“The Sacrament of Advent” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December 3rd, 2017. (Readings Advent 1B: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7,16-18, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 12:24-37)
“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)
We are living in a very different country than we were living in one week ago. This country has had some very dark hours, but I think that sooner than later we are going to recognize that the tax reformation the Senate passed on Friday was one of them. A congress that was unwilling to help poor and working and middle class people who were losing their homes in the midst of the mortgage crises, because it was too expensive, has now proved to be willing to spend twice that amount to make the wealthy wealthier and to borrow money to do that. The evidence suggests that for the foreseeable future every program that helps poor and working people will be opposed or cut because, they will claim, we cannot afford to go further into debt. The Bible is very clear on its judgment of those who make the wealthy wealthier at the expense of the poor and nations that allows this to happen. What happened this past week is world changing, but I fear that today we will get caught up in reacting to what’s happened, rather then focusing on how we need to change, individually and collectively, if we are going to reverse this evil, if we are going to be able to create the kind of country we want to live in.
“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)
I want to talk for a moment about the idea of being counter-intuitive, which is when you think or act in a way that is opposite of your instincts. In most of our lives we rely on our instincts to see us through things so this idea of being counter-intuitive is itself very counter-intuitive.
My favorite example of being counter-intuitive is those signs on beaches that tell you if you get caught in a rip-tide you shouldn’t try to swim against the current, but rather relax and let it carry you where it wants to carry you until you can somehow get to the edge and beyond it. That all sounds great until you get caught in one and realize you are being carried out into the ocean where you are certain you will drown and every fiber of your being tells you to do all you can to resist it. The only problem with that is if you go along with your instincts–you are more likely to drown. If you can’t tell, I’m talking from personal experience here.
Another one, I’ve also experienced, is that if you have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) if leaves you wanting to do everything you can to avoid anything that might stimulate your fears. It’s like you want to surround yourself with nice white fluffy clouds and so people with PTSD often retreat behind thick walls into private gardens and surround themselves with soft lights and quite music. Often out of concern your friends will encourage you to do this. The only problem is that retreating behind those walls ensures that you’ll remain controlled by your PTSD. The only way to get better is not to try to avoid what might stimulate it. That is so counter-intuitive.
Another favorite one is that if you are anxious about doing something your mind tells you just to avoid thinking about it and you’ll feel better, but procrastination ultimately makes anxiety so much much worse. It took me a long time to learn that one.
I’m saying all this because on some fundamental level the practices of Advent are very counter-intuitive.
“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)
This is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the church year, and on it we find our scriptures today are filled with metaphors about light and darkness. As warm blooded creatures we tend to want to avoid the cold. As social creatures we often avoid being alone. As creatures who can’t see in the dark–we tend to like the light. But advent calls us to open ourselves to the cold and the darkness and the silence of this time of the year, to let it be for us a kind of sacrament, a material means of grace, so that we can be transformed by hope. That’s very counter-intuitive.
Advent begins with a call out into the wilderness. The wilderness is an area that hasn’t been completely domesticated. We tend to like to live our lives feeling in control of things, but the definition of the wilderness is an area in which things haven’t been brought under our control, an area where we are confronted with the unknown. Advent says, if we wish to live in reality, if we wish for the divine to lead us and guide us, we need to be willing to recognize that often our light is really a form of darkness and we will only discover the true light if we are willing to enter into the darkness of not knowing, if we are willing to listen for what we’ve not been hearing, if we are willing to at least temporarily be unable to see so that we can begin to see what we are not seeing. We’re only able to discover what we don’t know by moving beyond what we think we know.
“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)
Isaiah today speaks of feeling cut off from God’s presence. “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire cause water to boil…so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” Isaiah goes on “We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth….for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”
The Hebrew faith tells us that what most cuts us off from knowing God’s presence is idolatry: the attempt to transform the divine into a thing, the attempt to takes what’s living and fluid and mysterious and make it into something that is fixed and static and therefore controllable.
Idolatry is rooted in our anxious grasping hearts which want to hold onto and control whatever is most precious to us so we constantly have to struggle with having an unhealthy attachment to whatever that is: our partners, our children, feeling good, feeling in control, money, sex, our ideas, our health, God.
In our hearts we are to maintain the holy of holies, an empty space in which we can encounter the divine, the living, but we are constantly tempted to fill that empty space with idols, things, so that we don’t have to experience the emptiness and the silence. Advent tells us we can only know the divine presence once again when we are willing to empty our hearts of those things and empty ourselves.
Advent speaks of a new beginning that begins with visions of the end. In our gospel today we hear of what would feel like the end of the world: the sun darkened, stars falling from the heavens, heaven and earth shaken. Often, the new beginning we are needing can only happen when we confront the end. Often, for us as individuals or for us collectively, change only happens when it is the last possible alternative.
Advent encourages us not to be afraid of visions of the end. Most of the time we try to avoid being pessimistic or seeing things in a negative light, but in advent we are given permission to face the darkness: to see where we really are in all its negative light, to recognize where certain kind of action and thinking and feelings are leading us, to let ourselves experience the fruit of how we’ve been thinking or acting has been effecting ourselves and others, and to let this grief empower us to let go and turn away from what has led us to a place of desolation.
Sometimes Advent can be about our need for a kind of complete turning, a recognition of some fundamental way in which we need to turn or die, individually or collectively. What worked for us at one point in our lives, may now be killing us or threatening to kill us. What may have worked for us collectively, at one point in our nations history, may now destroy us. If you are awake, it’s pretty hard not to feel that this nation and humanity generally are needing a fundamental turning if we are going to have any kind of good future or even to survive. Advent gives us permission to face that reality, without panic, praying and asking God to meet us here, to make a way where all we can see is no way.
But even when our lives seem to be going well, we need this annual journey into the darkness to be reconnect to the world, to reconnect with reality, to reconnect with ourselves, to reconnect with God. As symbol making creatures we create symbols to navigate and respond to our lives and world. We encounter someone or something and we take a kind of mental photograph and label it, as part of the way to make some sense of them. But the problem is that those mental photographs, that initially might help us connect to that person, or that reality, can over time disconnect us from them as we hold onto our mental snapshots and stop paying attention to how that person or reality is living and changing.
Thus marriage counselors tells us that couples who are married a long time often, over time, know less and less about each other, because twenty years ago you said you felt or thought such and such and I’m stilling holding onto that idea when the reality is you haven’t thought or felt that way for a long long time. And what happens to us individually also happens to us collectively. We develop an idea or a story about something and don’t see how that idea or that story is now keeping us from seeing our reality, much less respond to it. We need to be particularly aware of how this happens with our religions faith. Religion is meant to bind us to reality, but if we have an unhealthy attachment to our faith, it can disconnect us from reality.
When that happens, our light becomes the darkness as what we think we know keeps us from really knowing much of anything. The tools which were a means of helping us know and respond to ourselves and others and our world have become barriers to knowing and responding. At its worst, you find some people who hold so hard onto their ideas that when they look out all they can see, all they encounter, seems to confirm their perceptions, because they can no longer see anything but their own ideas. The result of being trapped in this delusion is that they can go through life feeling that they are almost never wrong, but in their wake you see a trail of wreckage. That’s what we hearing in the testimony of all these men who only now are waking up to the harm they did to others. That’s what I think we’ll soon see in the wreckage this new tax plan will cause, as it results in suffering for millions. Though the premises of this plan are based on ideas that have been thoroughly disproven, people instead chose to hold onto their ideas of what is helpful over that evidence. But as much as we may want to project this kind of wreck less foolishness onto others, Advent tells us it’s something we must all guard against.
“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)
Advent is an invitation back to unknowing, back to what the Buddhists call “beginners mind”, the willingness to see and experience things anew, as if we were seeing them for the first time.
Advent is an affirmation of the power of humility. When we are in our right minds it’s clear that there is so much we don’t know and yet, that’s okay, we don’t have to run or hide from what we don’t know. We can acknowledge our ignorance. Real curiosity is born in that space in which we realize there is something we need or want to know that we don’t know. The darkness we fear is not our real enemy–rather it’s brimming with an invisible light that would lead us and guide us if we can loosen our deadly grip on our need to be in control by claiming to know what we don’t know.
In this way, Advent becomes a yearly invitation, to return to reality, to return to ourselves, to return to our lives and world as they are, to have the courage to see and name–where we are now, where we are starting from, and to invite the divine to meet us here, not where we wish we were because that’s a fantasy and the living God dwells in reality, and can only meet us in reality, or not at all.
Our society does all it can to block out the growing silence, coldness, and darkness of the natural world at this time of the year. Strikingly, historians tell us we’ve been doing this for thousands of years. In the ancient world, at this time of the year, you also had the same frenzied consumption and almost the same proportion of goods being bought and sold as we have today. Rather than fleeing the darkness, the silence and the cold through consumption, Advent calls us to be open to it.
We are like seeds that need the dark cold earth in order to germinate. Though we think that the darkness is an enemy that we must fight, the advent story tells us there is an invisible light–reaching out to us through the darkness and that light is our hope and the hope of the world. Advent tells us that beyond all the noise there is a silent song which if we can hear it will bring us joy and joy to the world. Advent tells us that in the cold there is to be found a divine warmth that no amount of gaiety and parities can come close to.
So let us embrace the sacrament of advent, the sacrament of seeing in this season of the year a grace that is calling us, wanting to encourage us, wanting us to lay down the burden of denial and the isolation it brings, wanting to comfort us, wanting to empower us, wanting to help us become creative again–human again, in our thinking and responses to our lives and the world, if we will but turn and be open to it.
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
p.s. While we need to address our collective reality, I’m sensing that today it would be helpful for us to start with our personal reality. So I’d like to pose the question of where you find yourself, at the beginning of this new beginning that we call advent. Where are you? What is the darkness or unknown that you are confronting? What do you sense you are being called to turn away from, or to turn towards?
“New Visions of the Wedding Feast” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 12th, 2017. (Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 & 6:17-20, Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Matthew 25:1-13)
I want there to be time for you to share anything that our celebration last night left you wanting to share, or to reflect on the incredible light that some of us came to know in our brother Claude Johnson who died this week, so I was tempted to just open things up for our collective reflections, particularly give that the parable in our Gospel today is one of my least favorite parables. But then I also felt some of you coming from out of town would want to hear from me and as I listened I found the Spirit was raising things I thought we need to address—- so here goes.
To be able to hear what the Spirit is saying I often find it helpful to be clear about what the Spirit is not saying. In other words, to be clear about the bad news version of any particular text, so let me try to be clear about that.
First, I grew up hearing the King James translation of this parable in which the word used for these young maidens, or bridesmaids, was translated as “virgins” so it was known as the parable of the ten virgins. The Greek word for virgins is the same word as the word for young women, so I’m not saying that translation was wrong, but in it’s hard not to hear a story about virgins who save their oil versus those who don’t as not being related to their sexual status. We live in a culture that has put sexuality at the heart of a purity code that’s been used to demean and render impure the vast majority of us. Though I think love is the best context for sex, I think this emphasis on virginity, and particularly virgin women, is part of the sexist, anti-body, anti-sexuality illness our culture suffers from.
Secondly, this parable always comes up around the time of year when the church does its annual financial campaign, which may be a reflection of how few gospel texts really lend themselves to financial pledge drives! However, when you put this text in the context of a financial pledge drive you can see how easy it becomes to associate those who save up their oil, or don’t, to participate in the wedding celebration, with those who save up their money, or don’t, to be able to give to the church. Again, I value learning to save money so you can be generous, but we live in a culture that tends to view the inability to save as a moral failing, regardless of one’s financial circumstances, or how many others you are trying to sustain through your income. So, while I do think it’s helpful for us to talk about money and savings, we also need to remember that Jesus emphasized not savings, but giving your money away and not as a means of looking good to an exclusive church, but as a means of helping others.
Lastly, these wise bridesmaids seem a little nasty in terms of their attitudes towards their foolish sisters. Maybe they couldn’t have shared their oil, but couldn’t they have at least said they were sorry? And what’s with the bridegroom shutting out those who were late to the party? I wouldn’t want to go to the party of some bridegroom who has that kind of attitude. It all sounds like a justification for being self-righteous, judgmental, and mean.
But putting away those bad news interpretations, I found the text began to open up when I tried to think of it within the context of Matthew’s gospel, which is all about showing up and doing what needs to be done for the sake of love and justice. If we understand this as a parable about how well we steward our resources, so that we have the resources we need to do what we need to do, and what helps us to be ready to act when the times comes to act, then this seems something really worth talking about.
For example, I’m so struck by all the folks I keep running into who are burning out watching the news all the time, somehow falling into the pit of thinking that by watching, or hearing, the same bad news, which on cable news shows is presented over and over and over again, that they are somehow doing something worthwhile. It’s as if we’ve become convinced that by going around feeling bad, we are doing something for others, or doing something worthwhile. My own sense is that all many of us are doing is getting ourselves depressed and worn out so that when the time comes for action–we are likely to be too tired and dispirited to do anything. That does seem to me a good example of the deadly nature of real foolishness.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “You are the light of the world.” In other words, God may be the light of the world, but to a significant degree, God’s light shines, or doesn’t shine, through us.
If we take seriously this call to be the light of the world we need to be clear about what keeps our lights shining. Again, I am struck by the bad news legacy of a kind of Puritanism that makes suffering a virtue in and of itself.
How many of us don’t seem to give ourselves permission to get enough sleep, take time to be alone, take time to be with others, take time to have fun, take time to exercise, take time to sing or dance or whatever else it is that keeps our light shining? These days we seem to live in a culture that encourages us either to be self-centered and pursue every possible comfort, or to think that by going around tired and suffering, or one of the grim and determined, we are somehow proving our worth. I don’t buy it. There is such a difference when you encounter someone who cares about others and the world and yet is rested, alive, awake, and energized.
I heard a speaker last week who said that there is no problem in the world that cannot be solved by consciousness, by our bringing our consciousness to bear on it. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I hope it is. I do know that an awful lot of problems can be solved through giving our full attention to them such that going around being mostly unconscious is definitely not helpful Perhaps if we are not being effective it is because we have so little bandwidth in terms of our capacity for really engaged, nuanced, creative thinking, which leaves us more like a smoldering wick, rather than any kind of real light.
I could stop there, but I think it is even more than a question of what keeps us from being ready and able to act when the opportunity comes–I think this is a matter of a kind of addiction, something that is keeping us from being really alive, something that is in some ways soul killing. I’m less and less interested in sins that aren’t ultimately a matter of life and death, but I think many of us are trapped in a kind of alienation that keeps us living beside ourselves, or looking down on ourselves, operating on remote control, as we follow whatever scripts we’ve been programmed to follow. And the worse part is, as we do it we have this voice inside of us encouraging us to do this, saying: “Good job—this is what it means to be a responsible adult!” We’re not going to be able to overcome this evil unless we name it clearly so we can begin to learn how to live, walk, and be differently.
Lastly, I want to connect this issue of our being called to be the light of the world, if the God feast is going to happen here on earth, to the vision we hear in Joshua today–the vision of covenanting together. I won’t go into all the reasons, but scholars I trust believe this Joshua text is from an earlier context that explains how most of the people, who were living in the land that would become the nation of Israel, came to be part of the people of Israel. That is the covenanting ceremony we hear about is about them being invited to become part of this new people through rejecting the gods of domination and beloving the God of freedom.
If the church is called to be the heart of the world, the light of the world, this is not something we can just do individually. It’s about a process that binds us to one another, a process in which we align our hearts and wills with one another so that together we can do what would be impossible for us to do simply as individuals.
Lately, I’ve been struck by how radically flawed we each are as individuals, but how, when we are able to come together in community, there is always some other person who has gifts in the areas we have deficits, strengths in the areas we have weakness, insights in the areas where we are blind, wisdom in the areas where we are ignorant, the ability to act in a way we are unable to.
This weekend we’re celebrating the gift of this community of the Church of the Incarnation. It would not have fit in well into our celebration last night but, in addition to celebrating the amazing things this community has done over time, it’s also worth understanding the other side of the story in terms of who helped make this feast. While some churches have looked to people with no problems to lead them (good luck in finding them!) the fire and passion of this community has come out of the depths of our experience of what it means to live as limited, radically imperfect, human beings. Lois Leonard, one of the three founding mothers of this church, throughout her life struggled with alcoholism. Another member, who was a state leader in the struggle for people with disabilities–struggled with a drug problem. Many of us, including myself, have struggled with other kinds of addictions, depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and other forms of mental illness or from our inability to recover from unrecoverable losses. Others have suffered from or struggled with a variety of other problems that have made being a full loving human being, capable of loving and being loved, incredibly difficult. While it’s a mistake to think these problems were the source of our gifts, the things we ultimately learned and who we became, as we struggled with these problems, has a lot to do with our gifts and with the passion that comes from understanding how much is at stake.
The gift of community is a hard won gift. It means entrusting ourselves to each other despite all our fears and suspicions. It means learning how to be in relationship with others in such a way that we are open to the spirit and wisdom speaking through them, but in a way in which they aren’t dominating us so that we continue to be able to listen to the Spirit speaking within us. As people raised in our radically individualistic/collectivist society this is really difficult because we’re used to either staying away from groups, or disappearing into them. But the soul that holds our souls in life, the greater heart that our hearts seek to dwell in, only becomes fully manifest in the community of I-Thou relationships.
At a time when we, like those young women in the parable, find ourselves locked out in the dark night by the world of domination and exclusion, we need to come together to share our oil, to share our light, so that we can get renewed, empowered, and imaginative, so we can get in there and transform this world into a place where love and generosity, compassion and justice reign. 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
Life is short. And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind.
From the Journal of Henri Amiel, Dec. 1868 courtesy of Marcus Borg.
This Thanksgiving weekend, Pope Francis is meeting with the Rev. Dr. William Barber at the Vatican in Rome. Some of you may know that Dr. Barber is the force behind the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, and the co-coordinator of the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign. And some of you may know that Pope Francis is the head of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. They are meeting to discuss how to work together to alleviate poverty.
Now, there are some who have had negative experiences with the Catholic Church and would look negatively or at least with suspicion upon anything with the Pope’s name associated with it. And there are some who believe that because Dr Barber’s movement is for all people, whether Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, churched or unchurched, that he has gone too far and they cannot sign on with him. To use the terminology we hear in the gospel today, they are seen by some as “goats” and so it can be justified to dismiss them, to oppose them, to judge and even condemn them.
But they also are doing real work in the world to care for the poor, for the least and the lost. Based upon the descriptions in today’s gospel, they can also be seen as sheep!
Examples abound of people who are easily categorized by others as sheep or goats, good or bad, behaving acceptably or unacceptably. Some of these are people who we once thought were sheep but now we know they are goats. The daily news reports ratchet our thinking in one direction or another, or provide daily support for the lines that we have each already drawn.
As human beings, whether we like it or not, we have a natural tendency to see the world as “us” and “them”. And so there is a sort of appeal to the notion that we might be sheep while they are goats. That we are at least trying to do good in the world, unlike those others who either ignore the need in the world or even make it worse.
Our celebration a few weeks ago was an acknowledgement of all the good things that have been done by this community over the past 30 years and more, and all the ways our beloved Vicar Joe Summers has nurtured and enabled such good works. Surely we have been sheep in the best sense of the word. Thank God we have a place and a community that helps us to not be goats!
I know that for myself, I have as many goat moments as I do sheep. For every time I step out of my own agenda and comfort zone to offer loving kindness or help to someone else, there are multiple times when I am too busy or it’s too much trouble to stop, to turn, to suspend my own judgment or fear or greed or pride, and to share what I can where there is a need. I am sad to say that I have a well honed set of goat skills, and it’s often a lot less conspicuous to use them than to actually try to be a sheep. A lot easier to get away with. A lot more convenient.
But here is this gospel, this good news. And there is a lot of good news in it! God knows our hearts. God sees when we are living lives of loving kindness. And God knows why we fall short. God is in charge, above and beyond all the powers of this world, all of which are temporary and limited. So on this Christ the King Sunday, we can experience God in Jesus the Christ, not so much as a traditional King at all, but more like our kin. When we see our sister or brother in need, we see the face of God in Christ. Here is another part of the great mystery, the great paradox of God, that God-power is greatest in weakness, that the first shall be last, that the last shall be first. Many stories in the Bible reflect how people who have screwed up bigtime are still loved and redeemed and called upon by God to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.
The reality is that God knows I am both sheep and goat. And so are we all. All God’s children have the capacity for both sheepiness and goatiness. None of us are completely sheep or goats.
And here is more good news. Only God can truly judge us, truly know our hearts. And for God, it’s not that one screwup will wipe out all the “way-to-gos”. And it’s not vice versa either. We are both continually being saints and sinners, sheep and goats, Pharisees and Samaritans. God knows. And thank God that the kind of judge we have is one who is full of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. A God who sees all the crap and all the beauty in each of us and loves us anyway.
The Presbyterian Church, which is my faith background, is really big on grace. It’s considered the foundation of our faith. My favorite description of grace is one that mirrors it with mercy. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, what we have not and cannot earn. And mercy is not getting what we do deserve, based on all the ways we have fallen short.
So no matter how hard we try to be sheep, we are not ever going to match up our good works with the gifts that we receive from God. We can never ever do enough to earn such abundant and unconditional love. It’s only ours through grace.
And no matter how much we are goats, God’s mercy is greater than all our goatiness. So God’s judgment for our failings is not punishment, but forgiveness and second chances, over and over again.
The hard part comes back around to the us-and-them factor. We would much rather be able to define who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving of God’s love and who’s not. And God knows, in this day and age, we all have our list of the unredeemables, don’t we?
But when we say God welcomes all, God loves all, God forgives all, God’s table is open to all God’s people, we mean all. Even the ones others have turned their backs on. And, even the ones we have turned our backs on.
In 1928, in Barcelona, Spain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on the first Sunday in Advent that referenced this gospel passage. I’d like to share an excerpt from his words with you.
“God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants always to be with us, wherever we may be – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us…
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?”
I pray that whenever we meet a person who is hard to love, for whatever reason, we will not only remember that Christ is in this person, but that we will recognize Christ, that we will work to see the God light in every person, that we will suspend our judgment both of sheep and of goats, and we will simply love. Amen.
No Longer Orphans: Reflections on the Feast of All Saints “ Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 5th, 2017. (Readings: Revelations 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10,22 , I John 3:1-3, Matt. 5:1-2.)
“Let not your hearts be troubled… I will not leave you orphans.” “Do not be afraid. I will not leave you orphans.” (John 14:1 & 18)
Christianity is rooted in a series of mysteries, that is realities we cannot fully understand but which have the power to transform our lives and world.
The first and greatest mystery is the mystery of Holy Week, Easter, and the resurrection. It is a mystery in which we see:
* death transformed into life,
*shame and degradation transformed into glory,
*cruelty, bullying and abandonment transformed into generosity, compassion, love and community,
*powerlessness and despair and terror transformed into power, hope, and courage.
There is a way in which all the mysteries of the Christian faith are ultimately rooted in the mystery of Holy Week and Easter.
Looking forward we see the mystery of Easter embodied in the mystery of Pentecost, where we see a new community born through the Spirit of Jesus. Led and guided by the Spirit of love it is empowered to go into the world to tear down the gates of hell and create a new heavens and a new earth where freedom and love reign.
Looking backwards we see the mystery of Easter expressed in the mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation, and the story of the Human One. Here we hear proclaimed that we all belong here on earth. Now, even amidst this world of domination and oppression and the divisions it creates among us and within us, it is possible to discover and live into the glory of our humanity.
We also hear the mystery of Easter sing through this Feast of All Saints that we are celebrating today. The mystery of Easter makes the beatitudes sing with joy and hope and possibility. In this series of blessings, Jesus proclaims who God is choosing to raise up and how those the world of domination see’s as cursed are actually the means through which these blessings are coming into the world.
*The Poor in spirit, those who the world of domination calls losers, are the heirs of the reign of heaven on earth and the ones through whom this mystery is being born in our midst
*That those that those who mourn will be comforted and will be the means through which others are comforted.
*That the meek and the powerless (who does the world of domination despise more than the powerless?) are going to inherit the earth and are going to be the ones through whom all are empowered.
*That those who hunger and thirst for justice, will not stay crazy and frustrated forever. They shall be filled–they shall be ambassadors of justice.
*That the merciful, those the world of domination calls fools, will not only receive mercy but become the means through which compassion is revealed as a great strength.
*That the pure in heart (again what does the world of domination hate more than vulnerability?) will see God and be the means through which others come to see God–here–now–even in this world as we know it.
*That peacemakers, those the world of domination sees as delusional, will be understood to be children of God, emissaries of the Most High.
*That the persecuted are the prophets through whom a new heavens and a new earth is being born.
On this Feast of All Saints we hear that abandonment and loneliness are no longer the final word, they are not the ultimate reality.
I want to take a minute here to talk about loneliness because I think we can get tricked into believing it is somehow a given, something we can’t do much about, such that we don’t talk about it enough.
There is a way in which the whole bible is a reflection on loneliness.
* Adam and Eve, those who have known each other as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” turn against each other and are cast out of paradise. That’s about loneliness.
* Out of envy, Cain slays his brother Abel. Almost as bad is then the way he denies what’s happened with the angry rebuttal “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Murder, denial, is all about the disconnection which is the foundation of loneliness.
*We hear about God’s own loneliness at discovering that the world she made for delight has become a garden of oppression and bloodshed. What is more lonely than the vision of the flood: a world without people, a world without animals. The rainbow is the sign of God’s promise not to destroy this world again.
*The loneliness of Abraham and Sarah, childless, journeying in search of a home and then the cry of joy, the laughter, that is Isaac and the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars.
*The loneliness of Jacob and Esau, set against each other by their parents from birth, wandering the earth without each other until they were able to reconciled again.
*The loneliness of Joseph, thrown into a well and then sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and living the life of the loneliness of exile until they are reconciled again.
* The loneliness of those who lived for 400 years in the I-it world of slavery. Objectification and oppression internalized cuts you off from yourself, cuts you off others, cuts you off from intimacy. The discovery of I AM is a journey back from loneliness.
*The loneliness of the people wandering in the strange land of the desert still carrying within them the structures and attitudes that keep them alone and afraid and untrusting.
*The respite from loneliness that happened in that two hundred year period that came to be called the Kingdom of God, a time when people relied on God and each other rather than structures of domination.
*The loneliness that returned as people turned towards empire and domination and with them inequality and alienation, so that they could be like the other kingdoms of the world, that was then followed by the piercing loneliness of life in exile.
*The loneliness of those deemed impure or unclean and who were shunned and marginalized within Jesus’ society and the loneliness of those who feared they would be shunned and judged as impure or unclean.
*The loneliness of Jesus in the garden–asking his friends to be there for him as he faced his death.
*The loneliness of seeing your hopes and dreams and who you hoped to be– crucified.
*Then Easter and the birth of the beloved community, a community in which we can know ourselves as beloved, not because we meet some ideal, but for who we are, in all our funky reality and glory.
In the Easter vision of the Feast of All Saints we see that abandonment and loneliness are held within a great communion. I find it helpful to envision this great communion as a great ball of loving kindness, of loving and being loved. This ball includes those who are alive here and now, but also those who have lived in the past, and those who will come to live in the future. This is the communion that we hear about in Revelations today, the communion of the radically flawed, those of us who so often embody the very problems we seek to address in our world, those of us who so often don’t do what we intend to do and do what we don’t intend to do, now washed in the blood of the lamb, the blood of love and forgiveness. In the light of this feast we are able to see ourselves and each other as all saints, all bearers of the divine light. In this great communion we belong. We are not orphans any longer. We have infinite mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers and great aunts and great uncles, sisters and brothers and cousins, children and nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great nieces and great nephews, and so many many friends.
On this day, I would encourage you to hold this communion before you like a great ball of love that invites you in. For if we belong, if we are not alone, than loneliness, fear, shame and judgment no longer reign over us. They no longer define the nature of who we are, or what’s possible for us, or what’s possible in this world.
The orphan is a child of terror. There is nothing more frightening than being abandoned for our very nature is relational, it’s based on our being connected to others. We can wish it weren’t true, but that doesn’t make it so. Being left alone, or even the threat of being left alone, is the root of all kinds of fears that can enslave us.
The orphan so often becomes a survivor by cutting themselves off from their hearts, their desires and feelings, their dream and their longings, in order to be invisible, in order to fit in, in order to look responsible and not needy, sad, lonely, or angry.
This is how the experience of abandonment often turns into narcissism, as, in order to protect ourselves from the rage and sorrow of abandonment, we create the image of a person who has it all together, and doesn’t really need others. Living behind that image keeps us from experiencing any real intimacy that might make us feel our inner emptiness and ensures that we remain trapped in it.
To those of us who are orphans, or feel like orphans, the communion of Saints comes to us saying, singing:
“Come here poor thing. You don’t need to be prefect. You don’t have to hide out in the shadows or the margins. You are loved for who you are including that huge bag of lost feelings and all the needs you’ve stuffed and tried to disconnect from. You are welcome. Sit down. Stop carrying that load around. Let yourself, your whole self, be — here — now. You are welcome.”
“Let not your hears be troubled. I will not leave you orphans. In my father’s house are many mansions and when I go I will prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also. I have told you before it takes place so that when it does take place you may believe. Believe in me and believe in the one who sent me.” (John 14:1-3, 18, 29)
Be of good courage. Not only do you belong here, but you are loved for who you are and supported by this great crowd of witnesses, this amazing community of the living and the dead, through whom God is transforming absence into presence, loss into connection, abandonment into communion and solidarity.
Friends, today we have a choice to continue in the way of the orphan, the way of abandoning ourselves and others, or to turn towards the communion of All Saints and risk not knowing ourselves by letting the structures of terror, shame and loneliness come tumbling down through the waters of compassion and forgiveness and letting ourselves be reborn in love and freedom. May we this day find the imagination to stop abandoning ourselves and others and the courage to give a damn.
For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready gone has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
P.S. In the Wisdom of Solomon we hear: “The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20) I would add, wisdom teaches us how to transform rejection into belovedness and loneliness into friendship and community. May we walk in the way of wisdom that we might build God’s reign of love here on earth. Amen
“The Authority of the Human One” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 29th, 2017. (Readings for 25A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Psalm 90:1-6,13-17, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46)
In our gospel today we hear: “(Jesus) said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 23:37-40)
That sounds clear, simple, and comprehensive, at least as long as we understand that we need to love ourselves if loving our neighbors as ourselves is going to mean anything. And yet so often we don’t love God with all our heart, mind and strength, so often we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, so often we don’t love ourselves.
Last week we delved into the issue of authority and how we need to exercise our authority in terms of things like discerning what claims the government or other authorities are making on us and whether they are legitimate or not. How we collectively love our neighbors in this community, the state, our nation, our world, has so much to do with whether or not we are exercising our authority in terms of being clear about how we want others to be treated.
And I want to suggest today that this issue of authority, whether or not we have it, whether or not we exercise it, is at the heart of the Jesus’ revolution. That is in Jesus, in the Jesus’ story, in Jesus’ teachings, people in general, but especially poor people, marginalized people, slaves and women, discovered their inherent human dignity and this awareness of their fundamental dignity led them to treat themselves and other differently and to expect that others should treat them differently. On the basis of discovering themselves to be children of God, every bit as divine as the Roman emperor himself, they then began to critique the world and its cultures and its social systems and social practices in terms of what honored people’s basic dignity and what did not.
That poor people’s movement, that movement of the marginalized, the demeaned and the discounted, shook the world and it continues to shake the world wherever people hear the good news. But it’s also a testimony to the degree to which we haven’t really heard, haven’t really understood the good news that so many of us have such a hard time exercising our God given authority, that is that authority that comes to us not because of any social position we hold, or particular background or training we have, but simply by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. This difficulty we have exercising our authority has dramatic implications for the degree to which we love God, love others and love ourselves.
You will not be able to love yourself if you do not exercise your authority in relationship to things like all those nasty voices that live inside of you that tell say you are nothing and no good. You will not be able to love yourself if you do not exercise your authority vis an vis all those different feelings that one minute are telling you to do or think one thing and the next minute another. You will not be able to love your neighbor unless you are able to exercise authority over that part of you that’s been trained to see yourself as better or worse then them. You will not be able to love your neighbor if you are not able to exercise your authority in relationship to all the contradictory feelings you have about them. Our lesson in Leviticus today says if are neighbor is doing harm and we don’t reprove them the guilt is on us this means getting ourselves to a place where we really can see them clearly.
Further, we are subject to all kinds of external authorities. For these authorities to function well we also need to exercise our authority. How often do the those we look to for judgment fail us because they were unable or unwilling to listen to us: the doctor or therapist or preacher whose got a preconceived idea of what’s wrong with us or won’t listen to us when we insist our symptoms don’t fit their diagnosis, the teacher whose reached some judgment about us or our child that is totally off, a judge who won’t or can’t listen to our testimony about ourselves or someone we know and who is therefore off in their judgments. Other times those failures happen because we have failed to really insist that we be heard.
Being a patient in a hospital these days is a great example of this. Our hospitals are filled with experts, people who have so much knowledge in so many areas, but if you aren’t vigilant, if you or others don’t speak up for you, so many many things can go so terribly wrong. I’ve found this to be so true that I strongly recommend anyone going into the hospital have some kind of advocate with them to speak up when they are not being heard or when people are telling them contradictory things. Though a little less true, I would also say that’s also been my experience of the school system. It doesn’t work well unless you have someone whose helping to advocate for a child.
In neither case do I want to malign the people who work in these institutions. I just think no system can address all the complexities that come with dealing with the human body, or the human mind, much less a whole person. Then on top of that, when you add the fact that these systems have so many different working parts, that often aren’t communicating with each other, it’s easy for vital information to be missed or overlooked unless someone is there to call attention to it. In many ways, everything depends on us exercising our authority in terms of our being able to reflect on our own experience and learn whatever truths it reveals to us and then act and speak on the basis of those truths.
Now, obviously this can become an excuse for the craziness of arrogance. One of my good friends has been a plumber for many years here in Ann Arbor. He continually encounters people who think that because they have more degrees then he has they know more about plumbing then he does. They don’t. Claiming our God-given authority doesn’t mean going around claiming we know more than everyone else, or more than we actually know, which is tempting in a world of experts. Frequently it means discerning who knows more than you about one area or another and going to them for help or judgment. I am utterly thrilled when I encounter someone who really knows something about something because there are so many areas where I know almost nothing: like what’s wrong with a car, or why my computer does or doesn’t do something, or even how to make my TV remote control work. But I’ve also learned that even with people I love and trust, sometimes they are missing some bit of information, or some insight, I have which is important if they are going to be able to help me.
If loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves depends on our exercising our authority, the question I want to pose for you today is what keeps you from exercising or claiming your authority. In what situation do you find it easy to claim and exercise your authority? It what situations does it seem difficult or impossible? What’s the difference between those contexts that makes it easy in one and difficult in the other. You might think of how you feel, for example, at work, or raising your kids, or being a patient in the hospital, or dealing with someone helping you with your computer.
I’d like you to divide into groups of three and then share for a few minutes each when, where, and why it’s harder or easier for you to exercise your authority and then let’s come back together and see what we’ve learned.
“The Government and Us” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 22nd, 2017. (Readings for 24A: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22)
33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’
33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
33:14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
33:15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.
33:16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
33:17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
33:18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
33:19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
33:20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
33:21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;
33:22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;
33:23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
96:1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
96:2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
96:3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
96:4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
96:6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
96:7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
96:8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
96:9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
96:10 Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”
96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
96:12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
96:13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly
1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,
1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,
1:7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,
1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I want to begin by saying a quick word about our lesson from Exodus today. The Hebrew scriptures are composed of the writings of many different traditions. One of the earliest is what’s called the Yahwist tradition and it’s often been presented as a primitive tradition because God is often portrayed in very human terms. But I want to suggest that, just as scholars were so often wrong when they told us indigenous peoples really thought different aspects of creation, the sun, the moon, different animals were Gods, rather than different expressions or reflections of God, so too, I think they are wrong to think that just because people used human terms to talk about God that they really thought of God as a kind of human being. The period of the Yahwist movement, much like the period of the Jesus movement or the Irish renaissance, was a period marked by an incredible breakthrough in terms of the vision and understanding of God. It marked a period in which people had a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of God and spirituality than most of us have today. So rather then thinking that people then were stupider, or more superstitious, or living in a completely different world than we are, I’d encourage you to be open to the possibility that when they tell stories about the divine in very personal/human terms, like a God who walks in a garden in the cool of the day, I’d encourage you to hear it not literally, but rather as a metaphorical way of speaking about their experience of the divine and what it has taught them.
In terms of the Divine approaching us in a very human way, last week I talked about humor as one way the divine talks to us, so I don’t want you to miss the humor in our lesson from Exodus today. Today we hear that the great leader Moses is apparently not satisfied with God’s presence and the renewal it brings, so he asks to see God’s glory. God response is as follows:
You stand on this rock. I will make all my goodness pass before you, but I will also cover your eyes for you cannot see my face, for no one can see my face and live. After I have passed by you can look and — you can see my back-side.
If this is based on a Yawhist story I’m sure the original used a less polite word for the word “back-side.”
I love that. Here we are created in the image of God, created little less than angels, and yet in case we’re getting too full of our selves, in case, we’re beginning to confuse ourselves with God, the Yahwist says we are only able to handle the equivalent of the back-side of God’s glory. And yet they also say that even if we are only able to handle the back-side of God’s glory, even that experience of the divine presence leaves us –like the trees of the forest–shouting with joy.
Now I think we need to draw on the divine presence and the rest and renewal it give us if we are going to be able to address the questions raised by our gospel today about our relationship to the government, which in our gospel today is represented by the image of Caesar.
Jesus’ enemies are hoping to catch him in a trap by either having him declare his opposition to paying taxes to Caesar, in which case he can be arrested and killed, or have him call for paying taxes to Caesar, in which case the crowds will turn against him. That’s why his enemies come to him praising him as a “sincere” truth teller who “does not show partiality towards people.” ie. whose not afraid of Caesar or the crowds.
Jesus gets out of this trap by asking them to: “show me the coin used for the taxes.” When they do–he asks “”Who head is this, and whose title” to which they have to answer the emperor’s. Now two things about this that all of Jesus’ listens would have understood. First, one of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” This is why Jewish coins didn’t have images of humans on them for that was considered idolatrous–turning a human being into a God. Secondly, not only did Roman money have the image of Caesar on them, but they were inscribed with the words “Augustus Caesar Son of God.” In other words, they proclaim Caesar to be a God at a time the worship of idols was understood by the Jewish people to be incompatible with the worship of God.
Having revealed Caesar’s idolatrous claims Jesus then says they should “give to Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is due to God.” Since, in the Hebrew understanding, “all the earth and all that therein is” is God’s, it means that Cesar has no claims on us, except in so far as they are part of what we owe to the Lord, which clearly does not include honoring Caesar’s idolatrous claim to being a God.
Jesus suggests it’s not a matter of whether it is lawful or not to pay taxes to Cesar, but a much more complicated question of which of Caesar’s claims are legitimate. All that seems very straight forward, and yet, through so much of Christian history these questions have been ignored and instead Christians have acted as if they should obey their governmental leaders. In the process, at the behest of those leaders, Christians have been involved in every kind of evil you can imagine: murder, theft, rape, exploitation, oppression, the desecration of people and the environment.
As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, we are willingly do all kinds of evil in the name of obedience to our government that we would never consider doing as individuals. Evil happens when we disconnect from our hearts and minds and feelings and consciousness and much of the great evil we see happens in our world happens when we disconnect from them in the name of obedience to governmental leaders. We also know from Stanly Milgram’s experiments that most of us feel such a compulsion to obey authority figures that we are willing to harm others even if we don’t want to, even if we believe it is wrong, if we are ordered to do it by authority figures.
How did Christians get to this place? I have more questions than answers. Part of it comes from obedience to Biblical texts like the text we find in Romans chapter thirteen. I want you to listen to it as if you are a Christian living in Nazi Germany, whose been ordered to go into the army to invade other countries, or into the police force to persecute political dissidents, Jews, gay, and handicapped people.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)
Now at the time Paul wrote those words Nero had apparently recently become the new Roman emperor. Maybe there was still hope he would turn out to be a decent ruler, we now know he turned out to become one of the most monstrous of the Roman emperors.
Let’s also be clear, despite how clear and simple the text sounds, it’s very unclear what Paul is saying. This is the same Paul who in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25 reports that “five times I have received …. the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.” I don’t know what justice system stoned Paul, but one suspects that the forty lases given by Jewish authorities and the being beaten with rods, which was one of the punishments Roman authorities meted out, didn’t happen because Paul was being obedient to the authorities. Rather one suspects that Paul responded to the authorities the way Peter and the Apostles did when they were ordered to stop preaching about how the authorities killed Jesus and they responded by saying “We must obey God rather than men. ” (Act 5:29)
How do we get from Jesus’ teaching that obedience to God comes before obedience to authorities to this apparent call to be “to be subject to the authorities,” or is the call to be subject to the authorities not, as so many came to believe, the same thing as obeying them? I don’t know, again I have more questions then answers.
What I do know is that though, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that those who treat the written word like the law are forfeiting salvation, Christians so often do treat the Bible in an idolatrous kind of way such that texts like this, that I suspect for Paul were nothing more than a call to avoid unnecessary trouble with the authorities, have been turned into texts of terror that can turn the Christian faith into something that is monstrous.
Christianity is the only world religion whose founders, including Jesus, Peter, Paul and many of the apostles, were executed by the state. This is not an accident. We also know that somehow, somewhere, along the line, that their holy disobedience that meant, for example, that no Christians were willing to serve in the army in the early church, came to be replaced by an idolatrous obedience such that most Christians in Nazi Germany felt obligated to fight for Hitler citing texts like Roman Thirteen. If Christian teachings seem to tell you to fight for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you wouldn’t obey your governmental leaders. Thus we can see it is not an accident that Christians have fought on almost every side of every war since the early church making a total mockery of the whole concept of the body of Christ. This is why, after World War II, more and more Christians began to realize that we cannot, in the name of obedience to governmental authorities, sacrifice our faith, values, and consciences. We cannot claim to be following in the way of Jesus and be in a simple obedience relationship with Caesar.
But friends, the implications of what we face for our faith go far deeper than simply whether we adhere to, or reject, certain claims the government makes on us. Partly as a result of Christian thought many of us have come to see democracy as the best way to promote God’s commonwealth and protect human rights. Yet we are now in a time, when like the periods leading up to World War I and World War II, where we are witnessing an increasing pessimism about the collective capacity of human being to govern ourselves and work together for the common good. Certainly, there is much evidence of our collective failures, but the despair and cynicism that is sweeping the globe, that promotes distrust of public institutions and leadership, and that is leading people to put their trust in strong men, is not only not going to lead us to a place of greater justice, equality, and compassion, but is instead leading to disaster.
So the challenges facing us today go far beyond the vision of protest movements that focus on how to resist unjust governmental actions, to the question of how, in the midst of this time, we can act to overcome the kind of despair and cynicism about the human capacity to work for the common good, which is fundamentally undermining our ability to respond to the challenges and evils we need to confront.
One of the revolutionary aspects of the early Jesus movement was it’s affirmation of human dignity and it’s belief in the capacity for human beings to be ambassadors for God, agents of God’s commonwealth, here on earth. How do we, in our time, be those ambassadors to help people remember their divine nature, their divine inheritance? This is something I think we really need to be wrestling with and I believe that if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.
“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
Today’s Scripture Readings:
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;
but heard a cry!
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.
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.
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.
…. 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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,
We have been sick with sour longings and the jangling of
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
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 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
You are not my blood anymore.
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.
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.
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 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.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
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.
I am alive and you are so afraid
“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