Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by the Reverend Sarah Miller

Ten years ago today, Charles Jenkins, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, sat alone in front of a television set at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge. His eyes were fixed on the screen, which was filled with images of exhausted, desperate evacuees, begging for help outside the Convention Center in New Orleans. A later news article puts what happened next this way: What Bishop Jenkins saw on that television “torched his soul, driving him to his knees in prayer. What he saw, he says now, was not merely suffering blooming from decades of social and economic inequality. He saw sin itself: malignant, writhing evil, freshly troweled up from the soil of his very city; social sin, which, for all of his theological sensitivity, he had only dimly sensed.” The deep poverty and the racial injustice that had plagued New Orleans for so long, and which Bishop Jenkins and the church had for the most part politely ignored, was unmasked. And out of the tears and contrition and horror that consumed him, Bishop “Jenkins…embarked on a personal re-education in which he [sought] to see [New Orleans] through the eyes of the poor. And that education…yield[ed] a new personal mission: to work for citywide racial reconciliation and [to purge] the social injustices Katrina laid bare.

Before the storm, [Jenkins says], ‘I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult…And doing the actions correctly—holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those [things] right. And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.’”[1]

In our collect today we prayed for God to “increase in us true religion.” And our readings today are attempts to define what exactly “true religion” is. The Pharisees are offended that Jesus’ disciples ignore the purity rituals at meals, and Jesus is offended right back; not so much that they take care to observe all the rituals, but that they too ignore what Bishop Jenkins called “the larger picture of the dignity of humanity.” You see, our gospel today is abridged. In the verses that get left out of the lectionary, Jesus explains exactly what his issue with the Pharisees is: they ignore the commandment to honor one’s father and mother; they told people that they could keep the money they should be using to support their elderly parents if they designated it as holy money offered to God. In practice, it just meant children could ignore their familial obligations. Jesus calls them out on this practice and ends with a sad, simple observation: “you do many things like this.” Jesus is trying to lead them, and us, back to true religion, back to seeing the larger picture of God’s will for human community. The Letter to James states it straight out: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

That phrase, caring for widows and orphans, is shorthand for a commitment to justice and loving service that you can trace all the way back to Deuteronomy, to the kind of social order commanded by God in the Torah. The Jewish Christians to whom James was writing implicitly understood the reference: taking care of the most vulnerable in society, setting slaves free, making sure everyone has food and clothing and shelter: that is true religion.

But the Pharisees’ mistake, the mistake Bishop Jenkins saw in his own heart, is an easy one for religious people to make. It’s easy to get focused on the details of rituals and forget our larger commitment to justice and service, because justice and service mean dealing with other people, and people are a lot harder to manage than the color of our shoes or the cleanliness of our cups and pots and pans. It’s nice to feel competent and totally in control and like you’ve accomplished something concrete; this is probably why I love washing the dishes when I’m feeling frazzled, and I know I’m not the only one. Human interaction is infinitely more complex and fluid and uncertain than doing the dishes, in wonderful and often maddening ways. Of course we gravitate towards those little tasks—they aren’t wrong for us to do, after all—and of course we tend to avoid delving into the murkier, harder work.

But there’s something else going on here; there’s a deeper reason that we get mixed up, in that the people the Torah and the Gospel tell us to serve and protect—the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable—these are the very people that so much in our culture teaches us to avoid, to fear, to despise. We’re taught to think that people can get stained the same way shirts do: by coming into contact with something external, something foreign, something dirty. So we try to protect ourselves from contamination the way we protect a really nice outfit: we get very cautious, very careful, about where we go, who we associate with. We avoid eye contact with certain people, not to mention physical contact. There are kinds people we’d never be friends with, so we keep them at arm’s length. There are certain neighborhoods we never set foot in. This is the world’s definition of purity: keeping ourselves separate from the Other, maintaining a veneer of social respectability at all times.

But in the law of Israel and the gospel of Jesus, this is not what constitutes purity. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” Jesus says, “but the things that come out are what defile.” It’s what’s inside, in the human heart, that’s what corrupts us. The purity that God demands of us turns social respectability on its head. Gospel purity means reaching out and connecting to the very people society teaches us to avoid. It means reaching out and shaking the hand of the person that scares you or unsettles you the most. It means working to make our communities more just, more humane, which we all know is hard, messy work. Paradoxically, in the kingdom of God, the way to be pure and undefiled is to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

Ten years ago today, at the same time that Bishop Jenkins was on his knees in prayer, a Walgreens drugstore in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was standing under eight feet of water. The Lower Ninth Ward, because of the race and income and reputation of its residents, was one of the places that, before the storm, it was all too easy for Episcopalians in New Orleans to ignore and avoid. But after the floodwaters went down, that Walgreens became an Episcopal church, under the leadership of Bishop Jenkins. All Souls Church, or St. Walgreens, as people nicknamed it, was dedicated from its very inception to the renewal of the neighborhood around it, especially through serving the children of the Lower Nine. I got to work there for two years. And while I was there I saw all the Episcopal rituals that we rightly cherish living right alongside this larger commitment to justice and reconciliation, so that, every afternoon, volunteers would pop up tables in the nave, pull out supplies, and children would come and do their homework. As you can imagine, this made the space a little messy and loud and chaotic at times; our commitment to those kids and their parents, and to the wider community, it stretched us, exhausted us, sometimes it broke our hearts. But paradoxically, amid all the messiness, God was intensely present; one day a volunteer came up to me during tutoring. Kids were running around, there were markers on the floor, paper everywhere. The volunteer pointed at the altar frontal, which had “Holy Holy Holy” stitched into it, and she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever understood what those words meant before today.”

The amazing thing about this place, about Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, is that you have committed to having justice and service live alongside the beauty and intricacy of ritual. You open your doors to feed everyone, including people you’ve been taught to fear and ignore, at the DEO lunches and the Fricke Food Pantry. You are reaching out to refugees at the Yates Center, and to women living in the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking through Friends of Tamar. You are passionate about inviting and seeking ways to connect with your neighbors in the downtown area. You’re making space and programs for children and families. And after this beautiful liturgy, with this amazing choir, we’re going to go outside and have a party that everyone’s invited to. It’s going to get loud and rambunctious and maybe a little messy around here, and I don’t just mean this afternoon. But thanks be to God, it is also going to be Holy, Holy, Holy.

[1] http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/01/episcopal_bishop_charles_jenki.html

The Reverend Sarah Miller serves as Curate at Trinity Cathedral in the Diocese of Nebraska

Advertisements

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2015

Over the course of my adult life, I have become a big fan of world soccer. Like a lot of things, I can become a little fanatical and obsessive about it. The team I support most passionately is an English side called Chelsea, which is a West London team. It’s a loyalty that is out of character for me. I tend to route for the underdog in sports, and Chelsea is like the New York Yankees of English soccer. They are a perennial powerhouse, loaded with the best players in the world, and backed up by loads of capital from the team’s owner.

I became a Chelsea fan before I knew any of this when I attended an exhibition game they were playing in Massachusetts. I had never seen a real European team play before, and Foxboro stadium wasn’t far from where we lived, so I bought the cheapest ticket I could find and went to the game. When I arrived, I found myself sitting in the midst of the really hard core Chelsea fans who had travelled from England to watch even such an unimportant match as this. I had so much fun with sitting with that group of people, that it hooked me on the team for life. Like a lot of sports fans, I don’t so much feel like I chose my team, as my team chose me. It wasn’t a rational decision I made, it was just something I caught.

I’ve come to understand that faith works that way, too. If you’ve ever thought that the Christian faith seems irrational, and hard to believe, then our gospel lesson today reminds you that you aren’t alone, and in fact are part of an ancient tradition that goes back to Jesus’ first disciples. If you’ve been keeping score over the past few weeks, you’ll know that this is the fourth week in a row that Jesus has said basically the same thing in our gospel lesson. For nearly all of chapter six in John’s gospel, he has gone on and on about himself as the bread of life, and how to eat his flesh and drink his blood is the key to eternal life. His disciples today react with one of the most obvious statements in all of scripture by saying: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” It’s so difficult in fact, that many disciples turned away and left.

The Greek word that’s translated as “difficult” more directly means “scandalous.” The disciples who left didn’t just find Jesus’ teachings hard to understand, they found them scandalous and offensive. And what was scandalous was not just the gross factor of Jesus talking about eating his body and blood, but rather suggesting that God would take on the ordinary form of a Jewish peasant from the backwaters of nowhere. The fact that God would do that is scandalous, hard to understand or accept.

One of the central claims of the whole Christian faith, is that we meet God primarily in the ordinary, in the mundane, and in other people. And if you know much about other people, or spend much time around other people, you’ll understand why someone might be scandalized by that. Because other people can be hard to deal with: they get angry, the disappoint us, they don’t come through, they refuse to forgive, they hurt us. They have annoying habits.

But at the same time, if you really stop and think about it, most of the ways we’ve really known the love of a God who refuses to let us go have involved those same, ordinary, disappointing people. We know God’s love is real in the arthritic hand we’ve been reaching out to hold for more years than we can count; in the exasperating child that brings us to our breaking point during the day, and who brings us to tears of unspeakable gratitude as we watch her sleep at night; in the friend who has known us for decades and keeps us connected to who we once were; in the sponsor who got us through the first agonizing weeks of recovery; in the grandparent who gave us strength and wisdom and stability in the midst of chaos. Over and over and over, our most intense moments of knowing God’s love involve the same people who make us crazy.

So the Christian faith is not about believing better with our brains, it’s about committing more deeply to our relationships. Belief is not a lightning bolt that zaps out all our doubts, it’s a process that gradually unfolds as we struggle to love one another like Jesus.

I didn’t choose my commitment to Chelsea. I caught it from being connected to other fans. We arrive at a life-changing faith in Jesus the same way: by committing to spending time with Jesus in the Eucharist, in one another, and in serving the world around us.

We are just getting ready to start year two of an ambitious strategic plan to continue to be a beacon of hope and light to our neighborhood, our city, and our world. You’ll be hearing a lot more about where we are and where we’re going in the coming weeks and months. We’re taking big steps that will require big faith. In our own lives, we all face challenges, and uncertainties. But through our practice together here week by week, we are learn more and more how to rely on God’s provision, how to trust God’s strength, and how to feast on God’s abundant, and unlimited love. A love that turns brokenness into healing, that turns enmity into peace, darkness into life, death into life. Amen.

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 9, 2015

One of the first funerals I presided over was for a woman in her early thirties who had died under especially tragic circumstances. I was serving on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and it’s customary in Lakota culture for everyone who attends the funeral to stand at the graveside until the grave is completely filled in. This process is usually accompanied by singing, and praying, and a lot of weeping. I’ll never forget the image of this young woman’s mother, standing over the open grave, wailing, and weeping uncontrollably. It was my first lesson as a twenty-five year old new priest of how a pastor’s heart will always break with his peoples. I still think about that moment all these years later.

King David’s outburst at the end of today’s Old Testament lesson probably looked a lot like that. The dignified way we present it in this setting doesn’t really convey the intense, crushing grief that’s intended by the text. He says, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” In Hebrew, the repetition of a name conveys an emotional power that is hard to translate into English. And here we have four repetitions, two of “Absalom” and two of “my son” which gives a sense that this really was a wailing, a complete outpouring of emotion.

This is a climactic moment in the story of David’s reign. The really heartbreaking thing here is not just that David’s son was killed, it’s not just that this is the third child David has lost. The real tragedy in this story is that the whole situation is David’s fault. If you remember the story of David and Bathsheba from several weeks ago, David set the whole soap opera we’ve tracked over the last several weeks into motion by essentially raping Bathsheba and killing her husband. David’s continual use of violence, and deceit, and lust for power has created an elaborate and tragic dumpster fire of a succession plan. The whole story is full of rape, and treachery, and murder, and manipulation. The saga is an example of how violence begets violence, and the sins of the father are visited on the children and almost everyone else around.

While David’s grief is raw and real in this moment, the full weight of what he’s created and what it has wrought seems to fall on him, he never really takes responsibility for his role in all of it. God also feels deep grief and anger over the disaster David has made of Israel’s experiment with a king. But the really beautiful thing to me about the rest of the Old Testament, is that God’s grief and anger don’t just hang there for a moment and then go away like David’s, God’s grief and anger simply fuel his love and commitment to saving Israel and helping them get it right. God’s heartache and rage over how Israel screws it up only feeds his love. For the writers of the New Testament, and the earliest Christians, Jesus is the king that David never could be. Jesus’ heart breaks over and over, he wails and weeps and laments during his life over his friends’ death, over how broken and tragic human life can be. But his lament and anger only fuels his love, and his willingness to give himself over entirely for our salvation.

You don’t need to go to these strange stories in the Old Testament to find examples of how violence leads to violence, of how cruel human beings can be to one another, of how power can corrupt, of how families can be broken no matter how hard they try to love one another. You can see those things everywhere.

So this cycle of stories from 2 Samuel we’ve been reading all summer challenge us to do two things. The first is to really feel David’s pain about how broken the world can be. We’re invited to just sit for a time with how we continue to live in a world where violence against women, or people of color is far too easy and common. We continue to live in a world where the lust that so many have for power leaves so many others as hungry and homeless collateral damage. We continue to live in a world where each of us has experienced some maddening, and unjust, and inexplicable loss and heartbreak.

But as we sit with that, as we feel our anger and sadness and wail a little bit about it all, we’re then challenged to join Jesus in using those feelings as fuel for love, and bread for a commitment to practicing kindness, and love, and mercy, and justice in our own lives.

David’s moment of intense grief over the death of Absalom was an opportunity for him to use the rest of his life to stand against the broken system he had created. He never really managed to do that. We are called to be a community that turns grief and anger into hope and love. One of the reasons I love this place is because this is where it is ok to give voice to the wails inside us, at the injustice in the world, and the heartache in our own lives. Our relationship with God gets real when we voice to him the deep wails we all carry, and that most of us bury deep inside us. We comfort each other in that grief, we love each other in our outrage, and then together, we find ways to join Jesus in living our whole lives so that the world might be set free from its nightmarish cycles, and wake up into the dream of God’s perfect kingdom of peace. Amen.