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Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.”

I was inclined to summarize today’s Gospel reading with the often-heard phrase “Jesus walks on the water,” but it occurred to me that his walking on the water is not the point. As I thought about it, I changed and shortened the summary to just two words: “Peter sinks.” We, as humans, can relate to taking risks and sinking far easier than we can to taking a stroll on Lake of the Isles.

Jesus had just said, “do not be afraid,” and at first Peter is doing pretty well. He hops out of the boat and onto the sea. But that’s the extent of his success. His fear comes rushing back to him and yes, he begins to sink.

Society tells us that if we sink, we aren’t worthy of success; we are failures. And in our culture, being a failure is the opposite of being a success. We all want to be a success because according to the media, we have to be successful to be happy and worthy of love. As Peter sinks, he challenges this notion of success and failure.

In her book Daring Greatly, shame researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown says:

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. (Daring Greatly, 10)

Peter is afraid. Peter was afraid of what was coming toward him on the water, but still took the opportunity to do something unheard of. He got out of the boat, which was shaking and rocking with the gusty wind, and started to walk on the water. It was not until he realized how vulnerable he was that his fear took over and he began not to walk, but to sink. Now, I’m not saying not to have any fear in your life. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, fear and anxiety are what keep us alive in times of danger. In The Book of Joy, he says, if we were fearless, “we’d also be very stupid, and we would not be around very long.” What I am saying is that in the face of fear, we need to have courage, which the Archbishop describes as “not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite it.” (The Book of Joy, 94)

In Dreamworks Animation’s 2012 movie, The Croods, we encounter a family of cavemen who live by the motto “never not be afraid.” This motto keeps them alive in a world of uncertainty, where danger lurks around every corner and every story told ends in death. It also keeps them confined to a dark cave most of the time. A catastrophic earthquake forces them to leave the relative safety of their cave and embark on the first family cross-country trip. During their travels into the unknown, the father, Grugg, tries to force the family into a new cave for safety, saying that it’s his job to follow the rules and the rules keep them alive. The teenage daughter, Eep, responds “That wasn’t living, that was just not dying. There’s a difference.” If we let fear take control, fear might, as in the lives of the Croods, keep us from dying. But it can also keep us from living a life of fullness and meaning.

Peter is vulnerable. Peter is standing there. He isn’t in the boat anymore. Looking down he sees nothing but the deeps under his feet. Looking up he sees the darkness of storm clouds. He feels the wind buffeting him and he knows he has no customary protection from the elements. He feels alone in the middle of the sea. He starts to feel the water over his toes, then his ankles are getting wet, now the water is approaching his knees and he knows he is in trouble. Help! In a panic, he calls out to Jesus, who calmly pulls him from the water, protecting him.

Vulnerability is a scary thing. In this case, it is to the elements that Peter is vulnerable. It is also to his self-doubt. Just like the rest of us, a tape was probably running through his head, “What was I thinking? Why did I step out of the boat in the first place! Everyone is going to think I’m a fool. I screwed that up, I’m such a loser.”

Brené Brown has a lot to say about vulnerability. She says: Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. (Daring Greatly, 2)

Peter has an opportunity. Peter rarely waited until he was perfect before he spoke up in an effort to take action. Last week he made some foolish statements at the Transfiguration of Jesus, wanting to build booths for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. This week he steps out of a boat in the middle of the sea. Yes, Peter was vulnerable, but that vulnerability created opportunity for him. He had the opportunity, brief as it was, to walk on the water. He had the opportunity to reach out to Jesus and be pulled to safety. As we know from the rest of the New Testament, Peter does not let his fear and self-doubt stop him from moving forward and continuing to follow Jesus. Like us, he is not perfect, by any means, but he does his best to be faithful and learn from Jesus, thus, muting the tapes of shame that were playing in his head on the night he sank into the Sea of Galilee.

When Peter’s fear caused him to start to doubt Jesus and himself, he started to sink. When we doubt God and ourselves and live in fear, we also sink. We sink away from relationships with God and with other people. We sink away from opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus. God does not want us to have a life controlled by fear and doubt. God wants us to have a life of faith, despite fears. When we reach the end of our lives, I hope we can all look back and say that our lives were an adventure where vulnerability led not to sinking, but to opportunities to live, learn, and grow.

I have been trying to put words to what I am feeling about the violence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and to be honest, I am still confused and angry. So I’m going to start out with a definition and go from there. According to the U.S. Code, “Domestic terrorism” is defined as “activities with the following three characteristics: Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, … and Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” (http://www.secbrief.org/2014/04/definition-ofterrorism/). This definition is not a statement of political leanings or party support; it is a factual definition. The events that have been taking place at the University of Virginia are nothing short of domestic terrorism. Armed militiamen, wearing helmets and shields and carrying Nazi and Confederate flags are deliberately causing fear in all who oppose their agenda. There has been one death and many injuries related to the violence involved. White supremacist rhetoric is vile and has no place in our church, our country, or our world… But there is hope. Clergy in Charlottesville have been standing, arm in arm, in prayer. They are literally standing up to the hatred that is being openly displayed in the streets. Now is the time for us, as Christians and compassionate people, to stand up and say no! This is unacceptable and incompatible with our faith and our humanity.

We will not allow the violent tactics to cause us to lose faith and sink away in fear. We must open ourselves up to vulnerability and take a stand against hatred. We, as Christians, must follow the example of Jesus and say to others, in both word and action, “Fear not, it is I, a Christian and a fellow human being, do not be afraid.”

We are always on the edge of a spectacular opportunity called life, filled with excitement, joy, and fear. Then we realize that “stepping out of the boat” of our comfortable places puts us in a very vulnerable position and we often hesitate. We don’t know what will happen and fear creeps in. The question is, what do we do with the fear? It can motivate us, or paralyze us. We can have the courage to act, or let the fear win.

When the tapes start rolling in our heads, telling us that we aren’t good enough, they ould keep us from taking advantage of the opportunities we are faced with. Or we can reach out to Jesus, and our fellow humans who share the journey with us, and say “help!” allowing our hands to be taken and receiving guidance through the rough seas of vulnerability and fear and on to new adventures beyond our wildest dreams.

In her essay on the importance of poetry in the search for courageous and creative identity entitled “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”, Audre Lorde writes this:

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give names to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes understanding.[1]

For Audre Lorde, a black feminist, the expansive words of poetry break open our prosaic worlds, stretching us to think about the world and our place in it in ever-new ways. Poetry, unlike prose, is not bound to the laws of gravity, space/time, and thermodynamics. The best poetry can cause us to tunnel through the sky or fly beneath the ground, it can transport us to another place and time, and it can transfigure us altogether. The best poetry seeks to recreate our world by rewriting the rules that govern it.

I had the privilege of being introduced to a woman a few weeks ago who is quickly becoming one of my favorite poets. Stephanie Pruitt is a poet out of Nashville, Tennessee who describes herself as an “ARTreprenuer.” She gave a reading for the College of Letters at the University of the South, where she introduced me to a fabulous called “Ode to the Hyphen.” As you listen to it, pay attention to her playful use of language and ask yourself what she might be questioning.

Ode to the Hyphen
by Stephanie Pruitt

No dash, minus sign or broken line. You fill
and make continuous until there is no pause
for breath or thought between otherwise well-spaced words.
Oh, the way you change man eating shark
to man-eating-shark.
I see you in anti-intellectual working
to keep those ‘I’s from merging into a diphthong, and
there in syl-lab-i-fi-ca-tion.
You compound modifier, line wrapping wonder,
under your influence, adjectival phrases flourish
like bubble-gum-flavored or spine-tinglingly-sensational.
Then you turn mister into m-i-s-t-e-r. (period)
I have never mulled over you between x and ray,
first and class or out and of and body.
And now here you are
in the signature I practice along the margins
of my thesis, as if there is this fracture
in need of bracing with surgical grade
stainless steel, holding bone to bone until it fuses.
After the cast is cut away, you will have calcified.
Yes?[2]

Poetry, when done well, can cause to ask deep questions like how something as simple as a hyphen can transform man eating shark, a human enjoying a maritime delicacy, to man-eating-shark, an altogether more horrific scene for the human. Poetry blows the doors off our expectations and makes it possible, sometimes with great coercion, for us to experience the mysterious unknown.

When we consider the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, it might be helpful to think of it in similar terms. Like poetry, the Transfiguration sheds new light on what might to us seem deceptively ordinary. Through the dazzling transfiguration of our Lord we see him as he is ­­– glorious in holiness, awesome in renown, and worker of wonders. Through the eyes of Peter, James, and John we see a post-Resurrection-Jesus pre-crucifixion. Like poetry, the Transfiguration bends time and space and begs us to ask deep questions about who Jesus really is.

Ultimately, though, that question does not stand alone. The question is not: who is Jesus? Full stop. Rather, the question continues: Who is Jesus and by extension who are we?

Understanding the Transfiguration as divine poetry opens up a new world for us to courageously and creatively consider the world around us and our place in it. When we see ourselves reflected in the light of Christ, particularly brilliant on the holy mountain, we see ourselves as bearers of the light.

The light of Christ illuminates the world, causing us to question things held sacred and sacrosanct. One of the ways see this is when we hold the worlds brokenness up to the searching light of Christ. Seventy-two years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the United States would do the same to Nagasaki. Both event would bring the Pacific theater of World War II to a dramatic close; but, in the process, over 225,000 Japanese were killed or wounded with lingering health problems that would persist for generations. In the seventy-two years since that day, nations all over the globe have scrambled to acquire and maintain an arsenal of these deadly weapons. But the light of Christ invites us to consider a world in which such deadly swords are refashioned into life-giving and life-sustaining ploughshares because we’d rather build and share than destroy and hoard. It invites us to recognize that light within our neighbor where propaganda lures us into seeing the darkness of an enemy.

Growing up there was a song that we would often sing in the children’s choir.  The words are strikingly simple: This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine. / This little light of mine / I’m gonna let is shine. / This little light of mine / I’m gonna let is shine. / Let it shine. / Let it shine. / Let it shine. Like Jesus, these words are deceptively ordinary, but in asserting our possession of divine live, they become bearers of a new world.

Dear friends in Christ, you and I have that light. We are the light of Christ. We are called to shine in the darkness. We are called to dispel hopelessness. We are called to the high way of love. That is who we are. We can try to hide it, but the light will find its way out. We can try to put it out, but the light is unconquerable. Light is who we are.

How might our world be different if we recognized the fundamental luminosity in every person we meet? I believe we could change the world if we really believed our neighbor, however different they might me, was fundamentally brilliant. A friend of mine, the Rev’d. Broderick Greer, says that this is the definition of love. He says that the baptized life is an awakening to those moments in which we ourselves are loved by God – “not possessed, recast, or remade by God, but loved,” received and accepted as we really are – as light that derives from the source of light of itself.

And if God does that for us, what do you think we are called to do for others?

Poetry expands the limits of the possible. Perhaps Jesus desires for us to relate to one another poetically, dreaming up new possibilities where nothing but intractable differences currently exist.

Because the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.


[1] Audre Lord, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 36.

[2] Stephanie Pruitt, “Ode to the Hyphen” in Unblanking the Page, 13.

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Matthew 13:52

This morning I want to take a break from our journey through the book Genesis to reflect on the words of Christ that we have in the Gospel as he expounds upon the qualities of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven depending on the Gospel account, is one of those phrases that we hear of often in the New Testament that is worth our time and careful attention.

Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest and the father of Latin American Liberation Theology, began thinking of what this phrase – “Kingdom of God” – might mean for Latin America in the 1960s and 70s amidst is climate of incredible poverty, political corruption, and the unsteady tectonic plates of a rapidly shifting world. He came to understand the “Kingdom of God” primarily as “a gift”[1] that we receive from God that offers us a better, more just and equitable way of being in the world. For him, its advent – its coming – does not depend on us; rather, it is a direct outgrowth of the salvation work of God. As bearers of the mission of God, the authentic work of the Church, then, is to “be a sign of the kingdom within human history.”[2] We are called to bear witness, here and now, to the reality that the Kingdom of God is here, that compassion, and justice, and grace, and reconciliation, are not in some far-off reality, but alive and in the world right now.

One of the issues involved with using words of “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” is that they possess a certain misleading magnitude. We hear words like Kingdom and we think of conquering armies, trumpet fanfares, and grand choirs of angels. We aren’t alone in that. Many of Jesus’ followers were looking for the same thing. They assumed that he would be the one who would overthrow Roman occupation and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel with a dramatic flourish.

Except that the Kingdom of God doesn’t always work like that. God’s reign doesn’t need earthly power to sanction it. It doesn’t require conquering armies to establish it. It doesn’t need political leaders to uphold it. The Kingdom of God is a gift that is given freely to each of us to share. Its smallness undermines the machinations of the mighty. Its humility confounds the schemes of the strong. Its quietness confuses the bombast of the proud. The Kingdom of God is often found in smallness and simplicity that invites each of us to see that even the most mundane events and the most ordinary people bear the image of God.

The Kingdom of God is like, well, like a small church I know. For now, we’ll just call this church Saint Mary’s Church. Founded in the late 1800s in the inner city, Saint Mary’s bounced around a few times before winding up in its current location in the 1950s. As with most Episcopal congregations, Saint Mary’s was once a lot larger and wealthier in its hay day with programs and staff and choirs galore. At present, though, those glory years are but a faint memory. If you look around Saint Mary’s now, you can see reminders of those golden years in the plaques on the wall, the antique furniture, and the church itself which now easily accommodates the much smaller congregation who worships there each week. Although they aren’t the large parish they once were, Saint Mary’s is still fiercely committed to loving God through worship and loving their neighbors through service, even if they aren’t quite sure how exactly to do that given the uncertain realities of their changing world. The Kingdom of God is like Saint Mary’s Church still trying their best to faithfully pursue the mission of God.

On Sunday morning during coffee hour, a few Saint Mary’s parishioners were gathered in the old parlor of the parish house just catching up and talking. In the group was s young, gay couple who had just moved from Tennessee, a middle-aged single mother who had returned to the church of her youth with her young son after leaving in her early adult years, and an older widower who had been at the church for decades and was still active even in his late 80s. The Kingdom of God is like this intergeneration group of folks gathered around freshly cut strawberries, aromatic coffee, and donuts loving cut into quarters and sacramentally displayed on a serving tray.

Beau and Jonathan, the gay couple from Tennessee, had just moved into the area a few months prior for Beau’s new job in an architecture firm. Beau was raised in the Episcopal Church, but like many young adults, had sort of floated away in early adulthood. He came back when he met Jonathan, a young man raised in an Evangelical church who fled because his church wasn’t affirming of his identity. They met at a bar, fell in love, got married, moved into the area, and quickly joined a church. They yearned for community, but more than that, they were filled with gratitude and were looking for a tangible way of paying that forward. They volunteered for a lot, like hosting newcomer gatherings in their backyard for other folks who wandered into Saint Mary’s looking for community. The Kingdom of Heaven is like cheese-grits and bourbon served on a backyard patio on a cool summers evening.

Tessa, the single mother who had grown up at Saint Mary’s and returned with her young son Liam, realized how much church had provided structure for her life. She had gone off to college and gotten married, but it didn’t work out. After the divorce, she and Liam moved back to town and she slowly found her way back to church. She joined the choir, not because she was all that great of a singer, but because she could hold a note and follow direction well. She worked for a local retail corporation and between work, shuttling back and forth to daycare, choir practice, and her sorority meetings, Tessa was very busy. To be honest, Tessa struggled a bit with balance, but she was trying. The Kingdom of Heaven is like young parents squeezing in short, exasperated prayers between episodes of Doc McStuffins and bedtime.

Rich was sort of the parish patriarch. He had been around for decades and was involved in the decision of the parish to acquire its current location in the 50s. He had worked for a local insurance company for years and had retired in the 80s. His wife, Eileen, was the parish maven. In her day she would throw these amazing parties at the church so that the parishioners and the community members would have an opportunity to meet and get to know each other. In the early 2000s, Eileen became ill and she eventually succumbed to breast cancer. The parish gathered around Rich and supported him through it, but he felt a bit unmoored in the absence of his beloved. A few years ago, he started a support group for folks like him who had lost their spouses. He was also one of those people who liked the worship to be just right and even though he could sometimes come off as stuffy, on the inside he really is a gentle soul. The Kingdom of Heaven is like folks finding grace in the world as they move into old age.

In their own way Beau and Jonathan, Rick, Tessa, and even little Liam, are all harbingers of the Kingdom of God. None of them did anything big or noteworthy. You won’t find their names on any marquees or major news articles. They were simply together more Sundays than not, searching for signs of beauty and newness in a world that can so often be ugly and scary.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like you and I, here and now, sitting, listening, singing, and praying, hoping for a tomorrow that is just a little bit better than today.

Amen.


[1] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 132.

[2] Ibid., xli.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

Genesis 28:16-17

As we pick up the story of the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – our reading seems to have omitted a key part of the saga, the part where the feud between Jacob and his twin brother Esau had reached such a fevered-pitch, that Jacob had to run for his life. Having caught the season premier of “Game of Thrones” this past Monday with all the drama between the Lannisters, Starks, Greyjoys and Targareyans, I feel like I am in the right mindset to really appreciate a deep, family drama. Jacob had out-smarted his slightly-older, twin brother and Esau was so angry about it that he was determined to kill him.

That’s the backdrop of today’s story. When we encounter Jacob, we encounter a man whose life is in shambles. In a sermon a few weeks ago, I mentioned that “chaos and calamity can breed amnesia. That we can be easily be seduced into disremembering who we are when we are faced with the horror of the human condition.” That is true in a macro sense, but it also true when you scale it down to our individual lived experiences. When we are faced with frightening diagnoses, fraying relationships, debilitating mental illness, uncertain financial futures, the scary minutia of day-to-day living, not to mention how inundated we are with horrific news from around the world, we can so easily disremember who we are and whose we are. That is where we find Jacob when he uses a stone as a pillow and falls into a troubled sleep.

As I thought through this bizarre scene of the ladder and angels “ascending and descending” on it, it occurred to me that this could easily be a metaphor for prayer – a way that we connect to God. That’s what I want to talk about today – prayer. I think most of know that we should pray, but we tend to think about it narrow terms, some words we say or actions we perform to connect with God. I want to suggest that prayer is, fundamentally, something far broader than rhetoric and ritual. Prayer is relational. Rituals can be important touchstones on the journey of faith, markers that help us to grope our way through the darkness, but they aren’t ends to themselves. Prayer is a way of life. In fact, prayer is the way to life.

In her book The Practice of Prayer, Dr. Margaret Guenther of blessed memory, an Episcopal priest and pastoral theologian, suggests that “The practice of prayer is more than a program of devotional activity, the spiritual equivalent of twenty minutes on the NordicTrack or five minutes of tooth brushing and flossing. The practice of prayer is the work of a lifetime, touching every aspect of our life, from the search for identity to the challenge of vocation to the acceptance of death”.[1] Here, Margaret seems to suggest that prayer is more than just the things we say and do, which are all well and good. Prayer is how we shape our lives around something larger than ourselves. Dr. Rowan Williams explicitly names that new center when he says that “Growing in prayer is not simply acquiring a set of special spiritual skills that operate in one bit of your life. It is about growing into what St. Paul calls ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4.13). It is growing into the kind of humanity that Christ shows us. Growing in prayer, in other words, is growing in Christian humanity.[2] Dear friends in Christ, prayer is about orienting our lives around the ultimate reality of God. In Christianity, we have an example of that in the person of Jesus Christ, a man whose life was so Godwardly focused that he could endure the absolute worst that human beings and systems could throw at him, all the while remaining compassionate and graceful. That is the kind of life we are to strive for, a life that emulates the life of Jesus Christ – a life where everything we do and say is prayer because everything we do and say is perfectly in tune with God’s dream for this world around us.

I know. I hear the gears turning in your heads. That sounds like a lofty goal. But we aren’t Jesus – we are just mere mortals. Many of us, myself included, struggle to string actual words into real sentences before a sufficient amount of coffee in the morning, and we are being asked to emulate Son of God? It can all feel so impossible.

And that might be because we feel as though the work depends on our strength alone. Prayer is, in fact, not about us doing all the work, but about giving ourselves over to God in order that God might work in us. It is about recognizing the amazing invitation of Christ when he says “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.[3] The rest that we seek in God is found when we give over to God those things that weigh us down – our worry, our anxiety, our fear, our insecurities, and our pride. Prayer is “letting Jesus pray in [us], and beginning the lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action.”[4] Prayer is about gradually letting go in order to be apprehended by God all the more.

Growing up, I remember hearing the phrase “prayer changes things” a lot. In my younger years, I literally thought prayer was like magic spell from Harry Potter: say the right words with the right motion and presto! You’d get what you want. Except that prayer doesn’t really work that way. I can never, not one time, remember praying for something and getting exactly what I wanted.

I can remember being changed by encountering God over and over again, by offering God my deepest fears and wildest dreams. That’s how I learned that “prayer changes things” – by starting with us. By allowing Jesus to pray in us, we begin ceding to God the center of lives, not because our wishes, dreams, needs, and desires are bad, but in order to place them in the larger context of God’s ongoing divine activity in the world. When we do this – when we make God the center – our hearts expand to experience greater levels of the joy and pain of the human condition. In other words, in prayer we become more like Christ. Prayer is molding our language and our lives after the likeness of Christ in order that we might carry out his mission of compassion, grace, justice, and mercy in this world.

Evagrius Ponticus, one of the Desert Fathers who fled into the Egyptian desert to pursue a life of discipline and prayer, once said this: “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”[5] What he means by theologian has nothing to do with a field of academic study. He isn’t saying that to understand Christianity you must be a practitioner of Christianity. Rather, by theologian, he means a person whose life is perfectly oriented towards God. He is saying that prayer is both the end of our lives and the means to that end because the purpose of our lives is perfect communion with our Creator.

Prayer is a life lived Godward. The words we say, the rituals we perform, even coming to church each week – these are all incidents of prayer, meant to take place within the larger context of a life that is oriented more and more in a Godward direction. They are episodes of grace, meant to overflow and saturate every aspect of our lives until we, like Jacob, awaken to the blessed reality that, even in the midst of the chaos that should threaten to undo us, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and we did not know it!”

Amen.

[1] Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 1998), 4-5.

[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 61.

[3] Matthew 11.28

[4] Williams, Being Christian, 63.

[5] Evagrius Ponticus, De oratione 60.

And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’ 

Genesis 25:23

So, here we go again with the story of Abraham, this time featuring his son and daughter-in-law Isaac and Rebekah and grandsons Jacob and Esau. The lineage of this story matters to us because the promise of “blessing” and “greatness” that Abraham receives from God is a one that is carried in the literal DNA of Jesus Christ and lived out in the movement upon which Jesus innovates. Jesus’ example of “unequivocal love and obedience”[1] is a direct result of his saturation in Jewish faith and practice. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from the complicated, often deeply confusing, saga of Abraham, we simply cannot. Moreover, we cannot fully understand ourselves apart from the journey that he pioneered.

While it might appear foreign and deeply removed from our contemporary context, the Bible has a lot to say about living in the here and now. To be honest, beneath the complex layers of culture, geography, and time, our world is not all that much different from the world we see in Scripture. We still see the rise and fall of empires, though we currently just call them “nations” and “regimes”. We still witness plagues and wars, though we might just call them “epidemics” and “military interventions”. We still see the same gross incursions on human dignity decried by the prophets. We still struggle to hear the will of God with clarity and to act on it with courage. We still strive after an interior life of prayer to satisfy our souls’ deepest yearnings. We still wrestle with fundamental human ideals like compassion, justice, mercy, and what it means to be human in a highly complex world. We might want to resign the world of the Bible to some distant time “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” but in reality it is closer than we want to admit.

The story of Jacob and Esau that we hear about in today’s reading from Genesis is one that is rooted in struggles we can identify with in our contemporary context. It’s a power struggle that is rooted in the presumption of privilege and the perception of scarcity. Now, before we overlay our contemporary ethics onto this story, it might be helpful to know that, in the ancient world, the privilege of the first-born son, and the blessing that came with it, were means of survival. The birthright was the double portion of the father’s estate that would pass to the eldest son. Along with that birthright came a blessing from the father. Upon the death of the father, the eldest son who had both the birthright and the blessing took his place as the head of the family, but along with that privilege came an ethical responsibility to care for the family. Keeping a majority share of the wealth in the hands of one person ensured that it would provide for the family for many generations. The birthright and blessing weren’t to hoarded; rather, they were to be shared with the community. Remember God’s promise to Abraham “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.[2]

In this struggle between these two brothers we can hear echoes of many of the struggles in our contemporary life. When the perception of scarcity and the presumption of privilege drive the massive acquisition of wealth and resources without the necessary ethical responsibilities that mandate care for the poor and vulnerable, we see a world running hot to acquire but running cold on compassion. When money matters more than people; when we live our lives with our own self-interest at the center; when we deny the connective tissue that binds us to one another across difference in joy and struggle, in prosperity and adversity, in good times and in bad we witness the wholesale disintegration of the beloved community of God.

Perhaps the solution to the dysfunction we see around us is found not in hoarding rooted in fear, but in giving grounded in compassion. Now, compassion is one of those words we love to throw around in Church. We know we should strive to be compassionate, but I am not quite sure we know what it means. Dr. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, has a wonderful illustration of what it means to be compassionate. He roots it in our baptism which he suggests is deeply connected to the Incarnation – the event of cosmic solidarity where God directly infiltrated the human struggle. He asks,

‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos’. It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus – but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering, defenselessly alongside those in need. If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.[3]

There is a lot there to unpack, but what I hear Dr. Williams saying is that to be baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ is to not only to enter the ongoing story of God’s salvation enterprise, but it is also to become an agent in it. Don’t let the size of that font fool you – to be baptized is to enter the chaotic waters of God’s new creation. It is sopping-wet solidarity with every person whose life is one of suffering and chaos. And it is a direct commission to bear witness to Christ in the midst of it all.

Allow me to share with you a story: Eddie is a member of the Church of the Common Ground, a worshiping community of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that supports and ministers with people who are experiencing homelessness and abject poverty. Eddie was also one of the first people who greeted me when I came on staff as a pastoral intern several years ago. He is a tall, African American man with salt-and-pepper hair (more salt than pepper), an infectious laugh, and an amazing singing voice. He is a Vietnam War vet and I’m not sure that Eddie was technically experiencing homeless himself when I first met him, but I am sure that if he did have a roof over his head, it wasn’t a very stable one. He and I would talk often and I was always struck by the depth of his faith in God in a situation that would cause many to lose it. And not to romanticize poverty in any way, but Eddie had a quality of faith that you can only have when your back is against the wall.

Even with all his personal struggles, Eddie was always at the church. He helped to set up chairs for our weekly Bible study or AA meetings. He provided administrative support like sorting mail for the dozens of folks without homes who used the church as their mailing address. He set up the weekly foot clinic and even helped to wash the feet of many folks who, because they had no home, spent countless hours just walking. He was at our weekly celebration of Holy Communion in the park quite often and even occasionally provided music. His favorite song was “Won’t it be grand? / Won’t it be grand? / Won’t it be grand? / Won’t it be grand? / I’m going home to live with Jesus. Won’t it be grand?”

Eddie knows something about what it meant to be compassionate, to serve the poor, vulnerable, and suffering even, and especially, though he himself was counted among them. He knows what it means to live in the neighborhood of chaos, both literally and figuratively, and to bear witness to Christ in the midst of it all. Eddie knows what it means to be blessed so that he could be a blessing and it has nothing to do with a wealth of material possessions. It has everything to do with a wealth of the human heart that has awakened to the reality that it has been touched by the abundant love of God.

 

O, the world we would see if we would learn from folks like Eddie.

Wouldn’t it be grand?

 

[1] Rowan Williams. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 35.

[2] Genesis 12:2

[3] Williams, Being Christian, 4-5.

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When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Genesis 22:9

One of the jobs of the preacher is name the obvious, to give voice to the uncomfortable, rather larger elephant in the room. As such, allow me to say what I feel to be true: our story from Genesis strikes our post-modern, Western, Christian ears as grotesque. Even the possibility of human sacrifice, regardless of whether it actually happens or not, appears to be a remnant of a less-evolved, less-enlightened, hyper-religious worldview, and aren’t we so glad we don’t live in that world anymore?

It is also the job of the preacher to name the truth, to excavate beneath the ancient ruins of our faith, to find wonderful words of life for living here and now, in a world suffocating under a cloud of half-truths and fake news. As such, allow me to say what I feel to be true: that our story is anything but a grotesque remnant of days gone by. It is a story of deep yearning, a desire to hew “a stone of hope from a mountain of despair”, to quote the words of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This story – the so-called “Binding of Isaac” – gives us a glimpse into the lives of people trying to make sense of the mess around them.

To fully appreciate this narrative as beautifully complex, we must step outside of our post-modern, Western, Christian worldview into the worldview of an oppressed, exiled, dejected people who were taken from the homeland, who witnessed the desecration of their sacred traditions and holy spaces by conquering armies, who saw their homes destroyed and families scattered into an unknown land. They are the Jewish exiles enduring Babylonian captivity.

The sacking of the 2nd Great Temple of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire (70 C.E.) as captured on the Arch of Titus.

To be sure, stories of the so-called “Patriarchs” (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whom we have yet to meet this summer) had been passed down orally from generation to generation since time immemorial, but, as with all oral traditions, there was a fluidity in their telling. You know what I’m talking about, right? Many of us have family stories that we tell over and over, adding a bit of this and that each time, stories that remember loved ones as “larger than life.” Whether the story is true or not is unimportant. What is more important is our remembering because the way we remember helps us to know something of ourselves, something of our own deep desires.

When the Jewish people faced the humiliation and utter devastation of Babylonian exile, they looked to the stories of their faith to help them to know something of themselves, to articulate their deepest grief and desires. In fact, these stories meant so much to them that they decided to write them down so that generations of Jewish children yet unborn would know who they were. The community elders knew that chaos and calamity can breed amnesia, that people can be seduced into disremembering who they are when they are faced with the horror of the human condition. Sacred stories can be the antidote to that amnesia, a tether that moors us in the shifting tides of an increasingly uncertain life.

One of those stories is the “Binding of Isaac,” the story where the father of the Jewish people, Abraham, offers the son of the Promise, Isaac, on an altar as a sacrifice to God. Before we go further, we have to remember the promise from earlier in Genesis where God tells Abraham “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[1] Now, by the time Abraham receives this divine promise, he’s seventy-five years old, and, to state the obvious again, the likelihood that a seventy-five year old man could travel hundreds of miles, and produce and raise a child with his not-all-that-much-younger wife, is less-than-likely. To any ordinary person, this command might’ve seemed like a pipe-dream.

But Abraham is the stuff of legend. He goes boldly into the unknown again and again, embracing uncertainty and ambiguity. Sure, he makes some mistakes along the way, but the subtext of his life is that he is a man of great faith.

The command from God that we heard today in Genesis must be heard from that background, from the space of a community who needed to remember that their greatest ancestor, Abraham, was a man of great faith who followed God into the unknown, who trusted God even when the situation around him seemed the bleakest.

But there is another person who begs to be remembered – Isaac. Can you imagine the scene? The road up the mountain is dusty and a bit overgrown. No one has traveled this way in a long time. The sun is timidly climbing the morning sky, occasionally obscured by ominous clouds that threaten rain, but produce none. Isaac has sacrificed with his father before. He knows what is required. Wood? Check. Fire? Check. Lamb? Where’s the lamb?

“Daddy, where the lamb?”

He knows something is off, kids can pick up on these things no matter how much we adults attempt to obscure it. He wants to believe his gut is wrong. He wants his father to assure him that the churning in his stomach is unwarranted. But his father, wearing a face of stone to hide a heart in tatters, can only muster up this curt response, “God will provide.”

It’s not much consolation, so they keep walking up the overgrown, dusty trail into the unknown with nothing but wood, fire, and hope.

When they reach the top of the mountain, Abraham stops, builds an altar, carefully laying out the wood planks, and then he takes his son, his beloved son, and he binds him carefully with rope and lays him on the altar. Isaac’s is confronted by his deepest fear, but he says nothing because, in that moment, Abraham’s faith has become Isaac’s faith. His fear melts into duty as he willingly submits to the will of God even at the cost of his own life.

To our post-modern, Western, Christian ears, this story sounds grotesque, but to Jewish families living in Babylonian exile, this story is one of hope. They watched the utter destruction of their lives. They watched their brave husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons dutifully die in battle defending their small kingdom from the onslaught of the Babylonian army. They watched them die as heroes of their people. They watched them die as martyrs Kiddush Hashem (to sanctify the name of God). Isaac was all of their husbands, and brothers, and fathers, and sons who died defending their loved ones even though they lost the battle in the end. And even though he did not die, Isaac serves as one of the first Jewish martyrs, the person from whom all Jewish martyrs throughout history would take their hope and meaning. In calling Isaac to that altar, God was sanctifying every sacrificial death.

It might not make a whole of sense to us, but place yourself in the shoes of someone who has lost everything, who simply has to believe that the death of loved ones has to serve a higher purpose than simple, human cruelty, who has to believe that God would make something beautiful out of their pain.

We’ve been searching for hope in the midst of despair since, well, forever. Our stories might have different protagonists and antagonists, or take place in various times and places, or differ on the details. We might call the glorious dead ancestors, or martyrs, or heroes, or patriots, or pastors, or Civil Rights leaders, or innocent. They might have holidays and monuments to commemorate them, or streets that bear their names, or they might only have makeshift memorials on obscure sidewalks and hashtags on social media. Whoever they are, we have struggled to find meaning in their deaths and to ascribe higher value to their sacrifice because, at the point of death, those of us left behind need strength to keep living and fighting for justice, or freedom, or liberty, or peace…

…or hope.

Maybe that strength is found in faith, not unlike that of Abraham and Isaac, that the blessed promise of God – a promise composed around the soothing lullaby of God’s peace – sings quietly beneath the chaos and anxiety of the moment.

To state the obvious: that might just be the news the world needs to hear the most right now.

[1] Genesis 12:1

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At the beginning of his book Just Mercy, which explores the need for compassion in our criminal justice system, attorney, law professor, and Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson tells the story of how he stumbled into this area of advocacy. It begins with a nervous encounter with a man sentenced to death in the State of Georgia. His name is Henry.

Bryan, a paralegal intern at the time, was sent from Atlanta to rural Jackson, Georgia on behalf of the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee to inform Henry that, while they still didn’t have a lawyer to take up his case, he would not be executed for at least another twelve months. When Bryan arrived bearing what he felt to be ambivalent news at best, he describes his nervousness, his anxiety, the hovering sense of his own deep insufficiency.

The first words Bryan and Henry exchanged were filled with all the awkwardness Bryan had feared, but when Bryan shared what he thought to be ambivalent news, Henry was overjoyed. “Thank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news… I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. I just don’t want them here like that. Now I’m going to tell them they can come visit. Thank you!”

Bryan was astonished to find that his news had been received so well. Both he and Henry relaxed into the rest of their meeting, sharing stories and getting to know one another, talking about everything from family and music to life in prison, extending their meeting well past the original 1 hour time frame. When Henry began singing a hymn as the prison guard escorted him out of the visitation room, Bryan noted that “Henry had altered something in [his own] understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”

Before Henry, Bryan had experienced legal practice as theoretical and aloof. But through Henry, he discovered that proximity has the ability to humanize. As Bryan’s grandmother wisely noted to Bryan when he was a child, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”[1]

Our faith stories allow us to get close to some of the heroes of our sacred tradition in order that our proximity to those who came so close to God might humanize and color our interactions with one another. Today we hear the stories of two women, two rivals, two mothers – Sarah and Hagar.

Sarah was the wife of Abraham and Hagar was her slave. The two women should not have been rivals except that a few chapters before we encounter the part of the story we have just heard, we see the part of the story where Sarah (then called Sarai) gives Hagar to Abraham (then called Abram) in order that he might conceive a child, the heir he longed for. The problem comes when Sarai’s plan actually works and Hagar conceives and gives birth to Ishmael. Sarai becomes envious because with all her wealth and privilege as the wife of Abram, this slave-woman has something she cannot seem to have for herself – a son.

What is truly at stake here is a question of value: who matters and why? The ancient Near East was not exactly a society that greatly valued gender-equality. Men and women had very different, very rigid expectations. A woman’s value was often placed primarily on her ability to produce male heirs for her husband. Sarai was unable to have children and quite advanced in years. That’s why she “laughs” when she overhears God tell Abram that they will conceive a child.[2] So when Hagar actually does the thing that Sarai (now Sarah) is supposed to do, Hagar has seemingly (but against her will) usurped Sarai as the woman of the house. Even though Sarah later conceives and gives birth to her own son, Isaac, the die is cast for a dramatic showdown between these two unnecessary rivals, made enemies because of how society decides to apply value to their humanity.

This is the backdrop of today’s story. Isaac is three years old, Ishmael is seventeen, and these two brothers, whose mothers were set against each other as unnecessary rivals, are found playing, literally “laughing” together. The scene enrages Sarah who demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, ostensibly to die. The rivalry we witness in this story appears be based on a scarcity perspective of Abraham’s inheritance. This question of value and who matters and why is projected onto the next generation – onto two brothers playing and laughing together.

Dear friends in Christ, our world seems filled with unnecessary rivals. Our rivalries are racial, or religious, or political, or national, or ideological. We seem almost preprogrammed to see scarcity rather than enough, and as a result we hoard and collect when God is asking us to give and share. What we are left with is a world that has been carved up and divided among different tribes – Christians over here and Muslims over there, white and black people in different neighborhoods and schools, citizens and immigrants on separate sides of a wall.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that divvying up our world only prevents us from being able to see its rich abundance, and gives us fear and anxiety instead.

But if our story from Genesis is any consolation at all, God enters our greatest fear and anxiety with a counter-cultural message: there is enough. God hears Sarah’s anxiety about the inheritance for Isaac, and even subverts Sarah’s myopic request that Ishmael and Isaac not inherit together by saying that God will make a “great nation” of both Isaac and Ishmael. “I will make a nation of [Ishmael] also,” the Lord assures Abraham, “because he is your offspring.”[3] With God there is always enough.

And when Hagar and Ishmael are out wondering in the wilderness, God did not abandon them to death. Even when Hagar was at the end of her rope and left her son to die, or more likely to be picked up by slave traders, God is with them. God hears the prayer of Ishmael.

We are not told what Ishmael prays. We aren’t told whether it was Rite I or II. We aren’t allowed to overhear his plaintive cry. We aren’t shown a map of the tracks of his tears. But we are told that God hears him and God responds.

I’m not quite sure what to do with this void that scripture leaves us with. Oftentimes in scripture we tend to focus on the powerful voices: the Joshuas who conquer cities, or the Davids who slay giants, even the prophets who denounce rulers, but I wonder what we are to do with this void of voicelessness in the context of unnecessary rivals.

And I wonder if we aren’t being invited to offer it to those who feel voiceless around us:

Mothers burying sons at the hands of police brutality and the activists fighting for fundamental human value.

Families priced and pushed out of their homes in a housing crisis with no where to go.

Immigrant families searching for a better life.

Older people who aren’t quite sure what to make of all these changes.

Folks around us, in this very neighborhood, struggling with secret pain and destructive addictions, devoting all of their energy to maintaining the façade of perfection.

Maybe even our own voicelessness in the face of a world spinning wildly out of control.

I wonder what would happen if we filled our own prayers with the voiceless ones who should, by all accounts, be our rivals, but are the very people God wants us to see as human. I wonder what might happen if we prayed, not for God to change them, but to possibly to change us, to open our own ears to the voiceless ones around us.

And then, like Bryan, to have our hearts so moved by their songs, that we can’t help but respond with love, and compassion, and mercy.

[1] Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), 3-18.

[2] Genesis 18:5

[3] Genesis 21:13

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May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some of you know that I am a historian and a huge proponent of lifelong learning. In fact, tomorrow I will begin a series of yearly summer classes at the University of the South because I just can’t say “no” to a good class or seminar. When I was in seminary the first go around at the Interdenominational Theological Center, one of my favorite classes was apparently everyone else’s least favorite – Church History. Dr. Mark Ellingson, our church history professor, played no games when it came to reading and coming to class prepared. He set up his class in a such a way that you had to come prepared to debate one side or another of any number of the church’s ecumenical councils and synods: First Council of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Ephesus, Trent – these spaces the Church set up to wrestle with theological concepts regarding everything from Mary as Theotokos (or “God-bearer”) to how many bishops it takes to ordain a priest (which sounds a bit like how much bishops it takes to screw in a lightbulb).

I love Church History not only because I love the councils themselves, but I also love the process of debating, reasoning, and learning from one another. It is also true that Church councils were often replete with scandal and drama, not unlike a scintillating Netflix series, like the time Saint Nicholas (think Santa Claus) “allegedly” punched Arius in the face for suggesting that Christ was created by God and was not, in fact, himself God.

After the cessation of a series of persecutions and policies which forced the early church underground and out-of-sight, the early church became obsessed with what this whole “Trinity” business was all about. While it might be suggested that there were purely religious motives behind this question, I wonder if the question didn’t also have a practical dimension as well. The persecutions that the Early Church endured did not stem the flow of new converts; in fact, the result was quite the opposite. The heroic testimonies of brave women, men, and children going to their deaths singing the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms drew many others into the rapidly expanding fold of Christian faith. But the persecutions had also made many people afraid and ashamed to be Christian. Many Christians, seeking to save their own lives or the lives of their families, denounced Christ. When these persecutions came to an end – when it became legal and increasingly more popular to be a Christian – the Church had to wrestle with how they were called to relate to one another including those who had fallen away. I wonder if an underlying question around how God related to God’s self wasn’t also a question of how  Christians are called to relate to one another?

Our Gospel today is often held up as proof of Jesus’ affirmation of the existence of the Holy Trinity. Baptize “them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the Evangelist has Jesus say. But I want to draw our attention to this idea of baptism, this induction into the abundant life of God as the main point of the Great Commission – the job description that Jesus gives his followers right before his ascension. The whole point of the Church is to continue the fundamental work of Christ – to gather the whole world into the blessed community of God. Among other things, the Holy Trinity is an icon of how that community is supposed to operate.

Around the same time that Christianity came out of the shadows, many women and men decided to leave the cities and journey into the Egyptian desert to live either in semi-isolation or in intentional communities. These desert monastics were experimenting with radical concepts of Christian community and vocation. One such man, a monk named Pachomius, established a religious order in Upper Egypt that had at its heart the New Testament idea of koinonia, or fellowship. Relationships were to be mutual, hierarchy was meant to be practical and as flat as possible, and in all things God was to be centered, to the end that human beings would rediscover the image of God the each of them possessed. Horsiesius, who led Pachomius’ movement for a short time, encouraged his fellow monks with these words:

Therefore, brothers, let us be equal, from the least to the greatest, whether rich or poor, perfect in harmony and humility… Let no one look after his own pleasure when he sees a brother living in poverty and hardship… Our Lord and Savior gave his apostles this precept, “I gave you a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. By this you shall truly be known as my disciples” (John 13:34-35). We should, therefore, love one another and show that we are truly the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ and sons of Pachomius and disciples of the Koinonia.[1]

Early monasticism sought to reestablish the harmony that existed before sin corrupted and twisted human relationships.

Early church disputes over theology and orthodoxy can often be dismissed as irrelevant arguments over inane theological minutia; but, I believe the conversations were really about relationships – how God relates to God’s self, how we relate to God, how we relate to one another, how we relate to those who are not Christian, and how we related to those who have fallen away from the faith. I am not suggesting that we got it right. Rightness and wrongness are words that are often too small to capture the fullness of human contact and conversation. What I am suggesting is that there was, and still remains, a desire to understand more deeply how we are called to be with one another in the increasingly small and fragile world.

As an icon of perfected community, I believe that the Holy Trinity has much to teach us in this regard. Perfect, theocentric or “God-centered”, loving community is not defined by the space we take up, but in the space we give up. The three persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dance around one another, giving and filling space. It’s hard to describe and simply must just be experienced and savored. The heart of our God is one of hospitality – radically open space of welcome.

Remarking on the amazing depth of need for true hospitality in our contemporary world, Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen writes this:

Like the Semitic nomads, we live in a desert with many lonely travelers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink, and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.[2]

At its heart, Christian faith is about throwing open our doors to our weary world and inviting folks to drink from the fountain of eternal life.

Baptism, our waterborne new birth into the dynamic life of Christ, inducts us into that relationship. It’s more than celestial fire insurance; it’s is being conscripted into the saving community of Jesus, called to bear Christ out into the world through the currency of everyday relationships. Everything from how we say our prayers to how we disagree is meant to point beyond ourselves to a God who exists in such perfect harmony with God’s self that we are still struggling to put that relationship into words.

In trying to understand the intricacies of the interrelation between the persons of the Holy Trinity, it might be that the early Church made the perfect the enemy of the good, violently persecuting those who disagreed or deviated from the standard of orthodoxy. It might be that in their zeal to get it right, they missed the whole point of relationship to God: relationship, unity, love, koinonia, fellowship.

Last week I said that I do not believe that Jesus came into the world to give us one more thing to argue about, that we have more than enough. I deeply believe that. It’s not that our differences are inconsequential, but I believe we can learn far more from one another when we engage in mutually-affirming and compassionate conversations than when we throw people away as trash.

Before he was the leader of a monastic order, Pachomius was a conscript in the Roman army. During a stint in prison, Pachomius and a few of his friends were visited by some strangers who brought them food and drink. When Pachomius asked why these people showed kindness to those whom they did now know, one of his friends replied, “They are Christians, and Christians are merciful to everyone including strangers.”[3]

The best work we can do as a church actually costs us nothing but mindfulness and intentionality – it is simple kindness and mercy. It isn’t proving our rightness or someone else’s wrongness. It is about creating space for people to enter and to experience what the Church holds to be true – that despite the scarcity and anxiety around us, the abundant fountain of God’s grace still flows down like waters, and God’s love like an ever-flowing stream.

[1] Horsiesius, “The Testament of Horsiesius” in Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, William Harmless (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 158-159.

[2] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Random House, 1972), 95.

[3] Harmless, Desert Christians, 118.

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I grew up in a Baptist church that became increasingly more and more Pentecostal and Charismatic as I grew older. If you know anything about these movements then you know that isolated instances of charismatic worship have popped up in Christianity since the beginning, but took on new energy and fervor in the early 1900s when William Seymour, a black preacher from Louisiana, traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching launched a three-year revival. You heard me right. Not three days, but three years. The so-called Azusa Street Revival centered the movement of the Holy Spirit who Pentecostals believe would empower people to preach, testify, faint, and sing and speak in tongues. People would come from all over to attend these revivals and then carry this religious movement back to their home congregations, where many were ostracized for their new religious beliefs.

I remember growing up feeling as though my church was somehow more special than others because we believed the way we did. Although it wore the guise of humility, there was a spiritual pride in belonging to a church that had somehow gotten it right when it came to what Pentecost was all about – inexplicable and ecstatic spiritual experience.

The, perhaps intentional, fruit of this type of belief was an increasing isolation from the things of the world. I didn’t quite grow up in a house where dancing, music, and movies were forbidden, but I certainly remember feeling as though I was living under a microscope of sorts, like God was watching my every move and taking careful, copious notes. We believed that we were called to be radically different, set apart even, from the world around us. Rather than drawing the world together, it appeared to me that the work of the Holy Spirit was actually doing a lot more work to divide us.

As I have grown older and as I witness the increasing polarization, terrorism, and alienation in our world, I become more and more sure of one thing: division is not of God. Peace is. Christ did not come to give us one more thing to argue about. God knows we have more than enough. He came not only that we might have an example of living a radically compassionate life, but also so that he could destroy once-and-for-all what St. Paul calls “the dividing wall of hostility between us”[1] and invite us into the unity and love of God and the compassionate community that flows from that.

Let me give you an example: a few weeks ago I was teaching a weekend course on systemic oppression at Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka, Kansas where I serve as a member of the faculty. When I shared with the class that biological race does not actually exist, that I share as much in common biologically with Donald Trump as I do with Barack Obama, they were astounded. But it’s true. Race was made up for all sorts reasons, but especially to give us permission to hate one another. There are no huge, biological differences between human; it is literally all just skin deep; but, for centuries we have piled more and more meaning onto, something that ultimately does not exist. The result it what we see around us: deep skepticism and suspicion, calloused hearts and close hands, debilitating pain, and seemingly intractable suffering.

But into that conversation, which is fraught with many dangers, I hear the call of Christ to remember our vocation as peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they shall be called children of God.”[2] Our call is to remember that the ultimate work of dismantling division and estrangement has already been accomplished by Christ on the cross. Our work is to follow in his holy wake; to carry the message of peace, and compassion, and love into the world; to point to the reality that the things that divide us, the things that cause us to fight, the things that break relationships, are not more powerful than the love and the power of God to draw us all together.

That’s what I hear in the Pentecost story: I hear of a God who destroyed the illusion of debilitating difference and invited the whole world – regardless of language, place of origin, and ethnicity –  to share the story of God’s divine love. Here’s the truth: the story of God belongs to none of us because it belongs to all of us. What makes us different ought to not make us enemies. In fact, our differences ought to make us curious friends, searching both for common ground and for growing edges where we might learn.

Walter Brueggemann has a poem that I believe captures this quite eloquently:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
our great redeemer’s name:
To sing beyond ourselves, extravagantly,
with abandonment
beyond all our possibilities
and all our fears,
and all our hopes…
to our redeemer dear, the antidote to our death,
the salve to our wounds,
the resolve of our destructiveness…
A thousand, a million, a trillion tongues,
more than our own,
more than our tradition,
more than our theology,
more than our understanding,
tongues around us,
tongues among us,
tongues from our silenced parts.
Tongues from us to you in freedom and in courage,
finally ceding our lives and our loves to your good care.[3]

I get questions all the time about how I feel about speaking in tongues as an Episcopalian who grew up as a Pentecostal. My answer is this: when it comes to speaking in tongues I am favor of speaking in the kinds of tongues that bring peace, and courage, and understanding, and redemption, and love. Tongues that transcend and transfigure our understanding of human differences and call us deeper into truthful and honest relationship into one another. Those are the tongues I believe God is concerned about, and those are the tongues the Church is called to speak in.

 

[1] Ephesians 2:14

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 9.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A few years ago I was in a very, let’s just say, “interesting” time in my life.

I had just finished my year of Anglican studies at the University of the South and was anxiously awaiting my first call as a priest. I was ordained a deacon five months prior in the Diocese of Atlanta and at that time the Diocese of Atlanta had a policy that one was not ordained a priest without an actual call to serve as a priest, or at least that’s how I remember it. And four years ago, of the other three people with whom I was ordained a deacon, I was the only one who had yet to receive a call.

To be clear: it was not for lack of effort. I had discerned with churches all over northern Georgia – urban, rural, small, large, conservative, liberal – but none of these searches resulted in a call. After months of interviewing and hearing “no” after “no” after “no,” I began to doubt whether I was actually called to the priesthood in the first place. It wasn’t just “no,” it was a “no” that felt unfair, or a “no” that felt discriminatory, or a “no” that felt heartless. They were “no’s” that resurrected the ghost of a sort-of-pudgy, very unpopular, deeply insecure little boy – a ghost I thought I had exorcised a long time ago. If you’ve ever been in a space in your own life that was defined by an endless chorus of “no’s” then you know what I am talking about – the deep, soul-shaking, debilitating sense of self-doubt that begins to seep through the fraying seems of our world.

One of that hardest things I have ever had to do was to return to Atlanta on June 15, 2013 for the ordination to the priesthood of other three people with whom I was ordained a deacon. I sat in the cavernous nave of St. Philip’s Cathedral spiritually cold, trying my best to go through the liturgical motions, trying to keep a smile on my face, but in actuality I was hurting. People asked me what I had done wrong or where I had messed up so much that I began to feel like something was wrong with me, like God had lied to me or that I had misheard how God was calling me.

Even four years later, after spending close to three-and-a-half of those years as a priest in Kansas City, I would be lying to you if I said that I was completely over that experience. There are some situations that leave scars too deep to ever fully heal. But what I did learn was a valuable lesson in what happens in the meantime – those awkward middle spaces that each of us attempts to stumble through.

This past Thursday the Church marked the Feast of the Ascension – the moment when Jesus ascends bodily into heaven – scars and all – while his disciples stand below wondering what the heck is supposed to happen next. Before he goes, Jesus promises to send them another “comforter” to walk with them. The Ascension was the moment in which Jesus created the necessary vacuum of mission for the Church to step into. It was an act of radical hospitality, the practice of withdrawing to create enough room for the other to emerge more fully.

There is a mystical Jewish doctrine which suggests that in the beginning when God wanted to create, God’s glory filled everything and as such creation was impossible. In order to create, God first had to withdraw in order to leave an empty space large enough to create something that was “not God.” Whether or not this is true, I do not know. But I do like the idea of hospitality not necessarily being what we give and what we do, but the intentional space we make for others. In withdrawing from his early followers 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus was creating space for the disciples to step up and grow, and space to nurture the early church.

That’s the Ascension – Jesus handing the reigns of his fledgling movement into the hands of fragile human beings who he knew would royally screw it up. They would exclude people. They would persecute people. They would get drunk with the wine of worldly power. They would deny people the boundless fountain of God’s abundant grace. But they would also proclaim the good news. The would heal the sick. They would topple emperors and kingdoms. They would bear witness to the inbreaking of the holy Reign of God. They would give themselves away to something far greater than themselves. The Church is complex and messy because we are complex and messy and yet God still dares to believe in us.

 

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is his earnest petition to God to watch over us in the meantime, in those in-between spaces. 20th century mystic, theologian, and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Howard Thurman says that God places a crown over our “heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.” You and I are here, trying our hardest to step into the fullness of who God knows us to already be.

Our work in the meantime is to discover that for ourselves. Our work is to step into the space created when things don’t go as planned, when things go wrong, when people leave who were supposed to stay, when the world seems to be careening off the tracks or fraying at the edges and to discover over and over again that who we are is not contingent upon a position, a rank, or job, a marriage, a material possession, an achievement, it’s not even about who we once were. At the deepest, most fundamental level of our humanity, we are precious creations of God who loves us so much that it is quite literally ridiculous. When the rations of the world’s congratulations and affirmations are depleted, our work is to rediscover the well of God’s grace that will never run dry.

As much as we might want it to be, life is not an endless series of joys. Life is, well, life. We want so badly what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “full solar spirituality” because so many of us are afraid of what we discover in the darkness, in the silence, in the stillness, in the space in the meantime.

As some of you may know, I am a huge social media person. Part of it is who I am as a millennial. I wasn’t quite born with a device in my hand, but at this point, I have spent more years of my life with a cellphone than without. If you know anything about Twitter, it is kind of like walking into a loud room where literally millions of people are talking, exchanging ideas, shouting at one another, arguing over politics, sharing the latest hobbies, or just wasting time. In fact, when people are brand new to Twitter, they often describe it as “overwhelming,” like jumping off the diving board into a cyclone swirling in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This constant chatter is a part of the human experience now.

But this chatter isn’t unique to millennials. It wasn’t even invented by millennials. It is everywhere. It’s the music when we shop. It’s the radio in the car. It’s the television as background noise at home. It is persistent noise and constant static.

Now, I am not saying that music and social media are evil. I don’t believe there to be some nefarious plot to destroy the human race by cell phones and earbuds. By no means. But in the context of a society that is growing increasingly anxious while battling secret addictions to drugs, food, and rampant consumerism, the presence of constant noise raises interesting questions that we might need to wrestle with.

I wonder what we might be hiding from.

I wonder what it is in ourselves or in our society that we are so afraid to confront that we numb it with static.

I wonder what it is that we are afraid to discover in the empty spaces.

Our wiring, whenever we encounter one of those awkward in the meantime spaces is to run from it, to chase it away, to fill it, to exorcise it by any means necessary, but I wonder what it might be trying to tell us.

Those between spaces where we find ourselves a lot of the time are not punishment, they are just a part of life. They are spaces where the blessed dew of God’s grace has a tendency of collection. They are spaces where Jesus has a tendency of showing up in weird and unexpected ways. They might not even be trying to teach us anything aside from how complex life can be and about how we might discover new tools to find our way through.

What Barbara said last week is true – God will not leave us comfortless. It isn’t that the early followers of Jesus were just “up the creek without a paddle” after Jesus ascended. If you follow the story, the community went and prayed. They supported one another.

And sometimes just having friends in the meantime, a community to call home – a place of safety, security, and belonging – is more than enough.

Thanks be to God for “enough.”

Amen.

/ / Sermons