Careful what you wish for…

I had the honor of preaching at Providence Presbyterian Church on June 10, 2018. The text is 1 Samuel 8:4-11, 11:14-15. Take a look & let me know!!! (I’ll post the audio link soon)

I have a little dog. Actually, I have two. And whenever I’m in the kitchen, the little dogs are super close by. My little dogs are also very insistent that they want to be eating whatever it is that I’m working on up there.

Now, one of the dogs, Stella, will eat anything and gladly. But Albus (yes, Albus Dumbledore – I like Harry Potter, a lot), often has moments of regret at his insistence when I finally give in. Last week he demanded that he wanted kale. And I told him I didn’t think he actually wanted kale. But he insisted. So he got a piece of kale.

And he did NOT like kale.

Stella, however, gladly picked up the kale and handled the situation. She’s useful that way.

Much like my little dog, I’ve had a lot of moments in my life when the phrase “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” has popped into my mind. And this reading from Samuel truly, truly exemplifies that idea.

We know how this story ends. We know that the Israelites get a king, Saul. Saul really looks the part. He’s an eldest son. Tall. A strong military leader. And handsome.

Saul also leaves a lot to be desired as a king and ends up going crazy at the end. Then there is David. Then Solomon. Both of whom have positive traits, but are also profoundly human and, especially Solomon, do a lot of harm. And then there is a series of kings in Israel that just aren’t good. For a long time. The Israelites end up in exile. Twice. And then the Romans show up.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

I, as a human and especially as a priest, spend a lot of time trying to understand people whose views aren’t the same as mine. And often, in order to do this, I have to go back in time, to learn the history of how we got to where we are.

And today, I would like to take a little time to explain a bit more about this Scripture. And then I would like to offer a story that helps me put a major issue of the day in better context.

But to start, the Israelites demanding a king.

At least, that’s what it seems like on paper. It seems like the Israelites just couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea that they should live by God’s law. It seems like the Israelites wanted a king to rule them, instead of God. The reading is set up in a way that suggests the Israelites were turning their back on God.

And maybe they were. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

But here is what I do know.

I know that kings at that time in history were often essentially military leaders. Invading other nations was a way of life – it kept the young men occupied and employed and provided a money stream into the kingdom.

Israel didn’t have a military leader. They were sitting ducks.

And their neighbors, the Philistines, knew it. They were threatening and preparing to invade. And in fact, they would attempt to invade, in just a few chapters.

So, the Israelites were scared because they wanted someone to protect them from the very real threat of an invasion, which would mean slaughtered men and male children, lost homes, lost fields, pillaging of their towns, enslavement of all, and rape of the women and girls.

That’s a real threat. I’d be scared too. Especially in a world where it was the job of the king to lead the army into battle. And especially in a place that didn’t have a king. I would like to believe that I would cling to the idea that all I need is God. But there are times in my life when, if I’m being truly honest, the fears of the world can get in the way of my relationship with God. And being afraid for my life, and for the lives of those I love the most, that would blind me a bit.

There’s one other thing going on as well that I’d like to point out.

And that is children.

Specifically, a father’s love blinding them to their duty to God.

Before Samuel, Eli was high priest. And Eli had several sons that he raised up in the family business, the priesthood, and they were given positions of importance and authority. And they absolutely violated their positions. They ran amuck. And did terrible things in God’s name. We know this because scripture tells us they did, and because God punishes Eli for not keeping his sons under control, and for letting his sons do terrible things in God’s name.

What this reading today leaves out are verses 1-3 of chapter 8. And verses 1-3 say that Samuel’s sons are doing the same thing. They are also priests, in positions of authority and importance, and they are doing terrible things in God’s name.

And so the Israelites are probably getting pretty tired of the highest authority on earth, the high priest, letting their sons do whatever they want. That would lead me to mistrust the church. As, to be clear, it has lead hundreds and thousands of modern people to mistrust the church because of how we as Christians in religious authority have protected priests, ministers, and pastors who have abused children and adults, and have used their religious authority to condemn women, people of color, LGBTQ identifying people, and anyone who doesn’t agree with their narrow view of Christianity.

But, back to this story, if I were an Israelite several thousand years ago, living under the constant fear of rape and murder by a neighboring army, and feeling as though I couldn’t trust the religious leaders, I’d probably have wanted a king too. Someone to protect me, and to reign in the religious elite.

When I read this story, I get where God is coming from. I do. I get that God is saying to Samuel this isn’t a rejection of you, it’s a rejection of me. Because at the base of this, there is a rejection of God that has lead to boundaries that others want to cross. There’s a rejection of God that means that some have enough, some have excess, and some are in need. There is a rejection of God, a rejection that results in an idea that God loves some and hates others – even though God made all in God’s image.

There has been a rejection of God. But that rejection of God is not what’s on the mind of most of the Israelites. Most of the Israelites are scared and fed up with things as they are. And so they are demanding change.

They demand change back to what they understand. They are demanding a change back to a time that they probably weren’t alive for. Back to a time that had been made to sound better than it actually was. And they are looking at the kingdom’s next door. Kingdom’s with secure boundaries and strong military leaders. Kingdoms with more money because of those leaders and the wars they wage.

And the Israelites say “we want that. We want what they have. We want to make Israel great again. Like it was under Moses. And Joshua.”

Sound familiar?

It should.

Because the same thing just happened in our country. And is still happening.

Now, I want to be very careful not to pass judgment on those who support the President, nor on the President himself. Nor am I passing judgment on those who don’t support the President and what is happening under his administration. Nor is it my intent to encourage anyone who is not supportive of the President to become so.

All I want to do, right now, is share that sometimes having a backstory gives you a different view of people with different opinions. Knowing more about what’s going on, knowing more of the history, helps us to better understand those with different opinions.

And understanding is the first step to loving. And to love one another, that is what we are clearly called to do as people of God.

Please also understand that Scripture isn’t a history book. Scripture isn’t impartial. Scripture tells a story from a particular point of view and with a particular intent. This is why there are 4 Gospels, each telling the same story a little differently.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, are also telling a story from a particular point of view. It is the story of how the Israelites came to be in the position they were in, which many biblical scholars now think is the story of how the Israelites came to be exiled, again, from their land into Babylonia.

As we have discussed, sometimes there are parts of a story that are important to understand all of what is going on, but they don’t drive the narrative as the author envisions it. So those parts are left out. Like in this Samuel reading.

JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has said that she had thousands of pages of backstory on each character, on each plot twist, on each element of the story. While she knew those parts, she didn’t share all of them because those details weren’t important to the story she was writing.

Way back in the beginning, I promised to tell a story. And what I’m going to tell is a story that is often, if not always, left out of American History books. I am going to attempt to do so in a fair, balanced, and honest way. And my hope is that we will all leave here today with eyes opened in a new way to something we don’t often think about.

It is a common American belief that the American police system was based on the British system of policing. There are elements of truth, and similarities to this. But, the American and British systems were both rising up and developing at roughly the same time.

The American system of police started, primarily, with gangs of armed white men who patrolled plantations to keep slaves in, and to catch and punish slaves who escaped. In New England, there were slave patrols, and there were also a lot of patrols to catch and control Native Americans.

Everyone, all over the US, who owned slaves or property, were concerned about a slave revolt. And, they had reason to be concerned – because there were riots & uprisings – more than 200. Participation in slave patrols became mandatory for free white men – both rich and poor – but freed men were not invited to participate.

In Rhode Island (and other parts of the north), slavery was not fully abolished until 1840, but there was a law for gradual emancipation passed in 1789. More and more freed slaves and free blacks began living in communities together, particularly in urban areas. And further and further away from the white landowners who had once owned them, but not further away from wealthy whites living in the same urban areas.

The city of Providence was incorporated in 1832 after a race riot in an area known as Snow Town, which was not far from where we are today. A white sailor was shot in Providence in 1831, and without any justification to do so, an angry mob of armed white men stormed into Snow town, burning houses, wreaking havoc, beating and murdering people of color. The well armed (& all white) militia was called to end the riots.

The story that is told, and may well be true, again, I wasn’t there, is that Providence was incorporated to form a police force in order to prevent angry mobs like this again.

And maybe that is true, I’d like to believe that it is because I like to believe the best in people.

But, the other side is that the city was incorporated so that there could be a police force, to keep the black people, away from the wealthy white elites. Riots would be prevented by keeping the races separate.

For myself, I will tell you that I used to say I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand. I wished for a greater understanding, particularly how we got to where we are as a nation and world.

And I got it.

And my life has never been the same. I no longer see the world in the same way. I see layers, and systems, and I see through the words that seem good on the page, to the reality of why those words were said.

Even though I see the world differently, and I struggle to understand how so many claim to be Christian and yet are so cruel to everyone who doesn’t look and think like them, even though this is my reality now, I still work everyday to love everyone. Even those who disagree with me.

I don’t wish to love everyone, I don’t exactly want to love everyone, I am commanded by God to love everyone.

And so I will. At least, I’ll keep trying. My hope is that we all will.

Albus, my little dog, he still asks for whatever I’m making when I’m in the kitchen, even when it might be kale. And I still ask to have a better understanding of those with whom I disagree, even though it means I may have sympathy for someone who would rather I not exist. And that I will have to learn to love them, even if the realities of this world say that I should hate them, turn my back, and walk away.

And for me that’s really the moral of this Samuel story – ask to follow God, learn the difference between what God is saying and what the world is saying, love one another, and do not rely on the religious elite nor the culture you live in to tell you what to believe about God. Have your own relationship with God. And find for yourself that at the core of us all, is a piece of God, calling to each of us to love and respect everyone. Regardless of what anyone else says.

Amen

Be Careful What You Wish For…

Be careful what you wish for. Those are words that I know I heard a lot growing up and have seen played out in my own life (and in the lives of others).

Today, I would like to take a moment to discuss those words in terms of the Second Coming of Christ.

I would like to take this moment because there are a lot of people claiming to be Christian who, at this very moment, are cheering the bloodshed, violence, and loss of lives in Palestine.

There are couple of reasons for this subset of people who claim to be Christian to cheer for this: the conservative evangelical belief that Israel is promised to all Jewish people by God through Abraham; and, that this violence, and the ongoing (and illegal, according to the UN) expansion of Israel will fulfill a prophecy necessary bring about the second coming of Christ.

According to a poll by LifeWay (an evangelical Christian organization), and reported by the Washington Post, more than half of Evangelicals believe that in order for Christ to return, Israel must possess all of the “Holy Land” again – on both sides of the Jordan River – in order for Christ to return.

In modern days, this means one thing: war. A really big war, in the middle east, where Israel will expand it’s borders.

It means that thousands, and thousands of innocent people will be killed, in order for Christ to come back.

There are a lot of things wrong with this idea. A lot. I am not a Jewish scholar, so I will not be talking about the gift of God to Abraham of the “Promised Land”, now called the Holy Land. Just know that there are a lot of different interpretation to that story as well.

I am just going to say it: but if you think Jesus would endorse the violent murder of ANYONE, you have clearly read a different book than I have.

Because the Jesus that I know, whom I have dedicated my life to following, teaches that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Not kill them. Love. Respect. Honor. Make sure their basic needs are met.

But that’s an idea I’ll flush out a bit later. For now, let’s consider what it would mean for Christ to come back.

Here’s the thing: I have dedicated my life to learning how to follow in Christ’s footsteps. And it’s hard. It’s actually rather hard to be a Christian. I have to interact with a lot of people that I normally wouldn’t (for a variety of reasons). I have to respect people even when they don’t respect me; even when they bully me, harass me, spit on me, and belittle my existence. I have to stop what I’m doing while walking home at night to buy an unhoused neighbor dinner. I have to love people. All people. I have to treat others the way that I would want to be treated.

Because Jesus tells me to.

And if Jesus comes back! Watch out world, things are going to be different.

What I say now is specifically for those who are cheering the death and destruction in the Middle East (but everyone is welcome to read):

If Jesus comes back, your life is going to be remarkably different. Jesus would not be cheering this death and destruction. Jesus would not cheer any death or destruction! Jesus would be wondering how we let things get this bad. Jesus would ask us all, and hold us to account, for the way we treated one another that resulted in this violence.

Jesus would hold us to account for valuing ourselves and our lives more than those of Palestinians.

Jesus would hold us to account for using innocent lives as political pawns.

Jesus would hold us to account for using innocent lives as a way of manipulating God.

Because, really, I’m sure God has a pretty good idea of when God plans on coming back. If God wanted it to be now, there wouldn’t need to be the blood of Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, covering the Holy Land.

Here’s what happens if Jesus comes back: you have to make sure everyone (yes, everyone) has basic needs met. Safety. A place to sleep. Water to drink. Food to eat.

You must treat everyone with respect. Men. Women. Trans. White. Black. Brown. Purple. Polka dotted. Gay. Straight. Liberal. Conservative. Christian. Jew. Muslim. Unitarian. Agnostic. Atheist. That Spaghetti Monster religion. American. Israeli. Palestinian. English. Irish. Italian. South African. Ghanaian. Chinese. Japanese. Mexican. Indian. Native American. Employed. Unemployed. Well employed. Rich. Poor. Imprisoned. Convict. Victim. Accused. Homeless. Married. Single. Divorced. Citizen. Dreamer. Immigrant. Illegal Immigrant. Documented. Undocumented. Educated. Uneducated. Descendant of Slave. Descendant of Slave Owner. Women who have had an abortion. People with Tattoos. People without Tattoos. Dog owners. Cat owners. Gryffindors. Slytherins. Hufflepuffs. And Ravenclaws.

EVERYONE.

And y’all, that is not easy.

Jesus is also super clear that it’s not up to us to judge others on earth. That’s Christ’s job. Jesus has got it under control. Christ will judge for us, so we shouldn’t do it.

And if we do, if we do judge others, we will be judged using the same standard.

I would much rather be judged as a person who loved and cared, who cries and mourns over the loss of innocent lives, than as a person who sees humans as disposable pieces in a game for power.

You must care for one another. It’s not optional. You must give to those who are in need. You must shelter the immigrant. Protect the weak. Feed the hungry. Provide for the poor. Be nice to people. All people. Even if they aren’t nice to you.

This is what Jesus teaches.

Jesus also teaches us to not make decisions lightly. To ground our decisions in Christ’s teachings.

Christ teaches us to love. Christ teaches us to love the Lord our God above all others and all other things. Christ teaches us to love ourselves. And to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So be careful what you wish for. Because if Christ comes back tomorrow, we’ve all got A LOT of explaining to do.

And we’ll all have A LOT of life changes to make.

Stand Up

In honor of MLK, 2018, and referencing the call story of the prophet Samuel. Video is publicly available on my Facebook page. I love this sermon, and I’m truly honored and humbled that it was delivered through my lips.

When I arrived at Holy Comforter I quickly appointed myself the Chief Mischief Maker. There are several reasons for this. The most visible is that I think Church should be fun. For all of us. Beautiful, meaningful, resonant, enlightening, and enjoyable.

And so I dance, occasionally wear a unicorn horn, and let the joy I feel in God come through my very being.

But that is not the only, nor even the main way that I am the Chief Mischief Maker.

When God called “Cara, Cara”, I had no idea what I was signing up for when I said “Here I am”. I wasn’t attending an Episcopal Church. I hadn’t read the Bible. I was so much like Samuel – I did not yet know the Lord, and the Word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to me.

But like Samuel, I heard and felt the call of God to the depths of my being. And though I was confused, and didn’t know what I was signing up for, I answered “Here I am.”

In answering the call of God I have had to get to know myself, my faith, and my culture incredibly well. Becoming a priest is a part of responding to my call.

Becoming the Chief Mischief Maker of the Episcopal Church, is how I live out my call.

Today, I am going to share something with you that makes me feel as though I am standing in front of you naked; that’s what it feels like to me to allow others to see my calling. If you allow yourself eyes to see and ears to hear, I will share with you the essence of my call. I will share the words I will be saying with my every breath, until my last.

What follows are the words the Lord has placed on my lips. What follows is the culmination of my life’s work. What follows is the essence of the priest I am called to be.

Before I share these words, you should know that there are things I will be saying today, things that will likely cause a reaction in some. White Supremacy; Racism; White Privilege.

While these words have become politicized, they are not intended as such. That equality is a political issue is not the point of this sermon, nor was it when Christ discussed how others were to be treated.

But there are times that you simply must speak truth to power. And on this day, the day before when we honor one of the greatest prophets of the modern era, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., truth must be spoken.

In August, it will be 55 years since Rev. Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream Speech”. It will be 55 years since Dr. King stood in front of the nation and the world and said:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!…

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

It has been 55 years since Dr. King said those words. So much has changed in the last 55 years, but one thing remains the same:

It has been 55 years, and those words are still a dream.

Today, we claim to be colorblind, to live in a post racial society. These are words that for much of my life I bought into.

These are words that I stand before you today to say are not true. Claiming to be colorblind does not make us colorblind, nor does it make us less racist; to be colorblind means that we don’t truly see the person who stands before us.

Placing political affiliation over the content of a person’s character is not, in anyway, beneficial to us as a nation. Nor does it align at all with the message of Christ.

Ignoring the fact that this nation was founded on a premises of White Supremacy leaves us no choice but to deny that there are ramifications today for the descendants of those slaves and Native Americans whose sweat, and blood, and backs this nation was built upon.

There are ramifications.

Look around this room, this is a ramification!

We live in a society today that is more segregated than at any point since slavery was abolished. A college educated black man makes two-thirds of a white man with a high school education. Slavery has been abolished and replaced by the prison system. A system which is filled with 5 times as many black men and women than white.

5 times as many, despite the fact that blacks and whites commit crimes at nearly identical rates.

What this says to me is that there is a problem.

And I, like the vast majority of all gathered in this room, have stood up in this room, or a room remarkably like it, and said that I will persevere in resisting evil, and whenever I fall into sin, I will repent and return to God.

We have stood and promised that we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

We have stood and promised that we will seek to serve Christ in all persons, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We have stood and promised that we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

These promises are found on pages 304 and 305 of the Book of Common Prayer. They are our Baptismal Covenant.

We have all promised to do this work, to have eyes to see and ears to hear. I know it is not easy to hear, it is even harder to say.

But it is the truth.

We, myself included, have benefited from a system built on the supremacy of people with pale skin over those with darker skin.

Our nation was founded on the idea that some humans are, simply put, less than human. And as such, being owned was in their best interest. This idea is an undercurrent in the freedom of being American, and it allowed the economic system on which this nation was founded to flourish.

Slavery is not uniquely American, but the racism that is currently running rampant through this world, is in part our creation. In fact, the Episcopal Church, then the Church of England in America, helped. The government decided it was in their best interest for races to be divided, at a time when there was no separation of church and state – the church was the state.

Though, of course, non-white’s could be Christian. But the church made it clear that Christianity did not in anyway change a slave’s status as being the property of a white man.

And at the same time, at the same time that this message of Christ was being distorted to justify slavery, it was also strengthening and giving life to those who were enslaved.

The message of Christ was first delivered to the outcasts, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. That message of radical love and acceptance by God, regardless of what humans say, that message resonated with the enslaved, just as it resonates today by those who are marginalized by our culture and societal norms.

2,000 years ago, Christ stood up and said that we must be more than what society says we should be. Actually, he said that we are more than what society says we are, and that we should behave that way.

We should behave the way God created us to behave. To follow God, not to follow man. We are to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Jesus. We are to seek and serve Christ in all persons. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to stand up, and actively pursue justice, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

There are no qualifiers on those words. This is what God calls us to do.

God is calling to us “Holy Comforter, Holy Comforter”.

How should we respond?

We can sit; go forward in life blinded to the realities of injustice. Or we can stand up, speak truth to that power, even if we’re scared, just as Samuel did to Eli. We can stay where we are, or we can say “Here I am!” And see where God takes us.

Who will stand with me? Who will stand with me to bring about the dream of Dr. King. His dream that people from: “every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, [gay and straight], will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are [all] free at last!”

Stand with me. Stand up. Together, we can make Dr. King’s dream, God’s will for us, reality.

How do we prepare the way?

My sermon from the Second week of Advent. The readings are here.

How do we prepare the way?

    How do we prepare the way?

    Think about it for a minute. When company is coming, we prepare by cleaning, organizing, cooking. If we’re traveling we check out routes, pack, maybe even make reservations.

    For Christmas, we decorate, we make a list, check it twice, figure out who to buy gifts for, buy gifts, wrap gifts, give gifts, maybe also go to church.

    When I first started thinking about preparing, becatoday is prepare day in this 2017 journey through Advent, I thought about all that I did to end up here. In this pulpit. My preparation for the Priesthood.

And that’s where I’d like to start today, because where I finished, compared to where I started, is I think a lot closer to what Mark, and Isaiah, and God, meant by prepare, than the type of planning that tends to be associated with preparation today.

    How do we prepare for that which cannot be anticipated? That, I think, is the question before us today.

    I spent 3 years in law school preparing my mind to be a lawyer. Lawyers think in a particular way. Regardless of what law school you attend, we are all taught to think like lawyers. I was also taught to never ask a question I don’t already know the answer to. Which does make figuring out how to prepare for the unknown difficult.

    When I went off to seminary, I expected something similar to law school; I expected to learn how to think theologically. To some extent, that I did.

    But nothing, no class, no book, no internship, no amount of time spent in a church, nothing prepared me for what it is actually like to be a priest.

    There is no way to be prepared for the things we encounter as priests.

    There is no way to explain what it is like to be a priest.

    Granted, I’ve been a priest for 6 months. Maybe when I’ve been a priest a bit longer, I’ll have a better vocabulary for explaining, but right now I don’t.

    I cannot actually tell you what it is like to encounter every aspect of humanity, from the highest high, to the lowest low, the rich and the poor, joyful and utterly terrified, bewildered, or desperate. And do encounter this nearly every day.

    Becoming a priest gave me this piece of fabric draped over my shoulders. Being a Lay Eucharistic Minister taught me how to put on this unnecessarily complicated white alb. Being ordained gave me the white piece of plastic I wear around my neck that announces to the whole world what I do for a living.

    None of this is what makes a priest. Underneath all of it, I’m just a human. I don’t have a more direct line to God than anyone else. Underneath all of this stuff, aside from a couple of unique tattoos, I am remarkably similar to everyone here. I’m skin. Blood. Brain. Heart.

    Heart. My heart is what was prepared in my journey to be ordained; to become a priest.

    It is our hearts that can be prepared for Christ.

    It is our hearts that can be prepared for that which cannot be anticipated.

    Now, ironically enough, in order to make my point about preparing our hearts, I’m going to use one of the thinking theologically skills I learned in seminary:

Translation.

When reading ancient words, put into modern language and separating them from the ancient context, something is often lost in translation. The NRSV, the version of the Bible we use in the Episcopal Church, translates verse 4 of the Gospel today as “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

It’s a simple and powerful line. It requires us to know what repentance means. For those of you who were here for the forgiveness sermon, you’ll know that words matter, as does the intent of the words.

What the NRSV is doing here is building on consistency. They use repentance because it’s a theme the NRSV has chosen to show modern readers the common themes throughout the Gospels.  

But sometimes, the words aren’t as straightforward as they seem on a page.

Let’s take repent. Today, when we think of repentance, we tend to think of apologizing, maybe even expressing sincere remorse.

But in the Bible, repentance doesn’t require words. To repent in Hebrew is to physically turn, or return. In Greek, what is translated as repent here means to change one’s mind or heart. All of what a person is changes when true repentance happens.

This line, I think, is better said as theologian David Bentey Hart translates, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism for the heart’s transformation, for forgiveness of sins.”

Proclaiming a baptism for the heart’s transformation.

    Baptism, is not uniquely Christian. It was actually a common practice in the ancient world. But it was used as ritual cleansing, instead of the rite of initiation that it has become today.

    John the Baptist, wearing camel hair and a leather belt, hair and beard growing wherever, hands sticky from the honey he eats, looking like every Dad’s worst nightmare for who their daughter might bring home.

    John the Baptist is ritually cleansing hearts to prepare them for the transformation that will happen in and through Jesus Christ.

    John is helping to prepare the way, by preparing hearts for the transformation that is about to proclaimed and made real by Christ.

    John prepares our hearts for transformation, so that the Holy Spirit can come into us and do the work of transformation. Our hearts will be changed, and we will return to God.

God can only fill the spaces that we make available to God. In those spaces, God will do incredible, transformative work within us. But only if we make the space.

    And that is the work we should be doing during Advent.

    We should take long honest looks at our lives and at our hearts. And see the places where we are firmly in control, and have pushed out God.

What are the things that come before God?

What can we do to make space for God within those things?

Where is God on our list of priorities?

There is no way for us to prepare for Christ in the way that we prepare for most other things in life. Nothing that we can buy will help. There is no John the Baptist preparing the way by preforming Baptisms in the Jordan River.

There is no shortcut and no easy way. The work is difficult, the path is rocky and filled with obstacles. It is up to us to make straight the paths into our hearts, so that the Spirit can fill us, and God can bring about true transformation in our hearts.

My path to transformation began as a mental exercise. I wanted to understand. What I found as I read Scripture, and learned more about the ancient world, was that my heart was changing as my mind was growing and being challenged.

Do the work. I cannot stress enough, how rewarding and amazing it is.

Read your Bibles. Talk to your families about faith. See if any of your friends go to church. Read some Richard Rohr, or Marcus Borg for introductions to the ancient world and a closer look at our faith. Realize and embrace that this Christian thing is more than just Sunday mornings.

Prepare your hearts. Prepare your hearts by changing your minds. You don’t have to change your beliefs, but every time you grow or embrace something, you change.

Prepare your hearts by changing your minds.

It is how we make straight the path through the wilderness.

It is how we prepare the way.

It is how we become the way.

Amen

 

The Five Talents

There are sermons, and there are Sermons. This was a Sermon. I offer it to you as my take on the parable of the Five Talents (readings are here). And, I offer it as my first step in my repentance process. It was in prepping for this sermon that I truly began to grasp the depth to which slavery is embedded in our Scripture (if you’d like to read some of what I’m reading on slavery and Scripture, see the works of Jennifer Glancy).

 

           Today, in church world, is 5 Talent Sunday. Also known as the “day that all seminarians dread when they are going into their first call because it’s a super difficult parable and none of us know what to do with it.”

         I mentioned to a few former classmates that it’s five talent Sunday, and they all said “ohhhhh, good luck with that.” A few asked what’s the Psalm?”

         The Psalm, as we just heard, is 5 lines. The Old Testament is a hint of Deborah, who is an incredible figure in Scripture & really fun to preach on, but the hint isn’t really enough to preach on. The reading from Thessalonians is good, but it is clear, on this day, the lectionary people really want today to be 5 Talents day.

         And so it will be.

         I have to tell you all, the first, I don’t know, 56 times I looked at this parable, I had no idea what to do with it, and, honestly, I didn’t really like it; and if I’m being honest, I still don’t. I don’t like the way the third slave is treated. I don’t understand the relationship between slave and master. And I truly, to the depths of my being struggle with the nonchalance with which Scripture talks about slavery and the punishment of slaves.

         But, this is Scripture. And with Scripture, there is no escaping or ignoring things you don’t like. So I did with this parable what I did with the book of Joshua, and the writings of Paul, and everything that I read or hear and don’t like in the Bible – I dove into it with abandon. I approached this story like it’s my job, because it is.

         And by the end of the process, I had a new appreciation for this parable despite my struggles with it. Hopefully, by the end of this sermon, you will too.

         To begin, I want to discuss what a Talent is. It’s a measure of weight, in this instance it’s silver. Each talent was the equivalent of 10-15 years of wages for a laborer. In modern days, that’s somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 dollars. Each.

         This was (and is) an unfathomable amount of money for the slaves. It was more than they would ever have access to in their lives. It was probably more money than they had ever seen.

         And each of them, all three of the slaves, received at least 1 talent. All of them were worthy of receiving this incredible amount of money.

         And yet, what I’ve come to appreciate about this parable, and what I’m sure many gathered here today already know, is that this parable is NOT about money.

         It’s not.

         This parable has also been used to say you should fear God.

         This parable isn’t about fear.

        This parable is NOT a justification for slavery, though it has been used as one for two thousand years.

         This parable isn’t even really about the servants who double the money.

         This parable is about what we do with what we’re given. Much or little. Unfathomable or reasonable. What motivates us to whatever actions we take. What do we do with the opportunities we are given.

         Because in life now as it was in this parable: we are not all given the same opportunities.

         When I read this parable, I read it as the only child of a single Mom who grew up poor. We were on government assistance for my first years. We relied on the kindness of neighbors and family to get by. When my house burned down in the 7th grade, we were homeless.

         That’s how I read this story. I know, of course, that I grew up with far more privileges and opportunities than many others; but this is my lens. And it’s crucial to understand the lens with which we approach life, and especially when reading Scripture.

         When I read this parable, my reaction is “wait. He didn’t do anything wrong!!! The third slave was scared. He had so little. What if he’d lost it, or something had happened? He’d never be able to pay that off. He’d be horribly punished. So he kept it safe.”

    If you’ve ever been truly poor you understand the instinct to hold onto the little that you have. You hold onto things that might have any value or purpose in the future. You spend money so cautiously. You fear the repercussions of not having enough.

    And, don’t forget, there was no federal insurance for money in a bank. At the time, if you wanted to keep something safe, you buried it.

    Also, let’s not forget that this man was a slave. He might have been trusted with a large sum of money, but he is still a slave. Vulnerable, owned, treated as less than human, living under the constant fear of physical violence and retribution. Fear seems reasonable to me in this situation.

         It is really hard for me to hear that God was mad. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea of God being mad at someone who is scared. To understand the deeper meaning of this parable through my lens was difficult. And remains troubling.

         Though, of course, your lens is different than mine. We are sitting in a rather affluent Episcopal Church, in one of the more affluent parts of this Country.

         Some here may have a very different lens than mine. Regardless of our lens, the thing I believe we need to think about in this parable centers around what we do, and why we do it.

         This parable, I believe, is about motivation. What motivates us to do what we do, to be who we are, to give what we give?

         Do we act out of fear or freedom? Do we act out of scarcity or abundance?

    The third slave acted out of fear. A fear that appears to be unfounded when I take a very close look at this text, through my modern lens. There’s nothing to say that the Master is actually cruel or cheats. In fact, this parable is set up with the Master standing as a metaphor for God. Which means that those hearing this parable understood and accepted that God was a slave owner. A kind and generous slave owner, but still a slave owner.

       This parable is about those slaves, and what motivated them. Specifically now let’s consider the third slave. The fear he lived under constantly is part of why he would believe the wisest course of action to be to hide what he has, rather than doing something to grow the master’s wealth.

         This week, we celebrate a holiday that encourages us to look at, and celebrate, the gifts of this life. We give thanks for what we have. I also think this parable invites us to take an honest look at what we have, and what we do with what we have.

         When I was thinking about preaching this week, and preparing for this sermon, I took a few minutes to talk to friends who are Episcopal clergy from Navajo Land. I asked them what, if anything, they celebrate or are thankful for this time of year.

         What they told me changed how I look at this parable and at my own relationship with God.

         They told me they are thankful they survived.

         They are thankful for the resiliency and strength of those who survived.

         They are thankful for the lessons learned and passed down.

         They are thankful that those lessons could be passed down.

         And they celebrate. They celebrate those who survived. They celebrate the lessons passed down. They celebrate the way in which those lessons are passed down.

         They are thankful for, and celebrate, all of those who came before, and that they still are.

         Our conversation included my offering them my sincere apology for how my ancestors treated theirs. Because I am truly sorry. I did not perpetuate any of these atrocities myself, but I benefit from them today.

          I do not celebrate this part of American history. I acknowledge that it is part of our collective history, and our present, as the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrates, and as the two hundred thousand gallons of oil spilling from the Keystone pipeline covers and ruins what little land they have; land which was leftover and unwanted by white Americans.

         It is part of our history that in order to accommodate the desires of white people, millions of Native Americans were slaughtered, mistreated, and driven from their land, and their way of life.

         I acknowledge that the Native Americans have every right to be angry, to be bitter, to horde and bury what little they have. Because American history and American present says that what little they have will be taken.

         And somehow, they have found from within that history things to be celebrated. And they still find the strength of Spirit to share that celebration.

         I heard their words in my ears as I read this parable. And it changed the way I think about how and what you do with what you are given. Regardless of how much you endure, or how much you are given.

         We, as white Americans have been given a lot. We have so much because we have benefited from a system that was built on the blood, sweat, and land, of others.

         Our ancestors were given great opportunities, and they chose to exploit and hurt others in order to gain more economic wealth. We do the same things today. It is in our very DNA as a culture. It is written into our constitution. It is throughout the Bible. It is the lens through which we read Scripture.

         And I ask you, today, as we sit in church learning about the 5 talents, are we growing what we’ve been given, or are we burying it to protect it? Are we insulating ourselves in order to protect what is ours? Our way of life? Our customs, our money, our things?

         Or, are we using the gifts, our talents, the wealth that we have been given? Are we using what we’ve been given to grow the Kingdom, or is it buried?

    Do we fear a thief in the night, as Paul says we do in Thessalonians? Or do we recognize that what is happening in the world today are the birth pains of a new and great movement? We have the safety and security of Christ, and we are finding the strength to stand up and live into the command of actually loving our neighbors. And that maybe the way people are speaking up is a way to use the gifts that Christ has given each of us to truly benefit the kingdom of God?

         I hope that why we come to church is at least in part to learn about what it means to be Christian and how to live out these ancient words in our modern context. Part of being Christian is to see and acknowledge our history and our cultures, and to find a way to set ourselves apart.

         What this parable, and what so many parables teach us is why it is important to be more than our history, to be more than our culture, to be more than our politics, to be more than what we should be.

         We are to be Christian. We are to take risks to grow the Kingdom. We are to use what we have in order to help benefit those who don’t have. We are to look at ourselves and see that even if we have little, we still have been entrusted with something that matters to God.

         This week, let’s all take a moment. Let’s take a few moments to look at ourselves and our lives, and appreciate that we have all been entrusted with something that matters to God.

         Do we know what those things are? Those talents that God has entrusted us with?

         Do we use them, or are they buried in the yard?

         How can we identify and use what God has gifted us with?

         And what is stopping us?

Amen

Remembering those we love, but see no longer

My sermon from the Mass of Remembrance, on All Souls day, 11/2/17. The readings can be found here, though only the Wisdom reading is referenced.

 

       I want you all to know that in this sermon tonight, I am going to share with you about myself. We’re still getting to know each other. So in thinking about what Lauren preached on Sunday and about how to be true to a night such as this, I want to give you an honest look at me. Not just trying to put my best foot forward. But my actual foot! In case any of you are like me and rather literal, my actual foot is a 10 and a half. Though, unless something dramatic happens, my plan is to leave my shoes on.

    There are two things I want you to know about me: the first, which will become incredibly clear in a bit, is that I am the person I am because of some absolutely incredible women who taught me how to be who I am. Some of them are now people whom I love but see no longer. And some of those who have died in my life left a void that for years I struggled to figure out how to fill.

           The other thing that I’d like you to know about me is that I am kind of a nerd, and spend a lot of time looking at patterns, systems, trends, cultures, and histories. I believe in order to know who we are, we should attempt to understand both who we are, and how we got here.

           In my adult life during this time of year, I have wondered a great deal about why in the world we give out candy on Halloween (please note: this literally never occurred to me as a child). The answer I’ve come to learn is a combination of a couple of Gaelic celebrations.

           Both the Scots and Irish, whose influence is deeply ingrained in American culture (and in my personal ancestry) have celebrations that came together to lead to why we give out candy. The first, is that people would go door-to-door at the end of the harvest season and those with extra food would share. The second, is the Gaelic celebration of the dead, Samhain, in which people would dress up like dead people, go door-to-door and demand cake to be appeased.

           Honestly, that is a celebration I can get on board with.

           And now that we know the history, it’s pretty easy to see how we ended up with people in costume going door-to-door saying trick-or-treat demanding they be given candy in order to avoid a prank.

           Who we are today matters. How we got to be the people we are, is where the fullness and richness of what makes us, us truly lives.

           And I know that for me, those people who I’ve loved but see no longer, their impact on my life is what makes me, me.

           On days like today, and throughout the holiday season, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about who I am, how I got here, and about what those who I love so much would think of me today.

           The story of my life is covered with the stamps of those who have helped make me who I am.

           I use the word stamp on purpose. Because they have left a mark. Almost like a tattoo that only I can see.

           I see and feel the stamps of their influence all the time.

           And I remember them every day.

 

           As I left the post office on Monday, I found myself thinking about the best ways to celebrate those who I love deeply and have died.

           And I would like to share with you what I discovered.

           I live.

           I live.

           I honor them by living and in how I live my life.

           A life that is a testament to who they were. And by living a life they would be proud of.

           That they are proud of.

           A life that is a true memorial to them.

           Of course, this isn’t always easy. There are times when the remembering is painful. Because, at least for me it is hard to be the one left behind. Scripture, though, is filled with words reminding us that death is only hard for us.

           “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”

           Until the last few days, I have avoided saying what I am about to say to you. I’ve avoiding saying it because it sounds like such a platitude; to my ears, like a dismissal of my pain, my grief. But in the wake of the terrorist attack on Tuesday, I found myself saying “may they rest in peace, and rise in glory.”

           As I said those words, I started to cry. It was the first time I actually got those words. For me, it was the moment that the eternal hope of Christianity finally sank in. Until that moment, the hope I felt, was at getting to see my loved ones again.

           But, may they rest in peace and rise in glory is so much more than that.

           It’s a prayer. It’s an expression of hope. It’s an understanding that while this makes no sense on earth, the one that I love is resting in God’s hands, and surrounded by God’s love.

           Honestly, I don’t know if that gives me hope, but it definitely gives me comfort and peace. And it gives me the push I need to keep going forward.

           To keep living.

           To keep living a life that they would be proud of.

           To remember the lessons that they taught me, the lessons of my history, and to use those lessons to find the best way forward.

           Because the only way to truly honor those we’ve loved, is to go forward.

           On this night, and every night, when we remember our loved ones, don’t just look back at memories. Let us remember, and then look at our lives. And look for the stamps of those who helped make us, us.

           See how we are marked forever by their love.

           And proudly carry those marks as we live lives they would be proud of.

Amen

The Golden Calf

I’m just going to let this one speak for itself. The texted used are Exodus 32 1-14 & Matthew 22 1-14. The audio is available here.


Since you all are still just getting to know me, I want to tell you something about myself: I love baseball. Truly. It is one of the greatest loves of my life. And even in moments such as this, when my beloved Nationals have left me heartbroken in the exact same way 4 times in the last 6 postseasons, I still love baseball. I’m a little lukewarm on a few umpires, but that’s a sermon for another day.

This postseason, I went to two Nationals home-games: game 1 and game 5. Now, for game one, I had a standing room ticket. I had a lovely view, thanks in large part to getting to the stadium super early. For game 5, I had a seat. Even though I had an incredible view for game 1, I definitely preferred having a seat; especially since the game was almost 5 hours long.

If you are sitting out there and wondering what the difference between my sitting or standing at a baseball game has to do with anything, I would first like to thank you for paying attention. And, I want to attempt to explain something rather complicated about this reading from Exodus. Actually I’m going to attempt to explain a few things as we go, but, we’re going to start with the calf and the importance of a seat.

Because, the “calf” that Aaron fashions, could mean one of two things. It could be itself an object of worship. There were two God in Egypt that were associated with bulls (and calf actually means young bull) – El, and Ba’al. The golden calf could have been an object of worship – an idol – to those gods. But, the shape of the calf was also a common form of a pedestal or seat used in thrones.

So, either the calf was an object to be worshiped, or it was a seat for God to take and be worshiped on.

There are hints in the text that Aaron meant it as a seat for God, but there are even stronger hints that the Israelites thought of this as an object to worship.

Either way, it’s an appeasement by Aaron. It’s a way for Aaron to avoid the emotions that are stirred up in the people. The people, who are in a brand new world and constantly surrounded by new places and experiences. They’re scared and confused and their leader has been missing for 40 days. Aaron seems to miss what is at the root of these fears, and so instead of seeking to help calm their fears, Aaron appeases them by reverting to something familiar to the people, even though he probably knows that it is wrong.

A moment of backstory I think will really the story of the Golden Calf more understandable, and why I think Aaron knew what he was doing wasn’t good.

Last week, in what we read in Exodus, God had called all of the Israelites to Mount Sinai, and Moses led them. While there, God spoke to everyone, and gave the 10 Commandments – these commandments begin by God saying:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

After receiving the 10 Commandments, the Israelites decided listening to God directly is really, really scary, and sent Moses to handle all further direct communications. So Moses went up the mountain. He was there for 40 days, receiving the Commandments, and a description of how the Israelites should live in community together.

This is where this week’s reading picks up.

It’s 40 days later, the people are getting nervous that Moses isn’t coming back, and they have started acting out of their anxiety and fear. But of course, like most humans, the fear of the Israelites isn’t coming out as fear. It’s coming out as Anger. And an attempt to revert to the “good old days” when, by the way, they were slaves in Egypt.

The allure of hindsight is a strong theme in the early chapters of Exodus. God does a really good job of meeting all of the needs of the people. God protects and delivers the people out of the hands of the Egyptian army. God provides water, then food. After all of this, God asked the Israelites if they would like to be in relationship with God. And the people say yes – that’s why they were standing on Mount Sinai!

Six weeks later. It wasn’t even a full 6 weeks before the Israelites were so scared and confused they were ready to revert back to the old ways. It was only 6 weeks of living into these new lives, 6 weeks into embracing the changes required by being God’s people, 6 weeks into this new relationship with God, and this new relationship with themselves. Six weeks, before they got scared and were no longer willing to embrace change, even though it was without question, the best option for them.

And Aaron let them. Led them, actually. Aaron led them down the path towards what would have been their demise. God says as much! God is ready to blot them out and start over. If it weren’t for Moses, this story would have a VERY different ending. Instead, the Israelites spend 40 years in the desert, relearning who they are, and trying to understand their relationship with God. Before ultimately being led into the Promised Land.

In both Exodus and the Gospel, we have situations where God is laying it all out there on the table – quite literally in the Gospel – and God’s people, those of us who are supposed to love God, worship God, be in relationship with God – We, as God’s people, mess. It. Up.

I can’t tell you why the guests didn’t go to the wedding banquet, nor why they so violently mistreated those sent to bring them to dinner. But, I can tell you that the violence seems to be a restating of what happened in Exodus. And of what happens in life today as well.

It is really hard to have a relationship with a God that you can’t see. Especially in a world filled with distractions. This is a world where we make idols out of a lot of things that aren’t God. And I don’t mean idols in the sense of celebrities or sports stars that we appreciate.

Idols are things that we revere or worship. We’re in church, so it’s easy to think that what we revere and worship is God. But I ask, do we?

Is God the thing that we revere the most in this life?

God wasn’t the most revered thing in the Gospel. And for the vast majority of us, God isn’t the most revered part of our lives today either.

Things come between us and God. And more often than not, that thing is us. We set up stumbling blocks between us and God.

We might think we’re setting up a pedestal or throne for God, but what we’re actually making is a golden calf that perverts our relationship with God.

We make gods (with a little g) that distract us, and take our attention away from living into the commands and directives of God (with a big G).

This is a remarkably easy thing to do, and these readings tell us that this is a trap that humans have been falling into for thousands of years.

So what do we do?

The first step I can think of is one that I mean genuinely. We must all ask ourselves, in an honest, open, and vulnerable way, if we really want to agree to the covenant that God offers. Do we really want to trust in the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds?

If the answer to that is yes then next, we must take an honest look at what the idols are in our lives. What are the things that are running our lives in ways that prevent us from truly living into a relationship with God? What are the things that we let dictate the terms of our relationship with God, and with one another?

Money.

Work.

Schedule.

Reputation.

Appeasing others.

Political Affiliation.

Race.

Religion.

Guns.

Sex.

Sports teams. (That’s mine)

Power and the pursuit thereof.

Avoiding conflict.

Going back to the good ole days.

All of these are things that impact and influence how we relate to God. Whether we know it or not.

It’s easy to think that God just fits nicely into our lives as they are or as we want our lives to be. But take a look at this Exodus reading. Take a look at this reading from Matthew. How do you think God likes it when we do things the way we want, instead of the way God wants us to do them?

At some point, I think we lost the concept that to truly follow Christ requires all of us. It requires us to do things that we don’t want to do, and at times that we aren’t comfortable with.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is a prime example. It’s not treat others as you treat yourself, which is what we tend to do. It’s love your neighbor as yourself.

Love.

It requires first, to love yourself. And then, to treat everyone as well as you treat yourself. It requires empathy. Compassion. Emotions. There can be conflict. And you must always proceed with love and out of our love.

It’s what God requires. In exchange for living out of our love and embracing the love that God requires, we are offered a full and vibrant life. God’s grace will fill us and help us change into the people we are created and called to be.

But if we don’t, if we just show up exactly as we are, changing nothing about ourselves and just expecting to be welcome, not embracing the gifts and grace that God offers; well, to that I say, many are called, but few are chosen.

We have an opportunity. We have been invited to the banquet before God. We have the choice to do the hard work, to wade into the difficult mess of reorienting our lives to the commands of God, and to live the life of love, respect, and equal treatment that God has created us to live. Or, we can do things as we want to do them. As we’ve always done them.

We can make a seat for God to be with us, or we can make an idol to worship instead.

It’s up to us.

“There will come a time when we must choose between what is right and what is easy.”*

Choose well.

Amen
*Albus Dumbledore