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At the heart of what we have called Christian faith is the notion of turning around. It’s the original meaning of the word “repentance,” that word so many people today dislike because they associate it with being guilt tripped for things that don’t matter while ignoring massive things that do. But our church’s name sake John the Baptist used the word a lot—it was his whole message. Apparently the Jewish folks who heard him liked this message because they flocked to him like thirsty people in the desert. The word repent was about change, and that was something they knew they needed.
Martin Luther King Jr carried out much of his ministry during the time I was in high school in Towson, Maryland and college at the University of Maryland. You might think that I would have been paying attention to the important events of that era, but I was pre-occupied with things like grades, courses and getting into medical school. Besides, I wasn’t black, nor were any of my friends.
When St. John’s called me to become its next Rector two years ago, I was so delighted and moved and daunted. I had been a priest for just two years, and an Episcopalian for only nine years. Luckily for me, St. John’s has often called first-time Rectors, including Mariann Budde and Susan Barnes.
This morning I give thanks to God for sending me three teachers, Fr. Richard Polakowski, Prof Wyatt MacGaffey, and Prof. Sandra Berwind. All of them severe taskmasters, the kind of teacher I am not. They taught me to write. They also had us learn a few poems that have helped me, over the years, make sense of my spiritual life.
Merry Christmas! Now, I want to let you in on a little secret. This service is pre-recorded. That means that today, the day I’m actually saying “Merry Christmas” to you, is not yet Christmas. It’s almost a week before. And today, the day I’m recording this, I have to say that this year, in 2020, I might be tempted to have a little bit of trepidation recording this so early. 2020 is the year that just keeps on giving.
This is the third week of Advent. Advent is the church’s new year, which is all about hopeful waiting. It’s that time when we allow ourselves to feel the full force of longing for the kingdom or reign of God—in which God’s Great Shalom is the order of the day, a holistic wellbeing for all people, and in which reconciliation between humans and God, and among humans, has finally happened.
Two years ago on this very Sunday, I preached about John the Baptist and Jesus growing up and neither one going into the family business. John’s father was a high priest in the temple and Jesus’ dad was a carpenter. Both of them tried it, John combing out his beard and dressing all in white; Jesus getting calluses and slivers. John was a city boy from the south, and Jesus a small-town boy from the north.
I can remember my experience of Advent during the time I was in Medical School. I was quite separated from church, or Advent or any other religious thing. Not to mention the fact that I was raised in what we might call a “low church” tradition, where Advent was pretty non-existent. It was all just ‘pre-Christmas’.
Last week out of the blue I got a phone call from a friend in high school whom I hadn’t spoken with since graduation from high school more than thirty years ago. I went to high school in Brussels, and this friend, Stefan, is an Austrian who now lives in Jamaica. After three decades I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he would be calling. As it turns out he was asking me for my opinion of what in the world was happening in the United States.
If you’ve spent any time hanging around a church, you have surely heard the parable of the talents. A lot of emphasis is place on the amount of money entrusted to the servants, so you may have heard it during a stewardship campaign, or other similar event. A talent was roughly equivalent to 20 years of wages for the average worker. So, if one had been entrusted with one talent, like the last of the servants, that was about one’s economic worth for a life-time. Five talents or even two was unimaginable wealth, and quite a responsibility.
As I write and record this, it is Saturday. Joe Biden has just been declared the President-elect of the United States, and Kamala Harris the first woman and first African American woman as Vice-President-elect. There are still recounts and legal challenges to be faced, and the all-important question of whether President Trump will step down if those challenges make clear that he has lost. Almost everyone has big feelings about this, myself included. It is still unclear what this is a referendum about in our nation as a whole, given how very close the electoral college votes have been, and how relatively close even the popular votes have been.
Today is the Feast of All Saints, one of the great feasts of the Christian liturgical year. We celebrate two kinds of saints: those ordinary Christians who did extraordinary things, like John the Baptist and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King; and our loved ones who have died, who are also saints because the New Testament word “saint” just means someone who follows Jesus.
These are pivotal times in history. Just how significant future generations will consider 2020 and its aftermath is yet to be seen. But we who are living through these times without benefit of a crystal ball can still see that the choices we make today will impact the future in significant and perhaps unforeseeable ways.
We celebrate today the feast day of Saint Luke. Luke was a gentile, from Antioch, educated, Greek speaking, and it is said that he was a physician. He probably was one of Paul’s cohort missionaries in the early witness of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
A few summers ago, my husband Jeff, daughter Carly and I took a long road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We went to visit the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass, the highest elevation visitor center in the park, at almost 12,000 feet above the tree line. I was driving up to that spot, and we were on the outside lane of a narrow two-lane mountain road. At first this was fine. But eventually, we emerged above the tree line, and there were no guardrails, no shoulders, and no trees or brush at the side of the road. There was the white line marking the edge of the lane, and then within 12 inches of that line was a sheer drop of at least a thousand feet.
This is the thirtieth week since we have met in person as a St. John’s community, and after all this time, even in this cold, I am so glad to see you in person together again. And let’s take a moment to pause and remember all those who can’t be here physically now. Some of them may be watching this over the Vimeo livestream or on a recording later. In this pause, we are gathered together with you. In Christ, you are here, and we are there.
In today’s Gospel lesson, it is clear that The Kingdom of Heaven needs to be unionized. Otherwise how can its practice of work and wages be brought into line with modern business principles? If you work more hours, you earn more money, rise in pay level and in company position. It’s what we expect. But it is not the system at work in this parable of Jesus.
When I was a child I lived in Ventura County in southern California. There was this wonderful park in Ventura in the foothills of the mountains, called Arroyo Verde. In the forested part of the park there was a wood fort to play in. We played what we called Cowboys and Indians in that fort. The cowboys were the good guys and the Indians were the bad guys. In that game we picked up the racist, destructive and hurtful way to tell the story of American history. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, really?
Good morning, everyone. My name is Elizabeth Lienesch, and you may or may know me. I’m the new seminary intern at St. John’s. I’m a student at Luther Seminary and I’ll be part of the St. John’s community for the next two years. It’s been wonderful to meet many of you over Zoom or at backyard gatherings this summer, and I’m looking forward to meeting more of you over the next months.
Last week my family and I went to the North Shore. We were staying high up in the Lutsen Mountains, but from our room we could see that hundreds of feet down, deep in the trees, was a river rushing over the rocks that you could hear from our room. When we drove down to the shore of Lake Superior, we also heard the crashing of the waves in a lake so vast it acts like an ocean.
How often in your life have you felt as if you belonged? Belonging is tricky. My daughter is in middle school and there is a certain kind of middle school fashion—certain kids who are identified by having hydroflasks, and wearing crop tops, and making certain sounds and having a particular nickname. My daughter doesn’t feel like she belongs to that group.
Wednesday morning I woke up, as usual, like most of you, wearing White skin. I didn’t notice it, however, until around ten-thirty, when I was taking a break from writing this, pulling weeds. I heard some sirens. I prayed briefly for whoever was in trouble. It’s my habit. I also prayed that it wasn’t a Black person, for whom sirens are often a sign that things are going to get worse.
The very first thing I did my first year in college was participate in a wilderness program in which myself and 21 other 18 year olds, plus a few seniors and some other adults, backpacked for three weeks in the Uinta Mountains in Utah. For three weeks we didn’t see a sign of humanity except each other and the very slight trails we were on.
In the past several months during this pandemic, our St. John’s community has had countless incredibly rich, prayerful conversations over Zoom. Even though I know we’re all heartily sick of Zoom, it has afforded us a peculiar kind of intimacy that I have come to treasure. Several times, I have heard Doug Mensing say something that has pierced me to the quick.
Throughout history there have been people who have called the world to repentance and to transformation. Such people are often greatly revered after they are dead, and are perhaps not quite as popular when they are speaking their truth or during their lifetimes. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is greatly beloved of the church nowadays. At the time he was killed, however, 75% of Americans disapproved of him.
In the name of God, nailed to the cross because of our sins. Amen. This is the place where George Floyd was murdered. And this is Martin Gugino, a gentle giant of a man, 75 years old, white of skin and white of hair, approached the armed death squad in Buffalo. He said something to them before they shoved him stumbling backward onto the concrete. They didn’t arrest him, handcuff him, or crush his neck by taking a knee. They left him there, bleeding from his ear. Two members of the squad were suspended.
St. John’s has a long-standing relationship with Liberty Community Church, which is a predominantly African American church in North Minneapolis. Their primary mission is The Healing Space, which provides support and healing to those who have experienced sex trafficking. Last Saturday, May 30, their Pastor Alika Galloway called me to say that she had gotten intel that white supremacists were intending to burn down black churches in Minneapolis.
Today we are honoring one of the seven great feasts of the Christian liturgical year, and it’s the Ascension of Jesus into heaven 40 days after his resurrection. This one can be a real challenge on so many levels regardless of where you are in your own spiritual journey. Christmas and Easter and Pentecost are easier to understand, but this feast can be confusing at best.
Last Sunday and this our reading is from the Gospel according to John. These verses come after Jesus had washed the feet of his followers, after the Passover Seder that we call the last supper, after Judas had left to turn his master in to the authorities. And now in what follows, it was as though Jesus’ was giving the disciples a cram course, summing up his three years of teaching them, to show how that can serve as guidance for them after he has gone.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! It’s still Eastertide so we get to keep saying that. And today, it’s also Mother’s Day – so, happy Mother’s Day to all of you! I say this sincerely, regardless of whether you are a mother or need a mother, want to be a mother or never dreamed of it.
Good Morning Friends: it is hard to believe that this is the 8th Sunday of remote/virtual worship services, and with many more in our future together. I miss being with you in person, however I am blessed with those of you I have been with using our new best application ZOOM. I am encouraged and fulfilled with the many deep conversations and reflections on scripture, prayers, and lament we have shared in new ways.
I so miss seeing you all in person. Though I must say, it is wonderful to see so many of you over Zoom. We are doing daily prayer. We are doing zoom sermon discussions and zoom coffee hours. I see many of you for one on one conversations about many things. I suspect some of you have jobs that also keep you on Zoom many hours every day.
In the name of God, creator of the Earth, redeemer of her ungrateful inhabitants, and sustainer of her being. The Greeks called her Gaia. We sometimes call her Mother Earth, although our species shouldn’t be proud of how we treat her, if she’s our mother.
Happy Easter! I have to say I’ve been getting pretty emotional preparing for Easter this year, preparing to share my heart with you and the Word of God with you. Like all of you I am watching almost in disbelief at what is happening in this world. My 12 year old daughter Carly and I were talking this week. We were talking about this coronavirus pandemic. I was telling her that there are very few people alive today who have been through a time like this. We have had various epidemics, but nothing that went truly global.
It is hard to believe that only three weeks ago, I stood before you in the Nave at St. John’s talking about what it means to be born anew despite doubt, fear, and inadequacy. We talked about the practice “turn”—specifically, about entrusting ourselves to a loving God despite doubt and a lack of certainty.
I have been meditating this week on the Book of Job; God keeps placing Job, his story and challenges in front of me. Considering the pandemic, our anger and frustration with many of our leaders, the joy of learning of individual acts of heroism, our deep call to understand, our yearning to be helpful to each other, and our challenges to connect in new unpracticed methods and techniques.
In the text we just heard, Pharaoh ratchets up his cruelty to the Hebrew slaves by making them gather their own straw for bricks. This part of the story of Exodus points to a basic human reality that psychologists have identified: having power makes us less empathetic, and less compassionate, to those without power. Unless we intentionally work to counter that dynamic, having power makes us less empathetic.
Almost everything about today’s gospel text from John is not only well-known, but has also been reduced to one-dimensional slogans in popular culture. Let’s begin with the phrase “born again,” which you’ll notice does not actually occur in today’s translation of the text, but which is another way to translate what in our text says “born from above.” What do you think of when you hear the phrase “born again”? Some of us associate that phrase exclusively with evangelical Christianity, or with the politically religious right, or with the belief that the Christian life is best expressed by a personal and emotional moment in time in which one experiences a conversion.
Today is the beginning of lent. Some of you undoubtedly grew up knowing all about lent, and others I’m sure didn’t. Traditionally, people fast, engage in acts that are meant to interrupt selfishness or being curved in on ourselves, and engage more consistently in prayer. Nowadays It’s common to “give something up” for lent like chocolate or wine or social media. But here at St. John’s, we are going straight to the heart of the matter. We are going to explore the spiritual practice we call “turn.” Turn is about a change in direction. It’s about recognizing where we are headed is not working, and that we get to choose a different way, with God’s help.
Ash Wednesday was not incorporated into our worship until about the 6th century it is a day of the prophets we might say…. Repent, repent and return, or in the language of the way of love, Turn. Turn, pray, worship and Go. One of my favorite quotes from Bonhoeffer is ‘anyone who does not cry out for the Jews has no right to sing pious chants in church’. Matthew, Joel, Isaiah and the other prophets focus on this same message to the spiritual community of their time. The Hebrew people certainly believed they were on the right path that they were following the will of God, faithful in the practice, and they were quite certain that this what God wanted. They attend services frequently, followed their lectionary, prayed out load, and make a fuss about the good works that they had done so that everyone can see them.
The young princess went every day down to the Nile to bathe. She had ladies-in-waiting with her, carrying her robe and towels, ready to comb her hair and rub her skin with perfumed oils. The basket caught her eye among the papyrus reeds, and she had one of her attendants go get it. The basket had been waterproofed with pitch, and they heard a baby’s cries from inside. So carefully they pulled the lid off. It’s a boy, someone exclaimed, as if witnessing a birth. This is one of the slave children. The Hebrew boys my father is having killed. And just like the midwives in last week’s story, filled with compassion instead of hate or fear or obedience to her father’s murderous decree, Pharaoh’s daughter gave no thought to “otherizing”.
Recently I was listening to Krista Tippet’s On Being Podcast. She was interviewing journalist Ezra Klein, who has written a book called Why We’re Polarized. In this podcast, they talk about how today’s political tumult is bigger than this moment in time. They talk about how it didn’t happen to us; rather, Republicans and Democrats alike walked into it, which might mean that we, together, can also walk out of it. Mr. Klein said that in the past, Democrat didn’t necessarily mean liberal and Republican didn’t necessarily mean conservative; for example, a greater proportion of Republicans voted to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act than Democrats did. But, he said, the way people define themselves is changing, and now differences in religion, geography, ethnicity and the conservative-liberal divide line up by political party in a way they never used to. The Republican party is increasingly responding to the interests and needs of white, rural, conservative, and evangelical Christian people, and the Democratic party is increasingly responding to the needs of urban, less religious, liberal, people of different ethnicities. The story we are telling ourselves about who we are has really changed. And according to Klein, this kind of identity, becauseRead more
How often have you asked yourselves recently the question, “What in the world should I do?” Perhaps some of you have been asking yourself how to make your way through the increasing noise and turmoil in our nation’s political landscape. Should you post that article on Facebook or not? Should you date that person or not? What is the best way to address the urgent issues around climate change or immigrants in detention? Should you go to that march or shouldn’t you? Should you downsize or stay in your current house? Should you say something to your dad about his drinking or shouldn’t you? Should you try to reach out across the political divide? How do we determine the answer to difficult questions about what to do?
Both Simeon and Anna were very old. Like some of us, for whom church is a second family, they practically lived in that famous Temple. Anna had her spot inside the court of the women, while Simeon was the man to see when you had a first-born son and his mother. The Second Temple was a very grand place. It stood atop Mount Zion, which had been lowered, and the sides built up with gigantic stones. You can see them today. Up on top there was room for eleven football fields. Mary, Joseph, and their forty-day old baby would have climb up one of the stairways leading to one of the gates.
As you will hopefully remember, I and a team from St. John’s did a bunch of focus groups here at St John’s this fall. I know you’ve probably been wondering what happened with them. I’m here to tell you. In those focus groups we asked you things like this: “What do you find most inspiring or nourishing here at St. John’s?” and “What are you most hungry for?” and “What keeps you up at night?” Over and over again, in lots of different ways, the team heard some themes. We heard that you are hungry to share more with each other about your lives and about faith, but you don’t know how to talk about it. We heard that you are hungry to learn more about the tradition—many of us aren’t very familiar with the Episcopal Church or with scripture in a way that makes a difference to us, and we’d like to be. We heard that you really want to make a difference in the world, but you need more ways to connect what we are doing here on Sunday and what you do in your daily lives Monday through Saturday.
Consider for a moment, what would it take for you to turn to Jesus and see, to dwell deeply into the secret questions, fears and frustrations of your heart. He asks simply what are we looking for? What does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to be the church? What does it mean to turn, learn, worship, pray, bless and to be sent into a broken world? The way of love, the invitation Jesus presented his disciples was with risk: the risk of leaving their families, their occupations, whatever comfort they had. He offered them a new identity, a transformed way of being, one that was not tied to their privilege, language, homeland, color of their skin or their class.