Does Jesus Care About Divorce?/Sermon: Oct. 5, 2015

Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas, Oct. 5, 2015

This week, you and I are beginning our third year together as priest and congregation at St. Paul’s. For the last two years, I’ve been out and about in my clergy collar here in Woodville – I don’t talk about it a lot, but it hasn’t been easy. And some days, it’s hard.
Judging by the stories many of you shared with me when I first arrived here, you can identify, having had your own challenging experiences as Episcopalians here in East Texas. As one of our parishioners pointed out, walking around with ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday gives a good taste of what being different in Christian community is like, how assumptions and misunderstandings can make our common life more difficult, without opportunities for conversation.
Last week, I was out at lunch with a couple of friendly folks when a lady at another table started glaring at me. I thought maybe she just had bad depth perception, but since she glared harder at me after I smiled and nodded a hello, I’m guessing that wasn’t it! Most of the time nobody responds to me in stores or restaurants. I mean, I get it – I’m a triple threat in our small rural town: I’m a newcomer, I’ve got a clergy collar on, and even worse, I’m a woman with a clergy collar on. I’ve experienced worse in my collar, and I know that, unfortunately, you and others have had similar experiences over differences in Christian belief.

No, I don't dress like a Swedish stewardess from 1965.

No, I don’t dress like a Swedish stewardess from 1965.

This is more like the clergy girl life in East Texas. Just to be clear, I'm the one on the right.

This is more like the clergy life in East Texas. Just to be clear, I’m the one on the right.

Differences in what we believe are difficult things to process. Our Gospel from Mark today is packed with difficult things to process. But let’s be brave and look at it together:
On the surface, this is a recording of Jesus teaching the crowds gathered around him, in an area of Judea near the Jordan, when he is confronted publicly by a group of Pharisees putting him on the spot about Jewish law and divorce.
This is going to be a familiar process. We’re going to hear the Pharisees try to back Jesus into a corner again in Mark 12, by asking another dangerous political question, “Do we Jews have to pay taxes to the Roman emperor?” and later in the same chapter, with a question one of them must have stayed up all night coming up with, “If a woman marries seven brothers in a row, whose wife is she going to be to in heaven?
Where and how this confrontation on divorce law happens is important to understanding the conversation. Where have we seen this before? Who else besides Jesus was in Judea near the Jordan, angering the Pharisees? Who else, like Jesus does in Mark 1, has been declaring “the kingdom of heaven has come near?”
John the Baptist, in Matthew 3. And what happened to John the Baptist? He was thrown in prison and had his head cut off. Why? Because he dared to criticize Herod about divorcing his wife to chase after his brother’s wife.

This is what happens to guys who criticize Roman tetrarchs when they're trying to dump their wive's for their brother's girl. But doesn't her daughter's dress sure look spiffy?

This is what happens to guys who criticize Roman tetrarchs when they’re trying to dump their wives for their brother’s girl, using her daughter’s help. Does her dress say, “My dancing convinced the king to give me anything, and all I got was this guy’s head?”

Think this confrontation might just be a trap? Most likely. Jesus knows the Pharisees are working for his imprisonment and death. But it’s not yet his time to die, and God’s son won’t put himself into their hands until it is the right time.
So Jesus is in public, a crowd of witnesses listening, and he flips the question around on the Pharisees: “You want to know if it’s lawful? Ok, you tell me. What does your own law say?”
They’re not going to let him get the better of them, or pass up a chance to show off their knowledge of the law, so they answer right back: “Well, Moses allowed a man to dismiss his wife in writing, and divorce her.”
Ok, so the question on Mosaic law is answered. A guy can put his wife out and divorce her.
This is the point where the Pharisees should have walked away, because it’s about to go down. Jesus says, ok, you want to open up this can of worms, here we go:
The reason why Moses allowed that concession to the law, is because of your hard-heartedness. From the beginning, my Father’s dream for the life of the world was for wholeness. For you to live and work together in perfect creative union, one new life together in God.
Divorce is a sad thing. God wants what he creates to grow and flourish – not to suffer division and destruction and death. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer, or be hurt, or shoved to the margins. But he also understands that we are human, and we struggle to be our best selves.
After the public confrontation and they are gathered, probably around a meal, in a private home, the disciples are still caught up in the law, so they ask for more conversation. What we hear is a very candid, private discussion with the disciples, that wouldn’t have taken place in the public forum just before this. Jesus reflects to them God’s serious response to breaking the covenant of marriage – those who are bound together as one before God, but leave that union to join with someone else, are breaking a sacred covenant. At the same time, in naming both men and women as equally responsible and equally accountable, he upends the patriarchal Mosaic marital law. Imagine if he had said that in front of the Pharisees!
God’s law of perfection is tough, but at the same time, God is full of grace and love for his people. Sin and forgiveness. Unquestionable perfection and unlimited grace. These things co-exist because of God’s holy mystery. This mystery also holds the foundation of our salvation: we are called, despite our brokenness, to be reconciled to a holy and perfect God, who loves us so much that we are also given the grace of Jesus Christ in order to do it.
This is what Jesus is focused on, the divine mystery that is being revealed. This is the kingdom that is here. Jesus is the Messiah, and he is re-introducing God’s dream for the life of the world to a world that is suffering outside of God’s wholeness. They couldn’t live out God’s perfect dream for the world, so they needed concessions in the law under Moses. Jesus has come to overturn, to supersede the law, with his compassion for us. “Love the Lord your God with all heart and all your soul and all your mind – and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two things hang all the law and the prophets.”

No, God doesn't like divorce. Divorce means there has been pain and brokenness in our covenant with him and one another. His vision is for wholeness - but his Son came because we are sometimes broken instead.

No, God doesn’t like divorce. Divorce means there has been pain and brokenness in our covenant with him and one another. From the beginning, his vision is for our relationships to reflect God’s love and wholeness. His Son came because we are hardhearted, and more interested in hurting each other in growing together for the peace of the world. Jesus came to remind us what perfect sacrificial love looks like.

This is revolutionary. This is subversive. This is what will get him killed.
As the Pharisees confront him, Jesus is about to make his turn toward Jerusalem and his trial, crucifixion, and Resurrection – as Charles Campbell puts it, “the kingdom trajectory builds toward greater equality and radical hospitality for the oppressed.”
Yes, Jesus cares about divorce. But he is less concerned with issuing public opinions on divorce law then he is in completing his mission, declaring the Good News that he is the ultimate concession to the law, so that in him, we may live the redeemed life and enter into God’s perfected dream for the world.
As David Howell writes, “Jesus has declared that the kingdom of God has come near, and that meant that everything was changing. So the answer to the Pharisee’s question is not what was permissible under the law, but what is now possible in this unfolding kingdom of peace, and love, and justice.”
In the kingdom of God, justice and a way forward in peace is revealed in the Gospel of Jesus – men and women are given the same rights and with them the same responsibilities. Children, the least powerful among us, are given the ultimate power positions – welcomed and blessed by God himself, and made examples of the entry requirements into his kingdom.
Whenever I go out into town here in my collar, despite the difficult experiences, there is one group of people who never fail to welcome me. They not only welcome me, they run to welcome me – they embrace me with a love that overlooks my shortcomings, and isn’t concerned with our theological differences. This group is only concerned about how excited they are at being together again in our shared love of Jesus.

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This group is the children. The children from our little rural church school, a mixture of age, culture, race, and church backgrounds – my “Chapel friends,” as I call them. When I run into them in town, they never fail to smile, to run over excitedly and hug me, to share with barely-contained excitement what new and wonderful things are happening in their world. They aren’t worried yet about who is and is not worthy enough to share in the love of Jesus that is so brightly shining in them.
These little ones are precious to God. And they are our models, our examples of how we should be conducting ourselves as members of his kingdom – overlooking our differences, even our theological ones, to come together around our shared love of God. The kingdom of God IS near. Are you ready to receive it? Are you willing to be the ones – maybe the only ones – who run to embrace others into the kingdom, including those who nobody else will welcome?
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. …whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
To such as these belong the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Now is the Time: Charleston and the Secret Meeting Sermon 6/21/15

Now is the time. Last week when Bishop Jeff Fisher was with us, we were queued up with the choir for procession, listening to the choir sing the Spirit Song, “Jesus, Come and Fill Your Lambs,” when one of the choir members got my attention and pointed to the small clock posted about the entrance to the worship space. The hands were spinning out of control. They hadn’t been doing that just a few minutes before, as I was nervously checking the time, wanting my first visit as priest from a bishop to go p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y. I got the Bishop’s attention and pointed toward the clock. We both chuckled and smiled. We were entering God’s time. Today again we enter God’s time. Today we are getting into the boat, pulling away from shore and heading into deep water. Deep ocean I’m going to tell you about the first time I met Ben Bythewood. I always hoped that some day it would be the right time to tell this story about the young former mayor of Woodville, Texas, but I never imagined it would be this soon. And I never imagined that it would be because of this set of circumstances. A couple of weeks ago, nobody imagined that Ben would go out on a cruise with his cherished wife Amy – one of my high school classmates – and that on that cruise, the Lord would take him home. This past Wednesday night, nobody imagined that a young man would kill nine people in a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Nobody imagined that our personal lives, our community and national lives could get so stormy…that the wind could blow so hard, the water could come into the boat, and we could be so shaken in sorrow and fear. Nobody imagined. But now Ben is gone, standing face to face with his Creator, beside the nine from Charleston. And this is the time. The time is now.

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The Hon. Ben Bythewood, former Mayor of Woodville, Texas, and a true man of God. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Photo: Ben’s Facebook page.

I was standing with Amy and Ben at a gathering at Woodville Methodist Church as we were meeting each other and making introductions for the first time, and suddenly Ben – the huge, tall bear of a man he was – leaned in and whispered to me. He said, “Can I ask you something?” Not having any idea what he was going to say, I said, “Sure.” He looked fearfully to his left and his right and leaned in further, and in hushed whispers, asked me if I’d be willing to be part of a gathering of a few local ministers to begin an effort to work together on race relations in Tyler County. I was brand new to St. Paul’s and Woodville, and I really had no idea what the state of racial relations was in Tyler County, but I knew my answer: yes. Ben whispered that he’d have his secretary call me. A few weeks later, about the time I thought I had imagined it all, I got a call from Ben’s office, inviting me to “the meeting.” Soon after, I went to the meeting. It was a mixture of black and white ministers and some regional officials. We had a meal and spent time telling our stories – about our raising and our backgrounds, being honest with each other, and vulnerable to each other, about our upbringing and life experience as it related to racism. Then the tenor of the meeting changed. We talked vaguely about what areas we might be able to have an impact on. “You know we need to get into the schools!” We talked about it, but we didn’t really know what the next step was. We prayed together. To be very honest, it felt like a weak effort and I went away disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but it didn’t feel very glamorous to me. I wish I’d made time to have this conversation with Ben. But now is the time to have it with you. And for you to have it with each other. And for us to have it with this community. The time is now. Our scriptures today remind us that whether you are facing Goliath or facing the storm, the nature of God’s power is hidden in the appearance of weakness. God works his mighty power through what seems small and vulnerable. Empires cannot stand against the true power of God. The empires of violence and racism cannot stand against the true power of God. In Samuel, it seems like Goliath is an insurmountable force, but David goes to meet him in the storm of battle, not with the heavy armor of Saul but just as he is, just like Jesus was when he got into the boat – armed with faith, walking in the way of the One True God, believing that God is working in the world.

Illustration by The Beke.

Illustration by The Beke.

In Mark, the disciples are afraid of the storm and rush to wake up Jesus, desperately asking, “Don’t you care that we’re about to die?” They don’t yet understand that God is already at work. He is already on the boat with them. So to show them again, he rises and calms the storms. Jesus is the King of all Creation, and the power to calm the storm is in his hand. God is at work stilling the storm. Are you listening? Or are you still, like the disciples, stuck at “Who is this?” God is already in the boat with us, and he is at work stilling the storm. How, where? He was on that cruise ship – blessing Amy and surrounding her with helpers who supported her and her family. And when she got home, he was there in the outpouring of love from this community to shield her and hold her up through these difficult days. God is at work in that beautiful, bright blue-eyed grandson she holds that looks so much like Ben. God is at work calming the storm. God was at work when that 21-year-old man from Charleston stood up before a judge for his arraignment, and one after another, family members of his victims stood with heartbroken voice and said, “We forgive you. We forgive you. Every fiber of our being is aching, but God says to forgive. Turn to Jesus. We forgive you.” As people sank to their knees outside that hearing and outside Emanuel AME, as they stand this morning inside church after church across the country and hold hands and embrace in peace, as we sing and pray, God is at work calming the storm. I wish Ben were here today, because I would apologize to him. First I would apologize for thinking that he didn’t accomplish much at that meeting. I would apologize and beg his forgiveness, and God’s, for failing to have enough faith to see that the nature of God’s power is hidden in the appearance of weakness. I went away disappointed because I didn’t realize that God was at work in that group of pastors who felt helpless, but who still had the courage to come together and start SOMEWHERE. I see it now. Thank you Ben. May we have the courage to continue what you started. Now is the time to go out into the storm and face our Goliath. Now is the time to stand up for God’s justice, to love with his mercy, and to walk humbly with him when we find ourselves being Goliath. This week our bishops have put out a call for us to pray for Charleston, and for priests to speak a call to action from our pulpits. I share these words from Bishop Doyle with you: “Now is not the time for a cowardly church but a proclaiming missionary church which is at work offering a vision of a kingdom that is being built and a reign of God underway. Now is the time for bravery and commissioned missionary work where our hands join the hands of God to still the storm of the world and to heal the sick, help the blind to see, and the poor to have good things. “Now is the time for our voices to join the voice of God and still the storm around us. It is our opportunity as missionaries to name God in the world putting down the forces which seek to destroy God’s creation and the creatures of God.” God is at work. Now is the time.

On Ferguson, the Church, and What We Believe

“We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but I think we stand a chance if we are willing to be open to what we say we believe.” – Catherine, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Morrow, Georgia/Episcopal News Service

What follows is a sermon I preached to my rural East Texas community Episcopal church in August, at the height of the racial uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. As the nation waits tensely again this week for legal decisions, and Missouri communities gather offering peace and shelter, I encourage all pastors to redouble their efforts to preach peace and unity from their pulpits, and for all Christian people, particularly my Episcopalian brothers and sisters, to live what we say we believe:

Twenty years ago while a student journalist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis I became familiar with racism, and with Ferguson, the neighborhood located directly north of campus. Ferguson has stayed in the national eye these last few weeks as racial tension, violence, and calls for peace continue to be heard in that neighborhood. Twenty years ago, the racism I witnessed was also deeply troubling. The Missouri Ku Klux Klan was by its own description attempting to get stronger and more powerful by attracting more affluent and well-educated members by attempting to sponsor programming on the university radio station. The station refused to cooperate, and so the klan sued the state of Missouri in federal court to try to force the station to take its money, and read a promotional underwriting statement for the klan on air. At the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis I had the opportunity to interview the leader of the Missouri klan. Someone might be tempted to be sympathetic to his cause, as long as that someone hadn’t bothered to educate themselves on 150 years of klan history. When listening to voices in controversial moments in time, people of good faith should be careful to listen and feel for the presence of that deeper grace generated through the love of Jesus Christ. That grace will reveal the sinful from the just.

From a St. Louis art exhibit promotion/maatology.blogspot.com

From a St. Louis art exhibit promotion/maatology.blogspot.com.

The most telling thing in that interview happened in the last couple of minutes of our conversation. That’s when it became clear that what he was saying and what he was doing were two very different things.
Jesus talking to his disciples in Matthew 16 asks them to describe who the people of Caesarea Philippi are saying he is. Caesarea Philippi is an interesting location for this conversation to take place. Located about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea was the center of worship for a number of pagan gods, the local community attraction being a huge natural spring feeding the Jordan River. Jesus and his disciples traveled there after an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had teamed up to trap him, demanding he show them a sign to back up his claim of power. Instead, he makes a bold move for justice, confronting them in return, naming them as evil and unfaithful followers of God, who could understand the signs of impending weather, but who failed to recognize all the signs of their own hoped-for Messiah. And so into this atmosphere of blindness and accusation by God’s own people, into this town filled with pagan worshippers, Jesus puts the question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The response varies – some say Elijah, some say John the Baptist, or Jeremiah. Then Jesus asks Simon directly, “Who do you say that I am?”

"Who do you say I am?"  - Jesus

“Who do you say I am?” – Jesus

Simon’s answer is you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This very interesting answer brings together both Hebrew and pagan traditions to claim Jesus’ kingship, the titles acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. In Hebrew that is the royal title of “anointed one” and the Son of God, another Hebrew title for royalty. Son of God was also used by Greek leaders, including the first Roman emperor Augustus, as a title of divine authority. Of course, we have inserted here that Jesus is son of the Living God. Not a cold pagan statue, or some pagan God in some undead netherworld who has to be charmed into appearing – a living God who walks among his people and gives them eternal life.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." - Simon Peter

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” – Simon Peter

Jesus renames Simon as Peter, a play on his name, which means rock, and names him as the rock he will build his Church on. To be more exact, Jesus proclaims not Peter himself, but his faith, as God-inspired. Not the result of any experience Peter has had of his own effort, but that his faith is built by the work of God himself. The kind of faith God establishes in Peter is the faith that Jesus names as the foundation of the Body of Christ, the living Church that will remain on earth after his death, resurrection and ascension. The living Church that is charged with loving in his name and building the kingdom until Jesus returns to complete his work in the remaking of Creation.
To his Church represented by Peter, Jesus leaves the keys of the kingdom and the authority to act in his name with heavenly power. The keys of the kingdom is the knowledge inspired by God in Peter, the understanding Jesus leaves with us that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one through whom we are reconciled to God in his sacrifice and through whom we have access to eternal life.
Our authority is the power of God lived through the Church to the world. The keys and the authority – these are the tools of our Gospel mission. What we say, and what we do. Holding the keys to the kingdom means we have a responsibility to say to others that there is a saving grace in knowing Jesus Christ. Having authority means that we have a responsibility to do actions that build up the kingdom – to do acts of love, mercy and justice in the world in his name.
As members of God’s holy, catholic and apostolic Church, what we say is as important as what we live. What we live is as important as what we say – because in both of those things, as representatives of the Church, we are speaking for Jesus Christ. We are living for Jesus Christ. In all places, at all times.
With the events in Ferguson and what seems to be a growing racial divide around the country, there is a growing call from within the Church for us to use our voices and our actions to live what we claim to believe – the love of Jesus for everyone, everywhere. Some of the hardest conversations we have and most challenging actions we take are in the course of race relations here in East Texas. Yet Jesus calls us to say and to do words and actions of justice, mercy, and grace – in all places, at all times. This week there were a lot of words and actions in Ferguson, words and actions of hate and peace.
Be reassured that God is with us in these difficult days – he never leaves us nor forsakes us. I want to close with some encouraging words of grace I came across in an Episcopal News Service story this week. It is a quote from a woman named Catherine who is a member of St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Morrow, Georgia, near Atlanta:
“My hope lies in the fact that I believe in the church we have a chance. Celebrating Holy Communion is so important because it reminds us that we’re committed to something bigger than ourselves. I believe the church is the place where we can develop real dialogue, real trust and model a different way to be with one another. We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but I think we stand a chance if we are willing to be open to what we say we believe.”
May what we say, and what we do, be what we believe.

Read, mark, and inwardly digest.

Dear fellow Episcopalians: Read, mark, and inwardly digest.

 

 

Forgiveness and the Everlasting Gobstopper/Sermon Sept. 14, 2014

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
This is my favorite Willie Wonka movie quote, from the 1971 version with Gene Wilder, not the newer version with Johnny Depp. Sorry to any Johnny Depp fans out there, but he just can’t hold a candle to Gene Wilder’s version.This line happens at the very end of the movie, after a little kid named Charlie Bucket from a desperately poor family loses a contest to own Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory on a technicality, and gets yelled at good by Wonka to boot.

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On his way out of the factory, Charlie gives up his one last chance to save his family. In his hand is the Everlasting Gobstopper, one of Wonka’s new secret formula candies. Charlie could easily sell that candy to Wonka’s rival and ruin his business. But Charlie doesn’t do it. Even though he’s been treated badly, Charlie refuses to take revenge – he sets the gobstopper on Wonka’s desk and walks away, forgiving the anger and the injustice of the technicality. Wonka picks up the candy and says in a quietly moving voice – like only Gene Wilder could pull off – “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
– Interesting side note, that quote is actually a line from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice about one lone candle burning in a dark hallway: “How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

In this long season of Pentecost following the birthday of the Church, we move today into Jesus’ teaching on Christian forgiveness. This is the last in the series of teachings to the disciples at Capernaum that make up a kind of employee manual for the kingdom, on the life and relationships within faith communities, and how Jesus expects those who follow him to behave toward each other. Last week, we talked about the community guidelines for handling sinful behavior between Christians, and the power God gives to the Body of Christ to make those decisions when we gather in his name. We follow that up today with Peter, coming to Jesus with a challenging question about sinful behavior and forgiveness, “Lord, how often should I forgive another member who sins against me? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers, “77 times,” or as some ancient manuscripts say, “70 times 7.” Either way, whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a crazy number that realistically would never happen – Jesus is making a point by using this ridiculous number to say that our forgiveness should have no limit. There is no end to God’s forgiveness, and so there should be no end to ours.

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Last week, we heard a very structured and tightly numbered process on church discipline and accountability in community. But our call to forgive each other has no limitations. The same Church empowered with accountability has its power checked and balanced with a requirement to offer forgiveness – a reminder that the love of God guides every single part of a faith community’s life. The love of God guides even our struggles with one another.
Jesus underlines the importance of this requirement to forgive in telling his disciples the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A king forgives his servant a ridiculously large debt, 10,000 talents. 10,000 was the largest Greek number, and a talent was the largest currency unit. That ridiculous amount of debt was something the servant couldn’t pay back even after working thousands of years. This servant who was forgiven a massive amount of debt fails to show any mercy to a fellow servant who owes him a comparatively tiny amount – 100 denarii, or about 100 days wages, and throws his fellow servant into jail. The king hears of it, and throws the unforgiving servant into jail. This is the same thing, Jesus says to the disciples, that my heavenly father will do to you if you do not forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.

Evidently, forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. Jesus makes a couple of things clear here: as sinners redeemed by God, we have been forgiven a debt that is bigger than we could ever hope to repay; so God expects us to be forgiving to others, and to really mean it, and if we don’t, he will hold us accountable. This is evident in the prayer of all the faithful that we say every Sunday, and in the Daily Office every day, the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount explains it in a little more detail, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Forgiveness is pretty serious stuff. How many of you want to be forgiven by God – show of hands? Yeah, that’s pretty much everybody. We know that we do, but HOW do we about forgiving each other, especially when someone has never apologized for their behavior, or who has done something really terrible to us? Maybe that person’s not even alive anymore.
We are called simply to forgive. But forgiveness is not simple. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean pretending like what they did didn’t happen. In fact, it’s the opposite of that – forgiving someone means being honest about what has happened, then choosing to let go of the power that someone’s else’s sin has over you, by letting go of your anger and the desire for revenge. This can take time, prayer, and if the hurt is traumatic enough, we may need the help of a professional to guide us toward healing.

We are called by God both to forgive and to enact justice in the world. But forgiveness and letting go does not mean giving up justice. Jesus was very clear on the dangers of an unforgiving heart, but he was also clear about consequences for those who deliberately endanger the faith of vulnerable Christians, and those who continue to willfully sin against others in the Body of Christ.

We are empowered by God’s forgiveness. Because he forgave us first, our ability to forgive is therefore not dependent on the other person. We don’t have to wait for them to apologize. If they do it’s definitely nicer for us, and good for their soul if they do – as Jesus said, if they respond to accountability, then we have regained the one back into our faith community – but whether they are ever sorry or not does not matter to our call to forgive them. They don’t even have to be alive for us to forgive them. Forgiveness is a choice that is completely dependent on us discovering our own freedom in being a servant of God’s grace to others. When we make the choice to forgive, we are empowered by the healing grace of God at work in us.

Forgiveness is a spiritual practice, and like all spiritual practices, it takes time and regular work to get good at it. If you’ve been through something really difficult, and you don’t feel comfortable facing forgiveness in that right now, start by practicing forgiveness in smaller things. As you strengthen your forgiveness practice, you can begin to work on forgiving the big stuff. Don’t worry, God will make the journey with you. It is your willingness to have a forgiving heart he is looking for, not how perfect you can be at forgiving.

Charlie Bucket discovered that while he may have lost the contest, he ended up winning the chocolate factory and saving his family. Because he was able to let go of the way the world expected him to react, instead holding on to a commitment to doing what was right, he ended up getting everything he needed. Each time we let go and embrace the choice to forgive, we receive the grace of God that we need, and a sin-weary world sees a little more of the shining light of Christ.

"So shines a good deed in a weary world." - Willie Wonka

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.” – Willie Wonka

A Women in Ministry Thing

“Why don’t you leave the Church and get ordained in (insert other denomination here)? It’ll be easier.”
Those were the first words I heard from a priest after finally gutting up enough to go and talk to someone “official” in the Church several years ago about thinking I might be hearing God calling me to ordained ministry. The conversation got worse from there. I’ll spare you, and myself, a walk through that painful discernment experience. Opening your deepest spiritual wonderings to another person is never easy – doing it with someone who doesn’t honor the vulnerability of that act is traumatic. Suffice it to say by the end of the afternoon, I was curled up in the fetal position at home, sobbing like my dog had just died. Sorry I didn’t spare you that image, but there’s a reason why:
At home on the couch that evening, still crying, I said to me husband, “I can’t stop. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
Being at times a redneck sage, he nailed it right on the head when he thought a moment and said, “You’re grieving your call.”
And I realized that he was right. That was exactly what was happening. The best way I know to explain it is that it felt like a part of my heart was dying.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Episcopal priesthood. On this day, July 29, in 1974 in Philadelphia, a group of 11 women, known as the “Philadelphia 11,” stood, and then knelt, for ordination to the Sacred Order of Priest. The Church is celebrating this wonderful anniversary. Still, I can only imagine how many times before that July day that they must have felt like their hearts were dying.
Today is also the one month anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Woodville, Texas, where I serve bi-vocationally as vicar in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. It is because of those foremothers, and the people who supported them, and those who listened, finally, to their call, that I was finally able to answer mine at age 43. For all those who have supported me, and listened, I thank God for you.
My journey to ordination was a bumpy one, to say the least. Raised in and having left the Southern Baptist tradition after years of extensive involvement in children and youth ministries, I was deeply devoted to the Episcopal tradition I’d adopted in young adulthood. To have experienced a tersely closed door on my first attempt at approaching my own Church with an ordination discernment question was rough. But I am sure it was nothing compared to the huge splinters that were surely imbedded in the noses of those 11, who must have become well-versed at doors being slammed in their faces.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with some of those involved with the Philadelphia 11 ordinations Photo Credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with some of those involved with the Philadelphia 11 ordinations
Photo Credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

But I would also guess that they, like me, found a measure of strength that allowed them to keep moving forward by understanding that those were collective doors slamming – not a rejection of whether they personally were being called to ordination. The Church was struggling to free itself from the burden of holding all those doors closed, and those women were bearing the strain.
There is empowerment in realizing that a struggle is universal. In that, you feel less alone. But the good news is that if it is God calling you to serve, then God will make a way. Our work is in understanding that his time frame, and the grace and mercy he has to pour out on many along the way, will not be what we picture – it will be much more than that.
Obedient justice was one of the hardest disciplines I had to practice in my journey toward ordination. (I am sure God has much to teach me about it post-ordination, too.) Obedient justice means to work without fear or shame for what is right and good in the Church, while staying true to the form of Jesus Christ’s Church as we have received it. For me, that meant quietly taking another year of personal discernment, and truly honoring that, and all the other difficult tasks that first priest required of me, in order to follow my call. But it also meant reaching deep into that call for the boldness to ask for guidance from other leadership, and to continue to walk back up to that door – and knock. I remember having a dream during my discernment process about making my way around a huge castle wall filled with an endless row of doors.
The Church has a ways to go in accepting the ministry already being done by the women God is calling. Our sister priests in the Church of England have just this month been voted permission to put themselves forward for election to stand, and kneel, to join the Sacred Order of Bishops. My heart and prayers go out to those unknown women still standing silently behind a door. I encourage you to reach out and knock, and to keep knocking.

In the United States, our own Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, preached this week about the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11. On the pulpit beside her was a pair of red heels, as she reminded the congregation how women priests have experienced even being told what not to wear, including red high heels and dangling earrings.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her sermon at Church of the Advocate uses a pair of red high heels to illustrate the expectations set upon ordained women. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service www.anglicannews.org

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her sermon at Church of the Advocate uses a pair of red high heels to illustrate the expectations set upon ordained women. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service
http://www.anglicannews.org

Those shoes were particularly interesting to me –  I was part of a group of female students advised by a female priest a few years ago that we were NOT to wear red heels at our ordinations. Of course in my diocese, we’re likely to be wearing red cowboy boots! And I know a woman who gave away all her dangling earrings after a male priest told her she couldn’t serve with him at the altar if she was going to wear them. A long way to go yet.

“Women in all orders of ministry – baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops – can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding,” the presiding bishop said. “Try to walk in the shoes of abused and trafficked women. Walk on to Zion carrying the children who are born and suffer in the midst of war. Gather up the girls married before they are grown, gather up the schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria, and gather up all those lives wasted in war and prison. March boldly, proclaiming good news to all who have been pushed aside, and call them to the table of God, to Wisdom’s feast.”
Thanks be to God for honoring his call in me, blessing me with a strongly supportive husband and children, wonderful friends, loving and praying church members, two amazing groups of classmates in the Iona School for Ministry bi-vocational training program, bishops who are not afraid to be wise and bold iconoclasts for the good of the Church, and many good deacons and priests here in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
“I’ve never seen anyone so excited about their own ordination before. I guess it’s a women in ministry thing?” said a supportive community clergy colleague at our first ministerial alliance meeting after my ordination last month. “I wish all pastors were so excited about being ordained,” another minister said.
There is really no way I can fully explain the daily joy I feel in being able to live this amazing ordained life, after nearly 10 years of doors and doorways. It’s a women in ministry thing. It’s an Episcopal thing. It’s a bi-vocational thing. It’s a God thing.

Vested for the first time as a priest on the night of my ordination, June 29, 2014, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Woodville. Beside me are two friends who are recently ordained transitional deacons, the Rev. Paulette Magnuson, left, and the Rev. Terry Pierce.

Vested for the first time as a priest on the night of my ordination, June 29, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville. Beside me are two friends who are recently ordained transitional deacons, the Rev. Paulette Magnuson, left, and the Rev. Terry Pierce.

The Letter N and the Growth of God/Sermon July 27, 2014

In 1933, the Nazis began a very public campaign to destroy the Jewish people – their livelihoods and their lives. As a hallmark of that systemic violence, they began to paint a yellow Star of David, the six-pointed star that had become a symbol of Judaism, onto the front of Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany and beyond. Over the next 10 years, the Nazis would target and brutalize various groups of people including the Jews, eventually forcing those living in towns and concentration camps to wear garments with that same Star of David.

"Jude", or "Jew" and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

“Jude”, or “Jew” and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

By contrast, the Nazis used the symbol they adopted, a swastika, so much that it became synonymous with their particular brand of evil. Despite the Nazis best efforts to destroy the Jews by using their own marker of heritage against them, the Star of David is still very much in use by the Jews, while the swastika remains buried with the Nazis.
All of that happened 70 to 80 years ago. When so much time passes, when things become so far distant from what we are experiencing today, it’s hard to feel a connection to important events in the past, even if our shared experiences were once very fresh, and very sharp. It may have been difficult at times to find a way to feel connected to the parables of Jesus that we’ve been reading in Matthew over the last few weeks – parables that were spoken by Jesus 2,000 year ago. Wrapping up this section on parables we get five parables thrown at us in rapid succession. But they are connected to each other, and to the audience who would have been listening to Jesus speak, as they were facing very sharp and difficult times as the opposition to Jesus and his movement was growing.
These are parables about power and growth, about the precious value of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God it proclaims. This was a message of hope and worth to the people following Jesus who had given up everything in his name, and for others who were wondering if it would be worth for them to do the same.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed  the first parable in Matthew 13 begins … Being agricultural people, they would have been familiar with the size of a mustard seed. For most of us, me included, mustard is that stuff you get in the yellow French’s bottle on the grocery store shelf. But the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with both the seed and its tree, and how how remarkable it is that such a tiny seed contains all the information, all the life necessary, to grow into a tree large enough for birds to nest in.

Seriously, how does is all that mustard tree-buildin' information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

Seriously, how is all that mustard tree-buildin’ information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast – or leaven – all it took was a little bit of fermented material mixed in to change the entire makeup of a huge amount of dough. For most of us, bread is that stuff wrapped in plastic we pick up off the shelf at the grocery store, like the mustard. But for the people listening to Jesus, they would have been very familiar with the process of baking bread, and that three measures here meant enough to feed an entire banquet.
We can take a couple of things from these two parables: The Gospel is powerful. It is the Living Word of God contained within a simple message – but this simple story holds within it the information, the power that can change the world. The second thing we learn from these parables is that once God sets the growth of his Kingdom in motion, there is nothing anyone can do stop it. Nothing. The power of God is evident in his ability to choose something seemingly small and weak and to grow it into something massive by his own will. There are those who will try to grow their own kingdoms on this earth, but they will all eventually fail. God is the only true Creator, with the only real ability to resurrect, and his Kingdom is everlasting.
The mustard seed parable and God growing it into a tree that nests birds touches on a prophecy the prophet tells as recorded in Ezekiel 31. God had allowed the nation of Assyria to grow like a huge tree that the birds nested in, more glorious than any other trees, but it had become proud of itself and forgotten God, and so he cut it down, and sent it to its death. And in a great expression of his power tinged with humor, God points out that now his birds are standing on the once mighty tree’s fallen trunk, and his creatures are crawling around on its fallen branches. Nothing can grow so great that it outgrows the Creator – and God will even make use of the failure of the proud. The sound of this tree’s fall terrified the nations. And God goes on to tell Ezekiel that this same fate will happen to the Pharaoh of Egypt, who has been acting out evil against God’s people.
The memory of those events nearly 80 years ago in WWII have come rushing forward over the last few weeks as an extremist group taking hold in Syria and Iraq has begun a campaign to persecute Christians. And in an eerily familiar experience, they have started painting a symbol on the walls of Christian homes in the northeastern Iraq capital of Mosul in order to mark them for persecution – they are painting the Arabic letter “N”, the first letter of their term for Christians, “Nasrani,” taken from the word Nazarene, for those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Nasrani. The Jesus Followers. Churches have been desecrated and shrines sacred to both Christians AND Muslims both have been blown up. Everyone living in the city of Mosul has been terrorized, and Christians have been robbed of all they have, and have been told to leave or convert, or they will be put to the sword. Read more about this here.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term "Nasrani," from Jesus the Nazarene - Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term “Nasrani,” from Jesus the Nazarene – Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The Arabic letter "N," the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

The Arabic letter “N,” the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

It might seem like all is lost, for those Christians in Mosul. But God has them in his special care – as Jesus is quoted in several places in Scripture, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
We are half a world away, and that kind of test of faith seems very foreign – thankfully – to us here in America. Yet we are connected to these Christians because as fellow followers of Jesus, we are their brothers and sisters. They are our family. At the end of our reading in Matthew, after he’s finished telling the parables, Jesus talks to the disciples and asks them, “Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. And his response is to give them one more parable. “The scribes trained for the Kingdom of heaven are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus is telling the disciples that every person who is has heard and understands his message, all those who are trained to spread the Gospel, everyone who is taught to tell the Jesus story, is standing on the rich foundation of the long history of the people of God, in partnership with the new Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what gave the disciples hope in a time of rising conflict, when they were facing persecution, and even death. The same God who guided and lived in covenant with his people from the beginning, and in Jesus’ time, is continuing to work out his Kingdom among us here today.
Woe to any person or any movement who believes that they and their symbols can grow bigger than God. And the same to any of us Jesus Followers who don’t understand how much strength there is in the Gospel message we have been given, or if we think that there is anything – ANYTHING – that can stop the power of God to grow his kingdom.

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God's Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on...

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God’s Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on…

In one of many such gathers documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice their religion in Mosul.

In one of many such gatherings documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice Christianity in Mosul.

Nothing can stop the growth of God's Kingdom, lived out by the people of the "N."

Nothing can stop the growth of God’s Kingdom, lived out by the people of the “N.”

The Bad Seed (Spoiler: God Wins)

Sermon on July 20, 2014 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

In the late 1950s the “Bad Seed” was one of the most famous scary movies of its time, and it has become a classic. Based on a book and play about a child who seemed to be a sweet little girl with pigtails and ribbons who was from a nice family, but in reality she was a serial killer from a scary family. That phrase, the “bad seed” entered popular culture as an expression to describe someone who was trouble, an evil person mixed in and growing the-bad-seed-posteralong with the good seeds, but who wasn’t going to produce anything you would ever want. One of the creepiest things about that movie was during the ending credits, a voice came on and could be heard asking moviegoers as they left not to reveal the surprise ending to folks who hadn’t see the movie yet.
We’re still making our way through the rows of planting parables. Last week we heard about the Parable of the Sower and the different kinds of ground where Jesus was planting the Gospel seed. Today we have the Parable of the Weeds growing among the wheat. Jesus gives us another example to help us understand his kingdom and how it works: The Kingdom is like a landowner who plants good seed for wheat, but weeds are discovered growing with the wheat revealing that an enemy has sneaked in and mixed bad seed in with the good seed. The master’s servants wanted to go pull the weeds out, but the master won’t let him. He points out that the act of pulling the invasive plants will damage the good crop. The weed Jesus uses as an example is a grass that grew all over Israel, called darnell. Darnell would tangle its roots around the roots of the good plants, making it impossible to remove without damaging the wheat. And it was hard to separate them because darnell mimicked wheat – when they first start growing together, it was really difficult to tell them apart in the field. Darnell starts out wheattares1looking just like wheat, until it comes to harvest time, when the darnell puts out a lightweight seed head that stands straight up. Harvest time is when you can really tell the difference between the darnell and the wheat, because the wheat produces a much more robust and ripened seed head full of grain that is noticeably heavier and bent over with the weight of its fruit.
The second reason the landowner wouldn’t let his servants pull out the darnell was because it wasn’t their job. That was the work reserved for the reapers, the professional harvesters who would know how to collect and separate the darnell and the wheat properly for a good harvest.
Two more planting parables go by before Jesus’ disciples who are trying to absorb all this come to him and ask, Ok, what the heck’s up with this Parable of the Weeds? Jesus quite plainly describes it for them: he is the sower, the field is the world. In the world there is good and evil, and evil is caused by the devil; the harvest is the end of this world as we experience it now, when Jesus will send his angels to do the job he had given to them – weeding out all the sin and those who are evil, and casting them out, leaving the good and righteous resurrected in God’s perfected Creation – which will be so glorious to see that the people in it are described by Jesus as “shining like the sun.”
Our nice agricultural series seems to have taken a turn to the dark side, suddenly, we’re in a biblical version of The Bad Seed. Things that are sweetness and light, the children of God and God’s work, are all mixed around and tangled up with evil brought about by the devil’s work. We get a somewhat frightening vision of the end times, of angels going about the grim side of angelic work – sorting out the evil from the good, and shucking out the evil to be consumed in God’s fire.

This is the point that I'm hiding behind my popcorn.

I’m 43, and this is pretty much what I still look like when watching scary parts of movies. Everyone knows you’re safer behind the popcorn.

This would be right about the time in the movie that I’d be hiding behind my popcorn, because I’ve discovered over that years that during a scary movie, you’re much safer if you watch the bad scenes from between your fingers.
But this is not a movie. This is Jesus using a story to tell his disciples, and us, that for those who choose to follow him, and who practice Christianity as his Church, will not have it easy. This parable is an acknowledgement that as we go about our work for God in this world, we will encounter evil. One of the hardest questions we may struggle with, and certainly unbelievers ask and use as an excuse to reject God – is, why would a loving God allow bad things to happen?
This is not heaven, this world is not yet the full and perfected Creation. Jesus in his incarnation and resurrection began the work of the Kingdom of God, and is continuing that work in us every day until he comes back to complete it. Until that time, until our resurrection, we are transformed souls that belong to God, yet we live in bodies that age, in a world where things go wrong, in a place where sin exists, and evil happens. Until Jesus returns to separate out evil from God’s creation, we will continue to be mixed up, the good seed and the bad. We struggled with that reality again this week as the world witnessed the tragedy of nearly 300 violent deaths on a Malaysian airliner, and the war and conflict that continues to surround that tragedy, may they rest in peace. As Jesus told his disciples then, and as we hear his words today, we co-exist with evil, and it will continue to be with us until the end of the age. This is why his Gospel of love and reconciliation is So. Desperately. Needed.

This is also a warning not to overstep our bounds as Christians. We are to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to work for righteousness and justice, and to be godly in our life and work, holding each other accountable in love to those standards.But following in the steps of Jesus can become a slippery slope if we give in to evil preying on our sinful, prideful nature, when we forget ourselves and our mission, and slip across the line from justice into judgment – and we must be careful because judgment is God’s territory, not ours. Jesus is very clear in describing his parable to the disciples – he will decide what is righteous and unrighteous, and he will assign the work of pulling the weeds to his angels, not to the children of God.
When you think about it, there is a lot of mercy in that. Primarily because God relieves us of the burden of deciding who are his children and who have turned away from him, and he gives us freedom by assigning us a mission to love everybody equally in his Name, and to let him worry about the rest. There is also mercy here because while we Christians belong to God, we remain a part of this sinful world, and while we may be quick to judge others, we are not God, we do not know the mind of God, and we might get it wrong. And unfortunately, we all have plenty of experience adding to the “causes of sin” that Jesus describes the angels removing like weeds, in addition to those evil-doers. While we know we are children of God sanctified to him through the sacrifice of Jesus – we have not yet become fully who God originally created us to be. We still look forward to that great Day when Jesus will fully reveal his kingdom.
Until that time, we still live in a broken world, and we will continue to wrestle with our own sin. Scripture describes that battle within us in several places, Matthew included – in Chapter 18 Jesus warns us that there will be temptations growing within us, bad seed that we will have to identify and cut out like the darnell weed, because at times we are at risk through our own behavior of becoming a stumbling block to the Gospel work of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Matthew 18 even one of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter,

Everyone knows you're safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands.

Everyone knows you’re also safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands. Photo: SparkLife

becomes a stumbling block to him, and Jesus calls out the evil in him, saying “get behind me Satan!” That makes me want to hide behind my hands again, worrying about what God thinks of me when I mess up. But what gives us courage and hope is that Jesus did not condemn Peter for that slip of faith – in fact, he went on to use Peter and the other disciples to found and grow his Church. So we can be confident as Christians not to be too quick to judge others, or ourselves. God is our judge, and in his mercy, he continues to love us, forgive us and reconcile us to himself – Jesus said in John 10 that he has given us eternal life and no one will snatch us out of his hand. In our theology we believe salvation is not just one single event in time, but it is an ongoing process – beginning when we become a Christian at our Baptism, continuing throughout our life until we stand before Jesus in our resurrected bodies.

 

No surprise plot twist at the end - Jesus wins.

No surprise plot twist at the end – Jesus wins.

That is why no matter what evil we encounter in the world, even within ourselves, no matter how thick the weeds get, we don’t have to hide our eyes or even to be scared, because there is no surprise ending – we know how this all ends – God wins. God wins! And that’s why we can say with confidence, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. Amen.

 

The Coach’s Perspective

Lots of different kinds of people need Jesus, and they need him in lots of different ways. That thought remains with me as the conversation warms up among Episcopalians about our church language, and its inclusive or exclusive nature (read more about it here).

While a city editor at a community newspaper earlier in my bi-vocational career, my work included coaching writers. Frustrated reporters would come to me for help when particularly struggling with a story. Bogged down and writing in circles, they had climbed so deep inside their own experience, they had temporarily lost contact with the one ability every good news writer possesses: seeing things from the perspective of the reader. That is to say, writing as if the person reading the story doesn’t know what you know, and hasn’t seen what you have seen – because in reality, chances are they don’t, and they haven’t.

Here’s a technique that usually solved the problem: I’d ask a reporter to imagine they were home at the end of the day, relating to their friend or spouse what they’d witnessed. Very often, the first few words out of their mouth became the lead, the first sentence in a news story. Those initial words were usually the foundation on which they were able to build a stronger, clearer story structure.

It worked because they began to look at telling a story not as artificially rebuilding an experience, but as the evolution of an experience into the ongoing work of figuring out what a certain event means, and its impact on community life, related in terms that have no concern for maintaining social barriers. It works because it’s in our nature to want to communicate in ways we can understand and be understood, an expression of the God who is in us, who desires to know us and to be known. As a writer, if you stay connected to the reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you use simple or complex language, as long as you remember to take the reader along with you. Hard or easy, no one wants to read a story that makes no effort to address what they care about. We are all different, and we all need Jesus in different ways. The common link is that, differences or not, we all need him.

Differences can be important. It is important for me, as a foreign-born American child of two Caucasian-American parents, to listen and attempt a level of understanding about the impact of shared language on a community which includes various cultures. Before we get to cultural concerns, the Episcopal language discussion begins with an evaluation of churchy terms. Is the room you enter before reaching the worship space a foyer?cab57aa105cf6028fe7c8c6934f01a7c Nave? Vestibule? Lobby? Is it a worship space, Nave, Sanctuary, or just “the church?” After the temporal discussion, we move to the more difficult to put a finger on: How do we talk about what we call mission, without forgetting the very different historical experience of Native Americans and other people around the world, who have suffered at the hands of missionaries? How to integrate that into the different experience of those for whom mission holds important meaning to their historical identity as Christians, sent into the world in the name of Jesus?

It is certainly true that some language is exclusive to some cultures, and must be considered in the wider appeal and sensitivity of the Church. As both a female and a member of the clergy, I certainly appreciate gender-inclusive language in Scripture and liturgy, and have become so accustomed to it in the majority of my Episcopal community work that I feel with some difficulty its absence in other settings, evoking the lack of it in the Scripture and worship of my younger years in a different denomination. I can only imagine the pain of a native culture struggling to feel at home in a Church it cherishes, the same entity historically responsible for some of its cultural wounds. From these discussions unspoken questions emerge: “Whose experience matters more?” “What ground am I called to give up in preserving the dignity of other human beings?” “How do I find a comfortable space in the ground that remains?” “How do we achieve groundlessness?”

We are Episcopalians. Throwing our arms open wide and inviting others to join us is what we do. Gathering to sit at the table with those whom the world shuns is what we do. Kneeling in unity beside those who are different from us, to be fed together from God’s table is what we are called to do. Surely there is room in our broad and creative Church for both those who find beauty and acceptance in simplicity, and those nourished through the dance of complex language. Surely there is common ground for those whose cultural experiences are opposite but whose Savior sacrificed himself to bring all into communion with the Father.

Go Green Hands Collaborative Tree
by Karen Cappello

We are Episcopalians. We are the people of the Middle Way. As I heard Bishop Jeff Fisher say last week when he visited my church at St. Paul’s, Woodville, in the Diocese of Texas, “We are the Church of both-and.” Catholic and Protestant, male and female, struggling and free, we are all one in Christ Jesus.We are all different. And we need Jesus in different ways. But we all need him. Examining the changing experience of our shared language expressions in the Church is fine, as long as we don’t go so far in charting and languishing in our linguistic differences that we forget to approach everything we do from the perspective of the people who need the Gospel story we have to tell. We can focus on our differences, or we can work for unity strengthened by standing together and holding up the world’s needs to our Lord, inviting everyone to be a part of the varied and beautiful ways to experience Jesus.

 

Life Beyond the Door/St. Paul’s sermon Oct. 20

Robert Coney, 76, a free man, holding his wife's hand outside the Angelina County Jail in Lufkin, Texas/Photo:The Lufkin Daily News

Robert Coney, 76, holding a family member’s hand, walking out of the Angelina County Jail in Lufkin, Texas in 2004./Photo: The Lufkin Daily News

In 1962, Robert Coney was a young, African-American male traveling through East Texas when he was caught up in a nightmare. The victim of a case of mistaken identity, Robert was arrested and charged with robbing a grocery store, and convicted to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He had not been allowed to speak to an attorney until the day he appeared before a judge, a guilty plea forced out of him by crushing two of his fingers between the iron bars of a jail cell. In 1976, a judge looking at the case set aside Robert’s conviction. But for reasons still unclear, that decision was never communicated to the right people in order to set him free. And Robert, sitting in prison, never knew he had in fact been freed – at least on paper. In 2004, another judge going through old files came across Robert’s case and found the error and evidence of a wrongful conviction, and immediately set in motion having the case overturned. A young journalist covering the crime beat at the time, I was there the day Robert Coney, 76, walked out of prison and into the arms of his family. The story made national news. How could it not? A black man in the South set free after serving more than 40 years of a life sentence for which he was wrongfully convicted, was compelling news, to say the least. I couldn’t help thinking of him that evening and the next day, and for several days after. The question that lingered was this: if you’ve spent a lifetime without hope, how do you live into that justice when it finally arrives at your door? I had this image in my head of Robert Coney waking up that first free morning at home, standing in the doorway of his bedroom, waiting for some imaginary steel door to slide open and a voice of authority to order him about the business we all take for granted, like showering and eating breakfast. Robert’s story came to mind this week as I read the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:1-8, about the persistent widow and the judge with no respect for God nor man who finally granted her justice because she didn’t give up. How much more, Jesus says in this Parable to his disciples, does our Eternal Judge, the God who loves us, desire to give justice quickly to his chosen who cry to him day and night? Will we be persistent in the Faith, praying to our Heavenly Father and placing all our trust in him in the midst of an unjust world? Or will the Son of Man return to find us without faith? Like Robert, we may feel hopeless. We may have suffered injustice in our life and feel there is no way out. We may know others who have. But unlike Robert, we do not have to miss out on the story of our own freedom. We will go out of here today with a message of freedom and hope for ourselves and for others. The message is this: Jesus Christ died and rose again for our sins and we are forgiven and reunited with God in that act of redemption. We are free. Even as we wait for justice, we are free. We have a hope in us that carries us forward, safe in knowing we have a God who loves us and gives us strength. As others search for their justice, they are already free in Christ Jesus. But like Robert, they may not know it. It is our work as Christians to tell them the decision has already been made. They are free, and they can begin to live their lives knowing the hope of God that is in them. So when God’s justice arrives at their door, they will be able to live into it. We as the Church are called to go to our own doorway and to step out of it into the world, without waiting for someone to come by and open it. Without waiting for someone to tell us we can go and serve. We are free. It is time to start living our freedom. It is time to start living God’s justice in the world. Amen.