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March 19, 2017, 3rd Sunday in Lent YR A

Year A, Lent 3
March 19, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of Israel journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded.”

The problem in our Gospel today, the conflict that makes it a good and enduring story, is Jesus including someone that His community excluded.  That is always controversial.  Jews and Samaritans did not mix.  At Jacob’s Well, Jesus made crystal clear that He came not just for Israel, but for everyone, even this lone Samaritan woman.  The lesson is that no one is excluded from Jesus’ offer of Living Water.

Who is included?  Who is excluded?  Ripped from the front page of today’s paper.  Who do we include as Americans?  Who gets included in our health insurance system?  Who gets the benefit of the doubt from law enforcement?  Whose dogs are welcome or not in our downtown?  Inclusion.  Exclusion.  In these things, right and wrong are not always completely apparent.

I am going to tell you another story about inclusion and exclusion.  It is about gender and how we talk about God, and of Common Prayer.  Mostly, though, I think this is a story about paradox.  About virtues in conflict with each other.  About blindness to the waters in which we swim. Clarity is what we seek, but heavens, clarity is elusive and yet we still must live and we still must seek the Commonwealth of God and the heart of Jesus Christ.  It just ain’t easy being alive.

A month ago I attended a gathering of the radical discipleship movement put on by the Bartimeaus Cooperative Ministries.  There gathered a collection of Christians who share a belief that, among other things, following Jesus Christ is inseparable from the struggle for peace, justice and truth.  All sorts of Christians are in the movement, “High church, low church and no church” is a tag line sometimes used.   This was my third conference and I have next year’s on the calendar.  I love the community there and the people and I learn deeply from Ched Meyers, the animator and convener of the organization.  I am part of the community.

A few of us ministerial types were asked to help out pastoraly and liturgically, including leading daily morning prayers. I am always excited to introduce the ancient practice of Anglican prayer, that’s what I do.  I knew that this was not how this group was used to praying, so I tried to set it up, saying something like, “We had innovative and creative worship yesterday: that is a deep well.  Another deep well is praying like our ancestors have prayed for 1500 years, back to the time of St. Benedict.”  And then I offered straight from the book, Rite II Morning Prayer, canticles and all.

It went OK.  A little flat.  I did notice that many were saying the word “God” in place of the “He’s” and “Him’s” (there are a lot of those in Morning Prayer), but I do the same when it is not my voice alone in worship, so I didn’t think much of it.  It wasn’t great worship, but for folks who don’t know the form, it was OK.

When I finished, Ched got up to send us off to our first workshop sessions, and he spoke to the worship a bit. He expressed some discomfort, but I put it in the “form of prayer column,” which I expected and didn’t think much of it otherwise.  I should have.

At the first workshop, a woman pulled me aside and expressed that she had felt excluded in the prayer due to the masculine language for God.  (There is an awful lot of it in Morning Prayer, Rite 2).  I told her that I was sorry that she felt that way, and that she is not alone in that feeling, and that I also don’t like the language but that that was how we, Anglicans/Episcopalians prayed. She was more upset than I would have expected, but we talked a bit and it seemed that all was well and I didn’t think much more of it.  I should have.

So the end of the day comes, supper time, and the staff and chaplains were called together to discuss a pressing pastoral issue.  The issue: Morning Prayer.  It seemed that many folks were not at all happy with language of the prayer, the traditional, masculine gendering of God.  Some were very, very upset by it, to the point of maybe leaving the conference upset.  It was a very big deal.

My initial thought was, “I, I, I… I had no idea.”  You know that dropping feeling, blood descending when you suddenly learn that you messed up.  I should have been paying attention to the stuff earlier in the day.  The language was so not on my radar as an issue, it just is how we pray.

Well, we sat in a large circle, maybe 15 of us, religious leaders in a movement that I need, one of my most important teachers among them, learning that a lot of people were very upset with me for bringing this foreign, unwanted thing into our midst.  Upset because this beloved to me form of prayer was taken as archaic and offensive in its patriarchal nature, and I had to assume upset with our whole way, the Episcopal/Anglican way of approaching God.  I don’t know that I have ever felt more conspicuous in my life.  Anger, judgement were expressed, compassion, too, but just a lot of energy swirling around me and the 23 minutes of prayer we shared that morning.

From the leaders circle, it was agreed that both Ched and I would apologize to the group before the evening session.  The symbol of two white men apologizing for a trespass would be powerful, it was thought.  My apology was for the hurt that I caused and the reminder I gave of the feeling of alienation from God that some experienced in childhood or in the midst of other forms of Christianity.  I apologized for not being mindful of the congregation I was offering prayer for, which I was not.  And Ched apologized because he was in charge and whatever is done or fails to get done was his responsibility.  It was a very humbling experience, first causing such upset and being called on it and then apologizing all within a group that I treasure so much.  It was humiliating in a theological sense, a very appropriate feeling leading up to Lent.

Tensions decreased.  Folks seemed less upset.  I got a lot of feed-back about the apology from those where were offended. (And from a few folks who hadn’t been offended or were offended by the offense taken and appreciated that I offered such a “gift” from our tradition).  I felt held as well as held accountable by the community.

Inside, what struck me the most was how unmindful I had been about the whole thing.  Over the years a couple of parishioners have expressed to me dismay with our language for God, but not many, like two, one of them being Windy and that is a long and continuing conversation.  We had an after church parish meeting about this in my first year here. Also, I haven’t been involved in much interfaith or even ecumenical worship, where these issues often arise.  It just hasn’t been a big deal here.  STOP!

That’s part of the problem, my problem.  Being a straight white male in a culture where the default setting is nearly always straight-white-male-centric (it nearly always benefits people like me, or at least it is extremely controversial if it impedes the continued privilege of people like me).  It is easier for me to not notice things like this than for, say, a woman.  It is called hegemony and some few of us benefit from it while the rest suffer for it. AND I pray Morning Prayer that way almost every morning.  This language, this form of prayer, it is the water in which I, we swim.  A friend reminded me a joke recently.  An old fish is swimming by a school of young fish and says, “The water’s lovely today, isn’t it?”  And the young fish reply, “Water?”  I apologized for my unmindfulness.

I did not apologize for praying that way.  Okay.  Here is where we come back to paradox.  To competing virtues.  To moral dilemma.  I didn’t/won’t/ought not apologize for Common Prayer; that is how we pray, and is how we have prayed as Anglicans for 500 years, following on the preceding 1500 years of catholic worship.  It is not for me to apologize for generations of our ancestors.  I apologized not because we pray that way, but because that was decidedly not how we prayed there, in that context. I sinned in that community, but not against God and Church.

Central to all of this is the notion of “God the Father.”  I think if I titled sermons, this one would be “Continuing to Move Beyond God the Father with an Apology for Common Prayer.”  That’s the classical use of the word apology, in defense or in justification of.  I notice it, in the Mass, when the plea is “Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption…” It sticks out for me.  Lord is the word I pray with, it is the word that comes to me when I pray, but the aristocratic, royal, patriarchal implications, when I think about it, I cringe, and that is the word I pray with and have for as long as I have prayed.  I don’t like that my girls use “He” for God because God is not a He.  (Not a She either, but that’s not something to argue against).  In the immortal words of our own Rev. Nancy Gallagher, “If you say God is He, does that mean that you think God has a penis?”  No.  That is ridiculous.  But beyond being ridiculous, it is harmful.  It privileges men, who already enjoy systemic privileged.  It aligns God with a specific portion of humanity while too often alienating, excluding another.  It makes it hard and, for some, impossible to be Christian.  Anything that does that is not okay.  All are welcome at God’s table and it is our responsibility to make clear that path.

At exactly the same time, Common Prayer is in fact a gift from our ancestors and many, most, even, are brought closer to God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and each other through its practice.

A great virtue of Common Prayer is that it is not about me.  It is not about you, either.  It is not about any of our individual feelings, preferences, politics – we prioritize the Common, as in community over the individual.  And the community is not just here, or in the Diocese of Oregon, no, it is all 1.something million Episcopalians from Micronesia to Western Europe that make up The Episcopal Church that decide how we pray together.  It is not for me to muck around with the Mass, certainly not on Sunday mornings.  I took a vow before a Bishop to that effect and I take that seriously.  Common Prayer is what makes us, us because we prioritize Common Prayer over common belief: orthopraxis over orthodoxy.  The form of prayer, the language, the cadence, the ups and downs, crossing and bowing together in certain ways that are agreed upon is who we are, and not for the sake of it, that would be idolatrous, but for the practice that it enables or is.  That tension between I and we in Common Prayer is pedagogical.  Intentional, prayerful submission to a specific form is a powerful practice.  Doing things that have been done this way for thousands of years is a powerful practice.  It is practicing bowing down before God and that is a good thing to do.  It lifts up the lowly, being in the presence of the Most High and the mighty are lowered humbly before the same Almighty.  Common Prayer is a powerful practice, and is subversive to our hyper-individualistic culture, particularly for those of us on the liberal side of the tracks.  I’ve got my opinions about it, but we trumps I.

Commonality and tradition, though, must not be static or it becomes irrelevant in its ossification.  Our language will change, but it will take time.  (Though of course it is always easier for those in power to say “Be patient!”).  Our last Prayer Book lasted 51 years, ’28 – ’79.  The conversations about the conversation about a Prayer Book revision have begun.  We’ll have it done in another 12 – 15 years, right on schedule.  There is deep and prayerful power in processes that take this long.  The Roman cathedral in LA was controversial, but it was designed to stand for 500 years.  That’s powerful.  There is something to church time, but again, it is easier to say from my social location as an ordained, straight white male.  Who is being excluded because of our process?  Who is being hurt?  How many little girls think God is more like the boys in Sunday School than them?

We need to spend more time considering our language for things Holy.  We’re behind.  My experience in California confirmed that.  At the same time, one of the things that drew me to the Anglican way from another way was that we didn’t worry about the language much, we didn’t argue about words, which left us time to move forward with other things.  Easy for me to say, I know, but then a friend told me a story from a Unitarian parish where two youth were caught during a lock-in having sex behind the pulpit.  They called a meeting of the parents to discuss it and the pastor started, saying “this weekend, we had an incident in our sanctuary…” when someone leapt up, “It is not a sanctuary, it is the Hall of Meeting!”  Is that helpful?

We have the most consistently masculine, patriarchal language of any mainline church.  Be it a liberal parish or a conservative one, we all use the same spiritual vocabulary and it is decidedly masculine.  That is true.  It is also true that we, as a Church, have officially considered LGBTQ people full children of God since 1976 by resolution of General Convention. In 1994 we began to openly and fully ordain gay and lesbian people.  In 1997 we apologized for the harm done to sexual minorities by the church, in ’09 allowed for gay and lesbian bishops, and in 2015 authorized same sex marriage and removed all prohibitions to the ordination of transgender people. Some of the folks at the conference most critical of our prayer form worship in and serve churches that do not even ordain gay people, while our little parish here hosted the ordination of a trans-man just three weeks before, and joining more than a dozen other transgender priests and deacons!  The Most Rev. Katherine Jefforts-Shori was the first woman to head a major denomination in this nation and our current Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, is the first African-American to lead a predominantly white denomination.  And we all say every Sunday “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”  Maybe it is not fair, but part of me wants to ask, “What is more important, the words that we use or the work that we do?”  Part of me thinks that spending too much time arguing about language gets in the way of the doing the work of Jesus Christ and our history these past four decades makes a case for that.  Obviously it is both… maybe that is the point.  There is no one way.  Any way will hurt some and heal others, exclude some and include others.

Like so many things, there is no one answer here, like there aren’t for so many issues facing us and our nation. Maybe that is an important task before us in these troubled times, not becoming comfortable with ambiguity or resigned to it, but learning that those are the waters in which we swim, or at least noticing that we are in that water to begin with.  Thanks be to God that the Living Water of Jesus Christ is offered to everyone.  AMEN

March 12, 2017, 2nd Sunday in Lent YR A

March 12, 2017
2nd Sunday in Lent YR A
The Rev. Anne Abdy

 

Well, we are twelve days into Lent. How is it going? When I preached last I encouraged you to really listen for what God is inviting you to do. If you don’t have an idea, it will come. You will know your invitation when it is presented. Keep listening.

 

The five Sundays in Lent and Palm Sunday (the 6th Sunday in Lent) all have different themes depending on how you interpret the Scriptures. If you review the Gospel readings leading up to Palm Sunday—there is one common variable. In every reading, there is an encounter with Jesus. First, the devil last week, where like Jesus, we are tempted, that is just what humans do. It is human nature. It is in our DNA. So if your Lenten practice has not been going according to plan, that is okay. The key is to engage the process of self-reflection and with the hope that faith brings—we are changed. We are able to change course because it is both faith and hope that moves us away from the Tempter.

 

Today Nicodemus takes the center stage.  He only shows up three times, and then only in the Gospel of John. His corrective course of action begins with today’s encounter. In the second encounter he reminds his colleagues that the Jewish law requires that a person be heard before being judged (John 7:50-51), and ends with the third encounter where Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body for burial by bringing the embalming spices to the grave (John 19:39-42).

 

A modern example of what corrective action might look like is the advice I give my patients. I use the metaphor of a cruise ship and help them understand that they are the captains of their own cruise ships and to empower them to engage the power of change. But in order to keep the ships afloat and in the deeper water of the ocean, they have to make good decisions. Poor judgment and poor decision-making gets them—the “Captains” in trouble with the possibility of running aground. The corrective action is to steer the ships away from the island reefs.

 

What possibly could cause Nicodemus’ ship to run aground? We know he is a very powerful man. We know he is well respected.  Remember, Nicodemus has spent his whole life studying the Torah. He has engaged in debate. He has proven himself. His friends have judged him to be of right character that they elected him a leader and teacher. Nicodemus’ belief system and personal values have been formed by what he has witnessed and what he has experienced. His values about strict adherence to the Jewish law is filtered through this belief system. He is the ultimate conformist non-rule breaking leader. He has compartmentalized his belief system.

 

Yet deep down Nicodemus knows something. He knows there is something different about this man named Jesus. Something about what he has heard about Jesus has peaked his interest. I believe that God has touched Nicodemus’ heart, however, Nicodemus’ just does not know it yet.

 

So he calls Jesus up on the phone, and rather than arranging a meeting in public at the town gate, he sneaks out into the middle of the night to meet with Jesus. It is like me sneaking around in boarding school hallways after lights out to have late night visits with friends. There is something about sneaking about at night. Maybe it is the thrill of not getting caught, or maybe as in Nicodemus’ case, he was seeking something more but he just cannot bring himself to do it in daylight. Can you imagine the gossip in that rumor mill if he did?

We realize that Nicodemus doesn’t get it when he asks Jesus to explain: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Logically, it is a reasonable request. Biologically—it truly does not make sense. It just cannot happen. He is judging Jesus because the facts just do not add up. Even as he sets up this radical Messiah, this wayward, eating meals with sinners and beggar loving rabbi, his judgments have gotten in the way of him experiencing exactly what Jesus wants him and all of us to do.

 

Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question about being “born again” and “born by water and the Spirit” with a bit of a gentle chuckle saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” He then goes onto explain what he meant. The Message Bible translates this passage nicely into contemporary modern language.

 

“Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.”

 

When I had was in college, I had conversion experience. My Baptist friends asked me “Are you are born again?” For Baptists “born again” is a pivotal experience. It is a course correction. An acceptance of God’s plan for salvation through Jesus Christ. For me, being “born again” was not so much a pivotal turning point but rather a gentle course correction. My experience gave me an opportunity to understand more clearly my evolving relationship with God. And, I would dare to say that we all have conversion experiences which draw us towards God. That is what we’re talking about here with our friend Nicodemus.

 

He has done some self-reflection much like we are doing through Lent. He realizes there is more to life than to bow to the prevailing cultural winds of the day. We have done this too. The church for decades lost the ability to call people to do radical good and to help them do it! My field education parish did not have an outreach project till 2014. They were the “frozen chosen.” The Church failed us. But I know the culture is changing because I see it here at Resurrection with our ministries. Nicodemus knows something is different and he wants to change course. He throws out all the judgments, values, and beliefs to move in the direction of the Light (capital “L”), even if it is undercover in the darkness of the night.

 

‘To be born again with water and Spirit’ (v.5) allows Nicodemus to fully engage this life. Literally, water is life-giving. We cannot survive with out it. Our bodies are 65% water. Then there is the Spirit, the Spirit of God, the life force from above that nourishes and feed us when we open our eyes to God’s powerful presence within us. Jesus asks us to not compartmentalize our beliefs. Instead he wants us to  live with “big faith.”  A professor in seminary cautioned my colleagues and I to “not straight-jacket the Holy Spirit.” We need now, more than at any time in history, to throw caution to the wind. To have “big” faith.

 

Jesus is calling us—the Church—to put aside self-consciousness because writing a check in the darkness of night to support a charity is no longer cutting it. As Christians, we must roll up our sleeves, get out into the community and be among all of God’s people.

 

Richard Rohr has a daily blog and this past week he about Christians attempting to engage with the lost, poor, homeless, downtrodden, and abandoned: “Hand-taking, embracing, and breathing-with, [I would add: sitting-with] aren’t often immediately attractive to us. Vulnerability, letting go, total disclosure, and surrender don’t come easily. Our culture is built on a movement toward empire and aggrandizement of the group.”[1] The tension of looking at a person holding a sign on a street corner then turning away. Or are you that person who walks passed a beggar on the street?  Or are you that person who momentarily stares at a person who gestures with frailing arms and who talks to a ghost? These encounters create “interior conflict that Scripture describes as the conflict between the world and the Spirit.”[2] Christianity was built on one-on-one relationship encounters, not by empire  or oneupmanship.

 

In these uncertain times, we can and must do more. Are you willing to put aside your judgment and invite God to make course corrections in your attitudes, beliefs, feelings, heart, and soul? Do you want to live life with “big” faith?” Do you want to be born again?

 

“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (v.5)

 

[1]                 Richard Rohr, “Trinity Week 2 the Body of Christ,” Richard Rohr’s Meditation (blog), Center for Action and Contemplation, March 9, 2017, accessed March 11, 2017, Meditations@cac.org.

[2]     Ditto.

March 5, 2017, 1st Sunday in Lent YR A

Year A, Lent 1
March 5, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Good morning everyone! It is very good to be back after a couple of weeks in and out of town. For those of you who could not join us on Wednesday, Welcome to a holy Lent! I don’t know if you have noticed, but each year we kick off Lent on the same note, with this story, the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness.

Not only do we start every Lent with this story, but each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) contain the Temptation narrative. That means that this is one that A.A. Milne would have capitalized; it is a Very Important Story, and a striking one. It follows the Baptism of our Lord, and the Holy Spirit descending, like a dove, and the voice of God identifing Jesus as “…my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then immediately in each of the Gospels, “Jesus was led up by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Now I don’t want to get too far down the Satan rabbit hole, but we need to say something. The Devil is a complicated idea for some of us on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum. Evil exists in the world, and we, human as we are, are subject to it, tempted by it. Satan, Diablos, the devil… one way to think about this religious category is as an anthropomorphism, a metaphors of human-like traits used to describe how evil works. It is a personification of evil so we can better tell (or tell better) stories about it. The connotations are quite specific. The Hebrew word, Satan, means “one who opposes or obstructs, an adversary.” (Makes sense that Jesus sometimes, like in our Rite I mass, is called our Mediator and Advocate). The Greek word, diablos, means one who throws something in your path, an obstructionist. In Job he is called “the Accuser.”

There are things that get in our way, get in the way of us being who we know we should be, who we want to be, try to be. Things get in the way of who we know God and everyone expects us to be. For some of us that comes in a bottle. Or a pretty face. Or a house full of things or our willingness to guarantee our own comfort and security regardless of the expense to others. Things get in the way of us and who we are supposed to be, and that, we call Satan. Not an actual pointy-eared creature like we see on the cover of our bulletin today, but that busy and large voice that screams in all of our heads “Come on in, the water is fine!” just as the shark’s fin breaks the surface. That character, Satan, lives in all of us. It is not out there, it is in here. When it comes to Diablo, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Last week I was in Southern California at an institute of the Bartimeaus Cooperative Ministries. It is an organization that brings together what we call the Radical Discipleship movement, a loose network of Christians around the world for whom struggling with the principalities and powers of the world is central to our understanding of Jesus Christ and the practice of the Christian faith. Historic peace churches, Catholic Workers, Gandhian Christians and other assorted Christian activist cats and dogs gather around scripture and the hermeneutic of Ched Meyers, its founder and convening force. It is very serious material, and there are a lot of very serious people involved in this movement. It is not all work, though, it is also feels kind of homey, and is a lot of fun.

The gathering theme of this year’s institute was Martin Luther King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” which was given 50 years ago this April. What we talked about mostly was the intersectionality of the speech, and through that analysis, the intersectionality of so many of the ills we face in our world right now. Intersectionality. That was the word of the week. What that means is that it is never one thing, it is always a complex of issues that makes the world, that makes us what we are. All aspects of our existence intersect, sometimes bringing great good: sun and soil and seed and a bit of water combine and life is possible. Good intersectionality. And then there is the not so good kind, the kind Dr. King spoke about: race, economics and war. His “Beyond Vietnam” speech was monumental because it was the first major statement by an established leader, a Nobel Prize winner even, that linked his initial concern, race, racism, the struggle for civil right, with two other major sites of social sin: economics, poverty or more broadly class and war, most manifesting most brutally in 1967 in our war in Vietnam. What a hermeneutic of intersectionality revealed through Dr. King was that we can’t address race independent of class and poverty, and we can’t begin to address class and poverty without also addressing the systemic moral corruption of the imperial warfare being waged by largely poor, often brown American people against poor, brown Southeast Asian people, and that all together was a threat to the soul of America. Like in our very moment, the budget proposed by the president is taking money directly from society, from the schools, social services, from the very mouths of our most vulnerable, disproportionally people of color, to feed the gaping maw of our imperial war machine which exists to further the cause of the 1%. Their vital interests are not ours. Nothing exists in isolation. Which brings us right back to Jesus in the wilderness.

We spent three days of the conference looking at this story, the temptation of Jesus, because one of the ways we can read this story is through a lens of intersectionality. It is no accident that the devil comes to Jesus with these three specific temptations. No, these are three archetypal temptations that have plagued humanity since we became human (or at least since our mythic progenitors sampled of the forbidden fruit). We spoke of the temptations as the three “Es”: Economics, Entitlement and Empire.

Now some folks have complained that politics have been increasingly present in my preaching these past weeks and months. If you feel that, I am sorry that you are not feeling engaged, but I am not sorry about nor will I change what I am preaching on. Our society is in danger right now, more obviously in danger than in at least two generations. Truly, it doesn’t matter if we are right with God and at peace in ourselves if everyone and everything around us is going to hell in a handbasket. Jesus calls us to look outward as much as we are called to look inward. Another way to say that we get from our sisters in the feminist movement: The personal is political. The political is personal. Nothing exists in isolation, most of all human beings. Abortion is as personal an issue as there can be, and with the forces of patriarchy still in charge, it is a very political one, too. If we really believe we are all children of God, we can’t possibly stand by and let our government kill people, or create policies that diminish the humanity of anyone for any reason. I am not going to waste your time with therapeutic deism while the fire alarms are going off. The personal is political. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is, too, because if our faith matters here (inside), it has to matter here (outside).
“The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread…’” (And to be clear how political the Gospels are, “Son of God” was a title used by Caesar Augustus, and only Caesar Augustus. Jesus’ use of it was a blatant challenge to imperial authority). Besides questioning Jesus’ very nature: “If you are the Son of God…” what is Satan casting doubt upon? Magically making bread from stones, what does that imply or call Jesus to doubt? Sufficiency. Satan calls into question the grace of God in the sufficiency of the creation, the sufficiency of what Wendell Berry calls “The Great Economy.” Satan is saying that God hadn’t provided for Jesus and that He could take that on Himself. Tempting, especially after 40 days of fasting.

Gandhi famously said “there is enough on Earth for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed.” It is the very same lesson that God taught (or tried to teach) Israel in the desert. It was a forty year long lesson. What lesson was that? Manna! The lesson was that God would provide, there was enough, have faith. God taught through the gift of Manna that there is enough for everyone provided first, you don’t horde, (or everyone take just what you need), and that everyone practices Sabbath, another way of saying that we need to learn to limit ourselves. This includes all to jubilee stuff, the intentional limitations we need to put on ourselves to make sure that we all have enough. Jesus making bread from stones would call into doubt that God has provided enough for everyone. (That there is scarcity is due to human sin, not due to the nature of the creation). The first temptation.

“Then the Devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of temple, saying to him, ‘If (if again) you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and, ‘on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’’”

First off, just a reminder, the devil knows scripture better than we ever could! As Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, “The Devil’s most devilish when he’s respectable.” It is no coincidence that the devil takes Him to the pinnacle of the Temple. The church occupies a very different place in our lives than the temple would have then, or that the church would have for many in the west until at least the Protestant Reformation (and some it still looms that large). We teach that the church is important, that it is the vessel that carries the sacraments, but that that is just a particular way to access God, we don’t need the church to access God. But that is from a liberal perspective. There are very different ways to understand how God works in the world.

In Jesus’ time, if you did what you were supposed to in the Temple, God would protect you. That was how the covenant was too often understood. It is like so much of the prosperity gospel taught in evangelical and new age churches today, that God wants us to be rich and successful so long as we believe rightly or that in putting positive energy in the world positive energy will return. I don’t know. I know a good man whose good daughter was just diagnosed with cancer. That is not the result of anything but that some cells in her body are tragically disordered. There is no economy of God’s grace that we as humans can affect. God is there to help us prepare for and bear what comes, not shifting the course of human events on divine whim. There is a level of entitlement to the care of God that the devil is offering, an exceptionalism that we best not put to the test, for it is not for us to test God, but for God to test us. We live by grace alone, and when we begin to feel (and act) as if life is ours to give and take, to tamper with natural cycles, to deny the fact of aging and decline and death, then we will find ourselves in a world of hurt, divorced from how it really is. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Good answer. The second temptation.

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.’”

The third temptation is about authority here in the world, it is about empire. (Remember, Jesus exerting His authority was taken by Rome as a challenge to their, to Caesar’s authority). Besides the fact that the devil seems to be fascinated by tall, high up places (someday we’ll have to talk about the Tower of Babel… towers are dangerous things in antiquity), the other thing to note in this temptation is that it seems that the empires of the world were the devil’s to give away! He already owns the empires of the world. Just a note of caution.

This temptation is about who we put our trust in, or at the very least, who ultimately do we follow. The proper answer is God. Men, human beings, they may lead us and we may follow, we must follow to some extent, but our hope is in the name of the Lord! It is about right and wrong, truly right and wrong and not just those categories as filtered through humans and our laws. “You have heard it said… But I say unto you…” We owe alliance and obedience to the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ not to temporal authority. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right (as being illegal doesn’t make something wrong). Our ultimate authority is and must be God. In the book of Judges, the people went to Gideon and asked him to become their king. They wanted a king. It is easier, in ways, to have a king than it is to take responsibility for yourself, like some prefer a religion that just tells you what to do rather than equip your to decide that for yourself. That is why our democracy (and perhaps our church) is so shakey, too few of us are involved, too many of us allow others to make decisions for us, not enough of us do the hard work that freedom, religious or political, takes. Gideon knew this. He said, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” So Jesus answered as of course He would, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Intersectionality. When we are disordered in our relationship to the economy, the material world, AND when we believe that God favors us, that we are exceptional, that we are entitled to the movement of fate in our direction for any reason AND when we place our trust in authorities that are not to be trusted… any of these alone would be troubling, combined, intersecting as they have and continue to do so, we have our work cut out for us.
I’ll end with a poem by the late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. He died just one year ago.

For every 10,000 words
there’s a deed
floating somewhere
head down, unborn

Words can’t make it happen
They only wave it away
unwanted
Yet Child, necessary one
Unless you come home to my hands
Why hands at all?
Your season your cries
are their skill
their reason.
-AMEN

Feb. 26, 2017, Last Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

February 26, 2017, Last Sunday after the Epiphany YR A
The Rev. Anne Abdy

 

This past week I spent two days on retreat with the clergy assigned to Fresh Start. This is a diocesan program where the newly ordained or those clergy with new parishes attend monthly meetings and a retreat annually. But before I left I did what I suspect many priests have thought about doing over the course of their ministry. I know my father did this on occasion. Not knowing how much time I would have to contemplate the scriptures and construct a sermon, I reviewed a sermon given in 2010. But 2010 was such a different time. On that Transfiguration Sunday, I preached about the “revealing of Jesus to the three disciples.” As much as it was inviting to do a “repeat” this year, I could not. Maybe because my preaching professor made my seminary friends and I memorize this phrase, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”

 

While the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is familiar to all of us, we can always learn something new. Maybe it is from a different perspective. Maybe a deeper meaning is hidden and only revealed after much time spent in prayerful contemplation. But the more important reason is this. The Bible is the living breathing text as the Spirit reveals God to us on the printed page and between the words. Thus, my professor’s phrase: “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”

 

Let’s look specifically at the Exodus and Gospel passages because there is one obvious similarity. In the first accounting we are told the name of the mountain. It is Mount Sinai. In the Gospel, no name is given to the mountain, but the event is confirmed by Peter when we read, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:18) The common denominator is the mountain—a very high mountain.

 

So why a mountain? Mountains are barriers that for some reason humans have an urge to cross or at least conquer. Mountains can only be passed if you over over, go under, go around, or go through them. But mountains also have metaphorical meanings. Mountains stop us in our tracks and we have to reevaluate our next steps. They help reveal things about ourselves. There was a period in my early professional career where the psychiatric hospital that I worked for went camping and mountain climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with their patients. Because there was a need to continued training, the recreation staff regularly climbed in the same mountains.

 

When you are challenged to scramble across sheer rock faces you learn a lot about yourself. You learn what you like and what you don’t like. You very quickly recognize your weaknesses and your strengths. Climbing helps you die to that which is holding you back. You have to let go of the fear to learn to fully rely upon that rope tied around your waist. You are invited to move outside your comfort zone. You learn a lot about trust, trusting the climber ahead of you, your partners below, but mostly, you learn to trust yourself. The therapy that takes place in those moments is powerful and holy. If you choose to go there, and accept the invitation to do the inner, most intimate and sacred work, mountains become holy ground.

 

If we look closely at both stories and dig a little deeper, both God and Jesus invite others to journey on a mountain with them. Well, Moses is told to ”Come up to me on the mountain and wait there” (Ex. 24:12) and “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John” (Mt. 17:1) I guess there was no real asking, and I guess all four guys could have said, “No Way!” But all chose to follow the Divine.

 

A few chapters earlier in the Exodus story,  Mount Sinai is described as being “covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (Ex. 19:18). The Israelites are in awe of God’s power revealed in nature. Think of the burning bush and Moses being told to remove his shoes. This is a holy space, and regardless of smoke or cloud, Moses and the disciples go. They accept the invitation freely given by the Divine.

 

Living in Cape Town, Capetonians have their own special mountain in their back yard. It is called Table Mountain. Maybe you have seen pictures of it. It is about 1000 feet above sea level with a flat top (thus the name “Table”) and it looms over the city. In the winter when the wind blows, clouds move over the top of the table towards Table Bay below covering the table in a shroud of white. Capetonians affectionately call it – the table cloth – because the clouds settle there for days, much like what we can imagine happening at Mount Sinai or at the Transfiguration.

 

When you climb mountains, you choose to walk into that mysterious mist, that eerie fog which surrounds you because you know when it lifts, you will see the majesty of the God in nature. Walking in that swirling mist brings you into the presence of God. Another way to look at this notion of seeing the face of God comes from Martin Smith who wrote the book, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying the Scripture. He takes the expression “No one can see God and live” to mean “No one could see God and remain unchanged.”[1] God changes us. Those who accept the invitation and “enter the cloud” are changed.

 

My spiritual director asked me this past month, “What is God inviting you to do?” I am still contemplating that. To help you understand where I am with it, a post from Facebook best describes my internal dialogue.

 

Mind:          I’m worried.

Heart:         Just relaxed.

Mind:          But I am totally lost now.

Heart:         Just follow me.

Mind:          But you’ve never been there before.

Heart:         Trust me, you’ll love it!

Soul:           If you two would shut up, I’d show you the map!

 

I am not sure what God is inviting me to do. I do know that on this Transfiguration Sunday, God is inviting us to join Moses and the disciples. This is a different time and place in history and many people are living in fear. But when we—you and I—cling to the rock, the solid mountain, the Source (capital “S”), then you and I have the power to love, power to live, power to endure. We have the power to bring change.

 

Bishop George Young III is the spouse to Kammy Young who preached at the ordination. Recently he challenged a group of newly ordained deacons with these words:  “May God grant you the grace never to sell yourself short; grace to risk something big for something good; grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”[2]

 

Lent is the Church’s gift given to us. Over the next forty days we are invited into the silence of the Holy Mountain. We can and should walk and talk with God. But to have a conversation with God, you have to show up. You have to enter that swirling cloud. Will you say “yes” to God’s invitation and show up?

 

Over the next forty days, will you listen deeply? I mean really listen to what God is inviting you to do. For when you live in that powerful place call Love (capital “L”) with a road map called the Beatitudes, you become the light to the world. It is the same transforming light which Peter described Jesus on that first transfiguration Sunday.  Will you accept God’s invitation to change? To be fully transformed ?

 

And as the prophet Micah said so well, over the next forty days, will you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? (Micah 6:8) In these days of uncertainty, will you—you and I, the Church—accept God’s invitation to bring about change? Real change? Lasting Change? Will you accept God’s invitation?

[1]        Martin Smith, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying the Scripture (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), 131.

[2]        Bishop George Young III, Bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee on the day of the Ordinations of Deacons, St. John’s Cathedral, Knoxville, TN., February 11, 2017.

Feb 19, 2017, 7th Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany 7
February 19, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing…”

First off, I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be on retreat this past week.  I spent three nights at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey up near McMinnville.  It is a beautiful place in the midst of the abundance of Oregon wine country.  It is a place cloaked in silence.  Signs hung on walls that read: “Silence is as deep as eternity.”  “Silence is the language of God.”  Trappists always post messages like this around their monasteries, little notes to self.  I walked the trails in the rain.  Read a lot.  Spent some time in the Bethany House of Prayer, the quietest meditation hall I have ever sat in.  That was awesome.  And I got to go to church five times a day!  The Daily Office beings there with Vigils at 4:15 and ends with Compline at 7:30.  There is so much space in between and time just turns with the prayer wheel in very digestible increments.

In the silence, things can fall away.  The clutter of our minds and hearts, some of it at least, can be sort of swept up in a kind of interior tidying.  When I come home to a messy house, I don’t know about you, but I just can’t think straight some times.  Maybe it is too much stimulation, all the stuff!  Maybe you can’t tell where to start in cleaning up.  Or maybe you are simply tired, and all of the stuff is just exhausting. Our minds, our hearts are troubled like the waters with all of the stuff going on around us out there and so much of it roosts in here, in our hearts and minds.  A couple of days of silence is like turning off the flood.  Turning the phone off, not reading the paper or email or hearing the radio…  Very quickly it just quiets down.  Waking up the first morning and hearing the brothers sing “Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” I took a deeper breath than I have at least since the election.  In very short order, the particulates in the swirl started settling out a bit, and the waters were at least a little bit less murky.  And four days in relative silence is nothing, well it won’t be lasting at least!  Just watching how the brothers move in chapel, some of them having prayed right there for years and years… (in the older days when a monk entered the monastery, they never left, like never left the property.  What a firm foundation)!  It might not make a lot of logical sense, but as we hear from Paul today, quoting the Psalmist, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”  Do not underestimate the very real, concrete power of stillness in the midst of chaos.  And the more chaotic it is, the more powerful is the stillness.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

If we did nothing else besides these two things, not resisting evil doers and loving our enemies, the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God would be instantly upon us.  Arrived.  Leo Tolstoy wrote a little book called The Kingdom of God is Within You, about that from his reading of these verses.  When Gandhi read that in the midst of his own awakening, he found satyagraha, his term meaning “clinging to truth,” or “soul-force,” the incredible power in doing what is right, in following the actual God given truth to its final conclusion.  It is from these verses and Tolstoy’s wise commentary that that little vegan attorney overthrew the British Empire, ruined it, the greatest empire the world had ever seen, without a shot being fired, but let it crumble under the weight of its own dishonesty, corruption and violence.  Praise the Lord!

“Do not resist an evil doer…”  That is the heart of it and we must not misunderstand this.  Gandhi resisted.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. resisted.  Jesus Christ resisted.  All of them.  Unto death, even death on a Cross.  And so many, many more, anonymous saints across the ages have resisted, are resisting evil.  We must resist evil.  That is the moral heart of the Sermon on the Mount, that and the follow up command that that resistance must be done in love.  We must resist evil, but not at all costs.  We must not resist the person doing the evil.  Not as a fellow son or daughter of God.  We don’t resist them, we resist the evil they are doing; love the sinner hate the sin is the often misused shorthand (as love is often in short supply when these words are used).  So this all means what exactly?  It means we must not answer evil with evil.  If someone hits, hitting back is answering evil with evil, and not only is it wrong, but it doesn’t work.  Like spanking your child to teach them that hitting someone is wrong.  That’s ludicrous.  Executing someone to teach that killing is wrong.  No, we are to resist evil with love.

Jesus was nailed to the Cross.  Did He try to escape or plead his way out?  Did He tell his friends to fight back and kill Romans?  No.  He healed the ear of the Chief Priest’s slave when they arrested Him.  As they tormented Him to death, He begged, “Forgive them for they know no what they do.” Jesus saved.  He would not deny what He knew to be True with a capital “T”, that God is present always and everywhere to everyone, in love.  Where love is, God is, for God is love.  So if we answer evil with anything but love, we are welcoming forces other than God into our hearts and we are denying the reality of God in the other.

Answering evil with love, what we can call Christian non-resistance, changed the world.  In Jesus Christ, it changed the world.  It changed our ability to have a true and right relationship with God the creator of heaven and earth by welcoming love into situations marred by hatred and violence.  Nothing passive about the non-resistance Jesus is teaching us here.  It is not passive, it is just non-violent.

Thomas Merton writes: “After all, the basic principle of non-violence is respect for the personal conscience of the opponent.  Non-violent action is a way of insisting on one’s just rights without violating the rights of anyone else… The whole strength of non-violence depends on this absolute respect for the rights even of an otherwise unjust oppressor: his legal rights and his moral rights as a person.”  We truly are called to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute you.  Yes, truly.  Geo-politically as well as in our day to day lives.  Makes me just want to sigh so very deeply because I don’t know about you, but I am not there.  Not yet.  Far from it.

Right after 9-11, I preached in my parent’s church a sermon on non-violence.  It was not received uniformly well, and during coffee hour an older gentleman came up to me in a huff, saying, “What about Hitler?”  Non-violence and Just War arguments always stop at “What about Hitler?”  And truly, by 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, it probably was too late for non-violent resistance.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer churned in his soul over this question before he helped plan an attempt on Hitler’s life.  But what if the SA had been met with the full force of Christ’s love in 1922?  If people, encased in the armor of light didn’t cooperate, didn’t collaborate, didn’t just go long to get along anywhere in the 17 years it took for National Socialism to make the hell they longed for real on Earth?  That is an entirely different question.  We need to resist evil before it becomes tremendous evil.

That’s all pretty grand.  Pretty heroic sounding.  Resisting the horrendous evil of Nazism, bringing down the British empire.  You might think I am implying that we need to get on this in our nation right now, before it gets out of hand and you would be right.  Read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here or William Allen’s remarkable history The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of A Single German Town 1922-1945, it is a detailed history of Northeim, Germany and how the Nazi’s gradually, incrementally changed public sentiment and hijacked the nation.  Some of the parallels to right now are stunning.  Terrifying, actually.  But we are not ready for that fight, against the principalities and powers that are organizing themselves right now.  I fear that we’re not ready for that fight, not to resist in a way that is going to do much more than add more evil and violence to the world.  No, our fight, our struggle begins much, much closer to home.

I read a lot on retreat.  Gandhi’s autobiography, with the subtitle “The Story of my experiments with truth.”  Thomas Merton’s Faith and Violence.  Gotta read Merton when you stay with the Trappists.  And I finished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s horrifying The Gulag Archipelago, a wrenching account of the horrendous evil we can heap upon each other.  And I read them all through the hermeneutic, the lens of the text for this week, the heart of the moral teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, “Resist not an evil doer!”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!”   And I realized, that this teaching, this lesson from Jesus Christ is impossible!  Impossible!  For myself, impossible, I can’t do that.  Not in my condition.  And I am guessing the same is for most of us afflicted with the human condition.  And that is pretty deflating.  Pretty disheartening.

There I was, in the midst of my annual foray into real silence, reading these books of deep heart and spirit, written by men who have faced adversities of the ages and I’m chewing on it, it is fermenting in my heart, trying to link what I was taking in to our world right now, and what we are supposed to be doing and a community and what I am supposed to be doing as a priest, as your priest.  I am scared.  Truthfully.  The remarks about the press being “the enemy of the people???”  The President can’t talk that way, not as President, but there we have it.  I hadn’t heard that statement yet, (no phone, remember), but I was feeling pretty deflated and then I walked into the refectory, the monastic term for dining room.  There is a bulletin board there on which each day one of the monks sticks a New Yorker cartoon and a page from a daily calendar of inspirational quotes.  I’m not a big fan of those, the great moral giants of the world can be sentimentalized with their words pasted over a sunset scene and put in a calendar or Facebook post.  Treacle.  But the one Friday morning just grabbed me and put together Gandhi and Merton and King (I’ve been reading him for the conference I am headed to this afternoon), and even Solzhenitsyn.  It was a familiar line from Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

I’ve referenced a cartoon before, the preacher asking the congregation, “Who wants change?” and there is unanimous affirmation, the people say, “AMEN!”  Frame 2: “Who wants to change?”  Crickets.

We can invite the love of Jesus Christ to shine forth from our hearts and change the world.  We can be invincible!  Impervious to the assaults of the evil one and his servants.  We could be able to suffer without hatred.  To take on the pain of others so that the whole world might be saved, or at least them.  The divine indwelling, the presence of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit that resides in every bit of everyone’s hearts and minds and bodies can strengthen us to resist, with fear and trembling perhaps, but resist the most horrendous evil, but we have got to be ready for it.  We need to be prepared.  We need to change ourselves if we have any hope of changing anything or anyone else, or even surviving with any of our integrity and dignity intact.

Gandhi changed the world by changing himself.  He knew that his passions, his lust and attachment to world things got in the way of love.  They distracted.  They cluttered his soul and obstructed his vision.  He knew that the kind of love Jesus was asking us to show is something that a distracted person with a cluttered field of view just cannot do.  Cannot.  He needed to purify himself, like Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  So he practiced celibacy and strict vegetarianism (he was vegan before there was a word for it), and fasting of all sorts.  And that work, knowing himself, disciplining himself, rigorously following vows that he made throughout his life, allowed him to see where he was weak, where he could be tempted, where he was not true to the truth as he knew it and got in the way of the love of God.  God very naturally resides in every heart.  Clear out the excess and all you will have left is love.  God.

“The fierce urgency of now” taught King that peace, peaceful change will be impossible if we (you and me specifically, white liberals) continue “refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”  He was speaking of Viet Nam, we have plenty of analogous conflicts right now.  That we as a nation must undergo a “radical revolution of values” and “rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society…”

The gulag, on the other end of it, taught Solzhenitsyn that if you entered with nothing, they could take nothing from you.  If, entering prison, you accepted that your life was over, you had nothing to lose and they had nothing to use against you and you might survive.

But all of that is out there.  And we can’t do much about that until we come to terms with the fact that it all begins here; that pithy calendar quote about the clever one wanting to change the world, the wise themselves.  And Merton, in good monastic fashion, makes it ungrammatically real, and therefore accessible, saying, “The genuine saving event, the encounter of man with Christ in his encounter of love and reconciliation with his fellow man, is generally not newsworthy.”

We don’t need to save the world.  (Well, we do, but we always have, so don’t dwell on that).  What we need to do is save ourselves.  That’s where we start.  That is where we have to start.  We are the culture that gave us our situation; non-resistance begins with non-blaming, non-judging.  All we have done and failed to do. We all have logs in our own eyes, forests!  Start there.  Put your mask on first.

I’m not suggesting that you consider celibacy or veganism, I am not considering them, but I am suggesting that we take the gift of Lent that is upon us to begin, to dip our toe in the river of self-denial, in intentional simplicity, in reducing the sensory, emotional, mental, informational clutter that is contemporary American life.  Fast this Lent, in some way.  Start small, baby-steps to the Kingdom.  Just experiment and see if in fact you will not die from lack of chocolate.  You probably won’t, but I’m not that kind of doctor. But let something go and your soul will shine, just a little more into the world, with one less bit of clutter getting in the way of your true self and the God within you arising and shining on everyone, like the sun that shines on the evil and on the good.  That’s the point, we need more love shining everywhere.

It is not about tearing the whole system down, not necessarily. (Some folks don’t appreciate some of my rhetoric, though I believe the Gospel supports it).  The first step right now is about building up yourself, grounding yourself in God’s love that we might be the people Jesus Christ knows us to be, and that is a formidable thing that can save yourself, our community and everything else.  And we will practice this together as we pray for President Trump by name in the Prayers of the People because Jesus tells us to.  AMEN.

 

Feb. 12, 2017, 6th Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany 6
February 12, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclination?”  Or, put another way, “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.”

“Behaving according to human inclination…”  That is not a compliment, is it?  “Behaving according to human inclination…”  No.  It is saying that our human inclinations are not always something to follow.

It’s the little things.  The little things.  They add up.  Here in south Eugene, like in any lower density residential area, do you know what the largest source of groundwater pollution is?  “Non-point specific sources.”  That means backyards.  De-mosser from our roofs.  Round-up leaching into streams one clump of dandelions at a time.  Weed and feed four times a year according to Ortho-Scott’s directions. Like our economy, the biggest in the history of the world, is based on our little individual trips to the store. In all aspects of life, those little bits that we do add up.  What that means is that it can start with you.  The way things are right now, a lot rests on you.   Change; things getting better; dissent and resistance; the revolution; salvation, all of it begins with you.  It ends in us together, but it can begin in you, in your heart and your mind and your body.  You, we have a lot of power in who we are and in what we do.

We are inundated with information; news, images, voices of power, and it is so distorted. What and how things are being said and how they are being interpreted and delivered to us…  it is very hard to tell what is actually happening.  Consider the R-G (and it’s a good paper)… if you know inside stories and then read the paper you can how many details and nuances are left out… I can’t imagine that what is actually happening in Washington is getting to us in a true form, at least not all of it.  And message after message is appealing so directly to our “human inclinations.”   Our fears.  Our jealous sides.  Our discomfort with difference, our resistance to change, our hesitation in accommodating the needs to others. Our desires of all sorts, right down to the all too common desire to see our enemies suffer.  (Do not discount the power of that urge).  And just the drama!  Humans seem to be drawn to drama like a moth before a flame.  And our President, that’s his business: drama.  He hails from the entertainment, leisure and luxury real estate industries: hotels, golf courses, luxury residences, reality TV, casinos!  Casinos!  Talk about appealing to our most base inclinations.  His incredible success has been in part due to his ability to know what people “really” want, and getting them to follow their human inclinations, even, maybe especially, when everything that you know as a decent and wholesome person is saying “open the other door.

Religions developed, in part, as a response to the need that we have for help controlling ourselves.  We need help putting the common good ahead of, or at least even with, our own good.  What we believe and how we behave it seems are inseparable.

For us, we have the Law given by God to Moses and filtered, or refined in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.  As we read last week, Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.  Now I could preach a whole sermon on the nature of Law, but I’ll just leave it at this: law sets the lowest acceptable bar.  “You can do everything up to this point, then it is in violation of the law.”  But that bar, being human, is right where we go to.  We are very good at figuring out what we can get away with.  Like two kids in the back seat on a long drive.  “Mom!  Her hand is on my side of the car!”  So you draw the line and how often will one of them lay their hand ON the line?  Why?  Because they can; it’s not against the rules.  Like tax rates are set as the lowest amount you have to pay.  Does anyone offer to pay more?  How many rat hairs per ton of flour are allowed, or how much oil can leak from a pipeline, or how many traffic accidents before a recall is issued?  We will usually sink to the standard we are required to meet, too often trying to get away with what we can; that’s why we have law.  Chalk all that up in the original sin column.

Oh we do it right.  Consider Joseph.  The Law said that he could’ve, if not should’ve gotten rid of Mary.  But he knew that that was not right.  Legal?  Sure.  But since when did something being legal make it right?  (Or something being illegal make it wrong?)  It used to be legal to own people.  It used to be illegal for women to vote.  Laws change: right and wrong don’t.

The law sets the minimum, and we usually are satisfied with remaining at that minimum.  Some of our human inclinations are not very flattering.  Some are downright dangerous to ourselves and most other living beings. In this first ethical discourse in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching that we aren’t going to get to the Kingdom following the way of the lowest common denominator.  We need to overcome come of our “natural inclinations.”

“You have heard that is was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… But I say to that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement…”

Our human inclinations allow for violence.  Like the Facebook kitty, all cute and cuddly with the caption “All day long I think about murder.”  That’s a kitty’s nature.  It’s ours’, too.  We evolved as omnivores.  We eat meat.  Meat means killing.  We are also social creatures.  Society means conflicts happen and, like we see in a pack of dogs or a troop of chimpanzees, we too often seem to resort to violence to solve conflicts.  We, most all of us, have violence in our hearts.  But just because we have always done something, or that it is instinctual, or comes naturally (natural inclinations), that does not mean that it is right.  That does not mean that we should keep on doing it.  Hence the Law, thanks be to God.  We agree that killing each other is wrong.  The Law makes it safer for us all; it requires us to act better than our natural inclinations might lead us to act.

That is not good enough.  That is one of Jesus’ lessons for us in the Sermon on the Mount.  We are so much more than just our bodies.  We are so much more than what we do.  We can’t forget our bodies or dismiss them, but we are more than flesh and bone, we are also our minds and our spirits.  Being embodied, our actions matter in that they directly impact others.  Being mindful and spiritual, our inner lives also matter in that it affects our whole being and our relationship with God, really our ability to be in right relationship with anything.  It alters who we are as much as how we are in the world.  Believing, thinking, feeling… this influences behaving, just as it influences our “be-ing.”  Our be-ing, is our presence, our existence, who we are in relation to God and everything. This is what Jesus is concerned with. This is what we need to be concerned with, too.

When we hold things in our hearts and minds, our whole being is affected, our whole selves orient on what we engage with.  As a farmer, I used to walk around all the time thinking about tomatoes and composting systems, and chicken fencing.  (The fox at our house is glad that we have not thought about fencing much this winter).  Everything seemed to come back to that.  My sermons when I worked at the monastery had an agrarian flavor to them because that was what I was handling inside.  I shudder to think what my sermons would have been from when I led a Marine Corps tank platoon!  We become what we do as much as we become what we think.

So while we may day-dream of throttling that lousy so-and-so in the SUV who cut you off, or any one of several high government officials, and of course we would never do it, but what Jesus is saying is that just thinking that way, the sin is already underway, it has already happened.  Who you are has been changed even if there is no outward, embodied sin.

Sin is a very precise word here.  Sin is being distant from God, and sinful things are things we do that separate us from God or that we do because we are separate from God.  So when we are fantasizing about doing x, y, and z to A, B or C, while our bodies might not be leading us away from God, our hearts and minds are.  It is not just about how we affect others, it is about how we are affected in relation to God and everything. We don’t have much control over anything, particularly outside of ourselves, that is a core lesson of Jesus Christ, but we do have some say about our inner lives.  That is what He is teaching us this morning.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’.  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Sex is a better example than violence, because (thankfully) most of us have more sex than we do violence in our lives… and that is a very good thing.  But as in all things, our “natural inclinations” can get the best of us, and what is a great gift, a blessing from God, becomes a source of sin and death.  But again, it is not just what we do with our bodies, the posture of our minds and spirits also have deep implications.

We all have sexual thoughts that come into our minds, that is just true.  It is our natural inclination and is not the problem.  It is what we do with them, those thoughts, that is what Jesus is talking about here. Our thoughts go from just naturally occurring to lust when we engage them.

We are not our thoughts, just as we are not our feelings.  They are part of us, absolutely, and good parts.   But we don’t have much control over their coming, as anyone who does creative work knows.  Thoughts just arrive sometimes.  Sometimes they are invited.  Sometimes they are sought after.  Sometimes they just show up, unannounced, unbidden, unwelcome.  What don’t have control over who shows up asking for dinner; we do have control over who is invited in.  This is what Jesus is teaching.

You see an attractive person, or you have a memory of an experience, or you see the cover of a magazine in the grocery store line… a thought pops up in your mind.  No worries, those magazine covers are meticulously designed to elicit those thoughts… So no worries, until you grab onto that thought and engage it and entertain it.  You hold it, add to it, begin imagining, make it part of yourself. That is where the naturally occurring thought turns into lustful adultery in your mind.  It is the same as having an violent internal reaction when you read of some terrible injustice done by our government.  It becomes the sin when we choose to dwell on the violent fantasy rather than letting it pass through, letting it go.  And that sin becomes part of us when we hold onto, chew on, swallow what we should not.  We become what we expose ourselves to and engage.

We need to limit our exposure to moral hazards, limit how much licentious sex and violence we encounter, but just as much, we need to limit our exposure to things which inspire sloth, gluttony, avarice, the entirety of our shadow side.  Watching the food channel all day will increase your desire for the pleasures of the table for their own sake.  “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was avaristic pornography, encouraging us to dwell on thoughts of wealth or material gain.  So is the Lottery.  So limit your exposure to the darker side of our society and the thoughts won’t come as regularly, you will be taking less of it in, eating less of it, and it you will be less that, leaving room for much better things.

But the thoughts will still come!  There is not much you can do about that, but there is a lot you can do to not engage them.  Like, don’t engage them.  Just leave them alone, look the other way internally (or externally; don’t read the cover of Cosmo if that is distracting). When I hear a confession, I hear what is being confessed, and if pushed I could remember it, but that is not for me to do, so it just stays there, cloaked in intentional, holy amnesia.  We have an immense capacity to ignore things when we want to.  We can love and be in relationship with folks only because we are able to ignore certain parts of them or certain things they do or have done.  You can do it.

The world is difficult right now.  Things need to change.  We are all products of this society that has brought us to where we are.  Right now, each of us has the capacity to change yourself in relation to everything going on.  We need to be the change that we hope for the world, and it starts right here.  It is the internal revolution that will endure.  AMEN.

Feb. 5, 2017, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany 5
February 5, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“You are the salt of the earth.”

The Sermon on the Mount… We heard the opening last week, the ontological statement of the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is how the world truly is.  When we are broken, weak, the more we mourn or are poor in spirit, the more God is open to us and loves us.  Love is the force that gives us meaning and governs the movement of our lives and spirits, just as it makes the trees grow and the birds sing and the seas rumble and sets the planets in their courses.  Like you may have learned at summer camp, “It’s love that makes the world go ‘round!”  Truly.   Jesus lays out a baseline of how the world and we are when we fully surrender to God.  A good start to a sermon.

After the Beatitudes, we have find two little transitional couplets, “You are the Salt of the Earth” and “You are the light of the world”.  (We’ll come back to those).  These are followed by the heart of the Sermon, a long ethical discourse in three sections.  The first concerns Jesus and the Torah.  We hear the first part of that today; His reassurance to Israel that Jesus came not to replace the Torah, the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it.  We’ll hear more on the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law next week.  The second section concerns Jesus and religious practice; how to pray, give alms and conduct ourselves in relation to God.  The final section concerns daily life and the challenges of society we all face, from our relationship to wealth, to being judgmental to the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So one way to think about the Sermon on the Mount is that it starts by telling us about the Commonwealth of God, the true state of how the world is supposed to be (and is if we just acted like it), and then offers the ethical discourses on how to get to that Promised Land.  Connecting them are “You are the salt of the Earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  These four verses are very important, for they describe where we, the faithful listeners, those gathered at the feet of Christ are right now; not how we will be, or how we are supposed to be, but how we are right now.

How are you right now? That is a serious question.  How are you doing.  I’ve started our class on the Book of Revelation with that question the past few weeks and have heard kind of a groan each time.  I have been having a lot of conversations with people here and out in the community and the upset and consternation is unlike anything I have ever experienced.  Some folks talk of losing weight because they aren’t eating or sleeping well, while others are gaining weight for similar reasons.  There is stress in relationships.  The news is distracting some us from our families and work.  I had to turn off the wi-fi when writing this to keep from flipping to the news every 10 minutes.  The news cycle is swirling in overdrive trying to keep up with Twitter.  You can smell the ozone as the circuits overheat and the anxiety is palpable.  If you ever need to talk, give me a call.  Yes, yes I am busy, but never too busy for you.  Truly.

But that is not all that I am seeing.  Oh there is plenty of the hateful stuff, some manifesting as public policy, some as hate flung at individuals, specific identity groups and just out into the universe.  Some folks are coming to conclusions about things that I just can’t understand.  A lot of my prayers are reserved for them.  The world must seem so scary and hostile, really lacking security.  It is easy to behave poorly, or at least un-mindfully when you are scared and under stress, especially when principalities and powers of the world are confirming your fears and giving license for all sorts of reactions.

I am also, though, seeing people wake up, as if coming out of a deep sleep.  The world has been fading to black since the horror of 9.11 and our horrific and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in response.  (I suppose we must add Syria and now maybe Yemen, too)?  Over the past eight years, though, we have been lulled into complacency by what many have considered a friendly face at the helm, but those scales are falling off.  (Or the hurricane force winds of change are blowing them off)!  There is engagement.  Folks are talking, reflecting on their part in things, thinking about repenting!  About changing the direction of their lives!  Five hundred priests showed up at Standing Rock!  Millions around the globe marched in the largest single protest ever; in the history of the world! 10,000ish here in little old Eugene.  Now obviously it would have been better if we had more of that passion before the election, Bernie mustered some, but for a lot of reasons that petered out and we were left with the two candidates with the lowest approval ratings of Presidential candidates ever.  Right or wrong that’s how it was and too much of the nation slumped into apathy or paralyzing disgust.  Ben Franklin wrote An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure because we need constant reminders.  In very short order, though, a lot of people are giving a lot of their attention and intention, are really searching for a way to make the world better or at least keep it from getting a whole lot worse.  And that is really, really good.  This is very, very exciting.  This is exactly what we are supposed to be doing right now.

“You are the salt of the earth…”  “You are the light of the world…”

When we are perfected or purified; once we have fully emptied ourselves, kenosis, as St. Paul wrote to the folks in Philippi, when we have surrendered ourselves completely to the will of God we will inherit the Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven will be ours, we will be comforted.  No doubt about that.  But until then, or whilst we follow the Way of Christ to the Commonwealth, we are the salt of the Earth.  We are the light of the world.

What does it mean to be the salt of the Earth?  _______       Being thoroughly decent.  Being wholesome.  Now there’s a word that we just don’t hear enough: Wholesome.  Conducive to physical or moral well-being.  The salt of the earth are regular people whose presence is conducive to physical or moral well-being.  Jesus is telling His followers that that is not only what they were (what we are), but that that’s what the world needs, a heaping dose of it.  The Salt of the Earth.  Being thoroughly decent, wholesome.  The world needs you!  The world needs us! It always has, and right now it is just more obvious. Jesus is calling!

Just the simple presence of people doing the right thing, trying to do the right thing, trying to be decent and wholesome, that makes the world a better place.  It is grounding.  Stabilizing.  It sets roots and builds community, resilient community that can withstand the buffeting winds of chance and history because communities of decent, wholesome people are reliable and trustworthy.  Resilience!  That is what we need now, in this very moment.  And resilience grows when you can trust that the people around you have good intentions.  You can breathe.  And Lordy, do we need to breathe right now.  Deeply.

When the world starts to contract, and anxiety edges up, sort of like it is now, suspicion and defensiveness can creep in.  That is the enemy’s victory, us divided against ourselves.  Us curled up around a screen, focused inwards in despair, or outward with suspicion and hostility.  That is exactly the opposite reaction than we need.

The church was founded in a time of tumult and anxiety.  It was an age of “desolating sacrilege.”  The church, though, in as hostile an environment as you can imagine set roots, it grew, it survived.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  One of them, one of the ways God’s will manifested was that the early Christian communities took care of each other.  Really.  They cared for each other physically when they got sick, with alms giving when they needed a hand, with supporting each other emotionally, spiritually when disaster struck.  There were plagues, epidemics that passed through the Empire and some scholars posit that Christians survived at higher rates because the communities came together, concentrated resources and cared for each other.  The first Holy Order were deacons, servants, who took the offerings and distributed them among the poor in and around the fledgling church communities.  The word “Hospital” comes from medieval Christians who invented the concept of places where people could find shelter, rest and care when they were in need.  The church made it because people were sustained by the church, sometimes being cared for on a sick bed, sometimes with money to get by another month, but mostly by simply being propped up by the wholesome and decent folks you saw each Sunday morning.

That is one of the things that I do love about church, the wholesomeness of it all.  Good clean fun.  Places you can bring your children or grandchildren and not worry about what they will be exposed to (besides the inevitable third cookie).  The church is (well can be, is supposed to be, this one is) a community, a for-real community, a gathering of people with a shared common good in mind.  Look around you right now.  This is what He was talking about; not too good, not too bad, but just right.

He is telling us that we don’t need to be saints to follow Him on the Way to God.  We don’t need to be brilliant or successful (though you probably could be and still be welcome, though He is less clear when it comes to being too rich and wanting to stay too rich).  Being the salt of the earth means being our whole, true selves and being the community that we are, without pretense or posturing.  Decent.  Wholesome.

If we are the salt of the earth, we are also the light of the world…   Where being the salt is how we are, being thoroughly decent, being wholesome, being the light of the world is shining that outward, being a wholesome example.  It is evangelistic.  It is communicating and inviting others to the warmth of your little fire.

And that light, it purifies!  I don’t think there is an iota of  wholesomeness in bag of Stay-Puff Marshmallows or a bar of Hershey’s chocolate, not when measured by any organic, whole-food, really any nutritional/economic standard; bereft of wholesomeness.  But squeeze them between a Graham Cracker with your cousins over the fire that Nana built by the lake… that’s fruits of the light of the world shining and making the broken whole.

“The Salt of the Earth.”  “The Light of the World.”  Jesus is talking to us where we are. We are the people He has.  Maybe not the people He wants, or that we will become, but we are who He has.  And all He asks is that we listen to Him, and try to be ever closer to Him in thought, word and deed.  That’s what the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is about.  And it is for us.  You.

We need all types if this world is going to come about.  We need the revolutionaries to keep the fires stoked.  (Not everyone with a black mask is an enemy or is lashing out mindlessly).  We need the thinkers and writers, public intellectuals to frame the debate.  We need policy makers and influence-rs to do the technical work, protecting or laying legal foundations for the common good.  We need artists and musicians to show us the truth in its many colors.  And most of all, we need the salt of the earth.  We need grandma’s cookies and grandpa’s stories.  We need moms and dads teaching their kids right from wrong.  We need neighbors keeping an eye on each other, and kindly decent people to volunteer to help out our homeless neighbors, to keep the church doors open, to bring a casserole to someone coming out of surgery.  The world, this nation, it’s not out there, it’s not what we peer at through the 3 by 6 screen in our pocket.  It is right here.  Right now.  It is what you see and smell and taste, and it is who you know and how you treat them.

That’s the salt of the earth.  Jesus’ people.  Decent.  Wholesome.  Doing what needs doing.  Giving the time you have for what needs to be done. I’ll end today with the poem I shared in the newsletter this week.  It is called “A Time to Talk” by Robert Frost and I think he puts it as good as anyone the fruits of being the salt of the earth.  Being this kind of person, decent and wholesome, friendly and kind, getting your priorities right, that’s going to go a long way in keeping us all together, building our resiliency as individuals and as a Christian community, and giving our society a foundation of rock upon which we can build the world Jesus Christ intends for us to live in.  And being this way, we will be in a posture to begin on the divinely hard work of making the Commonwealth real that Jesus lays out in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

 

A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, 'What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

 

AMEN.

January 29, 2017, 4th Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany 4
January 29, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to Him.  He began to speak, and taught them…”

Sometimes the Word of God we need comes just in the nick of time.  We need it after a week like this.  “Alternative facts” are now part of our lexicon.  The President’s chief advisor called the media “the opposition party” and told the New York Times to “keep its mouth shut.” Are you paying attention to this?  You are probably going to get sick of hearing me say this, but we must not let this become normal.  And here in Eugene we marked the death of another unhoused person on our streets, a young man named Hunter.  His friends suspect that he died of CO poisoning from the propane stove he was using to heat his tent.  Hunter is the sixth!!! , sixth non-violent death that we know about on our streets this cold season.  Death happening right out there.  Randall was a friend of Paul’s who used to stay on our back porch.  Randall died in Tugman Park.  And deaths at this rate are probably not unusual, just not known.  Again, you are probably going to be, if you are not already, sick of hearing me say this, but this must NOT remain normal.

We need to take care of each other a whole lot better if we are going to make it through these next four years.  I am deadly serious about that; Jesus serious.  One of the most radical, decisive, effective things that we can do as Christian citizens of this country in this moment is to care for those in our midst that need caring for; those who can’t take care of themselves for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter why they need help, it only matters that they need help.  Not only will you be saving lives, six dead on our streets means that the statement “saving lives” is not hyperbole, but showing kindness and compassion is also a brazen political statement, it is a first order affront to the principalities and powers of this world.  Caring for the least of these is the think local-act local resistance movement so many of us were looking for at the marches across the world last week.  And if I am not convincing, just listen to Jesus.  Just listen the Gospel readings today and for the next three weeks as we hear Jesus the Word made flesh give flesh to the words of the Sermon on the Mount.

St. Augustine gave it that name, the Sermon on the Mount.  It is chapters 5 – 7 of St. Matthews Gospel, a long moral and ethical discourse given to His disciples on a hillside in Galilee.  It “sounds a keynote of the new age that Jesus came to introduce.” The new age is the chance for a wholly new relationship with God for those who are willing to surrender to God.  It is not about who you were born to, where you come from, from what tribe or language or people or nation you hail, but how you are in relationship to God and everything.  That is the Way of Jesus Christ.  That is the message of the Sermon on the Mount.

In this sermon, Jesus teaches us about the nature of God, the world and the people we share it with.  He is teaches how we should be in relation to God and each other.  And He teaches how to do it, the practice of living in accordance with God’s will.  He teaches us how to pray.  How to give alms.  That we need to be willing to learn and open ourselves to new things, new wisdom:  “You have heard it said… but I say unto you…”  Jesus teaches that we cannot defeat or even resist evil with evil. That we shouldn’t put faith in things, that we shouldn’t worry, or constitution of the Commonwealth of God in under 2400 words.  The Sermon on the Mount is one of the principal manifestations of Divine wisdom revealed to humanity, ever.  It is a guide on how to be more perfectly human than we would be left to our own devices. And it is difficult, darn near impossible to live up to, but that is our charge.

It starts with the Beatitudes.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

One way to understand the Beatitudes is that this is who is in the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God, and who is not.   Not in an exclusionary way, but an observation about who is in the right posture to be in an actual right relationship with God. If we are not poor in spirit, in mourning, meek, merciful… we are not with God.  “But God loves everyone!” Absolutely.  And it is on us to open to God.  We can’t make God do anything, but we can keep God out.  A hard heart is God-impermeable.  And remember, a hard heart is active malice and greed as much as it is looking the other way.  It is as much “I’m out for number one” as it is “I can’t deal with the suffering I see,” or “it’s not my fault.”

So who is in the Commonwealth of God or not, aspirationally as well as descriptively, that is one way to read the Beatitudes.  There are others.

With the condition of the world, right down to here in our own city, something needs to give.  I know that empires always crumble, that tyrants always fade or fall, but how do we get by in the mean time?  How do we do our part, we little, decent people versus the principalities and powers of the world?  I am desperate for a ray of hope that is not just the message: Endure.  That is just a step on the downward slope of the banal evil that creeps in when we keep our heads down like Orwell’s Winston did until love changed his course.

I’ve been reading Gandhi recently.  His central message, satyagraha, clinging to truth of soul-force is directly from his reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  (With a little Tolstoy mixed – that’s another week).   My reading of Gandhi is opening up the Beatitudes as not just a statement of how it will be when you repent and align yourself with God, but that it is Jesus’ observation of how it actually is, about how the world right now, almost all of the time, actually works, how it actually is.  Gandhi writes:  “The fact that there are so many men (sic) still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of love or truth.  Therefore the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it (the world) still lives on.”

He goes on, “Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force.  Hundreds of nations live in peace.  History does not and cannot take note of this fact.  History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.  Two brothers quarrel; one of them repents and re-awakens the love that was lying dormant in him; the two again begin to live in peace; nobody takes notice of this.”  You can guess where this goes… two brothers can’t resolve their dispute and they resort to lawyers or some other form of force and neighbors notice, and people talk and it’s in the papers and is recorded in history.  Terrible, but that is the anomaly.

The lesson of this is NOT think positive!  Ignore the bad and focus on the good.  No, precisely the opposite.  It is to see the bad as the disruption, the interruption of the normative, a priori good, and is a clarion call to right what is wrong, to heal the sin sick soul, to forgive the sinner so thoroughly that they see there is no right choice but repentance and changing their ways!  It is good!   All of this, the creation, each other, you, Mr. Trump, all of us, good, its essence, our essence, our soul exists in love.  That is its natural disposition.  And that power, the power of good, of life, that is the power of love, and it is infinitely more powerful than the forces of evil and disruption.

But that power is not power in the way that violence, coercion, wealth and privilege is power.  Worldly forces want to control, to make us comply, to break resistance.  Agape doesn’t make anyone do anything, it opens like a flower and invites us in (buzz, buzz).  It invites compassion and kindness.  It invites a change of heart and a change of way.  It is the power of living.  Of breath.  It is the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, another way to say unstoppable.  Agape gathers, heals and builds while worldy power divides, controls and destroys.

This is what Jesus observed of the world and teaches us in the Beatitudes.  When your spirit is broken, God is with you.  Always has been.  When you mourn, when you are open and honest about the suffering of the world, you are comforted.  The pain doesn’t go away, but mourning, yu are not alone with it.  When you are meek are not striving.  Being simple, humble, meek – you will be satisfied with what comes to you, and not in a “be a happy peasant” kind of way, but really, fully, truly satisfied with storing our treasures in heaven where moth or rust cannot consume it.  Those who desire righteousness, receive it.  Already.  The search is its fulfillment.  And you will be persecuted for it.  Just be prepared.  That is just how the world is.  That is what Jesus is teaching here.

There is a force of limitless power and might that we find right there in the basic day-to-day lives that we live.  That force is agape.  That force is the God that Jesus is introducing us to in the Sermon on the Mount.  Mo. Jo is always talking about the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  That web of love, the state of the world as described in the Beatitudes, the condition of agape, exists, and though unrecorded by history, it is unstoppable, and has triumphed in every case.  Like the brutal defeat on the Cross was actually a victory that has outlasted the Roman empire and will outlast our empire and will continue until, as James Weldon Johnson puts it, that “great gittin’up morning.”

The agents of discord and oppression always have and always will wilt when faced with the love found inside our grandmas’ cookie jars.  And as they change or at least fade we will be strengthened by it.  We will be girded by it.  It will be the armor of righteousness that we will need if we are to live with the beatified in the Commonwealth of God that is right here, right now.

Leaning into love like this is the narrow path.  A gun is faster, and to conventionally wise eyes seems more efficient than love.  Loving the hard to love, loving the stranger, loving our enemies, that is the long game, victory is assured, but it is terribly difficult.  How many decades did Gandhi toil?  How long does Jesus have to wait for us to hear His cry in the mouths of the suffering?  Love does not prevent suffering, no, love, agape love invites suffering, because it calls us not only to not shy from our own suffering, but to take up our neighbor’s suffering and do everything we can to relieve it.  (Even taking up our enemies’ suffering.  If we take the love of the cookie jar to its conclusion, it ends with giving our enemy a choice of chocolate chip or oatmeal).

I am so glad that we have so much time with the Sermon on the Mount in this very moment.  It is all foolishness the those wise to ways of the world, but it is the path that Jesus Christ lays before us.  For “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  AMEN

 

January 22, 2017, 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany 3
January 22, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

It’s a brave new world.  It is hard to tell what is going to be happening over the coming months and years.  About the only certainty that we have about anything in the world is that it will change, it will continue to change, it will always be changing.  There is a great Collect in the office of Compline, in which we pray that “we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness…”  Lord have mercy.

We always need it: a ray of light in the darkness to illuminate our way, a beacon on the horizon by which to navigate, a point of reference in the formless, timeless soup of the universe.  We need something solid, fixed, unmoving, unmoved to which we can orient our lives.  Even if that point itself is not actually static, we need a common point towards which we face, like the way churches face East, or like the ambry there draws our focus; that’s what we’re bowing to, not the altar.  Consecrated host is in there, the real presence of Jesus Christ.  Our point of reference, as Christians, is right there, it is the Cross and the Word, the message that radiates out in the person of Jesus Christ.  And the divine joke, or holy challenge, that we are given, is that that message, the message from which all of reality springs, is foolishness!

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The foolishness of the Cross is that surrender is victory.  Weakness is strength.  That the ability to bear suffering is immeasurably stronger than the ability to inflict suffering.  That is what Jesus did on the Cross.  Turn it all upside down.  The foolishness of the cross is “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.”  A lamb as a symbol of God.  A lamb?  I don’t know if you have spent any time with lambs, but in my little experience, there aren’t a lot of conventional examples of divine majesty, or almightiness in your average lamb.  They are rather silly, and playful, which could be a refreshing, useful image of God, but being pretty easy to catch and eat?  And that’s whose blood we are washed white in?

The foolish message of the Cross tells us that the last will be first and the first will be last.  This has come to be understood as the “preferential option for the poor,” meaning that God prefers the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the victim.  It might make more sense that you could tell who was elect, who God favors because of good things in this life, wouldn’t that stand to reason?  But no, that is not what we learn at the foot of the Cross.  That is not what we learn from the mouth of Jesus Christ.  He didn’t spend a lot of time with people who were doing well.  And in the time He did spend in polite company, in the homes of the Pharisees, He pushed them, sort of taunted them.  He was a rather rude houseguest.

What Jesus teaches in how He spent His very short time on earth is that it is the least of these who have His blessed attention.  We learn that the more you hurt, the more you need, the more you are depressed and broken and miserable, and feeling utterly unworthy of the love of God the more you are loved by God.  The more stray you are the more God seeks you.  You have to accept that love; you even have to repent, a fancy way of saying that you have to change your ways, but God’s invitation is stronger the further you spiral out from goodness and wellness.  God desperately loves the new leadership of our country.  I pray that they repent, that they change their ways and accept that love!

Everyone deserves the love of God, that is what grace is all about; the radical notion of Jesus Christ is that the more you suffer the more you deserve it.  The shepherd will leave the ninety-nine to seek the one lost sheep!  That is the foolishness of the Cross.

The foolishness of the Cross arises in other ways, too.  It is right here in the DNA of the church, the very nature of how we gather.   That foolishness spans all the way back to St. Paul and the problems of the very first churches.   The lesson of the foolish message of the Cross was first sent to Corinth because they were in trouble.  There was division.  “I belong to Paul!”  “I belong to Apollos!”  “I, to Cephas!” Human ideas and habits and prejudices arose.  That was not Paul’s plan.  The church as Paul envisioned it and built it, was pretty novel.  It broke with, not only conventional wisdom and practice, but with human nature.  Humans are tribal creatures.  We evolved as a species in small bands of closely related individuals.  Our default mode is that we (most of us) are most comfortable surrounded by people that look and sound and act like we do.  The church was founded outside of the patterns that had defined human interaction since the beginning: family, clan, tribe people.  This was the tension between Sts. Peter and Paul.  Was this a radical Jewish reform or a wholly new thing, with Gentiles welcome to the feast as well?  The church Paul built, our church, brought together Jew and Greek, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female.  Not perfectly, but what revolution if perfect?  What the ecclesia, the beloved community lacked in the bonds of family or ethnicity, it made up for (or tried to) through a connection with something larger, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The foolishness of the Cross tells us that we need to put aside our instincts, our base nature, for the wisdom of the cross.

Our sexual appetites are very natural.  Watch any barnyard scene for ten minutes and you will see that nature: sexual rules are dictated by physiology, not cognitive or moral decision processes.  But God, through Moses and on through the Cross teaches that limiting, restraining our appetites, overcoming the pull of our instincts is the better path, foolish from many perspectives, but better.

I spoke at the prayer vigil on Friday morning.  In the present moment many of us are feeling a strong instinct of “fight or flight.”  (or knit pink hats… I think that one is ok).  But fight or flight are reasonable instinctual reactions to the developing the state of things, but no, the Cross says that fight or flight is not the right response, rather love is the way, the truth and the life.  “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Are those the words that would be on your lips if you were being tortured to death? I think my instincts would put much less friendly words on mine.  But just because we feel something or think something, that doesn’t mean that we need to act on it.

The foolishness of the Cross teaches us that we can overcome our instincts.  We can accept, join with, love those that are different from us.  We can even go to church with them.  (Though I bet 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains one of the more segregated hours of the week).  Violence, though that may be the first thought that flashes through our mind, is not the way.  Men should not have more say than women.  No means no, no matter how hard it might be to accept.  Urges, appetites of all kinds, all of our instincts must be tempered by our morals, by our understanding of God’s will, by the way it is supposed to be.  And that, by any conventional standard, is foolishness.

I have been learning about another shade of foolishness from Windy recently.  She is a site lead at the Egan Warming Centers.  She got ours started, and this year has started the site up at St. Matthews.  Egan is hard ministry.  It is a last chance refuge from life-threatening cold, and it accommodates the folks least able to be accommodated.  People ravaged by mental illness, a life time of horrendous trauma, addiction, malnutrition, every shade of physical malady, and many coming in with complication on top of complication.  So many are un-helped because they are deemed un-helpable.

So how do you help the un-helpable?  One way, the conventional way, is regimentation.  There are basic, simple rules.  Everyone follows them.  No exceptions because exceptions are unfair and discontent spreads rapidly amongst those for whom everything is dealt unfairly. We see that at Opportunity Village: exceptions to the rules can cause problems.  It’s the Oliver Twist syndrome.  Young Master Twist was hungry at that orphanage.  He wanted more gruel, but the rules, or at least the culture, says no seconds.  But he is hungry and nine; ain’t no reasoning with a hungry nine year-old.  So he approached the Master, “Please sir, may I have some more?”

So the master had a couple of choices.  Spoiler, he said “no.”  And what did that “no” get him, besides being known as a wicked, wicked man probably for as long as the English language is spoken?  Mostly, it got him an aggravated and uncooperative Oliver!  And that little chap riled everyone else up, too.  One little “no” made a great big mess for that entire orphanage that echoes throughout literary history!

Oliver Twist needed more porridge.   If you give someone what they need, everything works out better for everyone.  So there are strict rules at Egan about a lot of things.  And there need to be.  But if someone can’t sleep hemmed in on all sides by sleeping mats, they can make a nightmare of a night for everyone.  But one little exception, let her sleep under that bench off to the side… there is peace in the valley.  Do they deserve an exception?  Deserve is a complicated word.  Will people think it unfair and expect exceptions themselves?  Maybe, but Win has found that if she explains, “If we make them sleep out here with everyone else, you know how this night will go for all of us,” most people will begrudgingly agree and go to their own, unexceptional mat and go to sleep.  Quietly.  Because that problem has been solved.  Like just being nice to people.  Not making them line up like automatons.  Giving them a cup of coffee while they wait to get inside.  Very simple, basic, humanizing hospitality brings the whole temperature down.

If we take care of people’s needs, they’ll need a whole lot less.  FOOLISHNESS!  Maybe logical, but foolishness by all conventional standards.  “That breeds dependence!”  “It’ll take too many resources!”  “They’ll expect special treatment next time!”  I don’t know.  Is it so far-fetched to expect that if someone has the power to give you what you need that they should?  Maybe not give you all that you want, but what you need to get along in this world… Sounds like the foolishness of the cross to me.

When the world seems ridiculous, we need the refuge of what it calls foolishness.  We do not know the trials and tribulations that we face.  Our own lives, the life of our fair city, the life of this nation and the world, all of it.  We all need to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.  And the foolish are at the head of the line.  AMEN.

Jan. 15, 2017, 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany II
January 15, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

 

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Monday is the moment where our nation remembers the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He has become one of our great secular saints, and he should be.  But he was, and should remain, very much a religious figure, a prophet with a line on the will of God and hot coals on his lips.

On Monday we honor a man who gave his life to what he knew he was supposed to give it to, resisting the principalities and powers of this world, and in resisting them, and in the way he resisted them, making real the Kingdom of God.  Do you smell the sweet fragrance of Jesus’ earthly ministry in Dr. King’s life and work?  And then on Friday the 45th President of the United States is being inaugurated…

I am going to depart from convention and offer you some words by Dr. King this morning.  These are some of the most important words ever said from a pulpit, for they open up the most important (and challenging) teaching our Lord and Savior ever gave, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  In this moment, when more people are seeing and feeling enemies in ways we haven’t felt before, and the fabric of our nation is frayed, we need this teaching.  It is moments like this where violence, in thought, word and deed too often begins to well up in our hearts.  Ill will.  Seeking the defeat, the humiliation of our adversary, discrediting their motives and stories.  All of this is violence.  And the only thing that violence accomplishes is creating more violence, more hatred, more suffering

So what follows is most of a sermon called “Loving your Enemies.”  An earlier version was first preached at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957.  It was revised while in jail in 1962.

The text was St. Matthew 5:43–45.  “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven.”

It is a foundational statement on the nature of Christian non-violent resistance to evil and oppression, hatred and bigotry, misogyny and ignorance.

 

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies.” Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you? Others, like the philosopher Nietzsche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist.

In spite of these insistent questions and persistent objections, this command of Jesus challenges us with new urgency. Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.

I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life. He realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. So when Jesus said “Love your enemy,” he was not unmindful of its stringent qualities. Yet he meant every word of it. Our responsibility as Christians is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.

Let us be practical and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?

First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.

Second, we must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy. Each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. A persistent civil war rages within all of our lives. Something within us causes us to lament with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things, but follow worse,” or to agree with Plato that human personality is like a charioteer having two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in a different direction, or to repeat with the Apostle Paul, “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God’s image is ineffably etched in his being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.

Third, we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding. At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy. Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat. But this we must not do. Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.

The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh. Perhaps the Greek language can clear our confusion at this point. In the Greek New Testament are three words for love. The word eros is a sort of aesthetic or romantic love. In the Platonic dialogues eros is a yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. The second word is philia, a reciprocal love and the intimate affection and friendship between friends. We love those whom we like, and we love because we are loved. The third word is agape understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love men not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every man because God loves him. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he does.

Now we can see what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” We should be happy that he did not say, “Like your enemies.” It is almost impossible to like some people. “Like” is a sentimental and affectionate word. How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path? How can we like a person who is threatening our children and bombing our homes? That is impossible. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like. When Jesus bids us to love our enemies, he is speaking neither of eros nor philia; he is speaking of agape understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. Only by following this way and responding with this type of love are we able to be children of our Father who is in heaven…

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security. Napoleon Bonaparte, the great military genius, looking back over his years of conquest, is reported to have said: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended on force. But centuries ago Jesus started an empire that was built on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.” Who can doubt the veracity of these words? The great military leaders of the past have gone, and their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes. But the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love, is still growing. It started with a small group of dedicated men, who, through the inspiration of their Lord, were able to shake the hinges from the gates of the Roman Empire, and carry the gospel into all the world. Today the vast earthly kingdom of Christ numbers more than 900,000,000 and covers every land and tribe. Today we hear again the promise of victory:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moon shall wax and wane no more.
Another choir joyously responds:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North,
But one great Fellowship of Love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

Jesus is eternally right. History is replete with the bleached bones of nations that refused to listen to him. May we in the twentieth century hear and follow his words — before it is too late. May we solemnly realize that we shall never be true sons of our heavenly Father until we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”

AMEN

 

Text of the sermon is taken from Strength to Love (Harper & Row, 1963).