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit who will come after the resurrection. Here in John, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit- the Advocate. It’s sort of an odd descriptor. In the ancient Mediterranean world, it would refer to folks who were legal advocates, something along the lines of a defense attorney.  Now, we tend to think about the Holy Spirit along the lines of how she’s described in Acts. As one who comes as wind or as fire. Or we think of her as a dove like when she came to Jesus at his baptism. But, we don’t think of the Holy Spirit as Matlock or Johnny Cochrane. But that’s kind of how the community of faith behind the Gospel of John seems to have seen the Spirit. As something akin to a legal advocate for us.


And actually it’s even more quirky and nuanced than that even. Some of you who grew up with the King James Version being read might remember that, in that translation, this word is translated Comforter. The original Greek word Paraklete is one of these fabulously multivalent Biblical terms… words that hint at more than one thing at the same time. So, the Holy Spirit is both one who comforts us and one who advocates for us. You know, I’m definitely pandering to my crowd right now but I find myself picturing the Holy Spirit here as one part Oprah and one part Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Warm and caring and thoughtful when we need compassion. And sharp as nails when we need an ally. One who is always out in front of us and who is always by our side and who always has our back. To be honest, I like this image of God’s Holy Spirit more than a white bird or a dancing fire. In a world mired in a seemingly insurmountable environmental crisis… a crisis that seems to be accelerating as it destroys the globe and so it terrifies us... in this world with such a lust for violence of all sorts… in a world where raging racism and xenophobia seem like they will have no end… in a world where our own lives so frequently throw so many challenges our way… addictions… the loss of health… the loss of jobs and security… the loss of loved ones… In this world, we need our God to be more than just a peace-loving white bird. We need an inclusive, welcoming, compassionate Comforter who is also a forceful, justice-creating, world-transforming Advocate, a God who does makes things better. Jesus says that is the Holy Spirit.


One more quirky sequel to the resurrection. That’s Lydia’s story in Acts. It can seem relatively insignificant on initial reading. Lydia hears Paul preach about Jesus. She is moved by his words and gets baptized. She invites Paul to stay at her house. But, when you take a deeper dive, you see that there’s a whole lot more to this story.  When the reading says that Lydia was someone who sold purple cloth, it’s signaling that she was a businesswoman of some repute within the community. Purple cloth was an incredibly expensive, exotic fabric in those days worn by royalty or people of significant means. Lydia seems to have been a mover and a shaker in Philippi.  So this means a couple things.


First of all, her welcome of Paul and his followers gave them an automatic credibility in the community to spread the message of Jesus. Who knows if Christianity would’ve spread in the Greek and Gentile world If it weren’t Lydia and the women of influence in other cities who opened doors for the early missionaries of the church. We all probably won’t be sitting here today if it were not for them.


Second of all, when Lydia invited Paul and his group of rabble-rousers into her home, it was dangerous. I don’t so much mean dangerous in the sense of welcoming strangers. Rather, Lydia risked her credibility as a businesswoman in the community by associating with these folks. She was putting her livelihood on the line here. And even more she was risking the ire of the authorities. In the next chapter of Acts, we see a man Jason who housed Paul gets imprisoned for it. Lydia was putting it all on the line in her offer of hospitality. Hospitality in the early church was costly and dangerous. Maybe akin to a church nowadays offering sanctuary for an undocumented family. It makes me think that perhaps the ways I tend to offer hospitality aren’t terribly aligned with Gospel since they rarely cost me much and are almost always on my own terms.  Perhaps welcome and generosity that doesn’t cost anything aren’t welcome or generosity at all.


Last thought. Sometimes sequels are bigger or better than the original. It might sound a little heretical to suggest that the sequels that come out of St. James’s, either our own personal stories or our collective story together, might in some ways improve upon the original stories of Jesus. We might see ourselves as the small quirky sequels to the resurrection. We might see ourselves as continuing that love that was shown forth on that first Easter. But we certainly don’t see ourselves as nearly as important. He’s Jesus after all and that was resurrection from death. But it’s in moments like this that I’m reminded of the mind-blowing statement that Jesus makes in the Gospel of John just before today’s reading where he talks about the Holy Spirit as Advocate. In that passage, he says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.


I’m not always sure I believe that. That as we believe in Jesus we will do greater works than his. But that’s what he says. We don’t get to know what our story will be and we don’t get to control half as much as we’d like. Life is too unpredictable. But the world still needs the powerful story and sequel that is your life.  We don’t get to know where our story will take us. All we get to know is that God always walks with us as our Comforter and our Advocate, and that our story deeply matters because all of us deeply matter.


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.

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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.