glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

You Shall Not Kill: A Sermon on Guns, the Ten Commandments, and Human Flourishing

Back in the olden days, in the foggy mists of time, when I was growing up and going to church, it always felt like an all-day activity: first Sunday School for an hour, and then church for a second hour. My mom taught Sunday school herself, so we were in our classes while she taught hers. We’d go to coffee hour in between, and then attend the later service for the second hour. I admit that I would have preferred to stay home sometimes—watching cartoons in my pj's—but that was rarely an option.

I was one of those kids that preferred being in the church service itself, over Sunday School classes. Not that I paid attention to the sermons much, but I always appreciated the music and liturgical action. I guess that’s why I do what I do today! One aspect of Sunday School that I really didn’t like was memorization work. We had to memorize lots—the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Usually, our teacher would give us a line from the prayer, creed, or one of the commandments that we were supposed to memorize over the coming week. If we did and could recite the line the following week, we’d get a star or something. We don’t emphasize that so much today. But it was the thing then, 30 or 40 years ago. What I really don’t remember from those Sunday School days, though, is if our teachers ever gave us any context or content for what we were learning. You know, did they ever tell us what the prayers or creeds or commandments mean? If they did, it wasn’t in much detail. Mostly, I think it was just memorizing.

When it comes to the Ten Commandments, some of the themes are rather adult—like adultery. We wouldn’t have understood what that was about when kids learning the lines. Though, interestingly, that’s the Commandment Moses is pointing to in the stained-glass window above the altar. It makes you wonder just what the congregation here was dealing with in the 1950s and 60s. Others hit very close to home at any age—like honoring your Father and Mother—my parents loved to emphasize that one at particular moments. And the last one about coveting what it is your neighbor’s used to strike awfully close to home, too. Still does, sometimes.

Further removed from the real-life experience of most of us—whatever our age—is the one commanding us not to murder or kill, depending on the translation. It’s interesting that it’s even included among the top 10 dos and don’ts. The others deal with more every day temptations and struggles, while thankfully for most of us killing another human is beyond the pale. But it must have been something that people struggled with in ancient days. Indeed, any read through the Bible makes clear that the impulse to kill has infected the human heart from the very start—beginning with the brothers Cain and Abel, sons and Adam and Eve; down to Moses—who himself killed an Egyptian; to the tenants in this morning’s gospel parable, reflecting the crucifixion of Jesus himself.

Something in the human heart and soul, some seeds of violence and hatred are so deeply planted and deeply rooted, that God felt the need to inscribe on tablets of stone, for all to see and know, that this is absolutely not how we are called to live. Murder, killing, like adultery, covetousness, and faithlessness are as far from God’s design for human life as anything.

For those of us instilled with the values of faith—whether Christian or Jewish, and doubtless from other traditions as well—this should be obvious. But, of course, it’s not. Increasingly, we seem to live in a society that considers murder and killing ordinary, routine, and even expected, if not exactly okay. Last Sunday’s mass murder, we might even call it a massacre, in Las Vegas, is just the latest example of what has become all too commonplace in the United States over the past years.

Last week it was at a country music festival, last year it was at a gay night club, the year before an African American church in South Carolina during Bible study, and five years ago an elementary school in Connecticut. What’s next? Who’s next? We learned over the past week that the shooter in Las Vegas had also considered a music event in Chicago and even Fenway Park as possible sites for his killing.

Whatever the motivations—whether hatred caused by racism or homophobia, or mental illness that would lead one to target school children and their teachers, or even an indiscriminate hatred of people in general and the perverted thrill of power—it is a manifestation of those seeds of violence, hatred, and division planted in the human heart, and nurtured and watered by a culture, a society, that seeks always to divide people into categories of us vs. them, me vs. you, instead of all of us together.

I’m sure this tendency is found across other nations and societies. Clearly it is, or we wouldn’t find examples of the same actions in scripture, as in this morning’s gospel parable of the tenants in the vineyard killing the owner’s slaves and son. But for some reason, it seems particularly alive and acute here in the United States. Perhaps it’s because the nation was born in the crucible of revolution, with guns drawn and a shot heard around the world. Or perhaps it’s because our early financial system and economy was undergirded by slavery—both in the north and the south—which relied on violence to rip people from their homes, chained them in ships, and then sold them to the highest bidder. Human beings treated like property that you could beat, starve, kill. And perhaps it is because the expansion and flourishing of the nation could only come with the bloody acquisition of land and power at the expense of those native peoples who were here first—pushing them further and further out, starving, killing, and massacring along the way.

Whatever it was or is originally, there is something in our national identity, even still, that seems to idolize violence and even murder. Just consider the fact that inscribed in our American constitution is the right to bear arms. Now, some would argue that the original meaning of that right has been perverted over the years—since in its original context it was focused on the ability of a dispersed populace to organize into a militia, in the event of attack from foreign powers. We don’t need that today, with a proper military and police force and all the rest.

But even if you are of the view that the American right to bear arms is absolute and must be preserved, surely one would have to recognize that the framers of the constitution couldn’t have imagined semi-automatic machine guns that could indiscriminately injure hundreds and kill nearly 60 people in a matter of minutes. After all, the guns they knew were muskets. There is no conceivable reason that an individual should have ready access to such instruments of death and terror. That militaries have and use them are bad enough—also in violation of God’s commandments. But ordinary citizens, people like you and me, with full arsenals in their homes—serving no purpose but the potential murder of fellow citizens, fellow human beings—is to me, beyond comprehension.

I imagine it is beyond comprehension to God as well—the God who spoke through the prophets and came among us in Christ Jesus, to teach us a different way. Indeed, Jesus was himself killed by the powers of evil and death. By the hatred which so infects human hearts. And in his death, Christ showed us the power of love. He showed us the power of life. He showed us that retaliation, armaments, and weapons are not the instruments of human flourishing. The instruments of human flourishing are love and hope and trust. What’s more, in raising Jesus from death, God broke the human cycle of violence and hatred. God showed us, through Jesus, that there is another way, a better way. A way that leads to fullness of life.  

As some of you know, I was very briefly in Minnesota over the past week. It was perhaps my shortest trip there ever—just Thursday to Saturday. So, I didn’t have much time for visiting. I went primarily for the meeting of the National Scandinavia Advisory Board at Gustavus Adolphus College, of which I am a member. I can’t go to all the meetings, but I try for one or two a year. At Friday’s meeting, we were joined by a number of students—some who studied in Sweden last year and reported to us on their experience, and others who are from Sweden, studying in Minnesota for the semester or year.

It was particularly interesting to hear of the experience of the Swedish students. They were impressed by how friendly and welcoming everyone is. They universally felt supported in their studies—despite being unprepared for the amount of weekly homework expected of them. But they also said that some of them were worried about coming to the United States, or in some cases, their families were worried about them coming here. Because there is a perception across the world that the United States is a dangerous place. That people are randomly and routinely shot here. We think of the US as a place of liberty, freedom, and hope—the land of the free—and yet, others from other lands worry that they might even be shot as they step off the airplane upon arrival here.

Thankfully, we know that would be highly unlikely. Even so, many in this country do live in dangerous circumstances. And random acts of hatred and death are all too common—not only on a massive scale as in the horrific events of Las Vegas last week, but also as children are hit and killed by stray bullets on neighborhood streets. Something has to change. For the sake of our nation and its people, something desperately has to change.

In my mind, that change has to come through bipartisan work to change gun laws. I realize there’s no way to get all guns out of the hands of all bad guys. But that sad fact should not stop us from making it harder to access weapons that are built for the sole purpose of killing people, in many cases on a disturbingly massive scale, as we witnessed last week. We have to move out the realm of political bickering and grandstanding, worrying about lobby groups and special interests, and instead worry about human life, and human flourishing. We have to mend the fabric of our national life, moving us away from a culture of death to a culture of life. After all, that’s what the Ten Commandments are all about—moving God’s people away from a culture of death to a culture of life. That’s what Jesus’ life was all about as well.

And the good news is, we can all embrace this work and this calling—whether we are men or women, young or old, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, whatever our background, race, color, sexuality. In fact, we need all our voices, speaking and acting in love, for each other and for our world. Those of us who follow God in Christ have the perfect model, with laws, commandments inscribed not only on stone, but on our hearts. They can guide us to fullness of life.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Reality is a Kaleidoscope: A Sermon on Jonathan Daniels, the Canaanite Woman, and the Struggle Against Racism

It is very good to be here in church, in God’s house, with all of you, after such an intense and emotional week. It has been a week that challenged our very sense of self, when we haven’t known what would come next. We have been called to speak the truth and choose sides as long ago history and hatreds, the racisms of the Civil War, World War II, and Jim Crow, lurking like a specter in the shadows, have been horrifyingly brought back to life, carrying torches, waving swastikas, twisting and turning the world upside down. One life was mowed down in Charlottesville by a 20-year-old Nazi-sympathizer and many, many more in Barcelona by terrorists bent on evil and indiscriminate murder. Perhaps appropriately, given everything else, tomorrow the sun is even going to go dark. We are living, I think, in a kaleidoscope kind of world, our many colors, backgrounds, and beliefs all twisting, turning, and tumbling in confusion and disbelief.

Given all that intensity and uncertainty, where do we, who long for a different kind of world, maybe a rainbow instead of kaleidoscope, turn for inspiration, for guidance, and for hope? Well, for me, two figures stand out—one ancient, and the other more recent. I’ll start with the ancient. We just met her in this morning’s gospel. History doesn’t remember her name unfortunately. In Matthew’s gospel she is simply a “Canaanite woman.” In Mark, she is the Syrophoenician woman. In either case, she is one of my heroes—steely, resolved, and of great faith.

She’s also, unfortunately, not easy to preach about. Because her encounter with Jesus reveals what was, in the First Century, a wide cultural and religious divide between Jewish and Gentile communities and persons. Their encounter reveals the racism and prejudice of their time, just as the last week has revealed the racism and prejudice in our own. And unfortunately, in this case, Jesus and his disciples are on the wrong side—at least at first.  That sounds shocking, when we are used to thinking of Jesus as sinless, the incarnation of God. So, context is probably helpful.

First, let’s look at the location of this encounter—the region of Tyre and Sidon. That was a Gentile area—modern day Lebanon. It seems Jesus and his disciples, seeking some space and rest, leave the area in which they would be known or recognized, and go to predominately Gentile area to get away from it all—a sort of vacation. Only even there they can’t escape recognition. Second, you’ll notice that the woman is called a Canaanite. Canaanites are, of course, the ancient enemies of the Jews. The Book of Joshua in the Old Testament is all about battles between the Israelites and the Canaanites, fighting over the rights to the promised land.

And, now in this encounter, Jesus—the Jewish Messiah (whose name in Hebrew is the same as Joshua, by the way)—meets a Canaanite woman, a modern-day incarnation of Israel’s long-time enemy. That old, ancient conflict is suddenly made manifest again. When you think about it, the story couldn’t possibly be any more racially or religiously charged. Only, the woman, despite her Gentile background, somehow recognizes Jesus for who he is, and for the power he has. Sure, she knows they are supposed to be enemies or at least antagonistic. But she doesn’t care. Because she also knows that he has the power to heal, and her daughter needs that healing desperately. So, she’ll take whatever she can get—even the crumbs that no one else wants.

Only, it seems, Jesus was not so sure. His ministry, at least as he and his disciples first envisioned it, was for Israel. He was their Messiah, not hers. And so, first his disciples and then Jesus himself try to dismiss her—even saying that it isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. In other words, it’s not right to offer his ministry and healing to this foreigner, a Canaanite. It’s helpful, though disturbing, to know that in the First Century Jews often called Gentiles dogs. It was a racial insult, like those we are all too familiar with today, reflecting the fact that Gentiles kept dogs as pets, while their Jewish neighbors did not, because dogs were scavengers and unclean. It’s hard to believe that the Jesus we follow would say such a thing. But, this encounter reflects the state of Jewish-Gentile relationships in the First Century.

After being so insulted, a less self-assured person probably would have left—hurt, demoralized, angry. I would have. But not our hero. She fights back, twisting and turning Jesus’ words like the kaleidoscope, offering a different view on reality and saying confidently: “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” So impressed was Jesus—by her faith, her strength, and her determination, perhaps also her clever wit —that he healed her daughter.

When I was in seminary 20 years ago, I wrote an essay on this passage and I argued that this story must be authentic—reflecting an encounter that Jesus really had with a Gentile woman. Otherwise, why on earth would it have been included in the gospels? It makes Jesus look so bad, at least at first. But, you know upon deeper reflection, there’s something about Jesus that I love in this story, too: his ability to change his mind and have his vision enlarged. And I think that for the early church, struggling with its own identity, with questions of inclusion and diversity, this story may have provided a needed example for Jewish Christians. If Jesus could change his mind, if he could see beyond their society’s in-grained racial and religious boundaries, maybe they could as well. Maybe God’s grace and love are expansive enough to include their Gentile neighbors. And if that’s true, then it turns out that Jesus, as he is here, can be a powerful model for us as we confront our own prejudices and narrow worldviews. So, now today, I am wondering if this passage less reflects Jesus’ actual encounter with a Gentile woman 2000 years ago—though it still may be that—and is also and even more a message for the early church and for us now, twisting and turning the kaleidoscope, trying to see more clearly.

You remember I said that I have two heroes I want to recall today. The second was named Jonathan Daniels. He was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire, about 90 miles from here. By the 1960s, he was a student at the Episcopal Theological School (now the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge), exactly 30 years before me. Jon Daniels is the patron saint of the seminary, and really of the wider Episcopal Church. That’s because he was so moved during a service of evensong in the seminary chapel, hearing the Magnificat, Mary’s song of justice in which she sings of God casting the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, that he felt compelled to go to Selma, Alabama to work for civil rights. And rather than just go for a few days or weeks, as many did in response to Martin Luther King’s calls for witness by white clergy in the north, Daniels and another student named Judith Upham petitioned the seminary for permission to pursue their studies there from a distance while working full-time for integration.

In Selma, Jonathan Daniels lived with an African American family for several months. He participated in demonstrations and vigils, and worked especially to integrate St. Paul’s  Episcopal Church, which wouldn’t permit African Americans. Eventually, in August of 1965, while picketing a whites-only establishment, Daniels and his friends—about 20 of them—were arrested and locked up in a cell for 6 sweltering days, no air conditioning, no showers, there weren’t even toilets.

Upon their release, Daniels and a few friends (a white Roman Catholic priest and four young African American activists) walked about 500 yards to a convenience store to get a Coke. When they got there, a man stood in the doorway holding a shotgun. He shouted at them to get off his property and then he opened fire. He was a deputy sheriff, as it happens. Daniels pushed a 17-year-old African American activist named Ruby Sales to the ground and took the bullet himself. He was hit in the stomach and killed instantly—just 26 years old. The date was August 20, 1965—52 years ago today.

Afterward Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels…. Certainly there are no incidents more beautiful in the annals of church history, and though we are grieved at this time, our grief should give way to a sense of Christian honor and nobility, for this church and the movement gave to the world a true follower of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels….” Isn’t that extraordinary, coming from Dr. King? And today, in our time, we—disciples of Jesus—stand on the shoulders of Jonathan Daniels and the Canaanite woman as we make our witness, and envision a kingdom and world built of love and justice, not hate and exclusion. They help us to see that God’s grace and God’s love are not limited by race or color, by nationality or ethnic background. Indeed, they tell us, that God’s grace and God’s love are open and free for all.

As it happens, that was the message heard around the state, nation, and world yesterday, radiating out from Boston. While a few—maybe 50 or 100— inspired by last week’s Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville gathered on the Boston Common to express a narrow vision of hate and exclusion, as many as 40,000 thousand more marched and witnessed and prayed for love and inclusion. 40,000 people! I was there, too. Though, I decided that the best place for me to make my witness was in our Cathedral facing the Common—offering prayer for justice and peace on the streets outside. It was a powerful experience. The congregation was small at first, but eventually, as events unfolded, people streamed in and there was standing room only. People of every color were there. There were Episcopalians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, all united in prayer and song across our different traditions.

During his sermon Bishop Gates reminded us that the day before, in that very same space, as many as 300 or 400 Muslims gathered for prayer, as they do every Friday afternoon—witnessing to our shared humanity and life of faith, in its different expressions. And the cafĂ© next door, which is owned by the organizers of the Friday Muslim prayers, even provided a free lunch to all who participated in the Eucharist on Saturday during the rally, crossing barriers and boundaries to raise up lives of faith and hope and love. The cathedral’s mission statement is that it strives to be “A House of Prayer for All People.” That is who we are. That is who we are called to be, in this church, too.

Before his murder, Jonathan Daniel wrote a seminary essay titled “The Burning Bush.” Here is an excerpt:

“Reality is a kaleidoscope …. Now you see it; now you don’t. Light, dark, white, black: a way of life blurs, and the focus shifts…. a rhythm ripples in the sun, pounds the steaming, stinking shacks, dances in the blood.… Somewhere, in the midst of the past, a tenor sang of valleys lifted up and hills made low. Death at the heart of life, and life in the midst of death. The tree of life is indeed a Cross….

“This is the stuff of which our life is made. There are moments of great joy and moments of sorrow. Almost imperceptibly, some men grow in grace. Some men don’t.… We have activists who risk their lives to confront a people with the challenge of freedom and a nation with its conscience. We have neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters. We have men who are willing to reflect on the cost and pay it. Perhaps at one time or another we are all of these. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings... Sometimes we confront a posse, sometimes we hold a child.  Sometimes we stand with men who have learned to hate, sometimes we must stand a little apart from them. Our life in Selma is filled with ambiguity, and in that we share with men everywhere. We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this, Selma, Alabama is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.”

And you know what, so does Boston. And so does Wakefield. So does every place we go. Every place that is divided by race, color, religion, sexuality. Every place that is a bramble bush of division, doubt, and fear needs the life and witness of saints—saints like Jonathan Daniels, saints like the Canaanite woman. And, most especially, saints like us. As Jonathan Daniels says, reality is a kaleidoscope, twisting and turning, mixing and jumbling. And it is our job, our calling, with God’s help, inspired and empowered and fed by Christ, to take those individual pieces of the kaleidoscope glass—green and red, blue, purple, orange, and yellow—and from them craft mosaic, or even a rainbow that gives hope of new and abundant life to all.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.    


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Walking on Water: A Sermon on Fear, Racism, and the Hand of Christ

The past several weeks, for me, have been filled with adventure—some planned and some less so. The biggest part of the adventure was my first-ever cruise, a 7-day journey traveling from England to Norway and back. It was wonderful, gliding into the Norwegian fjords at sunrise, standing out on my balcony sailing past snow-covered mountains —that was spectacular. I don’t know that I have ever been anyplace so beautiful in my life.

Now as some of you know, my mom invited herself on this trip, with the argument—persuasive enough, I guess—that she and her husband Jerry had been on several cruises before while Jeffrey and I hadn’t. So, she told us, she would be a good guide. And, in the main, she probably was. But, she also had this tendency, from time to time, to mention the unmentionable, which if you are on a cruise ship would be what? The Titanic. Which, as it happens, launched from the same port that we did. Not a happy coincidence if you ask me! Even at dinner, with other people at the table—since you often have to share, she brought up the Titanic. When the water starts getting choppy, things start swaying a bit... it’s probably not the best topic of conversation.

I understand that once, on a cruise to Alaska with friends, as water was crashing over the sides of the ship and it was kind of lop-sided, so much so that they had to drain the pool because it was spilling water everywhere, she actually said, “I wonder if this is what it was like on the Titanic.” Her friend Morrie, who was more than a little on edge to start with, just about had a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, for us, in July, there were no icebergs between England and the Norwegian fjords. Though, it did get rough as we entered the North Sea on approach to Scandinavia, with white caps on the waves and darkening skies. One night I wondered if the swaying was from the ship or my having drunk too many Manhattans. The feeling was much the same.

It was, perhaps, a lot like the waves and storms experienced by Jesus’ disciples out on the sea in today’s evocative gospel reading. Only they were on a small little boat, easily tossed, while we were more safe on a large ocean-liner. And what’s interesting to notice in this story is how Jesus actually sent the disciples out on the boat by themselves. A better translation might even be that Jesus forced or compelled them to get into the boat. Which kind of makes me wonder if maybe, for a time, he just a needed a little space to himself—a mutual “time out.” In the gospel, this follows directly on the feeding of the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and two fish. After that chaos, maybe Jesus was just done with people for a while, with the crowds, and with even his own friends. So, he sends them far away, out on a boat, while he climbs a mountain to pray. Water and mountains, it’s a lot like the Norwegian fjords, as it happens.

I remember about 11 years ago, teaching confirmation class at another parish, and the young boys, especially, were inquisitive about this story and whether it was all really possible—Jesus walking on water, even Peter walking on water for a time. After all, there’s nothing that excites young boys like the possibility or hope of having super powers. One boy, in particular, said that if he were Jesus he’d be using his superpowers all the time and not for boring things, either, like multiplying bread and fish. I had to explain, unfortunately, that the point of Jesus’ miracles is not so much to do cool things (though that might be a side benefit). Rather, they are there to tell us something about God, about ourselves, and about God’s love and care for us.

So, then, what does this story tell us? Well, first, one rather obvious thing to notice is that the miracle happens on the water, during a storm. In the Bible, in both the Old Testament and here in the New, the sea is a place of mystery, of chaos and danger, even the home of monsters, which God alone has the power to control. In the biblical mindset only God would have the ability to walk on the waves, going ahead of God’s people to bring them to safety—whether those people are the 12 tribes of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, or here today, the 12 disciples rocked by waves.

Second, it’s interesting that Jesus says to the disciples as he walks to them, “Take heart; It is I; do not be afraid.” We often read in the Bible, when something extraordinary happens or is about to happen, that a divine messenger will say “do not be afraid.” As many as 70 times angels and prophets, Jesus and God himself say “do not be afraid.” To Abraham and Hagar, Joseph and Moses, David and Solomon. Also to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds keeping watch in their fields, to the disciples on the Transfiguration mountaintop which we heard about last week, and finally to the bewildered and grieving women at the empty tomb, the greeting is always the same: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is doing something amazing for you and for the world.

Then, perhaps even more significantly Jesus also says, “It is I.” But in the original Greek it is closer to: “Take heart: I AM; have no fear,” using the same words God used in the burning bush to reveal the divine name to Moses so long before, calling himself “I AM.”  As on the Transfiguration mountaintop, here too on the stormy sea Jesus reveals himself to be one with God—one in power, one in identity, one in meaning and purpose—an extension of God in human life. It is the revelation and the reminder that God is not locked up in the heavens above, far away, but alive, among us and even in us. We can reach out our hands to touch him, and he can pull us up when we stumble or sink.

Which, of course, leads us to Peter’s attempt to walk on water himself. There seems to have been something special, if rather impulsive, about our friend Peter. He had these fantastic moments, glimpses of faith, which impress even Jesus. But, alas, they invariably fade and he ends up saying or doing really stupid things, and then sinking into the deep. Of course, Peter’s a lot like us. Like him, sometimes, our faith is clear and strong. But then, there are those other times…. And like Peter, when we doubt, often we too say and do stupid things. We engage in wars, we believe that there’s not enough land, or love, or even enough God to go around. We try to horde everything we can to ourselves, and like Peter, weighed down, we, too, start to sink into the seas and deeps of our own lives.

This weekend’s appalling, racist, white supremacist march in Virginia is, I am convinced, a stark and powerful manifestation and revelation of this very belief, wrong as it is, that there isn’t enough—there isn’t enough wealth, there isn’t enough prosperity, and there isn’t even enough life to go around. And so, as a result, many, many lives are little or no consequence—especially the lives of people who are African American or Mexican American, or Jewish or Muslim American, gay American, or anything that does not fit into a narrow and exclusive definition of “White America,” which they seek to “take back.”

So, what do they do? They take out their torches, their Confederate and Nazi flags, and try to hoard what they can for themselves, chanting “Blood and soil” and “You will not replace us.” They took one life and injured many more, driving a car into the crowd and engaging in fist fights. Sadly, the driver of the vehicle was just 22. Already at that age he was infected with hate. If that isn’t a manifestation of sinking in the muck and mire of human greed, hatred, sin, I don’t know what is. It is painfully clear that our nation and its people are being rocked by waves and storms, much like the disciples out in their boat—all the while looking, desperately, for a savior.

For some, unfortunately, that savior is exclusion, repression, violence, racism, and hatred. That savior carries a torch and wears a swastika, or romantically recalls the “good old days” of “honor and glory,” when some Americans kept others in chains.

Thankfully, for others, the savior we seek is love and understanding. And for those of us here this morning, and in churches across the nation and world, the Savior we seek is love and understanding embodied in Jesus Christ.

As a Christian, as a disciple and follower and friend of Jesus, I simply can’t imagine anything further from his life and teaching than the displays of racism and hatred that have so infected and infested our nation and world. As our Bishop Alan Gates, said: “the hatred behind Saturday's gathering in Charlottesville of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other purveyors of bigotry… is equally un-American and un-Christian.” Waves and storms, sometimes even hurricanes and icebergs, threaten to sink us.  

But, when we have faith—when we reach out and grasp Jesus’ hand, when we grasp God’s hand and when we let go of all that weighs us down, especially jealousies and fears, racism, hatreds, and the vain hope for power and prestige and privilege, especially when they come at the expense of others—well, then, we inevitably find that once again we are able to walk, toward Christ and toward abundant life. We find that we are full of the mighty power of God—not a superpower, like Superman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman—but a real power, a life-giving, world-transforming power rooted and nourished in love.

Amidst all of the politicians I heard yesterday, speaking against racism and hatred, I thought two stood out. One was Utah’s Republican senator Orrin Hatch, who said: "Their tiki torches may be fueled by citronella but their ideas are fueled by hate, and have no place in civil society. We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home." The other was former President Obama, who powerfully shared the words of Nelson Mandela. Mandela knew and experienced the full power of racism, but he—better than almost anyone--also knew that we are not powerless to overcome it. He said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

As it happens, that’s exactly what Jesus, the human embodiment of love and compassion, the human embodiment of God—the great I AM—teaches us as well. He teaches us that in God there is neither Jew nor Greek, as Paul reminds us in our epistle reading this morning. He teaches us that there is no room for hate or exclusion in God’s kingdom. He teaches us that left to our own devices, desires, and narrow interests, we will undoubtedly sink beneath the waves of the world. But with him, through him, in him, we can and will rise.

So, now, today, in the midst of this chaotic, storm-tossed, and ever challenging life, I invite you, in fact I urge you, to reach out and grasp the hand that is seeking to draw you up. Grasp the hand that will keep you afloat, and will fill you, and us all, with the ability to love, and heal, and transform life—whoever we are, where ever we are, whatever our race or background. The events of the past days tell us that our nation and the world need us. They need us to be filled with the transformational, life-giving power of God, now more than ever. 
Do not be afraid. Reach out. Rise. Walk. Live.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Summer Jobs, Independence Day, and Following Christ: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

I had originally intended to preach this morning on our first reading from Genesis, with the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. Last week I preached on Isaac’s older half-brother Ishmael, whom Abraham sacrificed in a way by sending him and his mother Hagar out to try to survive in the wilderness. It seemed like a good pairing, and I haven’t preached on that passage since 2011 (you can find the previous sermon here). But something about today’s gospel reading coming just before the Fourth of July called out to me. Before we get there, though, I want to reflect for a moment on summer, and in particular summer jobs.

When I was in high school, my first job was working at the local Dairy Queen, which seems appropriate to think about on a hot summer day. In Minnesota, Dairy Queens are ubiquitous. Just about every town has one, and where I grew up it was a Dairy Queen Brazier restaurant—like Wendy’s or McDonald's—there were tables to sit at and we served hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and fish, French fries, even soup, in addition to the Blizzards, Dilly Bars, and Peanut Buster Parfaits.

The hours were long, sometimes working until 2:00 a.m. And it was messy—mopping the floors took hours, cleaning up melted soft serve, chocolate sauce, M&Ms and Oreos ground into the floor. I always thought that working for Dairy Queen was harder than other fast food places because you had to know how to make everything—every crazy Blizzard combination, ice cream cakes, buster bars, and all the food. And on hot days, like today, sometimes there would be lines out the door, in addition to 10 to 15 cars in the drive through.

Once, I was working the drive-through—not at the register or the window, but behind the scenes making orders. And I had made an ice cream cone and was rushing to bring it to the window, only the floor was really wet, so I slipped and went down belly first, hydroplaning about 20 feet across the floor. I didn’t drop the cone, but I crushed it and had to get up and start all over again.

I stayed with that job well into college, going back and working those long hours in the summers. But the summer after my junior year I was just tired of it, and wanted to do something a little more “meaningful” than making Blizzards and dilly bars. So, I checked the want ads in the newspaper and was hired by MPIRG—the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.  There are PIRGs all over the country—here it’s called MassPIRG and you often encounter students with clipboards on street corners in Boston and Cambridge wanting to talk about various issues for the public good. In my case, our focus was on environmental justice and renewable clean energy—like solar and wind energy.

Only, we didn’t stand around on busy streets, accosting passers by. Instead, we were driven out to various neighborhoods to knock on doors and discuss energy issues. First in pairs, and then singly. The goal was to secure donations to support MPIRGs research and lobbing efforts. While the hours were better than working at Dairy Queen, we weren’t there until 2:00 a.m., the work itself was tough. Not in the sense of slipping on a mess of melted ice cream and chocolate or having to mop for hours, but finding the inner strength and courage to knock on doors, discuss political issues, and ask for donations.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t do very well. In fact, I think I only lasted in that job for a week and a half, maybe two at the most. I was never even paid. One day the thought of going back just made me sick, so I quit. And, I went back to the Dairy Queen for one more summer.

24 years on, though, I still remember some of my MPIRG door-knocking encounters. For example, I noticed that people tended to be more generous and more interested in less affluent neighborhoods. They presumably had less income or resources to work with, but somehow they seemed to care more. Rich neighborhoods were much tougher.

In one very wealthy neighborhood, I remember knocking on a door and giving my spiel and the woman who answered said that she wasn’t interested in supporting our cause—in fact, as I recall she said that her husband was a vice president for the local nuclear power company, in sharp contradiction with our renewable clean energy mandate. Can you say, “Awkward!”

Even so, she said that she noticed through the window as I knocked on her neighbors’ doors that I was working hard on a hot summer evening, so she offered me a cold can of pop—that’s soda or tonic to most of you. Dr. Pepper it was, I think. In my week or two of door-to-door canvassing, she was the only person to offer me a drink. I’ve never forgotten that kindness and generosity, despite our significant disagreement on energy policy.

Obviously, this encounter comes to mind after hearing Jesus say in today’s gospel: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” That’s because, for Jesus, hospitality was everything. He didn’t much care if you agreed with him on matters of faith and doctrine—in fact he performed miracles for all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs—but he did care about how people were welcomed and treated.

Jesus was a regular dinner guest (he never invited people to his own house for dinner so far as we know), at the homes of people who agreed with him and others who didn’t. So he had first-hand experience of being treated well and poorly. He regularly ate with those who were considered “sinners”—for whatever reason—that didn’t seem to matter to him in the least. What did matter was how God was made known, across differences in belief and lifestyle, in the breaking of the bread, in hospitality, in crossing boundaries and barriers, and then in breaking those borders and barriers down.

As we approach our Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations this week, boundaries, borders, and barriers are much on our minds as well. And also, who and if and how we can or will welcome those who may come to our shores, to say nothing of treating well neighbors already here. It is a time when our nation’s most deeply held and cherished values—values that are reflected in Jesus’ teaching this morning—are increasingly vulnerable, and even under attack in some quarters.

Sexist tweets. A rollback of civil rights protections. Immigration bans. Threats to cut Medicaid. These are the realities we face this Independence Day. For me, they are sobering realities. Challenging realities. Realities very far from what I understand to be the very best of who we are, and who we are called to be—as Americans, as humans, and most definitely for us here in church, as Christians and followers of Jesus.

So what do we do? How do we reclaim our values? How do we bring our nation back to its moral center? How do we follow Christ in this challenging time?

Well, I think we start by actually following Christ. This is not to say that everyone in the nation has to become Christian. Far from it. But, for those of us who are disciples of Jesus, it is time for us to take up our crosses and truly follow him—as he told us to do in last week’s gospel passage—across the boundaries and the borders of the world and of our lives. It is time to offer that cup of cold water to any who come to us, thirsting for life, thirsting for freedom, thirsting for hope. As disciples of Jesus, it is time for us to speak up and speak out against sexism, and against racism, and against xenophobia. It is time to challenge narrow world views—not only with arguments, but with love and with life. It is time to recognize that our own best interests—as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation—will only be realized when our neighbors’ best interests are realized as well.

These were the rules of Jesus’ life. And as his disciples, as his friends, they are meant to be the rules of our lives as well. Now, I know that we may think that sure, we can do this hard work, we can speak out against sexism and racism, but what difference will it make in Washington or New York or wherever decisions are made? Well, that’s where our Christian faith comes in as well. Because through that faith we know that the movement we are part of began with just 12 disciples, and as one commentary I read for today reflected “even our smallest acts of kindness and generosity reverberate with cosmic significance,” like that Dr. Pepper offered me so long ago. It broke down a barrier and helped humanity to flourish. If we can do the same, our lives will be richer, and our nation—built on the hopes and dreams of people of every color, religion, language and background—will be all the more whole.

Last week I was in New York City for a couple days. On that trip I spent a lot of time in cabs, talking with drivers who came to this country from all over the world, making a home here and in that city which includes the whole world. For me, the archetypal image of New York, and really of the United States, is the Statue of Liberty. At her base is printed the famous poem—“The New Colossus”—by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus. It seems appropriate to hear it again at this moment as we ready ourselves for our Fourth of July celebrations and reflect on what it means to be American in this land of freedom, liberty, promise, and hope:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Jesus said: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The call is much the same. The time is now. The moment and opportunity are ours.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Monday, June 5, 2017

Where is God? A Sermon for Pentecost

As we gather to celebrate Pentecost today, I find myself asking lots of questions: the most important of which is probably, “What is God up to in this crazy, messed up, broken world of ours?” What is God the Holy Spirit up to, with so much pain and division, discord, disagreement and even hatred among people, among God’s beloved, cherished, holy people? You may well be asking these same questions, too. What is God up to? Because it certainly doesn’t make sense.

Yesterday’s horrific news from London—a van running into a crowd of people at 50 miles per hour, and then people stabbed on London Bridge and elsewhere in the city—only reinforces how profoundly broken and discordant human life is today. And, of course, that’s just the latest example. There are many places that are far, far worse, in which regular violence is an expected reality of life. Where is God today, in this mess? That’s what I am wondering. That’s what I want to know. And, I think, that’s what the world wants and needs to know. Where is God when we need him, where is God when we need her?

Sometimes, especially lately, it seems that all we hear is a cacophony of voices and languages, much like that first Pentecost day. Only in that case, we read that although the languages spoken were many and varied, they miraculously could be understood. Today, unfortunately, understanding is a lot harder to come by. Perhaps that’s because we prefer to listen only the voices in our own heads—or the voices on our favorite cable news station—and so we don’t hear, and we certainly don’t understand voices and languages that differ from ours.

But even that can’t be the whole answer. It can’t explain why life is treated so expendably. It can’t explain why hatred is so rife, or what God is doing to transform the world from this mess into something that more closely resembles the Kingdom of Peace and Justice, the Kingdom of wholeness and abundant life that Jesus envisioned and taught us about.

Thankfully, despite all the discord and confusion, our scripture readings for today can probably help, if we consider them carefully. First, let’s recall the powerful reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In it we heard: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit ....”

Like the rush of a violent wind. Not hesitantly or wimpy. But forcefully. Revealing the power of the God. You may know that although we focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit especially at Pentecost, we find references to the Spirit throughout scripture–in both the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, while in the church we have often used a gender neutral pronoun (it) or male pronouns (he, him), for the Holy Spirit, in the Old Testament and in the Hebrew Tradition, the Spirit is called Sophia, and referred to using feminine pronouns—she and her.

This is the same Spirit who enlivens and inspires the prophets, speaking through them to call God’s people to work for justice and peace. This is the Spirit who descends on Jesus in his baptism and drives him into the wilderness. And, of course, the Spirit blows in on the disciples at Pentecost. In fact, the Spirit doesn’t just blow in on them. The Spirit fills them, scripture tells us.

The second source for encouragement and understanding in our complex world situation is the gospel reading from John. In terms of the timeline, this gospel passage comes earlier. It actually takes place on Easter day. But we are hearing it again for its description of Jesus sharing the Spirit with his friends. What’s especially interesting is that these friends of Jesus are doing what a lot of us would like to do when our hearts and souls are filled with fear. They are in a locked room. They are trying to stay safe in a society that to them feels increasingly dangerous.

In their case, so long ago, they were worried that they might be arrested and crucified like Jesus. In our case, we might want to lock ourselves in out of fear of terrorism and violence. We may convince ourselves that it isn’t safe to go outside, to walk city streets, to take trips to London, Paris, Munich, or Stockholm. We may even start to believe that we can’t trust the people around us. Like the disciples, fear often grips us as well.

I remember after both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing I was uneasy about going out. On 9/11, I was working in Boston for Episcopal City Mission at the diocesan offices and I worried about riding the subway home from work downtown to Jamaica Plain, especially since two of the planes came from here. Once I was home, I didn’t want to leave the house again. I felt the same following the Marathon Bombing. Not the day of the attack so much, but the Thursday evening and Friday after, when the brothers reappeared in Watertown and the younger was at large.

Do you remember that bizarre day, when large swaths of the of Boston area were in lockdown? Quincy wasn’t, so we were able to go out for lunch and a walk, but I was nervous doing so. It was eerily quiet, with just the sound of sirens ringing through the air. Tanks rolled through city streets and SWAT teams knocked on doors in Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, until the younger brother was found in a man’s boat. Thinking of it again, 4 years later, makes me a little uneasy. I just wanted to be home, with the door locked. I have no doubt that today people all over the world feel much the same.

But scripture tells us that it is precisely into those same locked rooms, and into our own locked and fearful hearts, that the Holy Spirit breaks in, breathing life and fire, power, strength, and courage into human souls. What’s more, and this is the truly challenging part, we read that from their locked rooms and from their locked hearts the disciples, the friends of Jesus, were in fact sent out. Do you notice how Jesus says, “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

They receive the Holy Spirit and then they are sent out, maybe even driven out, much like Jesus was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness following his baptism, to confront demons and temptations, and to contend with fear, uncertainty and a world of pain and loss. On Pentecost the disciples were sent out into wildernesses as well. They were sent out to be the Body of Christ, to be Christ’s presence, to be God’s presence—God’s living, breathing, loving presence—in a wilderness world that desperately needed them.

And, by now, you’ve figured out where I am going with this. We—who have likewise been filled with the Holy Spirit—are being sent out as well. God’s Spirit empowers us to unlock our doors—whether to our homes, our church, or our hearts—so that we can let God in, and so that we can go out, like the first disciples, to be the Body of Christ, to be Christ’s presence, to be God’s living, breathing, and loving presence, in a wilderness world that desperately needs us.

To return to my opening question, where is God in this crazy, messed up, broken world? God is right here. Right here with us, and in us. Alive in us. Propelling us forward, to confront evil. Propelling us onward, to transform cold and hardened hearts. God is right here, burning in us, giving us the power to heal and hope, to love and make whole.

On Pentecost, God’s power becomes our power. On Pentecost God’s life becomes our life. And on Pentecost God’s love becomes our love. It’s not the end of an ancient story, typing up the loose ends of Jesus’ life long ago. Rather, it is the beginning of an ever new story, and ever new reality—inspired by the life of Christ, in fact continuing his life, in new ways and in new places. Pentecost is the story and reality of God’s presence in and with and for the world now and today. It is nothing less than God’s Spirit, alive in us, that gives us the power and strength and courage we need to take on this messed up, broken, painful reality that we know, and transform it into something better, something whole, something alive. Because if we don’t do it, who will?

Where is God? God is right here. Can you feel him? Can you feel her? Alive in you, burning in your heart, taking hold of your soul? “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit ....”

To God be the glory: Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD