Embodying God’s Reconciling Love

Sermon preached on 06 September 2020 – St. Barnabas’ Famouth, MA
available on youtube here

May I speak in the name of God who is Love. 

At first glance, our Gospel for today seems to be a framework for conflict resolution. But if we expand beyond the lectionary to include what comes before, I think we get some helpful context about what Jesus is saying to the church in this passage. Immediately preceding the verses about harm and faults, Jesus shares an example of God’s love. He says God‘s love is like a shepherd who having 100 sheep was so distraught at losing one of them that he left the 99 to go, find, and rescue the one lost sheep. 

In Jesus‘s description of the church, he is instructing us to embody this love of God in our relationships with one another. He is saying, I want you to long for one another so much that when harm happens, we don’t just cut one another off or cast one another aside but instead we work to reconcile the relationship. 

The way that I see it, the church embodies this love on three levels – ourselves, with one another, and in the wider community.

In terms of reconciliation with self, I figured that because this is my first Sunday here it’s an appropriate time to share a little bit of my story. Not my whole story, we have three years for that, but to tell you how the church has been a place of reconciliation for me. 

I grew up in the Lutheran church and I absolutely loved it. I loved making the popsicle stick crosses, I love singing the hymns, and I loved most of all, communion – walking down the aisle on Sunday, putting my little hands out getting a wafer and a small cup of wine. I stayed really active in the church in high school and even at the beginning of college until he became more involved in a conservative branch of the church – where it seems like my sadness and my struggles were often viewed as sins that I can get it to fix – At some point, I was tired of hearing how bad I was, so I left the church.

I only returned two years later with my employer Kristen invited me to the baptism of her son at Saint David’s Episcopal Church. Right away, I felt at home immediately – the liturgy reminded me of growing up – especially Eucharist and while I didn’t find a place to make popsicle stick crosses at 22, I found an adult small group that had dinner together regularly. And we talked about our real lives, challenges with depression, marital problems and recovery, this was a place where people could bring their whole selves. And it was there around those tables that I learned at the church was called to embody the truth of God’s love and longing for each one of us, no matter what, and in that please, I knew I was reconciled to God.

This sort of love is not just between me and God it also between me and you between each one of us. 

That’s what our gospel for today focuses on, what reconciliation looks like between two people. Jesus’ instructions are clear, be direct when harm is done to you – don’t be passive aggressive, or go gossip behind the person’s back. Instead go straight to the person and share the harm that has been done. Now this is not to make someone feel bad or to lord it over them. Rather it’s to tell one another how we’ve hurt each other in the hopes that we can change and grow to be more like God. 

If someone tells me how I  hurt them, the idea is that I listen deeply to their pain and out of my longing for them, my love for them, I am willing to change so that we can maintain relationship with one another. And likewise when others know how they have hurt me that they are willing change to change to restore relationship. 

Jesus is very clear that reconciliation requires change, he says that if someone doesn’t listen to you over and over again if they are unwilling to stop doing harm, the relationship you have with them must take on a different form. And that is because the church is called to embody God’s reconciling love, a process of ongoing change, that we might more closely resemble the body of Christ.

Lastly, the church is called to participate in the reconciliation of the wider community – to recognize that God‘s longing and love extends far beyond our walls. 

To recognize that if God is distraught over the one sheep, imagine the level of pain God feels when thousands of immigrant children are lost on the border, ripped from their families. 

That if God is saddened over the loss of one sheep, imagine the depths of God’s sadness for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to COVID, most of those lives in poor communities, Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color. 

And if God is heartbroken over the loss of one sheep, imagine God’s heartbreak over the death of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Gardner, George Floyd, and so many other senseless deaths because of racist violence. 

The church is called to name the harm that is being done in the wider community. Because only when we speak the truth, can we go about the work of building systems that heal and of restoring relationships. This work is more than politics or equity and diversity or even about doing the right things it’s about embodying the longing that God has each One of God’s children.

This is the work of the church to be a place where relationships are restored with God, with one another, and in the wider community.

 It is not easy work, the good news is that we are not doing it alone. The very foundations of the church and other reading today, is that we need one another to do this work. And like it is promised in our gospel, when two or three of us join in this work of reconciliation together, Jesus is with us. Emboldening us, sustaining us, and guiding us on the way. 

So make it God gave us the grace to hear where the spirit is leading and the courage to follow.

1000 Years in 60 Minutes – A Lecture on Joshua to Malachi

On Sunday I attempted to do half the Bible justice during a one-hour lecture on Joshua to Malachi. I’d love to know what your think — please listen and leave comments below. If you’re more of a visual learner, the lecture notes can be found here: Joshua to Malachi – Printed Handout.

 

 

The lecture attempts to teach a brief “history” of this portion of the Bible. In addition, we talk about how to read the various types of books thematically rather than factually. Finally, I talk about how the following themes of the Hebrew bible heavily influenced the Christian understanding of God. That is not to say that the Christian tradition carried over all of these themes directly but it is to say that Christianity shaped its theological understanding as a response to these roots.

Key Themes in this Portion of the Hebrew Bible

  • God’s Faithfulness: The Promised Land is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel and governing and caring for the land justly is of utmost importance.
  • Our Expected Response to God: We demonstrate gratitude to God by honoring God, one another, and the land though obeying God’s laws.
  • How We Worship:  The value of the establishment of The Temple as the most holy place in which God’s essence resides.
  • Relationship with God: Our ability to obey God directly impacts the level of protection and favor we receive from God.
  • Justice:  God fights for those who are oppressed by society and likewise asks us to be righteous, merciful and just.
  • God’s Commitment to Us: God desires to be in relationship with us and continually invites us back through judges, prophets and eventually Jesus.

Be Bold – A Sermon on Our Identity as the Church

Six months ago I moved from Kenya to the U.S. The move has been challenging on many levels, primarily because I’ve been exploring questions of identity: Who am I in this context? & How can I best serve God in this place? These questions that had such clear answers in Kenya.

I believe we as the Church are asking a similar question. How do we be the people of God here, in this place? It is clear that the Church’s role in society has changed – we no longer hold the moral authority we once had – in response to that change we must discern what it means to be God’s people now, what do we have to offer the world besides a stamp of good character? My sermon this week calls the Church to answer this question with boldness and confidence. So often we water ourselves down to being a group of “nice people” or another “social service” rather than offering one another a place of meaning and significance rooted in Christ’s love.

The sermon reflects on how in the texts for this past week – linked here – God’s people are asking this same question in Egypt, Corinth and Jerusalem. In Egypt Moses challenged the people to ask the question, “How do we live our lives as God’s people in the wilderness?” Again, Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Corinthians that we are called, as the people of God, to see life through the lens of Christ. Christ who, in John’s gospel, is infuriated by the loss of holy identity that happens when the temple becomes a place of business.

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What Color is that Dress?! – A Sermon on Spiritual Perspective

This past Sunday I spent the morning with the community of St. James’ Porter Square in Cambridge, MA. This community has played a formative role in my life as an Episcopalian. I was confirmed as a member of this community and their rector, Holly Antolini, remains a dear confidante and adviser in my life.

This Sunday I had the joy of being their guest preacher and shared a short reflection on the importance of what it means to maintain and respond to spiritual perspective in our lives.  It’s tempting to focus our lives on how others should respond to God’s presence without thinking about how we need to change our personal or institutional to address separation from God. This reflection focused on the importance of seeking out how we were called to change in order to offer a holy witness to the world:  The reflection specifically refers to the Church’s need to address the institutional challenges around racism before trying to heal racial relations in the world – something I write about here. 

This sermon seemed fitting given all the conversations that have been taking place at St. James’ recently about what it means to be church in their context with their people. The community is in the process of actively discerning how their various ministries and leadership structure do or don’t build authentic and transformational community. I’ve been involved in two of these conversations: one about vestry structure for mutual leadership and another about fostering lasting healing in their anti-oppression work.

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Called to Relationship – Sermon on Responding to Racial Injustice

January 18th I had the joy of visiting Church of Our Saviour Somerset, a parish that is powerful example of what it means to be authentic Christian community. Their rector, Kate has built a community at Church of Our Saviour committed to learning from one another as they discern what it means to be a disciple of Christ. This mutual learning environment has developed leadership, spiritual depth and a sense of joy that fills the parish.

This culture of Church of Our Saviour made it easy to preach on the call to relationship. The sermon highlights that being a disciple of Christ is primarily about responding to the recognition that Christ abides in humanity and exists in each one of us, this is the miracle of the incarnation. Therefore, we can only fully know God through being in authentic relationship with one another. The work of being in relationship in a way that reveals our identity in God and challenges us to live a life as agents of reconciliation … this is church. This is important in parish life but also in the way that we engage with the pain of the world. The sermon address how this dynamic of relationship MUST be in place if we are to respond rightly to the racial injustices in the U.S. today.

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Let’s Party – A Sermon on Matthew 22

Today begins a week with my friends at St. Martin’s of the Field in Severna Park, Maryland. I was originally invited to come here for two weeks while their rector was on sabbatical and meet with current leaders to envision how they could  develop their individual ministry areas (youth, children, music etc) in a way that  builds a transformational community. However, between then and now the church entered into a difficult transition and time of uncertainty  concerning their current leadership – welcome to church!

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Meet Rev. Kathy Shanihan, the deacon at St. Martin’s. Kathy has abounding compassion and welcome – I stayed with her last night and within one day she was calling me ‘dear’ and ‘love’ – that’s my kind of woman!

This was a challenging sermon to write, I’m usually clear on what I want to say by Tuesday but by Friday morning I was still struggling. The gospel from Matthew was complex, in fact, some of my friend’s sermons offered quite different interpretations about where they saw Jesus – check out Kris’s powerful message here. It was also challenging because I kept thinking about a wedding in Kenya that I attended (photos below). I couldn’t figure out WHY  but the wedding kept coming back every morning as I sought out what needed to be shared. Thankfully my brother and companion in the way of justice, Jim Hamilton – who is building an awesome community in Canton – helped me piece through it and on Friday it all clicked.

This passage reminded me that God is inviting us to accept an invitation to live in a world where we search out the ever present Spirit, in all our circumstances, and we join in her activity – regardless if we know the dance steps. Despite being a challenging sermon to write it was a very fun one to deliver – I even got my first ‘amen’ shout out from the congregation. A huge thank you to my dear friend Zach for the perfect sermon material and to all the members of St. Martin’s who remained so present during the sermon.

Sermon Link: 

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Abundance in the Wilderness – A Sermon on Exodus 16

Last Sunday I was visiting St. Christopher’s Chatham and prepared to preach on the need to act on matters of climate change when I found out we were going to be celebrating the baptist of baby Henry. I made a game-time decision to preach instead on God’s abundance, as exhibited in Exodus 16, and how the sacrament of Baptism is a witness to the abundance of God, not a pledge to be a perfect parenting. I also managed to talk about the challenges to trust in God’s abundance in the wilderness of dating as a thirty year old. It was my first sermon on Baptism, which was fun, and absolutely wonderful to be back with my family at St. Christopher’s. 

Sermon Audio: 

If I could do this again I would put more emphasis on how Christ, in his life, lived in the realm of abundance and how his life offers us an example of what is possible when we are in communion with God. I’d also talk a little more about how the Baptismal vows are focused on God’s help, God’s abundance, more than our individual ability to achieve.

PS: In case you are wondering how I found two very different lessons from one text, the original sermon was using the Epistle text from Philippians and perhaps it will be offered sometime in the future.

Called to Forgive – A Sermon on a Christian Response to ISIS

Today I gave a sermon suggesting a faithful response to President Obama’s announcement of his strategy to protect Americans from the actions of ISIS. The sermon was inspired by two of the readings for today: the story in Exodus of the death of the Egyptian army and Jesus’s call to abundant forgiveness. As I prepared for the sermon I was struck by the seeming contradiction presented by the readings – in one account God smites an entire nation for their sin and in another Jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us. The sermon suggests attitudes and actions that can help walk the middle way, in which we acknowledge evil while choosing to love those who have harmed us. Note that this is not the only way faithful people can respond in love, if this response doesn’t work for you I invite you to discern your own way of following God in this situation.

You can watch the video from the blog or on St. Marks Burlington’s youtube site. Also, a quick “thumbs up” to the work of the Rev. John Debeer, rector at St. Marks and the leadership team at St. Marks who continue to build their church community – every time I am with St. Marks I see/meet new people!

Finally, a quick note, in the sermon I mention that my father’s unemployment lasted from when I was three-years-old to the present, this is not true and I apologize for misspeaking. My father held multiple jobs within that time frame but they were often short lived – please forgive me for stumbling through the story, it’s a difficult and sensitive topic for me.

In the Blessing,

Natalie

Communal Healing – Sermon on John 9

Today I had the joy of being with St. Christopher’s Chatham, my sponsoring parish for ordination. Yesterday I was just overwhelmed with gratitude for this group and their willingness to wade through this process of discernment with me. I have inherited 6 new wonderful pseudo parents … which we all need.

Discernment Committee at St. Christopher's Chatham
Discernment Committee at St. Christopher’s Chatham

 

They also let me have the honor of preaching on the story of the healing of the blind man in John, chapter 9. When reading this gospel message I was struck by John’s attention to the communal nature of change. Rather than focusing the story on the individual’s transformation, John pays attention to the way that the blind man’s transformation agitates the power structures of the community. In my sermon, I tried to pick up on our unwillingness to look at change that way, we would rather continue to look as individuals as sinners or results of other’s sin rather than take account for our own part in the problem. In fact, when confronted with power shifts, we like the Pharisees would rather attack the person who changed or look for some one to blame than celebrate the miracle of healing! 

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Co-Reconciling – A Sermon on Romans 5

Last Sunday I had the joy of preaching at Trinity Tarriffville in Connecticut. The readings for the day were the Story of Samaritan Woman at the well and Paul’s letter to the Romans talking about the gift of reconciliation.

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I shared how during my time in Kenya I had experienced my role as a missionary, not as the fixer or healer, rather as one who proclaims the good news of reconciliation and invites others to join me in responding to this good news by working together for justice. I shared my hope that the wider church would join with me in rethinking our role as followers of Christ and, just like the Samaritan woman, would begin to express a new incarnation of church. One marked by spirit and truth. Listen more below.