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“A Holy Ghost Building;” Reflections on the Life of Claude Johnson 11/18/17

“A Holy Ghost Building;” Reflections on the Life of Claude Johnson given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 18, 2017.  (Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:4-9, Matthew 5:1-12)
“This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” 
To begin our remembrances of Claude Johnson today I’ve asked Sam Clark to sing “I’m working on a building,” as this week I found it speaking to me of Claude.
I’m Working on A Building
I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, for my Lord
I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, yeah for my Lord
            If I was a liar I tell you what I’d do
            I would quit my lying and work on that building too
Working on a building, it’s a Holy Ghost building
For my Lord, yeah for my Lord
            If I was a singer I tell you what I’d do
            I would keep on singing and work on that building too
For my Lord, for my Lord
Claude Johnson was a builder.  You can look around this chapel and see some of the many things Claude built.  One Christmas Elginne had to wrap 80 different wooden Christmas ornaments and toys that Claude had made for children and families in this church and for his extended family.  Like David Byrd’s creations they were always creative and imaginative like these two hands with clearly different skin colors holding each other in prayer, in solidarity, or this clock Claude gave me. You may not be able to read it, but at the bottom it says, “Free at last,” followed by a questions mark.  The chains remind you of the broken chains of slavery.  The train engine reminds you of the Underground Railroad, but also trains as the symbol of progress.  Claude loved his trains. But then the fact that you have to ask the question of whether we’re free at last definitely lets you know we’re clearly not there yet.   There’s the cross Claude made when we had services in different places so it needed to be easy to pack up.  You can see “Incarnation” carved in the wood.  I don’t know how he did that.  These beautiful candlesticks.  Keep an eye out for others things around the chapel and the social hall to get a sense of just how creative and industrious Claude was.  And these beautiful creations were only the smallest part of the kind of building Claude did.
Claude was a mechanical engineer. He worked in the aerospace division at Bendix, one of the largest engineering firms in our country, working on airports around the world.   After he retired from Bendix he went to work at the county jail where he kept it running in all sorts of ways and found excuses to reach out to those who were incarcerated. Years later, going around with Claude, several times, we ran into men who told us how grateful they were to Claude for the way he had befriended them while they were in jail.   After he retired from the county jail, Claude went to work for Neighborhood Senior Services, which he said was his favorite job, helping people so they could continue to live in their homes. 
But Claude didn’t just work on building objects and buildings; he also was part of a generation that helped build a culture that emphasized building character.
Claude grew up in Bluefield, West Virginia, during the time of legal segregation.  For Claude this meant living in two worlds at the same time:  the world of the African-American community, which was all about nurturing and the pursuit of excellence and helping people realize their fundamental dignity and worth and learning to live out of that sense of worth, and a broader society  that was trying to demean you, limit you, deny you, because of the color of your skin.
Claude worked at a white country club in Bluefield.  One day, in the midst of a dinner at the club, his girlfriend’s father was shot and killed by a drunk white judge who felt insulted by the way he was served.  Though it was done in front of many witnesses, the judge was never charged with any crime.  But Bluefield was also the place where in addition to his own wonderful family, his parents, his older brother Pete and sister Letitia,  Claude also had an adopted aunt and uncle.  This uncle taught him everything about working on cars—something Claude loved to do the rest of his life.  His adopted aunt ran a small boarding house where the Black musicians who came through Bluefield would stay because they couldn’t stay in the white hotel. His aunt played the piano and after those musicians played at the hotel they would go back to her place and play late into the night, and so Claude got to hear and meet people like Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and some of the other greatest singers, musicians, and composers of our time, or any time.
These two powerful and contradictory currents—growing up in world of violent and humiliating oppression and yet also being nurtured by a community that encouraged you to become the best self you could be, a kind of Holy Ghost building—shaped Claude and his generation.
When you devote yourself to an idea, it ceases to be just an idea. It becomes a value.   Generational historians call Claude’s generation the committed generation, for it was this generation whose commitment saw us through the dismantling of legal segregation.  But to me Claude also clearly embodied the values of the generation before him: the G.I. (general infantry) generation, the generation whose core value was duty, doing your duty. That generation became known as a generation willing to be anonymous, to put their own interests aside for the sake of the common good.   It was the generation that not only defeated fascism, but which built up everything from vibrant public schools to healthy cities, to the church as we’ve known it over the last one hundred years.  In Claude that commitment to doing your duty and the pursuit of excellence were so clearly interconnected.
I grew up a baby boomer, a generation whose core value was self-expression.  I grew up feeling this focus on doing your duty was a kind of trap, a way of losing yourself in organizations and putting up with boring meetings, a way of getting trapped into being unimaginative or going along with things you shouldn’t go along with, or building institutions just for the sake of building them. Claude taught me differently. In Claude I got to discover the positive side of duty: this ability to show up, in season or out of season, to do whatever needs to be done, regardless of how you’re feeling.    In contrast, my generation’s focus on self-expression seems to have left people enslaved to themselves, only able to do what they want to do, unable to do what they don’t want to do, and our society has paid a terrible price for this in terms of the decline of our cities and public schools and the retreat into private spaces of happiness at the expense of the public square and the public good.
In contrast, through Claude I got to see how a sense of duty can become a means of transcending who you are, not leaving behind what you want, but not being tyrannized by your more immediate needs or desires.  Claude always had a list of what he was needing to do—generally what he was needing to do for others, and he simply walked through his life doing them.
I remember coming to the church one night and discovering that our old furnace room was filled with about eight inches of water. It was clear our furnace would soon be under water and break if we didn’t do something quickly.  It was about nine p.m. when I called
Claude and explained what was happening.  He immediately came out and was able to get the sump pump working again with no fuss, no drama, no saying this is past my bedtime and I need to get up early in the morning for work. I also appreciated the fact that working in the dark with rising water amidst electrical outlets—he also kept us from getting electrocuted. 
In terms of this church, Claude showed up again and again and again to do whatever needed to be done: to maintain this building or fix something, to keep the church’s financial records, to help individuals in the congregation in whatever way they were needing help.
It was also while going around doing this work with him that I got to experience how the legacy of segregation still lives in our community.  I got to see the kinds of humiliations and injustices Claude was subjected to as we went to purchase some kind of building supplies and clerks would want to talk to me, who knows nothing about anything building related, rather then Claude, who had approached them in the first place and knew everything about everything.  I also saw how the police would pull Claude over while I almost never got pulled over, even though he was so clearly driving a better car and was a more careful driver and was more respectable than I am in every way.  If you didn’t have a sense of higher purpose in your life these kinds of indignities could just poison you and make you into a hateful person. When you have a higher purpose, it might still make you angry, but that anger becomes seeds of fire that leave you ready to do whatever you can to change things when you have the opportunity to do so.
Now it’s important to say that this sense of duty was not some kind of selfless thing. Claude’s sense of duty was not just about others; part of his sense of duty was about honoring his own dignity and worth and that of his family and loved ones.  So, for example, Claude found a way to break through the color line, the housing segregation that existed in Ann Arbor through the early 1960’s, keeping Black people living in two small sections of the city. Because no realtor would sell him any property outside that area, Claude paid a builder to buy a piece of land, build a house, and then sell it to him.  Thus the house on Independence that Elginne still lives in is a living testimony to the dismantling of segregation here in Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, moving into that area was only part of the challenges of segregation as Claude’s children, particularly Terri, would pay a high price as she strove to protect Susan and Tamara from the ugliness and bullying they encountered for being people of color living in that area.
Claude’s sense of duty and commitment to excellence was also embodied in his commitment to being a good man, a gentle man, and a good father.   Sometimes his expectations may have gotten a little out of hand as when he returned from Korea telling Elginne about how women in Korea could give birth in the morning and be back working in the fields that afternoon, but Elginne straightened him out.  🙂  
 Claude and Elginne raised their children in the 1960’s, a time when our consumerist culture was encouraging men to go and make as much money as possible as the key to happiness.  Claude didn’t buy into that foolishness.  Other than the period when in addition to working at Bendix he worked at a gas station to save up money for the house on Independence, Claude in general never worked overtime.  He was always home by 5:30 p.m. to be with Elginne and his kids.  The ethic of self-love and self-care and commitment to excellence that grew up and was nurtured as resistance to Jim Crow is so reflected in Terry and Tamera and Susan and their children.
It was Claude and Elginne’s commitment to others, to gospel values that brought them to this congregation.  Elginne read in The Ann Arbor News about all the trouble the church and the community were giving the Rev. Jim Lewis for trying to open up the church to the hungry and the homeless and speaking up for different oppressed groups, so when she heard he had come to his new congregation, she and Claude came here.  On a photo board in the social hall you can see pictures of them at age 53 participating in the “Society and Prisons” Lenten program that launched our work with the criminal justice system. 
Over the years Claude and Elginne became among the key pillars of this church, not just doing what needed to be done, but opening their lives and hearts to so many of us and taking us in not only as friends but as family.  Claude and Elginne’s love and affection has been one of the most life-sustaining and life-enhancing aspects of my life over my thirty years here at Incarnation. Elginne has always kept me grounded in love and humor, affectionately calling me “the boy” or “my boy”—sometimes, I suspect, depending on how I was behaving.  When my daughter Kate called Claude to say a final goodbye and was saying how much it meant to her to have Claude as a beloved grandfather—Claude’s responded, “Yes. Isn’t that a surprising and wonderful thing.” That meant the world to her.  There are so many here that have been adopted into this amazing family.
“There is a river that makes glad the city of God.  God is in the midst of her and she will not be overthrown.”  Through Claude and Elginne so many of us have come to know the glad river.  In the midst of a sick and corrupting culture, they built on the rock of such gospel values as honesty and truthfulness, concern for others and excellence, humility and hard work, grace and humor—rather than the shifting sands of materialism, or get-aheadism, or egotism. They have left us with that legacy Paul speaks of in Philippians as the kind of excellence and beauty that can keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love and peace of Christ. I’m not exaggerating—this is true.
We had a member of the congregation, John Norton, who suffered from schizophrenia yet found many ways to reach out to others and contribute to the broader world, including writing poetry. One of his poems was called “The Be—Attitudes”. It was a call to become the blessed held up in the beatitudes:
            *Be one of the humble and poor in spirit so you can help build the inclusive reign of heaven here on earth.
            *Be one of those who mourn so you can comfort others.
            *Be one of those who hunger and thirst for justice so you can become an ambassador for justice.
            *Be one of the merciful so that others can know the power of compassion.
            *Be one of the pure in heart so you can see God, even here, even now, in this world.
            *Be a peacemaker so that you can help others know peace as their divine heritage.          
            *Be one of the persecuted—knowing that persecution is the price we pay for real change.
Claude lived these be-attitudes.  Through him we have been blessed to know what it means to live as a child of the Most High. And if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

The Sacrament of Advent – Dec. 3 2017 Reflections

“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 – Nov. 12, 2017 Reflections

“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.

The Kin-Dom of Sheepy Goats – Reflections by the Rev. Jill A. Mills, November 26, 2017

Lectionary for Christ the King Sunday, Year A:
Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46
Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’
Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

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!

And yet….

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 ” – Nov 5 2017, The Rev. Joe Summers

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.

Easter Proclaims:

            *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” Oct 29 2017 reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers

“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)

Video part 1  part 2

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.

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

The Blessing of Animals… Extending the Conversation


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

Extending the conversation…..

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

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

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

Grace and peace,


Being Community (a blog post from Jill Mills)

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

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

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

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

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

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

The Online Community: Authentic, Real, Needing Ministers

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Grace and peace,



2017 Ash Wednesday Service: In the Eyes of Others

Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers on March 1st, 2017, at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Ash Wednesday Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, & 16-21)

Last Sunday I talked about what it means to view things through heavenly eyes. Tonight we have a related, but almost opposite message. In our gospel today we hear:"when you pray - don't do it so you can be seen as holy by others," from the 2017 Ash Wednesday Service by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

We are then given three examples of what this means:

  • When you give to the poor don’t do it in for the sake of being praised by others, instead don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing;
  • when you fast, don’t let others see that you are fasting;
  • when you pray – don’t do it so you can be seen as holy by others -rather, go into an inner room in your house where no one can see you and pray to God in secret, and the one who sees in secret will reward you.

Now first, let’s be clear, like almost everything in our scriptures these texts are ripe for misunderstanding and abuse. We can turn this text into the grounds a reward and punishment kind of religion, as if faith is basically about earning points with God so we’ll be rewarded later. Nothing could be farther from what these texts are about.

If you are into being scrupulous and read these texts through that lens, they will confirm everything you fear about the nature of the universe. You could hear them as calling for us not to be self-centered in any way. But that’s not what they actually say.

Other than to warn us not to turn our Lenten practices into a way of acting or thinking ourselves superior to others, what are these texts about?

I think they are telling us that one of the biggest temptations we face, one of the things most inimical to God-life, is our desire to be pleasing in the sight of others.

They tell us bluntly that we can get lost in our desire for the approval of others, and that letting this desire control us will bring us into direct conflict with Heaven’s agenda.

It’s a striking focus. There seem so many good things to warn us about on this the first day of Lent, but for Matthew right at the top of the list is this warning not to let our faith be corrupted by making it into an attempt to look good in the eyes of others.

Matthew's gospel is like one long raging howl against hypocrisy, from the 2017 Ash Wednesday Sermon by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann ArborTo understand why this is such a serious issue for Matthew you have to understand that Matthew’s gospel is like one long raging howl against hypocrisy, about those who profess or pretend to be one thing, as a way of deluding themselves or others from seeing what they in fact are.

Matthew’s Jesus struggles not with non-believers, but with believers who have transformed faith from being a source of light into being a source of darkness, from faith being about the work of justice to being about supporting and maintaining injustice, from faith being a source of healing and health into a source of illness and corruption.

While criticizing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Matthew’s real target is those Christians who go around doing exactly the same thing: who love to look and sound pious, but who have forgotten the crucified God who lives in the isolated, the suffering, and the afflicted and whose life can only be known by living in solidarity with them.

I think if Matthew saw what passes for Christianity in so much of this country, we’d barely be able to stand his wrath. I suspect it would make the anger of Malcom X appear nice.

For Matthew, hypocrisy is what keeps those who are looking for salvation from finding it, because there are all these spiritually blind guides leading them further into the darkness. And, as Jesus says, when you have a blind guide you both up end up in the pit.

Practiced enough, hypocrisy – with its emphasis on hiding, being dishonest, and lying to others – leads us to become totally lost, no longer able to know who we are or where we are, unable to know whether we are full or empty, smart or stupid, helpful or harmful.

Those who follow the way of hypocrisy often end up with the kind of arrogance that leads others to see them as strong leaders, but they are nothing but a bunch of hot air, a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Practiced enough, hypocrisy - with its emphasis on hiding, being dishonest, and lying to others - leads us to become totally lost, from the 2017 Ash Wednesday Sermon by Rev. Joseph Summers at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann ArborAnd our gospel today says that hypocrisy begins with something so simple and basic, so common among us, that it seems woven into our makeup – our desire to be pleasing in the sight of others. But Matthew warns us if you want your faith to be saving and not damning, if you want it to be healing and not corrupting, you must do everything you can to keep your faith from being about living from the outside in by attempting to look good in the eyes of others.

  • You aren’t really giving to others if it’s all about getting paid back by being seen as superior in the eyes of someone else. No – give without reward so you can experience what it really means to give.
  • It’s not really fasting, not really a sacrifice, if all day long you’re making a public demonstration of your pain. You are just feeding your ego. Fasting and sacrifice aren’t about being paid to give. They’re about giving at a cost.
  • It’s not really prayer if you’re praying to appear pious in the sight of others. That’s just another way of claiming your place of superiority in the social order. No, prayer is about coming to know the mysterious God who the social hierarchy does not know, the God who lives in secret and who seeks to undo that very order.

While our anxious hearts think we need to be above others, this God creates the grounds for equality and social solidarity, the reign of true kindness, empathy and compassion, by letting us know that we are loved for who we are, including all those parts we want to hide both from ourselves and from others.

Most of us don’t come to know, experience, and believe in that kind of love until we’ve unhooked ourselves from our need for approval from others. This is the God for whom true faith is about living the new creation, turning the world upside down, overthrowing the reign of fear and shame and proclaiming the reign of redemptive love.

It’s going to be terribly difficult for you to be part of this revolution as long as you’re terrified about upsetting others, as long as you’re shamed when others look down on you, as long as you can’t claim you own experience, feel your own feelings, think your own thoughts — because you’re too concerned about fitting in and being accepted.

Lent calls us to a kind of social death. Putting on these ashes represents letting go of the illusion that we are superior to anyone else. Putting on these ashes is about letting go of roles and expectations so that we can open ourselves to the reality of what is, and who we are. Only in this realness we can discover how the brilliant life of God-in-us can live and reign in us here and now. Only here can we come to know the resurrected life that we hear Paul singing of as, even in the midst of all the adversity he is encountering, he proclaims:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
We are treated as unknown, and yet we are well known;
We are treated as if we were dying, but behold we live;
We are treated as if we were sorrowful, yet we are always rejoicing;
We are treated as if we are poor, yet we make many rich;
We are treated as if we have nothing, and yet we possess everything.

Or, as another translation concludes this verse – “Penniless we own the world.”

So often, the greatest harm we do to ourselves and to others is rooted in our fear that other people will see who we are, or some aspect of our lives. This Lent, may we turn away from that fear and our need to look good in the sight of others and turn towards the One who sees us in secret, who knows who we are in our totality, not just our public faces, so that we can discover what it is to live with integrity.

May we too discover the power to live that fast that Isaiah proclaims and the heavenly life it makes possible, so that our “light might break forth like the dawn, and healing spring up quickly”; and we might experience our vindicator going before us and behind us. So that, when we call for help, we might hear God answer: “Here I am.” So that our “bones might become strong” and we “become like a watered garden, or like a spring whose waters never fail.”  So that we might “rebuild the ancient ruins” and “raise up the foundations of many generations”; and become known as “the repairers of the breach,  the restorers of streets to live in.”

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


**Images courtesy of Vinoth Chandar, Johnathan Rolande, and Matteo Bonera via Flickr.