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.’
The question that the Pharisees ask Jesus is a question that has been asked time and time again anytime people of faith find themselves living within as system that does not reflect their values. Their question “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor” was really not about the emperor or Rome, but about how Jesus interpreted Jewish law.
You see, the Ten Commandments instructed the Jewish people that they should abstain from idolatry. “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” says the LORD God. The Biblical instruction against idolatry wasn’t merely a warning against bowing down and worshiping other Gods. It was also, and perhaps more fundamentally, about adopting values that were contrary to God. Although surrounded by people who worshipped other gods and who therefore had different values, the Jewish people were to refrain from worshiping those gods and adopting their values. “I am the LORD your God,” God says. “You shall have no other gods before me.”
For Rome, Caesar was a god. When Rome would conquer a new territory, they allowed them to retain the worship of their cultural gods, so long as prayers were offered to the Emperor. One of the problems that some traditional Jews had with Judaism under Roman occupation is that they believe that the Temple – the very address of God on earth – had been desecrated by sacrifices to the Roman Emperor.
The Pharisees (the sect of Judaism who regularly engages Jesus through the Gospels) were among those who shunned the temple system and refused to participate in what they believed was polluted worship. And being that Caesar’s (the God-Emperor’s) head was on the coins, engaging in commerce using Roman currency might have been seen by some as practicing idolatry. By asking Jesus “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” they were hoping to trip Jesus up by catching him saying something that would either be blasphemous to their faith (“Yes! Pay the tax!) or treasonous to the empire (“No! Resist taxation!”).
Jesus, ever the cleaver one, catches them in their trap and not only answers their question, but proves an amazing depth of knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. He flips it into a lesson on identity. “Give to Caesar what has Caesar’s image,” he says, “and give to God what bears God’s image.”
In the first creation myth found in the Book of Genesis, the writer says that after God had created light out of the darkness; suspended the dome of the sky from the scaffold of eternity and hung the sun, moon, and stars; dug out the oceans and hand-molded the continents; ordered a wide variety of blooming flowers; and hand-crafted the birds of the air, fish of the sea, and animals of the land; God sat down to make the crown of creation – human beings.
“’Let us make humankind in our image,’ God said, ‘according to our likeness…’
…So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.”
Beloved in Christ, you and I are created in the image of God. You and I bear the imprint of the very creator of the universe. When Jesus says, “give to God the things that are God’s,” it might be that he is saying “give God the things that bear God’s image. Give God your whole and entire self.”
Idolatry occurs when we give what belongs to God to anything that is not God: when our words suggest that we love God, but our priorities suggest otherwise; when we find ourselves too busy to pray or even to take time to rest and enjoy creation as God desires; when we fail to recognize who we are and whose we are. When that happens, we assume the values of the world around us: anxiety, fear, division, hatred and skepticism, greed and pride. Peace, love, mercy, compassion, justice, and grace only come when we align our priorities with the vision of God.
Listen, I know it is hard to consider giving our whole selves to God when there are so many other demands on our time and resources. We have children to raise, families to support, jobs to do, classes to pass, and projects to complete. God knows this. That might be why Jesus says to the Pharisees “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” In order to live in the world, there are some things that need to be done. But being in the world does not mean that we are of the world. We are called to be different in a way that bears witness to the reality of another kingdom, of another King, of another, higher way of being.
Do our priorities reflect what we say matters the most in your life? More importantly, do they match what God says is important? Do our schedules? Our bank accounts? Our relationships?
Do they match the image of a God so filled with love that that love overflowed and became the universe?
Do they match a God so compassionate that God stepped through the curtain of eternity onto the stage of time in order to rewrite our tragedy into a victory?
Do they match a God so filled with generosity, that God gave God’s only Son into the hands of the world so that the whole world might be brought back to God?
Do they match what we say each week: “All things come from you, O Lord. And of your own have we given you?”
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not” is the wrong question. It was intended to trap and confine. But Jesus, rather than try to trap them in return, responds with a Gospel that frees them from earthly anxiety if they cared to listen.
“You are created in God’s image,” he says. “Beloved, you are mine.”
 Exodus 20:4a
 Genesis 1:26-27
But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Matthew 22:5-7 (NRSV)
Today’s Gospel reading is one of those portions of scripture which should cause reasonable people to pause and ask – “Jesus said what?” It’s a hard story to hear. A king hosts a party and invites guests to attend, but when they refuse – “make light of” – the invitation, he insists upon their presence. When the guests rebel against the king’s insistence, the king responds by killing them and burning down their city. The violence doesn’t seem proportional or even necessary. The discomfort of our story is further compounded when the king kicks out another guest, one of the random people he begged to attend, because the guest isn’t wearing the right clothes.
Now, there is much to be said about the hyperbole of parables – the way Jesus paints a dramatic picture to shock his audience into response. There is also a case to be made about metaphor and deeper meaning. After all, the Gospel of Matthew was written after the sacking of Jerusalem and the utter destruction of the Second Temple, one of the most traumatic historical events for the Jewish community. For them, the idea of a vengeful ruler burning a city wasn’t theory. It was memory. The entire dispersed community of Jews must have tried to make sense of a level of devastation that many of us can’t even imagine. The Jewish community that followed Jesus might have interpreted these events in light of an apocalyptic vision – God’s judgment against a corrupt system that failed to honor their sacred traditions. And this judgment wasn’t just pointed at others, but inasmuch as the wedding guest was kicked out for not wearing the correct clothes, they would’ve been aware that the judgment of God could easily land in their own laps as well. Being “called” wasn’t enough. One had to respond to the call in order to be worthy.
Even so, this parable is troubling. For Episcopalians who often pride ourselves on welcome and hospitality, hearing a parable about compulsion, demands, worthiness, and judgment can be hard to hear. What do we do when we are faced with a God filled with wrath? How do we hold this image of God while also holding the image of a God who is love?
Maybe we begin by holding these images, not allowing one to overcome the other, but allowing ourselves the space to live in the tension of a God of wrath and a God of love. In reality, God is complicated and mysterious. If the arc of scripture teaches us anything, it is that God always resists our futile attempts at domestication. It is how God can be both gentle shepherd and commanding general, loving father and nurturing mother, thundering cloud and a “still, small voice.” God is complicated and rather than attempting to iron out the wrinkles, I wonder what we might learn by living in the untidiness of it all.
Our world is untidy, to say the least. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and many other places in the Caribbean are facing unthinkable humanitarian crises after a series of devastating hurricanes. Wild fires rage in California, threatening to burn whole cities. Our nation is still in disbelief after a terrorist shot and killed dozens of people and injured hundreds of others. This is just the news of the past two weeks, to say nothing of the personal struggles that many of us carry with us all the time. Perhaps an untidy world needs an untidy God to help us make sense of it all, or at the very least to walk with us through the mess. Perhaps a simplistic faith is simply incapable of holding both challenge and the idol of one-dimensional God, not unlike the Golden Calf – a God we can create, see, carry, and control.
While this untidiness might be uncomfortable, our faith is deepened when we ask the hard questions, when we wrestle with determination, when we persist beyond simple answers and half-truths. But this wrestling is optional. There are many, dare I say most, who are satisfied on the surface. For them, ignorance is bliss. But I wonder what lies just beneath the surface of faith? What joys and sorrows? What gifts and challenges? What revelations and mysteries? Musing on the blessings found only in the dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes beautifully about what she calls “spiritual bypassing,” avoiding discomfort instead of allowing that discomfort to be the “best, most demanding spiritual teachers we may ever know.” She asks a searching question, “Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape. The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of a blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.”
Questioning saved my faith by deepening it. At some point simple answer and platitudes stopped working. As a young man struggling with identity and belief, I needed something more than what I had been given. I wish I could say that asking questions resulted in tidy answers, but they actually tended to lead to more questions. It often feels like I am lost in a maze, except that our journey with God might be more of a labyrinth – one way in and one way out. At least for me, the creeds, the Book of Common Prayer, and the faith passed down to me by countless ancestors often function as large stones of faith upon which I might rest as I attempt to traverse the often torrential current of life. Even still, the journey switches back and forth, curves around and around, and can sometimes feel as though we are walking in the opposite direction of our goal. But, to borrow from Rachel Held Evans, “No step taken in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new.”
Life is messy and living a life of faith doesn’t make it easier. Rather than provide avenues of ease, faith provides us with eyes to see and a heart to experience life’s challenges through the perspective of the Paschal Mystery – the death and resurrection of Jesus, a pattern that emerges in our lives over and over again.
Death and resurrection, and here we are hanging somewhere in the middle.
I seem to recall someone else hanging here too.
 Ibid., p. 36.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Matthew 18:21, 22
The theme of our Gospel this morning can feel deceptively simple – forgiveness. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if someone in the community sins against me how many times should I forgive? Seven times?”
Seven feels appropriate. Adequate. It’s more than once, so I am not a complete jerk, but doesn’t give grace away too freely. After all, what would the community or society think of us if we were me give grace away wastefully? I do have an image to uphold.
In response to Peter’s reason, Jesus responds by suggesting that forgiveness is an open-ended process. “Not seven times,” he says, “but infinity. Shape your life around the practice of forgiveness.” According to Jesus, forgiveness is not transactional. Forgiveness is a posture, a way of being in the world, a way of openness, and generosity, and grace.
I believe many of us know that. Anyone with any passing knowledge of Christianity knows that forgiveness is at the center of our faith. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer. We know the “what,” but I often wonder if we understand the “why?” Why must we forgive those in the community who sin against us? Why does Jesus remove the loopholes or excuses we are so desirous of finding? Why does forgiveness matter so much to God that, at least as the parable frames it, God is willing to stake our very salvation on it?
I ran across a children’s book this week called The Mountain that loved a Bird by Alice McLerran. At face value, the book isn’t really about forgiveness. Rather, it is about the new creation that is possible through brokenness and vulnerability and that’s where it dovetails nicely with the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness is, at its heart, about new creation. The book is about “a Mountain made of bare stone. It stood alone in the middle of a desert plain. No plant grew on its hard slopes, nor could any animal, bird, or insect live there.” As we further enter the story, a bird named Joy appears one day and chooses to rest on the top of this lonely Mountain as she continues her journey to find a place to build a home. Joy sings to the Mountain who, starved for love and community, says to Joy, “I have never seen anything like you before… Must you go on? Couldn’t you just stay forever?” Joy responds, “Birds are living things… We must have food and water. Nothing grows here for me to eat; there are no streams from which I could drink.”
As the conversation continues, we discover that Joy is moved that the Mountain actually cares about her. No other Mountain had ever asked her to stay. She decides that she will continue on her journey, but that she would return each spring to visit the Mountain. She even pledges to teach her children to visit the Mountain on their journeys to find new homes so that long after she was gone, Joy would still come to the Mountain. “The Mountain was both happy and sad. ‘I still wish you could stay…but I am glad you will return.’”
Joy visited for many years. Each time Joy visited she would say “I am Joy, and I have come to greet you.” But each time Joy left, the Mountain grew more and more sad. One spring, as Joy was leaving, the Mountain’s heart broke. “The hard stone cracked, and from the deepest part of the Mountain tears gushed forth and rolled down the mountainside in a stream. The following spring, when Joy came singing “I am Joy, and I have come to greet you,” the Mountain did not reply. It only wept, grieving the fact that Joy would soon be leaving. “When it was time for her to go, the Mountain still wept. ‘I will return next year,’ said Joy softly, and she flew away.”
That next Spring, Joy came carrying a small seed. The Mountain was still weeping. Joy searched for a tiny crack in which to hide her precious gift. She tried to sing to the Mountain, but “seeing that the Mountain was still unable to speak, she flew away once more.” During the next few weeks, that precious seed in the tiny crack began to grow. Its tender roots slowly broke apart the hard stone of the Mountain, drawing nourishment from the softening rock. That next Spring, Joy brought another seed, and then another, and then another. She still sang to the Mountain, even though the Mountain was still only able to weep.
As years passed, the roots of the plants that sprung from the seeds that Joy brought during her visits softened that hardness of the Mountain. “As softened stone turned to soil, moss began to grow in sheltered corners.” All types of green growing things began to spring up all over this formerly barren, hard Mountain. Eventually a tree even grew. It’s strong roots reached to the heart of the Mountain, and as “the Mountain began to notice the changes that had been taking place… the Mountain’s tears changed to tears of happiness.” Joy still visited bring more and more seeds.
Eventually, the green from the Mountain began to flow out into barren plain until all the Mountain could see was life and beauty. Animals of all kinds came to the Mountain and found home and rest. “Opening its deepest heart to the roots of the trees, [the Mountain] offered them all its strength. The trees stretched their branches yet higher toward the sky, and hope ran like a song from the heart of the Mountain into every tree leaf.”
That next spring Joy came, but instead of a seed, she carried small twig. She circled high in the sky and landed on the branch of the tallest tree which had grown from that first seed planted so many years ago. “She placed the twig on the branch in which she would build her nest. ‘I am Joy,’ she sang, ‘and I have come to stay.’”
I am Joy, and I have come to stay.
Jesus’ invitation into a life of forgiveness is an invitation us to be continually born again, perpetually born anew, to share in the continued unfolding of creation right before of our eyes. Living in any kind of community, but especially an explicitly Christian community, is a school for charity. Community is where we learn how to love one another, not through forums and lectures and classes, but through the grinding nature of relationships that soften our jagged edges.
Joan Chittister suggests that “Holiness… is not something that happens in a vacuum. It has something to do with the way we live our community lives and our family lives and our public lives as well as the way we say our prayers.” What she is saying is that there is something germane to the very nature of community that is meant to produce in us the compassion, the love, and the grace of God. Its why we need one another, why our fullest humanity is expressed in community. It is not just the positive experiences, the transcendent worship, or friendly relationships. Sometimes it is the hard times that prove to be the most transformational – the times we deeply hurt one another, the times we fail to listen generously, the times we insist on our own way, the times we would rather be right than be in relationship with one another.
If we live in community long enough, we will have ample opportunities to forgive and to be forgiven. Just as sure as the sky is blue, each one of us will be on either side of that encounter. How we navigate those spaces is what is important because one thing is clear: forgiveness is a big deal to God. In his essay on “Forgiveness,” C.S. Lewis says plainly, “To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you… to refuse is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.”
To refuse a life of forgiveness is to choose to remain as the “Mountain made of bare stone” that “stood alone in the middle of a desert plain.” It is to choose to remain isolated, and cold, and lonely, and hardened, and inhospitable.
To refuse is to give Joy no place to live and build a home in your life.
Forgiveness isn’t easy and often it is an open-ended process. But if we are desirous of Joy taking up residence in our lives we must risk the vulnerability of forgiveness. We must allow our hearts to break for the pain and suffering that might experience. We must allow our brokenness to cradle and cultivate the seeds of a new creation.
Joy is here. Can you hear her?
Will you give her a place to stay?
 Alice McLerran, The Mountain that loved a Bird (Natick: Picture Book Studio USA, 1985)
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroads, 2010), p. 25.
 C.S. Lewis, “Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 182-183.
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.
Eight years ago I was a religious pilgrim searching for a new faith community that would honor my identity and help me live out the vocation to which God was calling me. For reasons I am not quite sure about, I found myself tuning into the livestream of the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church meeting in Anaheim, California. I had never seen anything like it: a global church wrestling with what it meant to live in mission, not in the sense of conquering people or converting souls, but in the sense of serving and blessing people, of bearing witness to the compassionate heart of God that beats for all of Creation. I was drawn into the often contentious and confusing yet exhilarating conversations about a bold church going beyond well-worn paths of comfort and safety, carrying their sacred stories and blessed traditions into the wide unknown of God.
I was particularly drawn to a sermon preached by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, then-Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Riffing on Ezekiel 36, Bishop Schori diagnosed the church as needing a “new heart” to embrace the current religious realities of our world with boldness. She warned, “The heart of this church will turn to stone if we think that our primary mission work is to those already in the pews inside our beautiful churches or to those at other altars. We are in a state of cardiac crisis if we think we can close our doors and swing our incense and sing our hymns and all will be right with the world.”
Bishop Schori touches on a reality that is being faced by more and more churches in the United States. Declining wealth, privilege, attendance, and power have resulted in a church that is often unsure how to engage the world around us. We are used to the “Field of Dreams” model of doing church: build it and they will come. If only we had more programs for families, or a bigger choir, or a more contemporary service then people will come to our church. That model is broken and we are being challenged to recover the heart of mission that is at the center of our faith – a willingness to enter the vocation of compassionate servanthood for the world around us.
The mission of the Church of God is to perpetually be on the move, going from place to place, traveling lightly, never fully resting or putting down roots until all God’s children have found their way home. Mission is movement and movement is mission. We see this in our lesson from the book of Exodus where Moses goes to the people of Israel to tell them to prepare to be on the move. Liberation from Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt was a movement from their current reality to the blessed hope of freedom in God. It required the people to prepare their minds for the journey, to leave behind things and ways of being that were unnecessary, to carry forth in their stories and in their bones the faith of their people. They were called to be a prayerful people on the move living out the Abrahamic blessing: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
137 years ago, a faithful group of Episcopalians founded a church in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. They quickly built a chapel on Hennepin Avenue between 12th and 13th streets, and within a year the new church was already too small for the burgeoning congregation. By 1892, twelve years after its founding, Saint Paul’s parish had over 450 active members and they faced a decision. With the city expanding south taking many of its members with it, they decided to follow the growth, cutting the building into 5 pieces and moving it south to the southeast corner of Franklin and Bryant just up the road. You can imagine what a feat it must’ve been to do this around the turn of the century, but they did it. An article written in the Minneapolis Journal states that “with the removal, the parish limits have been extended embracing a very desirable part of the city in which there are at present very few churches.” You see, woven deep into the DNA of the place is a heart of mission – a heart that desires to seek and serve the neighborhood and city.
They also had challenges. They faced crushing debt and deficits that threatened to drown the new church time and again, but each time they found a way to work through it. People gave and served and built and led and stepped up to meet the challenges of the moment. Idleness and consumerism wasn’t an option. If the heart of the church is mission, then the blood is the effort of the people it gathers – people who have heard the call to serve, people so filled with gratitude for the love of God that they feel in their hearts that they cannot help but to pay it forward. You and I are the fuel that drives the mission of God forth in this neighborhood.
Truth be told, we are a long way from the dream of compassion, and justice, and peace that God has for this world, even locally in this neighborhood. But the work that we do en route to the fullness of God’s reign must be shared by each of us. Each and every one of us is called to set about doing the work that God has given us to do. That is true in both a global and a local sense.
Joan Chittister, a sister of the Order of St. Benedict, has written at length about the wisdom the modern world can learn from the centuries-old tradition of Benedictine spirituality. St. Benedict faced a world not unlike our own. Geopolitical turmoil. Stagnant and declining economy. A Church struggling for identity. Into the messy atmosphere, Benedict innovated upon an old model to create a new way of being Christian in the world. His monasteries were communities centered around the sanctifying rhythm of prayer and work. One could not exist without the other. Joan Chittister writes that “Work and prayer are opposite sides of the great coin of life that is both holy and useful, immersed in God and dedicated to the transcendent in the human. It is labor’s transfiguration of the commonplace, the transformation of the ordinary that makes cocreators of us all.”
For Joan Chittster, for St. Benedict, for the blessed souls who founded this community faith over 137 years ago and courageously moved it to meet the challenges of the 20th century, for the early Christians living their faith in the absence of power and prestige, for the Israelites leaving the old life of slavery and entering a new life of promise, work and prayer go together like peanut butter & jelly, red beans & rice, peas & carrots, cheese curds & and ice-cold pop.
You want to change the world? How about starting close to home? How about joining me, the wardens, the Vestry, the commissions, the committees, the guilds, the groups and serve this neighborhood and this city? How about joining with our Outreach group to serve those experiencing homelessness or food insecurity and advocate for a more just and fair world in which homelessness and hunger are no longer a reality? How about serving with our Altar Guild to care for this sacred space as an oasis of divine beauty in a world filled with far too much ugliness? How about joining our Inquirer’s Class to learn more about this faith that we proclaim and what difference Jesus makes in our world today?
The work of this prayerful community on the move need you. We need you to volunteer, to support, to give, to share, and to dare to create or else the mission of God might not penetrate as deeply or God’s love shines as brightly throughout this neighborhood and city from our humble corner. Your hands, your voice, your wisdom, your presence combined with those of everyone else and those who have come before and the grace of God is enough to meet the challenges this missional moment presents.
We have come to prayer and God is calling us to get to work.
The time has come for us to recover our missional heart.
Beloved, it is time to get down to business.
 Genesis 12:3b (NRSV)
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroads, 2010), p. 211.
When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
In his book Where God Happens, Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests that the “church is always renewed from the edges rather than from the center,” that it matters what voices we listen to because they will shape how we live out our mission as the Body of Christ. If this is true, and I believe it is, then it behooves us to pay close attention to scripture, particularly to the voices that too often get shafted in favor of others. To be perfectly honest, many times it is the voices of women who get shafted in favor of men. Women often exist in scripture as objects that prop up the better-developed narratives of men.
Our reading from Exodus is no different. Those of us with any passing knowledge of scripture assume that Exodus is really all about Moses leading the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Right? Except that focusing solely on Moses alone as an agent of God completely misses the community of women who saved him over and over again. Even in the face of incomprehensible odds, the women around the supposed central character in Exodus find ways of creatively crafting courageous communities of co-conspirators with the sole purpose of preserving and protecting life.
In her essay on the book of “Exodus,” Hebrew Bible scholar Judy Fentress-Williams, priest and professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, suggests that contrary to the cult of personality that has been built up around Moses, at least as Exodus describes him “Moses was a reluctant, seemingly ill-suited leader who never made peace with his role as prophet.” Fentress-Williams astutely points out that “the agents of redemption are women, sometimes foreign, and marginalized” and that unlike Moses “the women in these stories work with others, using a variety of methods to redeem life.”
Now, I must admit, when I first reflected on the words of Dr. Fentress-Williams, I had to let it sit and marinate a bit. I had to peel back the layers of my own male privilege and understand how and why this story was constructed to place Moses at the center even when there was this whole community of courageous women around him working every step of the way to save his life. What if Exodus is less about us being like Moses and more about us following the blessed steps of Shiprah and Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter? What if Exodus is trying to teach us how to dismantle division and injustice by reminding us about the power of creatively collaborative communities?
It is no secret that we are living in an incredibly polarized society. Rather than seeking common ground to progress our common life, our public discourse has become a series of slug fests with the winner being the one who can land the hardest punch. Our politician don’t seem terribly interesting in collaboration and often opt for conquest instead. I have spoken to enough of you to know that as entertaining as this might be for a brief moment, watching our society spin apart is incredibly exhausting. Reflecting on the aftermath of the first world war and civil unrest in his native Ireland in his 1919 poem entitled “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats writes a poem whose words sound strikingly appropriate for our context nearly a century later:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What are we do to when all around us feels unsteady, uncertain, and frankly quite frightening? What do we do when the world is spinning apart? I’ll tell you what. We put on courage and creativity and we recreate the community we want to see and experience. We do like Puah and Shiprah, Jocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughters and work across our differences to preserve life even in the midst of death. We start from what we have in common, and then from that place of connection, seek to craft a new world baptized in compassion and nourished in grace.
Social media has had a tendency of late to be used towards negative means – bullying, hate speech, and general nastiness abound on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But every now and then, at least for me, social media also demonstrates a strong capacity to connect. I found out that I would be moving here around the same time a friend I had long admired but never met on social media was returning to Minnesota after several years away. His name is Chris. At first appearances, Chris and I probably shouldn’t be friends. He’s is a 6’4”, white, native Minnesotan, with a sleeve of tattoos on both arms and body mod piercings. I, on the other hand am a 6’1.5”, black, sweet-tea drinking southerner, whose ear piercings have long closed, and the closest I have ever come to a tattoo was one of those washable ones that used to come in a Cracker Jack box. Chris is also an atheist and I a Christian. There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t be friends, and yet we are. We both bear the scars of Christianity that too often forgets to love. I bear the scars of white classmates calling me the n-word in high school because they though it was funny. He bears the scars of being attacked in a Chicago subway for being gay. And yet, friendship is what we have because, in addition to him simply being awesome, we both share a desire to live compassionately and gracefully in the world. In his book Faithiest, Chris shares the wisdom he has gleaned from years of working in interfaith spaces across great chasms of difference. He writes that what the world needs now is “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with the things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.”
I couldn’t agree more. The world doesn’t need any more division, tribalism, talk of scarcity, and fear-mongering. The world needs compassion. We – you and I – we need to remember and recover compassion. We need one another. We need community. We need “love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”
We need to reach out to build new bridges with our neighbors of different religious and non-religious backgrounds, different ethnic and racial identifications, different socio-economic realities. That’s why Paul and I have been working on a small conversation group between a few parishioners of Saint Paul’s Church and Saint Mark’s Cathedral along with some folks from Masjid An-Nur in North Minneapolis to build new relationships of mutual understanding across lines of racial, religious, and socioeconomic difference.
As people of faith in continuity with the tradition of Moses, as human beings in the tradition of Puah and Shiprah, Jocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter, we are called to put on courage, to awaken creativity, and to reconstruct connections that ultimately destroy hate, misunderstanding, bigotry, and fear.
Eboo Patel, a Muslim-American and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes that “when thousands of people discover that their story is also someone else’s story, they have a chance of writing a new story together.”
Beloved, it is time to write a new story. It is time to sing new songs. It is time to pursue a different destiny. It is time to build some new relationships. It is time to recover the voices we might have lost and overlooked, to graft their hymns into our hearts, and to reach beyond our own places of safety into the untamed wildness of the Spirit of God.
It is time, for old words and songs of fear of division have grown stale, and there are words of love which demand that you and I speak them.
 Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds Books, 2005), p. 111.
 Judy Fentress-Williams, “Exodus” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Hugh R. Page, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 82.
 W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
 Chris Stedman, Faithiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), p. 133.
 Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon, 2007), p. 181.
Before I say anything else in this sermon, I have to tell you that the events of this past week in VA and the aftermath of more hatred spewed via our national leaders, social media and newspapers have me in a tailspin. I am sick to my stomach. I am certain that all of us here feel much the same way. I am frightened that if we wait any longer that we might not be able to turn back the tide that is barreling its great wave of hatred, disregard towards other humans. I am trying to find that hope that can only be found in God. But I realize I must first look at my own demons of privilege, prejudice and inadequacies as a child of God in today’s moral climate. Finding the courage to wrestle with them. Praying for forgiveness and courage to then act.
I confess that I am a person of White Privilege. By White Privilege I do not intend to state that I am a person of great financial means, nor that I am a person with much land and material goods. Nor even that I am a person of great power and sway in the world. I am a person of White Privilege because, despite the poverty, family violence, alcoholism, and abuse in my home and in the homes of my 2 childhood friends…they had it worse than me.
For you see…They had the great misfortune to be born Black and Native American.
In a town so small…10 square blocks by 10 square blocks, one can’t NOT see how each person is treated. Even I, bad off as I was, could still walk into Margaret’s Variety store and receive a hello and a smile. I’m pretty sure most of that was pity. However, pitied as I was, people did not walk away when I passed by, they didn’t clean the public water fountain after I drank from it. When my 2 friends were with me…in any public place…they were ignored or stared at to ensure that they didn’t ‘steal’ anything…some people walked away to avoid having to say ‘hi’ or even recognize my 2 friends. The care taker of the water fountain would make a big show of cleaning it after my friends were done drinking.
When by myself in a store, owners and other ‘good meaning’ adults would urge me to stay away from those 2 girls… didn’t I know they were ‘trouble’? I was still young and naïve enough that I didn’t know they were ‘trouble’. They never seemed to do anything more wrong than I ever did. I went to my older sister asking why they were ‘trouble’. She told me, “Bubsy, don’t you realize, they’re not White!” Huh, I did not even think of that…she opened my eyes so thoroughly and rudely that day that I ached from, what was then, was an unnamable but constant ailment plaguing me through childhood.
I have never forgotten how those townspeople treated my friends. I have never forgotten why they treated me differently. Those childhood experiences influenced me so greatly that I made it my life’s passion to ACTIVELY ENGAGE IN working towards a better world for ALL PEOPLE. However, before I could help anyone else, I had some very painful personal work I needed to do: I had to wrestle with myself naming my own biases, prejudices and privileges before I could grow, emotionally or spiritually enough to work with and advocate for others who could not speak for themselves whether it be due to color, gender, poverty, MI or cultural issues.
This working towards recognizing my privileges, admitting and moving beyond my own biases and prejudices more deeply into God’s truth has been and continues to be a MOST difficult process. But then without it how could I or anybody else for that matter, possibly grow?
I realize that my naming it aloud to this community today may not change anybody or anything …but, I reason, if we don’t somewhere…like here in our faith community….where and wehnwill we sart to look inside? Each and every one of us has biases, prejudices, and they don’t go away without being tested/challenged by people and events that we encounter through life. So, just HOW serious or close to us does an event have to be….before we recognize that the ball of vitriol, hate, racism, gender bias stops here…in our Court…our faith community???
Well, For Jesus, the time came for him when he encountered the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading today …this gospel tidbit is shocking! He actually IGNORES the Canaanite woman, IF I DON’T REACT THEN SHE WILL GO AWAY AND HER PROBLEM IS NOT MINE. when she refuses to be ignored, he then speaks words that smack of exclusivity! ‘SHE IS OTHER THAN THOSE WHOM HE WAS SENT FOR. Lastly, he compares her to a ‘dog’… the lowest of the low…the ‘uncleanest’. This is the same man that advised the Pharisees to change their hypocritical ways and watch what spews forth from their hearts. What is wrong with Jesus???….praise to the Canaanite woman: courage, faith, concern for another greater than her concern for her station in life led her to match Jesus comment for comment…and Jesus stops… becoming silent. He is stunned, He has been caught with his compassion down. He was so sure that he was doing what God asked him that his HEART was closed.
That Canaanite woman was his experience of having to stand back and wrestle: recognize his bias, prejudice, short-sightedness before he could act and move forward deeper in God’s truth. God’s truth…LOVE FOR ALL HUMANITY. For in fact, we are worthy in no other way than that God created us and loves us. He gave us Jesus, to help us understand the deepness of that love. We can’t claim it is because of our color, our intelligence, our ‘good breeding’…it’s there for everybody…weak or strong…smelly or clean…smart or lacking. Who are we, mere humans to decide who is worthy and who isn’t?? Yet we do it every day…without even recognizing it!!
Yes, even Jesus had to look into himself as the fully human he was, recognizing his own role in perpetuating exclusivism, racism, gender bias. Wrestling with it to hear God and then act…He healed her daughter. He accepted that her faith in that instance was broader than his own!
For our community, does not the event in Charlottesville, VA hit us so hard in our guts that we too ache with moral/spiritual pain? Does that situation not bring to mind some of our own times when we have rationalized our way out of acting of behalf of others? D Do we not shrink inside at our won pettiness towards others?
Jesus, in today’s gospel showed us that painful as it is…internal wrestling leads the way to action and then change and then love..love as God would have us love.
Let us wrestle together in community, not only to recognize where we are weak and in denial but also to give voice to that which we won’t face so we can receive God’s grace and move deeper into God’s truth. Gaining the courage to risk being called ‘dogs’ as we work faithfully for justice for all God’s children.
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.
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
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.
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.
 Audre Lord, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 36.
 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.”
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” 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.” 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.
 Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 132.
 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.’
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”. 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.” 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”. 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.” 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.” 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!”
 Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 1998), 4-5.
 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 61.
 Matthew 11.28
 Williams, Being Christian, 63.
 Evagrius Ponticus, De oratione 60.