Conquering the shadow

The use of Maren Morris’s Dear Hate for our sequence hymn this morning was prompted by the massacre in Las Vegas last Sunday night. In the aftermath of that tragedy, this song resonates with so many because it gives voice to our heartache and disappointment even as it gives voice to our hope. It speaks to the complex emotions and reactions we have at a time like this, but mainly it gives voice to hope.

But don’t be misled, the topic of this sermon is not about hate per se, rather it is more about hate’s kissing cousin fear, the awkward relationship we have with fear, and the way we might respond when we stand in the shadow of fear.

Normal fear is a healthy reaction to stimuli that may be seen as threats; its intent is to stimulate a physiological response of self-preservation in the face of danger. However, fear can also reveal itself in unhelpful ways, such as mental illnesses like paranoia, acute anxiety and a variety of phobias.

Fear is almost always accompanied by suspicion and often a sense of helplessness; these can cause us to react or act out in unsociable ways. And there is such a thing as too much fear, which can manifest itself in hate, which some may excuse as justifiable.

All this said, we may never fully understand what led Stephen Paddock to carry out this horrific act, but that is not the point. The point is, how do we find ourselves reacting to the fearful violence of this act and the host of others across the world that we are exposed to through media on a regular basis? Are we becoming more fearful, withdrawn, suspicious, or judgmental? Or more disturbing, are we justifying such acts?

In the face of all this, this morning we and the Israelites, are presented with the Ten Commandments. As we stand this week in the shadow of the massacre outside of the Mandalay Bay; I am mindful of how the Israelites stand in fear and trembling in the shadow of Mt. Sinai.

They have witnessed the thunder and lightning and smoke coming down the mountain and are afraid. In their fear they crave a mediator who will allow them to remain present but at a safe distance. I wonder if the fear of this encounter colors their perception of the Ten Commandments. Do they perceive the commandments as a judgment upon their morality, or as council for how to live in relationship with God and their neighbor?

Hopefully, we know the commandments as council to shape our relationship with God and one another. But I suspect some of us know people who would use the commandments as a cudgel of judgment. How we see the commandments may reflect how we see the shadow we find ourselves in at the foot of the mountain or across the way from the Mandalay Bay.

As we encounter them in Exodus, eight of ten of the commandments are presented as proscriptive, that is they are forbidding, “you shall not.” There is something clear and definitive about forbidding something; but it can also lead to condemning behavior for those of us who find ourselves crosswise with a commandment or two.

In contrast, the fifth and sixth commandments affirm behaviors, specifically remembering and keeping the sabbath, and honoring your father and your mother. Nonetheless, the forbidding tone of the eight seems to overshadow all the commandments with a tone of forbidding and foreboding.

Does this forbidding and foreboding tone color the shadow of Mt. Sinai and Mandalay Bay? Is our experience one of an encroaching and enveloping shadow, or is it one of seeing the light behind a passing shadow? Remember, a shadow is created by something that comes between us and the source of the light.

If we feel ourselves being overwhelmed by an encroaching and enveloping shadow, we need to acknowledge it and try to name the fear or emotion that stands between us and the source of the light. Then remember Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[1]

It is worth remembering that Jesus offers this affirming, positive, and love-filled interpretation of the Ten Commandments as he stands in the encroaching and enveloping shadow of his own cross just days before his own horrific death. His interpretation is not Pollyannaish sweetness and light; it is a faithful and resolute confrontation of his own and our fear.

Jesus knows well our fear; in the midst of his innocent and horrible death, he will cry out, naming his fear of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet, within days, Jesus’ love-filled and love-led interpretation of the commandments will yield this aftermath: abandonment, death, and fear are defeated and Jesus’ resurrection gives us our proof that love does conquer all.

So how does this proof affect our reaction to the fear in our lives? In a moment we will each have an opportunity to name our fear and then name an act of love that covers that fear.

While the Nicene Creed is recited and the prayers of the people are offered, remove the two post-it notes on page two of your bulletin. On the bottom post-it write the fear that most occupies your mind, then on the top post-it write an act of love that would help you conquer that fear.

Finally, during the offertory, come forward and nail your post-its to the cross with a pushpin. When we are finished, we will begin the Great Thanksgiving, in which we celebrate the love of God that conquers all fear and shadows if we will only accept that love and, most importantly, share it with everyone we encounter.

[1] Matthew 22:37-40


Is the Lord among us or not?

Is the Lord among us or not?[1] This question is a recap of the Israelites’ complaint as they encamp at Rephidim. They are in a querulous mood because they are thirsty.

It is more than a little ironic that the Israelites are so upset in Rephidim because in their language Rephidim means a place of rest, as in contentment or serenity. But they are so thirsty they can neither see God in their midst nor recognize Rephidim as a place of rest. They need Moses to reveal God as the source of that contentment and sufficiency.

If you have ever really been thirsty, that is dehydrated from a lack of water, you can probably relate to how the Israelites feel. But their scarcity of contentment can be revealed in other sorts of “thirst” as well.

I once had a long conversation with a very thirsty young man. He is very intelligent and perceptive, and he is trying to reconcile what he sees as a disconnect between the faith of his family and what reason and science reveal to him.

He finds little serenity or equanimity in the religion of his family because he sees a scarcity of answers. Instead he experiences contradictions and absurdity, especially in contrast to the seeming certainty he finds in science. In science he sees proof – demonstrable answers to questions about his existence. While he acknowledges that not all has yet been proven, at least in the scientific method he sees the potential for understandable answers.

Unfortunately, his thirsts – his questions – also reveal a lack of contentment among some “faithful” people. This lack of contentment reveals itself in unhelpful ways. For even raising these questions he experiences rejection by some. He has even been told on one occasion that he is going to hell. Is this response from heaven, or is it of human origin?

These “faithful” people can’t see the holy curiosity in this young man’s questions. They can’t see the holy connection between faith and questioning because the questions are too distressing for them.

I understand this distress – this discontent. It is a natural response to ideas that challenge the delicate balance of our understanding of our selves and the things we value, our own contentment, if you will. We do, after all, want to preserve the serenity of our lives and livelihood. However, I can also see the harm done by an unthinking reaction to that discontent; I suspect that many of us have witnessed it as well. “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Such is the circumstance at the temple in Jerusalem on the day following Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city. The day before, Jesus had literally overturned the tables in the temple, and was teaching things that radically confronted the contentment of the temple authorities. Thus they ask, “… who gave you this authority?”[2]

To their credit, the authorities are not too quick to condemn Jesus; at least they ask the question. But Jesus, like the young man, wants to challenge the authorities; not to pick a fight, but to question where they are coming from. What is the source of the contentment they want to preserve? Is it from heaven, or is it of human origin?

Jesus’ question reveals the competing motivations at work in the authorities’ question. Is it from heaven, or is it of human origin? In essence Jesus is asking the very same question his ancestors asked in the wilderness. “Is the Lord among us or not?”

But Jesus is not asking the question because he needs proof. Rather he has turned it around to question the authorities’ need for proof. A paraphrase might sound like this, “Can you see beyond your reaction to my question to see the contentment of God – the Rephidim – in your midst?”

When authorities sit on the fence, Jesus presents them the parable of the two sons and the vineyard. “Which of the two did the will of his father?”[3]

The authorities answer correctly, they get this part right – it is the son who had the change of heart and did what his father asked of him. Unfortunately, the authorities are unable to recognize themselves in the parable as the son who said the right thing but did not do the will of his father.

None of us is immune to this sort of “blindness” as we try to interpret events in our lives. But if we are blessed we will – perhaps only in retrospect – see where God has been present to us. Often God’s most profound presence is found in those that love us – the Moseses of our lives who endure our challenging questions with wisdom and patience even when they can’t answer the question of “why?” It is the Moseses of our lives who reveal to us that we are indeed in Rephidim, that place of rest, because through their example and presence we recognize that God is among us. But God’s presence can also be found in the one causing us distress – the inquirer or the one challenging us.

Are we able to tell if it is from heaven, or of human origin? In the face of distress we may not get it right, but that is not the proof. The proof is in how we respond to one another’s need. Through our example and presence, you and I are called to be the Moseses to the querulous and thirsty young men and women among us.

[1] Exodus 17:7

[2] Matthew 21:23

[3] Matthew 21:31

On the Cusp

Today and for months it has seemed that in America and throughout the world we have been on the cusp – on the brink, if you will – of calamity. We have heard of refugee and humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia that have affected more than 20 million people. Closer to home we have heard and seen violent acts of hatred and intolerance played out in American streets with all sorts of blame swirling around as to who is at fault.

Perhaps you have felt yourself on the cusp of being pulled into the swirl of this frightening news, even as we sit in the relative comfort and safety of Sedan, KS. Yet even here we are not immune to the fear and heartbreak these catastrophes elicit from us.

As if these catastrophes we not enough, don’t forget about the after-affects of hurricane Harvey. And then there is the currently unfolding stories of Irma, Jose, and Katia; the earthquake and tsunamis in Mexico and Guatemala; the 65 wildfires in the western U.S.; the geopolitical crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, North Korea, and China.

Day-in-and-day-out, it seems we are confronted by a growing, enormous, and wearying wall of worry; one of biblical proportions that doesn’t even include our local and personal concerns. So I invite you to take a moment and reflect about how you feel as the disorienting news of all this swirls about you like lashing tropical winds. Can you disentangle yourself from your worries enough to see God in the midst of it?

I imagine this must be how the whole congregation of Israel, and Egypt, feel on the night Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron, “Rise up, go away from my people!” The Israelites and the Egyptians have endured nine perturbing plagues before the tenth horrific and ultimate plague of this night – the death of every firstborn in the land of Egypt. Yet this plague is different for the people of God because it marks God’s intervention on their behalf, as commemorated by the institution of Passover – the primary festival of the people of Israel. We recognize this feast as the precursor of the Last Supper. Through both, God is remembered as entering into the darkest night of his people to deliver her promise of redemption and favor so they might remember and celebrate it as a festival.

The Israelites who mark the lintel and doorposts of their houses with the blood of their Passover lamb find themselves on the cusp. On the cusp between a wall of worry and a wander in the wilderness, God is there; even as they are spared the horrors of this final plague, they are sent away, and told to remember the consequence of this moment for ever.

The consequence of this moment is the reminder of God’s presence in their and our midst for ever. All the same, in the weeks to come we will hear more stories of the wandering of God’s people as walls of worry cause them and us to wander away into our self-created wildernesses where our worries come between us and our awareness of God’s presence with and among us.

As the people of Israel celebrate Passover as the remembrance of God’s saving presence, we too celebrate our own Passover, not only as a remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice for us but also as sustenance for us as the body of Christ. We need to be fed individually so that the whole body is fed, and made whole, and sound.

But we, especially with our American sense of self-sufficiency, often tend to think that we can tough our way through our walls of worry and thus keep them to ourselves. But in doing so we deprive ourselves of nourishment from the whole body, and by extension the whole body is deprived. This is why Paul admonishes us to “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”[1] Perhaps you have never thought of sharing your worries with others as an act of love, perhaps you have thought it is only a burden that you would rather spare them. But in fact the act of sharing your burdens and worries is an act of love. It demonstrates your trust and reliance on the other, and offers them the opportunity to grow in strength and love as a part of the body by sharing the burden.

I assure you that sharing your burdens is an act of love. As I have been privileged to hear your stories and learn of your hardships I have fallen in love with you, and in loving each other we have been able to see each other over our respective walls and care for one another. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[2] And in the fulfilling of the law, Christ is present through and with us.

Jesus provides us another perspective on how to love another, even as the other opposes us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves includes trying to restore those who would remove themselves from us so as to keep the body of Christ whole. Because the body is all about interconnected relationships we are to strive to keep it in tact, for to fail to do so will have consequences for the entire body and the member that sins against the body.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[3] In the context of this saying, what we often associate with the word “bind” is condemnation, and what we associate with “loose” is often forgiveness. However, I invite you to consider two other associations. What does it look like if we associate them with fear and love instead? Thus, “Truly I tell you, whatever you fear on earth will be feared in heaven, and whatever you love on earth will be loved in heaven.” In this context we glimpse the power of love to transform our circumstance here and in heaven. We are able to appreciate Jesus’ and Paul’s endorsement of “Love your neighbor as yourself” as fulfillment of the law. For it is only in loving our neighbor that we will find the wherewithal to tear down the walls of worry and weariness that assail us and separate us from our neighbor and the love of God. For it is through love that God reveals God’s self in the midst of it all, and this changes everything. Therefore, choose love, and assail the walls of worry that separate us.

[1] Romans 13:8

[2] Ibid., v. 10

[3] Matthew 18:18

You’re standing on holy ground.

We human beings are a tough crowd. We are so diverse; we are a multiplicity of cultural, racial, social, familial, and individual experiences and opinions.

It’s no wonder we have such a difficult time getting along, much less getting on the same page on matters that are uniformly important and impactful for us all. Except, that is, in moments of shared crisis. Then we often rise to the occasion and our best selves are revealed in our common humanity, such as we have witnessed this past week in the wake of hurricane Harvey and, more particularly, the burial of Roland Cain.

Still, beyond the occasional need to extend ourselves, we often spend much of our time in our self-defined and comfortable boxes – those groups or places where we are most comfortable.

Amid our diversity, one of those places where we keep things to ourselves is our understanding of God. What is God? Assuming we acknowledge that there is a Divine existence that we’re willing to call God; what is God to do with us, who would rather parse, interrogate, and put God into our own boxes so that God meets our particular and peculiar needs? We often want God to be our personal God, as unique to us as we are unique. Perhaps this is where we are mistaken, perhaps we are too preoccupied with our uniqueness and not enough preoccupied with our commonality – our ordinariness.

Sometimes we also want our God to be so exceptional as to be unattainable; so beyond our comprehension and understanding as to be remote, so we can excuse our shortcomings.

These are interesting musings, but where we stand individually is less of consequence than the insight that where we find ourselves at any moment – despite our view of the place – is in fact holy ground.

Moses, a Levite born of an oppressed people, rescued by women who refused to yield to murderous authority, adopted by the privileged, and raised in the palace of Pharaoh; Moses shuns his privileged upbringing by committing murder and when confronted with the resentment of his own native people flees into exile into another land where he starts over as a shepherd on the edge of the wilderness.

Yet this confused mess of a human being, whose identity is ridiculously complicated finds himself – through no action of his own – standing on holy ground in the presence of God. Even on holy ground, Moses tries his best to make excuses, based upon his unworthiness, to wriggle off God’s hook – God’s claim upon him. I think Moses likes the anonymity of his quiet exile; after all the last time he tried to do the right thing he made a hash of it and had to run for his life.

But God gives Moses no cover, God shows him no quarter. Instead God makes Moses God’s agent to God’s people, and more terrifyingly God’s agent to Pharaoh, who probably has a warrant out for Moses’ arrest. The only promises Moses has are the assurances of “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and “I will be with you.” God tears apart the box that Moses has placed God in, and God gives Moses a new identity – God claims Moses as his agent to the world.

Jesus does the very same thing to Peter. You will recall that Jesus has taken the disciples to a foreign and pagan place – Caesarea Philippi – to poll them. Who do people say I am? And, who do you say that I am? Peter, bless his heart, gets it right and is named the Rock, the foundation on which the Church will be built. But Peter, still in the glow of this affirmation, makes the mistake of thinking he has it all figured out – Peter puts Jesus in the box of Peter’s own expectation.

Jesus proceeds to tear Peter’s box asunder and tells him and the other disciples, you don’t get to make this about you. Yes, you are my people, but this is not your story. To be my people you have to let go of your story – you have to climb out of the box you have tried to place me in and embrace – not only embrace – but also proclaim MY story of suffering, death, and resurrection. In this peculiar and even pagan place, Peter and the disciples find themselves on holy ground in the presence of the Son of God and with a new identity as Jesus’ agents to the world.

God and Jesus do not call the best, the brightest, nor the strongest; they call regular, imperfect people – their children, sisters and brothers. If we believe God and Jesus are selective, we’re just trying to leave ourselves room to wriggle off the hook so we can stay in our comfortable boxes.

In calling us to deny ourselves, our Creator and Redeemer are telling us to tear apart our boxes – those comfortable yet tiny, and confining identities we have created for ourselves. They are asking us to give up our illusions about who we are, and to embrace whose we are – creatures of God’s creation, and to recall we are blessed with gifts and above all that God – the I am – is with us at all times.

Jesus reminds us, “there are some standing here who will not taste death.” This is an invitation for us to shed our boxes and accept the way of the Cross – to embrace an identity greater than that we have imagined for ourselves. Yes, the way of the Cross will include suffering and death, but so does unredeemed life. The difference is that the way of the Cross promises resurrection and eternal life in the company of our Redeemer and all the Saints. So yeah, climb out of the box, you’re standing on holy ground.

Ecce, quam bonum!

The opening verse of Psalm 133, as we have heard it this morning is, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

Sometimes it may actually feel as if we are living this way – in unity with our sisters and brothers. At other times it may feel more like an aspirational statement – something to be longed for.

How we see it – as reality or aspiration – may reveal a lot about the state of our personal and communal relationships. For example, today we’ve heard the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers. In isolation this story seems to reveal a tearful and long-sought reunion among brothers, but if we recall last week’s story of threatened murder and ultimately enslavement, we know this story had a beginning filled with resentment and hate.

Frankly, Joseph was a spoiled and pesky little brother, the only son of Rachel – Jacob’s favorite wife. Thus there was probably some jealousy on the part of his older half-brothers, and there was certainly hate on the part of those half-brothers whom he had ratted out to Jacob because Joseph didn’t approve of how they handled the flock.

What may seem to be minor insults or annoyances escalated in his half-brothers’ un-brotherly imaginations into resentments that cried out for violent retribution. Acts of violence were only narrowly averted by the intervention of the two oldest brothers; the result was Joseph’s enslavement first to his second cousins the Ishmaelites and then to the Egyptians.

Yes, Joseph was able to transcend the circumstance of his slavery, and ascend to power by his God-given wits and ability to interpret dreams; but he also seems to have retained his natural and nettlesome inclination to mess with his brothers in their distress during the famine. It’s a wonder that his brothers weren’t ready to throw him in the pit all over again once he revealed his identity. Perhaps their restraint speaks to their own maturity and growth over the intervening years as they wrestled with the nagging guilt of their behavior. Or perhaps it speaks to the potential for healing and restoration over time, which in this case it may have been about ten years. Whatever the case, a loss that seemed unrecoverable and unforgivable is redeemed and made whole again through the aspirational desire for God’s love in human affairs.

There is similar story of insult and injury that with time and aspirational persistence also resulted in reunification and reconciliation. It is the story of an institution, whose motto is the name of the 133rd Psalm, Ecce, quam bonum! In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which in essence sought to legitimize the institution of slavery, Sewanee: The University of the South was founded by clergy and lay delegates from Episcopal dioceses across the south as the fabric of brotherly unity within the United States was being torn asunder over the issue of slavery. Thus, it seems ironic that the university’s motto invokes the ideal of brothers living together in unity.

Perhaps, in the founders’ narrow thinking, they thought of their union in small and select terms, as is often the case when human beings come together. We are too often exclusive rather than inclusive. Yet when, at the end of the Civil War, Sewanee lay in ruins with little prospect of realizing its once imagined glory, the seed of reconciliation came from an unexpected place when it was planted by their brothers from the north. The Episcopal Church extended the hand of peace to its southern brethren reunifying the Church, and through the quiet philanthropy of northern Episcopalians Sewanee survived. But this isn’t the end of the story.

For the next 150 years, Sewanee – like much of the south – struggled to reconcile its reality with the aspiration of, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” For much of that history it was only realized as a rather isolated and incomplete reality; for the most part it remained aspirational. Yet with time and periodic acts of intentional courage by determined followers of Christ, Sewanee began to transcend the bonds of culture and began to reveal its potential for healing and reconciliation. It is not yet fully realized, but it has moved forward from entrenched resistance to intentional aspiration seeking reconciliation.

Both Joseph’s story and Sewanee’s story reveal that healing and reconciliation don’t come naturally or easily but take time and intentionality in pursuing the way of the cross. To the extent that unity is opposed by any party it is very difficult to achieve, and opposition must be met with non-violent pursuit of the way of the cross if we are, with God’s help, to affect a change in the opponent that makes room for naming the hurt and listening to each others’ stories.

This just happens to be the story of Jesus’ journey to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a region and people traditionally hostile to Israelites; a place where an abundance of mistrust and the demons of prejudice abide. What a wonderful place to teach his disciples the expansiveness and inclusivity of God’s mercy for all people.

It is in this place of mistrust and prejudice, that a woman recognizes Jesus’ ability to heal, to drive out demons, and restore her daughter to wholeness. It is the other – someone unlike us – who recognizes the possibility for something new and different. Courageously, in the face of mistrust, this woman calls out to Jesus. Unfortunately it is the disciples, Jesus’ followers who, like us, think too narrowly – who can’t imagine something new and different. The disciples would have her go away. Then, as if mimicking the disciples’ disdain, Jesus seems to rebuke the woman, but I like to think he is delivering a slow pitch that he knows she will hit out of the park. And boy does she!

The Canaanite woman, in her need and desire for compassion is able to see across the divide of mistrust and prejudice and recognize the possibility of mercy and healing on the other side of the divide. For a moment, aspiration yields to reality and this woman has the courage to ask for what she wants and is not disappointed. The divide between the other and the disciples is not healed, but in its breach – in this act of faith – they begin to see each other in a different light and room is made for other non-violent breaches.

For us, as disciples – the followers of the cross – the challenge of these stories is for us to name our biases, our presumptions, and prejudices; to be open to seeing in them something about ourselves we haven’t noticed before. This may be hard to do, but we must try because the present reality of hostility and hate will not begin to change unless we risk breaching the barricades that divide us by pursuing the love of Christ and trusting in God’s mercy.

What demons hold us back from taking such risks? Be they fear, be they harm or hurt that we have suffered in the past, offer them in sacrifice as you come to this altar to be fed and healed by Jesus Christ, and recall that your baptismal covenant calls you, with God’s help, to “… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Expanding the circle of our unity is not an aspiration, it is part of our baptismal call.

Troubled Waters

It’s been a hell of a few weeks! In addition to the “normal” and recurring barrage of fearful, violent and hateful acts perpetrated by individuals against one another, which according to our local media outlets are normal; these past few weeks, it seems, we have been treated to an escalation of fearful, violent and hateful acts beyond individual acts to community, national, and even international levels.

To name just a few: the President of United States and North Korea are escalating threats of nuclear warfare. The government of Venezuela is usurping the democratic authority of its own citizens to preserve the power of its President. And the sleepy college town of Charlottesville, Virginia has erupted in violence and death over the removal of a statue of a man, who for some represents another period of hate and violence over 150 years ago.

The latter incident reminds us that hate and violence are nothing new. They have always been with us, and always will be with us on this side of the kingdom of heaven. But when we are surrounded by such fearful events we are prone to slip deeper into fearfulness and isolation. It is understandable that in our fatigue that we want to get away from it – to stick our heads into the sand, if you will.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”

The story of Jesus walking on the water is set in a similar circumstance of fearfulness and violence, yet there is no overt expression of hate, only demonstrations of compassion for those who are foundering.

The back-story for Jesus’ walk on the lake is his hearing the horrific news that Herod has beheaded his cousin John in a foolish and fearful act of violence. Foolish because Herod puts himself in an embarrassing situation by trying to simultaneously impress his cunning stepdaughter and his dinner guests. Rather than admit his folly – his mistake – Herod kills the man who both fascinates him and threatens his political power. Rather than living with the tension of his relationship with John, Herod chooses violence.

Upset by this news, Jesus attempts to withdraw – to go into isolation to pray, but he is thwarted by the fearful who are hungry for the peace and healing he has to offer. Jesus knows he needs time away with his father, but his compassion for the crowd outweighs his personal need – at least for now.

Jesus meets the crowd’s need for healing, but more than that, he demonstrates for his disciples and the crowd the ability of compassion to provide abundance and to trump fear. When the disciples are exhausted, hungry and in need of rest themselves they ask Jesus to send the crowd away. But Jesus responds, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” In essence Jesus is telling the disciples, I know you are exhausted, but I also know that you have not yet explored the depths and power of compassion to satisfy an abundance of need.

It is after this astounding lesson of compassion that Jesus finally sends the disciples to the other side of the lake, dismisses the crowd, and gets his time away with his Father.

The disciples’ journey across the lake would not normally be challenging, after all a number of them are watermen – accomplished fishermen – for whom this lake is their own back yard. Being battered by the waves is not normally of consequence, but today has been a long and exhausting day, their reserves are spent and their fatigue is playing tricks with their imagination in the dark – and besides, how often do you see someone walking across the water? So, it is understandable that their bewildered minds get the better of them and they see a bogeyman rather than a friend and loved-one.

It is our impulsive and unguarded friend Peter who is not satisfied with Jesus’ assurance; nonetheless, Jesus is only too happy to offer Peter another demonstration of compassion in the face of denial, but it is Peter who can’t handle it. Stepping out of the boat, Peter steps out of his comfort zone and into the real world where he, like us, quickly loses sight of the compassion offered him and founders in fear. Yet even in the face of fear, Jesus is there with outstretched hand to catch us in the midst of turbulent times to steady us and remind us that as his disciples he is always present to us so that in turn we can be fully present as bearers of compassion to others in the midst of the turbulence of fear, violence and hate. This is what you and I are called to do in this nave – in this boat. Week in and week out we are fed here by the presence of Christ and sent out on the water and into the world as faithful witnesses of Christ’s compassion for those who are suffering and to satisfy an abundance of need.

Tomorrow, August 14th, we observe a lesser feast of the Episcopal Church. This feast commemorates the murder 52 years ago of an Episcopal Seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

Jonathan, after hearing a speech given by the Rev. Martin Luther King, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Civil Rights movement. In 1965 Jonathan travelled to Alabama to join the work of SNCC alongside his peers. On August 14, while picketing in Fort Deposit, Alabama, Jonathan and his fellow picketers were arrested and transported to the jail in Hayneville, Alabama. I have visited this old jail in August and experienced the squalid conditions which are terribly hot, and afford no privacy for personal hygiene. They were incarcerated in this miserable jail for six days before they were released.

Upon their release, Jonathan and a small group that included a 17-year old college student named Ruby Sales walked a few blocks to a general store to buy something to drink and eat. As they prepared to enter the store led by Ruby Sales, they were met at the door by a shotgun wielding part-time sheriff’s deputy, who barred their entry and threatened them. Jonathan was killed instantly as he pushed Ruby aside and took the full blast of the shotgun in his chest.

Jonathan was murdered because as a follower of Jesus Christ he chose to confront hate and violence with compassion and nonviolent resistance. He was not alone, throughout the Civil Rights Movement there were many others, too many to enumerate here, who were wounded and killed because they too chose the path of nonviolent resistance to hatred and violent confrontation.

In the intervening 52 years too many of us have forgotten the lessons of the martyrs and saints of the Civil Rights Movement. We are too quick to react to demonstrations of violence and hatred with our own intolerance and vitriol. In doing so we throw fuel on the fire of hatred rather than extinguishing it with the compassion and presence of Christ.

As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to leave this safe place and to take a stand upon the turbulent and fearful waters that roil with hate, extending the life-saving hand of compassion and presence of Christ to those foundering amid waves of hate.

We are called to explore the depths and power of compassion to meet the abundant need of those who are hungry. We are called to see not a bogeyman but to seek the face of Jesus Christ in the other. Where Christ is not, there we are called to stand in the void.

Go in peace into a world that is starving for the compassion and presence of Christ.

This is not done …

Laban said, “This is not done in our country …”[1]

In his explanation for giving Leah to Jacob before he gives Rachel, Laban offers cultural custom as his excuse – it’s just not done. The custom becomes the excuse for not honoring his agreement with Jacob.

Regardless of how we may interpret Laban’s act, at some level, many of us can appreciate the instinct to honor customs. Some of us may be very active in institutions or even families that understand their role as guardians or safe keepers of cherished customs and traditions.

Thus we can probably relate when custom or tradition is invoked in opposition to something new when the new thing is disturbing the way things are. I suspect we can all think of some occasion when we’ve heard custom used as the argument against a new idea. There is certainly no shortage of these disturbances within the Episcopal Church.

In fact one such disturbance occurred forty-three years ago – almost to the day – on July 29th in Philadelphia. Three retired bishops broke with custom and ordained eleven women as priests. There was no precedent for this audacious act. Yet here it was – in our midst – creating both furor and rejoicing throughout the church for years to come.

This act was not a violation of any law but it went against the custom of the time – the ordination of only men as priests. Because it violated no law it was not illegal; however, because it did not conform to custom it was considered “irregular”.

With time the Episcopal Church adapted to this irregularity, first by amending its rules to approve of the ordination of women to the priesthood. But it still took time for the irregular to become regular – that is a part of our custom.

The Episcopal Church has had an entire generation of women priests serve faithfully during that time, and an entire generation of Episcopalians has been raised up that has never known a time when there were not female priests.

Nonetheless, the change of customs takes time. It took another twenty-three years before the Church of England – our cultural cousins – ordained women to the priesthood. It took twenty-six years before Epiphany called Mother Barbara to be its first female priest. And it took forty-three years for the Church of England to finally approve the ordination of women as bishops.

But the matter is still not settled within much of the Anglican Communion where our sisters and brothers in Christ are bound by cultural customs that say “this is not done.” I don’t point this out as a criticism but to observe that we are both constrained by our respective customs, which are different because we live in cultural realities that are vastly different. Therefore, we should respect and honor their faithful discipleship within the constraints of their customs.

However, things do change with time but at different paces and depending upon one’s perspective. Shifts in customs or even in the kingdom of heaven come slowly or with terrifying rapidity depending upon which side of the shift you are on. It can’t be fast enough if you are the firebrand that’s agitating for change, but it’s all too fast if you see your cherished tradition or way of life in the path of change.

As I am saying this, I am struck with a new appreciation of how the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and others must have felt as Jesus began to preach and teach against their customs and practices.

Jesus too seems to appreciate these very same dynamics as he describes the kingdom of heaven in the parables we have heard this morning. The first two parables are shared publicly with a large crowd and they seem to be safe enough so as not to offend. But Jesus is not yet ready to begin his direct confrontation of the customs of the powers that be and their entrenched interests.

In the first parable the kingdom of heaven is compared to the harmless and tiny mustard seed; safe enough but for the improbable outcome – something apparently insignificant becomes something far vaster.

The yeast parable is likewise not shocking on its surface – people understand that yeast leavens bread – no big deal. But the reason that a little yeast is so effective is because it is so pervasive – it spreads throughout – all the dough is affected.

These are seemingly harmless parables, unless one listens closely and realizes the potential of the kingdom of heaven to bring about a shift in customs.

The last three parables are told in private – only to his disciples. These parables are more direct and speak directly to the kingdom of heaven in the context the of disciples’ Jewish heritage and customs. Thus the disciples readily understand them.

But it is the last verse that really invites our attention, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[2]

To paraphrase, Jesus is telling the disciples that they are now experts in Jewish Law as well as being authorities on the kingdom of heaven. As such they are, ironically, now keepers or guardians of the customs of the kingdom of heaven, which will cherish its roots in the old – the Jewish Law or Torah even as it brings about the new – Jesus’ kingdom of heaven.

We are the heirs of this tradition – these customs – and we respect and honor the best of what has been handed down to us but we must also be prepared to test and challenge customs when and where error may be revealed.

As the masters of the household we dare not say, “It’s not done!” Rather we listen, we test the spirit of revelation, and we imagine what it may look like a generation from now.

[1] Genesis 29:26a

[2] Matthew 13:52