Friends of God

Sermon on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
26 September 2020 – You can watch the sermon here.

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

I’d like to start out this morning by trying something new. I’m going to ask Brooke to share a piece of art on our screens. I figure if we’re doing church on computers we might as well take advantage of some of the perks and look at something together. 

Brooke just shared part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. As you look at it, first, pay attention to how you feel you feel. And second, what is standing out to you about this piece of artwork today?

Now I have my phone here so I can see some of the zoom chat so while this won’t work for you if you’re on Facebook or YouTube but if you’re on Zoom and you want to share something you’re noticing I’d invite you to put it into the chat. 

What stands out to me is the active reaching in this painting. It’s such a beautiful piece of art that you can really see the movement of Adam reaching out for God. But in spite of this very active reach there’s still this gap between Adam and God that cannot be crossed. 

This desire to touch God and to know God is a shared human experience – whether we seek God in a religious practice, in nature, or in meditation and yoga practices – there seems to be almost an innate desire to understand the Divine Spirit that sustains us. 

But no matter how hard we strive, there is – like in the painting –  a gap of understanding and knowing God that cannot be overcome as humans. God’s nature remains just beyond us. 

Ecclesiastes 3:11 speaks of this innate yearning and distance, the verse says, “God has placed eternity in the heart of humans, yet we cannot fathom what God is doing from beginning to end.” 

The Jewish tradition acknowledges this inability to fathom the completeness of God in that they never write the name of God, Instead they pen, G_d and, in doing so, they embody the human limitations of understanding God. 

Not even Moses, who walks intimately with God, was able to know God as Moses desired. 

One of my good friends and respected teachers, the Rev. Dr. Charles Hefling once asked, “How do we become friends of God?” I rattled around thoughts in my brain, until he very kindly interjected, sharing with me his understanding of friendship with God. 

He said, “On our own merits, we cannot be friends with God. However, in the incarnation Jesus we can know God in human form and by befriending Jesus we can become friends of God.”

It seems to me that this act of becoming friends with Jesus is central to the life of Christians, those who follow Christ. We, like the disciples, can come to know Jesus by accompanying him through his ministry. Now, of course, we can’t be there in the same way as the disciples but we can know him by listening to stories about stories about him.

When we hear stories of Jesus spending time with the Samaritan woman and having dinner at Nicodemus’s house – we know that he crossed boundaries to build relationships with outsiders. 

We hear stories of how he welcomed children and wept for his friend Lazarus – we know his tender compassion for those he loved. 

When we hear of Jesus’s anger and the Temple of how he turned over the tables of the money changers – we know his anger at exploitation and oppression. 

As we spend time with Jesus in prayer, in scripture, and as we meet him in the sacraments, we come to know Jesus and through Jesus we get glimpses we come to know God. 

Now the good news, for us and for the world, is that Jesus is not inviting us to know him by watching, Jesus is inviting us to join him. 

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, for servants do not know what the master is doing. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that the father has made known to me. This is what it means to be a friend of God, to abide in my love. I will know that you abide in my love when your life bears the fruit of love.”  

As friends of Jesus we are invited to participate in the work of God, to participate in God’s ongoing movement of love and justice and reconciliation. We do this, not by learning a system of rules, but by drawing near to Jesus, by learning how he lived, by loving the people he loved, and by joining in his way of life. 

Because the truth is, we cannot close this gap between us and God – no matter how hard we reach. Thankfully, Jesus closed the gap for us and as we become his friends, we come to know God, and indeed we become friends of God.

Empty Yourself

Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
26 September 2020 – You can watch the sermon here.

Last Friday, I witnessed something that broke my heart. 

Will and I were attending a colleague gathering, and he, you, shared about the pain he has been feeling since learning that there would be no charges filed for Breonna Taylor’s death. 

This was incredibly sad but what broke my heart, was the reaction of the rest of us – an all white colleague group. We said, “I’m so sorry Will.” But then, quickly moved onto the next person who needed to “check-in.” I was at a loss for words, it was so clear to me that the pain Will was experiencing pain, you were experiencing, was so big and so heavy and we really didn’t know how to hold it with you. I’m so sorry for that. 

Later that afternoon, still thinking about Will’s sadness and our response –  the words from today’s epistle came to mind, “So let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, being of the same form of God did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness … emptied himself, humbled himself, became human.” 

You know, one of my favorite praise and worship songs, you will soon learn that I love praise and worship and gospel music, sings about this action of Christ, “You did not want Heaven without us, so Jesus you brought Heaven down.” 

Jesus coexisted with God – in a place free from suffering. Yet, Jesus’s longing and love for us motivated him to lay aside this comfort and take on our human experience, making him susceptible to pain all because, in doing so we might more fully know the love of God. 

Christena Cleveland, Black theologian and scholar, posits that this laying aside of privilege continued throughout Jesus’s life. He consistently sided with women, children, lepers, and Samaritans – people cast aside by society. As followers of Jesus, we too, are called to lay aside our own comfort and privilege and share in the pain of those who are oppressed and marginalized by society. 

This is not easy, especially for those of us who have more privilege. Our Gospel for today makes this clear, when  Jesus points out that the  prostitutes and tax collectors will have a much easier time finding the kin(g)dom of heaven than those of us in places of power. Those of us who Will talked about last week, who’ve been working hard all day long and think we’ve earned it. 

Those of us accustomed to prestige and privilege must a consistent and intentional effort to, in Paul’s words, “put other people’s interests ahead of hours” to “regard others more highly than ourselves” 

So why did this passage come to mind on Friday?

It might be helpful for me to start by sharing a little bit about my experience of last week. I remember where I was when I read the news but there would be no charges for Breonna Taylor‘s death. I thought, “Oh my God that’s horrible.” Then shortly thereafter I went back to work,  my day was not disrupted at all. This is hard to acknowledge and I say it vulnerably, but to me, Breonna Taylor was someone who was denied justice, something sad that happened. 

And I’m going to take a risk and guess that for many of you who are white, you’ve had a similar experience – acknowledging the sadness of the moment and then going back to business as usual. 

This is not the experience of my friends who are Black, my friends of color. My former supervisor, the now Reverend Canon Stephanie Spellers shared this on Wednesday, “Oh God oh God this hurts so much more than I expected. The only charges filed were for the bullets that went through the walls of her white neighbors home. There were no charges for the bullets that went through her ceiling into a black neighbors home. No charges for the bullets that went through her body. Her name wasn’t even on the indictment.”

What I’ve witnessed is that for my Black friends, this grief is akin to how I felt when one of my close friends died and my tears were so great that I was unable to stand. Or how I witnessed my mother, the morning of her mom’s funeral, folded over the sink in pain. 

I don’t fully understand it, but what I am learning from my Black friends, is that their experience of community extends deeper and further than the white experience of community. Because many Black Americans have a shared story – of enslavement, of surviving, and of enduring – this common experience of strength and resiliency has developed a beautiful vision of family that extends far beyond blood lines. A version of family that white Americans could learn much from, one in which others are seen as siblings – knit together in a common story. 

All to say, that when Black people hear the news of Breonna Taylor ‘s death and denial of justice – it didn’t just happen to someone – it happened to a sister or a mother or a daughter even to themselves.

To be clear, I’d rather not be preaching on this my second sermon at St. Barnabas. But church, here we are again. So the question is how are we going to respond? Not because this is the latest news story or because we don’t want to be cancelled – but because our Black and brown siblings are in pain. 

Are we going to shirk away because the pain is too heavy? Or are we going to follow Jesus and walk towards pain. 

This commitment to solidarity is at the center of our worship. Every Sunday when we celebrate Eucharist – we remember the story of Jesus – an innocent man was killed at the hands of the state. We partake in his broken body and blood, asking to share in his suffering. 

This is the time to put that commitment into practice, to come to the table “For strength and not only for solace.” It is time to lay aside comfort, to slow down and walk towards the pain, to let it disrupt our lives.” 

This is the time for whitepeople to call your black and brown friends, my colleague the Rev. Karen Coleman said, “Call your black friends. Ask how they’re doing. If they don’t want to tell you, They will let you know.”

While we will never know the pain our Black siblings are experiencing right now, we can call them and ask, How can I share in your pain?

We can ask, in the spirit of Paul, “How can I put you first right now? How can I affirm your worth in a world that’s denying it? How can I love in a way that causes me to empty myself? How can I be of the same mind of Christ?”

May God give us the grace here with the spirit is lead us, and the courage to follow

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