Monthly Archives: October 2014

With or Without You: Moses and the highs and lows of belonging in community

Preached by James for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.

Moses can stand as an archetype for many things, one of which is the individual’s relationship to community. As we’ve listened to his story unfold in increments during our Sunday Hebrew Bible reading for the past ten weeks, we’ve seen Moses with others and we’ve seen Moses alone. Often times, when he is alone, it’s on top of a mountain with God. Eight times, in fact, he climbs up and down Mt. Sinai to be alone with God and then return to his people with news of who God is and what God wants. Sometimes the people he comes back to are eager to hear from him. Sometimes they have forgotten him. Once, they helped realize his visions for an intricately woven bejeweled tent for God to live in. Once, they made him so mad he smashed the only evidence he had of God’s self-revelation to pieces on the ground. Each time he fights, admonishes, instructs, proclaims, and heads back up the mountain to see more. Today we read the final verses of the Torah, where Moses climbs to God for the last time. This time its up Mount Nebo, where he can see entire swaths of land that his people are about to conquer and occupy. God has promised to bring his people to a land of milk and honey through Moses, yet he himself will not enter it. “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes,” God says, as Moses gazes out from yet another mountain peak to a land about to be occupied through force and bloodshed by the youth of his own nation, “but you shall not cross over there.”

are you there

I wonder if Moses is disappointed. I wonder if Moses regrets choosing to link himself so closely with a people whose faults and failings have ultimately cost him entrance into the land they were destined for. Moses belongs to a whole generation who gets shut out of the promised land, the generation which first crossed the Reed Sea from bondage into liberation. Because that liberation was immediately followed by ungrateful complaining, because they put God to the test, God swore in his wrath that they would not enter into his rest. At least, that’s how Psalm 95 tells it. Israel had been this close to the finish line before but had been forced to go back into the wilderness for another forty years until the first generation had died off and the next was ready to rise up pure from their parents’ complaint. Moses takes his fate with the elders. It isn’t clear how complicit in their sin he may be. Some midrashim say that Moses was guilty of taking credit for God’s miraculous actions through him as if they were his own. But scripture itself is silent. In the text, the only sin Moses seems to be guilty of is association with a people he had hoped to lead, a people who fell short of the standard they were given. Moses’ struggle as an individual in community comes to this: with his people, he has risked being misunderstood, disappointed, and left behind; but without them, his vision of God would have been an isolated fantasy.


I wonder if you’ve ever found life in community as perplexing as Moses has. When I returned to the Episcopal Church in 2003 after an adolescence and early adulthood of isolated spiritual seeking, one of the major reasons for coming back was because I heard that the Episcopal church had made advances in its inclusion of gay and lesbian people. If the denomination of my childhood was a place where an openly gay partnered man could be made a Bishop, as was in the person of Gene Robinson that year, it was a denomination I wanted to return to. I was delighted in those years that I had found a broader spiritual community which I felt I could belong to with integrity, one in which I had a full and equal claim as a gay man. By 2006, however, the denomination had faced significant pushback for our decisions from our global partners. When the Church met as a whole body that year, we decided to place a moratorium on ordaining any more gay bishops, and rites that had been planned to bless same-sex unions were shelved. The losses were devastating, and I thought about leaving the church to return to my private, personal spirituality. If the Church wasn’t going to treat people like me equally, why would I bother participating? Wouldn’t my participation in such a disappointing, unjust institution be a kind of complicity? Wouldn’t it perpetuate abuse against myself and others? I honestly don’t remember why I stayed. Looking back, I can imagine it had something to do with the empty hunger I feel when I miss communion one week, or something to do with the real people who continued to show up for that communion despite their own broken expectations and hurt feelings.

What I do know is what I would have missed if I had left: I would have missed a promised land where sexual orientation seems to be less and less of a deciding factor in whom we promote for leadership in the church, I would have missed a journey in which I finally got to meet other gay, lesbian and trans* clergy face to face, I would have missed the opportunity to join advocates at the denominational level of our church for producing rites of blessing for all couples, and perhaps worst of all, I would have missed being able to preside over the blessing of marriages myself, ones that have included many different genders and orientations. All this in ten years time. I sometimes dizzy myself imagining my elders who came before, the ones who did not get to enter this new territory of full inclusion. I imagine those faithful Christians who made the life I live possible for sticking with their tribe even when the losses seemed insurmountable.

When we say our highest calling is to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, we are not merely summarizing the law of Moses, we are summarizing his way of life: one that rose and fell with the victories and failures of his people. The friendship Moses enjoys with God, face-to-face, is not for his benefit alone. At each step of the way he struggles to bring his whole people into that encounter as well. When we show up here, when we show up with one another, when we pledge a portion of our livelihood to the livelihood of our life together as the church, we do the same. Not because our money can purchase some desired outcome, but because we depend on our relationship with one another to give God a body among us, to risk vulnerability for the sake of making God’s vision for us real.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

Proper 19 Year A, 09/13/14 Contemplative High Mass

“ . . . how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

All this week, I’ve been asking myself, “What does Jesus mean about this seventy-seven times of forgiveness?”

There are a lot of things God may be saying about this, and the Holy One may already be nudging you about of them.  I’ve been thinking about my family of origin, where we have a history at holding on to grudges.  Some of us make a painful point of not talking to each other, being quick to say something critical about the other.  We humans are so eager to see each other’s flaws and to cement that as our view of them instead of wondering if things could be different – instead of seeing each others’ woundedness.

Is that what forgiveness is?  Seeing behind or beyond the sins?  Does that mean we think what the offenders did was OK?  Of course not.  God is not saying we should be doormats, or that we should excuse behavior that is destructive, or pretend that evil isn’t active in our world.  But I think there’s a way to tease apart the necessary recognition of wrongdoing; to distinguish it from that mental “throwing-away” of the entire person involved.  We need to learn to tell the difference between, “That action was just plain wrong” and “This person should be obliterated.”  Yes, if someone tears you down or abuses you or otherwise hurts you, it would be a very good idea to separate yourself from that person decisively; but we hurt ourselves if we turn that into nonstop warfare and bitterness.

I love the illustration Jesus gives us in this Gospel; it’s just so – Dramatic!  Can’t you just see the guy who owes the king a few billion dollars, how terrified he is, how much he sees his life and everything he cares about, on the verge of being taken away?  And then –the astounding act of the king in forgiving an astronomically large debt!  How might you feel in his place, leaving that royal chamber?  We just recently had a workman – whose visit was promised to cost us $125 per hour – say, “Ah, I was barely here half an hour; I’m not going to charge you anything!”  We were just grinning all day!  What would it be like if suddenly all your student loan debt was forgiven?  Or your home loan or your credit card paid off?  I think most of us would be stunned with gratitude.

But THIS guy walks down the hall, sees a fellow who owes him, depending on how you figure it, maybe a couple of months’ wages — so it’s not an insignificant amount, but not a fortune – and he throttles the other slave!  He grabs him by the throat and shakes him and threatens to throw him in jail unless he pays up!  What. A. Creep.  As I’ve been re-reading this, I realize this man didn’t even spend a moment being happy or relieved or grateful.  It’s like he didn’t get the gift at all, he didn’t even notice the enormity of the forgiveness he’d received.  How sad.

But the story’s not over, and what I think I love MOST about it is the thing that comes next.  The other servants are so outraged at this injustice, so righteously distressed at their friend’s plight, that they go public.  They take it to the top and they tell it all to the king, and he’s so furious he reverses his forgiveness and the guy ends up in jail.  It’s the community’s action that led to justice – the community that understands that being forgiven is the fuel that lights our own compassion, and the community that won’t let someone living in willful unforgiveness destroy others.

That part of the story says to me that, when we see injustice, we actually have to open our mouths and our hearts and DO something about it, just because we are a forgiven and freed people.  Is this country treating immigrants in an unjust way?  Arresting and imprisoning black and brown folks more than white?  Are we listening to those who beat the drums of war without seeking other solutions?  Do we support politicians who encourage polarization?  Are we walking past the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill on our streets, accepting that as the norm?  Do we tolerate churches excluding any of God’s people?  Being a forgiven, healed people of God means that we take action to heal and forgive and build up others.  That’s not being a doormat.  That’s not some light-hearted “forgive and forget,” or some apathetic, “It is what it is.”  That’s being true to the great gift we’re given, and sharing God’s grace with others – which is part of owning that grace for ourselves.  Those two can’t be separated.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I strive so hard that I fall into the trap of magnifying my own brokenness, and that gets me lost.  God has been showing me that I need to continue to return to the well of refreshing, healing grace.  The pattern should be that we receive and accept healing; we work with joy to share that freeing grace with others; and we come back to drink ever more deeply.  As Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Life may be fickle, but God’s mercy is constant.”

If we are a church full of people who truly are free to give and receive mercy, then let’s help one another practice that.  Just as in our families of origin, where we still sometimes suffer from the wounds we’ve given and received, our sisters and brothers in the faith community can hurt us easily, and we know how to hurt them.  You know what I mean – that eyeroll when we talk about so-and-so; that quickness to blame this or that church leader for not being perfect in every regard; that snub or impatience or faulty decision that we’ve been brooding and talking about for weeks or months — or years.

Forgive it.  There was hurt, yes.  And now it’s past.  I truly, truly don’t have to carry that with me till the end of time.  I can actually ask to be freed from that burden hanging around my neck.  I can – we can – mean it in a few moments when we say, together, the Lord’s Prayer, and ask that our many trespasses, big and small, be forgiven because we have finally let go of the other person’s sin against us.  We can truly share bread and wine at the Lord’s table like people who have stopped counting “who owes whom and how much.”  We can come with open hands, ready to receive grace.  Thanks be to God.

God’s Economy – Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46

Preached by Sara on October 5.

Everlasting God, you always give more.  

If you have ever spent time in wine country, ideally on foot or on a bicycle, you will easily understand why, in biblical times, the vineyard was a sign of divine blessing.  The cultivation and harvest of grapes, with their finely tuned dependence on the sun and the rain, the temperature and the topography, smacks of a grand design. The vineyard was the sign of Noah’s re-establishment after the great flood, the sign that life on earth was going to flourish under God’s protection. Noah was the bible’s first vinedresser, and the bible’s first alcoholic, so I would venture to say that the vineyard is also a sign of the choices that God sets before us. Matthew’s parable of the Wicked Tenants tells a story of bad choices and the misuse of God’s gifts.

This vineyard story comes on the heels, as it often does, of the celebration of St. Francis, whose feast we observed yesterday. Francis is the saint who more than any other is associated with nature, and with the love of all creation. Francis was in tune with God’s circle of life, and with humanity’s right relationship with God and creation.

As we explore this gospel story about the misuse of God’s gifts, I cannot help but share a conversation, transcribed by God knows who or when, between St. Francis and God:

God says to St. Francis, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistle and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

  1. FRANCIS: It’s some of the tribes that settled there, Lord. They started calling your flowers weeds and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees. It’s temperamental with temperatures. Do these tribes really want all that grass growing there?

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make them happy.

  1. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

  1. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

  1. FRANCIS: No, sir — just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

  1. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These humans must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

  1. FRANCIS: You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. Trees are a sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. As the leaves rot, they form compost to enhance the soil. It’s a natural circle of life.

  1. FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. As soon as the leaves fall, the humans rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

  1. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

  1. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

And so on…

This may seem like a rather whimsical story somewhat removed from today’s readings, which are anything but whimsical. But it is about our relationship to God’s love and our right use of God’s gifts, God’s abundance. We always do well to ask ourselves: how do we make the best use of God’s abundance? How do we use God’s gifts in a way that reflects our relationship with God and with our neighbor?

At the time of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob set himself apart from any other god by giving the people the ten commandments, spelling out not only right relations with God, but also with our neighbor.

The commandments set in motion the formation of a new world order. In the story of the Wicked Tenants of the vineyard, this order, which holds our love of God and neighbor, gets broken.

Like the mythical conversation between God and St. Francis, only much more painful, this is a story of bad stewardship, a parable of people who forget that all that they are and all that they have belongs to God, all the time. The story has been described as being about the difference between stewardship and ownership.

And now a commercial: This happens to be the season here at St. David’s where we explore the use of the abundance God has given us, both individually and corporately. I know that all of you have or will very soon—like today—sign up to attend one of the small group gatherings being held this month. How you participate, not just with your pledge but with your presence and your voice, is very much connected to how the future of St. David’s unfolds in the next chapter of its wonderful life.

Back to the Gospel. When we are more focused on ownership than stewardship, greed happens. Greed is part of our humanity, whether we’re talking about corporate greed or national greed or personal greed.

Most of us do not suffer from greed in such a degree as the folks who make headlines in the Bible. But many of us do suffer from selfishness, fear, anxiety, or the longing to have more control of our surroundings. Those guys in the vineyard suffered from those things, too. All of that—the greed, the fear, the drive to control and own the world around us—all of these things separate us from the love of God. Like it or not, we call this separation sin.

God’s intent for us, God’s longing, if you will, is not separation, but closeness. Not sin, but enjoyment of God’s abundance. What is God’s intent for us? This is something I always pray about, both for myself and for our community.

The good news is that our own desperate acts, driven by selfishness or fear, point to our utter dependence upon God. The good news is that as we awaken to our dependence upon God, God is indeed there; God will renew our strength. God does not destroy the vineyard. The vineyard is the kingdom to which we are continually invited and in which we live life to the fullest. It is always there as a sign of divine blessing and a source of God’s extravagant abundance. What will you do with this abundance?

Radical Empathy

As a child, I loved musicals. I, if pressed, and plied with a glass of wine,can sing most of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “Gary, Indiana”. Please don’t ask me to do this at coffee hour, although if you come to our stewardship gathering I might be willing!

I have distinct memories of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, and the scene that made one of the strongest impressions was when Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem. In the 1973 movie, the temple kind of looks like Saturday Market crossed with burning man crossed with a gun show. There are weapons, and money, and women being traded.

Jesus storms in. This is a rock and roll Jesus. This is Jimi Hendrix Jesus, Mick Jagger Jesus, Freddie Mercury Jesus. He is furious at the desecration he sees and wails that all must leave his father’s house. He is angry at the corruption of the space and the corruption of the people. He is angry, perhaps, that in this place where we expect to find God, God is nowhere to be seen.

Today’s gospel picks up where that story leaves off, minus the go-go boots and pot of the movie. The priests of the temple are questioning Jesus, asking by what authority, by whose authority, did he throw everyone out of the temple: they demand to know “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”.

Jesus, as usual, answers their question with a question, and ups the ante even more by bringing John the Baptist into the mix. He responds the  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”.  This rhetorical jousting is not just a trap, as the temple leaders seem to think, but by bringing in John the Baptist Jesus is defining himself through association with him; he is defining his own ministry with that of the radical, itinerant prophet who lived in the wilderness eating wild honey and preaching of the messiah to come.

Jesus, by aligning himself with John the Baptist and all who followed him, is also defining himself not by who he is, but by his people. He is answering the question of the temple leaders by consciously placing himself with the radicals, with the prostitutes and tax collectors. And in doing so, he is illustrating to them, and us, that God is often found in the most unexpected places and the most unexpected people; God is found in the wilderness rather than the temple, in the crazy prophets and sinners rather than in the chief priests, in a rock in the desert rather than an oasis.

Jesus is also telling us that it is our responsibility as Christians to stand with those oppressed, to associate ourselves with the radicals and the overlooked and the looked down upons. Jesus is reminding us here that who we say we are is less important than whom we associate with and what we do.

And luckily for me, I am identified partly through my association with all of you. And we are identified by our association with Christ. But what happens when we leave this building, when we leave one another? It is too easy for me, at least, to slip my identity as a Christian off like an old coat when it does not suit the surroundings I am in.

So when Paul exhorts “Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus”, he doesn’t just mean on Sunday, when we are surrounded by one another and lifted up in prayer and song. I think what Paul is telling us is not to be imitators of Christ, although that is certainly not a bad place to start (the whole what would Jesus do thing has some merit), but to put ourselves into a place of radical empathy and love.

Paul gives us a kind of recipe for finding that empathy when he writes: “2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2:2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”.

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind”. Empathy is what Paul is really encouraging us to find, and empathy is hard, but I believe empathy can serve as a path to grace.

There is an amazing video that was making the rounds about a year ago about empathy versus sympathy. In it some animated animals illustrate the words of Brene Brown as she discusses how hard empathy can be because it requires us to access something dark and painful in ourselves. She reminds us that empathy fuels connection, that it is feeling with someone and not feeling at someone, and in her words empathy “creates a sacred space”.

She outlines 4 parts to an empathic response: 1) perspective taking, taking the perspective of another, 2) staying out of judgement, 3) reading emotion in others, 4) and communicating that emotion.  And while I agree with these 4 characteristics of empathy, I think the key is staying out of judgement.

I think it is debatable whether staying out of judgement helps promote empathy or whether empathy help us stay out of judgement, regardless empathy often means crawling down into a hole with someone else, and recognizing the same pain and emotion that they are feeling in ourselves. It also means not feeling the need to say just the right thing or fix the situation. And for many of us, including me, that is incredibly hard so often we just say nothing or move quickly past. Brene Brown notes that rarely does an empathic response start with the words “At least” and says that it is better to say “I don’t really know what to say about what happened, but I am really glad you told me”.

We live in a culture that does not value empathy, that seeks to drive our behavior through comparison and judgement and shame. As followers of Christ, putting ourselves in the mind of Christ means putting ourselves in the mind of others. And not others that we know and like and who are just like us. It means putting ourselves in the mind of the homeless guy on the corner, in the mind of the mother screaming at her 3 kids in the grocery store, in the mind of the 18 year old African American boy who grabs a pack of $2 cigarettes, in the mind of the friend struggling with mental illness. We are identifying ourselves with the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the radicals living in the woods. We are identifying ourselves with Christ.

When I found firm footing in my faith, when I started to feel a real and profound connection to God, it was as if my heart was cracked open and love and connection rushed out of it like water from the stone in Exodus. Everything and everyone seemed to make me cry. I believe that was God, God was both fueling my connection and in that connection.

This means letting God, letting Christ, letting the Holy Spirit, and letting each other into the hard and broken places within ourselves. As Leonard Cohen sings “there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in”.

—Jeanne Kalizewski