Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Knowing God

This talk was given by Rachel Johnston during Morning Prayers at Memorial Church on Monday, April 14. Rachel is a senior at Harvard and a steadfast member of the Chaplaincy community.

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3:
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

God found me at Harvard. I say this with a great deal of hesitancy and humility, because reason tells me that that’s not really God’s M.O.: He is everywhere and in everything, after all, and therefore doesn't need to play much hide and seek. But it seems unfair to say “I found God at Harvard” because that implies a certain amount of willingness on my part, and let’s be honest—I tried really hard to avoid God. A staunch atheist during my last two years of high school, I approached the subject of God in college from a purely academic and ethnographic standpoint: I studied how other people conceived of God because it made for a fascinating scholarly pursuit. I wasn't really after the mysteries of the universe, here.

But the perspective of the distanced observer that I clung to quickly revealed a void in my life. I felt absent from my studies and from my social life, and it was out of the depths of that void God called to me. As a medievalist who studies early Christian mystics, I am normally quick to distinguish between physical and mental manifestations of God’s voice—but this was both. While I didn't hear God with my ears, I felt a physical ache—a breathless, constant physical pain akin to heartache—that pulled me to prayer, of all things.  

Last Wednesday night, the Episcopal priest Rev. Steven White shared with the Episcopal Chaplaincy his story of saying no to God’s call. He has said, “Never say no to a call from God. You can say yes, or you can say maybe, but you never say no.” I think I must have instinctively understood that I shouldn't say no, because even though the idea of prayer felt foreign and downright silly, I started to pray anyway. In an effort to mitigate my perceived awkwardness of talking to God, I wrote my first prayers. A few months into my freshman year, a few months after trying to ignore or cover up the ache that drew me to God, I sighed and I faced the ache. I wrote, “God, I want to know you. I want to understand you. Help me know you.”

Out of my pain and wrestling came a desire to know God that defied all reason. Brother Geoffrey from the Episcopal monastery down the street recognizes that this is not an unusual manifestation of God’s love; after all, before Paul was writing down his own desire to know God, he was Saul, being struck blind by God on his way to Damascus to persecute Jesus’ followers. Brother Geoffrey writes, “…our truest selves…become real to us as we struggle to make sense of our own lives. The revelation comes through the struggle. It seems that God likes to struggle with us, and it is often through the struggle that we become who we most truly are, that we come to recognize God and recognize that God’s name is love.”

During Holy Week, we are plunged into the remembrance and recognition of Jesus’ suffering. I wonder if we might take the time this week to dig into that, to sink into the struggle and pain in the Bible and in our own lives, instead of only looking ahead toward what we know will be the glorious renewal of Jesus’ resurrection, because we might see God’s love that much clearer, and experience it that much more strongly, if we first understand the depths of the pain and struggle out of which it has risen.

Let us pray: “Almighty God, whose Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son, Amen.”

Breath of Forgiveness

This sermon was given by Laura Shatzer on Sunday, April 6 at Church of the Covenant in Boston. Laura is a Life Together fellow living in our shared space at 2 Garden Street and working with Massachusetts Council of Churches.

By the end of July 1994, the country of Rwanda was a valley of dry bones. Driven by government propaganda, many Hutus slaughtered their neighbors, the Tutsis.

More than 1 million people lost their lives, and millions more lost their loved ones and homes.

Limbs were brutally severed and other people were buried alive. Their bodies were not discovered for months, and what remained were bones.

This April marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. The official commemoration in Rwanda begins tomorrow.

In some ways, Rwanda today is prospering, at least according to government officials. There are more than four million Rwandans today that weren’t alive during the genocide, there is a growing business sector in the country, and healthcare is improving, especially with aid from organizations like the Boston-based Partners in Health.

However, there are still dry valleys: deserts of poverty, unemployment, poor education, and lack of land. And the bones remain.

One image from the Internet struck me in particular: a genocide survivor stands in a church next to rows and rows of skulls and femurs, praying.

At genocide memorials around the country, coffins and display cases are filled with bones. They are open graves, and they speak for themselves.

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, the people of Israel lament: our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. And the Lord God tells Ezekiel to prophecy: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from them. I am going to give you new life, new spirit, and new breath.

Ezekiel writes from exile in Babylon, imagining secondhand the destruction of Jerusalem. Dry bones name the desolation he and his people are feeling. Ezekiel, a priest, understands this temporary desolation as punishment for the Israelites’ idolatry and ritual impurity.

In this prophecy, however, the bones are re-membered. The people of Israel are put back together.

God forgives them.

They will always carry the memory of displacement and destruction with them, but they will also carry the reminder of God’s restoration and healing in their very breath.

Ezekiel’s dry bones prophecy is a story of forgiveness, and of resurrection. As you know, Easter is not here yet.

And yet, what I love about this passage, and what makes it fitting for this last leg of our Lenten journey, is that the resurrection of the body of Israel is not immediate. It is gradual, a process.

First, the bones come together, forming a skeleton of rebirth. Then, Ezekiel observes, there were muscles, and then flesh, and then skin. But still: no breath.

Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they MAY LIVE.

It is only after this second prophesy that breath reanimates the dry bones. And it’s only after they’ve received this gift of breath that these bones are able to stand, ready to live again. 

The dry bones have heard the word of the Lord, and now they can speak for themselves. They are ready to tell the story of a forgiven people, a people who have been given new life.

Forgiveness is a process. The process of forgiveness is about re-membering, in both senses of the word.

It requires recalling past pain and grievances in order to let go of them. And it requires the coming together of individuals and groups to hear one another.

One of the most amazing things that has happened in Rwanda is that perpetrators and survivors are now, years later, coming together to seek forgiveness and to forgive. Genocide itself is unforgiveable. And yet, some Rwandans have been able to individually forgive perpetrators.

In today’s New York Times magazine, the feature is titled “Portraits of Reconciliation.”[1] Genocide survivors and perpetrators stand or sit side by side in each photograph.

I wish I could show you these photos now, and I implore you to look them up. They are incredible…haunting…hopeful.

In one photo, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and her brothers. In another, a perpetrator and survivor stand side by side with arms folded across their chests. Their faces are worn by struggle, and yet there they are, together.

In a third photo, Dominique Ndahimana and Cansilde Munganyinka, stand up straight and clasp hands, as if they are walking into the future together. 

With each photo, the Rwandans tell their story of forgiveness.

Dominique, who looted Cansilde’s village, said: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

Cansilde shared this: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’

The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”

Forgiveness is not the same as excusing or rationalizing behavior. It does not mean ignoring or denying real pain and harm.

Forgiveness is possible only when are able to see ourselves reflected in another human being, each bearing the image of God. Forgiveness is possible only when we see our own capacity to do what we cannot imagine ourselves doing. Forgiveness is possible only when we remember that we all fall short of the fullness of life that God intends for us.

This is the message of the Gospel we heard this morning: we are all sinners, and we are all forgiven. Jesus proclaims to the crowd who accuses a woman of adultery: Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

And no stones are thrown.  

We are given only the bare bones of this nameless accused woman’s story. We don’t hear from her; she never shares her perspective or confesses her guilt or innocence. We can only imagine what Jesus might have written in the dust with his finger while the Pharisees and scribes tested his legal knowledge. 

But perhaps all of this is not important. Perhaps the story does not need to be fleshed out. What is important is that Jesus forgives the woman.

In the midst of a crowd of dry bones and stony hearts, Jesus breathes forgiveness and gives the woman a chance to start anew. He does not accuse or condemn the woman. He simply tells her not to sin again, from that point forward.

Flesh is often used as a symbol of human weakness. It is a catch-all metaphor used to describe human sins –as in sins of the flesh. And yet, I think that it’s our very vulnerability – the warmth and softness our flesh represents – that catalyzes forgiveness. God replaces of hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.

Forgiveness asks us to become vulnerable. It asks us to get in touch with the skeletons deep in the closets of our souls: Those things we have never forgiven ourselves for from the past, those people whom we have not forgiven, and those parts of ourselves we would rather forget.

First we have to greet those skeletons, and then we have to be willing to expose them for what they are: dry bones.

In this moment on our Lenten journey, what are the skeletons in the valleys of your soul?

Where are the dry bones in your life and in your relationships?

Have you fallen into the pattern of casting stones, either in your mind or through your actions?

Who do you need to forgive? 

Whom do you need to ask for forgiveness?

Sometimes, it is harder to forgive those closest to us than strangers. We can shrug off the driver who merged right in front of us or tail-gated us too closely, maybe after uttering a few choice words, but we might carry a grudge against an old friend for years.

It might take a few minutes for us to forgive the barista for making us the wrong beverage, but it takes a lifetime to come to terms with the baggage our parents passed on to their children.

For me personally, the most challenging thing of all is to forgive myself.

In this season of Lent, it is all too easy for Christians to become less forgiving of self. If you’ve taken on a practice of self-discipline this Lent, and, like me, you’ve struggling to keep it up or have decidedly failed – you might be feeling guilty or frustrated with yourself. You might even devise a new practice to punish yourself, or compensate for messing up the first one.

Take it from me: this doesn’t really work. And this striving mentality is so far from the point of Lent. It is so far from the breath of forgiveness that the Holy Spirit is constantly moving through us.

The next time you find yourself self-blaming and shaming, try this: take a deep breath. And know that breath is a gift from God. That in that breath, God gives you a new heart, and a new spirit, and a chance to begin again.

This is how it is, when dry bones are restored to new life.

Tomorrow, Rwanda will begin commemorating 20 years of healing. Next week, during Holy Week, the city of Boston will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the marathon bombings.

Since then, new runners have been born, inspired by the courage of first-responders and law-enforcement. Survivors who lost legs have learned to stand again on prosthetic limbs. Runners are preparing to race again.

For some, it is still too soon and too difficult to forgive the Tsarnaev brothers.

And yet, we have good news: that God’s mercy is wide enough, and deep enough and vast enough fill up all of the times we struggle to forgive others, or ourselves.

Thanks be to God for the gentle breath that enters us and reminds us again and again, you shall live.  Amen.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Pearl of Great Price

A Morning Prayers Reflection
Appleton Chapel -- Saturday, April 12, 2014
The Rev. Dr. John Oakes

[Jesus said] “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Mt. 13:44-46 - NRSV) 

Back in the mid-1970s, I had to work quite hard to win a scholarship to Oxford, but not that hard. And if you’d asked me how I’d built my resume, I‘d probably have needed a definition of that phrase. I don’t remember producing a CV at all until I hit the London job market in my 20s! 

But the academic world, like so many others, can be a lot more competitive nowadays. Few who go anywhere like Harvard get there without making sacrifices. And if we have serious career ambitions, the pattern tends to continue throughout our lives. 

That’s one of the reasons why I find this morning’s reading from Matthew 13 so relevant and so challenging, because it raises the questions of ambition and sacrifice in a very thought-provoking way. 

Jesus has been teaching about the "kingdom of heaven," or the “Kingdom of God.” The general biblical premise is that God has always been sovereign. But in the New Testament Jesus presents his own mission and ministry as signifying the advent of God's rule or reign in a powerful new way.. 

He claims to be introducing a new age or era, when people can find reconciliation with God in and through him. And one of the main points that Jesus stresses in today's reading really flows from that. For this Kingdom, he says, is "like treasure hidden in a field.” It’s like a “pearl of great price.”

We don't need to be treasure-hunters, or in the jewelry business, to understand what Jesus is driving at here. He is talking about something of great value - so valuable that it justifies the kind of behavior exemplified by the treasure-seeker and the jeweler, who sell everything they have to get what they want. 

The big question, I guess, is what all this has to do with us. And that can bring us back to issues of ambition and sacrifice, because we all know that there’s much more to life than our academic, career or even family achievements. Why else would we be here on a sunny Saturday morning? 

So what are we truly seeking spiritually? What are our goals and how much are we prepared to give up for them? These are important questions. And in response, our reading from Matthew 13 suggests that Jesus himself has the answer. For he offers nothing less than the ultimate treasure, the pearl of great price to all who will welcome the coming of God’s reign in him. 

As a Christian minister, you’d probably expect me to say something like this today. And I will gladly do so, because I have personally found the ambition of following Jesus to be much more worthwhile than any other, and that has been true, whatever the sacrifice.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Prayer for Spring

"Help Me to Believe in Beginnings" by Ted Loder from his book Guerrillas of Grace; Prayers for the Battle
God of history and of my heart,
so much has happened to me during these whirlwind days:
I’ve known death and birth;
I’ve been brave and scared;
I’ve hurt, I’ve helped;
I’ve been honest, I’ve lied;
I’ve destroyed, I’ve created;
I’ve been with people, I’ve been lonely;
I’ve been loyal, I’ve betrayed;
I’ve decided, I’ve waffled;
I’ve laughed and I’ve cried.
You know my frail heart and my frayed history -
and now another day begins.
O God, help me to believe in beginnings
and in my beginning again,
no matter how often I’ve failed before.
Help me to make beginnings:
to begin going out of my weary mind
into fresh dreams,
daring to make my own bold tracks
in the land of now;
to begin forgiving
that I may experience mercy;
to begin questioning the unquestionable
that I may know truth
to begin disciplining
that I may create beauty;
to begin sacrificing
that I may make peace;
to begin loving
that I may realize joy.
Help me to be a beginning to others,
to be a singer to the songless,
a storyteller to the aimless,
a befriender of the friendless;
to become a beginning of hope for the despairing,
of assurance for the doubting,
of reconciliation for the divided;
to become a beginning of freedom for the oppressed,
of comfort for the sorrowing,
of friendship for the forgotten;
to become a beginning of beauty for the forlorn,
of sweetness for the soured,
of gentleness for the angry,
of wholeness for the broken,
of peace for the frightened and violent of the earth.
Help me to believe in beginnings,
to make a beginning,
to be a beginning,
so that I may not just grow old,
but grow new
each day of this wild, amazing life
you call me to live
with the passion of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Woman by the Well: A Lenten Sermon

This sermon was given on Lent 3A (Sunday, 23 March 2014) at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard by the Rev. Luther Zeigler. The readings for the day can be found here.

The Samaritan woman said to Jesus, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’”  John 4:15

One of the most meaningful parts of my recent trip to the Holy Land was the experience of just being in those places where Jesus had been.  We visited Nazareth, the utterly nondescript town where Jesus was raised as a little boy and, before that, where the archangel Gabriel greeted both Joseph and Mary to announce his arrival. We traveled to Bethlehem, and tried to imagine the location of the manger scene and the field of shepherds and angels off in the distance. We walked along the Sea of Galilee, where the brothers Peter and Andrew, and James and John, were called to be disciples.  We toured the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught.  We climbed the Mount of Beatitudes from where Jesus is believed to have preached the Sermon on the Mount.  We waded into the Jordan River, letting its water run through our fingers, just so we could touch the same living water into which Jesus himself was immersed.

Being in these various places – experiencing their sights, smells, and sounds – has reframed these pivotal biblical stories for me in profound ways.

One place that we did not get to visit was Sychar, the home of Jacob’s well, and the scene of today’s gospel story.  Sychar (today known as Nablus) is a small town about 40 miles north of Jerusalem in the region of Samaria in what is now known as the West Bank. 

As our group was traveling from the shores of the Galilee south toward Jerusalem, I asked our Israeli tour guide about whether we were going to stop at Jacob’s Well. “No,” Danny said, “that is not an easy place for us to see.”  “Why not?,” I asked innocently.  “It appears to be only a few miles off the main road.” 

“The ancient town of Sychar,” Danny explained to us, “is now one of the areas controlled by the Palestinian authority and the Israeli government won’t allow its citizens, even tour guides, to travel there.”  He explained that we, as American citizens, could visit, but that we would have to stop at the border crossing and then hire our own Palestinian guide to take us from there to the monastery that now houses the well.  Danny further explained that the town has been the site of a fair bit of violence over the last decade between Israelis and Palestinians and that it isn’t today the safest of places. And so, we just passed on by, not wanting to take that risk.

Danny’s decision to skip this holy site out of concern for his guests’ well-being was, of course, an understandable one, and probably a prudent choice.  But as I sat on the bus continuing our journey toward Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but feel the intense irony of this situation.

Some two thousand years ago, when Jesus traveled between the Galilee and Jerusalem, this region of Samaria was every bit as dangerous a place as it is now.  And yet, as John tells us in our gospel story today, when Jesus was making this same journey, he chooses to stop in this risky place, even though the Samaritans and Jews of his day were just as wary of one another as Palestinians and Jews are today.

And not only does Jesus enter this Samaritan town, but he goes to its very heart, the well in the center of town, and sits there in the noonday sun.  If we didn’t know better, it would seem as if Jesus is looking for trouble, daring some Samaritan boys from town to heckle this wandering rabbi, apparently so far from home.

But instead, Jesus is approached, not by a gang of Samaritan boys, but by a lone woman, who seems to match Jesus’ courage by coming toward him in plain public view, even though the moral standards of the day prohibited a woman from engaging so publicly with a man to whom she is not related. Perhaps she thinks she has nothing to lose. She is, after all, a woman with a complicated history.  But then again, perhaps she is drawn to Jesus because she senses on some deep level that he is different from other strangers wandering into town. For whatever reason, she comes forward.

As she does, Jesus asks her for a drink.  Surprised, the Samaritan woman immediately recognizes the social boundaries designed to keep her in her place, saying to Jesus, “how can you, a Jew, even be talking to me, a Samaritan woman, much less be asking me for a drink?”  When Jesus responds, somewhat opaquely, that she does not know to whom she is talking and that he is himself a source of living water, the woman doesn’t back down, but instead challenges Jesus:  “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?”  She yearns to understand who he is and what he is claiming.

And that is when Jesus opens himself to her, sharing the good news of his life-giving presence:  “Everyone who drinks of this well water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

It is no accident, of course that in John’s gospel this story comes immediately after Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus over the meaning of baptism and the purifying power of being bathed in the living waters of the Spirit. The Samaritan woman comes to this well in the middle of town thinking that it will quench her body’s thirst for water, but Jesus wants to offer her water from another source, a water that will fill her Spirit rather than her belly.

She bravely accepts his offer, saying:  “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again.”  And as she opens herself to Jesus in faith, her whole previous identity comes spilling forth, this woman with five prior husbands, who is now with a man to whom she is not married.  In dialogue with Jesus, she acknowledges the emptiness of her past, and expresses a desire to find that which will give her life meaning. 

But notice this: Although Jesus knows everything about this woman's past, as indeed he knows each of us and the secrets we seek to hide, there is no mention of sin or sinfulness in this text, or even a gentle insistence that she change her life.  Jesus shows no interest in judging her.  He only wants to know her and to offer her his life-giving Spirit. And this, she gladly accepts.

The Samaritan woman demonstrates what can happen when we take the risk of encountering Jesus, when we approach him with our deepest questions and desires.  This woman by the well shows us that the life of faith, like the life of prayer, thrives on honest dialogue with God, and that it is in such vulnerable and real conversation that true growth and change comes. She teaches us that faith is about questioning, not about having all the answers. Indeed, if we think we have all the answers, if we are content with our own clever doctrinal formulations and pious practices, if we believe more in our own convictions than the possibility of revelation, it is then that we are at the greatest risk of fooling ourselves.  God comes to us in our seeking, when we strip ourselves of pretense and false piety, and are willing just to express our truest and simplest desire: “Lord, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty again.”

But notice this too:  the Samaritan woman doesn’t stop there, content with having been known and accepted and nourished by this holy man.  Even though she is not yet certain that he is the Messiah, she leaves her water jar by the well and runs into town so that she might share the news of this life-giving encounter with all of her townspeople. And, John tells us, they came to believe because of her testimony. This unnamed woman from Samaria is in so many ways a model of what the Church should look like:  unpretentious, courageous, questioning, vulnerable, trusting, and a humble witness to all.

I have very few regrets from my recent trip to the Holy Land. But one small one is that I did not summon the courage that day, as our bus was making its way from Galilee to Jerusalem, to say to Danny, our tour guide:  “I know it might be risky.  But why don’t you just drop us off at Sychar, let us cross over all the borders and boundaries we broken people have erected around this holy place, and see if we might not find this well of Jacob’s on our own?”  Who knows what, or whom, we may have discovered there.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Promise of the Desert

This sermon was given on Sunday by Seth Woody at Old North Church in the North End of Boston. Seth is a Life Together fellow living in our shared space at 2 Garden Street and working with Dorchester Bay Youth Force.

“Go from your country, and your kindred, and your fathers house to the land that I will show you. And I will bless you.” Leave everything you know, everything that gives you status and power and agency in this world, and believe that what I have to offer is greater than anything you might imagine, that you would be the father of many nations, because you have chosen to believe in this new promise. Step out into the desert of the absurd and believe that the kingdom is at hand.

Abraham’s story is in our spiritual bones. It lies at the foundation of who we claim to be as a people of the kingdom of God. It is the point of no return in some ways, a symbolic marker that at our origins, we claim to be a people that follows God into the irrational, absurd and impossible promise that in the midst of this desert of death, life is abundant. That in the midst of this world and its ever-present suffering, love is abundant. For what is more absurd, unknown, and impossible than then resurrection?

My journey into the desert took hold as a junior in college. I had spent the majority of my life being exposed to the promise of that absurd kingdom, mission trips, homeless shelters, parish communities in grief and growth, but it was never a promise for me. I am the son of a hospice chaplain and an Episcopal priest, and they were never lacking in demonstrating to me the life of one who believes in the promise. But being around kingdom seekers is quite different than actively becoming one, and it was not until I decided to spend a semester abroad, living in intentional community while learning about solidarity with the people of El Salvador, that I heard the call to “leave everything you know and believe in the promise.”

It was a young man, Giovani, who asked me to know that promise. I was granted the great privilege of living in solidarity with his family during my time in El Salvador. I wasn’t working on a project, or offering education, or even a decent conversation partner, my Spanish was and remains terrible. No, instead I was invited to sit and listen to a young man my age that knew much of this world.

His body is broken, paralyzed from the neck down; a result of a fall he took at 20 while working to feed his 5 younger siblings at a time when he had to decide between staying in school or feeding his family. Desert. He is stuck, now as he was then, in a chair on a hill overlooking the town of Tepecoyo.

In a passing moment of grace near the end of our time together, Giovanni took my hands into his, broken and unfeeling, and spoke love into my broken soul, so that I might begin to understand the call to live into the promise of Abraham, that there is life in the desert. He asked me to see the truth of his life and all life, that his body was truly broken and his options are severe and laced with death. This young man lives in the desert. He lives on the edge of the pit of despair and the most glorious hope. But he loves people, his family, his neighbors, and strangers like me, with an unceasing passion. And In his brokenness, In that truth and on that edge, he has chosen to believe in the promise and give the gift of life and love.

It is a cruel punishment for our broken souls to be invited, like I was, to see what truly lies in front of us. Because this world is painful, cruel, heart breaking, and full of every death we can dream. If we were to open the eyes of our hearts and really see, we might notice the men and women on our streets without shelter, we might see the specter of death that haunts cold nights, that hangs on the shadows of strangers with unknown intentions. We might see the young women trafficked in our city. We might see the young men murdered in our streets. We might see the visible lines of racial division in our city. We might see the broken bodies and souls of our brothers and sisters and ourselves. This world is crushing. It grinds us to dust.

The Apostle Paul knew this truth. He was an instrument of death in his early life, and he was witness to the power of death in his ministry. But he was a believer in the promise. He implores his brothers and sisters of Rome in the passage we read today, to look to the example of Abraham as the orienting story of their impossible belief. Of faith, that absurd relationship with God that presumes trust and openness in the face of death and despair in the desert. And no wonder he pointed them to that story, as this community in Rome was living into the real possibility of death for choosing to believe. They needed to be reminded that they too were in the presence of a God who “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

I work now, as a Life Together Fellow, with young men and women of Boston organizing for Youth Jobs. Similar to the community of believers in Rome, these young women and men are faced with the reality that the world in which they have been born considers them to be disposable, and perhaps regrettably, subject to death. They live in a reality that prevents access to abundance, that categorizes them as an unfortunate bye product of a regrettable history out of our control. They have every right to despair, every right to lash out in the injustice of their suffering. But they chose to believe in a promise, perhaps not of the same language of Abraham, but a promise nonetheless, that compels them to action. It compels them to seek justice in impossible conditions.

So what is this promise of the desert to us? What is this call to believe today? What compels these young men and women of Boston to justice? What are we asked to see here and now? First, as Giovanni invited me to see, we must truly know that we are broken and that the world is broken, and that we cannot believe in this promise of the kingdom if we don’t see first that there is no kingdom. Consider the words of Jesus to Nicademus today, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very Truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Jesus says “A teacher of Israel”, as in, one who shares in the inheritance of Abraham and Moses and the prophets, how can you truly believe if you have failed to grasp the dire nature of our world? Have you forgotten the desert? Have you forgotten our slavery; have you failed to see the crushing realities of today? Have you not seen what I have been up to here? Look at us, we are dying in the dust of the road. And if you cannot see that, you truly cannot see the kingdom. For the kingdom, the promise I make with you and all people, is born of that death. It is born of the absurdity of this world. That in the midst of such suffering, in the midst of death… eternal life is brought forth. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The promise, then and now, is resurrection. The promise is that within the desert of the absurd, there is an oasis that springs forth eternal water. The promise is that the kingdom is already here, and it is alive in the moment of death. It cannot be stopped. Failure is not only inconsequential; it is essential to the kingdom. Jesus died people. He “failed”. Palm Sunday was just a happy memory, a lost moment. We too are failures. I can do nothing for Giovanni, he will most likely remain stuck in his chair on that lonely hill. The young men and women I work with now will still face the denial of access and humanness throughout their lives. You and I will not employ every young person in Boston, and there will be more deaths this summer in our streets. The world is broken and we are broken, and we will surely fail. We must know this always. And it is in that moment of knowing that the kingdom promise abides. Because the kingdom is real in the hands of Giovanni passing love to me, it is alive and well in the courage and determination of those young women and men organizing their peers for justice, passing love and faith to politicians and teenagers alike. It is alive and well in this parish’s commitment to justice and access to employment, offering love and faith in 6 young men and women this summer. And it is alive and well in the resurrection.

The promise, of Abraham, of Giovanni, of young organizers, of our God today, is that in death there is life, and that we will surely fail, only to find that our failure brought about the kingdom. Let us live into that promise, let us march into the desert of the absurd, hands empty and hearts broken open. I implore you, continue to act in this hopeful promise. Continue to live on the edge of the absurd, the impossible and the foolish. Give freely and look deeply into everyone around you. Seek eternal life, the life in all things, all times, all spaces. If you are a mother, love as a mother to all. If you are senior, impart your wisdom to every soul you meet. If you are a business owner, act in that business as a proprietor of the kingdom, where all are employed, all are served, and all are welcome. If you are a citizen of this promise people, bestow that promise on all the people you meet. Seek to believe in the impossible. Leave behind what you know, that the world is cruel and destined for death, and chose instead to live in the presence of a God that brings life to that death, and calls into existence the things that do not exist. For we shall surely fail, ….. and the kingdom is born anew. AMEN.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Suggestion, Delight, and Consent: A Sermon for the First Week in Lent

This sermon was given by our Kellogg Fellow, Emily Garcia, on March 9th at the Episcopal Chaplaincy's service for the first Sunday in Lent. The readings for the day can be found here

Good evening, and welcome to Lent! This is my favorite season. Each season of the church year lifts up different aspects of our relationship with God. During Lent, we slow down a little, and pay more attention to the difference between our nature and God’s nature: namely, that God is perfect, infinite, perfect love, holy, and righteous—and we are not. We are finite, our world is broken and hurt in some way, and we are not perfect—we’re human. God's love reaches across that distance, but the difference remains, and that’s part of what Lent is about.

Our Gospel today shows us both sides of this, in showing us how human Jesus was, and how very much he was God. After his baptism, Jesus is led by God’s Spirit into the wilderness, and he’s there for forty days and forty nights. At the end, “famished,” the tempter comes to him. Jesus is presented with three temptations, each of which he apparently rebuffs with only his good memory of Scriptures. On the surface of the story, there is no indication of struggle. But if we believe that Jesus was in fact tempted, then there was a moment when Jesus considered saying yes to the tempter. A moment when he actually made a choice, when he may have said either yes or no. Gregory the Great in the sixth century said that temptation proceeds by suggestion, then taking delight in the suggestion, and then by consent. If Jesus was tempted, then he must have considered consenting.
          But Jesus was and is God, and was able to resist temptation his entire life. We are not God, but we are also faced with many choices—as the Collect says, “assaulted by many temptations,” and “weak”, each in our own way. And although our temptations look very different from Jesus’s, some of the essential qualities are the same as these three.* I have seen many rocks without ever once feeling the urge to change them to bread—but I have wanted to use my God-given gifts simply for my own nourishment—for me and only me. I’ve never been tempted to be caught by angels in front of a crowd, but I have been tempted to be apparently the most holy one in a room, to be seen as the closest to God. I’ve never been offered kingdoms and splendor, but I have had some chances at acclaim, the ears and attention of many, power.
Most of us have faced and will face temptations like this—opportunities for satiety, attention, and power, which although they could be used for the greater glory of God, are often acquired and used for our own satisfaction.

Now, temptation itself is not a sin.
Many of our feelings and thoughts come to us from our bodies, our neurochemistry, our subconscious. These are the “suggestions” that Gregory the Great talked about, and hearing them, finding them appealing even, is not a sin at all. 
The first temptations that I always think of are anger and selfishness. I am often tempted by a sudden rush of feeling that comes unbidden—as if someone flipped a switch in my brain, and all of the lights and alarms in my head go off. If I’m angry, I feel like I want to shout at someone, or kick something. If it’s selfishness, I want what I think is mine, what I think I deserve, and I don’t want to wait and I don’t want to share.
          So you can probably hear why I work with kids! Most of my temptations are very kid-like temptations! But for many of us grown-ups, our temptations come on a bit more slowly, or a bit more quietly. They’re the sneaky unspoken assumptions beneath our choices. It’s when we find ourselves thinking, “I don’t want to listen to this; I don’t have to; their feelings don’t especially matter.” Or, “I’m in a hurry—it’s fine if I’m a little pushy with this person, I’m busy and he doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere important.” Or, “I know what’s best—why should I consider what these people think?” Or, “I’m obviously the most important person here—people should be listening to me.” Or, “This person is kind of weird—I’m going to let them know I think they’re out of place.”
Temptations like this often build incrementally, over time. We feel that initial rush of emotion that I mentioned, or we hear these quiet little voices, and we get used to them, and our initial resistance starts to fade as we get used to it, and one day we say Yes, and it gets easier to say Yes—and eventually consenting to this appealing suggestion, giving into temptation, becomes a habit.
Temptation, that first suggestion, isn’t a sin—but it presents us with a choice. Will we turn towards God, and away from our impulse? Or will we stay there, our backs to God, making ourselves at home in our little space of selfishness, or anger, or arrogance?
          Me, I normally choose that latter course. I let myself feel so justified in whatever petty feeling comes up that I just stay there, stewing in it, and it keeps boiling away in my thoughts, stinking up the day—and then it comes out of me as thoughtless actions, or mean words.
I love the lines in the confession of sin that say, “thought, word, or deed—things done or left undone.” These are all ways of giving into temptation. And in the older confession, it says, “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” I wonder what the devices and desires of your heart are? I wonder what thoughts, words, and deeds you are tempted by? I know that I do follow too much the devices of my own heart. Most of us do, I think.
          BUT! Here’s the good news! It doesn’t always have to be like that! (That’s the good news of Christ all around—it doesn’t always have to be like that!)

We can resist temptation—and we can get better and better at resisting temptation. We do this with God’s grace. Or rather, GOD does this IN us with God’s grace.
God’s grace is a free gift, like Paul says. Sometimes it works in us like lightning—a sudden strike from nowhere and a person is transformed. Paul himself is a good example, and maybe you know someone else with a similar story. I have a friend who gave up an addiction after a sudden moment in which he felt God offered him love and healing, and my friend accepted it in his heart—and has been a different person ever since.
But for most of us, God’s grace is incremental. It’s a grace of mountains and snails instead of lightning. We change slowly over the days and years of our lives, growing closer and closer to God. Sometimes we see it; most of the time we don’t. But over time our thoughts, words, and deeds are transformed. And the devices and desires of our hearts are themselves changed.
Since this grace is a free gift, you have to say YES to it! God isn’t a bully—he’s not going to shove the gift into your face. He’s going to wait, and keep offering, until you say yes to him. And since for most of us it’s an incremental grace, we have to keep saying yes!
          I think there are two main ways we keep saying yes to God’s grace, that we receive this grace that allows us to change.
          The first is in relationships with other people, and in loving communities with each other. We are born with our own natural virtues as well as our own natural weaknesses, and God has given us each other so that we can learn from each other’s witness. We also learn simply by being in relationships with other people. Sometimes these loving communities are in and around church services—but often they’re not! Grace is not, praise God, confined to the sanctuary walls.
          The second way we keep saying yes to God’s grace is in prayer. Not just in common worship—but in time spent carefully listening to what God has to say about our lives. Sometimes Episcopalians forget that prayer doesn’t mean “words put together in a beautiful cadenced order”—that’s the BCP! PRAYER means TALKING WITH GOD. Talking with—so both speaking, and listening. Time spent with God is like time spent with other loved ones—the more time you spend with someone, the more they rub off on you, the more you hear their voice in your head or know how they might react to a situation. The difference is—this is the creator of the universe who wants to talk with you, and their way of being that’s going to rub off on you is perfection and goodness itself.

The more we are in loving relationships with other people, and the more time we spend listening for God’s voice, the more we find that the devices and desires of our hearts are being changed. The more we say YES to God’s free gift of grace, the less we hear the whispers or shouts of our temptations. The more we say YES to God, the clearer his voice comes to our ears.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, we are weak, but you are strong. We are tempted, like you were tempted; help us to say yes to your free gift of grace, and transform the desires of our hearts to a desire for you and your love.  In your Holy Name we pray,

*I'm grateful for this analysis and similar comparisons from Br. David Vryhof, in his Workshop on Discernment in Prayer.