“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.)

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“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)

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In our gospel today we hear: “(Jesus) said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 23:37-40)

That sounds clear, simple, and comprehensive, at least as long as we understand that we need to love ourselves if loving our neighbors as ourselves is going to mean anything. And yet so often we don’t love God with all our heart, mind and strength, so often we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, so often we don’t love ourselves.

Last week we delved into the issue of authority and how we need to exercise our authority in terms of things like discerning what claims the government or other authorities are making on us and whether they are legitimate or not. How we collectively love our neighbors in this community, the state, our nation, our world, has so much to do with whether or not we are exercising our authority in terms of being clear about how we want others to be treated.

And I want to suggest today that this issue of authority, whether or not we have it, whether or not we exercise it, is at the heart of the Jesus’ revolution. That is in Jesus, in the Jesus’ story, in Jesus’ teachings, people in general, but especially poor people, marginalized people, slaves and women, discovered their inherent human dignity and this awareness of their fundamental dignity led them to treat themselves and other differently and to expect that others should treat them differently. On the basis of discovering themselves to be children of God, every bit as divine as the Roman emperor himself, they then began to critique the world and its cultures and its social systems and social practices in terms of what honored people’s basic dignity and what did not.

That poor people’s movement, that movement of the marginalized, the demeaned and the discounted, shook the world and it continues to shake the world wherever people hear the good news. But it’s also a testimony to the degree to which we haven’t really heard, haven’t really understood the good news that so many of us have such a hard time exercising our God given authority, that is that authority that comes to us not because of any social position we hold, or particular background or training we have, but simply by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. This difficulty we have exercising our authority has dramatic implications for the degree to which we love God, love others and love ourselves.

You will not be able to love yourself if you do not exercise your authority in relationship to things like all those nasty voices that live inside of you that tell say you are nothing and no good. You will not be able to love yourself if you do not exercise your authority vis an vis all those different feelings that one minute are telling you to do or think one thing and the next minute another. You will not be able to love your neighbor unless you are able to exercise authority over that part of you that’s been trained to see yourself as better or worse then them. You will not be able to love your neighbor if you are not able to exercise your authority in relationship to all the contradictory feelings you have about them. Our lesson in Leviticus today says if are neighbor is doing harm and we don’t reprove them the guilt is on us this means getting ourselves to a place where we really can see them clearly.

Further, we are subject to all kinds of external authorities. For these authorities to function well we also need to exercise our authority. How often do the those we look to for judgment fail us because they were unable or unwilling to listen to us: the doctor or therapist or preacher whose got a preconceived idea of what’s wrong with us or won’t listen to us when we insist our symptoms don’t fit their diagnosis, the teacher whose reached some judgment about us or our child that is totally off, a judge who won’t or can’t listen to our testimony about ourselves or someone we know and who is therefore off in their judgments. Other times those failures happen because we have failed to really insist that we be heard.

Being a patient in a hospital these days is a great example of this. Our hospitals are filled with experts, people who have so much knowledge in so many areas, but if you aren’t vigilant, if you or others don’t speak up for you, so many many things can go so terribly wrong. I’ve found this to be so true that I strongly recommend anyone going into the hospital have some kind of advocate with them to speak up when they are not being heard or when people are telling them contradictory things. Though a little less true, I would also say that’s also been my experience of the school system. It doesn’t work well unless you have someone whose helping to advocate for a child.

In neither case do I want to malign the people who work in these institutions. I just think no system can address all the complexities that come with dealing with the human body, or the human mind, much less a whole person. Then on top of that, when you add the fact that these systems have so many different working parts, that often aren’t communicating with each other, it’s easy for vital information to be missed or overlooked unless someone is there to call attention to it. In many ways, everything depends on us exercising our authority in terms of our being able to reflect on our own experience and learn whatever truths it reveals to us and then act and speak on the basis of those truths.

Now, obviously this can become an excuse for the craziness of arrogance. One of my good friends has been a plumber for many years here in Ann Arbor. He continually encounters people who think that because they have more degrees then he has they know more about plumbing then he does. They don’t. Claiming our God-given authority doesn’t mean going around claiming we know more than everyone else, or more than we actually know, which is tempting in a world of experts. Frequently it means discerning who knows more than you about one area or another and going to them for help or judgment. I am utterly thrilled when I encounter someone who really knows something about something because there are so many areas where I know almost nothing: like what’s wrong with a car, or why my computer does or doesn’t do something, or even how to make my TV remote control work. But I’ve also learned that even with people I love and trust, sometimes they are missing some bit of information, or some insight, I have which is important if they are going to be able to help me.

If loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves depends on our exercising our authority, the question I want to pose for you today is what keeps you from exercising or claiming your authority. In what situation do you find it easy to claim and exercise your authority? It what situations does it seem difficult or impossible? What’s the difference between those contexts that makes it easy in one and difficult in the other. You might think of how you feel, for example, at work, or raising your kids, or being a patient in the hospital, or dealing with someone helping you with your computer.

I’d like you to divide into groups of three and then share for a few minutes each when, where, and why it’s harder or easier for you to exercise your authority and then let’s come back together and see what we’ve learned.

“The Government and Us” – 10/22/17 Reflections by Rev. Joe Summers at ECI

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“The Government and Us” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 22nd, 2017.  (Readings for 24A: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22)

Exodus 33:12-23
33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’
33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
33:14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
33:15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.
33:16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
33:17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
33:18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
33:19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
33:20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
33:21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;
33:22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;
33:23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
96:1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
96:2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
96:3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
96:4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
96:6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
96:7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
96:8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
96:9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
96:10 Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”
96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
96:12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
96:13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly
1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,
1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,
1:7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,
1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Matthew 22:15-22
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 

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I want to begin by saying a quick word about our lesson from Exodus today.  The Hebrew scriptures are composed of the writings of many different traditions. One of the earliest is what’s called the Yahwist tradition and it’s often been presented as a primitive tradition because God is often portrayed in very human terms.  But I want to suggest that, just as scholars were so often wrong when they told us indigenous peoples really thought different aspects of creation, the sun, the moon, different animals were Gods, rather than different expressions or reflections of God, so too, I think they are wrong to think that just because people used human terms to talk about God that they really thought of God as a kind of human being.   The period of the Yahwist movement, much like the period of the Jesus movement or the Irish renaissance, was a period marked by an incredible breakthrough in terms of the vision and understanding of God. It marked a period in which people had a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of God and spirituality than most of us have today. So rather then thinking that people then were stupider, or more superstitious, or  living in a completely different world than we are, I’d encourage you to be open to the possibility that when they tell stories about the divine in very personal/human terms, like a God who walks in a garden in the cool of the day, I’d encourage you to hear it  not literally, but rather as a metaphorical way of speaking about their experience of the divine and what it has taught them.

 

In terms of the Divine approaching us in a very human way, last week I talked about humor as one way the divine talks to us, so I don’t want you to miss the humor in our lesson from Exodus today.  Today we hear that the great leader Moses is apparently not satisfied with God’s presence and the renewal it brings, so he asks to see God’s glory.  God response is as follows:

 

You stand on this rock. I will make all my goodness pass before you, but I will also cover your eyes for you cannot see my face, for no one can see my face and live. After I have passed by you can look and — you can see my back-side.

 

If this is based on a Yawhist story I’m sure the original used a less polite word for the word  “back-side.”

 

I love that.  Here we are created in the image of God, created little less than angels, and yet in case we’re getting too full of our selves, in case, we’re beginning to confuse ourselves with God, the Yahwist says we are only able to handle the equivalent of the back-side of God’s glory.  And yet they also say that even if we are only able to handle the back-side of God’s glory, even that experience of the divine presence leaves us –like the trees of the forest–shouting with joy.

 

Now I think we need to draw on the divine presence and the rest and renewal it give us if we are going to be able to address the questions raised by our gospel today about our relationship to the government, which in our gospel today is represented by the image of Caesar.

 

Jesus’ enemies are hoping to catch him in a trap by either having him declare his opposition to paying taxes to Caesar, in which case he can be arrested and killed, or have him call for paying taxes to Caesar, in which case the crowds will turn against him.  That’s why his enemies come to him praising him as a “sincere” truth teller who “does not show partiality towards people.” ie. whose not afraid of Caesar or the crowds.

 

Jesus gets out of this trap by asking them to: “show me the coin used for the taxes.” When they do–he asks “”Who head is this, and whose title” to which they have to answer the emperor’s.   Now two things about this that all of Jesus’ listens would have understood.  First, one of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”  This is why Jewish coins didn’t have images of humans on them for that was considered idolatrous–turning a human being into a God.  Secondly, not only did Roman money have the image of Caesar on them, but they were inscribed with the words “Augustus Caesar Son of God.”  In other words, they proclaim Caesar to be a God at a time the worship of idols was understood by the Jewish people to be incompatible with the worship of God.

 

Having revealed Caesar’s idolatrous claims Jesus then says they should “give to Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is due to God.”  Since, in the Hebrew understanding, “all the earth and all that therein is” is God’s, it means that Cesar has no claims on us, except in so far as they are part of what we owe to the Lord, which clearly does not include honoring Caesar’s idolatrous claim to being a God.

 

Jesus suggests it’s not a matter of whether it is lawful or not to pay taxes to Cesar, but a much more complicated question of which of Caesar’s claims are legitimate.  All that seems very straight forward, and yet, through so much of Christian history these questions have been ignored and instead Christians have acted as if they should obey their governmental leaders.  In the process, at the behest of those leaders, Christians have been involved in every kind of evil you can imagine: murder, theft, rape, exploitation, oppression, the desecration of people and the environment.

 

As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, we are willingly do all kinds of evil in the name of obedience to our government that we would never consider doing as individuals.  Evil happens when we disconnect from our hearts and minds and feelings and consciousness and much of the great evil we see happens in our world happens when we disconnect from them in the name of obedience to governmental leaders.  We also know from Stanly Milgram’s experiments that most of us feel such a compulsion to obey authority figures that we are willing to harm others even if we don’t want to, even if we believe it is wrong, if we are ordered to do it by authority figures.

 

How did Christians get to this place?  I have more questions than answers.  Part of it comes from obedience to Biblical texts like the text we find in Romans chapter thirteen.  I want you to listen to it as if you are a Christian living in Nazi Germany, whose been ordered to go into the army to invade other countries, or into the police force to persecute political dissidents, Jews, gay, and handicapped people.

 

 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;  for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)

 

Now at the time Paul wrote those words Nero had apparently recently become the new Roman emperor.  Maybe there was still hope he would turn out to be a decent ruler, we now know he turned out to become one of the most monstrous of the Roman emperors.

 

Let’s also be clear, despite how clear and simple the text sounds, it’s very unclear what Paul is saying.   This is the same Paul who in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25 reports that “five times I have received …. the forty lashes less one.  Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.”   I don’t know what justice system stoned Paul, but one suspects that the forty lases given by Jewish authorities and the being beaten with rods, which was one of the punishments Roman authorities meted out, didn’t happen because Paul was being obedient to the authorities.   Rather one suspects that Paul responded to the authorities the way Peter and the Apostles did when they were ordered to stop preaching about how the authorities killed Jesus and they responded  by saying “We must obey God rather than men. ” (Act 5:29)

 

How do we get from Jesus’ teaching that obedience to God comes before obedience to authorities to this apparent call to be “to be subject to the authorities,” or is the call to be subject to the authorities not, as so many came to believe, the same thing as obeying them?  I don’t know, again I have more questions then answers.

 

What I do know is that though, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that those who treat the written word like the law are forfeiting salvation, Christians so often do treat the Bible in an idolatrous kind of way such that texts like this, that I suspect for Paul were nothing more than a call to avoid unnecessary trouble with the authorities, have been turned into texts of terror that can turn the Christian faith into something that is monstrous.

 

Christianity is the only world religion whose founders, including Jesus, Peter, Paul and many of the apostles, were executed by the state.  This is not an accident.  We also know that somehow, somewhere, along the line, that their holy disobedience that meant, for example, that no Christians were willing to serve in the army in the early church, came to be replaced by an idolatrous obedience such that most Christians in Nazi Germany felt obligated to fight for Hitler citing texts like Roman  Thirteen.   If Christian teachings seem to tell you to fight for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis,  it’s hard to imagine a situation where you wouldn’t obey your governmental leaders.  Thus we can see it is not an accident that Christians have fought on almost every side of every war since the early church making a total mockery of the whole concept of the body of Christ.  This is why, after World War II, more and more Christians began to realize that we cannot, in the name of obedience to governmental authorities, sacrifice our faith, values, and consciences. We cannot claim to be following in the way of Jesus and be in a simple obedience relationship with Caesar.

 

But friends, the implications of what we face for our faith go far deeper than simply whether we adhere to, or reject, certain claims the government makes on us.  Partly as a result of Christian thought many of us have come to see democracy as the best way to promote God’s commonwealth and protect human rights.   Yet we are now in a time, when like the periods leading up to World War I and  World War II, where we are witnessing an increasing pessimism about the collective capacity of human being to govern ourselves and work together for the common good.  Certainly, there is much evidence of our collective failures, but the despair and cynicism that is sweeping the globe, that promotes distrust of public institutions and leadership, and that is leading people to put their trust in strong men, is not only not going to lead us to a place of greater justice, equality, and compassion, but is instead leading to disaster.

 

So the challenges facing us today go far beyond the vision of protest movements that focus on how to resist unjust governmental actions, to the question of how, in the midst of this time, we can act to overcome the kind of despair and cynicism about the human capacity to work for the common good, which is fundamentally undermining our ability to respond to the challenges and evils we need to confront.

 

One of the revolutionary aspects of the early Jesus movement was it’s affirmation of human dignity and it’s belief in the capacity for human beings to be ambassadors for God, agents of God’s commonwealth, here on earth.  How do we, in our time, be those ambassadors to help people remember their divine nature, their divine inheritance?  This is something I think we really need to be wrestling with and I believe that if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Today’s Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 5:1-7

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

My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.

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

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

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

nd now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,

judge between me
and my vineyard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;

righteousness,
but heard a cry!

The Response

Psalm 80:7-14

Qui regis Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Epistle

Philippians 3:4b-14

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

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

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

The Gospel

Matthew 21:33-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

============================================================================

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no “I” or “you.”

There was us; there was “we.”

There we were as if we were the music.

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

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

This is about getting to know each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You 
are 
not
 my 
blood
 anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 my
heart
my
heart
 my
heart.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Blessing of Animals… Extending the Conversation

 

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

Extending the conversation…..

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

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

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

Grace and peace,

Jill

Being Community (a blog post from Jill Mills)

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately.

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

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

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

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

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

The Online Community: Authentic, Real, Needing Ministers

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Grace and peace,

jill

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Jesus and the Sword: The Paradox of Conflict and Forgiveness” Reflections by Rev. Joe Summers

“Jesus and the Sword: The Paradox of Conflict and Forgiveness.”  Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on September 17, 2017.  (Readings for 19A:  Genesis 50:15-21,  Psalm 103:1-13,  Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35).

 

I want to talk today about Jesus and the Sword.  The sword I am speaking of is a metaphor for a kind of spiritual power, but I asked Oliver Barson to bring one of his swords so that as I talk you can remember that the power I’m talking about is not something nice, but something that has the power to help or cause enormous harm. It’s something meant to help us free ourselves from that which would hold us in bondage, but it is so often used to dehumanize us and cut us off from our bodies and feelings and each other.

 

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel we hear: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36) (1.)

 

Then in Matthew’s gospel today we hear:  “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:21)

 

In the first we hear that the peace Jesus brings will only come through struggle and conflict.  In the second, we hear this call to forgive.  How do we reconcile these texts? How does forgiveness relate to struggle and conflict?

 

Last week I was struck by Paul’s clear and simple message in Romans:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.  (Romans 13:8)

 

Loving your neighbor as yourself.  That sounds so right and obvious until we remember how Jesus defined who our neighbor is: the one who is in need, the least of these, the one who is a stranger, a foreigner, someone from another faith or even a heretic, someone whose ideas or ways of living we totally disagree with. Ouch!

 

The First Letter of John brings the implications of this home in a powerful way:

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . .  . Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from (Jesus) is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.  (I John 4:11-12, 16, 20)

 

That seems flat-out crazy.  What do you mean I cannot love the invisible God unless I love my visible sisters and brothers?  The invisible God pours love and acceptance into my heart—my sisters and brothers often do the opposite.  The invisible God doesn’t insult me, neglect me, judge me, piss me off—they often do!

But when Jesus talks about loving God, he’s not talking about a sentiment or an idea, he’s talking about reality.  If God is present to us primarily in and through creation, if God is present to us primarily in and through our sisters and brothers, then the degree to which we are loving them is the degree to which we are loving God.

 

Jesus’ first miracle was showing us what it means to live from a place where we know ourselves as Beloved of God. His second miracle, which can’t be separated from the first, is to show us how, if we know and accept that love, it impels us to want to love God back, as God comes to us in need of love, in need of care, in need of nurturance—in the form of our sisters and brothers and through creation.

 

This is why the way of Jesus is a way of community. Community forces us to live in the reality of who we are and where we are instead of in our fantasies.  I suspect that half the people in this country who consider themselves Christian, as following in the way of Jesus, aren’t really part of any church, aren’t really practicing community. It’s a lot easier to fantasize about being a good Christian if you are not having to deal with all the crap living in relationship to people stirs up in us.

 

The community of the disciples seems pretty representative of most communities which are composed of people who sometimes get it together, but other times don’t, who sometimes are shallow and petty and egotistical and sometimes are amazingly heroic, loving, and compassionate.  Perhaps it is not an accident, or a mistake, that community and relationships stir this stuff up in us.  Perhaps it’s because we are being called to learn to deal with this stuff rather than living in denial, or avoiding real intimacy for fear that its vulnerability will make us feel so angry when we, or our loved ones, are hurt or neglected.

 

Last week’s gospel told us how to handle things if a member of our community sins against us.  First go talk to them on your own; if they listen to you, you have regained them. (Regained—that’s how much is at stake in dealing with conflicts over feeling hurt.)  If they don’t listen, take one or two others with you to talk with them.  If

they still refuse to listen, then tell it to the church, your community.  Then we hear: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  (Matthew 18:17)

 

Now we tend to hear this as a call to have nothing more to do with them because that’s what so many churches do in terms of how they relate to people they view as not of their faith or as sinners.  That’s using the sword to cut people off, something many of us are very good at, but that’s not what Matthew is saying.  Instead, Matthew is saying relate to them as one who doesn’t share your faith or your values.  And here we have to remember that Jesus didn’t cut off those who didn’t share his faith or values; he reached out to them, he loved them and he kept loving them, not from any place of denial, but in reality.

 

It’s a striking challenge to those of us who are so quick to draw the sword of judgment when we have felt hurt, neglected, or insulted. So often when that happens we don’t go talk to the person who has hurt us.  Not all hurts require us to speak up—some hurts don’t really bother us.  But if a hurts does bother us, how often do we go talk to the person who has hurt us: one in two times, one in ten, one in twenty, almost never?  This is a huge problem because whether the person agrees with us or not, often simply speaking up is the difference between feeling alienated from them and not.  Often we don’t speak up because the hurt keeps us from seeing how valuable they are to us.  Sometimes it may be because we are afraid they will say something that will make us feel worse.  That sometimes happens.   Sometimes I suspect we fear they might say something to assuage our righteous wrath that we feel so attached to.  Even more rarely do we go to step two and call on one or two others to help mediate or reconcile. If we did, sometimes it might mean we also had to recognize that we also did something that led to the harm that was done.

 

Instead of taking these steps that help to address and limit harm, we so often go right to judgment and cutting people off.  We stop relating. We stop talking. If we do talk, it’s not to the person who has harmed or neglected us.  Instead we share our righteous wrath with others, putting them in the position of absorbing our anger towards a person they can’t deal with because they have not really been invited to.

 

Our inability to deal with our anger about our hurts, neglect, and shame keeps us from being able to sustain marriages, friendships, and community life.  When I see the harm it does to so many people I love it makes me want to cry out with Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole?” (Jeremiah 8:22)  Is there no spiritual power to help us address these wounds? Is all this church stuff just a bunch of talk?

 

This is a despair I feel on a personal level, but it is also a despair I feel on a collective level.  When I look at the history of this country I find it is a story of hope unborn.  We have not been able to create a land with liberty and justice for all, in part because the harmed, the exploited, the neglected have not been able to come to a place where they can trust each other and work together.  Instead, when we look back, again and again we will see that the various groups who have suffered from different kinds of racial or gender discrimination, those who have suffered from different kinds of economic exploitation, those who have suffered from marginalization and cultural domination, have been unable to achieve the kind of unity necessary to transform the structures of domination. Instead, they remain mired in the swamps of resentfulness, fear, and distrust because of all the past harms they have suffered and the narratives they have developed around those harms.   This is part of why the New Poor People’s Campaign seems so essential—because it recognizes this and is trying to take on that challenge.

 

I think there is a balm in Gilead, but only for those who sincerely seek it.  There is a balm in Gilead, but for it to help heal us requires of us a far greater degree of maturity, discernment, and practice then we’ve so far been willing to pursue. This is the kind of maturity the author ofEphesians calls for when he or she writes:

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of (God’s) power.  Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

 

Do you get that?  Our fight is not against people, but against ideas and spirits, feelings and narratives.  We have got to learn how not to confuse our fight with them with a fight with people.  This is what Martin Luther King recognized and part of why he was so effective so it is perhaps helpful to think about him and the Civil Rights movement as you hear what follows.

 

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.   With all these, take the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:10-17) 

 

Here I want to point out something that doesn’t come through in the English translation. According to Walter Wink, the Greek word that is used for sword here refers not to the long sword, which was often used as a defensive weapon, but the kind of short sword that the Roman legions used when they were on the attack. The author is therefore telling us we need to be ready to go on the offensive for the sake of the gospel of peace.

 

I know it may be hard to hear through a military metaphor, but the author is pushing us to have a radically different vision of how we are to engage people who are harming or neglecting others, or have harmed or neglected us, calling us away from the revenge and hatred our anxious grasping hearts want to a higher and more effective form of struggle that recognizes that so often when harm or neglect is happening it is happening because we are disconnected from ourselves or enslaved by forces, feelings, and ideas within us.

 

Here I want to take a moment to talk about the “anxious grasping of the heart” which is what Paul is taking about when he talks about “the flesh.” It’s so important to understand this that I’m going to say it again. When Paul speaks of “the flesh” he is not speaking about our bodies, but what arises from the anxious grasping of our hearts.  I think “the flesh” is a terribly unfortunate phrase, for when Paul lists the desires of the flesh he lists things like idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, envy, and a party spirit (by which he doesn’t mean people who love to party but people who engage in partisan conflicts)—none of which have anything to do with our bodies or bodily desires. (Galatians 5:19-21

 

The anxious grasping of our hearts can transform physical desires into addictions, but the language of “the flesh” often confuses the two.  There is all the difference in the world between the love of food and gluttony—where you are using food to stuff an inner emptiness.  There is all the difference in the world between the beauty and wonder and goodness of sexual desire and the lust which transforms people into objects for us to use and exploit as a way for us to feel better regardless of its impact on them.  There is all the difference in the world between enjoying alcohol and using alcohol to disconnect from our feelings and being intimate with others.

 

These are critical distinctions, yet so often when Christians use the word “flesh” they are not using it the way Paul did; they are instead calling on us to subdue and dominate and control our bodies and feelings or, worse, they are calling on us to use a spiritual sword to cut us off from our bodies, feelings, and physical desires.

 

It’s this latter message I heard when, as a confused seventeen-year-old, I landed in a Catholic Charismatic Evangelical Community.  I was told we were to cut ourselves off from our physical desires, particularly sexual desires.  I attempted to do this and the results were disastrous.   Our bodies are the doorways to our souls. They are the means through which we experience the giving and receiving of love.  When I cut myself off from my body I experienced myself cut off from the physical world, resulting in this incredible sense of inner emptiness, desolation, and anguish. I suspect it is where all who try to subdue the body end up.  In the end, the attempt to dominate and control our bodies and feelings is usually a form of idolatry, the attempt to transform the divine, which is living and fluid and mysterious into something that can be possessed and controlled and that like all idolatry leads to spiritual death.

 

Jesus does not call us to do battle with our bodies, but instead with the anxious grasping of our hearts that would keep us from being open and loving, compassionate and ready to take risks. The whole call to take up your cross is not about subduing our bodies and their desires, or viewing them as the enemy, it is instead a call to live the death and resurrection that transform our anxious grasping hearts into the greater heart of being in communion with the heart of God.

 

However, while Jesus calls us to honor our feelings and desires he doesn’t want us to be enslaved by them, and it is here that the sword of the spirit, used very carefully, can be a means of freeing us from bondage.

 

Our gospel today confronts us with the picture of a man enslaved

by the anxious grasping of his heart.  This man has been given his life back though having his debts forgiven.   But rather than being able to receive and appreciate this gift, he’s still controlled by his desire for gain and by his inability to see and honor the needs of others.  The result is that he ends up being tortured.

 

The Lord in this story is not God because God doesn’t torture anyone.  Instead, the story is a metaphor for the kinds of torments people suffer when they are unable to forgive.  Every day I encounter people who are tormented because they have not learned how to claim and use the power to forgive.  The result is that they walk around with their cups brimming and overflowing with resentfulness, anger, frustration, and fear.  You can hear it in conversations that are unkind and inconsiderate.  When pushed, it comes out like a monster of harsh punitive anger, anger intended to inflict pain.  So many of us are only able to keep our cups from overflowing through drugs (I find so many young men use marijuana as way to disconnect from their anger), alcohol, TV, video games, exercise, meditation, or through avoiding intimacy and connection with others lest it bring that monster to the surface.

 

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how addictive and satisfying we find revenge fantasies.  We feed ourselves with them constantly through books, movies, and TV shows, or replay them in our heads as soon as we’ve felt slighted or hurt.   A good revenge fantasy can give you a serotonin-like release.  But revenge almost never works in reality the way it does in our fantasies.  In our fantasies, when we take righteous revenge on others, they are confronted with the evil they have done in such a way that they cannot deny it and are left to die in that awareness, or to feel forever indebted to us because of our magnanimity.  When or where does that ever happen?  Yet we continually live and act as if that fantasy were something real.

 

I think suicide can be about a kind of revenge fantasy aimed at others or aimed at ourselves.  Again, part of my incredible frustration is that people can come to a point where they can no longer see that it’s a fantasy and that it will not bring any kind of real relief to themselves or others.

 

I also keep hearing about revenge fantasies being played out on campuses in the name of calling people out.  Just this week I talked with a young activist who said she is still recovering from the kind of bullying and shaming she encountered in her college and the kind of disconnection it fostered in her.

 

It seems Jesus’ message about the power and importance of forgiveness seems to go significantly unheard, is not understood, and is largely not practiced, except perhaps in places like Twelve Step communities and in the offices of good therapists.  But Jesus wants to free us from being in any kind of abusive relationship with ourselves or others.   He wants us to learn how not to be possessed and controlled by our fears or anger or any other feeling that would treat us like an object.  He wants everyone to understand that through the Spirit we can find the power to forgive. Our anxious frightened hearts want to punish, usually both ourselves and others, but we have been given the power to let go of that desire to punish.

 

Here I want to come back to the image of the spiritual sword, now not used to attack others or ourselves, but to cut through whatever

chains would enslave us by keeping us bound to unhappiness and replaying the ways we were harmed or neglected over and over and over again.  That’s a chain that needs to be broken, and I believe we can learn how to break it.

 

It’s important to note that when I’m talking about forgiveness I’m not talking about any kind of spiritual or emotional amputation. I’m not talking about forgetting or denying how we’ve been harmed or neglected or shamed.  I’m also not talking about reconciliation— that’s a more complicated process because we can’t be truly reconciled with someone who doesn’t share our values.  I’m talking about forgiveness as a process of death and resurrection that allows us to live no longer enslaved to past harms, no longer continually drinking from the cup of resentfulness, so that we are able to live as free people with clear minds and generous hearts.

 

The miserable unforgiving servant in today’s gospel is an image of us if we don’t learn how to use and exercise the power of forgiveness.  As Madeline Diehl said last week, the heart is a muscle and like any muscle it needs to be exercised for it to function well.  If it is a muscle we need to learn to exercise, it’s worth heeding C.S. Lewis’ advice that if we have not learned how to forgive we probably don’t want to start with Adolf Hitler.  It’s much better to start with smaller things like the righteous wrath we feel toward our kid who inconsiderately borrowed our car without asking us.  We probably want to start with ourselves when we realize that they hadn’t borrowed our car; we had just forgotten that we had parked it down the block for some reason.

 

The whole promise and hope of the gospel is that we can live lives of thanksgiving—that’s what Eucharist means, thanksgiving, that’s the opposite of resentfulness.  But to go from the nightmare of unforgiveness, resentfulness, and the lack of empathy, compassion, and connection that they give rise to, it is up to us to learn to use and claim the power of forgiveness.  For us to grow in our ability to be intimate with others, our ability in Adrienne Rich’s words “to expand the possibility of truth among us, the possibility of life among us,” we have got to learn how to use the power of forgiveness every day—even in those situations where forgiveness doesn’t seem really warranted, as when a loved one dies, or something bad happens to us that we had no real control over.  Let us learn to forgive, forgive, forgive so that we can live resurrected lives, no longer bound or controlled by the deaths we have suffered, so that we can learn how to live as free people, with good lives and good relationships, and an ability to do battle with the forces that have enslaved so many of us and so much of our world. 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

 

Footnotes

1) It is important to understand that the relationships in which this conflict is breaking forth are the hierarchical obedience relationships that structured the patriarchal household of the

time.  The gospel of freedom cannot be contained within such relationships.

 

2) Jesus taught the way of paradox; that is a way in which you embrace opposite truths.  Today we hear we are called to engage in conflicts to promote the creation of good relationships.

We also hear we are called to do this from a place of love and forgiveness.  Neither works without the other.