Mary Bea Sullivan

soul stirring stories

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Heal Our Blindness; Heal Our Deafness

Sermon for Proper 25B Jermiah 31:7-9, and Mark 10:46-52

Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL 

Vigil outside Tree of Life Synagogue

This has been a heartbreaking week—bombs in the mail and guns in the synagogue. I will address these tragic issues in a moment, but first I would like to offer some background on prophetic literature and the prophet Jeremiah. They and our Gospel can point a way forward to us in this gut-wrenching time.  

Prophets are not future-oriented as one might think, they are “oriented toward the present.”  They may point the ramifications in the future based upon today’s behavior, but they are grounded in the now.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes,“To be a  prophet is to be in fellowship with the feelings of God, to experience communion with the divine consciousness.  The prophet hears God’s voice and looks at the world from God’s perspective.”

It is as if the divine word is channeled through a human messenger. The prophet’s language and way of being are designed to shock rather than edify. Think John the Baptist in his hairy coat eating grasshoppers.  Their language is shocking because they know the people need “waking up.” 

It is as if the divine word is channeled through a human messenger.  They are isolated because they say things people don’t want to hear. Yet they are so overwhelmed  by the “grandeur of divine presence” they cannot keep silent. (Heschel)

I want to make a distinction between a prophet and an evangelist. An evangelist, like Saint Luke, or Saint Paul, goes out to new communities to spread the Good News.  A prophet speaks to community from within the community. 

You have probably already begun to think of modern-day prophets like Ghandi or Martin Luther King,Jr.  There is a young man in Philadelphia named Shane Claiborne, I hope you’ll check him out.  He wears dreadlocks and lives in a type of contemporary monastic community.  Shane has been jailed for advocating for the  homeless and flown to Iraq and Afghanistan to protest those wars.  I mention Shane so you are aware that prophets lived not only in the past, but also are alive today.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in the 7th century BCE.  He is called the weeping prophet for a few reasons.  The Book of Lamentations is attributed to him—and that is like one big weep.  Also in the book of Jeremiah he is reported to have wept a “fountain of tears.” (9:1).

Jeremiah wept because of the Israelite people’s sins. He lamented their false worship, and their mistreatment of the poor, among other things. Jeremiah called the people to repent. “Return faithless Israel says the Lord.  I will not look you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord.” (3:12)

In portions of Jeremiah, he is speaking to a people in Exile—away from their homes, living in Babylon, away from their temple, away from family. 

We know exile too.  In our personal lives when our relationships are fractured, or our health is failing, or finances are low, or children are making dreadful choices.  We too are knocked off-center and feel far from “home.”

We know  communal exile as well.  When we are apathetic toward those living in poverty, disconnected from one another because we are over-connected to technology, and surrounded by enmity of speech.

We are living in a uniquely horrific time in the history of our country, where bombs are mailed to political opponents and bullets fly in places of worship.

This is not who we are at our core.  These actions do not accurately reflect who we are as Christians, who we are as Americans.  I know you.  I know you to be kind and generous and loving.  I know none of you desire for anyone to be persecuted or terrorized because of how they look, or where they worship, or who they love.

Yet we cannot deny that there is a movement in our country in a deeply troubling direction.  According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-semitic incidents in the United States have surged 57% from 2016 to 2017.  This is the largest rise in a single year since they began tracking such crimes in1979.  Other hate crimes are on the rise as well.

I know you lament with me for all of those who are terrorized and persecuted simply for who they are. 

Yet, we can feel paralyzed, numb.  We wonder how we can possibly make a difference. 

Despite the depth of enmity in our world at this time, we are not to despair.  What can we do? 

We can look to the Gospel.  We can follow Jesus. 

In Mark’s Gospel we learn that blind Bartimeus is by the roadside crying for help. The crowd sternly rebukes him, telling him to be quiet. 

But Jesus hears him and asks for Bartimeus to be called to him.  Notice how the crowd changed their stance when they heard Jesus call for Bartimeus?  They went from “shushing” to encouraging, “Take heart; get up.  He is calling to you.” (49)

Not only did Jesus heal Bartimeus’ blindness, he healed the crowd’s deafness.

What can we do?  We can pray for the healing from our blindness and deafness.  We can pray to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the cries of those who are persecuted. 

We can pray for mercy and forgiveness for those times we have been blind and deaf.  We can pray for the courage to advocate for those who are persecuted for who they are. 

It is not okay to demonize another person—especially in the context of our time, when rhetorical and literal bombs are being thrown and guns are toted in temples.  When we demean any class of people be it by socio-economic status or race or gender or political affiliation we make them less than human. 

All people are made in the image and likeness of God.

What can we do?  We can be mindful of our thoughts, speech and actions. Words are powerful.  How are we using our words?  Do they bear the seeds of hate or love?  If we are to follow Jesus, we are to sow seeds of love.

We are in a time when we need to return to God and cry out like Bartimeus, “Jesus, have mercy on me.”  In a little while we will say the confession as we do every Sunday.  I encourage us to pay attention to when we have sown  seeds of hate.  Also, to be mindful of our communal sin of complicity through silence.  Jesus, have mercy on us.

After confession we are to live as the forgiven people that we are.  We will pray our prayer and give thanks for God’s forgiveness and mercy and live anew. 

We are a people of hope-steeped in the resurrection of Jesus and in the tradition of our Jewish relatives.  The Book of Jeremiah contains oracles of hope.  “You will be my people and I will be your God.

Again, you will take up your tambourines.

Again, you will plant your vineyards.

Yes, they will return home restored, but with the wisdom borne from loss.  For the Israelite people the physical loss from home.  For us, the loss of our shared humanity and decency.  We will return home, but we will bear the bruises of this bitter time of enmity. 

I want us to pay attention to the fact that Jeremiah’s oracle of hope painted a picture of restoration which included the weak, the blind, the lame, and pregnant women being carried home. 

Our restoration is tied to our willingness to listen to the cries of the Bartimeus’ of the world and to respond. 

As inheritors of the Jewish tradition and followers of Jesus we are compelled to listen to the cries of our modern-day Bartimeuses—those who are easily cast aside.

We are a people of hope.  So are our Jewish Brethren. This morning when I woke up at 4:30 to amend my sermon to account for the tragedy at The Tree of Life Synagogue, I sent an email to a friend who is cantor in the Jewish tradition.  I told him our hearts break with him.  I told him I wondered how we at Saint Luke’s could help.  He forwarded me a prayer written last night by a Rabbi for the Tree of a Life Community.  In the email string he forwarded to me, I noticed salutations of hope from one bereaved rabbi to another, “May we speak again in better times.”

I would like to close with us praying this prayer.

A Prayer for the Dead of Tree of Life Congregation

by Rabbi Naomi Levy

We are devastated, God,

Our hearts are breaking

In this time of shock and mourning.

The loss is overwhelming.

Send comfort and strength, God,

To grieving family members.

Send healing to the injured,

Send strength and wisdom to their doctors and nurses.

Bless the courageous police officers who risked their lives

To protect innocent lives.

Shield us from despair, God,

Ease our pain.

Let our fears give way to hope.

Lead us to join together as a nation

To put an end to anti-Semitism,

An end to hatred,

An end to gun violence.

Teach us, God, to honor the souls we have lost

By raising our hands and voices together

In the cause of peace.

Because Torah is a Tree of Life

And all its paths are peaceful.

Work through us, God.

Turn our helplessness into action.

Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy

And banish the hate that is tearing our world apart.

We must never be indifferent to the plight of any who suffer.

We must learn to care,

To open our hearts and open our hands.

Innocent blood is calling out to us.

God of the brokenhearted,

God of the living, God of the dead,

Gather the souls of the victims

Into Your eternal shelter.

Let them find peace in Your presence, God.

Their lives have ended

But their lights can never be extinguished.

May they shine on us always

And illuminate our way.

Amen.

Sources–

Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 1962),

Inspired by Tito Madruza’s commentary in Christian Century blog, “Sunday’s Coming.”  https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/sight-blind-hearing-unlistening-mark-1046-52

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“Listening Devoutly” Women’s Retreat at Camp McDowell

In the midst of our busy days, we can lose focus on that which is most important.  I hope you will join me at Camp McDowell for a Women’s Retreat to explore, renew, and deepen spiritual connections with God, ourselves, and creation.

Fresh fall air, farm to table food, rest, and rejuvenation await.

“Listening Devoutly” will begin on  the evening of October 12th and conclude at lunchtime on October 14th. There will be time to learn, to pray, to speak, and most importantly, to Listen Devoutly.

Space is limited, register here.  Contact me at marybea@marybeasullivan.com for more information.

 

 

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Inner Nature

This sermon was offered on June 10, 2018 at Saint Luke’s, Birmingham, AL 

Scripure 2 Cor 4:13-5:1

I love to run.  I even ran a marathon once.  That was fifteen years ago.  One day, these ankles that have been talking to me, and this back that gets tweaked now and then, will going to require me to stop running—something I love to do.

Photo by Malcolm Marler

Paul was spot on when he said that our “outer nature is wasting away.”  We can do our best to slow down the process, but we are designed with physical impermanence in mind.

And yet, there is an inner nature that is eternal that can shine brighter day by day, even as our bodies change.

For me, this week has offered many experiences of reflecting on this “inner nature.” On Sunday, I returned home from a one-week writing retreat.  The cabin was quiet, the rain restorative, and the time to connect with God and creativity without distraction renewed my love of life, my love for my vocation, my love for you. 

Time for renewal reminds us of our connection to that which is unseen.  Renewal comes in a variety of ways— prayer, working in the garden, painting, laughing with grandchildren.  Sacred, intentional time nurtures our inner nature. 

On Tuesday, we celebrated the life of Dr. Albert Tully.  Many of you knew him much better than I.  From the start, he crawled into my heart and took up residence.  It wasn’t just those sparkling blue eyes, or his at times, bawdy, sense of humor, it was something unseen in the essence of the man. 

I’m grateful to his family for agreeing to my sharing some of what he taught me in the brief time I knew him.  Dr. Tully’s health had been failing.  The last time we were together was on Memorial Day. He held my hand the whole time we spoke.

I have been here before, by the bedside of someone who knows what is true for all of us, but acute for them, our bodies don’t last forever.  Yet that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. He reminisced about family and fishing and ball games. He told jokes.

At one point he paused and said, “I believe being a Christian made me a better doctor.”

“In what way?” I asked.

“I hope I was kinder, more patient, more compassionate.” He answered.

Laying in that hospital bed, looking up at me, he told me his life had been a great journey and could not have been any better.

“You’re a grateful man,” I said.

“You have to be,” he said.  I thought oh no, gratitude is a choice.  For Dr. Tulley it was a way of being. 

I have seen this before with those who are dying—Outer nature declining; inner nature ascending. 

There is a reason today’s passage from Second Corinthians is suggested for our burial office.  It is at funerals we remember the impact of a life—how the inner nature shone through.

Wednesday, I spent time with our children at the 12 tribes Vacation Bible School.  Some of you may have heard me say, “I would rather preach to 2,000 adults for an hour, than try to occupy 130 children for 20 minutes.” 

My apprehension was unfounded.  Your children are amazing and we had fun, and let me give a shout out to Linda, and Kimballee, and all of the staff, and volunteers.  This was a creative, joy-filled environment  for our children to learn about Jesus.  The pavilion and the grove were Christened by children’s laughter.  That experience was made possible because of your generosity of financial resources and time.

When Dr. Tully told me, “I think being a Christian made me a better doctor.” It jolted me.  This may seem odd to you that I needed reminding of this, but I did.  Dr. Tully reminded me WHY we do what we are doing here at St. Luke’s. 

Those bandana-covered children will become doctors and lawyers and teachers and politicians.  We owe it to God and to them, and to the world, to give them a chance to know Christ. We are all ordained by God in our baptism.  We need more priestly doctors, priestly lawyers, priestly teachers, and priestly politicians. 

Another important part of our work is for those precious ones to know they belong to us and they belong to God.  Those bandana-covered children, all children, need to know they are loved and connected to something bigger than themselves. 

This need for connection is laid bare as our country’s heartbreaking mental health crisis has been brought to the fore. We mourn the suicides of two famous, “successful,” well-loved people—Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  We lament the publication of the tragic statistic that our national suicide rate has increased by 30% since 1999. 

There is no demographic that is spared the disturbing upward trend in  incidence of anxiety and depression.  Many, if not all of us are touched by this gut-wrenching issue. 

I personally have experienced clinical depression.  Malcolm and I are the primary caregivers for a family member with serious mental illness.  Sometimes we aren’t so great at that.  There are no “quick fixes” or easy answers, but there is always hope.

St. Luke’s has an important role to play in this crisis.  The Guidebook “The Role of Faith Communities in Suicide Prevention” points out that “faith communities are a source of hopefulness for many people, a place to experience sadness and joy, and a place to find and offer forgiveness.” As Christians we believe all life is to be valued and regarded with respect and dignity.

Since we know that feeling isolated negatively impacts one’s sense of well-being, St. Luke’s can make a difference by creating a place where all people are welcome.  When we are honest about our vulnerabilities, we break down the walls of isolation. We alleviate suffering.

A few weeks ago the EYC held a special dinner with two brave speakers who spoke about their experiences with depression and addiction.  Good for you.  We need more of these courageous conversations.

We need to bring the unwarranted shame out of the shadows.

We can make a difference here when our worship and outreach and social gatherings give us a connection to something bigger than ourselves.  Participation in these activities can give us a sense purpose.  Having a purpose is particularly important when we are struggling with despair.

Social media has blown up with young people pleading with anyone who is struggling and considering endangering their lives to reach out for help.  Your clergy echoes their plea.  If you are struggling, call us.  Call suicide hotlines. If you are concerned about a friend or a family member, reach out, listen, love, and encourage him or her to get help. 

Speaking of social media, be mindful—are my posts, my words, the images I project building up, or tearing down?  We all have a responsibility here. 

Factors involved with mental health are complex and varied.  This is a medical, emotional, and spiritual issue.  Research tells us that “People who regularly attend…religious services are less likely to suffer from depression and other psychiatric illnesses than those who don’t.”

I want to be clear about two important things.

First, Not all people who are depressed or anxious are suicidal.

Second, I am NOT saying that people who experience mental health disease and/or have suicidal ideation can just “pray” it away. 

Being depressed does not mean you are a failure at faith.

What I am saying, is that being a part of a faith community can be a source of strength when we are struggling.  Being reminded of our connection to God and one another can create hope. There is much more to say on this topic, I hope we will continue the conversation.

Thursday, I facilitated a planning meeting for the Diocesan Commission on Spirituality.  We pondered the definition of “spirituality” and landed on this:  Spirituality is the relationship we have with God, ourselves, others, and the created order. 

At it’s core, spirituality is relationship. Spirituality speaks to our inner nature—the one that does not waste away, that which is renewed through faith.  There are spiritual practices that enhance our ability to strengthen our relationships.  They can be a ballast in troubled times, and renew our inner nature.

There are three daily practices I’d like to suggest are:

  • Gratitude—In the spirit of Dr. Tully, list 10 things a day
  • Kindness—Our St. Luke’s moniker, “Be Kind” Imagine the difference we would make with one intentional act of kindness per day
  • Prayer—Turn off technology and be with God for at least 10 minutes each day. Prayer can give us a flicker of hope in times of despair.

Finally, I want to share with you some inner-nature wisdom from the wise sage, Mr. Rogers, the children’s television star.  Fred Rogers went into television because he despised what he saw on tv, and wanted children to know they were loved.  He knew the transformative power of feeling loved.

In a 2002 commencement address at Dartmouth he said,

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.

Even though I cannot run as fast or as far as I used to; I can, we can, always be deepening our relationship with God, and renewing that inner spirit which is necessary for humankind to survive.   Amen. 

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Messy Hope

Easter Vigil March 31, 2018, Saint Luke’s Birmingham

Mark 16:1-8

Of all the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, Mark’s can feel the least satisfying.  It ends with the women at the tomb running away, trembling and bewildered, too frightened to talk. No account of the risen Christ speaking to Mary Magdalene; no risen Christ walking down the road to Emmaus; no fish fry on the beach. 

Listen again to how the earliest Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ ends, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Is it any wonder that centuries later, others tried to tidy things up and amend the ending of this Gospel?

As a reminder, Mark’s was the first Gospel to be recorded.  Of course Paul’s letters precede this Gospel account, but for nearly a generation, this was the only Gospel account of the resurrection.  Shards of light streaking into an empty tomb, but for a man in a white robe, and women running, seized by terror and amazement.

Recently I spent a week on Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands.  What do you think of when you imagine the Virgin Islands?  Azure blue/green seas, lush white beaches, yachts filled with champagne flute holding passengers. gliding across the water.

That is still a portion of the Tortola experience, but ever since Hurricane Irma devastated the island last September 6th, there is a pile of twisted metal where a high school used to be, restaurants operating on ground floors, with rebar sticking up where the second floor used to be, gritty dust that sticks to the cars and your skin swirls around from roads that have been ripped up by 200 mph winds. 

Most cars still have plastic over where the windows used to be. Luxury villas swamped with water and infested with rats.  You see, it is hard to get insurance claims finalized and materials and labor are scarce on the island.

For six months, the people of Tortola have been clawing their way back from the destruction.  Everything takes more effort than before.  There is electricity in most places, but no land lines.  Seven of the fourteen schools in Tortola  were either destroyed or made uninhabitable.

Elementary age children who should be snuggling up with their parents at night have been sent far away so they can receive an education. Extended families have packed in together for months. 

You would imagine that the people of Tortola would be beleaguered and angry and exhausted. And many of them are— rightly so.  Yet, during my time there,

I heard more laughter than lamentation.

I saw my joy than tears.

I heard fervent prayers of thanksgiving.

I experienced community and generosity rather than scarcity and selfishness. 

Oh, AND I SAW RESILIENCE. 

I saw resilience in the octogenarian patriarch of St. Paul’s Mission Church showing up early and staying late for every service—serving as an acolyte and a Lay Eucharistic Minister.  Standing in love he was a stalwart symbol of survival for his family and community.

I saw resilience in my host family who generously shared their space with me and another visitor.  was relegated to a 2-bedroom apartment below their gorgeous home which remained open to the elements.

I saw resilience in the principals and guidance counselors who showed up in support of the children who had seen their roofs blow off and their toys and clothes sucked out of their homes.

All the while, these very same principals and guidance counselors where struggling to repair their own homes, and managing on an island where the simplest of tasks had been made complex by those violent winds. 

I heard resilience in the voices of the participants of the retreat I facilitated as they chanted “be still and know that I am god”

Although I was sent by the diocese to bring them hope—it was I who was renewed. It was my faith that was restored.

I do not want to romanticize the experience of this tragedy—people lost their lives and their homes and the closeness of their children. They are tired and some remain traumatized.  Yet, the storm does not get the last say.

Just before I returned home, I toured the Ebeneezer Primary School on the island. My guide was their principal, Ms Sybil Hodge a member of St. Paul’s, the church I went to visit. 

The students at Ebeneezer Primary School had been hit hard—in addition to experiencing loss or damage to their homes, portions of their school had to be rebuilt.  Half of the roof is still not repaired and their library lost most of its books.  By the way—we are going to take care of rebuilding their library. 

They miss their classmates who have left the island.

Yet they show up every day.  They squeal on the playground running races. They tussle with one another over who gets to help the teacher.  Every time we entered a classroom, the children would stand up at their desks and say in unison, “Good morning Ms Hodge.  Good Morning Reverend Bea.  Welcome to our classroom.”

At the end of my visit, I sat with leaders of the school and asked, “What sustains you?”

One of the woman leaned very close to me, as if she wanted to make sure not a word from her mouth got away on its journey to my ear.

“Hope,”  She said, “Hope, that is the secret that gets us through the day.  We go to church on Saturday or Sunday to get our fill and it carries us through the week.

We hold on to a hope that is different; one that knows that a better life is coming. We knew how to do that before the storms.  Our faith taught us that.  How to see that the outer world is one way, but …we know a secret, our secret is the hope that God is preparing a better place for us. 

We hope in community coming back together and taking care of one another.  We don’t (give up)on Friday, because Sunday is coming to remind us of the hope in Jesus Christ.”

Time and again I heard people refer to their faith in God as a motivating factor to get out of bed, to care for one another, to give THANKS for life and love. And to laugh—there was an abundance of laughter and joy. 

That’s a messy kind of hope.  All of our resurrections bear the marks of the cross.

ALL OF OUR RESURRECTIONS BEAR THE MARKS OF THE CROSS

There are flowers blooming on the island this spring that have not bloomed there in decades or ever—seeds stirred up from the storms, traveled from surrounding islands or exposed from deep, deep soil, bearing fruit once more.

My friends, we have dedicated ourselves this Lenten season to fasting and prayer and sacrificial generosity to prepare our hearts for the hope of the resurrection; the hope of new life.

Where have the shards of light shown in the tomb of your heart? 

Resurrection is not a one-time event, it is a never-ending promise. We are invited to participate in the resurrection with the messy hope that bears the marks of the cross.

We hope in God’s promise to be our God even when we feel abandoned.

We hope that we are forgiven, even when we feel deep shame.

We hope for peace in our hearts, and our homes, and our world even when pundits sound like verbal terrorists

We believe in the hope in things unseen—the hope of restored relationships, the hope of healing—in the deepest sense of that word, the hope of living lives of meaning and purpose. 

It’s a messy kind of hope, because the outer manifestation of the world frequently does not support that hope.  All of our resurrections bear the marks of the cross

The first funeral I ever officiated was for a beautiful young girl who died tragically.  Her mother INSISTED that the Paschal candle be taken from our little Episcopal Church and marched down the center aisle of the large Methodist where the funeral would be held.

“Mary Bea,” she said to me, “I want you to tell everyone what that candle means. I want you to explain that it is the symbol that we are united with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.”  Knowing there would be hundreds of grief-stricken teenagers at the service she compelled me, “Tell those kids about the resurrection!”

That’s a messy kind of hope.  All of our resurrections bear the marks of the cross.

Here’s what I love about Mark’s Gospel account—it is so real.  We are no different than the women at the tomb, when we experience divine manifestations, we too experience great awe and trembling.

Hope and fear are cousins because it takes such courage to hope when the outer manifestation of the world cries despair.

We are a resurrection people.  We are a people of HOPE. 

A generation of Christians were satisfied to have no appearance of Jesus in their understanding of the resurrection.  It was faith that spread the Gospel like wildfire.

It was hope that kept them running from town to town, ultimately someone must have been spreading that  Good News 

We want tidy—we want to know they saw Jesus and chatted with him after the resurrection.  We want everyone to think like us and act like us and want a world free of divisiveness.  We want a sign.

Here’s our sign—it’s you, it’s us sitting in these pews praising, reverencing, and worshipping the risen Christ…we are the hope of the resurrection. 

We are the inheritors of fear-filled, awestruck faith.  We are the bearers of the Good News.  This is our moment, this is our time to ring in the resurrection with awe and trembling to proclaim, “

Alleluia Alleluia  Jesus Christ is Risen today .  The Lord is Risen Indeed Alleluia Alleluia!

 

Notes:

“Great awe and trembling and fear are characteristic of human responses to divine manifestations.”   (Harper Collins Study Bible, 1732)

A generation of Christians were satisfied to have no appearance of Jesus in their understanding of the resurrection.  (James Tabor Bible History Daily)

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Does God Cause Hurricanes

This sermon was delivered to the congregation at Saint Paul’s Church in Tortola on Sunday, March, 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5: 5-10, John 12:20-33

How many here play a musical instrument? 

One of many destroyed homes by Hurricane Irma on the island of Tortola.

Musicians know that tuning is usually based on a fixed reference point.  For example, when tuning a violin, one will play a note on a piano or a tuner to use as the reference point to align with, in order to accurately tighten or loosen the strings.

What if we thought of our heart as an instrument?  What is the fixed reference point to which we tune our hearts? 

Our readings today are filled with heart imagery.  In Jeremiah we get a heart tattooed with God’s law on it; in Psalm 51 our hearts are pulverized by shame and we beg for a clean one. Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify what we mean by heart to better understand our scripture today.

We are not talking about a sentimental, Hallmark greeting card heart.  Throughout scripture we understand the heart to be the seat of our connection to God. 

Spiritually we understand there to be a component of will, of choosing within our hearts. We also associate the heart with love. Those of us who have been in long-term relationships, or cared for difficult people, can attest to the fact that love is not always a feeling, but it is always a choice. 

Love is a verb.

St. Augustine speaks of the heart when he says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Speaking from the truth of his own struggles, St. Augustine is reminding us that if we tune our heart to anything other than God, our hearts will be restless.

We hear this and know it to be true, and yet it is so easy to tune our hearts toward with things we WANT to be God…

we tune our hearts on a desire for affection/esteem from others,

we tune our hearts on a desire for POWER and CONTROL,

we tune our hearts on a desire for safety and security.

These are all natural things to desire, but they are not God. Even when we attain them, our hearts still ache.  That is one of the reasons we fast during Lent, to create a space, an emptiness free from our cravings and allow God into that space. 

In Jeremiah, God writes a new covenant on the very heart of God’s people.  The people to whom Jeremiah was speaking were a people rebuilding Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon. 

At the beginning of the 31st Chapter of Jeremiah we read, “The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.  I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit….

See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return.  They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble.” (Jeremiah 31:3-9)

Over these past few days I have heard your stories of rebuilding since Irma. I have heard your yearning to be able to return home to repaired roofs and restored windows and renewed livelihoods. I have listened to mothers who long for their children to come home again. 

I am struck by how you have much in common with the exiled people of Israel. You too have known great dislocation.  You too have known a loss of the way things were.  I do not pretend for one moment to know what you have, and  are still going through. I do not pretend to imagine that simply listening for a couple of days, means I understand the complexities of your experiences.

I have however, been deeply moved by you—by your resilience, and your generosity of spirit, and your hospitality, and your love—of God and of one another.

In the ancient times of Jeremiah, the people of Israel made sense of their great loss—of temple and home and culture—as punishment from God because they had worshipped false Gods. They had tuned their hearts on the wrong fixed point.

So, that leads us to wonder, did God cause hurricane Irma to punish the people of Tortola?  Did the God who created the heavens and the earth; the God who swept a wind over the face of the deep; the God who made each of us in God’s own image, cause hurricane Irma for punishment?  I have heard some of you wrestle with this question.

I know enough to know there is much mystery to God and God’s ways about which I do not know.

And I do not believe we have a chess-playing God who might say oh I’m going to move this rook here and give Tortola a monster storm, or I’m move this queen here and not cure this child of cancer.

The truth is, the world God created here is temporal. Our bodies do not last forever—that becomes more apparent to me with each passing birthday. 

And so we will all one day die.  We can speed the process up with unhealthy diets or addictive behavior; or we can do our best to keep it at bay with exercise and other healthy habits—but we are all the same, death is the great equalizer, we ALL have a finite number of days here on earth. 

And our world is created with the possibilities  of storms, and earthquakes and wildfires.  Some is inherent in the natural order and has always been this way. And some is specific to human behavior such as throwing a cigarette out the window onto a parched land and starting a wildfire. 

I do not know what that holy equation is balancing that which God has set in motion in general by creating a temporal world, and that which is touched by the influence of God, post-creation, and  that which we impact with our choices and our prayers.

What I do know is that every adult I have ever met has endured some form of tragedy in their lives. What I do know is that few in the history of the world have seen what you—individually and as a collective body, have endured.  Not only endured, but survived.

As I said, I have heard your stories these last few days. I am forever changed by your stories.  I am honored to be one of the keepers of your stories.  Thank you.

I want to share back with you some of what I have heard these past few days.

I heard that in the middle of the storm, people who had not felt God’s presence much before, prayed fervently to a God they weren’t even sure existed.  It is as if in the storm, God wrote faith on their hearts.

I heard of people walking over downed trees and dangerous power lines to check on family and to share food.  It is as if in the aftermath of the storm, God wrote generosity on their hearts.

I heard you tell me, that after the storm, the island looked so brown-it was as if an atomic bomb had dropped.  And that when you were dazed, and gazed upon it, you felt you had not been grateful enough for the many gifts God had given you. It is as if God wrote gratitude on your hearts.

I heard stories of lost interest in material things and greater interest in relationships.  It is as if God wrote love on those hearts. 

In another storm, Hurricane Sandy up in the Northeast of the United States in 2012 some friends of mine went up to help in the immediate aftermath of the storm.  These men were deeply moved by one story. 

Two brothers who had been estranged for more than 20 years because of some long-forgotten slight, were reunited when one of the brothers, who lived on higher ground, realized that the other brother was in the ward of New York that had been flooded by the Hudson River. 

He walked down to his brother’s home, invited him to take shelter with him, and steps toward reconciliation were taken.  It was as if God wrote humility and the willingness to forgive on their hearts.

Jeremiah is prophesying about a day when the people will obey God’s law not because they are supposed to, but because they WANT to. This sounds like the best impulses you have described to me since the storm.  The generosity, the forgiveness, the hospitality, and the love offered out of grateful hearts. 

And yet it is natural to struggle to maintain the intensity of those initial impulses toward good.  It is natural struggle to always WANT to follow God. God knows this, that is why Jesus humbled himself to become human, so we could know God better. So that we could see, we could have more understandable fixed reference point to tune our hearts to God.

One thing we know about God, thanks to Jesus’ emptying himself, first to become human, and then on the cross, is that God is merciful, God is loving, and by the grace of God, God is forgiving.

It is difficult to reconcile a God who would create storms for punishment with the God we know in Jesus. Jesus teaches us that God is always drawing us toward deeper and deeper love.  In the midst of even our greatest tragedy, God is with us and moving us toward new life.  Sometimes, something needs to die for that new life to bloom.

Anything that gets in the way of our following the great commandment to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul and all our strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves, must die for us to experience the new life that awaits us in Jesus.

It seems to me that some of you, shaken by the winds of the storm, experienced a clarity about that which must die in your lives.  I am so sorry you have gone through this tragedy. I am sorry your homes are damaged, your livelihoods are devastated, and your young children have had to leave you and go far away to attend school.

And, I admire your ability to make meaning from it. I admire your resilience and your willingness to be of good humor in the midst of it all.

And if you have not felt resilient, or of good humor ,or you struggle getting out of bed, be gentle with yourself, very few people in the world have experienced what you have. The progress can be slow and it can be difficult to remain positive. I hope you will find strength in leaning on one another and whatever resources are available. I hope you will find strength in prayer. 

I promise you—you are loved, and you are not alone. God promises that God will be with us in the restoration.  God will gather the people again, and walk alongside as the foliage returns, and the roofs are restored and the island beats with vibrant life once more. 

Whether we are in a time of great joy or a time of great sorrow in our lives, we have the constant presence of a loving God, even when it seems not so.  We worship together in community so that when my faith is failing, my brother or sister can carry me.  As I said yesterday, that is one of the reasons the creed says, “WE” believe.  We carry this together. When I struggle to believe, my brother or sister will carry that for me. 

God wants us lift our hearts in prayer in our joys, and anguish, and even anger. I spend time with many grieving people and sometimes they are angry at God. We can feel ashamed of our anger, but I say—go ahead and express everything to God. The God who knit you in your mother’s womb, the God who knows what is in your hearts before you do, that God can take it.  And the truth is, it doesn’t go away with faking it. It only shifts and moves when we acknowledge it and deal with it in healthy ways. 

We can serve God by serving one another, sometimes sacrificially so. 

This is how we tune our hearts to God—by taking time in prayer, coming together in worship and supporting one another, studying scripture, and serving God. 

When we tune our hearts with God as our reference point, we play the music Christ taught us to play, we know that tune, it is written on our hearts.   Amen.

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The Light that Shines Into the Darkness

This sermon was offered to Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on December 31, 2017. The scripture was John 1:1-18.  May the Light shine brightly in the world in 2018.  

My parents live on the beach in Amelia Island, Florida.  One of their guest bedrooms has a balcony that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  Being one of eight children, it is a rare treat when I land in that bedroom for a couple of days. 

When I am in the front guest room, I get up early and make my coffee, traipse back up the stairs to the balcony, wrapped in a blanket, and silently sip my brew as I await God’s show.

I peer out at the darkness that covers the face of the deep. As many times as I have seen it, I am always enlivened by the first indication that a new day is dawning, when the dark, grey sky above the water is slowly transformed by shards of pinks and oranges. Moment by moment the show intensifies until a tiny semi-circle of yellow makes its way on the horizon.

The hint of yellow becomes larger and more intense.  And then, within minutes, the oranges and pinks are gone, the sun is up over the horizon and a new day has begun.

There are times when I go to visit my parents when sadly, the show never materializes.  There are times when storms roll in and I might catch glimpses of the sun behind the clouds, but the radiant sunrise I have come to treasure is denied me.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  (Genesis 1)

God’s word spoke light into being.

In the very first verse of the very first chapter of our sacred texts we learn that God’s word is a mighty and creative force.  We learn, says Gail O’Day, that “Light was the first gift of creation.” (The Word Disclosed Preaching John’s Gospel, p.22)

And this light provided crops and warmth and life.  And the people of Israel loved their God and forgot their God and they returned to their God. And they loved their God and they forgot their God and they returned to their God.

And their God was always with them, even though they did not always feel that God was present, even though they did not always trust that God was there. Ultimately, God donned human flesh to live among the people so that we might better know God, and so that we might better follow God.

Patristic Father, Athanasius famously proclaimed, “God became man so that man might become God.”  (On The Incarnation) 

Does that sound heretical to you?  It did to me the first time I heard it.

Only God could become God.  And yet Athanasius was widely quoted in the early church. Martin Luther referred to this saying (Theolgia Germania),  It is even deemed doctrine in Roman Catholic Catechism and Protestant hymns (Wesley).

Most important, it is scripturally sound. In John 17 we learn, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

After all of the attempts to pierce the human heart, in the face of our remembering and forgetting, God became human so that human beings might become God.

The same God who spoke  light into being.  The Same God who donned human flesh.  The same God who is the light that shines in the darkness. That same God, Spoke each and every one of us into being.  Like the sun was spoken into being to provide warmth and light, each of us was created for a purpose. 

That purpose is to work toward union with God and carry the light of Christ into this world. 

Christmas is not a season, it is a way of being.  Howard Thurman’s poem  “The Work of Christmas” speaks to this truth:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

The love of Christ transforms us—makes us better, makes us want to be better, and it transforms those around us.  If we have felt the light of Christ in our own lives—we are to shine it upon all who are around us. 

We have an inspiring example of this in our own community.  Remember Kay our deacon-in-training from last summer?  She has created a “warming station” at Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn.

Kay is spending her Christmas vacation recruiting and staffing a 24 hour place of warmth, food, and respite for homeless people to get out of the cold.

Kay and her volunteers carry the light of Christ. 

Birmingham lost a giant this past week when Judy Bridgers died.  Judy and her late husband, Bill, who was the founding Dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, were known for their generosity and gracious hospitality, especially to those of us in need of extra care.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s when HIV/AIDS patients were being shunned by families and churches, Judy and Bill opened their home to them and she tended them in their dying days. 

I have benefitted from others shining the light of Christ in my own life. There was a time when I found forgiveness elusive and the hardening of my heart negatively impacted those around me.  Additionally, deep grief had a way of making me feel as if  I was sitting on my parents’ balcony enduring an endless storm.

I found no solace in any of my usual places of comfort.  Finally, I sought help and shards of the light shone upon me in the form of a Christian grief counselor.  I felt the warmth of the sun in a Buddhist teacher who compelled me to go home to Christianity, and furthermore, he instructed me to go deeply in following the ways of Jesus.

But the full radiance of the sun shone upon me in the unconditional love of my husband, Malcolm.  I was hesitant to return to Christianity for a host of reasons.  I was turned off by some of what I had experienced and heard and read from some who claimed the mantle of Jesus.  I had been hurt by a denomination that treated women as second class citizens. 

While I struggled with all of this, Malcolm simply loved me. He loved me unconditionally.  I watched the way he generously loved other people too—especially people on the margins, the untouchables-people with HIV, people who were mentally ill, people who were homeless. 

The light shone in the darkness of my heart and I found a Christianity I wanted to be a part of. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

I love Christmas as much as anyone—the music, the food, the laughter and tears with family. And in all that we have laid upon this mystical, magical time we are to remember most of all:

God became human so human beings might become God.

We have a choice, do we receive or reject the light?

I want to take a moment to speak to those of us who may be experiencing a stormy time in our lives.  I know that it feels cold and it feels dark. It can be particularly painful to be feeling this way when it seems as if the rest of the world is wrapped in joy. I promise you, even if you cannot see it; even if you cannot feel it—there is warmth beyond the clouds.  Seek out someone you trust to help shine that light for you.

And for those of us who feel bathed in the glow of Christ’s love, I have a challenge for us-share it. Love others unconditionally. Be generous.  Give away more than you think you can afford in time and love and resources. 

At every Rite 1 Eucharist we claim, “All things come of Thee or Lord. And of thine own have we given thee.”  All this love, all of this light is not ours to hoard, but to share. Malcolm and I both give our parents great credit for shining Jesus’ light on us and on others.

Who has shone the light for you? 

How are you or can you carry this light to the lost, or the broken, or the hungry, or the prisoner?  How are you, how are WE participating in rebuilding communities, bringing peace, making music in hearts?

In the beginning God created light, God became light, we are to be light.  Amen 

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Communion of Saints

It was early in the service at St. Luke’s.  The first five pews were filled with joyful families and four glorious babies.  Each infant adorned in magnificent christening gowns, some if not all, surely worn by their ancestors.

Two of the babies grew restless as babies are known to do, especially in church.  Their grandmothers gently whisked them away into the sunshine to distract them as they awaited the moment they would be washed with baptismal water and sealed by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own forever.

One of the grandmothers returned with her young charge.  She stood at the rear of the small chapel, swaying back and forth, soothing the restless baby.  Next to them, along the back wall is a columbarium where there are niches with nameplates identifying saints who have gone before us.

As I gazed upon this tender moment between grandmother and grandchild, the baby reached out her arms toward the columbarium wall.  I imagined the communion of saints , those who have already run their race, reaching back toward her, and the other babies as well, welcoming them into the Body of Christ.

The grandmother took a step backward, a little closer to the wall and the baby reached out to touch  a number of the niches in what seemed to be a blessing.

Those of us who are alive in this moment carry a sacred responsibility to continue the work of those who have gone before us and to prepare the way for those who have yet to come–to do our best to move the world closer toward the heavenly kingdom. 

For Christians, we do that by living out “yeses” to the questions in our Baptismal Covenant (from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer according to the use in the Episcopal Church):

  • Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
    fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
    prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
    you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
    News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
    your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all
    people, and respect the dignity of every human
    being?

We will with God’s help.  Amen.

 

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Take Courage!

This sermon was preached at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, AL.

Let’s face it, there are some scary things happening in the world today — The dramatic escalation of the rhetoric between our country and North Korea. An epidemic of depression and addiction among our young people.

And the disturbing reports out of Charlottesville VA of white supremacists marching with torches Friday night, and the ensuing violence as protestors and counter-protestors clashed yesterday. 

How are we as Christians to faithfully respond in light of the divisiveness and anxiety we are experiencing in this country and the world?  Some of our cultural responses are quite unhealthy—shifting blame to the “other” as the source of our fear; masking fear with alcohol or drugs or numbing ourselves with social media.

We have so many reasons to be afraid. In today’s Gospel, Peter is a symbol of being afraid in the midst of the chaos. Like Peter, we are experiencing these fears where it feels like the place on which we had hoped to stand, is just not there.

How do we personally and as a body of Christian people, begin to act on this faith that is calling to us, like Jesus is calling to Peter? Peter has something to teach us about how to respond.

I want to share a little context about our passage from Matthew (Mt. 14:22-33).  It immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus commands the disciples to go into the boat without him so he can dismiss the crowds and pray by himself. 

The disciples are commanded to go out to sea.  As you probably know, there is much Biblical symbolism in the sea—it is the locus of evil and chaos, and mystery.  Only God has control over the sea. 

Peter and the others were violently tossed about. This must have been a terrifying experience.  The harrowing lasted nearly all night. 

Finally, Jesus comes to them—in a form that scares them even more. 

In our NRSV translation, Jesus says, “Take heart. It is I.”  Many other translations interpret the Greek to be, “Take courage. It is I.”

My friends, it takes courage to have faith. Courage to believe in the face of overwhelming odds. Courage to believe God cares or even exists. Sometimes, it takes courage to pray.

THERE ARE STORMS WHIPPING UP AROUND US—words of war, racial tensions broken open reminiscent of the 60’s, and many other struggles. 

It would be easy to be discouraged, but Jesus compels us to take courage.  Oftentimes we would rather stay in the boat and just tremble.  OR sit in the boat talking about how crazy Peter is.  Taking courage looks like leaving the relative safety of the boat, and walking into the chaos, trusting we are not alone.

Both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels include this story of Jesus walking on water.  In Mark’s version, the disciples don’t understand who Jesus REALLY is, because their hearts were hardened.

Only Matthew’s version includes the exchange between Peter and Jesus. In Matthew, Peter gets it.  PETER KNOWS WHO JESUS REALLY IS.

Listen closely to Peter’s response to Jesus.  “Lord, IF it is you..” Did you hear that? Inherent in his response is questioning. “IF it is you command me to come to you…”

And Jesus does.  Peter begins to be like Jesus, walking on water. Notice how Peter asked Jesus to bring him closer to Jesus, not for Jesus to come to him.  Also, Peter asked to do what Jesus was doing— to walk on water.  If we are going to get closer to Jesus, we have to model our lives after his.*

Faith in Jesus means—praying like Jesus, loving like Jesus, forgiving like Jesus, speaking like Jesus, giving sacrificially of ourselves—like Jesus. 

SO IN THIS TIME OF OVERWHELMING EXISTENTIAL FEAR AND ANXIETY, HOW ARE WE AS CHRISTIANS TO RESPOND? Jesus is inviting us to trust him. What does that mean?  What is he inviting us to?

I hope you will pray with those questions.  Let me assure you, your preacher does not have all of the answers. That is one of the gifts of doing this in community. Each of us is made in the image of God, given the Indwelling Spirit of God. Each of us has a unique relationship with God and a unique wisdom. I welcome a conversation about what comes to you in prayer.

In the meantime, here are four scripturally based suggestions:

First, Be mindful of LANGUAGE—Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6).  A lot of the turmoil we are experiencing is a result of the violence that is a part of the rhetoric of our time. In words, we are being so violent.

I’m talking about the words that we speak, the words we write on social media, even the words we think.  We must be vigilant in not participating in perpetuating an environment of violence. We must not be complicit in language that incites hate. Words matter.

Second, FORGIVE. When we live in a zero-sum world where there have to be winners and losers. Everyone loses.  Rather than a spirit of superiority and dominance, Jesus calls us to a spirit that seeks to carry the possibility of reconciliation and healing. 

So much of the hurt and suffering that is out there is caused by people who just don’t know what they were doing.  They would not say these things or do things if they were in their right mind. Many are reacting from great hurt and pain.

I am not suggesting we condone violent, belligerent, or any kind of sinful behavior. We are held accountable for what we do.  But the spirit that is like unto the spirit of Jesus always looks for more than punishment.  It looks for a path toward reconciliation. 

The best modern day example of this is Bishop Tutu—reconciliation that held people accountable, but always for our common deliverance for victims and perpetrators.  For Jesus there are no winners and losers. Christ sees us all perfect.  Everything is grace. 

The Church has its mission to think and act and witness to a redemptive kind of relating to one another.  Do we dare to voice this unconditional love that looks beyond all of the brokenness? 

Third, if we want to understand more of what Jesus is calling forth from us in this time, we must have a REGULAR AND RIGOROUS PRAYER LIFE. I once heard a a personal trainer say, “There are so many ways to exercise, just choose one you love and be faithful to it.”  That is true of prayer too. 

There are so many ways to pray. We can read Scripture, or pray with beads, or say mantras while running or turn off the radio and plead with God on the way to work. At the center  of all prayer is a lifting of our heart to God. Our job is to take time to consent to God’s presence and action within us.  Like any relationship, our relationship with God requires time and attention.

I encourage you to recommit to a faithful prayer life, and pray for those you deem to be your enemy.

Fourth, develop a relationship with someone or a group of people who thinks differently than you, believes differently than you, lives differently. Barriers break down through relationship.

When  Peter  began to walk on the water, he became afraid. That is when he started to sink.  It is a natural response. And in his fear, Peter cries out for help. Frequently, we interpret this exchange as Peter failing the faith test. What if we were to push back on that reading and instead, see how much good Jesus can do, even with a little faith?

Remember, later in Matthew Jesus tells us  that if we only have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. Also later in Matthew Jesus identifies Peter-faith-wavering Peter, as the rock of the church. 

We are invited to take even our smallest kernel of faith and courageously follow Jesus.

Look at Peter—Jesus LOVED Peter, did not expect perfection from Peter—just faith and following. 

The revelation of God in the chaos may not come in the time we desire—that storm lasted a long time for the disciples. Or in the form we desire. You know they weren’t hoping for a water-walking ghost.

But, if we continue to move toward Jesus, and follow him we will have an experience of the risen Christ in the midst of our storms.  And, we will be the Church that fulfills Christ’s mission. 

I pray we will have the courage to have faith, that Jesus is with us in the storms, to live out our faith and bravely follow in the way of Jesus.  We as Christians have an important voice in the conversation.

Jesus asks not our perfection—only a mustard seed of faith. Yes, we will forget. We will sink under the waters of our doubts. Still, take heart! Take courage! God can make miracles with the smallest of seeds. Thanks be to God.  Amen

Notes– I am grateful to the following for their influence on this sermon

* Michael Renninger   http://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/a38-tenth-sunday-pentecost-year/

Sarah Dylan Brewer  http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/08/proper_14_year_.html

The Rev. Joe Elmore, retired Methodist Minister and beloved friend.

 

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God Is Gathering Us

photo by Cameron Nations

Transitioning back to work after an active, invigorating two-week vacation was hindered by the lingering effects of a sinus infection.  My clergy colleagues were eager to support and took care of my assigned duties.  Unexpectedly, I was worshipping without the responsibility of holding any details.  I love to lead worship. I love to celebrate the Eucharist. I love to preach. Yet this day, receiving the gift of being carried by the liturgy as my colleagues skillfully led, and read, and prayed, and preached was a soothing way to re-enter after vacation.

Dropping into the deep space of observer, I looked out into the congregation and their stories welled-up. Stories of love and loss and joys and fears.  Stories of dreams beyond measure fulfilled. Stories of dreams dashed and making meaning from “what is.”

Since we had an abundance of clergy, out of an abundance of caution, I did not even  participate in administering the Eucharist. Stationed behind the altar, I prayed as the incarnate manifestation of those stories bravely knelt, raised their hands and received the Body of Christ.  I noticed that two people were next to each other who had each lost dear loved ones in the past year. I prayed they would experience the communion of saints present at the Eucharist–their loved ones present in this moment with them.  As they rose, nearly simultaneously, the elder of the two–whose loss was a bit longer ago, gently put his arm around the younger, the one whose wound is quite fresh.

Today was the first Sunday for our new organist, Kenneth Hamrick. Staff members who do not usually worship at the 10:30 service made it a point to come support  Kenneth on his first day. I adore our former organist Jim Dorroh.  Jim helped to install the organ at my former parish, played at my ordination. He will always be dear to me. There were many changes with the music today. All supported beautiful worship in my unmusically-trained opinion. I couldn’t help but smile when I looked to the choir loft and saw Kenneth exuberantly oozing his love of music, I dare say, love of God during the offertory anthem. He could not be contained as he played, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Ps. 96:1). I kidded Kenneth afterward that I was afraid he was going to bounce off of his bench, out of the choir loft, and tumble into the congregation. Kenneth’s love of music and people is infectious.

Recently I have been challenged to defend the Church’s relevance in today’s world. Do we really make a difference?  My experience today and so many days is “yes.”  God is gathering us–to play and pray and cry together and laugh together. God is gathering us to study together and support one another and even call each other out when we are not living in accordance to the Gospel.  God is gathering us to care for the least of these and share the bounty of gifts God has bestowed upon us. Together we find truths inaccessible on our own. Separate of community, there is a danger of making ourselves gods.

Yes, piling a bunch of humans together in organized religion is messy. That’s true of our families and our workplaces too. And yet in the mess we grow. We forgive one another. We are humbled by our own mistakes. We are lifted up by the encouragement and inspiration of one another. At the core is our Great Thanksgiving for everything–breath, and life, and struggle, and work, and love, and beauty, and most of all for Jesus who came to show us the way. Personally, I have to be in intentional community to be able to follow his greatest commandment, to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

God is gathering us. Welcome to the table.  Amen.

 

 

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Where Do We Stand?

Burundian refugees arriving in Tanzania, 2015

Early in my first year at Virginia Theological Seminary, I was approached by Joseph, a quiet priest from the African nation of Burundi. My classmate was young and towered over me in his thin, 7-foot frame.

Sheepishly, he asked if I would join him and a few other students at St. Clement’s Church for a private memorial service that Saturday. “It is the 17th anniversary of my parent’s death.” Joseph said, “I never got to bury them.”

“Of course,” I replied. 

On the morning of the service, I regretted my “of course” because I was recovering from bronchitis, mid-terms were the next week, and I had paper due on Monday. I didn’t think Joseph and I were that close, I wondered if my participation really mattered. Thankfully, guilt, the wrong reason for going, prevailed. 

When I entered the small, brick church, there was a tiny contingent of students—Michael from Liberia, Joel, who some of you know from Kenya, and three other American students, all sitting in the front row.  I slipped in next to them.

Joseph stood up and expressed his gratitude for our being there, especially for the parish deacon, who had heard Joseph’s story, heard his lingering pain, and suggested this gathering in the service of healing. 

We listened to Joseph tell his story—the most tragic first person account I have heard in my life.

When Joseph was a teenager, Burundi broke out in civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi clans. “Neighbor turned on neighbor,” Joseph recounted. On the morning of October 22nd, 1994 there were violent clashes in his village and Jospeh was told to take his younger siblings and hide in the basement.

He heard his parents being taken from their home.  When the violence subsided, when the screaming was over, when they lifted the cellar door, Joseph and his siblings re-entered the world as orphans.  They never saw their parents again.

“I knew when I accepted Jesus in my heart,” Joseph spoke as tears streamed down his face, “I knew I  had to forgive my neighbors for killing my parents.” Miraculously, Joseph had forgiven his parents’ killers.

What now haunted him, Joseph explained, what had haunted him all these years, was the fact that he had not fulfilled his duty as an eldest son in burying his parents. That, we learned, was the purpose of our gathering that day. 

After we prayed, after we celebrated the Eucharist, we followed the Deacon who carried the processional cross, out into the parish garden. We prayed prayers from the burial office, Joseph dug a hole and we planted a golden mum in memory of his mother and father.

“A weight is lifted.” Joseph smiled. “I give thanks to God.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ first sermon was the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes—a bounty of blessedness which at first hearing doesn’t sound so blessed.

One aspect of the Beatitudes is their relationship to location. 

Fr. Greg Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart writes, “Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered ‘Blessed are the single -hearted” or “‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’

Greater precision in translation would say: ‘You are in the right place if you are single-hearted or (You are in the right place if you) work for peace…The Beatitudes are not spirituality after all.” Boyle contends, “They are geography. They tell us where to stand.”  (Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart 74-75.)

Each of us is born into a particular time and a particular place into a particular family and a particular culture with a particular set of gifts and challenges. This is our time. This is our place.  Where do we stand?

If you have ever read or watched Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, you know that those tales take place in troubled times.  There were wars and Frodo Baggins’ journey was epic in its danger and adventure.

At one point, Frodo, feeling weary of the weight of having to play a most dangerous and important part in the restoration of peace, lamented to the wizard Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring.)

The Beatitudes helps us to set our hearts, and our voices, and our feet in the right place in the time that is given us. 

My classmate Joseph, chose reconciliation over retaliation.The deaconess who gathered us for that 17-year late burial service, chose compassion over complacency.

Blessings are made real by the power of God working through our particular lives.

I want to switch gears for just a moment, so we can notice the language in the beatitudes:

Blessed ARE those who mourn for they WILL be comforted.

Blessed ARE the merciful for they WILL receive mercy.

Blessed ARE the peacemakers, for they WILL be called children of God.

Do you hear that bending of time—that already, but not yet? This interplay from now to that which is to come, is the hope and fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

It is the hope of a man who has lived through the hell of civil war, who has seen men and women, at their absolute worst, and he still chooses love, he still chooses to forgive, and to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ as a priest in God’s church. 

The Beatitudes harken to heaven, something we imagine as the future, yet it is touched by earth right now.  “Earth hallows heaven.” Says David Bartlett. ( Dave Bartlett, “The Beatitudes,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. XL, Number 2, Lent 2017, p. 17.)

 In the Beatitudes, Jesus is beckoning us toward heaven.

Perhaps that is why we read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day.  We are reminded that the we are intricately linked with all of those who have gone before us—the Johns and the Judases, the Marthas and the Marys, the grandparents, and the children, and all of those who had their opportunity to be in a particular time and a particular place in which to live out their blessedness. 

All Saints’ Day is a stark reminder that one day, it will be our own name that will be read in memory.

Thus the urgency for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

What a fruitful time we live in to be the conduits for Christ’s blessedness.  We are blessed to be a blessing. 

Everyone of us is blessed in God’s eyes—no matter our age, or country of origin, or physical capabilities, or GPA, or salary, or affiliations.

We are blessed to be a blessing. 

We live out this blessedness in community because it is impossible to do it on our own. Notice how my classmate Joseph’s healing came in community.First, when as a refugee from civil war, he was introduced to Jesus by a community of faith that loved him, cared for him, and encouraged him to forgive his parent’s killers. And then by a community gathered to bury a golden mum in memory of his parents.   

We learn where to stand in community.  We uphold one another when the world thinks we are so foolish to believe in the promises of Christ. Even when the world seems fractious and hateful and merciless we believe the promises of reconciliation, and wholeness, and mercy. Together we live into the already healed, but not yet visible restoration of all things in Christ.

We believe that listening to one another’s stories, and planting golden mums makes a difference—that they are ways we awaken to the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. 

Jesus taught in community, healed in community, died in community, and was resurrected to a community. Christianity at its core is about relationship.

The beatitudes give us the hallmarks of what it looks like to be Christian community.  They help us to see if we are standing in the right place with the shared humanity Rich referred to in his sermon last week. 

The Beatitudes tell us:

You are in the right place, if like Joseph’s deacon, you listen to someone who is different than you, with a heart willing to be moved.

You are in the right place if you are Care Team members offering presence, and prayers, and food; if you are teenagers stuffing bags for Stop Hunger Now; if you bring water to a homeless person in Linn Park parched by the summer heat.

You are in the right place if you welcome the stranger into your heart and your home.

You are in the right place if you are  Sunday School teachers guiding little ones with love and listening to parents worries and complaints;

You are in the right place if  you are doctors giving heartbreaking news with mercy; if you are judges deliberating with justice and compassion; if you are advocates giving voice to the marginalized; if you are Kairos visitors bringing the Gospel to prisoners.

We are in the right place if we are a community choosing to be single-focused on embodying God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy;

We are in the right place if we are a community willing to foolishly believe that we can change the world one blessed heart at time.

This is our time. This is our place, it is for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”  Amen.

Audio will be available here.

 Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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