Blessed to be a blessing

This is my sermon (more or less, because I preach without notes)  from February 17th, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  You will find the lectionary here.

Today’s Gospel is the “Sermon on the Plain”, one of two accounts of Jesus’ beatitudes.  It is easy to confuse or conflate the two but Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is not Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  There is no “poor in spirit” or “those who hunger for righteousness.”  There is only “you who are poor…you who are hungry now…you who weep now…you who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed.”  And there are the corresponding woes, which are not a part of the story in Matthew. This is quintessential Luke, bringing the Good News to the people in ways that are raw and real, demanding an examination of one’s heart and choices as a prerequisite to discipleship.  In Luke’s version of the story, there can be no doubt what Jesus wants, who Jesus prefers.

Jesus wants disciples who focus on God’s desires, God’s dream.  These are people who choose to follow his example and to do it in real and sacrificial ways. True followers of Jesus modify their dreams and desires, their goals, their very lives, to demonstrate an understanding that the measures of success we humans all too often prioritize will not get us deeper into the heart of God.  The Sermon on the Plain is a good reminder that the Gospel is not intended for our comfort, but for our transformation.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

This is a challenging and often deeply uncomfortable message for those of us who are privileged – and we here are all privileged in one way or another, some of us greatly and multiply so. Luke reminds us that in the Good News there is a preferential option for those who lack privilege.  Failing to recognize our privilege and to see the obstacles faced by others leads to a self-congratulatory confidence that can be our demise.

I thought about that this week when I watched part of an interview with Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia.  In the interview, Gov. Northam was explaining how he has changed and continues to change since his medical school days, when he posed in blackface alongside a friend in a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Gov. Northam seemed contrite and genuinely interested in better understanding why his actions from 35 years ago are so offensive and hurtful today.  One of the things he said is that he did not know, and continues to try to better understand, that his privilege blinded him to the very different experiences of others.  He was talking about those not lucky enough to be born white male, and middle class, with all of the opportunities that combination of accidents of birth provides.  His privilege was and continues to be an obstacle to his ability to see and understand that the trappings of traditional success are unattainable for many and often are the mechanisms by which others are oppressed, kept in a particular place, and not seen and valued for who they are: beloved children of God.

Luke speaks to this quite directly, at least by scriptural standards.  He has Jesus come down and stand on a level place with the apostles, disciples, and all who came to hear him and be healed.  Jesus speaks to the crowd and apostles together, giving all of them the same message about God’s grace, which is unequivocally about the preferential option for the poor, the hungry, the outcast.  Luke reminds us that Jesus seeks out the underdog, those left behind or cast aside.  Furthermore, he says that discipleship is a life-altering proposition.  It is, in the words of theologian John Stott, “inconvenient because it requires a rethinking and reworking of all manner of things.” You must change the way you live in order to have a transformed life.

The Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ commitment to leveling the playing field, so to speak. My former bishop, Doug Fisher, calls this, “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.”  It is Good News, though it is not easy, not without considerable cost for those who are followers of Jesus and called to a particular way of living and seeing the world.  This business of being part of the Jesus Movement and to “walk the way of Love,” of working with God’s Holy Spirit “to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it,” to quote our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, is no easy feat.

To fully experience God’s grace, to know God’s love and feel God’s presence, requires that we look at ourselves and others with God’s eyes, God’s ears, God’s heart.  It means living our lives with an embodied faith, with Jesus as model, as well as guide.  It is aspirational and incarnational.  As we seek deeper understanding and to move further into the heart of God, we act in ways that acknowledge others are beloved and beloved in the way that Jesus would choose them first.  And, as odd as it sounds and as hard as it is to believe, this is not about exclusion, even exclusion of “you who are rich…you who are full now…you who are laughing now…”.  It is radically inclusive. It is about realizing that God has provided all that is needed for everyone – every single person born and living in every single circumstance – to thrive in God’s world.  The blessed are those who know that this is possible only with God’s help, by God’s grace, and who choose to live their lives that way, offering what they have to the good of others.

When I read Luke’s version of the beatitudes, with the corresponding woes, I am comforted, my heart is gladdened, the challenge to my privilege notwithstanding. Luke brings Jesus’ message of blessing and grace to the most basic terms: poverty, hunger, sadness, and loss, all of which are real and prevalent, all of which can be helped if we with privilege and resources choose to live our lives generously and with an openness of heart.  Sharing what we have and paying good attention to the accidents of birth and other circumstances that prevent others from achieving the same, is one of the most important and necessary aspects of Christian discipleship.  Through it we actively live the “love your neighbor” command, all while we grow in faith and experience God’s love and grace in deeper and more meaningful ways.

When I read this Gospel, I can almost hear Jesus saying:

Blessed are you who know you have need, for you can love others.                                  Woe to those abide in your privilege, for you fail to love fully.

Blessed are you who love others well, for you choose to love me.                                        Woe to those who fail to love fully, for you are blind to my grace.

This thing called calling

This is my sermon (more or less because I preach without notes) from February 10th, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  The lectionary for the day is here.

Today’s lectionary is all about calling, that invitation from God to share in the realization of God’s dream for the world.  We start with the calling of Isaiah, one of the most beautiful stories of someone hearing and responding to a call after a significant life experience.  We hear something similar in the Epistle, though perhaps not as directly, with Paul recounting his conversion from persecutors of followers of Jesus to, well, St. Paul.  And this Gospel, the story of Jesus gathering some of his apostles whose calling it will be to “catch” people, is pretty familiar to most of us, I bet.

Some of you, because you served on the vestry and search committee when I was called to be your rector, have heard about my call to ordination.  Because I think it helps to illustrate the message we are hearing today, I offer a couple bits of it here.

I first heard God call me on Good Friday during the veneration of the cross.  “Heard” is a funny word.  It wasn’t an actual voice, more a full body knowing that God wanted me to do what the priest was doing.  The fact that I didn’t really know what the priest was doing because he was speaking in Latin and I didn’t understand Latin didn’t matter at all.  This call came to me in the Roman Catholic Church (I attended that Church with my mother and the Episcopal Church with my father until I was 12.) so the fact that woman were not yet being ordained in the Episcopal Church may have been the least of my problems, a point the nun I first mentioned it to made clear in no uncertain terms.  But I digress…

Fast forward about 40 years.  As part of the formation process in the Episcopal Church, postulants and candidates undergo psychological testing.  In the Diocese of Massachusetts, where I was ordained, this means multiple visits with two different psychologists, a primary who focuses more on conversational assessment and the other a battery of testing.   During the session with the primary guy when he was reviewing with me the results of my testing, there was only one surprise: I tested high on a scale that measures risk tasking.  Me – the girl, now middle-aged woman, who followed the rules and lived a pretty low-risk kind of life – tested high for risk taking!  This made no sense.  Risk takers jump out of planes with balloons on their backs, something I would never, ever, ever do.  Risk takers moved to foreign lands where they knew not another soul and had only perfunctory understanding of the language, something I wish I’d had the courage to do when I was younger.  Or, in my job as a social worker, less healthy risk taking was the reason people became my clients.

The psychologist saw my confusion and immediately knew why.  He said, “Paula, think about what you are doing.  You have entered a process that requires you to make huge changes in your life, giving up a career you are devoted to and have worked hard to establish reputation and success.  Your family has had to make adjustments to accommodate your schooling and everything else you are required to do.  You are leaving the parish you love.  You have no guarantee of a job when you graduate.  Furthermore, you are doing all of this with no way of knowing if, in the end, the bishop will consent to ordain you.  I’d say that’s risk.    And yet you willingly do it. You asked to be allowed to do it. It’s a big risk with the potential for heartbreak.”  His words describe calling to a T.   Calling is about responding to God at work in your heart.

My friend, Sue, used to talk about the difference between “head” faith and “heart” faith.  She was pretty clear that it is the heart faith that changes your life, though certainly using one’s head is not a bad thing.  When I was discerning my call she would remind me that my head could get in the way because what I was doing was not logical.  My life was good.  I was happy.  I had a beautiful family I would do anything for.  I had a job I loved, and friends I enjoyed spending time with.  I had three kids to put through college and a mortgage.  It was crazy to risk all of that with absolutely no way of knowing if all of the seemingly kazillion other people who would need to see in me what I felt God still wanted me to do.  I could, literally, do everything right, follow all the rules, and not be ordained at the end. And yet I could not, at that time in my life, do anything else and be faithful to God.

The good news for the world is that calling is not limited to those who seek ordination, are hanging out with kings and seraphs, are blinded on the road to Damascus, or run into Jesus after a bad night of fishing.  God’s Holy Spirit is working in and through all of us all of the time.  Our job  is to listen for what the Spirit is saying and then respond.  So much of what God is saying to us is not even stuff we need to try to figure out.  The Bible is full of God’s expectations, God’s dreams.  Jesus showed us how to translate those dreams into action: he sought out sinners and outcasts to offer them love and compassion.  Jesus challenged the status quo. He looked beyond what we can see to see who God created.

Jesus loved.  Jesus loved unconditionally.  Jesus loved big. Jesus told us to love big, to love unconditionally.  Jesus told us to open our hearts to be a part of bringing God’s dream for the world to life right now.  And that doesn’t require all of us to change our lives in the ways that being ordained changed mine.  What it does require is that we listen to God and then act in some way on what we hear, in big ways and small.

Imagine what the world would be like if we all responded to God’s call for us to love one another.  What if we looked at the poor and the hungry with our hearts, recognizing beloved children of God?  I can’t say for sure exactly how God would have any one of you respond, but I do know it would not be by saying, “But it’s too expensive to feed and house and give medical care to all those people.”  That’s a human head response, not a Jesus heart response.

What would happen with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters if we looked at them with our hearts?  Imagine what the world would be like, imagine how their lives and ours would be changed, if we got to the point where we dropped the “LGBTQ” and just said “brothers and sisters.”  Imagine if we saw people of color as simply “people.” This is how God sees them.

And all those families separated at the border?  I can’t imagine that we would have literally countless numbers of children lost in a system that doesn’t know who they are, where they are, or how to get them back to their families.   Imagine how this would be different if we saw with our hearts children who have parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, who love them and are grieving for them.  Imagine if we recognized all of them, children and adults, as beloved children of God. I don’t have the answer to the huge problem this is, but I do know we could not possibly continue acting as we have, justifying the horrific toll this is taking on them because we say we lack resources or infrastructure or whatever of the excuses we are using to say this is okay or necessary.

Calling is about listening faithfully.  Calling is about responding meaningfully.  Calling is about being the best you God created you to be.  How is God calling you?