Is Not This the Fast That I Choose?

Joel 2:1-2,12-17/Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21; Psalm 103:8-14

Well, it’s Ash Wednesday. And we can’t be in the church. We couldn’t even get together for pancakes yesterday. That’s upsetting. It’s something we look forward to every year.

But hey, at least it’s not COVID this time, right? It’s just run-of-the mill winter weather. A longer spell of winter weather than our area has seen in quite a while. Maybe it’s kind of a metaphor for Lent. Once again, we give things up. We do without. Lent is a season that’s kind of…different. Most of our time in the church year doesn’t have specific personal practices that we are called to take on. But Lent certainly does. Let’s look at the things we do on Ash Wednesday and during Lent.

First, we fast. Well, I don’t fast. I’m diabetic and fasting is not a really good idea for diabetics. Our bodies generally don’t regulate glucose well enough to get away with it. But I might abstain from rich food and keep my diet very simple.

Another thing we do is give things up. I’ve given up various things for Lent at various times. I’ve given up beer. I’ve given up chocolate – not sure I’ll ever do that again.

I think one of the most important things we do on Ash Wednesday is take a good long look at the fact that we are mortal. We will die. When ashes are imposed on our foreheads we are told, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s some pretty heavy stuff. It’s actually one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church. We don’t shy away from death. We look it square in the face.

But I was reading today’s Gospel and the thought suddenly struck me. Today, many Christians – including many Episcopalians – will do something that Jesus told us specifically not to do.

Today, many people will have gone to an early service and had their ashes imposed. Then they will wear their ashes all day. When I was a young Southern Baptist I worked as a counterman for McDonald’s for a couple of years. I usually worked evenings, and one Wednesday a year, I would see people coming in with a smudge on their forehead. After fasting all day, people would go to Ash Wednesday service, have their heads marked with ashes, then break their fast by stopping for some fast food. In the Southern Baptist church, we didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent, so I was totally confused by this.

And people wore their ashes proudly. I’ve done it myself – got my ashes and then gone out into public.

But we really shouldn’t do that. It’s something Jesus warned about – taking your personal piety public. From today’s Gospel:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

And later:

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Fasting was a common practice throughout the history of Israel. It was done to show repentance. People would put on rough cloth as clothing and pour ashes on their heads. But it often became a show for others. “See how pious and repentant I am?”

The reading from the prophet Joel echoes the gospel reading: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

You see, people had missed the whole point. Repentance is not to be a show. It’s meant to be an inward change.

To paraphrase Jesus, personal piety is a good thing as long you keep it personal. When we practice our piety as a show for others, we receive no spiritual benefit.

And I have nothing against giving something up for Lent, but think that doing that is often kind of like making New Year’s resolutions. It seems like a good idea at the time, but it doesn’t tend to make any lasting difference in most of our lives. Either we fail to keep it up, and then feel guilty, or we manage to get through Lent but then go right back to whatever we gave up as soon the Feast of the Resurrection comes around. No lasting difference. Honestly, how often do you hear someone say, “Giving up cheese for Lent really changed my spiritual life!”?

Lent isn’t about giving things up. It’s about spiritual growth. The goal of Lent is not to tear ourselves apart. It is to build ourselves up.

So how do we celebrate Lent? What can we do to discipline ourselves spiritually so that we are ready to celebrate the resurrection of the Son of God?

Here’s a weird idea: Rather than picking something to give up during Lent, something that God doesn’t actually seem to object to, maybe we could practice doing the things God wants us to do. Something that will actually help us to grow spiritually.

The book of the prophet Isaiah contains my absolute favorite reading from any of the Prophets. It’s an alternate Old Testament reading today and gives us a clue to what really makes a holy Lent. In chapter 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Here is something we can do to make our Lent truly holy. Instead of fasting by not eating or by giving up something we love, we can fast from injustice. We can fast from selfishness. We can fast from being hard hearted.

Perhaps, every day during Lent, we can consciously look for opportunities to work toward justice. To help the oppressed. To clothe the naked. To shelter the homeless. To feed the hungry. Something that will not only benefit others but through which we can improve our own spiritual lives.

Perhaps we can challenge ourselves, rededicate ourselves to be what the Prophet was calling Israel to be. A center of God’s love and justice. A light to the nations. This is how Holy Cross can be God’s church here in Southeast Missouri. We can be a beacon, showing God’s light to everyone.

Here’s how Isaiah continues:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Can you imagine that? Can you see it?

Even our gloom could be as bright as the noonday. That’s quite a vision. Quite a promise.

And God always keeps His promises.


Telling the Truth

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

I believe there have been at least three times when all of creation was hushed to observe what was happening here on earth. The first time, of course, we celebrated a couple of weeks ago: the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity taking vulnerable mortal form. We have a big celebration at Christmas.

The third, by my reckoning, was at his death on the Cross, completing the work of the redemption of Creation, which was followed by his vindication in the Resurrection. We celebrate pretty big for Easter, too.

Today we celebrate what I believe was the second time all creation hushed: Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan River.  We don’t seem make as much of this celebration as we do of others, but it’s a pretty important event. In the Old Testament reading for today older translations say that “the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” In today’s Gospel, that same Spirit – the Spirit that was present at the Creation of the universe — descends on Jesus like a dove. Add in the voice of the Father and we have the entire Trinity represented at this event. That’s pretty major. So why don’t we spend more time on it?

My personal theory is that we’re always just a little bit tired by this time. We’ve had a whirl of events starting in Advent, followed by Christmas then the Wise Men arriving on Epiphany. We’re burned out. A simple baptism seems somehow…anticlimactic.

But this particular baptism is anything BUT anticlimactic. The baptism of Jesus, the redeemer of all Creation, could hardly be more important.

But Jesus having to be baptized seems so silly. John baptized for repentance of sins right? What did Jesus have to repent of? 

There are a lot of theological ideas about why Jesus wanted to be baptized – that he was setting an example for us, for instance. I think there are three reasons.

First, Jesus was standing with us. No, he didn’t need to repent and be forgiven of sins, but he knew that WE do. In accepting baptism from John, he showed that he understood OUR need for repentance. It wasn’t an example so much as a sign that he was jumping into human life right alongside us. He showed that he would continue to live as one of us, sharing everything about being human. That he would experience everything we do.

Second, Jesus’ baptism pre-figures his death and resurrection, just as our own baptisms pre-figure our own death and resurrection. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul said “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In baptism, we essentially die to a worldly way of life and take up the way of the kingdom of God. 

Third, Jesus was exemplifying God’s new Creation – the work that he had come to do. The Jordan had special significance for the people of Israel. At the end of their exile in the wilderness Joshua led them across the Jordan River, as an end to their wandering. Jesus knew this, as did John. I’m sure John’s baptizing people in that particular body of water was significant. Both John and Jesus were signaling a return from exile, a return that many were still waiting for. You see, the Persians had allowed the Jews to return from their exile in Babylon, but many felt that they were still in exile, because they were still living under the thumb of a foreign power. They were still waiting for God to fulfil his promise – his Covenant. For many, that fulfillment of the promise would involve a new creation. God would set everything to rights. Exile would be ended. Jesus was signaling the beginning of that end, and the beginning of something new.

It’s natural for us to look at Jesus’ baptism – joining in solidarity with our need for repentance and forgiveness, inaugurating his ministry here on earth, and prefiguring his death and resurrection, and wonder what it means for OUR baptism. What does it mean to know that Jesus stands with us, that we died and were given a new life, and that Christ brought us new Creation?

Now, if I had written this sermon a week ago, I would probably be going a totally different direction at this point. But stuff happens. It’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room – the events that unfolded in Washington D.C. on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. I imagine a lot of preachers are desperately trying to find something to say, to find some positive message to give 

A mob broke into the Capitol while the Senate and the House were working to certify the electoral vote count. A perfectly normal process that happens automatically every four years. But this time an armed mob broke in with the intent of overturning the results that had been duly and legally certified by their respective states. The mob vandalized the capital. Some among them had previously stated the intention of doing harm to elected officials.

In watching the news coverage, I was horrified to see that some people in the mob carried signs or flags that made the claim that they were followers of Jesus. Seeing those signs on the news, the question occurred to me “Is it any wonder people see Christians as hypocrites?”

I am not going to approach this from a political perspective. But let me be crystal clear. This was not the work of Christ. It was in no sense the work of the kingdom of God, no matter what anyone claims. 

You see, there are consequences to following Christ and for claiming his name. 

Claiming Christ means we claim the things he did. It means that every decision we make must be made in the context of our faith. Regardless of what we want, what our politics are, we must act as if we are already living in the kingdom of God, because we are.

We must live our lives – every part of our lives – as if Jesus is walking beside us. Because he is.

We must live our lives as if we have died to the way the world does things and have been reborn into the way GOD does things. Because we have.

We must live our lives as if we are part of, as if we are participants in, God’s new creation, in which he sets everything to rights. Because we are.

Anyone who claims the name of Jesus and does not do their best to show God’s image to the world, or who uses Jesus as a pretext for violence is, to put it bluntly, lying. As Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”

When we bind ourselves to Christ, we take upon ourselves humankind’s original vocation as bearers of God’s image in the world. We cannot, we must not lie to the world.

We must bear God’s image as seen in Christ, who walks with us. 

We must bear God’s image as seen in Christ, who died and rose again. 

We must bear God’s image as seen in Christ, who began the new Creation. 

If we do these things, we will be telling the truth. We will show to the world that Jesus’s death was not the end, that just as he came up out of the water at his baptism, he came up out of the grave. That he still walks with us and helps us to continue his work. That he offers new life and new Creation.

People will see God in us. 


This Changes Everything

Delivered December 27, 2020 on Zoom Morning Prayer, Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Poplar Bluff, MO

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147

Well, it’s over. We’ve sung Christmas carols.  We’ve opened all the presents. We’ve eaten ourselves into a stupor, basically repeating what we did on Thanksgiving Day, although possibly with a different menu. Many of us have taken down the tree and all of our decorations by now. We’re back to normal.

But wait just a minute. If we were in the church this morning, all the decorations would still be up. We wouldn’t notice anything had changed. We’d still be singing Christmas carols. We’re still saying “Yo us a child is born” in the liturgy. What’s the deal? Isn’t Christmas over with?

Not exactly.

It’s true that Christmas Day is over with, but in the Anglican Communion and among our brothers and sisters in other liturgical churches, Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. That’s 12 whole days of celebrating Christmas. Remember the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Christmas Day is only the FIRST day of Christmas.

Why would we do this? We spent all that time in building up to Christmas Day, putting up with the stress. Shopping, cooking, wrapping presents. We’re exhausted. We’re ready for it to be over with.  Why do we need to celebrate for almost two whole weeks?

Could it be, perhaps, that there’s something more to Christmas than we’ve thought about so far? On Christmas Eve we celebrated the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, we sat with Joseph and Mary, sang to the child in the manger, and with the shepherds we gazed in wonder at the angels singing in the sky. What else is there?

Let’s take a look at today’s Gospel reading, the one we always read on the first Sunday after Christmas. This year it’s even more appropriate, because today, December 27, happens to be the feast of St. John the Evangelist. In the first chapter of his Gospel, he wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

Where Luke, whose gospel we read on Thursday night and Friday morning, focuses on a baby born in a stable, John goes back just a little bit further than Bethlehem to begin his story. He goes back to the beginning of time. He goes back and begins with the same words as the Old Testament book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible: “In the beginning.” I’m positive he did this on purpose; it wasn’t an accident. By echoing the very first verse of the Torah, John is making a point. “Go back to the beginning,” he says, “Back before anything was created.  You know who was there? Yes, Jesus the Christ was there.”

He continued: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

Jesus was not only there, but he was a principal actor in creation. So, where Luke’s story is earth-bound, John’s viewpoint is cosmic.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” This cosmic being, this Son of God, took on humanity and lived as one of us.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God had told the people of Israel that he was going to do “a new thing.” A new thing.  Something exciting, something wonderful, something nobody would expect. Our Old Testament reading today says, speaking of Israel, “The nations shall see your vindication…”. Isaiah may not have been able to see what that meant, but for Paul and other New Testament writers, the coming of Jesus was no less than the vindication of Israel, the culmination of the long story of redemption that began with the Creation.

And here it is. The new thing: God’s son, who was present before the beginning of time and who made everything, confined himself to a human body and came to live with us. Not just to pay us a visit. To live with us. The Greek that is usually translated “lived among us” literally means “pitched his tent among us.” He came to set up housekeeping. To be born. To grow up as a child. To go through puberty. To become a man. To laugh. To weep. To die. To share everything about what it means to be human.

Many mythological figures had been said to mix with humans before. The Greek gods apparently did it all the time, but they never left anything behind to do it. They always kept all their godly powers even when they appeared as human. They never sacrificed anything. They never “pitched their tent” among us.

Christ, on the other hand, came to us as a tiny baby who would have died if humans had not taken care of him. Ponder that for a second.

This is important. Christ’s birth to a young girl in a tiny little village in Palestine changed everything. Christ came down at Christmas, and nothing would ever be the same again. God was no longer a powerful being that held himself at a distance. Now he was with us. He was one of us.

And this is the best reason I know to continue to celebrate Christmas even though Christmas Day is past. There’s just too much. The Incarnation of the Son of God is too immense an event to fit into a single day. We need more time to take in both sides of the story, the earth-bound and the heavenly. Not just the humble birth, but also the cosmic significance of that birth.

“The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” Christ became one of us. God did a new thing, and everything changed.

So what do we do? How do we respond to a love that would give up so much, give up everything to show us that he understands our lives?

What have we given up?

Have we given up our prejudices, our most precious preconceived notions? Have we given up our tendency to decide who is worthy of love? Have we given up our complacency? Our cynicism? Our bigotry? Have we given up our time? Our treasure?

Have we given up anything?

Have we changed…anything?

To respond to God’s love, we have to admit that for God to change everything by becoming a man means that each of us is changed. God doing a “new thing” means that WE are changed into something new, something we may not be entirely comfortable with, at least to start. But that change is necessary if we are to carry God’s immense love into the world. We simply can’t do that if we’re carrying a bunch of baggage.

In his birth, Christ put aside his divinity to change everything. As St. Paul tells us in an exquisite bit of poetry, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” We don’t have to put aside anything nearly as big. We don’t have to put aside anything even close to godhood. Just our fears, our hates, our prejudices, our idolatries, our selfishness.

But that would still change everything.                


Bubble Up

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

“Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!”

This is one of my favorite Internet memes. The text is accompanied by a picture of a guy who is…not well-groomed, to say the least. I like it because it reminds us that John was not a clean-cut, well-washed prophet. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes made of camel hair (try that sometime). He ate weird food.

And he insulted people.

John was a prophet of the old school, one who “spoke truth to power.” The Hebrew word for prophet is navi’. It has the same root as a verb that means to “bubble up,” like a spring bubbles up out of the ground. The implication is that the word of God filled these people – both men and women – so strongly that they just couldn’t keep from speaking out. A prophet’s main job wasn’t to predict the future, although they sometimes did. A prophet’s job was to bring God’s word to the people.

I can guarantee you we would not have taken a shine to John. We generally don’t like people who are weird and rude. And throughout the history of Israel people often hated the messages that the prophets brought – especially the wealthy and the mighty. In Advent, last Sunday and this Sunday, we hear a good bit about John.

Today’s Gospel reading is from the latter part of the first chapter of John’s gospel. Incidentally, John the Baptist and the gospel writer are not the same guy. This is the chapter that begins “In the beginning was the Word.” The chapter makes clear that Jesus is the Word of God. The part we read today says that John was sent from God. One section we read today says that John “wasn’t the light but came to testify to the light.” The last part of today’s reading is John saying essentially the same thing, in his own words.

John was not the Messiah, and said so himself. John came to testify to the coming of the Messiah, the one of whom he said “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal”. We tag the gospel writer as “John the Evangelist,” but John the Baptist was a pretty good evangelist in his own right. He came to bring good news, the news of the coming of the Christ. John knew what was coming. He knew who was coming. And he just couldn’t keep it to himself. He had to tell people.

The spring 2021 – and final — semester of my Dominican novitiate will be all about evangelism. Now, I come from a particular religious background. I was raised Southern Baptist, where every Thursday night is specifically set aside for “Visitation”, basically going around to people’s homes and witnessing, which (in my case, at least) often made both them and me uncomfortable. I freely admit that I have certain…baggage about evangelism. I have things that I need to unlearn. I was brought up to think of evangelism as an “in your face” activity. You need to confront people and get them saved! Even the WORD “evangelism” tends to bring up unpleasant memories. So, understandably, I was feeling very uneasy about this semester. Which may seem weird for someone who is moving into a vocational ministry that is focused on preaching.

But then I began reading one of the assigned texts: Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically, by Mark Teasdale.  Teasdale says we have evangelism all wrong. It’s not about any of those things I was taught to do as a teenager. Doing evangelism can vary from person to person. And figuring how you should do it takes a bit of work.

A major point that Teasdale makes is that, before we can begin the work of evangelism, we have to know what we believe. What is the Good News that we carry? Only when we figure this out can we know how we can carry this Good News to the world.

John knew exactly what the Good News was that he was bringing, and he knew how to bring it to the 1st-century Jews.  We, as the Church, should be just as confident as John that we do indeed know this Good News. But at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to become smug. Too often we want to hoard the Good News and set ourselves up as good examples for the world, without really sharing that gift. I mean, aren’t we great? We have the Good News! You can’t have it, but we’ve got it!

John would not have hesitated to call us out.

The Messiah, the Christ, is coming. He is coming to redeem the whole world, to complete the task that began with his crucifixion and resurrection. We should be so filled with that Good News that we just can’t hold it in. It should bubble up out of us. We should be so filled with that gift that we cannot resist sharing it with others.

We lit the pink candle on the Advent wreath today, the candle of Joy. Are we ready to share this gift, this joy, this Good News? Are we ready to join with John as witnesses to the light? Are we ready to let this Good News bubble up out of us? Or will we keep it to ourselves?

I pray we make the right choice.

Let us pray:

Lord, when you look upon the landscape of your creation and the witness of the Word of God within it, we ask that we be found distributing the gift of joy we have received rather than hoarding it in selfish egoism. Deliver us from ever thinking that what you give is ours alone. Christ for the world – let this be our motto. Amen!

(Prayer adapted from one found in “An Advent Alphabet: Daily Readings from William Stringfellow,” by Jeffrey. A. Mackey)

No “Yeah, buts”

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

“Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

When I was kid, my Dad had a saying that he would sometimes use – rather abruptly, I thought – to end arguments, usually when he had already said “no” to something we kids wanted and we were coming up with reasons why he should say “yes.” It was a very short phrase: “No ‘yeah buts’.” I don’t remember the exact genesis of that, but I’m sure it grew out of the fact that my brother and sisters and I would inevitably use the phrase “Yeah, but…” to introduce our disagreement, looking for a loophole in what we had been told.

Today’s Gospel follows immediately from last Sunday’s and continues with Peter asking for…clarification. Like last week, this passage is about dealings between members of the community. We need to approach the two readings as a single conversation.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus set out a communal process that includes naming the sin, repentance, forgiveness, and support of the victim if necessary.

But after being given the process reconciliation should follow between believers, Peter says “Well, how many times do I have to forgive someone who sins against me?”

Considering what has just been said, Peter is saying. “Yeah, but…”. Something we do all the time. It seems we can always come up with a “Yeah, but…”. We want loopholes. Peter is looking for a loophole.

Peter asks “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” After all, seven in Jewish numerology is the number of completion, the perfect number. That should be enough, right?

Jesus answers “No, seventy-seven times.” Some translations make it “Seventy times seven.” Either way, it’s a lot more forgiveness than Peter had counted on. And who is actually going to keep count of a number that high?

Effectively, Jesus is saying “You must forgive every time.”

Then he follows up with a parable.

In the parable, a servant owes his lord some money. The size of the debt that the servant owes his lord is significant, to say the least. Ten thousand talents in the idiom of the time meant something like “the largest amount of money you could ever imagine.” A ridiculously large debt, one that a servant couldn’t possibly accrue over a lifetime. We might think in terms of a debt of billions of dollars. Remember that Jesus’ parables often use ridiculous situations to make a point. As we shall see in a moment, this huge amount is critical to the parable. We should also note that selling a debtor and his family into slavery was forbidden by Torah, but was perfectly legal under Roman law. The disciples would have seen this immediately. The lord in the story is not a “good guy.”

But he does relent when his servant begs for mercy. He not only relents, he forgives the debt! Ridiculous!

So all is well, and good, right? Not quite. The forgiven servant is owed money by one of his fellow servants. It’s much smaller amount, but he can’t pay up either.

A denarius was basically a day’s wages for a common laborer, so 100 denarii might be around 3 month’s wages. Maybe a few thousand dollars today. A pretty small debt compared to 10,000 talents! The comparison in size of debts is ludicrous, and is meant to be. Jesus used this kind of hyperbole a lot – comparing something tiny to something huge. Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. Take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brothers. A camel going through the eye of a needle.

But the forgiven servant refuses to forgive his fellow and has him thrown into prison. And word gets back to the lord, who is NOT pleased. He takes drastic action.

You see, the lord’s forgiveness, while it didn’t have to be earned, did impose some responsibility on the servant.  The servant was forgiven a huge debt. It was his responsibility to forgive a much smaller debt.

In the same way, God’s grace — God’s forgiveness – is free, yes. But free grace doesn’t mean that there is no response necessary from us. Gifts in the Mediterranean world of the time tended to be like that. Even when freely given, they assumed a responsibility on the part of the person receiving the gift. They formed a bond between giver and receiver.

God’s grace forms a bond with us. Yes, grace and forgiveness are freely given, but when we accept, we enter into a covenant with Him — an agreement that we will show the same grace to others that He has shown to us. And there is no loophole. No “Yeah, buts” are allowed. We must forgive.

How often does God forgive us?  Every time.

How often must WE forgive each other? Every time.

What does God forgive? Everything.

What must we forgive? Everything.

Now, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Nor does it mean standing meekly by when the behavior is repeated. Nor does it mean that we can ignore evils done to others. The scriptures are very clear that we must always come down on the side of justice, on the side of the oppressed. If we see an injustice, we are bound to speak out, to work to see that justice is done.

But Peter and Jesus aren’t talking about that kind of situation. They are continuing the conversation from last week, about the sins we commit against each other within the Christian community. Peter says “If another member of the church sins against me…”. And the parable states right out that if we do not forgive others, we leave ourselves ope to judgment.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we just say it’s OK that they did that to us. What forgiveness means is that we will not seek retribution for what someone might have done. We will not seek revenge. We will no longer put any emotional resources into what has happened in the past. We set the other person free from that, and we set ourselves free.

In forgiving, we relinquish any control the incident has over our own lives. Punishment may still happen to the other person, but we don’t seek it. And we don’t take pleasure in it happening. The Germans have word for that: Schadenfreude. It literally means “harm-joy.” It’s a feeling of happiness when something bad happens to someone else – usually someone we don’t like. When we forgive, we give up Schadenfreude.

We set ourselves free from all of that. We will not hold that person to account. EVER.

By extension, the matter no longer has any hold over the community. We forgive for the good of the person we are forgiving, for our own good, and for the good of the church.

How often does God forgive us? Every time.

How often must WE forgive each other? Every time.

What does God forgive? Everything.

What must WE forgive? Everything.

To be a Christian is to forgive, as God forgives us. Forgive everything, every time.

Thomas Merton said

In the end, it comes down to the old story that we are sinners, but that this is our hope because sinners are the ones who attract to themselves the infinite compassion of God. To be a sinner, to want to be pure, to remain in patient expectation of the divine mercy and above all to forgive and love others, as best we can, this is what makes us Christians. 

My Dad might add, “And no ‘yeah buts’.”

Those People

Sometimes the lectionary hands you a gift. This is one of those days. About two years ago, we were in Year B in the 3-year lectionary cycle, when we mostly read the Gospel According to Mark. On September 22, I preached on Mark’s version of the story that we encounter today in Matthew. Occasions like this give you a chance to revisit your thoughts and spend more time contemplating the scripture and what it means. I hope that I have a couple of new insights since then.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.” This area is northwest of Galilee, near along the coast. A woman runs up to Jesus and the disciples and shouts at them, asking for help. The scripture says her daughter is tormented by a demon. I won’t go into whether it’s really a demon or if there is some psychological problem, but in the long run it really doesn’t matter. The daughter needs help, and the mother is desperate.

Matthew describes the woman as a “Canaanite.” Mark calls her a “Syro-Phoenician.” The main point is that she isn’t a Jew. Maybe she was one of those Gentiles known as “God-fearers,” who actively worshiped the God of the Jews but did not take the steps to convert fully to Judaism.

The disciples want to get rid of her, and Jesus seems to go along with them. He tells her, basically, that she’s a dog and he came strictly for the Jews. I’ve seen commentators who say the Greek word that’s translated “dog” here really means “puppy,” This may be true – my Greek isn’t that good. But I’m not sure it makes a difference. I kind of feel that they’re assuming that people at the time felt the same way about puppies that we do, inserting their own cultural bias into the reading. I think it was still an insult. Maybe Jesus was tired and hungry. Maybe his blood sugar was low. He was human, after all. Tyre and Sidon would have been out of his normal territory, so maybe he was hoping for some rest and relaxation. Mark, in fact, says this was the situation. On the other hand, maybe Jesus was trying to shock the woman to get her attention. I don’t know. The scripture doesn’t say.

Whatever the reason for Jesus’ barb, the woman doesn’t miss a beat. She bounces right back.

“Even the dogs get to eat what’s left over from the meal.”

“I may not be a Jew,” she says in essence, “but I still matter.

This woman may not know that she is speaking to the Son of God, but she obviously knows she is speaking to someone with a great deal of power, someone with the power to cast out demons, and yet she throws his slur right back at him, a mother pleading for her child in the face of a powerful man who has dismissed her as not worthy of his attention.

And Jesus…relents.

He tells her that her refusal to be marginalized by his cruel words has saved her daughter. 

The woman refuses to accept Jesus’ apparent dismissal, and her daughter is healed.

Jesus relented. How often do we relent after we dismiss those in need?

I mean, we really don’t like to help “those people.” Oh, we may dress our attitude up in righteousness. Those people don’t need our help, we tell ourselves. Not really. They could help themselves. There are others who need help, too. We’ll go help them first. Strangely, we never seem to help them either.

Even worse, we think “Those people don’t deserve our help.”

You see it’s easy to dehumanize people that aren’t like us. When a Jew referred to a Gentile as a dog, he was in effect saying, “You’re not even human.” And when someone isn’t human, you can treat them like an animal. Civilizations throughout time have done it. There are ancient records of people referring to those outside the pale of their civilization as “beasts.” There is always a group we can call “those people.”

For the Greeks and Romans, it was the “barbarians.”

For Second Temple Jews, it was the Gentiles. And the Samaritans.

Later, for many Gentile Christians, it became the Jews. In the Epistle reading for today Paul is writing specifically to the Gentile Christians in Rome, explaining to them that God has not rejected his chosen people. Paul first proudly claims his own Judaism, then goes on to explain that God doesn’t break covenants. As he says, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

Who is it for us? Who do we consider “those people?”

How often do we react to someone’s need by placing them in a group and judging them all together? How often do we look at a person’s color or religion or social class or politics and use that as a basis to decide whether or not we will help them? How often do we dismiss and marginalize those whose experience is different from ours?

If only they didn’t dress that way.

If only they’d behave the way we think they should.

If only they believed the same things we do.

If only they voted the way we think they should.

If only they were more like us.

Then they would be human.

Then we could help them.

Of course we do it. People have always done it. Sometimes our attitudes are so automatic that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Sometimes we have to honestly, painfully examine our motivations to see that we’ve done it.  I’ve done it. I still do it, though I know I shouldn’t. And when I realize that I’ve treated anyone as less…I’m ashamed. Of course, we don’t like to feel ashamed, so we tend not to examine our motivations too closely, afraid of what we will find.

Even Jesus did it. Whatever his motivation, Jesus told this woman, full of need, that she was less than human. And when that she stood up to him, he rewarded her for it.

If we are being completely honest with ourselves, we all do it. But we can try not to.

In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons?

Not all persons that look like we do.

Not all persons that dress like we do.

Not all people that were born in the same country as we were.

Not all persons in the same political party as we are.

Not all persons that believe the same as we do.

Not all persons that think like we do.

All persons. Period.

Can we seek and serve Christ in all persons? Can we stop making excuses for ourselves? Can we look past the clothes, the color, the religion, the politics…and see the face of Christ? 

Can we?

When we’re asked that question in the Vows, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” Because we can’t do it, not by ourselves. Only with God’s help can we begin to break through our human desire to segregate, to label people not like us as “other”.

Whenever someone is in need, we can help them, no matter how different the are from us, with God’s help.

With God’s help, we can see Christ in everyone, and serve them as we would serve him.


The Bits in the Middle

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

So many parables today. In today’s Gospel we get no fewer than six parables that have to do with the kingdom of heaven, several of them a single sentence. Most of the sermons given today will likely focus on one or two, but I’d like to take a larger view:

“The kingdom of heaven is like…”; “the kingdom of heaven is like…”; “the kingdom of heaven is like…”.

Jesus seems to think it’s important to talk about the kingdom of heaven, which is also referred to elsewhere as the kingdom of God. I’m going to use both terms.

Many people listen to music when they jog or walk. I don’t. Instead, I listen to audiobooks. It’s a convenient way of getting in at least part of the hour a day of study required by the Dominican Rule. My current listen is “How God Became King” by N.T. Wright. In it, Wright addresses what he sees as a deficiency in most modern Christianity – that we have elevated the creeds over the Gospels. He doesn’t downplay the importance of the creeds, far from it. Saying clearly what we believe about the nature of the Trinity is critically important. But when the creeds talk about Jesus, they start with his miraculous conception and birth, and then go straight to his crucifixion and death. They skip right over his life and teachings! They speak of what we say about Jesus, and hardly at all about what he said and taught.

This is not surprising, since the creeds were written at times in the church when the statements they make were being debated. But, Wright says, we have, over the course of time, turned them into a kind of “syllabus,” an outline that says “here’s all the important stuff about Jesus.” And we sometimes ignore what Jesus actually said and did between his birth and his death: as Wright calls them, “the bits in the middle.” The parts where Jesus did the work of God here on earth.

Bishop Wright certainly does not advocate doing away with the creeds in any way. But those “bits in the middle” are hugely important, because what Jesus did during that time was show us and tell us how the kingdom of heaven works. In the words of theologian Karl Barth, “In the man Jesus Christ, God himself has become visible and active on earth. He is the goal of the history of Israel and the starting point of the church. The whole work of God lives and moves in this one person” (Dogmatics in Outline, 39). Wright makes a good point in saying that it is exactly for this reason that he lived as he did – to begin the building of the kingdom of God. Through Jesus, God becomes King.

But we have problems with the kingdom of God, because the way Jesus describes it doesn’t fit in with the way we’ve come to expect things to work. You might think that after 2,000 years Christians, at least, would get used to the idea that God being King would turn all our carefully constructed conceptions of society upside-down. And this idea didn’t start with Jesus. It’s a thread that runs through the Hebrew scriptures. As an example, look at 1 Samuel 2:8, part of the song Hannah sings when she discovers that she is pregnant with the child who will become the prophet Samuel:

He raises the poor from the dust,

He lifts the needy from the ash heap

To make them sit with nobles,

And inherit a seat of honor;

Fast forward to not long after Jesus is conceived. In Luke, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. While there, she sings the Magnificat, a song that is an echo of Hanna’s:

He has shown the strength of his arm,

He has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich He has sent away empty.

That’s a fairly subversive message, and that subversion of the normal order continues in the Gospel today:

A tiny mustard seed grows into a huge bush.

A small amount yeast leavens a ridiculous amount of flour.

A man finds a treasure in a field, covers it back up, then sells everything else and buys the field.

A merchant finds a single gem that is so wonderful he sells everything else and buys it.

Fisherman go fishing and have to sort the good fish from the bad.

Pretty much every one of these has something in it that would leave a first-century Jew standing confused, wondering what was going on. Why would a woman be mixing up a whole bushel of flour? That’s what the “three measures” comes to. It would have made somewhere around 60 pounds of dough! Why didn’t the man who found the treasure tell the owner of the field? That would have been the honest thing to do.

And here’s the thing about the merchant: After he sold everything to buy the pearl, the merchant…suddenly couldn’t be a merchant any more! He would have had no money left and nothing to sell. All he had was the pearl. That’s crazy! I can picture Jesus’ listeners scratching their heads. Who would be insane enough to give up their livelihood for one pearl?

Like the pearl, the kingdom of God is something so wonderful that we have to be willing to literally give up everything else we have in order to gain it. I’m not saying that’s THE meaning of the parable, but it could be a meaning. When we look at these parables, let’s remember that God’s priorities are not our priorities. What they say may seem crazy to us. In establishing His kingdom on earth, God wants to overturn our precious ways of living in the world. He wants us to be ruled by Him instead.

In his book, Bishop Wright uses the term “theocracy” unashamedly, but in its exact meaning. We tend to use the “theocracy” in a political way, to mean “rule by religion,” and we consider it (rightly, in my opinion) a bad thing. But its precise meaning is “rule by God”; rule by God, with no people getting in the way. And that is what we really hope for: Rule by God. When Christ returns and makes all Creation new, we will live under the rule of God – not the religious right, not the religious left, no politics involved, living under no one’s agenda but God’s — the way Creation was originally intended to be. Through Jesus, we already know how to live that way.

God sent His son to teach us what his kingdom is like, and how to live in it, even when the renewal of Creation hasn’t happened yet. But that renewal is coming, and it’s more urgent than ever that we learn from Jesus’ life and teachings – those “bits in the middle” – how the kingdom of God works.

We should be living as if it has already come. We should be living as if God is our King now and every day.



Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Boy, do we need some hope right now. 2020 seems to be the gift that just keeps on giving. The world has had pandemic and natural disasters. Our country has faced both protest and backlash. Our parish has lost our rector. We had to close our doors to worship.  And after all that’s gone before in this almost unbelievable year, just about when we thought we MIGHT be able to finally hold a Eucharistic service, the rug is pulled out and we are closed again. We can have groups up to 10, but only for the purposes of live-streaming services, the food pantry, or administrative work.

This is not what we had hoped.

The Epistle to the Romans is the last of Paul’s authentic letters, and it’s addressed to a Church that he had no direct experience with. It was probably written about 57 or 58 C.E., at which time Paul had been a Christian for somewhere around 25 to 26 years. During all that time, Paul had been expecting Jesus to return at any moment. But he hadn’t, and Paul was beginning to face the fact that Jesus might not return before his own death. Spoiler alert: He didn’t.

This was not what Paul had hoped.

Paul could have given up. He could have said, “Well, I’m picking up my toys and going home. I don’t have time for this anymore.”

But he didn’t. He kept going. And out of the realization that he might have been wrong about WHEN Jesus was coming back comes his message of hope. We can’t see WHEN what we hope for – Jesus’ return and the remaking of all creation – will actually arrive. If we could see it, we wouldn’t NEED hope. That kind of thing is what hope is for. And don’t mistake Paul’s “hope” for “wish.” For Paul, “hope” is a knowledge that something WILL happen. The only question is when.

Like Paul we have hope that things WILL get better. It will happen. But we can’t see it. So, we have to live in hope, and that’s difficult. Sometimes we may believe it’s impossible, throw away hope, and give in to anger and despair. Hope has to be cultivated. It must be tended, fed, and watered to stay alive.

But how do we cultivate the hope that Paul says we have? It’s all well and good to SAY we have hope, but what can we do in our everyday lives to keep that  hope alive and growing? My Dominican brother, Jason Gaboury, dropped a blog post on on July 4 that made writing this sermon a LOT easier. It’s titled “I’m Scared – Cultivating Hope in an Anxious Time,” and he has graciously allowed me to include some of that material here. Jason offers a list of four practices that allow us to LIVE our hope, even as things get worse: Take Sabbath, Hold Jesus’ Words, Pray Daily, and Pursue Justice.

Take Sabbath – Taking Sabbath doesn’t mean going to church. It means rest. We need rest. In the Torah, God COMMANDS the Children of Israel to take a day of rest every week on the Sabbath. Not a day for household chores. A day of REST. Especially in the middle of crises, we don’t function well without rest, as anyone who has had a sleepless night knows. Sabbath is just as necessary for our spiritual health as sleep is for our physical health. How often do WE take Sabbath, just kick back and REST? I know I’m very bad at this, because I like to be busy, and I feel guilty if I’m not. There is just so much to do. But working constantly wears you down. Taking Sabbath helps to give us the mental and spiritual energy to go on.

Hold Jesus’ Words – In Marks’s gospel, the 4th chapter, Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee and Jesus…takes a nap. A storm comes up, and it’s a bad one, so the disciples wake Jesus up. “Do something! Don’t you care that we’re going to sink and drown?” Jesus stops the storm, but then dresses down the disciples with “Why are you afraid? Do you STILL have no faith?”

From Brother Jason: “Like the disciples in the passage above, we default to fear and anxiety when we’re not holding onto the words of Jesus.  Jesus’ words are good news.  They speak of justice and mercy, of forgiveness and holiness, of compassion and wisdom.  Meditating on the words and work of Jesus has the ability to reshape our perspective, increase our hope, and inspire joy.” 

I would extend this to meditating on Paul’s words in the Epistle reading for today:But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” We can’t see yet what’s on the other side of this. This why faith and hope exist. And if the words of Jesus really ARE good news, we should be holding on to them so tightly that NOTHING can pry us loose.

Pray Daily – Sometimes I worry that I may sound like a broken record when I urge you all to get into the habit of daily prayer. It seems like I say it almost every other sermon, but that’s because I believe it is the single most important practice any Christian can cultivate. I think the biggest change in my own outlook came from building the habit of saying the Daily Office, Morning and Evening, every day. It does wonders for your world view.

But maybe the Office doesn’t suit you. That’s OK. There are other ways of praying. The FORM is not the important part. The important part is just that you do it regularly. We don’t have to make up fancy prayers. Maybe you just sit and tell God the things you’re worried about. You don’t have to be GOOD at it, just persistent. And there are plenty of resources out there to help. My Brother Jason says, “If prayer is difficult for you, and it is for many of us, try simply repeating a scripture like, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing! (Matthew 8:25)”. It can be as simple as that.

Praying morning and evening really gives us a frame for our day. It moves our minds away from the world “out there” and refocuses us on God. We begin the day with God, and we end the day with God. Somehow, dealing with the stuff in between seems just a little easier.

Pursue Justice – The first three of these ways to hope are all about us personally. This one is about how we act in the world. If there is one lesson that we should be learning during this pandemic, it’s that we MUST take care of each other.

Fear makes us selfish. We are afraid, so we pull into ourselves. It’s a natural reaction, it’s a way of protecting ourselves. Unfortunately, this often results in us focusing more and more on our fear. We become more and more isolated from those around us.

Jason says, “Pursuing justice turns us outward, forcing us to consider not only our own wellbeing, but the interest and wellbeing of others.” And it doesn’t need to be in big ways, especially not to start. Simply turn your attention outside yourself, to the people in your neighborhood, in your town. What needs to THEY have that are not being met. How are THEY feeling right now? What might justice look like to THEM? Once you begin to care, you may find that your care grows beyond your local area.

We must, like Paul, live in hope. Living in hope means both taking care of ourselves: our bodies and minds, by keeping Sabbath; our spirits, by holding Jesus words and praying daily; and taking care of others, by pursuing justice. Doing these things will help us keep our focus on where it needs to be: on God.

I am going to ask Parker to put a link to Brother Jason’s essay on our website. It is very much worth reading. In the meantime, remember these four things to live in hope:

Take Sabbath

Hold Jesus’ Words

Pray Daily

Pursue Justice

Let us pray.

Almighty God, give us such a vision of your purpose and such an assurance of your love and power, that we may ever hold fast the hope which is in Jesus Christ our Lord who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

Playing the Game

Sermon for Proper 9, Year A, July 5, 2020

Scriptures: Genesis 24:34-38; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

“Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

I need to tell you a secret about preaching: sometimes you don’t preach the sermon you’d LIKE to preach. There will be a lot of sermons today on the last part of the Gospel – you know, the part that ends “…you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That’s a nice scripture. It’s easy. It’s comforting. But sometimes the easy, comforting stuff is not what grabs you. Sometimes you start writing one sermon and end up with something completely different. And that’s part of the burden of preaching. 

So instead, I’m going to talk about the first part of the Gospel. The part that’s a bit less comfortable. The part where Jesus is upbraiding the crowd for wanting him to follow their whims.

Jesus seems to be a bit put out by the way people see him – and the way they saw John the Baptist. Jesus describes the crowd as being children playing a game, each group wanting the other to play by their rules.

John was an ascetic, so he must have had a demon. Jesus is not an ascetic, so he must be a drunkard and glutton. No matter which way Jesus behaved, they could find a way to put him in the wrong. He was, in words of the stock phrase, “damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.”

The thing is, we like our religious figures to be…domesticated. We like them to play by the rules. We like them neat and pretty — certainly not hairy, wearing camel hides, and eating bugs, like John. Or telling us things we don’t want to hear, like Jesus. So we gloss over the parts we don’t like, the parts that make us uncomfortable. We focus on the nice bits, like the last couple of verses of today’s Gospel. And that’s why I think it’s important to talk about this first bit.

See, John and Jesus didn’t play the game.

Now, I will fully admit I don’t like to be made to feel uncomfortable. It might be listening to someone talk about some topic that I really need to pay attention to you — a matter of conscience, a matter of justice, something I really need to listen to. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like people to make me feel uncomfortable. Then I notice that the person saying it isn’t perfect. They have flaws in their characters. Now I have an excuse to discount what they say.

Very often we know we should be listening. We actually want to listen. But those little voices and doubts creep in. “Hey, that guy sounds like a socialist.” “But what about this other thing he said?” “Who does he think he is?” We ignore the message and find fault with the messenger. Sometimes we have to work really hard to find reasons we shouldn’t listen, but we seem to be willing to make the effort. It helps keep things tame and comfortable.

The problem is, there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that should make us uncomfortable, if we’re honest with ourselves. All that stuff about “love your enemies” and such. That makes me uncomfortable because it means I have to actually care about their welfare. And believe me, with some people it is hard. But it’s one of those bits of scripture we just can’t seem to tame.

In C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia”, the great lion Aslan, who is actually Christ in the Land of Narnia, is often described with the words “He’s not a tame lion, you know.”

We need to stop insisting that Jesus be tame, that he’ll “play the game.” Because I’ll let you in on another secret: he isn’t going to, no matter how hard we try. And by trying to tame him, we’re only stunting our own spiritual growth.

We can always find excuses not to do things we don’t want to do, not to listen to ideas that are uncomfortable to us, whether they’re coming from scripture or by someone else. Especially when they’re things we know we should do, things we should pay attention to. The we can take the safe, tame path.

But Jesus is not tame. He’s not safe. And when we follow him – really follow him, we may end up doing quite a few not-so-tame and not-so-safe things ourselves. And that is where the Kingdom of Heaven is. 

What urgings of the Spirit are we ignoring because they don’t seem safe? Because they don’t fit into the rules of the game? Because they’re too wild?

Becoming a Dominican did not seem safe or tame to me, raised as a Southern Baptist. In fact, it felt incredibly wild and scary. I wasn’t totally sure what I was getting myself into. It kind of meant becoming a religious fanatic. I’ve always been a churchgoer, it was how I was raised,  but…structure my entire life around my faith? That’s crazy! It’s not playing the game! At my age I should focus on my career and heading toward retirement, not starting a new life of praying and preaching!

The strange thing is, once you give in to those wild, crazy things the Spirit is prompting you to do, you do get a reward. Once I had made the decision to approach the Dominicans, all the doubts vanished and I felt peace. I have a friend in Montana who used to be a verger. She is now a deacon. When I told her of my final decision to become a Dominican postulant, she said something to the effect of “You feel better now, don’t you?” Evidently something similar happened to her when she made the decision to work toward ordination.

Let’s not play the game. Let’s not be what people expect. Let’s be those “crazy Christians” that Presiding Bishop Curry talks about in his book. Let’s be the ones who listen to what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us. Let’s be the ones who always follow Christ instead of playing the game. Let’s be the ones who speak up for the poor and the oppressed. Let’s be the ones who don’t seem to worry about what the neighbors think.

Let’s not be tame lions.

What Will We Do?

Sermon for Proper 7, Year A, June 21, 2020

Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

This past Friday was Juneteenth.  It’s a day many people outside black communities were unaware of until recently, but there is now a push to make it a national holiday. On June 19, 1865, a Union general in Texas declared all slaves to be free. The Civil War had actually been over since April and the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in states that were “in rebellion,” was 2 years old. People in Texas hadn’t heard that the war was over. Now, by military fiat, all were free.

It’s a reason to celebrate. There have been others. Later on, Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 were certainly leaps forward. All reasons to celebrate.

But as we look back on what was gained they are also…reasons to reflect.

Over the years, we have become complacent.

Our Parish was once a church that took the lead in pushing for racial justice. This church was instrumental in getting the city pool desegregated, playing such a well-known role that someone actually snuck in and put a snake in the pulpit as a warning.

I’ve heard people tell about this and sound rightfully proud of it. But it’s not enough. It was a long time ago.

I can hear God saying ”But what have you done for me lately?”

Losing focus is like that is pretty common. We have some victories, we accomplish a short-term goal or two, and we think the job is done. We rest on our laurels. We get comfortable. Surely the fight is over.

But the fight isn’t over. When I told a black Episcopalian friend my plans for this sermon, she responded, “would you like to know how many times I’ve asked, “…but where is the church?”

Where IS the church?

It’s pretty obvious these days that the job ISN’T done. And we can’t base our reputation – or our opinion of ourselves — on something our church did a half-century ago.

It was explained to me during my postulancy that becoming a Dominican gives one a platform to speak out. Dominicans are, after all, preachers first and foremost. Preaching is our charism, the spiritual gift upon which we center our lives. But more than just a platform, becoming Dominican gives us a responsibility to speak out.

It makes me feel good that a Dominican – Antonio Montesino — preached in 1511 what was likely the first sermon in the New World on social justice, protesting the mistreatment of the indigenous people by Diego Columbus – Christopher’s son – and the Spanish settlers who had engaged in multiple atrocities including enslavement, rape, and murder.

But I can’t rest on what Dominicans did in 1511. Like many of us, I have been silent too long. I have been complacent. I have been complicit. Sure, I’ve celebrated all the advances made during my lifetime. There are many. I was in junior high school in Georgia just as the schools there were being desegregated. But somewhere along the line I stopped recognizing the grave injustices that still occur on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago we all had our nose rubbed in it. A black man was killed because he may have used a counterfeit $20 bill – something that could happen to any of us. It’s hard – no, it’s pretty much impossible to believe that a white man would have died in the same situation.

There was nothing that deserved the death penalty. And yet George Floyd died.

Others have died too. It’s painful to list their names, but I’m going to do it anyway, because we need to look this evil square in the face:

Emmett Till

Eric Garner

Michael Brown

Laquan MacDonald

Tamir Rice

Trayvon Martin

Breonna Taylor

Ahmaud Arberry

Botham Jean

Philando Castiile

Dominique Clayton

George Floyd

It’s painful to read those names, and I’m sure it’s painful to hear them. But this is only a fraction of the names we could list.

So, in the words of my friend, “Where is the Church?”

Are we out working toward justice, demanding justice? Are we taking a stand?

Or are we sitting comfortably at home watching demonstrations and wondering why people don’t behave better, why they can’t just get over it?

Or are we staying home because we’re afraid of what our friends would think?

Speaking out is hard. It’s hard for me. It rarely makes you any friends among those that need to listen. I’m lucky in that my family thinks the same way I do, but it’s not true for everyone:

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

It’s hard to speak out. That sermon preached back in 1511? Let’s just say that the Spanish settlers were not amused.

We are followers of Christ. We are called to something higher. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, “Will we strive for justice and peace and promote the dignity of EVERY human being?”

In Isaiah, in the 58th chapter, we read:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Our brothers and sisters are still under the yoke of injustice. Will OUR light “break forth like the dawn” and “rise in the darkness?” Will we “proclaim it from the housetops?”

What will we do?