Sunday, June 21, 2020

Father Abraham and Foe's in One's Household

Abridged version of the sermon preached June 21, 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Lectionary Focus Texts: Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21

Hagar and Ishmael by Alan Jones
Siblings in Christ, the past few months of the pandemic have been quite a wild ride, and we have been among the lucky ones able to spend them in Slovenia, where lockdowns kept the infection rates low. That doesn’t mean that our lives haven’t been directly impacted, though. There have been the canceled trips, school and business closings, fear and uncertainty about health and finances, and a lot more time in our homes. And in our homes we’ve watched the news from around the world—places where people we love live. We watch from afar, and we pray, and we wonder what we can do. How is a disciple of Christ supposed to respond in such a time as this?

Amidst the tragedies, injustices, and violence that escalated since we last gathered, there have also been heroism and voices speaking truth to power. And something remarkable happened. Conversations around systematic racism—at least in North America and much of Western Europe—gained considerable traction, and many things I doubted I’d live to see occurred seemingly all at once. For the first time ever, books about the sin of racism are dominating The New York Times Bestseller list. Statues memorializing white men who treated Black and Brown bodies as objects to use, abuse, and dispose came toppling down. The NFL admitted it was wrong for censuring its players for taking a knee, and NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at all its events and properties. We still have a long way to go, but now I have renewed hope for the future as more and more people are re-examining their understandings of the past and present, confessing their complicity in injustices, and resolving to take action.      

And so here we are this day after the summer solstice—the day where the day finally conquers the night. The world isn’t the same as when we last gathered, and, hopefully, neither are we. What does this mean for us as disciples of Christ, as a congregation? For some, you may find that many Bible stories suddenly hit you differently. Take today’s lectionary reading from the book of Genesis. In it and earlier in chapter 16, we are told that our patriarch Father Abraham and matriarch Sarah kept a young Egyptian woman named Hagar enslaved in their house, that with Sarah’s encouragement Abraham assaulted and impregnated Hagar. Sarah became livid when after this Hagar looked at her with contempt, and she abused Hagar such that she ran away into the deadly wilderness, only returning at the encouragement of an angel, who promised her she was to become the matriarch of multitudes of descendants. When Sarah herself gave birth to Isaac, and he had been weaned, she saw Hagar’s son Ishmael playing with his half-brother and was horrified at the possibility that the two brothers might one day share their father’s inheritance. I wonder which thought upset her more: that her husband might decide that the life of his half-Ethiopian son mattered as much as his son born from Sarah, that her son Isaac would recognize Ishmael as his beloved elder brother, or that she might soon be forced to treat Hagar as having equal or even higher status than herself? The text tells us that the thought of those enslaved in her house posing a threat to the power and privileges she held motivated Sarah to demand that the mother and child be tossed into the wilderness, where they would most surely die of thirst. I find myself rolling my eyes at what comes next. The writer attempts to absolve Abraham for tossing out his firstborn son and Hagar with the “God told him to go ahead and do what Sarah wants with ‘your slave woman’ because Isaac will be the father of the nation named for you and, besides that, I’ll make a nation of ‘the son of the slave woman’ because he’s your offspring too” fig leaf excuse. Abraham sends Hagar off with barely a day’s worth of bread and water. When the water runs out, she loses all hope and places her beloved son under the shade of the bushes.   

In chapter 21 verse 16 we reach the line that has echoed through the generations and, in the age of smartphone video cameras perhaps even more so. “Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.”

I’ve heard a lot of people refer to the Bible as a book of answers. I’m not quite sure how they reached such a conclusion, because I’ve found that reading it raises more questions than answers. Yes, there are some great teachings on ethics, justice, love, and one’s spiritual life scattered throughout—especially in the four Gospels—but there are also a whole lot of cruel and violent stories and instructions that the Church historically has whitewashed or glossed over because wrestling with them head-on can feel destabilizing, threatening even. As much as Sunday school curriculum writers try to make these stories into G-rated lessons complete with coloring pages, that’s not what they are. No, but they are giant mirrors reflecting the realities of humanity and our interpretations of God’s will back to us. They are sacred not because what they reflect is beautiful, but because of who we may become if we are willing to honestly engage with them.

And what happens if we do? Jesus’ teaching in today’s reading from Matthew 10 gives us a clue. Most of us grew up on the comforting part about God valuing us more than the sparrow and having counted all the hairs on our head. But it’s the next part about how “one's foes will be members of one's own household” and that whoever does not love Christ more than one’s family and isn’t willing to pick up their cross and follow is not worthy of him--that’s the part that rang loud in my ears this week as I increasingly found my desire to avoid conflict in my extended family and my desire to speak publicly about racism at odds with one another. What does it mean to say that we are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah? What is risked and gained by talking honestly about our more recent ancestors, our inheritance, and our complicity in denying our siblings what is rightly theirs? Who are we to Hagar as she weeps? Who are we to her child? Who are we to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin? Sisters and brothers—who are we, and what are we willing to give up and pick up to follow Christ?  

Last week I confessed my embassy’s DCM that when I arrived here last fall, I had wanted to invite the book club read Ibram Kendi’s new anti-racism book with me, but I chickened out, worried that it would get me branded as a wavemaker. And now I confess to you, my congregation, that in my desire to make sure every member experienced our gatherings as a cathartic ritual and positive exposure to Church for our children, I failed to prioritize the fact that being and raising disciples of Christ requires so much of us than a monthly communal act of worship. The role of a pastor is to assist disciples in discerning their individual and collective callings in service to God’s kingdom.

And so, I’d like to challenge us all gathered here today to spend this summer in a period of prayer and discernment about how we can do better as individuals, as families, and as a community of faith in following Christ every day and everywhere we go. For those who are preparing to leave Slovenia, I encourage you to find a church home that is actively involved in speaking out and taking action against injustice. And for those who are remaining here, let’s explore together how we can work together to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.


Sunday, June 07, 2020

Trinity Sermon: Joining the Dance of Justice

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020
St. Margaret’s Budapest, Hungary 
Focus Lectionary Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Good morning Saint Margaret’s community and thank you again to Father Frank for this opportunity to speak with you again. 

This morning we read one of my favorite creation stories from our Bible: the one where God methodically speaks the world into existence, declares it good, and then sets aside the seventh day for sacred rest. I’m honestly not sure, though, which story is my favorite because I also love the one in Genesis 2, where instead of speaking commands, God sculpts the first human out of humus, and this human becomes a living being when God breathes the breath of life right into the nostrils. It’s such an intimate image.

And then there is Proverbs 8; we’ll have to wait until Trinity Sunday 2022 for it to next appear in the lectionary readings. I love its use of the image of Wisdom as a woman standing in the busy crossroads at the main gate of town boldly calling out to all who pass by words of warning, guidance, and joy. In verse 22 we are told that the LORD’s first act was to create Wisdom: before the beginning of the earth—before mountains and oceans and skies—before the heavens—She was at the LORD’s side. Like a master worker; She was the LORD’s daily delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Delighting in the human race…  I don’t know about you, but as an American citizen who closely follows the news from back home, I’ve been finding the idea of Wisdom delighting in the human race rather challenging. There is so much selfishness and cruelty in our world. So much violence and injustice. So much racism and treating human life as if it had no value. When looking out upon the evils of our world, goodness, rejoicing, and delight, aren’t the first words that come to my mind. And yet, when we look at how devout people of faith—people who at the core of their being believe in the sacred worth of humanity and all of God’s creation—respond in the face of hated and oppression, there is reason to rejoice.          

I’d like to share with you an example from our sibling diocese in Washington, DC. This past Monday, security forces in riot gear fired rubber bullets and tear gas on members of St. John’s Episcopal Church and others who were standing on and in front of the church property peacefully and legally calling for the end of police brutality. The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington condemned this violence as well as the fact that the nation’s president had ordered it in order to pose for photos in front of the church’s sign. Bishop Budde responded by writing, The President did not come to pray; he did not lament the death of George Floyd or acknowledge the collective agony of people of color in our nation. He did not attempt to heal or bring calm to our troubled land… “We are followers of Jesus…We stand with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd through the sacred act of peaceful protest.” Our bishop didn’t stop there. She extended an invitation to faith leaders across the city to join her in a prayer vigil at Saint John’s, and they showed up. Saint John’s rector, Rev. Robert Fisher, was there to welcome the crowds, although not at the church as planned because a police line had now been made that blocked access to the building. Using a megaphone to be heard over the wail of a police siren, the rector said, “We are gathered to share one voice in prayer and solidarity, so that we can speak against racism with compassion, and to affirm what needs to be affirmed today, that Black lives matter.” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of The United Methodist Church also spoke to those gathered saying, “It’s good for us to bow our heads and pray; we should always be in prayer. And it’s even ‘gooder’ when we take those prayers and put feet to them and stand in spaces like this. But also stand in spaces where injustice is actually taking place... Let the prayers, the energy, let everything that is being amassed here – let us carry this out into the margins where the Gospel of Jesus Christ was always meant to be preached, always meant to be lived, always meant to be embodied, and always meant to make a difference.” My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us rejoice in this prophetic witness of what it means to follow Christ, not Caesar.   

Today is Trinity Sunday, and I’ll let you in on a little secret, Trinity Sunday is not among the favorite days on the church calendar for most preachers. Fearing that they will either fall into a theological heresy in their attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity or simply fail to help their congregants see why such a doctrine matters, we can be tempted to avoid the topic altogether. This is a great loss, for instead of dancing around the topic, we could choose to celebrate that we have been invited to participate in what has been described by theologians as the Divine Dance.

The academic term for this is perichoresis. This Greek word roughly translates as “rotation,” “going around,” or “making room.” Theologians embracing this notion of perichoresis understand the Trinity not as a paradoxical logic puzzle but as a wonderous interweaving and swirling dance of delight between the totality of God our creator, Christ our redeemer, and the Spirit our sustainer. And through Christ we too have been invited to join in this dance. Yes, suffering is real. Injustice and evil are real forces that we are called to call out. But there is also love and laughter and hope born from the pure joy of dancing with one another.

Dancing with others is a different experience from dancing alone. It is no longer simply about us and what we want to do. We have to pay attention to the bigger picture—how our actions support, amplify, or block out other dancers. We must think about making room, noticing who we’ve excluded, who we’ve blindly stomped on, and when we’re hogging the stage. When we dance with God, the master choreographer, we must be open to step out of our comfort zones, to learn dances of solidarity that involve risks and sacrifices and recognizing our interdependence on others. We must also be willing to join the dances of lament, protest, and prophecy.

And, so, this morning I invite us all to ask ourselves: How have I been dancing with the LORD lately? Have I been merely observing others as they dance? Am I truly open to allowing God to teach me new moves—moves that would expand my understanding of myself, my neighbor, and our call to work together? I don’t know the answers to these questions as they apply to you. But my prayer for you, for me, for all of us, is that this week and until the day we take our last breath on Earth is that we will dance with the one who brought us into life everlasting.  Amen.