“The Revelation of the Human One” – Worship Service December 31st, 2017

A sermon by the Rev. Joe Summers of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, an LGBT-affirming church in Ann Arbor, MI.

“The Revelation of the Human One” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers on December 31st, 2017 at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. (Readings for the first Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7, John 1:1-18)

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As part of continuing to try to unpack the meaning of Christmas, I want to make a few comments about each of our scriptures today.

First, in Isaiah today we hear the prophet cry out over the people of Israel—“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”

For Isaiah, Jerusalem is the symbol of the people of Israel.  For me it is a symbol of the state of humanity as it embodies everything from our painful collective history of domination, exploitation, warfare, and exclusion to the beauty of our art, architecture, music, literature and peoples.  So today, on the verge of this new year, I want to say:  “For Humanity’s sake I will not keep silent  until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”  This Christmas may we know the gift of the love of humanity.

Secondly, understanding Jerusalem as a symbol of humanity, its tragedy but also its glory, its continued love affair with domination, but also its yearning for peace, then allows me to hear our psalm as the early church heard it, as a promise—not to one particular ethnic group—but to all people—the promise of the One who gathers the exiles, heals the broken hearted, rebuilds what has been destroyed, lifts up the lowly and cast down the wicked, provides food for the hungry and who intends to establish the reign of peace on earth.  This Christmas may we know the gift of the God who cares and works for the well-being of all.

Third, we have this very simple but powerful revelation in Galatians today, a revelation that is still resisted to the point that we don’t even hear it.  Paul says we are no longer to live as slaves, but rather claim our freedom as children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom.  After this passage, he goes on to say that if we continue to act like slaves, by putting ourselves under the law, making written words rule over us, we are forfeiting the freedom which is at the heart of our salvation.  In other words, interior freedom is inextricably linked to salvation. When have we heard that message?  Do we take it seriously?  Or are we still tempted to live our lives as if there is a rule book that can tell us how to respond to everything we encounter in life?  This Christmas might we be open to the gift of our freedom and what it means for how we are to live.

Lastly, we have these incredible words from the Gospel of John. For me they are some of the most powerful words in the English language or any language.  On this the first Sunday after Christmas they present us with John’s incredibly moving vision of Christ and Christ –mas.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

We are hearing a re-telling of the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  The difference here is that the heavens and earth are created through the Word and we know that the Word lives in us and the Word lives through us so the accent is not just on creation but on creating.  Creating is at the heart of the life of God and that life lives in us.  May we recognize what a gift that is.

“He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John is telling the beginning of the story of Jesus, not as a child born in Bethlehem but as the Universal Christ, the embodiment of Wisdom who was God’s handmaid and helpmate in the creation of the world.  Again, the implications are staggering to the point of being mostly unheard and rejected.

First, if all thing were created through Christ, then there are no longer any grounds for declaring any people or any thing to be innately evil or impure.

Secondly, it means that God and Christ are present everywhere.  There is no longer an excuse for some people imagining that they are bringing Christ/God to people.  They may help to reveal Christ/God within and among people but you can’t bring them because they are already there.  It also means that if the Spirit gives rise to the world of things, the world of things is not to rule over the Spirit, or over us.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him…But to all who received him…he gave power to become children of God.”

Into the world of domination, a world in which Cesar and kings were known as sons of God, immortals, suddenly we hear this revolutionary message that God seeks for all to know themselves as her or his children.

“And the Word became flesh and lives among us, and we have seen his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” And “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the Only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Incarnation, the Word or Spirit becoming flesh, in human bodies, in human actions that are revelations of grace and truth.  If we can get beyond the gendered language what we hear is a proclamation about the fullness of grace upon grace.  It’s like another big bang of hope and Spirit bringing into existence not just a new humanity but a new universe.

Lastly, I think this whole text calls on us to reflect on the humanity of God.  It’s an idea  that scares many of us because we have so often seen the living God made into an idol based on various debased visions of humanity: God the judge, God the bloody warrior, God the King, God the patriarch.  We absolutely need to be aware of our temptation of making God into our own image.  That’s a truth that we need to hold onto.  But perhaps the opposite truth is that human beings need a human God to show us what it means to be human, what being human is really about.  Maybe until we see God as human we won’t ever be able to reconcile ourselves to our humanity, our bodies, our feelings, our needs and desires; we’ll keep thinking it is all some kind of mistake.

In the first chapter of Ezekiel we hear that in the in the thirtieth year of the exile in Babylon, on the fifth day of the four month, Ezekiel was among the exiles by the river Chebar, when the heaven were opened and he saw visions of God.  Ezekiel goes on to say that at heart of the visions of the heavens, above the firmament over the heads of the angels, “there was a likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form…Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.   And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.  And he said to me, ‘Human One, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you.’ ”  (Ezekiel 1:26-2:1)

It’s a striking prophecy, a vision of God appearing in human form, a vision of a God seeking out the prophet as a Human being.

The only title Jesus claimed for himself was the title “The Human One”* so it’s pretty striking that that while the early church claimed all sorts of titles for Jesus (Messiah, Christ, Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords) it’s the one title the early church seemed to leave behind.

“The Human One” is a mysterious phrase.  We find it in a few places in the Bible including the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.  When Jesus uses it he sometimes seems to be talking about himself, other times he seems to be talking about something larger than himself.  One of the times we hear Jesus uses it is in his trial before the high priest, the chief priests and the elder and the scribes.  Mark reports that towards the end of the trial the high priest asks Jesus “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” and Jesus responds, “I am; and you will see the Human One seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 15:61-62)   Mark reports that on the basis of that statement Jesus is found guilty of blasphemy and deserving of death.

It is perhaps this prophecy that led the early church to mistakenly believe that Jesus was physically going to return to overthrow every power and principality and to bring about the final fulfillment of the reign of God on earth within a generation.  I think it’s to the church’s credit that the scriptures don’t cover up this error. I would also suggest that it’s long past time that we consider whether when Jesus was talking about “The Human One coming in Power with the clouds of heaven”, whether he was talking about his physically coming back to earth, or whether he was presenting a vision of how he would return to redeem the world in and through the new resurrected humanity which he held up in his teachings on the Human One.

The Goods news of God in Christ is in part, God revealed in and through human flesh, not to condemn humanity, but to help us see and experience the grace and glory that can be part of our lives as human beings if we would embrace our humanity and the way of the Human One, the way of the One who, Paul says in his letter to the Philippians—did not count equality with God as some thing to be grasped—but poured himself out in love for others.  As the theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it, on the cross Jesus restored to us the face of the humanity we had forsaken in our attempts to be little gods.

In this world of domination and degradation, John presents us with a lens that can enable us to see how, in the midst of all the suffering and crap (and I do mean crap) that we as human being have to endure—there is the possibility of knowing in and through this life and this world, grace and truth, love and glory and this good news has set the hearts of the poor on fire ever since. Perhaps it is now long past time that we come to claim the gift of our humanity and claim the reign of the Human One in our lives and 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

*Walter Wink’s book The Human Being is about this phrase and how it appears in the scriptures.  The literal translation of the phrase is “the son of the man” and so is often translated “Son of Man.”  Wink and others argue, that the phrase is simply meant to refer to human beings.  Some more recent translations have translated this phrase as “Mortals”, but Wink argues that Jesus teachings about the “The Human One” were in part about what it means to be human.  A shorter discussion of all this can be found in Wink’s short memoir Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human which he wrote at the end of his life as he was facing dementia.

“The House of God” – Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers, December 24th, 2017.

“The House of God” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December 24th, 2017. (Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd Samuel 7:1-11,16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38)

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The King David we hear about in our scriptures today seems sweet, but a little foolish. He tells the prophet Nathan he wants to build a fancier place for the ark of the covenant to be put in.  He’s apparently embarrassed that he’s living in a cedar house, but the ark of God is still in a tent.  One wonders if perhaps subconsciously he wasn’t looking for reason to justify his fancy house, or maybe even build a palace for himself in the future.

Nathan tells him that sounds good, but that night God comes to Nathan and Nathan hears the Lord say: “I’ve never asked you for a house” (which I take to mean it’s not something God’s ever needed). “Instead I will build you a house, a nation where my people will be protected and evil doers will afflict them no more and this kingdom will last forever.”

It’s a striking prophecy.  David’s son Solomon will build the temple God has not asked for and not a temple of wood but a massive stone temple–one of the great wonders of the ancient world.  According to 2nd Samuel Solomon becomes like a new Pharaoh building this temple as part of his attempt to make Israel a glorious empire.  Under Solomon the prophet Samuel’s warnings about what would happen if Israel chose to have a King are all fulfilled.  The people of Israel will lose their freedom and end up serving a King, not God.  Like Pharaoh, Solomon uses slave labor and conscripted labor to build the Temple. Under his reign you see the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor as reflected in the court around Solomon and all the hundreds of wives and concubines he maintained. Those wives and concubines also reflect Solomon’s love of imperial politics as this was a way of forging political alliances in the ancient world.  All that wealth has to come from somewhere and so you know the exploitation of others was increasing greatly.  With Solomon as their model the kings of Israel will lead the Kingdom of Israel to its destruction.  Throughout this whole period, part of why these kings and rulers of Israel ignored all the warnings of the prophets is that they held onto this prophecy that the Kingdom of Israel would last forever.

If Nathan heard this prophecy correctly, it’s a great example of how what we think God is saying, may not be what God is really saying.  To me it’s a credit to the composers of the bible that they leave us with this complex story of a prophecy that seems to promise a kingdom that will last forever while also telling the story of the destruction of that kingdom.   As a nation that’s often thinks of itself as exceptional in a similar way, such that we don’t take the wrongs we are doing seriously or listen to our prophets, it is a story we might want to pay attention to.

Now for the writers of the New Testament, the prophecy of a Kingdom that will last forever will be fulfilled in a descendent of David, Jesus of Nazareth.   But his Kingdom will be the antithesis of the kingdoms David and Solomon envisioned.

It will be a kingdom built not through military power and conquest and economic exploitation, as the kingdoms of David and Solomon were built, but instead among and through the hearts of the poor.

The upside-down nature of this kingdom is reflected in our gospel today.  I can’t think of anytime in the bible up until now that angels came and talked with women, but now, Gabriel comes and addresses Mary saying “Greetings, Favored one. The Lord is with you.”  This is particularly significant because at the heart of the Christmas story is the vision of Emmanuel—“God with us.”

Mary is perplexed.  What is going on? Why am I being greeted by an angel and why am I being greeted in this way?  The angel continues “You shall bear a son who will inherit the throne of his ancestor David and his reign and his kingdom will last forever.” (You could see how a prophecy like this could lead people to think that Jesus would become a new ruler in Israel.)

Mary says: “How can this be for I am a virgin?” Gabriel replies: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and therefore the child born to you will be called Son of God.”   After Gabriel explains that this can happen because with God all things are possible, we then hear Mary embrace this wild vision with the words: “Let it be to me according to your word for I am the servant of the Lord.”

I want to point out how this story is a kind of re-telling of the story we heard in 2nd Samuel.  In both you have this discussion about a Kingship and a Kingdom that is everlasting. In both we have this discussion about a house of God.  As part of Luke’s story of the new temple of God we need to understand that the Temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans not long before Luke wrote his Gospel.  Luke’s gospel presents the vision that the new temple of God is not a building, but a temple of human flesh.

Mary’s body will literally be the temple of God, the temple which will house God’s spirit and God’s son.  “Ave Maria (Hail Mary) full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Mary is the image, the revelation, of God dwelling in us.

The central mystery of Christmas is the Incarnation and its vision of God revealed in and through human flesh. As it says in “Mary Did you know?” that wonderful song Edie sang last week:

“Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God

Mary did you know,

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I Am.”

When you kissed your little baby—you kissed the face of God.  The revelation of Jesus as a reflection of God opens the door to us being able to see God in every human face, every human body.  Like Mary, Jesus will house God’s spirit opening up a vision of how God seeks to dwell in all humanity, all human flesh.  As Paul will say again and again, you are the temple of God.

The interaction between Gabriel and Mary is the story of the always incarnating God who comes not overpowering us, not as a king or warrior who would force us or coerce us, but rather knocking on the doors of our hearts—seeking our permission to come and be born in us and dwell with us as a child, or an idea, or a vision, whose dependent on our love and care to live and thrive and come into fullness.  May we like Mary have the courage to let the Incarnation happen in and through us.

The revelation of God in human bodies—God in impermanent human flesh—turned the heavens upside down.  It is a vision so much more powerful and beautiful than all the wealth of every empire combined.  It bestows every human being and creation itself with a heavenly dignity that we are still trying to figure out how to honor through things like human rights and popular democracy and the environmental movement.  It also means that those of us who have experienced God in and through loved ones who have died, or who we are now separated from, can understand why we are so bereft.  At the same time it encourages us to know that the goodness we have known through them is at the heart of everything, is the beginning and the end.  For two thousand years this insight has given sight to the blind and had the power to calm the storms of our hearts, and given us the courage to go where angels dare not go.

May we open ourselves to this vision of heaven and earth united in human flesh that it may live in us and through us.  For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.

“Reflections on the Baptism of Elyse Gloria Priest” – The Rev. Joe Summers, 12/17/17

“Reflections on the Baptism of Elyse Gloria Priest” given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December 17th, 2017. (Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent (B):  Isaiah 61:1-4 & 8-11, Psalm 126, I Thessalonians 5:16-24, The Magnificat, and John 1:6-8 & 19-28).

O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, to whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment.  Amen.                       –St Augustine.

Today we are celebrating the Holy Baptism of Elyse Gloria Priest, daughter of Megan Elyse Williams  and  Matthew William Priest,  so she is the  sermon, she is the good news, the grace, that we are being called to open ourselves so that our hearts and minds might be transformed.  I do, however, want to talk about some of the connections between our Baptism of Elyse and Advent.

Advent is about preparing a way for God in our world.  Through her baptism we are seeking to prepare a way for Elyse and the divine light in her.

In his baptism Jesus heard the heavens proclaim him God’s beloved, One with whom God was well pleased.  Today we proclaim Elyse as pleasing to God and God’s beloved, now and forever.

We pray that, knowing herself as God’s beloved, as of infinite worth, will help strengthen Elyse to reject the false selves, those idols we are tempted to try to be in order to be considered worthy in the eyes of others.

Baptism is about claiming our common humanity as children of God, children of the Most High, children of the king of king’s and inheritors of God’s Kingdom.  As we heard Mark proclaim last week, for the Kingdom of God to grow on earth requires a social leveling so that all can know their divine worth.   Through baptism we reject the powers that would tempt us to view ourselves as superior or inferior to others.

The whole world in which some are considered worthy of being recognized as human and others are not, was understood by the early church to be the work of the devil.  In the early church when people denounced the devil and all his works, as part of the baptismal service, they would turn to the west and spit.  At this point Elyse may only be able to drool, but we hope that the day will come which she has that kind of bold spirit that’s able to face the devil and spit.

As we hear in Isaiah today, that bold Spirit is God’s spirit.  It is the spirit that seeks to bring good news to the oppressed, liberty to captives, release to prisoners and to heal the sick and broken hearted.  It is this Spirit that in baptism we ask to guide us and lead us that we may build up the ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations that we see everywhere in our world.

It is this Spirit that is the garment of salvation. It gives us “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” because a faint spirit is not going to turn this world around and simply going around feeling bad is not going to break the cycle of loss and recrimination and shame that holds the peoples of our world captive.

Advent is a season in which we hear that new realities don’t come from nowhere, we have to prepare for them, we have to work for them.

Mary is the image of the power of this kind of work and preparation for the new to be born.  We just sang her song of power and praise that we call “The Magnificat” because Mary begins her song by saying “My soul glorifies the Lord, my soul magnifies the Lord.”  Hearing that proclamation we know it was not an accident that Jesus, despite being born out of wedlock of a poor family and a teenage mother, in a nation under bondage to the Roman empire, should grow up to know God’s spirit living and speaking and acting in and through him.

For Jesus, John’s call to turn away from sins was not enough, we needed to turn towards our belovedness in God.   But John the Baptist is also an image of the power of this kind of work and preparation.  John seems to have been an absolutely ferocious man, willing to stand up to empire knowing what the cost would be.  Yet at the same time we see this tender humility in him: “I am not the One.  I’m just here to bear witness to the light, to prepare the way of the Lord.”

That’s part of what baptism is all about, God coming to us in the form Elyse, our committing ourselves to honoring Elyse as an expression of what is infinitely precious. Matt and Megan and Jenna and Daniel and all of us committing ourselves, to doing all in our power, to honor God in her, that she might grow into the fullness of her unique humanity, even here, even now, in the midst of this society and world which so clearly devalues simply being human, but particularly female humanity, particularly people who are poor, disabled, or different in terms of their race, class, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Children are born in the image of our wild God “I am who I am, I will be who I will be.” We never want Elyse’s wild spirit to be tamed even though, as parents, family, friends, the church or society, it may cause us a lot of grief or trouble at different stages of her life.  We’re saying we don’t want Elyse conform to how things are, rather–the world and we must change–for her to be who she was created to be.  The new creation begins with honoring each for the unique in all creation miracle that they are.

So let us this da y pledge our lives to honoring Elyse and all the children of our world.  Let us also pledge to honoring ourselves and who we are, as children of the Most High, that through God’s spirit we might overthrow the reign of oppression, injustice and neglect and help usher in, what Isaiah today calls the day of the Lord, the time when justice and peace and love reign here on earth.

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

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

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

The Sacrament of Advent – Dec. 3 2017 Reflections

“The Sacrament of Advent” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December  3rd, 2017. (Readings Advent 1B: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7,16-18, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 12:24-37)

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

We are living in a very different country than we were living in one week ago.  This country has had some very dark hours, but I think that sooner than later we are going to recognize that the tax reformation the Senate passed on Friday was one of them.  A congress that was unwilling to help poor and working and middle class people who were losing their homes in the midst of the mortgage crises, because it was too expensive, has now proved to be willing to spend twice that amount to make the wealthy wealthier and to borrow money to do that.  The evidence suggests that for the foreseeable future every program that helps poor and working people will be opposed or cut because, they will claim, we cannot afford to go further into debt. The Bible is very clear on its judgment of those who make the wealthy wealthier at the expense of the poor and nations that allows this to happen.  What happened this past week is world changing, but I fear that today we will get caught up in reacting to what’s happened, rather then focusing on how we need to change, individually and collectively, if we are going to reverse this evil, if we are going to be able to create the kind of country we want to live in.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

I want to talk for a moment about the idea of being counter-intuitive, which is when you think or act in a way that is opposite of your instincts. In most of our lives we rely on our instincts to see us through things so this idea of being counter-intuitive is itself very counter-intuitive.

My favorite example of being counter-intuitive is those signs on beaches that tell you if you get caught in a rip-tide you shouldn’t try to swim against the current, but rather relax and let it carry you where it wants to carry you until you can somehow get to the edge and beyond it.  That all sounds great until you get caught in one and realize you are being carried out into the ocean where you are certain you will drown and every fiber of your being tells you to do all you can to resist it.  The only problem with that is if you go along with your instincts–you are more likely to drown.  If you can’t tell, I’m talking from personal experience here.

Another one, I’ve also experienced, is that if you have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) if leaves you wanting to do everything you can to avoid anything that might stimulate your fears.  It’s like you want to surround yourself with nice white fluffy clouds and so people with PTSD often retreat behind thick walls into private gardens and surround themselves with soft lights and quite music.  Often out of concern your friends will encourage you to do this. The only problem is that retreating behind those walls ensures that you’ll remain controlled by your PTSD. The only way to get better is not to try to avoid what might stimulate it.  That is so counter-intuitive.

Another favorite one is that if you are anxious about doing something your mind tells you just to avoid thinking about it and you’ll feel better, but procrastination ultimately makes anxiety so much much worse.  It took me a long time to learn that one.

I’m saying all this because on some fundamental level the practices of Advent are very counter-intuitive.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the church year, and on it we find our scriptures today are filled with metaphors about light and darkness.   As warm blooded creatures we tend to want to avoid the cold. As social creatures we often avoid being alone.  As creatures who can’t see in the dark–we tend to like the light.  But advent calls us to open ourselves to the cold and the darkness and the silence of this time of the year, to let it be for us a kind of sacrament, a material means of grace, so that we can be transformed by hope.  That’s very counter-intuitive.

Advent begins with a call out into the wilderness.  The wilderness is an area that hasn’t been completely domesticated. We tend to like to live our lives feeling in control of things, but the definition of the wilderness is an area in which things haven’t been brought under our control, an area where we are confronted with the unknown.   Advent says, if we wish to live in reality, if we wish for the divine to lead us and guide us, we need to be willing to recognize that often our light is really a form of darkness and we will only discover the true light if we are willing to enter into the darkness of not knowing, if we are willing to listen for what we’ve not been hearing, if we are willing to at least temporarily be unable to see so that we can begin to see what we are not seeing. We’re only able to discover what we don’t know by moving beyond what we think we know.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

Isaiah today speaks of feeling cut off from God’s presence.  “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire cause water to boil…so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”    Isaiah goes on “We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth….for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.”

The Hebrew faith tells us that what most cuts us off from knowing God’s presence is idolatry: the attempt to transform the divine into a thing, the attempt to takes what’s living and fluid and mysterious and make it into something that is fixed and static and therefore controllable.

Idolatry is rooted in our anxious grasping hearts which want to hold onto and control whatever is most precious to us so we constantly have to struggle with having an unhealthy attachment to whatever that is: our partners, our children, feeling good,  feeling in control, money, sex, our ideas, our health, God.

In our hearts we are to maintain the holy of holies, an empty space in which we can encounter the divine, the living, but we are constantly tempted to fill that empty space with idols, things, so that we don’t have to experience the emptiness and the silence. Advent tells us we can only know the divine presence once again when we are willing to empty our hearts of those things and empty ourselves.

Advent speaks of a new beginning that begins with visions of the end. In our gospel today we hear of what would feel like the end of the world: the sun darkened, stars falling from the heavens, heaven and earth shaken. Often, the new beginning we are needing can only happen when we confront the end. Often, for us as individuals or for us collectively, change only happens when it is the last possible alternative.

Advent encourages us not to be afraid of visions of the end. Most of the time we try to avoid being pessimistic or seeing things in a negative light, but in advent we are given permission to face the darkness: to see where we really are in all its negative light, to recognize where certain kind of action and thinking and feelings are leading us, to let ourselves experience the fruit of how we’ve been thinking or acting has been effecting ourselves and others, and to let this grief empower us to let go and turn away from what has led us to a place of desolation.

Sometimes Advent can be about our need for a kind of complete turning, a recognition of some fundamental way in which we need to turn or die, individually or collectively.  What worked for us at one point in our lives, may now be killing us or threatening to kill us.  What may have worked for us collectively, at one point in our nations history, may now destroy us.  If you are awake, it’s pretty hard not to feel that this nation and humanity generally are needing a fundamental turning if we are going to have any kind of good future or even to survive. Advent gives us permission to face that reality, without panic, praying and asking God to meet us here, to make a way where all we can see is no way.

But even when our lives seem to be going well, we need this annual journey into the darkness to be reconnect to the world, to reconnect with reality, to reconnect with ourselves, to reconnect with God.  As symbol making creatures we create symbols to navigate and respond to our lives and world.  We encounter someone or something and we take a kind of mental photograph and label it, as part of the way to make some sense of them.  But the problem is that those mental photographs, that initially might help us connect to that person, or that reality, can over time disconnect us from them as we hold onto our mental snapshots and stop paying attention to how that person or reality is living and changing.

Thus marriage counselors tells us that couples who are married a long time often, over time, know less and less about each other, because twenty years ago you said you felt or thought such and such and I’m stilling holding onto that idea when the reality is you haven’t thought or felt that way for a long long time.   And what happens to us individually also happens to us collectively. We develop an idea or a story about something and don’t see how that idea or that story is now keeping us from seeing our reality, much less respond to it.  We need to be particularly aware of how this happens with our religions faith.  Religion is meant to bind us to reality, but if we have an unhealthy attachment to our faith, it can disconnect us from reality.

When that happens, our light becomes the darkness as what we think we know keeps us from really knowing much of anything.  The tools which were a means of helping us know and respond to ourselves and others and our world have become barriers to knowing and responding.  At its worst, you find some people who hold so hard onto their ideas that when they look out all they can see, all they encounter, seems to confirm their perceptions, because they can  no longer see anything but their own ideas.  The result of being trapped in this delusion is that they can go through life feeling that they are almost never wrong, but in their wake you see a trail of wreckage.  That’s what we hearing in the testimony of all these men who only now are waking up to the harm they did to others.  That’s what I think we’ll soon see in the wreckage this new tax plan will cause, as it results in suffering for millions.   Though the premises of this plan are based on ideas that have been thoroughly disproven, people instead chose to hold onto their ideas of what is helpful over that evidence.  But as much as we may want to project this kind of wreck less foolishness onto others, Advent tells us it’s something we must all guard against.

“Show us the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” (Psalm 80:7)

Advent is an invitation back to unknowing, back to what the Buddhists call “beginners mind”, the willingness to see and experience things anew, as if we were seeing them for the first time.

Advent is an affirmation of the power of humility. When we are in our right minds it’s clear that there is so much we don’t know and yet, that’s okay, we don’t have to run or hide from what we don’t know.   We can acknowledge our ignorance.  Real curiosity is born in that space in which we realize there is something we need or want to know that we don’t know.  The darkness we fear is not our real enemy–rather it’s brimming with an invisible light that would lead us and guide us if we can loosen our deadly grip on our need to be in control by claiming to know what we don’t know.

In this way, Advent becomes a yearly invitation, to return to reality, to return to ourselves, to return to our lives and world as they are, to have the courage to see and name–where we are now, where we are starting from, and to invite the divine to meet us here, not where we wish we were because that’s a fantasy and the living God dwells in reality, and can only meet us in reality, or not at all.

Our society does all it can to block out the growing silence, coldness, and darkness of the natural world at this time of the year.  Strikingly, historians tell us we’ve been doing this for thousands of years.  In the ancient world, at this time of the year, you also had the same frenzied consumption and almost the same proportion of goods being bought and sold as we have today. Rather than fleeing the darkness, the silence and the cold through consumption, Advent calls us to be open to it.

We are like seeds that need the dark cold earth in order to germinate.  Though we think that the darkness is an enemy that we must fight, the advent story tells us there is an invisible light–reaching out to us through the darkness and that light is our hope and the hope of the world.  Advent tells us that beyond all the noise there is a silent song which if we can hear it will bring us joy and joy to the world.  Advent tells us that in the cold there is to be found a divine warmth that no amount of gaiety and parities can come close to.

So let us embrace the sacrament of advent, the sacrament of seeing in this season of the year a grace that is calling us, wanting to encourage us, wanting us to lay down the burden of denial and the isolation it brings, wanting to comfort us, wanting to empower us, wanting to help us become creative again–human again, in our thinking and responses to our lives and the world, if we will but turn and be open to it.

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

p.s. While we need to address our collective reality, I’m sensing that today it would be helpful for us to start with our personal reality.  So I’d like to pose the question of where you find yourself, at the beginning of this new beginning that we call advent.  Where are you?  What is the darkness or unknown that you are confronting?  What do you sense you are being called to turn away from, or to turn towards?

New Visions of the Wedding Feast – Nov. 12, 2017 Reflections

“New Visions of the Wedding Feast” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 12th, 2017.  (Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 & 6:17-20, Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Matthew 25:1-13)

I want there to be time for you to share anything that our celebration last night left you wanting to share, or to reflect on the incredible light that some of us came to know in our brother Claude Johnson who died this week, so I was tempted to just open things up for our collective reflections, particularly give that the parable in our Gospel today is one of my least favorite parables.   But then I also felt some of you coming from out of town would want to hear from me and as I listened I found the Spirit was raising things I thought we need to address—- so here goes.

To be able to hear what the Spirit is saying I often find it helpful to be clear about what the Spirit is not saying.  In other words, to be clear about the bad news version of any particular text, so let me try to be clear about that.

First, I grew up hearing the King James translation of this parable in which the word used for these young maidens, or bridesmaids, was translated as “virgins” so it was known as the parable of the ten virgins.   The Greek word for virgins is the same word as the word for young women, so I’m not saying that translation was wrong, but in it’s hard not to hear a story about virgins who save their oil versus those who don’t as not being related to their sexual status.  We live in a culture that has put sexuality at the heart of a purity code that’s been used to demean and render impure the vast majority of us.  Though I think love is the best context for sex, I think this emphasis on virginity, and particularly virgin women, is part of the sexist, anti-body, anti-sexuality illness our culture suffers from.

Secondly, this parable always comes up around the time of year when the church does its annual financial campaign, which may be a reflection of how few gospel texts really lend themselves to financial pledge drives!  However, when you put this text in the context of a financial pledge drive you can see how easy it becomes to associate those who save up their oil, or don’t, to participate in the wedding celebration, with those who save up their money, or don’t, to be able to give to the church.  Again, I value learning to save money so you can be generous, but we live in a culture that tends to view the inability to save as a moral failing, regardless of one’s financial circumstances, or how many others you are trying to sustain through your income. So, while I do think it’s helpful for us to talk about money and savings, we also need to remember that Jesus emphasized not savings, but giving your money away and not as a means of looking good to an exclusive church, but as a means of helping others.

Lastly, these wise bridesmaids seem a little nasty in terms of their attitudes towards their foolish sisters.  Maybe they couldn’t have shared their oil, but couldn’t they have at least said they were sorry?  And what’s with the bridegroom shutting out those who were late to the party?  I wouldn’t want to go to the party of some bridegroom who has that kind of attitude.  It all sounds like a justification for being self-righteous, judgmental, and mean.

But putting away those bad news interpretations, I found the text began to open up when I tried to think of it within the context of Matthew’s gospel, which is all about showing up and doing what needs to be done for the sake of love and justice. If we understand this as a parable about how well we steward our resources, so that we have the resources we need to do what we need to do, and what helps us to be ready to act when the times comes to act, then this seems something really worth talking about.

For example, I’m so struck by all the folks I keep running into who are burning out watching the news all the time, somehow falling into the pit of thinking that by watching, or  hearing, the same bad news, which on cable news shows is presented over and over and over again, that they are somehow doing something worthwhile. It’s as if we’ve become convinced that by going around feeling bad, we are doing something for others, or doing something worthwhile. My own sense is that all many of us are doing is getting ourselves depressed and worn out so that when the time comes for action–we are likely to be too tired and dispirited to do anything.  That does seem to me a good example of the deadly nature of real foolishness.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “You are the light of the world.” In other words, God may be the light of the world, but to a significant degree, God’s light shines, or doesn’t shine, through us.

If we take seriously this call to be the light of the world we need to be clear about what keeps our lights shining.   Again, I am struck by the bad news legacy of a kind of Puritanism that makes suffering a virtue in and of itself.

How many of us don’t seem to give ourselves permission to get enough sleep, take time to be alone, take time to be with others, take time to have fun, take time to exercise, take time to sing or dance or whatever else it is that keeps our light shining?  These days we seem to live in a culture that encourages us either to be self-centered and pursue every possible comfort, or to think that by going around tired and suffering, or one of the grim and determined, we are somehow proving our worth.  I don’t buy it.  There is such a difference when you encounter someone who cares about others and the world and yet is rested, alive, awake, and energized.

I heard  a speaker last week who said that there is no problem in the world that cannot be solved by consciousness, by our bringing our consciousness to bear on it. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I hope it is.  I do know that an awful lot of problems can be solved through giving our full attention to them such that going around being mostly unconscious is definitely not helpful    Perhaps if we are not being effective it is because we have so little bandwidth in terms of our capacity for really engaged, nuanced, creative thinking, which leaves us more like a smoldering wick, rather than any kind of  real light.

I could stop there, but I think it is even more than a question of what keeps us from being ready and able to act when the opportunity comes–I think this is a matter of a kind of addiction, something that is keeping us from being really alive, something that is in some ways soul killing.  I’m less and less interested in sins that aren’t ultimately a matter of life and death, but I think many of us are trapped in a kind of alienation that keeps us living beside ourselves, or looking down on ourselves, operating on remote control, as we follow whatever scripts we’ve been programmed to follow.  And the worse part is, as we do it we have this voice inside of us encouraging us to do this, saying:  “Good job—this is what it means to be a responsible adult!”  We’re not going to be able to overcome this evil unless we name it clearly so we can begin to learn how to live, walk, and be differently.

Lastly, I want to connect this issue of our being called to be the light of the world, if the God feast is going to happen here on earth, to the vision we hear in Joshua today–the vision of covenanting together.  I won’t go into all the reasons, but scholars I trust believe this Joshua text is from an earlier context that explains how most of the people, who were living in the land that would become the nation of Israel, came to be part of the people of Israel.  That is the covenanting ceremony we hear about is about them being invited to become part of this new people through rejecting the gods of domination and beloving the God of freedom.

If the church is called to be the heart of the world, the light of the world, this is not something we can just do individually. It’s about a process that binds us to one another, a process in which we align our hearts and wills with one another so that together we can do what would be impossible for us to do simply as individuals.

Lately, I’ve been struck by how radically flawed we each are as individuals, but how, when we are able to come together in community, there is always some other person who has gifts in the areas we have deficits, strengths in the areas we have weakness, insights in the areas where we are blind, wisdom in the areas where we are ignorant, the ability to act in a way we are unable to.

This weekend we’re celebrating the gift of this community of the Church of the Incarnation.    It would not have fit in well into our celebration last night but, in addition to celebrating the amazing things this community has done over time, it’s also worth understanding the other side of the story in terms of who helped make this feast.  While some churches have looked to people with no problems to lead them (good luck in finding them!) the fire and passion of this community has come out of the depths of our experience of what it means to live as limited, radically imperfect, human beings.  Lois Leonard, one of the three founding mothers of this church, throughout her life struggled with alcoholism.  Another member, who was a state leader in the struggle for people with disabilities–struggled with a drug problem.   Many of us, including myself, have struggled with other kinds of addictions, depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD,  and other forms of mental illness or from our inability to recover from unrecoverable losses.  Others have suffered from or struggled with a variety of other problems that have made being a full loving human being, capable of loving and being loved, incredibly difficult.  While it’s a mistake to think these problems were the source of our gifts, the things we ultimately learned and who we became, as we struggled with these problems, has a lot to do with our gifts and with the passion that comes from understanding how much is at stake.

The gift of community is a hard won gift. It means entrusting ourselves to each other despite all our fears and suspicions.  It means learning how to be in relationship with others in such a way that we are open to the spirit and wisdom speaking through them, but in a way in which they aren’t dominating us so that we continue to be able to listen to the Spirit speaking within us.  As people raised in our radically individualistic/collectivist society this is really difficult because we’re used to either staying away from groups, or disappearing into them.   But the soul that holds our souls in life, the greater heart that our hearts seek to dwell in, only becomes fully manifest in the community of I-Thou relationships.

At a time when we, like those young women in the parable, find ourselves locked out in the dark night by the world of domination and exclusion, we need to come together to share our oil, to share our light, so that we can get renewed, empowered, and imaginative, so we can get in there and transform this world into a place where love and generosity, compassion and justice reign.    For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.  Amen

Life is short. And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us.  So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind.

            From the Journal of Henri Amiel, Dec. 1868 courtesy of Marcus Borg.

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

Lectionary for Christ the King Sunday, Year A:
Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46
Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;
for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’
Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 
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This Thanksgiving weekend, Pope Francis is meeting with the Rev. Dr. William Barber at the Vatican in Rome. Some of you may know that Dr. Barber is the force behind the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, and the co-coordinator of the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign. And some of you may know that Pope Francis is the head of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. They are meeting to discuss how to work together to alleviate poverty.

Now, there are some who have had negative experiences with the Catholic Church and would look negatively or at least with suspicion upon anything with the Pope’s name associated with it. And there are some who believe that because Dr Barber’s movement is for all people, whether Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, churched or unchurched, that he has gone too far and they cannot sign on with him. To use the terminology we hear in the gospel today, they are seen by some as “goats” and so it can be justified to dismiss them, to oppose them, to judge and even condemn them.

But they also are doing real work in the world to care for the poor, for the least and the lost. Based upon the descriptions in today’s gospel, they can also be seen as sheep!

Examples abound of people who are easily categorized by others as sheep or goats, good or bad, behaving acceptably or unacceptably. Some of these are people who we once thought were sheep but now we know they are goats. The daily news reports ratchet our thinking in one direction or another, or provide daily support for the lines that we have each already drawn.

As human beings, whether we like it or not, we have a natural tendency to see the world as “us” and “them”. And so there is a sort of appeal to the notion that we might be sheep while they are goats. That we are at least trying to do good in the world, unlike those others who either ignore the need in the world or even make it worse.

Our celebration a few weeks ago was an acknowledgement of all the good things that have been done by this community over the past 30 years and more, and all the ways our beloved Vicar Joe Summers has nurtured and enabled such good works. Surely we have been sheep in the best sense of the word. Thank God we have a place and a community that helps us to not be goats!

And yet….

I know that for myself, I have as many goat moments as I do sheep. For every time I step out of my own agenda and comfort zone to offer loving kindness or help to someone else, there are multiple times when I am too busy or it’s too much trouble to stop, to turn, to suspend my own judgment or fear or greed or pride, and to share what I can where there is a need. I am sad to say that I have a well honed set of goat skills, and it’s often a lot less conspicuous to use them than to actually try to be a sheep. A lot easier to get away with. A lot more convenient.

But here is this gospel, this good news. And there is a lot of good news in it! God knows our hearts. God sees when we are living lives of loving kindness. And God knows why we fall short. God is in charge, above and beyond all the powers of this world, all of which are temporary and limited. So on this Christ the King Sunday, we can experience God in Jesus the Christ, not so much as a traditional King at all, but more like our kin. When we see our sister or brother in need, we see the face of God in Christ. Here is another part of the great mystery, the great paradox of God, that God-power is greatest in weakness, that the first shall be last, that the last shall be first. Many stories in the Bible reflect how people who have screwed up bigtime are still loved and redeemed and called upon by God to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.

The reality is that God knows I am both sheep and goat. And so are we all. All God’s children have the capacity for both sheepiness and goatiness. None of us are completely sheep or goats.

And here is more good news. Only God can truly judge us, truly know our hearts. And for God, it’s not that one screwup will wipe out all the “way-to-gos”. And it’s not vice versa either. We are both continually being saints and sinners, sheep and goats, Pharisees and Samaritans. God knows. And thank God that the kind of judge we have is one who is full of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. A God who sees all the crap and all the beauty in each of us and loves us anyway.

The Presbyterian Church, which is my faith background, is really big on grace. It’s considered the foundation of our faith. My favorite description of grace is one that mirrors it with mercy. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, what we have not and cannot earn. And mercy is not getting what we do deserve, based on all the ways we have fallen short.

So no matter how hard we try to be sheep, we are not ever going to match up our good works with the gifts that we receive from God. We can never ever do enough to earn such abundant and unconditional love. It’s only ours through grace.

And no matter how much we are goats, God’s mercy is greater than all our goatiness. So God’s judgment for our failings is not punishment, but forgiveness and second chances, over and over again.

The hard part comes back around to the us-and-them factor. We would much rather be able to define who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving of God’s love and who’s not. And God knows, in this day and age, we all have our list of the unredeemables, don’t we?

But when we say God welcomes all, God loves all, God forgives all, God’s table is open to all God’s people, we mean all. Even the ones others have turned their backs on. And, even the ones we have turned our backs on.

In 1928, in Barcelona, Spain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on the first Sunday in Advent that referenced this gospel passage. I’d like to share an excerpt from his words with you.

“God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants always to be with us, wherever we may be – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us…

Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?”

I pray that whenever we meet a person who is hard to love, for whatever reason, we will not only remember that Christ is in this person, but that we will recognize Christ, that we will work to see the God light in every person, that we will suspend our judgment both of sheep and of goats, and we will simply love. Amen.

“No Longer Orphans: Reflections on the Feast of All Saints ” – Nov 5 2017, The Rev. Joe Summers

No Longer Orphans: Reflections on the Feast of All Saints “  Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on November 5th, 2017. (Readings: Revelations 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10,22  , I John 3:1-3, Matt. 5:1-2.)

Video

“Let not your hearts be troubled… I will not leave you orphans.”   “Do not be afraid.  I will not leave you orphans.”  (John 14:1 & 18)

Christianity is rooted in a series of mysteries, that is realities we cannot fully understand but which have the power to transform our lives and world.

The first and greatest mystery is the mystery of Holy Week, Easter, and the resurrection. It is a mystery in which we see:

            * death transformed into life,

            *shame and degradation transformed into glory,

            *cruelty, bullying and abandonment transformed into generosity, compassion, love and community,

            *powerlessness and despair and terror transformed into power, hope, and courage.

There is a way in which all the mysteries of the Christian faith are ultimately rooted in the mystery of Holy Week and Easter.

Looking forward we see the mystery of Easter embodied in the mystery of Pentecost, where we see a new community born through the Spirit of Jesus. Led and guided by the Spirit of love it is empowered to go into the world to tear down the gates of hell and create a new heavens and a new earth where freedom and love reign.

Looking backwards we see the mystery of Easter expressed in the mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation, and the story of  the Human One.  Here we hear proclaimed that we all belong here on earth.  Now, even amidst this world of domination and oppression and the divisions it creates among us and within us, it is possible to discover and live into the glory of our humanity.

We also hear the mystery of Easter sing through this Feast of All Saints that we are celebrating today. The mystery of Easter makes the beatitudes sing with joy and hope and possibility. In this series of blessings, Jesus proclaims who God is choosing to raise up and how those the world of domination see’s as cursed are actually the means through which these blessings are coming into the world.

Easter Proclaims:

            *The Poor in spirit, those who the world of domination calls losers, are the heirs of the reign of heaven on earth and the ones through whom this mystery is being born in our midst

            *That those that those who mourn will be comforted and will be the means through which others are comforted.

            *That the meek and the powerless (who does the world of domination despise more than the powerless?) are going to inherit the earth and are going to be the ones through whom all are empowered.

            *That those who hunger and thirst for justice, will not stay crazy and frustrated    forever.  They shall be filled–they shall be ambassadors of justice.

            *That the merciful, those the world of domination calls fools, will not only receive mercy but become the means through which compassion is revealed as a great strength.

            *That the pure in heart (again what does the world of domination hate more than   vulnerability?) will see God and be the means through which others come to see  God–here–now–even in this world as we know it.

            *That peacemakers, those the world of domination sees as delusional, will be understood to be children of God, emissaries of the Most High.

            *That the persecuted are the prophets through whom a new heavens and a new earth is being born.

On this Feast of All Saints we hear that abandonment and loneliness are no longer the final word, they are not the ultimate reality.

I want to take a minute here to talk about loneliness because I think we can get tricked into believing it is somehow a given, something we can’t do much about, such that we don’t talk about it enough.

There is a way in which the whole bible is a reflection on loneliness.

            * Adam and Eve, those who have known each other as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” turn against each other and are cast out of paradise.  That’s about loneliness.

            * Out of envy, Cain slays his brother Abel.  Almost as bad is then the way he denies what’s happened with the angry rebuttal  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Murder, denial, is all about the disconnection which is the foundation of loneliness.

            *We hear about God’s own loneliness at discovering that the world she made for delight has become a garden of  oppression and bloodshed.  What is more lonely than the vision of the flood: a world without people, a world without animals.  The rainbow is the sign of God’s promise not to destroy this world again.

            *The loneliness of Abraham and Sarah, childless, journeying in search of a home and then the cry of joy, the laughter, that is Isaac and the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars.

            *The loneliness of Jacob and Esau, set against each other by their parents from birth, wandering the earth without each other until they were able to reconciled again.

            *The loneliness of Joseph, thrown into a well and then sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and living the life of the loneliness of exile until they are reconciled again.

            * The loneliness of those who lived for 400 years in the I-it world of slavery. Objectification and oppression internalized cuts you off from yourself, cuts you off others, cuts you off from intimacy.  The discovery of I AM is a journey back from loneliness.

            *The loneliness of the people wandering in the strange land of the desert still carrying within them the structures and attitudes that keep them alone and afraid and untrusting.

            *The respite from loneliness that happened in that two hundred year period that came to be called the Kingdom of God, a time when people relied on God and each other rather than structures of domination.

            *The loneliness that returned as people turned towards empire and domination and with them inequality and alienation, so that they could be like the other kingdoms of the world, that was then followed by the piercing loneliness of life in exile.

            *The loneliness of those deemed impure or unclean and who were shunned and marginalized within Jesus’ society and the loneliness of those who feared they would be shunned and judged as impure or unclean.

            *The loneliness of Jesus in the garden–asking his friends to be there for him as he faced his death.

            *The loneliness of seeing your hopes and dreams and who you hoped to be– crucified.

            *Then Easter and the birth of the beloved community, a community in which we can know ourselves as beloved, not because we meet some ideal, but for who we are, in all our funky reality and glory.

In the Easter vision of the Feast of All Saints we see that abandonment and loneliness are held within a great communion.  I find it helpful to envision this great communion as a great ball of loving kindness, of loving and being loved. This ball includes those who are alive here and now, but also those who have lived in the past, and those who will come to live in the future.  This is the communion that we hear about in Revelations today, the communion of the radically flawed, those of us who so often embody the very problems we seek to address in our world, those of us who so often don’t do what we intend to do and do what we don’t intend to do, now washed in the blood of the lamb, the blood of love and forgiveness.  In the light of this feast we are able to see ourselves and each other as all saints, all bearers of the divine light. In this great communion we belong.  We are not orphans any longer.   We have infinite mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers and great aunts and great uncles, sisters and brothers and cousins, children and nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great nieces and great nephews, and so many many friends.

On this day, I would encourage you to hold this communion before you like a great ball of love that invites you in.  For if we belong, if we are not alone, than loneliness, fear, shame and judgment no longer reign over us.  They no longer define the nature of who we are, or what’s possible for us, or what’s possible in this world.

The orphan is a child of terror.  There is nothing more frightening than being abandoned for our very nature is relational, it’s based on our being connected to others.   We can wish it weren’t true, but that doesn’t make it so.  Being left alone, or even the threat of being left alone, is the root of all kinds of fears that can enslave us.

The orphan so often becomes a survivor by cutting themselves off from their hearts, their desires and feelings, their dream and their longings, in order to be invisible, in order to fit in, in order to look responsible and not needy, sad, lonely, or angry.

This is how the experience of abandonment often turns into narcissism, as, in order to protect ourselves from the rage and sorrow of abandonment, we create the image of a person who has it all together, and doesn’t really need others.  Living behind that image keeps us from experiencing any real intimacy that might make us feel our inner emptiness and ensures that we remain trapped in it.

To those of us who are orphans, or feel like orphans, the communion of Saints comes to us saying, singing:

“Come here poor thing.  You don’t need to be prefect. You don’t have to hide out in the shadows or the margins. You are loved for who you are including that huge bag of lost feelings and all the needs you’ve stuffed and tried to disconnect from.  You are welcome.  Sit down. Stop carrying that load around.  Let yourself, your whole self, be — here — now. You are welcome.”

“Let not your hears be troubled.  I will not leave you orphans. In my father’s house are many mansions and when I go I will prepare a place for you that where I am you may be also.  I have told you before it takes place so that when it does take place you may believe.  Believe in me and believe in the one who sent me.”  (John 14:1-3, 18, 29)

Be of good courage.  Not only do you belong here, but you are loved for who you are and supported by this great crowd of witnesses, this amazing community of the living and the dead, through whom God is transforming absence into presence, loss into connection, abandonment into communion and solidarity.

Friends, today we have a choice to continue in the way of the orphan, the way of abandoning ourselves and others, or to turn towards the communion of All Saints and risk not knowing ourselves by letting the structures of terror, shame and loneliness come tumbling down through the waters of compassion and forgiveness and letting ourselves be reborn in love and freedom.  May we this day find the imagination to stop abandoning ourselves and others and the courage to give a damn.

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

P.S. In the Wisdom of Solomon we hear:  “The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction  and concern for instruction is love of her,  and love of her is keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,  and immortality brings one near to God so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.”   (Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20)   I would add, wisdom teaches us how to transform rejection into belovedness and loneliness into friendship and community. May we walk in the way of wisdom that we might build God’s reign of love here on earth.  Amen

“The Authority of the Human One” Oct 29 2017 reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers

“The Authority of the Human One” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 29th, 2017. (Readings for 25A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Psalm 90:1-6,13-17, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46)

Video part 1  part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.