What will you share?

If I were preaching tomorrow (which I am not), I might be inclined to ask.

Now that everyone can distribute crumbs among the masses with a keystroke, what will we share?

Crumbs of comfort, or of shame;

kernels of truth, or disinformation;

pieces of repentance, or of pride;

the bread of life, or poison?

This is not a call to put on a happy face, nor to pretend that all is well in a world where still we pray, fervently, “thy kingdom come, but soon, please, soon …”

Comfort comes on the heels of grief;

truth can be hard to swallow;

repentance reflects on the rough stuff;

but when Jesus saw the people spread out on the hillside like sheep, like sheep without a shepherd, he had compassion for them, and he had mercy. He fed them with the bread of life: his life. He gave thanks, broke the bread, and had his disciples distribute enough, with baskets returned to them, enough to sustain them on their journey home across the small Sea.

Whatever we share among the masses, will it be worthy of partaking in memory of him?

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Who among you: an open letter about guns

An open letter to the Ohio Senate 133rd General Assembly regarding Senate Bill 137: Exempt from training if allowed to go armed in school safety zone


[Jesus said] “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Matthew 6:9-10)

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a lesson, will show them a gun?

Asking a teacher to carry a gun into a classroom is asking for trouble. It introduces the means of deadly accident, of impulsive and irreversible injury, to a place that should be intent on the promotion of life and flourishing. It increases the escalation of violence in our communities, the reliance on violent force to quell our fears. Caution: the threat of violence does not diminish the risk of actual physical and moral injury.

Asking a teacher to carry a gun as though they go into battle when they go into school, even when they are not trained as soldiers, is asking for trouble. Specifically exempting such faculty and staff from proper training in the deployment or restraint of their weapons in the course of their work is actively courting trouble.

I commend to you the report of the American Bar Association: they have done the research. I do the preaching.

Introducing the means of deadly force to an environment where already those most in need of protection from discrimination and indignity are those most likely to suffer from them ratchets up the righteous anxiety of those students. It is asking for trouble.

The introduction of a deadly weapon to a classroom, even if the worst never happens, risks moral injury. To carry a gun is to consider using it. It introduces a note of defensiveness and offensive weaponry to every social interaction. It diminishes the scope of our compassion by offering a solution to situations that bypasses more patient and difficult means of resolution. It does not belong in an environment designed to provoke problem-solving, learning, and the growth and flourishing of young lives.

The Ohio legislature, as other bodies with similar influence, would do better to invest in reducing the occasions for gun violence than participating in the proliferation of deadly weapons in hands that are not at war.

You may already be familiar with what Jesus said about stumbling blocks, little ones, millstones, and the sea (Matthew 18:6).

“Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!” Jesus continued. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” Matthew 18:7)

Of all the people who might introduce a gun into a classroom full of children, let it not be you; let it not be on behalf of me.


This letter was edited slightly from its direct delivery to the committee considering the Bill and to my own district senator.

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Walking on water

I’ve been walking the earth in a dream,
skipping faith like pebbles across
the surface of a quiet sea

A foolish hound,
snapping at white horses, tries to catch them
as they melt under the sound

My feet are wet; the pebbles
in my pocket have become an anchor. I reach
after wild geese, grasping at feathers

A heron, surprised, sounds as though
it has been eating rocks. It rises now
with clumsy grace unfolded


It’s been a little while since I’ve shared a poem here. Between, you know, 2020 and a looming new book deadline (deadly exciting!), it’s been an interesting summer. But there is hope in the heron, and music in its rasp, and the water, the medium of God’s creation still calls us to test it with our faith, and our feet …

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Slow to anger

A sermon for the online service, 19 July 2020, using the readings for Year A Proper 11, including the parable of the wheat and the weeds.


When we read one of Jesus’ parables that ends in judgement, we might want to use as our introduction and epilogue his warning elsewhere: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The temptation otherwise is either to read ourselves as the righteous and our enemies as the weeds, and secretly to revel in the thought of their comeuppance at the great conflagration; or, equally damaging, to diagnose ourselves as worthless weeds, only tolerated by the wheat that surrounds us, and doomed from our seeding to damnation.

The judgement, Jesus has warned elsewhere, is not ours to make. The servants who offer to go out and do the weeding for the landowner are rebuffed.

In fact, the parable is a model of withholding judgement so that the wheat is not damaged by a reckless and thorough weeding; there is no warrant in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus might be saying, for rash judgement and its collateral damage. Instead, we are shown the patience and forbearance of a God who is full of compassion, and slow to anger.

 

Have you heard the phrase, “cancel culture”? Its definition may be as controversial and complicated as the interpretation of a parable, but perhaps it boils down to the battle and balance between holding a person accountable for wrongdoing and allowing them the grace to redeem themselves, if they show any inclination to do so.

Certainly, actions and words have consequences. Some offenses are so egregious that the answer is clear. We have seen talk shows and dramatic roles cancelled when the #MeToo movement brought the misdeeds of various men to light, and rightly so. A politician can be righteously cancelled out of office with a vote. If a business is offensive or abusive, we can sometimes refuse to do business with them.

But what if they were convicted, by court or conscience, of their offense, and paid a penance, reparations of some sort, and publicly repented: would we forgive them?

At is most extreme, a culture of cancellation contributes to a culture of death. Those who have been tried, convicted, and officially sentenced to death live out for us our fantasies of judgement and a clean wheat field. Three times in the past week, after holding back its hand for seventeen years, three men have been killed on our behalf by federal execution.

Deacon Josh knows more about this aspect of our cultural judgement than I do, having ministered for years to men living in that valley of the shadows known as Death Row. But I also draw on the wisdom and faithful hope of Beth Kissileff, whose husband leads one of the congregations that met at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when a man bent on sowing evil burst through their Sabbath doors. Beth wrote against the government’s move to seek the death penalty for the man who killed her friends; partly because that judgement belongs to God alone. Beth, via the Religion News Service, quoted her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman:

“Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death, it’s true,” my husband said. “But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.”

Beyond that, and the slightest chance and hope that the man might repent of his sins, given a life long enough to reflect upon them, Beth pointed out that our clumsy attempts to pull out the weeds with the wheat can damage the tender plants that we’re trying to protect. Families and survivors of capital offenses endure multiple trials that can drag on for long years, delaying healing and wholeness, prolonging the harvest of pain. This, too, is collateral damage from our culture of judgement and cancellation; and there is no warrant for collateral damage in the kingdom of heaven.

 

I can’t help but think of John Lewis this morning; a man who, despite those who sought to cancel him, stood strong. He ended up serving in government, where wheat and weeds are sometimes difficult to tell apart. He recognized the tension of the need to act decisively to end evil, while holding fast to the gentle optimism that non-violence breeds, the impatient patience of the justice-seeker. He brought forth good fruit despite the strangling weeds, the poisonous strain of racism.

Of course, we hold one another accountable for egregious actions, words, attitudes. Of course, where there is evil at work, we can and should respond with a little bit of “good trouble.” Of course, there are rightful consequences. But we do not own the wheat, or its harvest, and the weeds are not ours to destroy. At the end of the age, Jesus says, it is the angels who will exercise judgement over us.

 

I came across a story online last week which I share with permission from my friend, Amanda Wolf. Amanda is a keen, not to say fanatical, cyclist, familiar to all Bishop’s Bike Rides participants and many other members of many other communities, including the cancer support charity that she rides for every year. Last week, she was riding out my way when a van nearly took her out altogether. Thank God, she was ok.

I’m still in awe of this story because of the grace that bursts out of it. It would have been easy to write off the driver of the van as a total weed, based on his actions. Instead, an encounter that could have led to real, physical, economic, social, and spiritual injury allowed, with a little forbearance and a lot of humility, for an abundance of healing.

The van bore the livery of a local business. Amanda, posting the story of her close encounter on Facebook, duly named and shamed the business for its recklessness and disregard for her human life and safety, and encouraged her friends not to send their business that way.

But then later that same day, I saw another post. It read:

In a previous episode of my Facebook, you might have witnessed me posting about getting sideswiped by a local business owner this morning on my bike, and I called him out on it. You also might have seen his jerky retort and lack of understanding of bike law.
You might also have noticed that post disappeared.
All for good reason.
Long story short, Cards In Your Yard has a better understanding of bike law, we’re friends now, and shortly I’ll be putting up a raffle for your own free yard card as long as you live in the counties he services.
All to benefit American Cancer Society Pan Ohio Hope Ride.
There could not have been a happier ending to this story. I hope it makes your day because it certainly made mine.

It did make my day, and it reminded me of Jesus, who told his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, to love neighbour and enemy well and alike, and to let the angels worry about who among us is whole wheat or a little bit of a weed.

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How to grow a prayer life

A sermon of Morning Prayer, 12 July 2020. The readings are for Year A Proper 10, and the service is online here.


In the beginning (and certainly you have heard this before), when the God created everything that is, when God called it into being and named it with a Word, God saw that it was good. When the earth was ready, God created humanity out of it to be cast in the very image and likeness, the shadow and sound, the mirror and the echo of the divine. God declared that this was very good.

You were created out of the earth and out of the Word to be a good and rich medium for the Word, that it might dwell within you, and grow within you, and form you toward the Word of God, in harmony with God’s creative will.

Jesus told a parable to his disciples. It is recorded almost everywhere; it must have been a popular story. It is unusual, because while we are told that Jesus taught in parables publicly and explained them to his disciples privately, conducting open lectures and small group seminars, you might say, it is rare for us to get a glimpse into those more intimate tutorials, when Jesus explains himself.

It is more than probable that we have only one student’s imperfect and incomplete understanding of the mystery of this parable. Parables are not usually so neat, so tightly defined; it is possible that some things have been lost in translation from the original conversation at the feet of the Teacher, Jesus.

But the theme of God’s abundance, of good soil producing more than could be imagined, when the conditions are right and the kingdom of heaven is at hand – that we have heard from Jesus before, and not only from him, but from the prophets who preceded him.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it,

writes Isaiah.

Did you know that this service of Morning Prayer, which we share together Sunday by Sunday when we are unable to gather for the Eucharist; that this and the Noonday Prayer, and Evening, and the end of day service of Compline are appointed for every day in our Book of Common Prayer?

When we recite this prophecy of Isaiah as a prayer during our Daily Offices (it often comes up on a Tuesday or a Friday), we add,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor my ways your ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We who are made in the shadow, in the silver mirror of God’s image, the echo of the Word; we are not God. But we are made of the earth that is the medium of God’s creative Word, and our vocation, our calling, God’s word to us is not to return empty, depleted, like the void before creation, but full of the life that has been lent to us by our Creator.

There are many obstacles, Jesus’ student tells us.

Our soil is corrupted by sin: by greed, racism, superiority, self-righteousness, self-importance. Our soil is poisoned by the effects of sin: by the many attacks on human dignity and sanctity that a person may endure that inhibit their ability to thrive.

Unless we are watered and shaded and cared for, our soil becomes depleted, starved, diseased, burned out. But when we tend to our growth medium, remembering God’s design for us, then in partnership with God’s Word we produce fruit that feeds the world.

There are many good opportunities to feed and nurture the good soil of our souls. We can do so much to improve our understanding of the human dignity of those around us, to strengthen the bonds of affection so as to mirror the image of the Holy Trinity, recognizing our interdependence and our responsibility to be our siblings’ keeper, recognizing our need for the help and love of one another.

We can undertake to study anti-racism, and respond honestly and repentantly to what we learn.

We can practice generosity, of spirit and of resources, remembering to render kindness before blame, to seek mercy as the mirror of God’s justice; to enact feeding miracles and to defy the rationing of life’s resources in order to reflect God’s abundance and grace.

We can do this by paying attention to the word that God has sown within us at our creation, the word of God that is so very good; by nurturing it and feeding it and watering it and giving it shade and sunlight, so that it doesn’t get burned out of us, and so that our spirits, enlivened by the breath of God, might not grow too weary for words; so that the knowledge of God’s presence within us and among us might grow to give us shade and rest.

Last time our Vestry met (which we will do again tomorrow), we discussed how our pandemic response has to move from one of emergency management and reactivity to one of planned sustainability. We have been transplanted into a new and enduring reality. We know now that this new situation will last longer than any of us imagined at the beginning. If we are not to be choked up by the troubles or cares of the world, we need to take care of the soil of our souls, and the loam of our lives, if we are to continue as good mediums for God’s Word.

God comes to us in prayer, like the rain or the morning dew, and will not leave until God’s purpose for us, God’s love for us, has succeeded.

I mentioned that the Office of Morning Prayer is appointed and provided for daily in our BCP. There are many ways to create a regular rhythm of prayer. I sometimes use a podcast from Forward Movement. You can use the Book of Common Prayer and a Bible to find the readings and psalms for each day. You can use the shortened services – a minute or two – Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families, and add a Bible reading each day. If you’d like, I can put together a brief tutorial on how to find your way around the Daily Office, or drop off a BCP at your home. You might choose a brief prayer in the morning, and a fuller Evening Prayer when you have more leisure after work. There are any number of daily inspirational readings and prayers available. You can simply set an alarm to remind you, once or twice a day, to rest in God’s shadow.

However you take care of your prayer life, you have help; whether from the resources of our prayerbook and podcasts, or from conversations with friends and mentors from the church or from other aspects of your spiritual lives; always from the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. I am always available by appointment to meet safely or to talk by phone, to pray with you, as I hope you pray for me.

In all of this, as you work the soil of your soul, do not be afraid of the weeds or the heat or the evil one. For God meets us in our prayer, and it is God who says,

… my word … that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God is working in us, and through us, and with us; and God’s purpose for us is, as it ever has been, very good.

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Free will and freedom

A sermon for 5 July, 2020. The lessons are for Year A Proper 9 (Track 2). The service can also be viewed on YouTube or Facebook.


The apostle Paul would like the citizens of the greatest empire on earth to understand that freedom is not necessarily what they might think it to be, and that the pleasures of independence pale in comparison to complete obedience to the will of our Creator, in whose image and by whose will we were made. If only our desires and whims could be realigned with God’s, we would be complete. Only when our free will is united with God’s loving will for us are we truly free to be complete and perfect humans.

We catch glimpses of what that could be like, in moments of abandoned love, without self-regard and pure; in moments of communion with the rest of God’s good creation.

Paul was the Roman citizen, and the Pharisee, with civil and religious privilege. And he would give it all up for the freedom to follow God’s will instead of his own. He knew, from his experience of Christ and of the world, that no political system, even the lauded Pax Romana, can bring peace to our souls; that Caesar will not save his citizens; that we are citizens of another kingdom, the reign and realm of God.

We know the ideals to which we aspire. They are hardwired into us, since we are made in the image of God, and created for the love of God.

The love of God. The love of neighbour – every neighbour. Equality of respect and dignity for all, we hold these truths to be self-evident: this is how we would like to live.

But Paul knows that it is not so easy, since sin seems to have us cornered. Independence becomes individualism. Self-governance turns too easily to selfishness.

Independence does not mean that each man is an island. The Triune God upon whom we are modelled is a model of interconnectedness, of the unity of community. Independence from sin gives us the opportunity to explore our true interdependence, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; following the dance of the Holy Trinity.

Individualism is not independence: this pandemic has illustrated that. None of us will be free from it unless we prioritize the health and welfare of the bodies around us to our own preferences and perceptions of freedom.

Washing hands, keeping our distance to preserve the precious breath that the Holy Spirit has placed in all of us, wearing masks, whether we like it or not, are acts of love, and it is love that, in the end, will set us free.

We know from our faith that freedom from tyranny means the freedom not to tyrannize.

Freedom from fear means the freedom not to frighten.

Freedom from oppression offers the freedom not to oppress.

We know from our history that freedom from discrimination only works if we claim the freedom to undo, unravel, repent and repair the damage that has already been done.

Freedom from the debt of sin extends the opportunity not to add to another person’s burdens. Remember Jesus’ parables? Forgiveness is always to be passed on; freedom from owing one’s neighbour does not free one from being a neighbour.

Freedom from sin means the submission of our free will to the will of the life-giving, loving, liberating God who created us for good.

In this sense, Jesus was the freest, most independent man who ever lived. Free from sin, free from all that the devil tempted him with in the wilderness; free from selfishness. Independent of ambition; he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey, while Pilate processed with pomp and ceremony from the other side. He was independent of the powers and principalities that tried to shape his life, shorten his reach; he told them clearly, “I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:15b,18)

He lived a life so perfectly aligned with the pattern that God had used for it, the pattern of unselfish, ungrasping, life-giving love that he proved himself finally free even from death, independent even of the powers of the grave.

It is in him, in his life, in his Gospel that we find our holiday, our celebration, our Sabbath rest. While we strive, with Paul, to do here and now what is right and good and promotes the life, liberty, and happiness of all around us, It is in God alone, with God’s help alone, with the love of God together that we find, at last, a more perfect union.

Amen.

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The colour of God

How many times did you hear that verse growing up? How many pamphlets and leaflets have you read it in?

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

We have a language problem here. We have a serious, spiritual issue with the way in which we hear this verse. There’s a chasm between Paul’s original rhetoric and our understanding. It’s not just the way in which the good news of God’s grace has been turned into a threat, although most of the pamphlets I’ve thrown away over the years try to evangelize by the wages of death instead of the promise of life. That’s a problem, but so too is the fact that this verse is the culmination of a chapter of a letter from Paul to the Romans which uses slavery to describe our salvation; a chapter that uses the word “slave,” whether to sin or to God, eight times in the last eight verses.

Now, we might say, Paul was just using the language and social structure of his day to illustrate a point in a way that would be familiar to his readers. But I’m not willing to let Paul off the hook that easily. Jesus Christ, whom Paul proclaims, lived and died, rose and ascended to save sinners, thanks be to God; but along the way, and not by-the-by, he said that he had come to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captive and to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). There are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven.

But here’s another problem: we do not hear the word “slave” in the same language as Paul wrote it. We don’t even hear it in the same way as one another. Because of our place in the world, we cannot help but hear the language of slavery in Black and White. Whomever we claim as our ancestors, we cannot hear the word, “slave,” without our history colouring it in.

I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you that is a particular, spiritual problem for people who look like me.

I read a book on Thursday afternoon (I mean, I sat down and read the whole thing in an afternoon) called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. Lenny Duncan, a Lutheran minister of Word and Sacrament writes,

Church, the cross was raised high by slaveholders… (Duncan, 44)

He writes to me, a White woman in the American church of today,

… it’s not just my freedom you are risking …, but also your own. You are just as trapped by the effects of chattel slavery and the broken cycles it has set in motion in our nation and church. ( Duncan, 48)

Why is this language gap a problem, even, or especially, for White people? Because it’s not just my freedom that is at risk, but my relationship with God in Christ, which is my salvation. Because when I hear the terms of salvation in Black and White, master and slave, I am tempted to see myself on one side or the other, and I am tempted to imagine God right alongside me.

But there are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven. There are no slave masters in the kingdom of God.

We need a radical reordering of our language, our thoughts, our prayers. Paul’s rhetoric will not do. God is not a slave master; God is not on the side of the slave holders. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a vagrant preacher, a poor man of an oppressed and occupied race and nation, who was arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten, and killed by the authorities for being too … [you know the word I want to say]; for being too much.

We need to remake our image of God to remember that at the heart of the Gospel, at the crux of the story of salvation, we do not find power, mastery, wealth, or political prowess. We find instead a man, a person, thumbing his nose at all of that and at the devil who tempted him with it.

That is the nature, the colour of God.

God so loved the world, that the lesson God wanted it to learn was not one of power, or wealth, or conquest, but the simple, defiant lesson of love. Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy, just love.

I know, you were expecting an uplifting sermon about being back together in the church. But forgive me: what if our language about that needs updating, too?

I love you all, and I miss you as much as we all miss the old days of February, but I’m afraid that the way forward might not be somehow to push back toward the routines and rituals in which we had become comfortable. What if we are not going back to February any more than we are returning to the 1950s and cigarettes at coffee hour, as one of my colleagues pointed out; any more than to the 1850s and the era of legalized slavery? What if God is calling us into a new creation?

Please understand, I do not in any way believe that God inflicts a deadly and debilitating virus on millions of people so that a few can have an epiphany, a spiritual awakening. But what if we were to use and treat this season of unusual worship and unaccustomed challenges not as an interruption to the work of the church, but as an intervention, a call to awaken and with renewed vigour pursue the will of God, the love of neighbour, the restoration of creation?

We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past; perhaps we can look for it in the present.

We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past, but we do find it in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, whose advice was to offer kindness, hospitality, humility, good news to the poor and release to the captive and the oppressed; whose life is eternal; and who promised his most bewildered disciples, “I am with you always [and everywhere], to the end of the age.”

Amen.


Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US (Fortress Press, 2019)

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A midweek prayer in the middle of the night

“Who, who,” I cry with the owl, lonely on the rooftop;
”Who will hear me, and who will answer?”
Flying dark with the bats, I send out prayers,
trying to locate God by their echoes.
I am as far from Sunday as may be,
as far from rest.

A still, small voice might whisper,

“Peace, now, for I have answered the owl
and satisfied the winged thing.“

“I am beyond your dreams,
yet even when you wake I will be near.
Though I neither slumber, nor sleep,
yet in me you will find your ease.
I am all that in the night,
you cannot see.”


First published at the Episcopal Café


Psalm 102:6-7

I am like an owl of the wilderness,
    like a little owl of the waste places

I lie awake;
    I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.

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Casting out unclean spirits

A sermon for June 14, 2020. The readings are for the Second Sunday after Pentecost in Year A, Proper 6. Jesus sends out his disciples to cast out demons and heal the sick of the house of Israel.


We are at peace with God, writes Paul, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who proved God’s love for us by living and dying for the sake of us. (Romans 5:1-8) We are at peace with God not through our own merits, for we were still sinners when Jesus died, and we are sinners today. We are at peace with God because God is peace, and it is God who extends peace to us.

But we are not always at peace with one another, because we are sinners; because we fall short, over and over, of the perfect love that Jesus lived out for us.

Jesus gives his disciples power over unclean spirits, disease, and sickness. (Matthew 9:35-10:23) He sends them out to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the countryside. He warns them not to try to monetize the gospel – this is a gift that they have received, not something they own and can sell.

He tells them to practice on their own people first.

Jesus tells them, these conversations will not always go well. They will not always result in conversion. They will not always be peaceful. They will not be universally enlightening. They are necessary, for the kingdom of God is at hand, and it is high time, Jesus says, for the demons, the unclean spirits, the powers that oppose the goodness of God to be cast out and cast down.

Do you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, that Jesus references? Not the unbiblical story that has been told as a slur against beautiful and loving people over the intervening centuries, but the actual, scriptural story that Jesus knew? The original story, just to be clear, had nothing to do with people’s sex lives, but everything to do with whether they loved God, and their neighbours as themselves.

The story (in Genesis 18-19) goes that God received some sort of report of the sinfulness of the city of Sodom. People there had no respect for God nor for the image of God within one another. They were positively abusive. And this is where Lot, the nephew of Abraham, had chosen to set up home with his family.

God said, “I’m going to obliterate the place.” Abraham said, “But what if there are good people there?” God said, “For the sake of fifty, I will hold my fire.” Abraham, knowing that his nephew’s family was in the city, negotiated God down to ten. For the sake of ten righteous people, God would withhold judgement from the entire city. No pressure.

Unfortunately, when the angels went to test the people’s hospitality and humanity to visitors, they found it severely lacking, to say the least. Lot and his family took them in, but even there Lot’s willingness to put his daughters’ lives on the line reads as ethically complicated at best. And there were still only four of them, not ten. In the end, the angels led the family out of the city ahead of its destruction, and still, they too were sinners, and they proved it in the stories yet to come.

The wrath of God is stirred up when people are prepared to behave abusively to one another, to give up their humanity to defile and deface the humanity of another. The wrath of God, the story warns, will fall like fire upon racism, and white supremacy. It falls like sulphur smoking out discrimination, the abuse of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning folks. The wrath of God falls heavily upon brutality and violence, especially the abuses of the powerful, especially abuse of the most vulnerable and of those most in need of hospitality and humanity. The wrath of God will one day fall on wickedness. But even sinners are saved from the fire by the patience and forbearance of a faithful God.

We are at peace with God because God extends peace to us, even sinners such as we are. But that doesn’t remove our responsibility to live as those who know the love of God. If anything it increases it.

We are called, we are compelled, we are commanded by Jesus to cast out unclean spirits. And let’s be abundantly clear, anything that diminishes the dignity and the fullness of a person’s humanity is unclean and ungodly. Homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, xenophobia – these are unclean spirits, and they live among us. Sexism is an unclean spirit. White supremacy is an unclean spirit. Racism is an unclean, unholy, inhuman, unChristian spirit. And when those spirits dance together, God help us. God help us.

Go, Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, and cast out unclean spirits, defeat demons, starting close to home, with your own house, with your own heart, with your own family.

Don’t expect all of these conversations to go peaceably, nor all of them to lead to conversion. And don’t expect to be able to cast out demons by demonizing others. Take care that you keep your own humanity intact, that you keep your love for your enemies as strong as you are able, that you pray in any case even for those who persecute you, even if your prayers sound like protest, because it is God’s will to bring you to peace, and hatred will not let your heart rest there. “Be angry,” as Paul has written, and as Minister Taneika Hill quoted at our Faith in the City rally this past week; “Be angry, but do not sin,” and he adds, “do not make room for the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) An unclean spirit cannot drive out an unclean spirit. Only God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit can do that.

But don’t expect all of the difficult conversations that you dread to end badly, either. Conversion is possible. With God all things are possible. God knows, if someone, if more people than I deserve, had not taken the time and the love to educate me in some of the errors of my ways – only some, because I have plenty more errors in me; God knows, I am a sinner – God knows that if the righteous anger of a demon-defeating disciple was not visited upon me from time to time, I would be sitting in the dust and ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, wondering what the hell just happened.

Conversion is possible. I was going to tell you the story of my first boyfriend, and how my parents reacted, privately, after they met him for the first time, and realized that he was not White, but I don’t have the time left today. Suffice to say that after much gnashing of teeth and several years later, my mother brought up his name to me in conversation, to make her confession, to express her repentance, not to me, but with me to the memory of him. With God, all things are possible.

Go first to your own people, your own house, your own heart, Jesus instructs his disciples, and use my unflinching, uncompromising, indiscriminate, inescapable love to heal them. Then your peace will return to you.

The kingdom of God is at hand, and it is time, Jesus says, for the demons, the unclean spirits, the powers that oppose the goodness of God to be cast out and cast down.

Then, “The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” (Exodus 19:8)

As today’s Collect prays,

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 230)


Image: Albrecht Dürer / Public domain (deatil) via wikimedia commons

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Trinity Sunday: what will become?

Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13:11-12

It’s often said that context is everything. I don’t believe that anything is that absolute except God – only God is everything – but it is true that the context in which Paul wrote and the very different context in which we read his words today make a lot of difference to how we hear him.

Take, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” There will be no greeting of one another with kisses, holy or otherwise, hugs, or even handshakes for a long time to come, and Paul would agree that it is right to refrain from such things as would harm the most vulnerable in our community, as he writes elsewhere to the same church of Corinth,

Take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to your neighbour. (1 Corinthian 8:9, paraphrased)

And there’s the rub. What is a Christian church to do when “agree with one another, live in peace,” runs up against, “Take care that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to others.” I want to be careful here to acknowledge that I’m taking this verse out of context, too. Paul was concerned for Christians taking their first steps in faith, those who might need some extra support. But what if those others whom we shouldn’t cause to stumble include also the vulnerable in health, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the attacked? What if it includes not only the weak, but those who are powerful, but put upon; not only the uncertain, but those who are faithful, but crucified?

What if my liberty, my peace, come at the cost of my brother’s life?

That is the context in which we read Paul’s letter today: one in which the realities of racism in this country’s very structure have once more been laid bare. On this Wear Orange weekend, when we lament and mourn the scourge of gun violence, we find that we are suddenly protesting all sorts of violence, and we are recognizing at last, or again, or with every breath that racism is a form of violence. From the disparities in health outcomes from birth to last breath, to police brutality, discriminatory justice, to the slights on the street, and even sometimes in so-called polite conversation, my liberty, my health, my status, my benefit of the doubt, my privilege has become a stumbling block to others.

So how can I preach, “Listen to my appeal, agree with one another [which always means, agree with me], live in peace,” in a context such as this, while Jeremiah prophesies?

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14)

In the beginning, when God began to create, the world was formless and void, desolate and empty, except for the raging, chaotic, deep waters on the other side of nothing. And God called forth out of the chaos a new creation: first light and darkness, night and day, the moon and the sun. But even God did not quell the chaos all at once. Instead, God saw how it could be shaped into something new and good – at least that’s one interpretation of the story.

And it took time, and a succession of steps, because God is not hasty. God didn’t want to lay a mere veneer of created order over the chaos, but truly to transform it into something good, something very good.

This is not an argument for ignoring the urgency of our moment. It doesn’t argue for allowing chaos to breed violence rather than the creation of a new life. But it does argue for paying attention to what is being called out of the chaos, what new thing could make something truly good come out of it, rather than papering over the mess and hoping the glue holds, rather than seeking to diminish the grief of our people by saying, “Peace, now; peace,” where there is no peace.

I am not great at this work, I have to admit. I have a deep need to be liked and to be recognized for doing the right thing. That ego is an obstacle to digging into my misunderstandings and lack of awareness of the experience of my siblings, sisters, and brothers of all stripes; and if I will not dig deep, how can I have compassion with them? Not for them, but with them.

But Christ calls me to repentance. If I am to call myself a Christian, I have to do the work.

The risk of discovering where I have been wrong, where I have allowed the assumptions of society to blind me to injustice, where I have participated in the polite slights of everyday conversation and diminished the dignity of another human being – that risk is real, and uncomfortable. It is easier to dress the wound, paper over the cracks, say “let us just agree and be at peace.” But that is not repentance, and that will not bring about the new creation, the kingdom, some say the kin-dom, of God.

And really, what is the discomfort of my conscience compared to the death of a man like George Floyd, or a woman like Breonna Taylor, or a child like Tamir Rice? What are my tears compared to the burning of tear gas, or the bitterness of a mother’s grief?

In the beginning, the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit swept, hovered, brooded over the deep waters of chaos. The Revd Dr Wilda C. Gafney puts it this way in Womanist Midrash:

She, the Spirit of God, She-who-is-also-God, at the dawn of creation fluttered over the nest of her creation at the same time as He, the more familiar expression of divinity, created all. (Gafney, 20)

Outside my window at home just now there is a nest. It’s a little hard to see what’s happening in there, but from the comings and goings, I suspect that there are eggs. It will take a couple of weeks for any new life to hatch out of them. It will take a couple weeks more before any young fledglings are ready for their first flight out. In the meantime, their parents brood and flutter in and out, tending to the new creation that is almost ready to break out.

So the Spirit of God hovers over us, watching us struggle to grow against the edges of our shells, almost ready to break out into some new understanding, some new way of living, almost ready to fly…

Keep the faith, dear ones; be strong in faith. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Love your neighbour. Love the image of God within them. And the God of love and peace will be with you, fluttering and brooding over you, until the end of the present age, into the new creation, and beyond.

Amen.


Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Know Press, 2017)

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