Have you ever had the chance to work with an improv group? They have this technique for working together, a way to communicate and support each other live onstage in order to move the action forward. It’s called YES AND. Let me give you an example. Two people walk onstage and one of them says “well here we are at the grocery store!” and looks expectantly at the other person. The other person can do one of two things – first, they can stop everything in its tracks. What would that look like? They can say, “no we’re not! We’re at the zoo!” and then the first person either has to double down on being at the grocery store (and then the improv becomes a power struggle for determining the reality of the scene) or change everything and suddenly be at the zoo when they and the whole audience thought they were at the grocery store. This is not the preferred way to engage in improv. The preferred way is YES AND. “Here we are at the grocery store!” says person 1, and then person 2 says “Yes, and we better get to aisle three right now!” To get through a good improv, you have to let go of control and look and listen to what’s going on around you.
Every day we have the opportunity to say YES AND within the world around us.
Here is a difficult truth that I am asked to recall every once in a while: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. In a moment, a priest will take ashes and make the sign of the cross on my forehead and I will need to respond to this in some way. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” No, I do not accept that I’m going to die, just as Christ died? Or YES AND? Reality calls me to respond to what I have been given with YES AND. SO here’s my yes and:
I’m not sure exactly where this happened, or how this happened, but at some point in my faith journey, a priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead and said to me “remember your baptism and that God has always loved you”
Remember your baptism and that God has always loved you. We must suffer and we must die. YES AND we don’t have to do those things alone. God has always loved you. Look around you. We face this together. This is our YES AND.
Let’s switch focus for a moment and talk about healing.
I see the idea of healing conflated with the act of getting rid of a lot.
The medical model, which is dominant in western healthcare, treats human conditions through a process of assessing, diagnosing and treating, so maybe that’s why we think healing means locating, targeting, and making go away.
Sure we assume our lives will be better for it, but to an extent we still treat the process of healing as something that has to involve rejection and destruction. There is a problem, we want it gone. Sin comes to mind. Even as we say words like acceptance and surrender and compassion, the energy with which we speak them exposes an undercurrent of will, dominance and control.
At the other end of the spectrum there is an option to think about healing as generative, constructive and life-giving.
So rather than seeking to impose our will over the things we struggle within ourselves and others, we aim for a kind of intentional participation with those things. YES AND is not just for improv. YES AND is what we are doing when we say yes to God, when we say yes to our neighbor, when we are paying attention to the world around us.
We can get what we need to live, heal, die and transform but only under one condition: That we learn to listen and receive. The great work that is before us is about moving toward peace, alliance, harmony and collaboration with life, with God, and with one another. We don’t get to set the scene. In many ways we are not in control. We have to find a way to relate with what reality gives us.
what is. Rather than seeking to bend the world to our will we should approach life from a stance of curiosity. Rather than exclaiming, “I’m sorry I was told we were going to the zoo, and I must insist, here in front of a live audience, that you are wrong, and that we will not go to the grocery store” Instead we ask, “what’s being offered, here?” YES AND is constructive, not destructive.
Let us take the proper time to understand what is happening. Maybe 40 days where we, as our verse said earlier, we rend our hearts and not our clothing.
Let us grapple in this holy Lent with our ability to open our hearts and minds and to be receptive to what this soul searching provides. The good. The bad. The deeply delightful, the hideously grotesque. All of it in ourselves, in others, in the world.
You’re probably thinking, be receptive to the bad, hideous and grotesque? No thank you. I mean, what kind of world would it be if we all received the fruits of hatred, violence and oppression with arms outstretched? If we smiled lovingly at our hearts when we were greedy or petty or controlling, when we moved in fear and not love, when we were harsh or critical or downright mean. Would we not just be reinforcing destructive, antisocial and all around bad behavior?
Those concerns are legit if receptivity is synonymous with passivity and resignation, but it isn’t. Not here. Here, receptivity is the state from which acceptance is possible.
Life is dialogue, not monologue. We step onto the stage, the scene is set, and we say YES AND…
That means that part of it is speaking, but part is also listening. If you are not listening, you are not able to receive. If you’re not able to receive, you’re not able to accept. If you cannot accept, and you cannot receive, then you cannot do your part right. Your capability to speak and act appropriately is compromised.
Life is not that different. How many times do we refuse to listen to what’s really going on around us, take zero cues, and then grow indignant when we’re not cast in the roles we want?
Reality has to be the context in which you do what you do. If it isn’t, it’s because you haven’t accepted what you’ve been given.
Remember that accepting doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with. It means giving yourself permission to move forward properly, which is a lot more likely to happen when you have accurate information.
You get to take part; you do not get to take whole.
So with that, Lent begins. YES AND what does that mean for you? What is your part in these holy mysteries? You have some time to think about your answer. You have 40 holy days to pray and to fast and to remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. All things come to an end. Don’t they? Yes. And, all things come to a beginning.
Let’s get ready for it.
A man on his way to Jericho was left by thieves to die by the road. A priest came along and passed him by; a Levite saw the man, but left him to die. But then came the good Samaritan to help the needy man, and as the law was written, he followed God’s command: Love the Lord with all your heart, Love the Lord with all your mind, Love your neighbor as yourself, and to everyone be kind.
I have a question for you – how many of you think that when you were growing up, the world was a safer place? How many of you think it feels less safe now than it used to when you were little?
Where does that idea come from, that we are not safe? That we live in a place of danger, and in a time of danger. Because, I have to push back on that a little. In this time, in this country, we are the safest we have ever been. Violent crime is at an all time low. In the mid 1970s, you were twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime than you are today in the United States. We are safe. Rest in that for a moment.
I know, because of the power of the internet, that yesterday, very near to this exact story of the Good Samaritan repeated itself in Poughkeepsie NY, Omaha NE, and Portland OR. And people who have medical bills set up GoFundMes everyday to ask kind souls to contribute to their care when they can’t do it on their own.
Why am I telling you this? Because nothing has changed from the time of Jesus. Yesterday, a man on his way to Jericho was left by thieves to die by the road. A priest came along and passed him by; a Levite saw the man, but left him to die. But then came the good Samaritan to help the needy man, and as the law was written, he followed God’s command: Love the Lord with all your heart, Love the Lord with all your mind, Love your neighbor as yourself, and to everyone be kind.
How do we decide where and how to help people? My best answer is through spending time with God, and spending time with God’s people, you may figure it out, for yourself, and for this community. Dr. Martin Luther King will inspire you to be active in this discovery process: “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny. We are caught in a network of mutuality, And I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.” Religion that undermines the ways that we are divided is religion worth taking notice of and diving into.
A person I really admire talks a lot about how what we take in and value and how that contributes to what we think, and how we spend our time, and what we put out in the world. If the only time you pray, or hear the bible, or think about God in your life is on Sunday mornings, it’s very possible that NPR is responsible for your spiritual formation more than this church. What I’m trying to encourage you to consider is how you might find and build even more of a rhythm into your life that is healthy and life giving. We are shaped and changed and made whole by repeatedly paying attention to things that give us life. Those things change us and make us act and behave differently in future.
I’m not sure we talk about that enough: your formation as a Christian is important. We need to do liturgical acts – liturgy – public worship regularly because that is how liturgical acts work.
We can encourage one another in regular weekly holy habits of coming to church. it is the repetition that gives the experience greater depth and somehow unlocks things inside us.
When we do things again and again, we become part of the thing we are doing. Instead of us doing something to the thing, the thing starts to do something to us. We become the body of Christ.
We might start to love God more, and to prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We become counter cultural. We center our lives on our values of welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, and making each other feel less suffering.
I know a woman named Kathy who has been arrested more than 60 times. When the US embargoed Iraq, she and others traveled there with food and medical supplies to give to hospitals in defiance of the US government. She’s just one person, but she believes that war is wrong, and she’s shaped her whole life around that belief. She asked her employer to pay her such a low wage that she will not be taxed, so that she does not support any war efforts that happen in our country. She lives in a deliberate, faithful way that seems scary to me. Kathy is not very popular with the US government, or with the IRS. Kathy has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes when people set themselves on the path to loving God and loving their neighbor, it starts to look a lot like being insane. But God isn’t calling us to be safe, is God? God isn’t calling us to be the most efficient, the most comfortable, the one with the most money. God is calling us to be faithful. God is calling us to love. Radical love. Insane love. Love that scares us, challenges us, might get us arrested. That kind of love.
So what’s your thing? What is God calling you to love for? To live for? What’s worth dying for? The ethics that I care about, the center of my life, what it means to do the right thing is … guess what? I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to tell you. Jesus is. Speak out for the downtrodden. Welcome the stranger. We have to be concerned about the well-being of everyone, most particularly the vulnerable. Compassion for the marginalized is an imperative for those who would identify as Christian (and fully human in my book). The gospel is a mirror held in front of each of us said Verna Dozier.
Love God and Love your neighbor – that is God’s will for your life – it’s bigger than one person’s opinion. Who is my neighbor? YOU don’t decide that. God has decided that already when he made us all, together, the body of Christ. But what you do decide, and this takes some soul searching, is – what are you going to do about it?
Stories, we learned in our early school days in English lessons, are made up of a plot line that has three main parts. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Beginning. Middle. End. That’s a story.
Maybe sermons are the same way, but I am going to skip to the end, and tell you the main point or theme that I hope you will carry away from my words today, and then support it with the rest of the story. Here it is: What if not knowing is the point? Can we all be okay with not knowing? And beyond being okay with not knowing, can we actually love the process of not knowing, because not knowing is just how it is?
Was that confusing? Let’s see if I can make it more clear.
I do not like scary movies. I’ve tried to like scary movies, and be one of those brave people who enjoy them, like Father Martin, for example. But, I think I have to come to grips with the reality that we are all differently and wonderfully made, and some people (like me!) are just better off NOT watching horror movies. They give me nightmares. They make my heart pound in a not-good way. I even roped a friend into this attempt to watch scary movies. Like, if you have already seen the movie, please watch it with me, and then warn me so I know when to cover my eyes and when it’s okay to look again. And having that reassurance of someone who has been there before is often a good way to navigate life. That’s why we have mentors, and career coaches, and support groups like AA where they have sponsors for the newer people in recovery to call upon.
I wonder if that’s the dynamic between Jesus and Thomas. I want to focus on the week or two when Thomas has not seen Jesus, but all the others have. The apostles have seen how it ends – they know of the resurrection of christ. And they tell Thomas, and he’s like “no way, I cannot handle that.” And Jesus appears again to the group and breathes into them the holy spirit (can you imagine how amazing that would be?) and he spends time with Thomas in his fear and uncertainty and says, “yes, Thomas, you can handle the horror and the wonder of all the emotions that come with my death and resurrection. See it for yourself.” But really, Thomas is not too far off from the rest of disciples in any other story of the bible, right?
It’s just this one week or so where Thomas is called out as being the doubter, the one who doesn’t trust until he sees what the other disciples see. But we know from the rest of the stories in the bible that all the disciples fall short time and again of being faithful believers – they often came across as petty and bumbling, falling a sleep a lot of important times, denying they even know their friend Jesus at the most important moments, being jealous of one another and arguing about which one is the greatest, or favorite. I love the disciples. It’s just the way we all seem to navigate the world throughout all recorded history. Even when you would think that humanity would learn, or get better about these kind of issues. Not having all the answers because of our limited perspective seems to be the human condition. It’s not hard to put ourselves into the sandals of disciples on any this, either. I can imagine the confusion and fear of Thomas. I can imagine the sureness of those who saw Jesus.
There are lots of issues where reasonable and unreasonable minds continue to differ: climate change is real and people are contributing to it. No it isn’t, and if it was, the impact of people is negligible. Vaccinations will harm your child; vaccines will save your child’s life. Women are equal to men in every way that matters. No they are not. Jesus our Savior is alive. That’s simply not possible. What’s the point of these arguments? These kind of disagreements are surely not the point of community. I’m not saying they don’t matter. Sometimes we have to take a bold stand for what we know is right, no matter the outcome or consequences. I do think all of our arguments will be ultimately resolved, and then the person who had it wrong is going to feel like a pretty big fool. But right now, the person who is wrong has no idea, and often times, they have to figure that out for themselves.
How we love each other through our differences will be remembered more than anything we say.
All our journeys/stories begin and end with God, so even when we feel very lost, and on the opposite side of a very large gulf between our neighbors in Christ, we can never be truly lost if we focus on the love we carry with us.
It’s just not possible to know everything, and we need to be okay with that. I get to work with law students who are trying to figure out their career paths. What is the job I want? What’s the job I can get? Will anyone even want to hire me? Am I worth being hired at all? These issues, like a lot of the issues where we feel uncertain or where we are willing to fight with others about the issue, strike to the very heart of who we are as people – our worth, our identity, our place in the world.
I see that these students are struggling because of where they are in time. All of the things that are causing stress, keeping them up nights, making them feel unwell, and making them doubt themselves and their choices – it’s all going to make sense to them soon. They have to go through the struggle of it. They have to not know before they get on the path to their career. Other people can point them the way, or tell them how much promise they have, or tell them it’s all going to work out, but they don’t share those feelings at all, no matter what anyone can tell them. The disciples saw Jesus. Thomas didn’t see Jesus – not then, and not yet. But he did see Jesus. We are – each of us – every one of us – on our own timelines for knowing God, and for seeing Jesus, and for finding our faith within this world. There’s an old spiritual that goes something like this (and I am probably getting it wrong but I think it goes): you gotta learn to walk with Jesus. Nobody else can do it for you.
I think of faith development similar to human development. There are stages of concrete thinking and there are stages of nuanced thinking. Each stage is important to our whole. We bring everything to our faith – our rational minds, our ability to be open to the possibility that we have it all wrong, our passion for good, and yes, even our doubts. None of these things can or should be checked at the door when you walk into church, or into relationship with God. Or to school, or to work. Or to finding the truth. Sometimes the truth can be determined. You examine the facts, you logically rifle through the possible conclusions, and you reach a determination that’s pretty absolute. For example, we know that if we go outside there are roses along the wall of the church that Frank Schramling tended. Fact. I haven’t seen him trim the roses, but I know that he does. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. So keep disagreeing but don’t discount anyone’s humanity, and for some issues don’t discount that you might be wrong. I mean, what if we are wrong about everything? it’s a pretty interesting thought exercise to say, “but what if I am wrong on this?” I admit there are some topics where I cannot do it. But there’s a saying – the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. (I’m sure Thomas is relived to hear this saying.) If you know everything, then maybe God should just step aside and let you drive the universe.
The “not knowing” place is the way we spend most of our lives. So, they key to getting through “not knowing” in my opinion, is to be okay with it. Can you be okay with not knowing? Beyond that, can you love it? Can you love not knowing? There’s so much promise in what might be coming next. If stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, then we as humans on the journey are stuck in the middle perpetually until the end. We don’t get to choose when it ends or how it ends. We can find a way to love not knowing, though. And Jesus will be there with us to assuage our doubts. Can you love not knowing?
This sermon is about forgiveness. I am going to talk about a church shooting, and I am going to talk about abuse in the church. We have to face these realities, and in order to face them bravely, we have to talk and think about them. The readings today led me to these words.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, twenty-one at the time, joined a group of African Americans gathered for a bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For over an hour, he participated in the discussion, and then he stood up, brandished a handgun and, yelling racist epithets, began to shoot people. At one point during the attack, he shouted, “Y’all want something to pray about; I’ll give you something to pray about.” When it was over, nine people were dead, including the forty-one-year-old pastor of the church, Clementa Pinckney; an eighty-seven-year-old parishioner Susie Jackson; and a twenty-six-year-old man, Tywanza Sanders, who tried to talk Roof out of it, and jumped in front of Susie to protect her.
Later, under police interrogation, Roof flatly admitted to the killings. In a journal entry made some weeks after the murders, Roof stated, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Listen now to words of forgiveness from the daughter of a murdered churchgoer: she said to the killer, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.” The relative of another victim said to the murderer, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Hearing the response of the families, we can see the unfathomable love of God. We can spend our whole lives trying to understand forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.
Forgiveness is how we decide to in our minds, and in our lives, let go of a hurt that someone else has given us. It’s when we find our own power, and don’t let another person tell us who we are, and define us. Maybe someone else put a heavy weight on your shoulders. And you don’t need it there. You don’t need to carry it.
Repentance is being aware of the harm that you have done to another person, and wishing that you had not done it, as well as taking steps to change what you do and how you act to make sure that you don’t do the bad thing again, and owning the consequences of your actions.
Reconciliation is the act of making true peace. Making things equal or right again when they were not compatible. Realizing harmony between issues, people, or groups that were against each other before. This can be a short process, or a long process, depending on the situation.
What is forgiveness, and why do we do it?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are different actions. Forgiveness is about what happens in our own hearts and minds. Repentance is what happens in the heart and mind of the transgressor toward the person they have wronged. And forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, just like repentance can lead to reconciliation, but it’s not just a given. Dylan Roof may never be sorry for killing those people in church that day. And sometimes the world is like that. And sometimes people don’t want to forgive. I don’t think that makes them less holy, or less loved by God for it. There is a person who harmed me, and I admit that I do not forgive that person. I’m not there yet. I’m not as good as God, or as loving as Jesus.
In the Episcopal Church we say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” and “All are Welcome!” – some tough questions flow out of that, though. Are our enemies welcome? Who are our enemies? What are the boundaries of welcome? For me, the key is not being welcome to the detriment of safety. Are all people actually welcome if there is a predator among us? We can say yes – all are welcome – if we make it clear that in our community we value victims and we value safety. To be a participant in our community, the predator must do likewise – value safety and respect those around them – in order to be welcome here. The typical power dynamic between weak and strong has to be flipped for this to work.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43–46). In the Sermon on the Plain, he makes a very similar suggestion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:31–32). And in dialogue with a Pharisee who had invited him to supper, he makes this teaching more concrete and pointed: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12–14).
In stressing love of enemies and generosity to those who cannot repay us, he is urging his followers to break free of the economy of exchange, which simply is our own egotism and it is a form of violence. “If I give you something, you have to give me something back. I deserve it. I demand it.”
Right now in the broader Christian church we are being rocked by scandals of abuse from priests and pastors. How a church responds tells us a great deal about who and what they value. Some, in my opinion, very unhealthy stories have emerged of regions choosing to cover up abuse, or not turning over criminal acts of abuse to be investigated by civil authorities, or saying that if an abuser has repented, then the survivor is now obligated to forgive.
In our Episcopal Church, the response to this difficult issue of clergy sexual misconduct gives me hope that we are a group of people who is willing to flip that power dynamic on its head – we have said from the General Convention in July that anyone throughout time in our church who has experienced abuse is able to come forward and report, because the church, as a reaction to the many reports of abuse in other contexts suspends for three years the canon (church law) that places a time limit on initiating proceedings in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Leaders throughout the church in the US will be working on other ways of addressing these issues, including a process to help the church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding our history of gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence. This is the opposite of sweeping it under the rug. This is respecting the vulnerable people who have been hurt, and centering our community around their healing. This seems like difficult, sacred work.
Do you want to forgive someone, but you don’t know how?
Everett Worthington, was a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University when his mother was brutally murdered in a 1995 burglary. In a weird coincidence, Worthington’s research at the university examined the effects of forgiveness. So in the days after his mother’s death, he decided to employ a five-step process he had previously come up with:
First, you recall the incident, including all the hurt. Empathize with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the altruistic gift of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, commit yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, hold onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.
Worthington found that his approach worked—and that other examples confirmed his intuition. Studies have shown that forgiveness aids mental and physical health, while the opposite reaction—holding a grudge and harboring resentment—has the opposite effect on well-being.
Grace feels like a sanctuary most days – a safe and welcoming place. I hope our church and our diocese will not have to directly face the awful topics that I brought up today, that plague the modern world. But if we do, the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who left him for dead, and the teachings of Jesus will implore us to find a path to healing: seek to forgive when you are ready and able. Seek to repent when you have done something bad. God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and as an entire community, when we face a mass tragedy, or even a small wrong help us remember – we all fall short of the grace of God, and yet, that grace is still there for us, reconciling us to God and to one another.
This is a terrifying thing to say – All Are Welcome – but I think, if we are going to be a church for all people in the heart of the city, we have to say it, and mean it, and work through the forgiveness, and repentance and reconciliation that makes our lives truly holy: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.
Christmas brings us joy, but is anyone else tired right now? The demands of visiting, travel, and gift-giving associated with Christmas, combined with the ordinary obligations of life, can drain the wonder and meaning from the season and leave you weary. Christmas Day may start to feel like a race with a finish line rather than the beginning of a feast. And yet – some of you know this, because Epicopalians like that they celebrate this way – the season of Christmas in the Church actually begins on Christmas Day and runs for twelve days, up to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
Christmas is hard.
“Making time for God” feels like one more exhausting thing on our to-do list that we’re gonna fail at. But here you are. And here we all are. I’m going to quote my current favorite Christmas song a lot in this sermon. Like O holy night says, truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.
As Rev. Laura Jean Truman says, “This is the season of God becoming vulnerable.”
A tiny baby – not one that just makes his parents and aunties happy, but that brings a new light into the life of everyone on the earth. This one special human being was sent to give us a glimpse of God, a glimpse of what God is like and what God sees, and a glimpse of ourselves from the point of view of God.
There’s a lot of part s of having faith that seems like it’s out of our control, and sometimes it even feels like we don’t have a say in what is happening. if I say yes to God’s plan for my life, does that mean I’m still me? If my sins are erased, what’s actually left? Do I have a personality? Monastic communities, and even ordained people in our church, take vows of obedience and agree to submit to Christ, and to the church. What if…now, go with me here, what if God becoming fully human in Jesus and being fully vulnerable, is God’s way of having faith in us? Of submitting to us? God wants to work with us, and to live with us, and to die with us. As Rachel Held Evans says, God stoops.
And as Rev. Jes Kast says, I love the thought of human God so much.
The one whose heart hurt. Who got splinters in his hands when he was working as a carpenter. The one who had crushes. The one who needed hugs as much as I do.”
When God becomes Jesus, God is asking us to stand beside Jesus, as Jesus stands beside us. And oh what light reflects on us from standing by Jesus Christ! When we stand by him, so something of that light also reflects from us. Then we can turn to the world and, we bring light in places and situations of darkness. And ever since the first disciples, that light of Christ has traveled near and far, around our world, been passed on and magnified. Where the light of Christ shines with truth and honesty, it has brought healing out of brokenness, hope out of despair, peace out of hatred, and joy out of sorrow.
In the Nicene Creed we say: God from God, Light from light
Jesus’ light is the search-light cutting through the night sky.
Jesus’ light is the candlelight burning gently in the room where you let down your guard with someone you love.
Jesus’ light is the light of the stars under which we dream of a better society built on a common good where all may flourish.
Jesus’ light is the Northern Lights that dance in the sky and allow us to wonder at God’s creation.
And Jesus’ light is the beam of a lighthouse, so we know where we are and where we are going in a world with many dangers.
When you stand with Jesus, and see the light, what light does that shine in the darkness of our world?
Back to the hymn O holy night: Til he appeared at the soul felt its worth. What does it look like when a soul feels its worth?
When I was trying to answer that question, in preparation for talking to you all here today, I kept thinking of Harriet Tubman. What a great example to us of how to live a life bravely, no matter what everyone else is doing. She followed a star, it led her to freedom, and she believed that she had a right to be treated with dignity and respect, on the same level as any other person, right? Absolutely. What she believed about her soul and its worth, seems to me exactly like what God is showing us through Jesus. We’re lucky enough to have some words from her that remain through time, telling us what she thought about her first journey after walking about 90 miles in the cover of darkness, what crossed her mind when she stepped across the Mason Dixon line, which separated the slave states from the free states as the sun rose “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven” And then when she was safe, she did the unthinkable. She went back. Back into the slave states to free her brothers, her sisters, her mother, her father and her friends.
As I said when I began speaking, today is the beginning of Christmas. And, maybe that’s actually a great thing, because you already bought all the presents, and did all the stuff that society expects you to do on Christmas. A lot of other people consider today to be the end of Christmas. But now, with all that out of the way, you can focus on Christmas. Between now and Epiphany, I invite you to have, well, an epiphany. As you stand in the darkness and behold the light of Jesus, what does it mean to you? What does it call you to do, or to be? What are the things you can do, because God is with you, vulnerable, like a tiny baby, and ready to lighten the world with you? You can weave the old stories of the gospel into something new this year, as you go. Jesus did it. Mary did it. You are just as wondrous as them. So, Now you.
Again, O Holy Night: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
This week’s readings are about a lot of things, but here are the big picture parts that I’m going to focus in on: faith that God will provide, we are all tied together with unique gifts as separate parts of a whole (the body of Christ), and Christ is the bread of everlasting life.
In the Lord’s Prayer it says “give us this day our daily bread” – so, in light of these readings, what is our daily bread meant to be? Is our daily bread faith from God? Is our daily bread the body of Christ? What does that mean?
What does God want all of his people to be doing every day? Take care of yourself – eating a good diet, sleeping enough, eliminating stress through prayer, meditation and connection to community, and having some level of physical activity. That’s the daily bread.
So, I want to talk about wellness thresholds, which is an idea by a doctor from the United Kingdom, Rangan Chatterjee.
Threshold effect is the idea that we all have a personal level of things we can handle before we become unwell. You were born, let’s say, in perfect health and we can deal with multiple insults to our health – up to a point – and remain okay. The fact we don’t move very much, a job we don’t like, a relationship fall apart, lack of sleep, a diet that isn’t great. You might have a person come to the doctor and say that all was going great. All was fine and then I got a new boss and now I have an autoimmune disorder. But if you look at that person’s history you see, things were not alright. We are resilient and we can deal with lots of stressors, until we can’t. The straw that breaks the camels back is a misnomer. Sure, look at the last stressor that tipped you up, but there were lots of things that got you to that point. Because there’s a whole host of things to look at in how you build your life. We can juggle one ball, two balls, three balls, but if you chuck that 4th ball at me, I’m going to drop all of them. Everything falls down. So don’t look for the one thing that it is. No one answer will help you. Of course we need a more holistic approach to improving our lives. It’s not about perfection, it’s about balance. Take the pressure off – it’s not a diet that’s perfect, or a gym routine that’s perfect that will fix everything. You just need something for your sleep and something for your stress levels, and try to be sure you are moving ENOUGH and your diet is good ENOUGH. You’ve heard the 30 minutes before bed, shut off all the tech, Or how 10 minutes of meditation will improve your life. So, here’s my suggestion, although, looking at the people here today, you might already all be doing this: commit to 5 minutes of prayer a day if you aren’t already. That’s an easy one. You will sleep better and feel less anxious in your waking hours. This is accessible and achievable. Good health is much more than food. What works in our real lives? I don’t want to come across as a lifestyle blogger who has this all figured out and is doing all these things perfectly, who is now standing here and bossing all of you into doing these things, too. Done is better than perfect. Something is better than nothing.
People have very powerful attachments about why they do certain things. Sometimes you know that your choices aren’t good for you, or healthy, and you know that your choices are not serving you. Those “bad” choices on some level DO nourish you – if you are lacking something in an aspect of your life, you can feed those comfort path ways by eating a sugary treat or watching lots of netflix every day instead of alternating those hours with other hobbies. We know that on a deep emotional level that we need to take care ourselves. Is it a comfort food, or a social connection that will feed us in the long term?
Food is a big thing. We have to eat every day to nourish ourselves. Give us THIS DAY our daily bread. We can’t re-eat the food we ate yesterday, and we can’t eat the food for this Thursday today.
Documentary How to Cook Your Life Edward Espe Brown talks about the biscuits of today, and this is what he says. We pay a lot of money not to cook. Not to confront a potato. What am I going do with this? How am I going to cook it? And, when we do cook it, we have a tendency to want to turn it into something unlike itself. You know, I can’t make it taste like those McDonald’s french fries, no matter what I do. Now our whole sense of taste is skewed. I can make biscuits but they never come out right. I tried more butter, less butter different kinds of fats, with water, with milk, eggs, not eggs. I tried a lot of things and you know after 4 or five tries at biscuits and they aren’t coming out right, I thought right compared to what? I realized that when I grew up in my family we made pillsbury biscuits from a can – you have that can that you peel open or bang on the counter and twist out of the can and put them on the pan and bake them. You know what, maybe we ought to just taste the biscuits of today and see what they are like. So I made biscuits again and tried them again and it was so good. It was buttery and flaky and wheatey with whole wheat flour that tasted like the earth, like the sun, and like water. There’s poetry and the possibility of connection with other life in those biscuits. We try to make our lives look like cosmopolitan magazine or on sitcoms – who are those people? Why would you want to be like them, where you know, you have to have the right smile and the right clothes and then eventually you can fit in or something? Are we going to have some standard to measure up to, or can we be the biscuit of today?
For different people, we need different things. Do what’s achievable. No perfection is needed in any of one these areas. Just a little something in this whole array of areas.
Food – people who are struggling with diet, remember – you just need enough for today.
Movement – there are some people who neglect their bodies. Get outside and praise God for the sun and the flowers.
Sleep – is the most undervalued thing about health. If you aren’t prioritizing it, you probably aren’t getting enough. The majority of people who have sleep problems are doing something they don’t know is having an impact on their rest. Like being on screens before you go to sleep.
Relax; do something about your stress levels – 15 minutes for yourself – or 5 minutes of prayer as I suggested earlier, for you and you alone, not involving your smart phone, and you are not allowed to feel guilty about it.
Be still in this modern life. It’s counter cultural and valuable to sit in silence and do nothing for a time.
The key to me is “give us this day our daily bread” – not tomorrow’s bread. We get up each day and start all over to do just what’s required of us in this day.
One of the bible verses we heard earlier today said:
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
The message of my sermon is this: take care of yourself, because God loves you. Jesus told you to eat the bread of life, and to really do that well, I want to invite you to really get in there, every day and be deeply reflective about what your daily bread looks like.
Many of you know this already, but this Sunday is called Transfiguration Sunday because of the Gospel reading – Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain with his friends Peter, James and John, and all of a sudden bright and beautiful rays of light begin to shine from Jesus – he is transformed – transfigured. And then some old time prophets appear on the mountain with them – Moses and Elijah – and Jesus speaks with them. Then a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, Listen to my son! Some people say the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.
Transfiguration Sunday is a threshold day. We stand at the end of Epiphany. We stand just before the beginning of Lent. We stand at the edge of our seasons turning from winter into spring. Let’s start our journey up the mountain top, across the threshold of holiness, and then back down with a blessing
Dazzling —Jan Richardson
Believe me, I know
how tempting it is
to remain inside this blessing,
to linger where everything
We could build walls
around this blessing,
put a roof over it.
We could bring in
a table, chairs,
have the most amazing meals.
We could make a home.
We could stay.
But this blessing
is built for leaving.
is made for coming down
wants to be in motion,
to travel with you
as you return
to level ground.
It will seem strange
how quiet this blessing becomes
when it returns to earth.
It is not shy.
It is not afraid.
It simply knows
how to bide its time,
to watch and wait,
to discern and pray
until the moment comes
when it will reveal
everything it knows,
when it will shine forth
with all it has seen,
when it will dazzle
with the unforgettable light
you have carried
all this way.
For me – the transfiguration story, as well as the earlier passage we read today, where we heard the story of how Elijah was carried into heaven by a chariot of fire, up into a whirlwind of clouds, leaving his servant and friend Elisha crying and alone on earth – both of those stories really resonate with me, and bring up something that I think we all struggle with in life – how to be present in the current moment.
I make THE BEST plans. I plan big things, I plan little things, I plan for the short term, and I plan for the long term. I day-dream plan, I reality plan, I have plans where I write it down, I have plans that I keep in my heart and tell no one. I have four notebooks for different kinds of plans. I like to lay it all out. I like to know what’s gonna happen. And then what happens? You all know what happens to the best laid plans. We get to have a good laugh at our plans. But here’s the thing – what else are we supposed to do, but plan?
I mean I really think that God asks us to hold a creative tension here. It’s like a conversation between you and God, your plans, and then the way that life takes our plans and makes them into something we don’t necessarily recognize that is … our life.
It’s so obvious to me that our lives are a creative process between us and God that is happening in every moment. We claim our lives, and we live into a vision – that’s our planning – but at the same time, we have to hold open the very real possibility that surprises are going to be happening. So we work for days, and weeks and months, and sometimes even years on our plans – we show up, and we tend our visions like they are gardens or like they are children, or like they are a work of art that we are painting. Then suddenly there is a shift of some kind. We see things in a new way, we know something we didn’t know before. Our hard work ends up changing us. We only think we have control of the mosaic of moments that is our life. Or even worse, we don’t really pay attention, and miss the chance to create something beautiful with God.
Let me read a short passage from A tree full of Angels by Macrina Weiderkehr that explains paying attention: We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry. Not only do we dwell in the land of plenty; we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God. In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? Lock up our souls? Why do we limp? Why do we straddle the issues? Why do we live so feebly, so dimly? Why aren’t we saints?
Each of us could come up with individual answers to all these questions, but I want to suggest here a common cause. The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is we have never really learned how to be present – with quality – to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things. We have never learned to gather up the crumbs of whatever appears in our path at every moment. We meet all these lovely gifts only half there. Presence is what we are all starving for. Real Presence! We are too busy to be present, too blind to see nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment. Yet, the secret of daily life is this: There are no leftovers!
There is nothing – no thing, no person, no experience, no thought, no joy or pain that cannot be harvested and used for our journey to God.
So that’s what stirs up in me when I think about the three disciples who followed Jesus up the mountain, and then had to follow him back down again and go on to live their lives. Life can cause us, in sometimes very painful or vivid ways, to have to release things that we have counted on the most. To be transfigured. We feel like Elisha when Elijah was whisked up into heaven and there he was standing on the ground. People, don’t tell me that this thing or this person I love is going to be taken away from me, as Elisha says, “yes, I know this bad thing is going to happen. Keep silent.” For us, some of our chances are gone, and some of our beloved people have died, and here we are. The chariot has gone in a whirlwind up to heaven and we are here, in this moment. Down from the mountain. Facing our life. Ripping our clothes in agony.
It’s easy to want to stay on the mountaintop when we know great things are there, and not so great things are waiting for us on the ground. So what about that mountaintop? Oh that glorious mountaintop! Sweet Peter, up on that mountain, sees the most amazing thing of his life and what does he do? Something transformative happens and we want to cling to it. Let me build something so that this is a tangible thing I can hold onto. But as he suggests that, a cloud comes out of nowhere, it overshadows them, and speaks – Listen to my son! And Jesus walks them down the mountain, and there’s no more talk about building anything.
God doesn’t want us to build house for the holy, the man-made structures, the architecture that we create in God’s name. All of that is very cool, and wondrous, but usually when God shows up, it is through other people. We are God’s architecture. We’re the buildings God loves the most. Not the monuments we’ve built to God.
And then as they walk back down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to talk about it. Not to talk about his transfiguration. To wait, to reflect, to carry it with them in their heart, to ponder it. Like Mary pondering the birth of Jesus. We experience transformative things, and then sometimes we create stories about what we experience – like a physical building, we build a story around our life that we tell other people about who we are.
Nothing is the same for the disciples – they witnessed something dazzling, and they turn back to the rhythms of their lives, but they cannot forget what they have seen. It’s changed them. It’s changed everything. Why did Jesus tell them not to talk about it? Maybe it was too soon. There’s a time and place to share about the transfigurations of your life. There’s also times when pondering in your heart is the better course. Our experiences dwell in our stories, and our stories change our experiences if we let them, especially if we try to define a transfiguration when it is still happening.
Because we are at the end of Epiphany, let me ask you – So what about you? Have you ever been to the mountain top?
Think back. When was the last time you had a revelation about God? When did you understand something completely new about yourself and about your faith? Last week Martin said in his homily that God can be found anywhere. Everywhere. I love it, and I agree with it. And that’s what I’m asking you about. Can you think back to the last exciting Epiphany that you had about the nature of God? Where were you? Go back in your mind to that moment.
We have these mountain top moments, and then we go back down and return to the real world. Because this story is not just about learning to come down from the mountain top, and it’s not just about learning to let go of plans so we are hearing God’s plans with us. It’s also not just about learning that building monuments does not help us to keep going. here’s what I think it’s about, more than those things.
I think it’s about opening our eyes. Open your eyes and see the glory that’s around you. Let that glory into your bones. Open your very soul to it. Allow glory to move you. Allow it to affect you on a deep level. Give yourself permission to walk where the glory of God leads you. Have courage to trust what you have seen on the mountaintop. Trust what you know from God. Because it goes back down the mountain with you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The gifts you receive on the mountain top are still real at the ground level. And even more than that, they are still with you even when you walk in the valley of the shadow.
Don’t you think these are great passages to lead us into Lent? We are about to spend forty days examining what we cling to, and what we need to let go of, in order that we may know more fully how Christ is in our lives. But don’t jump ahead, because Lent will be here soon enough. we are here with Peter, John and James right now, and they are asking you – how does their story, and their journey down the mountain connect with your own? Where do we reach that beautiful, creative conversation where God and each of us are playing out the vision for our lives?