Author Archives: Jill

“Blessed, Broken, and Given” – 10/15/17 Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers

“Blessed, Broken, and Given” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 15th, 2017.  (Readings for 23A: Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14)

 

I enjoy wicked humor, humor that is uncomfortable, because it often gets us to laugh at the pains, absurdities and horrors of life.

 

For example, Moms Mabley used to tell the story about  a man on his death bed.  Faced with death the man is filled with contrition for all the things he’s done wrong and so he begins to confess them to his wife.  He says: “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry I should have treated you the way you deserved, but you know how I claimed I would bring home all my weekly paycheck, well I got the boss to give me two paychecks and each week I would bring home one, but the other I spent on myself.  And his wife says–“It’s okay baby– don’t worry about it.”

 

The man was surprised and grateful about his wife’s gracious response and says “And you know honey, those nights I claimed I was working late –most of the time I was really out drinking  and gambling with my buddies.”  She respond’s “It’s okay honey– don’t worry about it.”

 

Finally the man says, “And honey, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but all these years I’ve been with other women and spent on them what I should have spent on you. ”  His wife says, “That’s okay honey, don’t worry about it, that’s all over now.” The man says, “I cannot believe that given my lying, stealing and cheating ways you can be so forgiving.” His wife says– “I am forgiving, but that’s also why I poisoned you.”

 

For this second story you need to know the word “wasi’chu” which is a pejorative term that the Lakota and Dakota peoples sometimes use to refer to people of European descent.  It literally means “takers of the fat” as in those who take the best part for themselves.

 

A white man is waking into a trading post as an Indian man comes out and blows his nose on the ground by pressing one finger against his nostril.  The white man says to himself–“damn Indians, always making a mess of things.”  Later this same Indian man is sitting in front of the Trading Post when the white man comes out and blows his nose into a handkerchief.  The Indian man says to himself.  “Damn waisi’chu— try to hold onto everything.”

 

Reading the gospel of Matthew it is pretty hard to understand how Jesus ever got portrayed as being meek and mild. Matthew’s Jesus is tough as nails. He’s a truth teller and these painful truths comes through the stories he tells and to whom and how he tells them.  Underlying many of those stories I find a kind of wicked humor that we often miss because we can no longer hear the laughter that I suspect followed them and they have instead been turned into deadly serious morality plays.

 

Take this awful story of a man who gets invited to a wedding banquet only to be thrown out because he’s not wearing a wedding robe.  As a person who grew up in jeans and t-shirts and bare feet and who still struggles to dress appropriately that’s like my worst nightmare —so it makes me laugh.  Or the story of the man who thinks he’s going to escape the risks and horrors of life by burying the treasure he’s been entrusted with under the ground so no one can blame him for losing it–only to be told he did exactly the wrong thing and that he was supposed to take his treasure and risk losing it to amke something of it.  Or the way Jesus likes to tell the Puritans of his time that notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes are going to get into heavenly banquet before them, or that heretics like the Samaritans know more about loving their neighbor than they do.  Or like the story we heard last week in which Jesus tells a bunch of landlords the story of wicked tenants, who ultimately kill their landlord’s son, and only after these landlords declare that these tenants will be killed do they realize Jesus has told the story about them.  To me–that’s funny.

 

Mathew is passionately concerned about the reign of heaven on earth, which he calls the “Kingdom of Heaven.”  For Matthew, this is not some magical realm, it is a realm where love and justice reign on earth.   Paul preaches there is no more law, but for Matthew the law will only come tumbling down when the reign of love and the spirit has made it irrelevant, i.e. if we’re loving people we’re not going to be killing them, stealing from them, mistreating them etc.     Paul and Luther say God’s “Yes” comes first and that we are only empowered to do the right thing through God’s acceptance and affirmation of us.   The Jewish Christian Church, represented in the New Testament by Matthew and James say “Yes, that’s true.   But if you really hear the ‘yes’ you will respond and change, so if you haven’t changed you apparently haven’t really heard the good news.”  As a person who before his conversion fled the plague in terror and after his conversion went to work with those suffering from the plague, it would be hard for Luther to argue with that.

 

As I read the parable we hear in Matthew’s gospel today everyone is invited to the banquet of God, this heavenly feast of love and justice, but you need to be wearing the right clothes.  What’s Matthew talking about?  Is he suggesting that those who don’t dress up shouldn’t come to church? Absolutely not. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to honor yourself and honor God by dressing up, showing your self love and self care in a world that has so often demeans and despises you  and says you are not worthy, but Matthew’s not talking about literal clothes.  Matthew’s talking about our need to have clothes that correspond to the spirit of the occasion.  The feast of love and justice requires us to do deeds of love and justice. As James says, “For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, they are like one who observers their natural face in a mirror ; ..and then goes away and at once forgets what they are like.” (James 2:22-24)  It is a kind of forgetting that doesn’t allow the Spirit to transform us.

 

Matthew and James would totally reject the idea that you really love others if you don’t work to ensure that they have the same things you want for yourself, things like: a decent place to live, work that is sustainable, health care, freedom from oppression. Matthew and James say those who say they love their sister or brother but don’t help them when they are in need—are hypocrites and liars.  Their faith is basically dead for it bears no fruit.   Thus what passes for Christianity so often in this country would be absolutely unrecognizable to Matthew and James who would call it for what it is, the religion of empire dressed up in the language of Christianity.

 

As Matthew and James insist our participating in the feast of  heaven on earth is partly dependent on our actions, but it is also evident whether we participate in this feast of love and justice has everything to do with what we’re bringing to this feast.

 

Our parable today says that everyone is invited to the feast, the good and the bad.  Elsewhere we hear Jesus say that this feast is especially for “the poor, the maimed, and the blind”–that is those who have been viewed as impure and marginalized within his society.   Here’s where we can maybe understand another dimension of what it means to be wearing the right clothes to this feast because while everyone is invited to this feast, across all our differences, many of those differences have been invested with social meaning such that they define who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out, who is listened to and who is not, who is honored and who is shamed.  Because of these realities, which at times can be the difference between life and death, surviving or not surviving, those invited to this feast are filled with of feelings of anger, rage, fear, terror , resentfulness, sorrow, hatred (including that self-hatred we call shame), arrogance, denial, sensitivities, insensitivities.  And it’s not as simple as one group having one kind of feelings and another group the other, for nearly all of us  are among the privileged, the in-group, in one or more ways, and nearly all of us have been among the discriminated against, the out group, in one or more ways,  based on our race, class, gender, ethnic group, nationality, income, employment status, educational attainment, disabilities, birth order, something that’s happened to us, or something that didn’t happen to us and a variety of other factors.  We are invited to this God feast in which, here on earth, all are to be loved and the dignity of each is to be respected and yet as the guests who are to make this feast one minute we are angry because others are unwilling to try to understand us and  the next moment we’re  unwilling to extend understanding to others and what they’ve been through.

 

Now perhaps for this reason, it seems to me, most churches want us to leave our feelings at the door.  Feelings like anger or rage, fear or terror, shame, sadness, loneliness, resentfulness, the desire for revenge,  are to be rejected which essentially means  most of us don’t really feel welcome at the feast because so many of these feelings are so intimately connected to what we’ve experienced in our lives that you can’t separate them from who we are.  They are a part of us.

 

Here is where, I want to suggest that the verses leading up to our gospel today hold the key to understanding the implications of this parable.  In them, Jesus quotes the lines from Psalm 118 that say:  “the stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone.  This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22-23, Matt. 21:42).  Jesus didn’t say to the poor in Spirit, those experiencing all these feelings that make us feel bad, “stay away until you feel better,” he said “Blessed are you” and “Come unto me”.  I believe Jesus offers us a way to transform the very feelings we’ve rejected into something that helps make the God feast.  Jesus wants to turn the ways we’ve been cursed into blessings for others.

 

Our reading from Isaiah today speaks of the heavenly feast as a feast in which the mantle of shame that has covered the peoples of the world will be removed. What I want to suggest is that this happens, in part, as the very feelings we were ashamed of are welcomed to this feast so we no longer have to be ashamed of them.  This means we no longer have to be ashamed of, despise, cut ourselves off from—who we are.

 

Now, it might be nice if this was the end of the story.  We are welcomed to this heavenly feast with all our baggage and that’s the end of it, but remember we’re taking here about an earthly heaven.  Jesus is not talking about blessing the poor in Spirit after they die–he’s talking about blessing us here and now.  He’s talking about taking the ways we’ve been cursed and transforming them into a blessing for others–here and now.  If this earthly feast is going to happen it is going to happen in part through us and this means that it must be a feast of transformation, a feast in which God invites us to come as who we are, with all these feelings life has left us with, and invites us to offer them up, to be blessed and broken and transformed such that they become part of the blessing that draws us together in love and community, so that they help to fuel the movement of revolutionary love.

 

How can this happen?  Here again, we need to turn back to the verse leading up to today’s parable where, talking about the rejected stone, Jesus says,  “The one who falls on this stone will be broken into pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

 

It’s a violent metaphor.  For a moment I think it worth our remembering how often our gospels suggest that the reign of heaven happens in and through things that are described in violent terms.  For example, in Mark’s gospel, as Jesus comes out of the waters of his baptism, just before he hears the voice of God proclaiming him as beloved, it says the heavens were torn open or broken open.  This also prefigures the way the veil of the temple is torn in two after Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus crucifixion, death, and resurrection are a violent story and yet this story is presented as having the ability to  transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

 

I think our gospels are talking about how we, and all these feelings we have, need to be broken open and blessed so that we can participate in this new. free and loving. creation God wishes to build in us and through us.

 

Here I think it is important to say that while this transformation is often spoken of using violent metaphors and this process may indeed start with some kind of violent experience, like the death of a loved one, a relapse, a breakdown, an illness, an arrest, losing a job, in my experience this kind of breaking only leads to an opening when we are met in that place with some kind of love and acceptance.  For example, a woman I knew was at one time so detached that she didn’t experience any fear when she and her gang raided drug houses to steal their drugs and money.  She was so cool and collected that at one point she shot someone in the legs when they were trying to run away so she wouldn’t injure them too badly.  When she got to prison she loved solitary confinement because it confirmed all her anger and bitterness at life and the world until the day another older woman adopted her as her daughter and Chris’s stone cold heart was smashed to pieces, it broke her open, and she emerged a sweet, kind, honest and loving person.  Some of you may remember her as for a time she was part of this community.

 

If we are going to be able to fully participate in God’s heavenly earthly feast, if we are going to be able to participate in the movement of revolutionary love—the ways our hearts have grown hard as stone need to be broken open and  any illusions that are keeping us from seeing or thinking clearly need to be smashed.

 

I heard someone recently say “life is either going to break us open or break us closed.”  The bad news is that it seems one way or another life is going to break us.  The good news is this breaking can be a means of grace which leads to greater openness and our becoming more human.

 

This past week I’ve been struck by everything that’s come out about Harvey Weinstein. For decades he’s produced some of my favorite movies, but now we’ve learned that while doing that he’s gone around in some kind of delusion that’s kept him from seeing and experiencing how he’s been really victimizing women.  It’s horrifying that it’s possible for us to be so sensitive and insightful in some ways and so totally numb and blind in others.  If Harvey can see the grace in the breaking process I believe he must now be going through–maybe he can help us better understand how to help each other wake up to help prevent more of that kind of harm in the future.

 

This week I’ve also been struck again by the challenge of becoming the beloved community. It is so hard for us not to be possessed by the ways we’ve been victimized in a way that leads us to be closed to others.  This is part of why it is so hard for us to trust those who are different than us.  It’s a reminder again that when we don’t offer up our feelings to be blessed and broken by God and offered up for the sake of others–so often we end up possessed and imprisoned by them.

 

Part of why I am so inspired by the New Poor People’s Campaign is that it is challenging all of us, on both the individual and tribal levels (that it who we identify with),  to offer up our distrust of one another, our fears of one another, our desires to punish one another, even though these feelings are so often rooted in very real, very concrete, personal experiences and collective histories, so that that we can work together to successfully create a new nation, a nation freed from the paradigm of domination and all that ways it privileges some and demeans others.

 

I want to close just by reminding us that offering up our feelings to God cannot only free and humanize us, but it can also be of such benefit to others and the work of the Holy Spirit.

 

A group of us heard Danielle Sered speak this week.  She’s been able to take the ocean of feelings that come from being the child of crack addict and losing your father, from being a victim of violence, but especially from the feelings she was left with when  as a teenager she got caught up in crime and then witnessed how she was given a new chance at life (as she put it she was offered an off-ramp from the idiocy of adolescence), while her co-defendant, a young black man, was incarcerated.  The injustice of a system that could see in her a human being with the potential of redemption, while simultaneously not seeing the humanity of her co-defendant, left her with a fiery sense of injustice that she has transformed into a funny, gentle, loving, way of engaging others and absolutely determined to bring down the system which she sees as a direct descendent of slavery and Jim Crow.

 

As a young man, Martin Luther King was as angry as he could be.  He tried to kill himself twice, by throwing himself out of second story windows, by the time he was twelve years old.  But through the grace of the Holy Spirit, Martin was able to carve a diamond of hope out of his mountain of anger and despair.  That deep well of passionate love and mental clarity that you hear in his voice didn’t come from no where–that’s the voice of rage and anger, fear and sadness, broken, blessed, and transformed into revolutionary love.

 

Mother Theresa’s vocation apparently began with a vision of a God forsaken world, literally a world without God. She received that vision as a gift and it apparently empowered her to create a Godly embrace for all she encountered. She’s a vision of how abandonment can be transformed into the ability to create the power of belonging.

 

Pope Francis’ integrity seems directly related to the shame he felt for not having done more to speak out against the military junta in Argentina. It tells us that shame, blessed and broken and offered up, can become integrity.

 

Dorothy Day was able to let her experience of great loneliness be transformed into the power to create real community.

 

I think also think of so many people I know who have lost people who were so absolutely vital to them that they could do nothing more than offer up their helpless brokenness, but in the process they have become the kind of people who with quiet humor and dedication and ferocious passion, show up again and again when someone needs to be loved, or cared for, or spoken up for.

 

Friends, where ever you are coming from, whatever you are feeling, you are welcome here and I’d invite you to consider offering up, in this feast, yourself  and whatever you feel, to be blessed and broken so that it can become the heavenly food that sustains, heals, and liberates as it transforms us and our world into being God’s beloved community.

 

For if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

Falling Home: Reflections on the Vision and Songs of Joy Harjo – Oct. 8, 2017 Reflections by Rev. Joe Summers at ECI

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

nd now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,

judge between me
and my vineyard.

What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?

When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.

I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;

I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.

I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;

I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;

righteousness,
but heard a cry!

The Response

Psalm 80:7-14

Qui regis Israel

7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

8 You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.

9 You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.

10 The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.

11 You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.

12 Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?

13 The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.

14 Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.

The Epistle

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

The Gospel

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

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…. we must take
The utmost care and kindness
In all things
Breathe in knowing we are made of all this
And breathe, knowing we are truly blessed,
because we were born and die soon within
a true circle of motion.
Like eagle, rounding out the morning inside us
We pray that it will be done
In beauty, in beauty.
“Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo (Crazy Brave, p. 154)

In the Navajo prayer we said today we hear: “It is finished in beauty.” My prayer and hope is that the human story will be finished in beauty, but at this point it seems so improbable.

In our gospel today I hear the first part of our story. God creates an earthly paradise. There is abundance for all, but a spirit of greed, a spirit of fear, seizes some who then claim this paradise as private property-as their property. God gave us the ten commandments we heard today, clear instructions on how we might live together without harming one another, but the privateers declared those rules did not apply to them, at least not in relationship to peoples not of their tribe. God sent the prophets to tell them this is not the way, but they beat, stoned and killed the prophets. God’s own son comes to try to reason with them, but they kill him.

Friends, at times in feels like we are living in a huge graveyard. Those who have sought to privatize the commonwealth have left our country soaked in blood: the blood of Native peoples, the blood of African peoples, the blood of Asian people’s, the blood of Latin Peoples, the blood of poor Europeans. The cultural, psychological and spiritual consequences of this devastation are enormous.

One of the consequences is the spirit of narcissism that this past week we saw literally killing us. I keep hearing the commentators asking why Stephen Paddock murdered and maimed so many in Las Vegas. For me, like most forms of terrorism, this terrible crime has the Spirit of narcissism written all over it –the idea that I’m the only one who is important, that I don’t have to empathize with others because everyone else exists only for my own little drama.

Las Vegas is horrific, but so is the fact that by the late 1970s the major oil companies in our country understood what all the carbon they were putting into our environment was going to do to our planet so they began to make plans to build oil rigs that could handle the seas when they were ten or twenty feet higher. Just as our cigarette companies were among the first to prove cigarettes caused cancer, but engaged in a disinformation campaign so they could keep selling cigarettes, so too, our oil companies then began a campaign so they can keep selling their oil for decades longer–even though they knew it would mean such horrible damage to our planet and that a huge percentage of the earth’s population will soon be climate refugees–beginning with the poor. Already we see people from those countries who have done little or nothing to contribute to carbon pollutions now being driven from their homes by the rise in temperatures, floods and draughts. Isn’t the collective narcissism of our oil company executives and what they have intentionally done to our planet, or what our government is doing by pulling out of climate agreements, when our country has been by far the worst contributor of carbon into the environment, just as evil, or more evil, than what that ghost did in Las Vegas?

Narcissism is one way people respond to living in a world of despair. It is a way of disconnecting from others and cutting ourselves off from our feelings to keep from feeling rage, sorrow, and inner emptiness. It is a spiritual illness that, if it goes untreated, leads to death and now threatens the life of our planet.

If narcissism is a path of disconnection what we find in the work of Native American poet, story teller, musician, composer, and, for me, powerful liberation theologian, Joy Harjo, is a vision of a way of connection, a vision of how we can live, have life, even in the midst of this devastation, in a way that might even allow our human story to be finished in beauty.

The are many different aspects to Harjo’s vision of the way of connection, but it begins with a vision of “all our relations” that is viewing ourselves as in relationship with all, all of creation, all plants and animals, all peoples, tied together in one common, beautiful, awful, wonderful, tragic story.

In her memoir Crazy Brave, Harjo says:
“Though I was reluctant to be born, I was attracted by the music. I had plans. I was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories to grow and release into the world, to be of assistance and inspiration. These were my responsibility. I am not special. It is this way for everyone. We enter into a family story, and then other stories based on tribal clans, on tribal towns and nations, lands, countries, planetary systems, and universes. Yet we each have our individual soul story to tend.” (C.B, p. 20)

If music was part of what encouraged Harjo to come into the world it has also always been an important part of what sustains her. As she says: Music is “a language that lives in the spiritual realms, we can hear it, we can notate it and create it, but we cannot hold it in our hands. Music can raise a people up or call them to gather for war. (C.B, p.19) Harjo creates and plays incredible saxophone music in which you hear how part of the roots of what we call jazz is rooted in the music of the Native peoples.

Joy Harjo grew up in Tulsa where she witnessed the oppression of Native America and African American people and yet came to feel that “everyone wanted the same thing: land, peace, a place to make a home, cook, fall in love, make children and music.” I find her ability to claim “all her relations” to be pretty incredible. She claims not just her Native American and African American ancestors, but also her European ancestors, not just people in the past, but people in the present, not just the good things people did, but also the evil. I sense in her the same kind of Spirit that we hear in Paul’s letter to the Philippians today in which we hear him boldly claim all these different aspects of who he is, all his multiplicities: Jewish, formerly a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church, now one giving his all for the new creation of God.

Harjo’s deep deep sense of connection comes through not only through her family stories and tribal stories, but also through her dreams and mystical visions and her understanding of remembrance.

She speaks of Congo square in New Orleans, “which was originally a southeastern Indian ceremonial ground. It became a meeting place for tribal peoples, Africans, and their European friends, lovers, and families. They gathered there to dance, to enjoy the music and the food wrapped in the cloths and gourds they brought to share. This was the place of gossip, news, philosophy, and history. These people, our ancestors, want to be recognized; they want to be remembered. “

Remembrance helps us to feel and face our holes and the “gulfs of sadness” within us and among us. This is helpful because “Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol” where what we need is the assistance of others through “kindness, food, good words, and music.”

The holes within us are not just about the loss of loved ones, they are directly related to the legacy of imperialism and colonialism that is part of our heritage as earthlings. It means that the human experience is “difficult and jarring.” Harjo suggests that for us as human beings living in our world: “Joy can only be known through despair here” and attempting to flee this pain only leads to disaster for “If you fight water, you drown.” (C.B., p. 24 & 27)

These human relations, these connections, no matter how painful, are part of the “story matrix that connects all of us –all of us are connected in a single story.” This embrace of all our relations feels so healing, so grounding amidst a culture that teaches us not to value, not to honor, not to remember the past and our ancestors. Though claiming and practicing all our relations is painful, the alternative is disaster for as Harjo says: when we no longer see or hear our ancestors we forget our stories, we forget our songs, and we lose track of the purpose and reason for life. (C.B., p. 29) I would suggest that we witnessed the fruit of that evil in Las Vegas.

In contrast, Harjo says her spiritual guardian keeps before her the ancestors, who speak to her from the past or the present, giving her the strength to overcome. Listen to how she speaks of their voices:
They speak softly, with kindness. They are quick with humor, and keep an open path. They have been tested with suffering and have responded with wisdom rather than bitterness. They teach by story, images and songs. And they are respectful to mystery. They continue to remind me that it is best to walk this earthly path with vnektckv, compassion. All I have to do is to remember them, and they stand in memory in a kind of light. (C.B., p. 31)

This connection to the ancestors also seems connected to what Harjo calls “inner knowing”, which she describes as ” a shimmer of intelligent light, unerring in the midst of this destruction, terrible, and beautiful life. It is a strand of the divine, a pathway for the ancestors and teachers who love us.” (Crazy Brave, p. 81) This inner knowing in turn seems to be part of why Harjo can hear the Spirit speaking to her through almost everything, every kind of music, traditional Native music but also Motown, rock n roll, psychedelic, Frank Zappa, jazz and country music, through all kinds of literature and poetry, even through television though she recognizes how television threatens to destroy “the diversity of the worlds’ stories and manners of telling” and clearly thinks it is a problem that it is the altar space of “most of the homes in America” and that “It is the authority and the main source of stories for many in the world.” (C.B., p. 154)

We hear this connection between remembrance and knowing in Harjo’s description of how, as a very young single mother, she gave birth to her son in the total alien culture of a hospital: He has taken his first breath… My son and I stare at each other in the stunning moment of that sacred vow. His eyes are black and knowing. He looks to me with full knowledge of his place in this story. He will soon forget it. I look at him with an unbearable love, and with troubling questions: What have I gotten myself into? How will we ever make it through? I have never felt so vulnerable. “
(C.B, p. 124)

Harjo says, “we are all vulnerable to forgetting, all of us,” but we must remember for each of our thoughts and action fuels the momentum of the story,” our collective story. (C.B., p. 107)

An important re-birth for Harjo happened when she began to attend a high school called the Institute of American Indian arts where despite all their tribal difference the students all found commonality in creativity and “facing the traumas of colonization and dehumanization.” (C.B., p. 86)

It was a time when the wave of revolution, “a giant waking consciousness,” inspired by the civil rights movement, had set them on fire with the vision of the possibility of peace and justice for the native peoples. (C.B., p. 138) It inspired them to be “traditional-contemporary twentieth-century warriors, artists, and dreamers.” Submerged within this tribal struggle the revolution of female power was also emerging. As Harjo puts it: “I felt the country’s heart breaking. It was all breaking inside of me.” (C.B., p. 139)

I have talked about the practice of connection in relationship to music, to ancestors, to people, to history, to our experience, to the Spirit, to dreams and visions, to education and institutions. I want to end my remarks with her reflections on the spirit of poetry for if her arts college marked the beginning of her rebirth there is real way in which the Spirit of poetry helped her to emerge fully into this world. The last paragraph of Harjo’s memoir is about this spirit and how it came to her.

She writes: “to imagine the spirit of poetry is much like imagining the shape and size of knowing. It is a kind of resurrection light, it is the tall ancestor spirit who has been with me since the beginning, or a bear, or a humming bird. It is a hundred horses running the land in a soft mist, or it is a woman undressing for her beloved in firelight. It is none of these things. It is more than everything.”

It was this spirit of poetry that came to her not long after she began to suffer panic attacks. As he stood caught between between panic and love the spirit of poetry came to her saying: “Your coming with me, poor thing. You don’t know how to listen. You don’t know how to speak. You don’t know how to sing. I will teach you.” So, she concludes, ” I followed poetry.” (C.B., p. 164 )

I want to conclude these reflections by reading from Joy Harjo’s book of poems entitled Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. My hope is that in and through these poems and parts of poems, you can hear Joy Harjo’s prophetic proclamation of the way of connection and what it might mean for all of us.

Readings from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

p. 12: Excerpt from “No”
There was nothing about it in the news. Everything was the same. Unemployment was up. Another queen crowned with flowers. Then there was the sports scores.

Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine. Yet our children played in the path between our houses.

p. 13:
Humans were created by mistake. Someone laugher and we came crawling out. That was the beginning of the story; we were hooked then. What a wild dilemma, how to make it to the stars, on a highway slick with fear —

p. 14: Once the World Was Perfect
Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.

p. 16
When I woke up from a forty-year sleep, it was by a song. I could hear the drums in the village. I felt the sweat of ancestors in each palm. The singers were singing the world into place, even as it continued to fall apart. They were making songs to turn hatred into love.

p. 17: Cricket Song
Tonight I catch a cricket song,
Sung by a cricked who wants the attention of another–
My thinking slides in the wake of the cricket’s sweet
Longing. It’s lit by the full moon as it makes a path
Over the slick grass of the whitest dark,
I doubt the cricket cares his singing is swinging starlight
To the worry that has darkened my min.
It is mating season.
They will find their way to each other by sounds.
Time and how are the mysterious elements of any life.
I will find my way home to you.
Mvskoke Nation, June 23, 2013

p. 20
Each human is a complex, contradictory story. Some stories within us have been unfolding for years, others are trembling with fresh life as they peek above the horizon. Each is a zigzag of emotional design and ancestral architecture. All the stories in the earth’s mind are connected.

p. 53
Excerpts from “Goin’ Home (song)”
Last dance and the night is almost over
One last round under the starry sky
We’re all going home someway, somehow when it’s over
Hey e yah, hey e yay, aye e yah aye e yah
……..
I’m from Oklahoma got no one to call mine
A Love supreme, a love supreme
Everybody wants a love supreme
……..
Goin’ home going’ home goin’ home

It’s time to go home
Be kind to all you meet along the way

p. 75: This Morning I Pray for My Enemies
And whom do I call my enemy?
An enemy must be worthy of engagement.
I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking.
It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind.
The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun.
It sees and knows everything.
It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing.
The door to the mind should only open from the heart.
An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.

p. 79: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” Excerpt from
“2. Use Effective Communication Skills that display and Enhance Mutual Trust and Respect”
We say, put down your papers, your tools of coercion, your false promises, your posture of superiority and sit with us before the fire. We will share food, songs, and stories. We will gather beneath starlight and dance, and rise together at sunrise.

p. 82: Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”
“4. Reduce Defensiveness and Break the Defensiveness Chain”
I could hear the light beings as they entered every cell. Every cell is a house of the god of light, they said. I could hear the spirits who love us stomp dancing. They were dancing as if they were here, and then another level of here, and then another, until the whole earth and sky was dancing.

We are here dancing, they said. There was no there.

There was no “I” or “you.”

There was us; there was “we.”

There we were as if we were the music.

You cannot legislate music to lockstep nor can you legislate the spirit of the music to stop at political boundaries—

—Or poetry, or art, or anything that is of value or matters in this world, and the next worlds.

This is about getting to know each other.

We will wind up back at the blues standing on the edge of the flatted fifth about to jump into a fierce understanding together.

p. 84: “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings”
6. AND, USE WHAT YOU LEARN TO RESOLVE YOUR OWN CONFLICTS AND TO MEDIATE OTHERS’ CONFLICTS:

When we made it back home, back over those curved roads
that wind through the city of peace, we stopped at the
doorway of dusk as it opened to our homelands.
We gave thanks for the story, for all parts of the story
because it was by the light of those challenges we knew
ourselves—
We asked for forgiveness.
We laid down our burdens next to each other.

p. 139: “Sunrise”
Sunrise, as you enter the houses of everyone here, find us.
We’ve been crashing for days, or has it been years.
Find us, beneath the shadow of this yearning mountain,
crying here.
We have been sick with sour longings and the jangling of
fears.
Our spirits rise up in the dark, because they hear,
Doves in cottonwoods calling for the sun.
We struggled with a monster and lost.
Our bodies were tossed in the pile of kill. We rotted there.
We were ashamed and told ourselves for a thousand
years,
We didn’t deserve anything but this—
And one day, in relentless eternity, our spirits discerned
movement of prayers
Carried toward the sun.
And this morning we were able to stand with all the rest
And welcome you here.
We move with the lightness of being, and we will go
Where there’s a place for us.

Joy Harjo’s poetry and music and talks can be found on the internet. Among other things I would would you watch Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Song” on Youtube. In addition to hear her recite the poem you can hear her saxophone playing at the end of it.

Lastly, though I didn’t read it as part of these reflections, Joy Harjo’s poem “I Give you Back”, from her collection She Had Some Horses, is one of the first poems she wrote and remains one her most powerful.

“I 
Give
 You
 Back” by 
 Joy
Harjo
I
 release 
you,
 my 
beautiful 
and 
terrible
fear.
 I 
release
 you.

 You 
were 
my
 beloved
and 
hated 
twin,
 but
 now,
 I 
don’t
 know 
you
as 
myself. 

 I
 release
 you
 with
 all 
the
pain
 I
 would 
know 
at
 the
 death 
of
my
 daughters.

You 
are 
not
 my 
blood
 anymore.

I
 give 
you 
back 
to 
the
 white
 soldiers
who 
burned
 down 
my 
home, 
beheaded
 my 
children,
raped
 and 
sodomized 
my 
brothers 
and 
sisters .
I
 give 
you
 back 
to
 those 
who
 stole
t the
food 
from 
our 
plates 
when 
we 
were 
starving.

I 
release
 you, 
fear, 
because 
you
 hold
these 
scenes 
in 
front
 of
 me 
and
 I
 was 
born
with
 eyes
 that
 can 
never 
close.

I
 release 
you, 
fear, 
so
 you 
can 
no 
longer
keep
 me 
naked
 and 
frozen 
in
 the 
winter,
or
 smothered 
under
 blankets 
in 
the 
summer.

I
 release 
you
I 
release 
you
I release
 you
I 
release 
you

I
 am 
not 
afraid 
to 
be 
angry.
I 
am
 not
 afraid 
to
 rejoice.
I 
am 
not 
afraid 
to 
be 
black
I
 am
 not 
afraid
 to 
be
 white.
I
 am 
not 
afraid 
to 
be 
hungry.
I
 am
 not
 afraid 
to 
be 
full.
I 
am 
not
 afraid 
to 
be
 hated.
I
 am 
not 
afraid 
to 
be 
loved,
to 
be
 loved,
 to 
be 
loved,
 fear.

Oh,
you
 have 
choked 
me ,
but 
I
 gave
 you
 the 
leash.
You
 have
 gutted
 me 
but 
I
 gave 
you
 the 
knife.
You
 have
 devoured 
me, 
but 
I
 laid
 myself 
across 
the
 fire.

I 
take 
myself 
back, 
fear.
You 
are 
not
 my
 shadow 
any 
longer.
I 
won’t
 hold 
you 
in
 my 
hands.
You 
can’t 
live 
in 
my 
eyes,
 my 
ears,
 my
 voice
my 
belly, 
or
 in
 my
 heart 

 my
heart
my
heart
 my
heart.

But 
come
 here,
 fear.
I
 am 
alive 
and 
you
 are 
so 
afraid
of 
dying.

“The Blessing of Animals” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers on October 1st, 2017.

“The Blessing of Animals” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 1st, 2017. (Readings for 21A: Exodus 17:1-7, A Song of Creation, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32)

 

A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  As our Book of Common Prayer says, this means that there are millions of sacraments, millions of ways that through the material world, through creation, we experience and know the love of God.

 

This is something Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we’re celebrating today, experienced and expressed when he wrote about our being in relationship to all things.  He called the sun, moon, rain, snow, and different animals his mother, brothers, and sisters. Francis apparently walked around with a wolf he had befriended. He preached to birds.  My sense is that part of why poverty was a joy for Francis was the way it kept materialism from keeping him from experiencing life in its essence.  When he was dying he asked his brothers to strip naked and lay him down on the earth so he could feel the earth touching his skin.

 

Today, I want to make a few brief connections between those animals we have developed relationships with and our scriptures today.   Then I’m hoping that we can reflect on what the particular animals in our lives mean to us or have meant to us.  Have we experienced them as a means of grace?   If so– how? If is easy for us to be sentimental about our pets, but I hope we will resist that urge and instead honor them by talking about them as truthfully and concretely as possible so that we might hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us about them and through them.

 

First, in our lesson from Exodus today we hear the story of how, when the people of Israel were thirsty, Moses struck the rock and waters came flowing out.  It’s a powerful image.  I would say that many of us have again and again experienced how our pets can touch us such that when our hearts are feeling like nothing but hard rock-suddenly we find they are flowing with living waters again.   Amen?

 

Secondly, in Philippians we hear:   “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love…”   Any “encouragement”, any “consolation from love”, “any compassion and sympathy” how many of us have experienced all of these from our pets?  It is a reality we cannot afford to ignore if we indeed wish to be of that same mind and have that same love.

 

This passage also reminds me of another that comes just a little later in Philippians when Paul speaks about how “the peace of God which passes all understanding: can keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul goes on to say what can help us find that peace when he says: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (4:8)

 

How many of us have, have experienced through the way our animals love and care for us– something that is true, honorable, pure, lovely, and  gracious?  And yet, because they do not speak, I think we do not value it the way we would if they could speak.

 

And this issue of how we speak, or whether we speak, comes up in our last reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

 

Throughout history the church has always seem to focus more on “orthodoxy,” emphasizing the importance of saying the right thing, rather than “orthopraxy,” which emphasizes the importance of doing the right thing.  But the story Jesus tells about the two sons emphasizes the opposite.

 

The one son seems to reject and deny his father’s authority, but goes and does what his father wants. The other with his words honors his father, but then doesn’t go do what his father asks him to do.  Jesus asks who did the will of the father?  And the answer is “the first.”  I think if we really took the time to understand the implications of this it would revolutionize our life as a church.

 

This focus on action is why Luke, when he writes the gospel of the Holy Spirit, he calls it the Book of ACTS, for where Spirit is truly present it becomes embodied in actions.  Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.”

 

Matthew’s gospel is, in part, a long tirade against the hypocrisy of Christians and other religious folks who say the right thing, but don’t do them. Perhaps if we had less of a focus on saying or believing the right things, and more on doing the right thing, we wouldn’t be living in a culture where someone would think of themselves as a Christian even if they weren’t loving their neighbor or the stranger, even if they claimed to have never repented about anything.

 

I would suggest that perhaps paying more attention to our animals can help us get past our prejudice towards words and focus on all the ways we experience the Spirit and divine presence speaking to us, not through words.

 

So let us then take some time now to reflect on and share what our animals have meant to us and what we have learned through them. Amen

The Blessing of Animals… Extending the Conversation

 

Today in worship we celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis, blessing our animals and reflecting together on the grace we receive from them.

Extending the conversation…..

How have you received / experienced grace – unconditional love, unearned and undeserved – through the pets that have been part of your life?

I invite you to share your thoughts, stories and reflections in the comments below.

And I hope you enjoy these pictures from worship this morning!

Grace and peace,

Jill

Being Community (a blog post from Jill Mills)

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

My sister lives in an RV. She and her husband sold everything that didn’t fit into their mobile home and have been traveling around North America for about 12 years now. They visit family and friends all over the country, and explore national parks and all sorts of sightseeing adventures. They love it! I’m glad they get to do this, but I know it’s not for me. I need a sense of place, a community that I am part of, that I can come home to – people that know me deeply and with whom i have a long term relationship.

Church has always been part of what provides that relationship for me. I was a member of a church for most of my life, until (oddly enough) three years ago when I became a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). When you are ordained as a pastor, you no longer are a member of a specific congregation. You are “set apart” to live out your calling.

I left the vocation of paid ministry in January 2017, and Wade and I are enjoying retirement, getting to know each other as newlyweds, and finding new ways to serve God by serving others. And we have found Beloved Community at ECI.

But I have another community that is virtual – friends and family who I don’t physically see on a regular basis, but who are closely connected with me via social media. Facebook is an incredibly useful way to be in relationship, if one is willing to use it to show compassion and to listen to one another. I am grateful for the ways I can let others into my life and take part in theirs through this communication platform. It’s not unlike writing letters or calling on the phone, if you are intentional about it.

I recently came across this article about online community and its role in ministry:

The Online Community: Authentic, Real, Needing Ministers

Joe and I talked about it and agreed that it is an aspect of community that would be helpful to many both in and beyond the ECI community. So I am beginning an experiment in online community ministry. I hope to provide an outlet for both one-on-one and group conversation, building relationships, talking about books and sermons and youtube videos related to the work that ECI is participating in, prayer requests, and more. I am interested in knowing what would be helpful to you! Please let me know what ideas you have and what feedback you can provide about this as we go forward. We will adapt it over time as we learn what is most helpful in building community this way.

Joe spoke about community in his recent “Harry Potter” sermon. Among other things, he offered this:

“I would hope we could hear in Harry Potter the call of prophetic community and see in it a vision of what a church community can be:

  • A unified community in which we discover common ground and
    common purpose.
  • A community of truth that doesn’t hide from any reality.
  • A community of healing, where we can recover from the wounds
    life has left us with.
  • A community that welcomes all, including our many and profound differences.
    an imaginative community that does not let what is, or what has been,
    define what we believe is really possible.
  • A courageous community that does not let fear determine our actions,
    or the scope of our understanding of what we need to be about.
  • A community that embraces death and dying as something that helps us to realize and celebrate our impermanence so that we can use it to make a difference.
  • A community of love, with the kinds of friendships at its center
    that call us into who we can become.”

May it be so.

Grace and peace,

jill

 

“Just Us vs. Justice and the Politics of Resentment”: Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on September 24th, 2017.

(Readings for 20A: Jonah 3:10-4:11,  Psalm 1451-9, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16)

 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,  says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9 (NRSV)

 

Some take a passage like this to argue that the ways of God are so different than ours that it is impossible to make any sense of them.  When a disaster happens and thousands of people are killed they will say idiotic things like “the ways of the Lord are mysterious” somehow suggesting that God was behind that tragedy.  I don’t believe that and I believe that in the beatitudes Jesus taught us that this was untrue.   I think that kind of attitude is generally just a justification that’s used so we don’t really have to struggle to understand what God is about or what God is calling us to do.

 

In the last three weeks we’ve had these teachings from Jesus about how we are to live and think and act in regards to things like engaging in social change, loving our enemies and forgiving others.  These teachings are so different from the way things are commonly done in our world that they do seem about as distant from them as the heavens are from the earth and yet, if we listen, if we are open, if we are willing to struggle with them, we will find these teachings are not inscrutable, they do make sense, they are just incredibly challenging and again and again they go against our gut instincts.

 

In our lesson from The Book of Jonah today, we again hear about a God who loves our enemies and calls us to do the same.  Jonah has no interest in helping, much less saving, the imperialist Ninevites, but God sends him right into the belly of the beast.  Worse, when they hear of their approaching destruction the Ninevites repent of their evil and avert disaster.

 

Jonah would have liked to seen the Ninevites destroyed so he’s pissed off and he goes off to sulk.  God causes a bush to give him shade and the text says “Jonah was very happy about the bush.”  Then God causes the bush to die and Jonah is left unprotected from “the sultry east wind” and the hot sun and he declares his anger at God saying “It is better for me to die then to live.”

 

Instead of consoling Jonah, God says to him, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.” (I love that–that’s what you call an I-thou relationship with God–neither holding anything back.)  And then God responds:

“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nin’eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

 

You can fee a powerful truth springing forth from those words.  I suspect a new greater awareness overcame Jonah such that he was no longer blinded, but was now able to see the broad reality of others that he was not able to see before.  It’s a story that tells us about the gap between what often seems just or fair to us and what really is fair and just.

 

Last week I talked about resentfulness as the opposite of thankfulness.  Today I want to focus a bit on how resentfulness can blind us, how it can, as we see the story of Jonah, keep us focused on “just us”, rather then being able to hear the call to justice.

 

In Matthew’s gospel we hear that from the perspective of divine justice, if they are in need, people are to be given shelter, food and water, and loving care when they are sick or lonely or in jail.  If we have this perspective we see divine justice at work when the landlord in today’s story decides to give everyone a days’ wage, even if they had only worked for an hour, because everyone needs to be able to live.

 

However, this seems unfair to those who had worked for many hours under the hot sun. They have apparently forgotten what it is to have to stand around worrying all day not knowing whether or not you are going to be able to provide something for your family to eat that night. Perhaps they thought it was very generous for the landlord to give a days wage for an hours work and were hoping for that same generosity to be also shown to them.  The injustice that they feel seems compounded by the fact that the landlord makes them wait while he pays the latecomers first.  That must have felt like salt on the wounds.

 

Jesus was a strange spiritual teacher.  When you think of spiritual teachers you usually  think of people who talk in ways that leave you feeling good, but Jesus’ stories often do the opposite as they seem designed to stir up troubling feelings  and to get you to reflect on your own experience, or provoke us to collectively wrestle with the questions they pose.   I think today’s story is meant to  get us to wrestle with how we deal with things when our guts protest that something seems unfair, or unjust, because we cannot see a higher justice or fairness at work.

 

Let me give you some examples of when and where this might happen.

 

If you are in a large family and the food is limited–it might seem most fair to you if each person got exactly the same amount of food.  But a parent can see that not all children have the same needs, a child who is sick or growing may need more food then another child.  That may be true, but there is a good chance it will seem unfair to you if you are one who is getting less.

 

The same thing goes for time.  In an ideal world parents could give each of their children all the time and attention they need.   But we don’t live in that ideal world so sometimes you find yourself having to figure out whose most needing your attention.  If a child has a chronic illness they may get much more of your attention throughout their childhood. The family resources are going to go towards where they seem to be most needed.  That can be painful.   Not to blame anyone, but that can feel pretty unfair particularly if you are unable to get your essential needs met and that can happen even if we parents are making the best decisions we can make and we know that often is not the case.

This issue of what feels fair, or just, to us sometimes being in conflict with God’s restorative justice comes up at a number of points in Jesus’ teachings.

 

The prodigal son treats his family shamefully, wastes vital family resources on his profligate lifestyle and what happens? Does his father punish him?  No, he throws a party for him to celebrate the fact that he has come back to his senses.  His older responsible brother is aghast.  He won’t join in the celebration for he feels it’s unfair. He tells his father “I did everything you asked and you never killed the fatted calf for me!  How’s that fair?”  And then his father gently calls him on it: “Look I divided up my fortune between you and your brother. He’s wasted his half so everything I have is yours. In other words, you are no longer a child, you can have a party anytime you want, but your brother who was dead has come back to life and we should celebrate this.”

 

The issue of fairness also comes up in Jesus’ teaching that the last shall be first, which he often address to those who saw themselves as righteous and above others.  To them he said: “Prostitutes and  tax collectors are going to enter the kingdom of heaven before you.”    It’s an oldest responsible child’s nightmare.  Not only am I not going to be rewarded for being the dutiful obedient child–in some ways it feels like I’m being punished for it.  And this appears not just to have been some distant future prediction.  We hear that in the early church this happened: notorious sinners, poor people, people others looked down upon were filled with God’s joyous spirit, felt loved and accepted by God and those who had labored all day in the fields of trying to do the right thing and obey the law were often late coming to the feast.  Life can be a gut churning experience and Jesus is challenging us to look at what’s happening with our guts and wrestle with what’s going on there.

 

I think the example of handicapped parking spaces is a helpful reminder of how easily we can become blinded to the needs of others as we get caught up in “just us.” Your able-bodied and driving around the parking lot and you see that the only empty parking space is reserved for people with disabilities. Where does your mind go?  It tells you that if that space wasn’t a handicapped parking space you would have been able to park there.  The reality is that if this was not a reserved space the likelihood is someone else would have parked there, but in that moment of feeling victimized you can’t see that.   So instead of feeling grateful that our society has evolved to the point where we are going to make sure that people who can’t walk far can get to that place, and all it costs is for the rest of us to sometimes have to walk a block or two further, we get caught up in this narrative of unfairness.

 

One of the places we really have to wrestle with our guts and what they perceive to be fair and just is around social change movements, movements for restorative justice, and how they often conflict with what our guts or consciences tell us is fair.

 

In Huckleberry Finn, we see this conflict at work. Huck is helping his friend Jim escape from slavery.  Then his conscience gets to him. Stealing is wrong.  By helping Jim escape he’s helping to steal another man’s property. He start’s to turn Jim in but then realizes he can’t do it. He loves Jims too much so he turns back and says to himself “if conscience were an old dog I would take it out and shoot it.”

 

Our guts and our conscience don’t necessarily have anything to do with true justice and true fairness.

 

In the introduction to her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, L Maria Child talks about why, without Susan B. Anthony’s encouragement, she would never have written this powerful book.  Why?   Because she was so ashamed that she had an affair with the white doctor who lived across the street as a way of keeping her master from being able to force her to have sex with him.  Here you are trapped in the utmost evil, forced to survive anyway you can, and your conscience is giving you that kind of grief for having sex as a way to keep from being raped?  Jesus help us.

 

On the other side, you can read the diaries and writings of slave owners who felt really grieved and hurt when slaves they loved chose to run away to gain their freedom. It felt to them like a betrayal.  Their sense of “just us” kept them from seeing the reality of people they loved. It blocked them from being able to envision God’s justice.

 

I can remember my dad’s sense of unfairness when, as a result of the women’s movement in the 1960’s, my mom began to insist he do the dishes each night. He had the idea that if he worked all day he should be able to come home and rest. He had encouraged my mom to go to work, but he obviously hadn’t expected that this would mean he would have to work when he got home.  That’s not how things had worked in his world. Most other men he knew were not having to do the dishes every night.  When he got used to it I think my dad came to see how distorted his thinking had been–that if this woman he loved deeply had worked all day and then came home and cooked then she too needed time to rest– but in took several years of conflict before this awareness dawned.

 

So often “just us” has nothing to do with justice and when it comes to housework I don’t need to just talk about my dad.   At an Episcopal High School Youth retreat,  I read an essay called “The Politics of Housework.” It listed all the ways husbands used to get out of helping with housework: always asking their wives questions about how to do something, banging the dishes around or finding other ways to communicate their displeasure, talking about how nice things had been in the past.  I felt totally convicted because I had used most of these strategies on my mom and I realized there was no more reason she should do these chores, which at the time I considered boring and demeaning, than me. It changed me.   From then on I did housework without complaint.

 

I think it’s worth thinking about these realities because we’re now in a time in our history where we are seeing the power of the politics of resentment.  Any kind of past wound, slight, or past grievance, real or imagined, can be nurtured so that we are unable to see, unable to feel, empathy for whoever is “the other”, the not us.   Whether the other is poor or rich, black or white, male or female, gay, straight or transgender we find folks encouraging us to focus on “just us” not justice.

For example, much of the wealth divide between black and white Americans is about home ownership.  This gap is not just about what happened under slavery, its about what happened in the 1940’s  and 1950’s when Federal Government policies made cheap home loans available to whites to build nice houses in the suburbs, but black people generally could not get these loans because they  were not available for people living in integrated areas.  If we now addressed this past discrimination by saying we should now do for African Americans what we did for white Americans, in terms of making these cheap housing loans available to them, you know there would be an incredible outcry, the claim that this was unfair.  Many white people would denounce it as another form of welfare and say that it was fostering dependency totally ignoring how their parents or grandparents received these same loans and how much of their current wealth is based on that fact.

 

I’m not going to argue about whether this would be a good thing to do or not.  I think how we get from our current unjust unequal caste society to a society where there is much greater justice and much greater equality is complex.  For now I just want us to feel how these politics of resentment and paranoia keep us from being able to empathize with one another and to see where justice is calling us.

 

If we are not going to let this kind of fear, anger, resentment, and paranoia keep us from moving forward, which we cannot afford to let happen, we need to be able to recognize it, address it, and work our way through it, so that the feast of God can happen, this banquet at which all are fed and satisfied can happen, this reign of God in which people feel seen, and known, and loved, and appreciated, can happen.

 

Let us take the time to listen to our resentfulness so that we can understand who we are hardening our hearts towards, who we are unable to listen to, who we are unwilling to try to understand, because without the spirit of listening and understanding we are not going to be able to enter into the new creation, the land of promise, that our hearts long for. But if we are willing, God is able and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen