Waiting by the Road: A Sermon

I preached this sermon today, October 28th, at my field-education parish, Christ Episcopal Church, in Alameda, CA. The lectionary texts are Mark 10:46-52 and Jeremiah 31:7-9.

 

Bartimaeus is sitting by the road out of Jericho and into Jerusalem. He is waiting: waiting in darkness, waiting in despair, waiting in hope. He wants to go, somewhere, anywhere other than this place, where he is forgotten, invisible, little more than a breathing corpse, a ghostly figure in a home that has become more like a tomb.

At this very moment, there is a caravan of 7,000 refugees—men, women, children—walking north from Honduras, fleeing poverty and violence, trying to get to Mexico City, or the US, or anywhere they might have a chance to survive—anywhere other than a homeland where they cannot feed themselves, where they cannot protect their children—a home that, for them, has become more like a tomb.

There are countless families grieving today—11 people dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue, yet another horrific episode in a seemingly endless torrent of gun violence.  Lives, and bodies, and memories piled upon memories. We see the news, we feel fear and anger and helplessness, and sometimes we want to be somewhere, anywhere other than this time and place, where our beloved country, our home, has become more like a tomb.

And then all of the sudden, there is Jesus, passing by. He’s leaving Jericho, headed toward Jerusalem, on a mission. Bartimaeus hears that he is near, and from the depths of his soul he cries out—Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! This is the cry of a person who has nothing, who has been stripped of all presumption, all illusions of safety. It is the raw and urgent voice of Life itself, crying out to God for acknowledgment. It is a plea, a lament, and a demand to be seen.

The crowd tells him to be quiet, to keep the peace, to mind his place, but he will not—he cannot. Because at the end of the day Life is insistent. It asserts itself, no matter how much the structures around us try to squash it. Life speaks, and it speaks loudly.

Life says NO—we will not acquiesce to violence as the defining characteristic of our culture.

Life says NO—we will not be silent when leaders give in to corruption and complacency.

Life says NO-we will not sit in the dust on the side of the road and wait to die—we will get up, we will join the caravan, we will travel until we reach the place that God has promised for us, the one where, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us, all people are gathered together—those who are blind, those who can’t walk, those of us who are in labor, those who are Jewish, and homeless, and transgender, and everyone, everyone who cannot and will not be forgotten by God, because God SEES them, even when the world refuses to do so.

LIFE says we are on this journey together, and even though it might all look like shadow and darkness now, we will leave this valley of death where our home has become more like a tomb and we will spring up like Bartimaeus and we will throw off the cloak of our despair, and we will come forward, out into the light, out into presence of God who is the source of our life and the fulfillment of our longing.

Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!

And so Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you?

What do you want me to do for you? It is the question upon which our entire life depends. What would we have the Son of God do for us? The possibilities are infinite. We could ask him for an end to pain and hunger. We could ask him for consolation and courage. We could ask him for justice. We could ask him for peace. We could ask him to take us away from this place of death and towards the Kingdom of Life. And so we do, every time we pray.

But Bartimaeus knows what he wants, and it’s quite simple: he wants to see again. He wants to see the face of Jesus. He wants to see the dusty road and the people, he wants to see the world and get up and move in it, and in doing so to BE seen again by those around him, all those who have chosen to ignore him and told him to be quiet.

To see and be seen is to be in relationship, and to be in relationship is what it means to LIVE as God would have us live, rather than to merely exist. Bartimaeus knows that isolation is death, and he is not ready to die.  In restoring his sight, Jesus heals Bartimaeus’ physical infirmity, but, even more importantly, he restores him back into relationship with the world around him.  Bartimaeus’ home is no longer a tomb, but a place of possibility. With new vision, physical and spiritual, he joins the caravan to Jerusalem and walks toward Life.

We have been given that same vision—the vision of God’s dream for creation, the vision of Life restored to fullness in Jesus. And if the ever-mounting perils of contemporary life tell us anything, it is that this vision is precious, and often elusive. It is obscured every day by both tragedy and triviality. And so it is our responsibility, as Christians, to be the bearers—the stewards—of that vision. Stewardship is not about funding an institution—it is about ensuring that God’s vision of love and life will continue to be proclaimed in a world that often seems hell-bent on blinding us.

What would we have Jesus do for us? We, too, must ask him to see—to see the world as it can be and will be in God. We do that first by opening our hearts, as Bartimaeus did, and by asking for that vision to be restored to us, time and again, as we seek the face of Jesus. And then, having beheld that vision’s promise, we give everything we can give to it—our trust, our energy, our resources, our whole selves. We get up, and we go. We join the caravan. We follow were God leads us. This is the road you are invited to walk as part of this community, as part of Christ’s body. This is the road out of death and into life.

It has been a difficult week. And there will surely be more difficult weeks that we must face together.

We are sitting by the road out of Jericho and into Jerusalem. We are waiting: waiting in darkness, waiting in despair, waiting in hope. We want to go somewhere, anywhere other than this place, this home that has become like a tomb.

But take heart! Get up. He is calling you.

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A Sermon: God, Our Lover

I preached this sermon at my home parish, Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church, Las Vegas, NV, on Sunday, September 2nd, 2018. The lectionary reading used is Song of Solomon 2:8-13. I offer it to you and to the heart of the God who loves and desires each of us.

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

The Song of Solomon, a piece of which we encountered in today’s readings, has a rather controversial history in the Christian tradition. It is, on its face, an exquisite poem about the ecstatic love between a man and a woman—one that comes out of a long poetic tradition in the cultures of ancient Israel and the near east. It’s an unabashed expression of longing and desire between two people, and its heightened sentiments might sound familiar to those of us who have experienced the soul-stirring rush of romantic attraction.

At various points in the history of our faith, the Song of Solomon has also been reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. The thought for some, I suppose, was that such a frank expression of bodily desire did not align with the sanctity and moral discipline of the Christian ethos, and so the Song was instead taught and understood as coded language that communicates God’s pure and holy desire for creation; the consummation of a bond between two lovers became an analogy for the Church’s mystical union with Jesus Christ.

So what do we do with this text, then? Do we stick with those Biblical scholars who read it as an ancient Israelite love poem, a beautiful erotic relic? Or do we cordon it off as a spiritualized metaphor, one that conveys a sanitized interpretation of Jesus’s bond with his Church?  Or is there something else here for us?

To answer this question, I want to tell you a brief personal story. Last year I was meeting with my spiritual director, a Franciscan friar, and we were talking about prayer—specifically, my prayer life while at seminary. I was telling him about the various ways that I was trying to relate to God, and how on some level I was more comfortable praying and talking to God the Father rather than directly to Jesus. I felt, quite honestly, like I didn’t know how to relate to Jesus. As a teacher or guru figure? An older brother? A King? (too intimidating) A close friend? (too familiar) As someone who is a disciple of Jesus, as someone who has pledged myself to serving this very personal God who is Son as much as Father and Spirit, I was troubled by my struggle to connect on an emotional level with Jesus, and not just a theoretical one.

And then my spiritual director said something surprising that I will never forget. He said, “why don’t you relate to Jesus as the one who is in love with you?”

I had two immediate reactions. First: my brain’s knee-jerk response: “No way! Jesus is God incarnate. I can’t think of God in the same way I would someone I am in love with. That kind of romantic love is only for human beings.”

And the other reaction, from a much deeper place in my heart: a door opening. The feeling of an unspoken, unrecognized truth suddenly brought to light: our God was also, somehow, human. Our God, in Jesus, had a heart and body like mine. And with this heart, God might not simply love me in a paternalistic way, or with a generic, impassive offering of good-will, but that God could be IN LOVE with me. That God could be IN LOVE with all of us.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

The Song of Solomon clues us in to something—that desire, that romantic love, as much as any other form of love, is a doorway to understanding the ways in which God relates to us. And that’s not in the detached, polite manner  of interaction that you might offer an acquaintance on the street. No. God loves us passionately, ardently, with a fury and a longing. God is the burning bush in the desert that calls out to us and burns and burns and burns and yet is never consumed.

And it’s with this insight that we come to understand that the romantic bond between two people—straight people, gay people, young lovers, or lifelong partners— this bond is bound up in the outpouring of divine love that permeates creation. It is our nature, it is a good thing, to long for each other, to yearn for the union of our body with another, because God longs for us in the very same way. It is this longing that erupted in the Incarnation, the Passion, and that brought forth the Resurrection. In the human heart, the divine heart, the beating and burning sacred heart of Jesus, God has not only sanctified our human love and desire—He has experienced it, as a human being, firsthand, coursing through Him.

This truth about the heart of God is what allowed the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, writing down heavenly visions in her monastic cell, to refer variously to Jesus as father, as mother, as brother, and as husband—the One Who fulfills every need, Who encapsulates every type of love we have been blessed to receive in this life, and every type of love for which we are still longing to find.

This truth about the passion of God is what St. Clare of Assisi was referring to when she wrote, of Christ: “Draw me after you! We will run in the fragrance of your perfumes, O heavenly spouse! I will run and not tire.”

This is a love that enfolds us, no matter our gender, no matter our sexuality, or our relationship status. Christ looks upon us and loves us, He sees our longing to be understood, to be admired, to be held, and He says:

I’m here. I’ve always been here. I love you. I am in love with you, every part of you. Why else would I have endured the folly and suffering of the cross, if not for that burning love? Why else would I show up here at this altar, week after week, to kiss your lips with bread and wine, if not for an all-consuming desire to be one with you?

And the voice of the poet, who is us, sings in response,

“Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.”

“Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

The Song of Solomon, like all of Holy Scripture, is an invitation to love and be loved, in body as well as heart and soul. Those who would read the text as “only” an erotic poem AND those who would read it as “only” a spiritual metaphor are actually making the same mistake: they are constructing a false boundary between our bodily experience of human love and that of the divine love we participate in through Christ. The two are intertwined, and in our humble passions we find a reflection of the One Consummate Lover of all creation—the God we know in Christ, who calls out to us, wooing us, consoling us, as only a lover can do.

The only question that remains, then, is whether we will respond to the invitation to “arise and come away“. If your beloved calls to you, will you go running and cast yourself into their embrace?  Will you venture out with them, into that landscape of abundant possibility where “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom”?

I pray that each of us will take such a chance. I pray that we will respond with the same intensity of feeling that Jesus offers us, for it is He who will always be the Supreme Love of our lives. I pray for a world blessed by the consummation of our desire for God and for each other. I pray that such a world will give way to a new love poem, one that never ends. Its title will be the Song of the Kingdom of God.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.”

Both Shepherd and Sheep: A Sermon

There is so much I could say and need to say about the experiences of the past few weeks, but I just don’t have the words at the moment. In the mean time, here is a sermon I offered yesterday, April 23rd, at my placement churches: St. Mary’s Mirfield and St. John’s Upper Hopton. The text is John 10:11-18, wherein Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. 

As many of you know, I have been given the privilege of living and studying in the UK for the past few months as part of an exchange program between my seminary in California and the College of the Resurrection here in Mirfield. Getting to know the people and the landscapes of West Yorkshire has been a joy, but when we were given a break after Easter, I was eager to go a bit further afield.  And so I boarded a train to Scotland, determined to see as much as I could in a week.  And sightsee I did—I saw medieval cityscapes, glorious cathedrals and museums, Highland lochs, the holy island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides….and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.

Scottish sheep really have it made, as far as I’m concerned.  They are free to roam across those dramatic Highland landscapes, munching on wild grasses and heather, disturbed only occasionally by the odd passing tourist gawking out of a train window.  And while I was gawking at them, I noticed something interesting, which perhaps you have seen, too: the sheep are all marked.  They have splashes of color painted onto their fleece, some green, some blue, some red. I looked this up later, and I learned that these colors all have a practical purpose—they are called “Smit Marks”, and they are used by the sheep farmers to keep track of which sheep belong to them.  Since the countryside is open, and the sheep can roam wherever they like, these markings are a quick means of identification when it’s time for them to be gathered back in for shearing, etc.

The Scottish sheep, with their vibrant Smit Marks, were lingering in my mind’s eye as I pondered this week’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock. It’s such an evocative image, isn’t it? One that is deeply ingrained in our idea of relationship with God—through the recitation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, in church art and in hymnody. It is an image of protection and guidance and self-giving love: the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us.

And we are marked, too, are we not?  Not with a streak of color on our backs, of course, but we have our own Smit Marks, indicating to whom we belong—they were placed on us in the water of baptism and the oil of anointing.  As it says in my favorite line in the service for Holy Baptism that we use in the Episcopal Church, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.” No matter where we wander, no matter how far we stray into shadowy valleys or foreboding wilderness, we bear the mark that tells us who we are, and by Whom we are guided—Christ, the Good Shepherd, who stands on the brow of the hill at dusk and calls us home. It can be hard to see and the path is often rocky, but His lantern is lit for us to follow—it burns in the sanctuary of every church where his Eucharistic presence is encountered, and it illuminates every place where we, the people of God, pray and minister in His name.

It’s remarkable what you can discern from looking at a field of sheep!

There’s a catch, of course. If we were to simply bask in the image of Christ as the loving Shepherd and ourselves as his beloved flock, we’d only be getting part of the picture. Because Jesus is more than a model of a capable guardian and overseer; in fact our faith depends on the fact that he is much more than this.  As Saint Augustine asked, “What sayest Thou, O Lord, Thou good Shepherd? For You are the good Shepherd, who art also the good Lamb; at once Pastor and Pasturage, at once Lamb and Lion.” In the mystery of his death and resurrection, which we continue to marvel at this Easter season, we cannot forget that Jesus the Shepherd is also, paradoxically, the paschal lamb who was slain, who was given, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, his own Smit Mark by the Father to fulfill the plan of human salvation, and who was called home through the valley of the shadow of death in his glorious rising to new life.

This is the One whom we encounter in sacrament and prayer and service. The Shepherd who is the Lamb. The Lamb who is the Shepherd. Whose death was, in the light of the Resurrection, not a demonstration of God’s failure to care, but proof that God will do anything to gather us close into a merciful embrace.

If we follow this train of thought, though, there is one missing piece. Because if Christ is both the Good Shepherd AND the Lamb of God, then we, as people who share in his life, also share in this dual identity. We cannot merely see ourselves as sheep to be protected. As much as I envied those Scottish sheep in their pastoral idyll, I knew I had to continue on my journey, that I could not linger in the field. There was much to see, and much yet to be done. So it is for all of us. If we believe, as St. Paul claims, that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us, then the Good Shepherd is the One who lives within us. The One Who must guide, and seek out, and yes, even lay down their life at the feet of those whom they serve. He is the one who animates our very beings. In the same moment that we are the beloved flock, you and I are also the brave, good shepherds of God’s mission. We were marked as such on the day of our baptism, when we were knit into Christ’s body, and it is an indelible mark. It cannot be undone. It is our vocation, each and every one of us.

So as we approach the table to take part in the banquet feast of the Lamb who was slain for us, let us remember the deep bond that has drawn us here, the bond of a Good Shepherd calling his flock back to him for rest and renewal. But let us remember, too, that by taking Him into ourselves, we have been transfigured by His abiding presence into shepherds. And so we, too, must seek the flock. We too must measure the worth of our lives by the amount of love we are willing to risk pouring out. We, too, must walk the landscape, lighting the way to guide others into safety.

The world is vast, more vast even than those Highland valleys, and there are many who are seeking home. Let us take up our staffs, light our lanterns, and call out. And may the Good Shepherd within each of us provide the words to pierce the silent gloom, to bring near those who wander towards the light.