glory of god

glory of god

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On Resurrection, Star Wars, and Special Effects: A Sermon for Easter Morning

Those who are regular parishioners at Emmanuel Church, and those who visit us often for big festival days—like Easter and Christmas—know that I am a major Star Wars fan. They know because I talk about it lots. In fact, I think some parishioners even place bets on whether (or how often) I will mention Star Wars in my holiday sermons. I don’t do it every Sunday, just so you know, but holidays somehow bring out my youthful enthusiasm. So, if you made such a bet this year, you definitely won. And since the next movie—The Last Jedi—is coming out at Christmastime this year, you can place your bets early that I won’t be able to restrain myself, and will be talking about it again then. Almost certainly

Well, the reason I mention Star Wars this morning—beyond the fact that an exciting new trailer was released on Friday, along with some behind the scenes photos of the filming, including some of our beloved late Princess Leia—besides all that, is because this morning’s Easter gospel passage from St. Matthew sounds to me like it comes directly out of a George Lucas script, with dramatic special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic: a great earthquake; the appearance of an angel, as bright as lightning; guards shaking and becoming like dead men; and the women looking on in stunned awe and wonder.

It’s a scene that would fit in any contemporary sci fi movie. And yet, as reported in the gospel, it is a story nearly 2,000 years old. So, either the author, Matthew the evangelist, had a spectacular imagination—even without the aid of movie special effects—or he was describing in the only way he could the phenomenal experience at the tomb on Easter morning. Personally, I tend to think it was the latter. It wasn’t just his especially vivid imagination at work here. Resurrection wasn’t something that someone just made up a long time ago and described in dramatic fashion. Rather, instead, it was a new, powerful, and truly earth-shaking kind of reality that many, many friends of Jesus, like the women there at the tomb, experienced as really real, even if the whole story was unbelievable and even preposterous to others.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes as time passes we can get caught up or tripped up in the fantastic language and imagery of spectacle, and we wonder if it could possibly be true—in the same way that we easily dismiss a science fiction movie as thrilling to watch, but very far from the reality we know. For example, I’ve never seen any dazzling, lightning bright angels, any more than I’ve actually seen Darth Vader. And I definitely haven’t seen my loved ones come back to life, much as I miss them and want to have them here with me again. So, then this Easter magic, is it really real, or is it a fanciful dream, or is it maybe just an impossible wish?

Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus is not something that we can prove in an empirical or scientific way. The first Easter was much too long ago for that. And besides, you can’t really prove matters of faith anyway—because they are just that, matters of faith. What’s more, all four gospels describe the resurrection somewhat differently, if you set them side by side—Matthew’s version is by far the most dramatic, with the earthquake and angel appearing like lightning—but they each seek to put into words that are ultimately too small and limited an experience, a reality, that probably was and is beyond words or adequate explanation.

You may have noticed that this time of year there are always TV specials that seek to prove or disprove that something in the Bible happened. I even recently read an article in the British newspaper the Guardian which dealt with whether Jesus was even a real person—apparently 40% of the adult British population question whether Jesus really lived. Despite this skepticism, the overwhelming evidence is that Jesus was real—which is not news to any of us here this morning. Though, sometimes the finer details his life can be elusive.

In any case, while all of these investigations can most definitely be interesting, I think they tend to miss the greater point in the biblical narrative. They get so bogged down in whether and how something was possible that they fail to recognize that the whole purpose of such stories is to reflect upon the belief that God was and is active in the world, and in particular that God was and is active in the lives of ordinary people, in the lives of people just like us.

What we know, beyond the earthquake, the lightning bright angel, and the divine special effects, is that belief in the resurrection, belief in the life-changing and even world-changing miracle of Easter has encouraged, sustained, and propelled people of faith for 2000 years—from the women at the tomb early on the first Easter morning, all the way to us today. Comfort and encouragement, empowerment and liberation, hope and new life are all the hallmarks of this fantastic day.
 
What the miracle of Easter tells us is that the God we believe in is more powerful than death. The miracle of Easter tells us that the God we believe in can and will and does overcome evil with new and abundant life. The miracle of Easter tells us that there is nothing more powerful than the love and life of God—not the cross, not the mightiest empire on earth, not the power of sin, not our own wayward desires and failings. Nothing. What’s more, this mighty, powerful resurrection is not something that God did once for Jesus a long time ago, while the rest of us wait and wait and wait. If it were just that, it wouldn’t have much meaning at all.

No, what happened on that first Easter morning was really just the beginning. It was the opening chapter, or maybe the first scene, in a powerful, dynamic, living story—a living story that God continues to write and direct, sometimes without so many special effects, but in real human lives, in lives just like ours. Jesus’ resurrection was just the beginning of a new age of life and love, of liberation and empowerment. But, like the women at the tomb, it is up to us to share the good news of this resurrection. It is up to us to witness to its power and earth-shaking truth. It is even up to us to make resurrection real.

We do that, we make resurrection real, by rising ourselves. By rising from the stone-cold tombs that we create and too often call home. We make resurrection real by living—fully, abundantly, and freely. We make resurrection real by giving ourselves over to God’s love: a love so great that it was willing to die for us, even as we, like Jesus, share God’s love in full measure. We make resurrection real by being, by truly being, the living and breathing Body of Christ in a world that desperately needs us, in a world that desperately needs the life-shaking, world-shaking, liberating, empowering hope of resurrection faith now more than ever. We make resurrection real by knowing and testifying to the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God—no government, no cross, no illness, no poverty, no evil, no death. Nothing.

That’s what resurrection meant 2000 years ago, on that first Easter morning, and it’s what it means even still, even now, even today. The special effects—earthquakes and dazzling, lightning bright angels—are dramatic, a nice touch to make us sit up and take notice. But they are not the real thing. The real thing is life. New life. Abundant life. Liberated life. The real thing is your life. It’s my life. It’s Jesus’ life. Life lived in and with God.

Be that life today. Make Easter real today. Make resurrection real.

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Let’s join them as they run and shout, with our lives, Alleluia! Christ is risen. Amen.


© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD