Prayers of the People – Andrea Arsene

As we await the fulfillment of the ancient promises, let us offer our prayers and petitions to our God whose will it is that none should perish responding: We await you,

O Come Emmanuel.

For the Church: especially Michael our Presiding Bishop, Marc our Diocesan Bishop, and for all Bishops, Priests and Deacons, that they may proclaim the good tidings of God’s coming to gather and comfort all people, We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For Government leaders and all those in authority, that they may serve with wisdom, integrity and kindness. For first-responders and all those who risk their lives for others, that your watchful eye would be upon them. We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For this seminary and community, that God will renew the gift of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to be willing and active disciples, We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For peace in the hearts of all people, between nations and within nations, that God will open new paths for loving communication and just resolution of disputes, giving wisdom, strength and courage to speak truth to power, We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For those in discernment, transition and all who are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises, that they may have patience and courage, and never lose hope, We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For the oppressed and the downtrodden, the victims of war, violence, and systemic exploitation, that justice would soon roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream, We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For the sick, the suffering, those who find this season difficult, for those affected by the fires and other disasters, natural and man-made, and all those who call upon you in their days of trouble, remembering especially, ________________

________________________________________________________________

And those we now name aloud or in the silence of our hearts………….

that the uneven ground of their lives may be leveled to become a highway for God’s comfort We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

For all the departed, remembering especially _________________________

that they may find rest and peace in the arms of the Great Shepherd, We await you…

O Come Emmanuel.

With hearts of gratitude for your loving-kindness, we lift our voices with all creation, with Mary the God-bearer, Joseph, and all the saints, let us offer ourselves and one another to the living God through Christ.

To you, O Lord our God.

Hasten, O Father, the coming of your kingdom; and grant that we your servants, who now live by faith, may with joy behold your Son at his coming in glorious majesty; even Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate.  Amen   

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Sunday, December 10 – Mia Benjamin

This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 10 at St. Aidan’s in San Francisco by middler Mia Benjamin. The readings for this sermon are: Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8. 

Therefore, beloved, while we are waiting for these things, may we strive to be found by God at peace. Amen.

Last year, my very pregnant neighbor decided it was time for her overdue baby to come. She tried everything: bouncing on yoga balls in the courtyard, taking long walks, even eating super spicy pizza at a pizzeria that my classmate swore by.

Of course, nothing my neighbor did made the baby come any faster.

Little Samara came on her own time, in her own way, overturning her parents’ lives with beautiful chaos, as all babies do.

Like Samara’s new family, the early Christian church was shot through with ill-disguised impatience for a long-awaited arrival. The author of the Second Letter of Peter from our epistle today is writing to a Christian community waddling in the weight of an overdue promise. Before the passage we just read, the writer acknowledges scoffers who’ve been pointing out for some time now that Jesus promised to return generations ago.

In God’s own time, the writer reminds them and us. This Christian’s advice is to trust in God’s promise and, in the meantime, shape ourselves into the kind of people we’d like God to find us to be.

In the meantime, we might as well confront one of the terrifying truths of Advent: Nothing we do or say can make the kingdom come any faster. Nothing the world does can stop it from coming.

It is simply just not up to us.

Thank. God.

The knowledge that it is not up to me to save or damn the world is both liberating and downright terrifying, as most things of faith seem to be.

Sometimes, I feel paralyzed when I contemplate the enormity of my human responsibility. Especially in this society in this moment. Other times, I’m overwhelmed my desperate fear that everything will fall apart without my help. Especially in the hectic panic of the Christmas season. Maybe you feel that way, too, to varying degrees.  

That’s what I am grateful this Advent perspective forces me to stare into my own insignificance. And it calls out my own need to be important and necessary for the completion of God’s mission in the world.

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field, announces the Prophet Isaiah. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever.

And yet, from that Word, a voice says, “Cry out!” A prophet proclaims, “Prepare!”

So how do we, the withering grass and the wilting flowers that we are, live out the eternal word of God in our lives?

By doing the same things we are doing now, those things we promised to do in our Baptismal Covenant. It’s a subtle theological distinction, but it matters. We feed the hungry, resist that the forces oppress our siblings, and speak love to the unloved. Not out of fear, not out of pride, but out of faith and hope in God.

We do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Not because we are afraid it is all down to us. Not because some part of ourselves believes God can’t do it without our help.

When I find myself doubting this—and God knows I do often enough—here’s what I come back to. I know that I feel God’s grace most when I move out of hope and when I rest in love. God’s movement in the world is here when I act out of my desire to find God. Or when I strive to be found by God right where God has promised to be.

The in-breaking of God’s kingdom is present when, and where, I love and hope, and act like it. Not because I act. Not if I act.

The terrifying truth of Advent is that to prepare is to respond to and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, not to bring about.  

It occurs to me that there is another familiar Christmas fable that warns us about the folly of believing we can either stop or cause Christmas to come. In Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, none of the Grinch’s stealing, destroying, or complaining prevents the advent of Christmas. On the flip side, nothing the Whos do—not their gift buying, house decorating, and Roast Beast basting makes Christmas come either. It is in their joyful singing, in their assenting to the promises of old, that the truth of Christmas is heard and seen and believed.

singing
Scene from the 1966 cartoon version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss.

Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up and do not fear.

In today’s urgent political climate, surrounded by injustice after injustice, we can be forgiven for seeing the world as little more than a battle between the Grinches and the Whos, the ones who are building the kingdom and the ones who are tearing it down. All the more reason, then, to remind ourselves that our faith tells us something much more profound.

It is God who builds the kingdom, not us. Yes, we can choose to participate with glad, hope-filled hearts, and yes, we can choose to screw up our ears to its singing.

But Christmas, you see, comes without ribbons, and it comes without tags.
It comes without Amazon packages, jewelry boxes, or reusable bags.

He comes without protests, he comes without prayer,
He comes regardless of donations, petitions, or churches that care.

The world cannot stop Jesus from coming, he came.
Somehow or other, Jesus will come just the same.

Amen.

 

Sunday, November 26 – Alison Fischer

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 26 at All Souls’ in Berkeley by middler Ali Fischer. The readings for this sermon are: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23,, and Matthew 25:31-46.  

Five years ago, I was emerging from a season where I was very ill and my partner, Jason, and I joined the Episcopal community in Bakersfield, California seeking the wholeness and healing in the Body of Christ.

Shortly after we joined, we received a request and apprehensively uttered three letter word that would change the course of our lives. This blessed request was our Priest in Charge calling to see if Jason and I would be interested in starting a food outreach ministry and oh, perhaps serve as the youth ministers as well? We thought “what in the world is Rev. Tim thinking?” But we said “yes” and were excited to dive right in.

St. Paul’s had this opportunity to develop these ministries because our diocese, San Joaquin, is one that endured a recent theological schism and the courts awarded our congregation a property in downtown Bakersfield. Now that we had a building, it was time to facilitate the ministry that our Gospel instructs us to do and we began discernment for the best way to serve our Brothers and Sisters in the community.

At this time, I was building my strength to go back to work and both Jason and I had been praying for direction of where to focus my time. Prior to getting sick, I worked in politics and the oil and gas industry and knew that those seasons were over so I thought that the food outreach and youth group would be a productive way to gain my strength as I waited for God to answer my prayers. I may have been a bit dense in hearing the Holy Spirit at this time. However, these ministries are what allowed me the opportunity to acknowledge and discern my Call to serve the Church and are what led me here to Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

At St. Paul’s, we discerned that a Food Pantry CO-OP would be how our congregation could best serve “the least of these” in our community. Our CO-OP model offered a reciprocal relationship rather than one way giving and our membership was available to anyone who was willing to pay a small fee of $1, 3, or 5 into our grocery fund or work 30, 60, or 90 minutes for the CO-OP. We strived to offer a hand up rather than a hand out. We had a humble set up in the back of the stage area in our parish hall where we offered a lunch, groceries, unlimited fresh organic produce from local farmers markets, diapers and other baby items, toiletries, clothing, and household items. The food was the icebreaker for the ministry Jesus calls us to do. If members worked with us on a consistent basis then we offered to be references for their job applications, job search resources, and an interview ensemble. We worked as a congregation to get several individuals into rehab programs and did what we could to help them understand that they were valued children of God who were worth sobriety. Half of our members were unhoused and we offered resources to those seeking to get off the streets. In the CO-OP, everyone is an equal and it is a community of broken people trying to experience the wholeness of Christ together. We became a family. At times, the ministry was heartbreaking or frustrating, but the beauty, love, and joy made it all worthwhile.

In 2015 this joy came crashing down when I experienced the death of a loved one who I continue to struggle living without and their death was partially caused by alcoholism. After nearly a month away, I returned to the CO-OP and my phone, with precious photos and videos that had yet to be uploaded, was stolen and later traced to what was a known hub for heroin addicts; never to be seen again. Almost every person in our CO-OP either struggled with addiction of some sort or was strongly affected by it and my anger, judgement, and grief boiled to a point where it prevented me from having any compassion and love for “the least of these” in my community. I excused myself from working with the people and spent all of my time on the behind the scenes logistics. Life in Christ, life in ministry, life in relationships are difficult because of human ego and sin and my ego and sin were just as much in the way as those who were blinded by the demons of addiction.

Six months passed and I was deep in the anger stage of the grief cycle with self-imposed walls between me and God. One night I had a vision, and my deceased loved one came to me as a messenger to encourage me to recognize my sin and God’s Grace and refocus my energy to the work that God was calling me to do. They were fully healed and whole in Christ and I needed to allow that for myself. This vision allowed me to experience reconciliation, find peace, and to return and serve my Christian family.

Today’s Gospel message teaches one of the core tenants of our faith and it presents a challenging command for the human ego. Our Ezekiel scripture conveys that human beings are naturally selfish, protective, and slow to forgive and forget in our quest for survival and prosperity. Our Gospel is difficult because living like Christ requires vulnerability to serve our collective brokenness of this world. It is hard, uncomfortable, and sometimes feels like the trenches rather than the love and fulfillment we are seeking.

It is naïve to consider that our actions that are freely given out of love and generosity will always be received with the gratitude and good will that reflects our own. In our calls to serve and live as Jesus instructed, we are agreeing to live in community with those who are struggling and often cause contention. We will have our hearts broken by those who are not capable of recognizing their worth and continue on their destructive paths. We are committing to have our spiritual and physical well-being challenged by the sin of this world.

Yet, here is Jesus commanding us to provide love, hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, and inclusiveness to all whom we encounter; especially the “least of these” among us. And if we aren’t in with “the least of these”, then we are missing Jesus. But the reality is that we are all in the role of being “the least of these” at points in our lives. We will all be in situations that need the service of others to help us endure our pain and struggles.

This “yes” to Jesus, although it is hard and messy, allows us to serve as vessels for the Holy Trinity to facilitate wholeness, healing, and community that enables us to endure the brokenness in life.

What makes life in ministry to be sustainable is complete reliance on our Holy Trinity and our trust in doing God’s work rather than our own. Our call is to love others and this requires consistent forgiveness, responsible generosity, and appropriate boundaries. And most importantly, Grace for ourselves and others, so that others may receive a glimpse of Christ’s Light.

However, our intentions and behaviors of generosity and righteousness need to be carefully and continually examined. Scripture teaches of punishment and judgement but if our motivation is derived from fear of Christ’s judgement and eternal damnation, our efforts are going to continually fail and fall short of what God is needing from us.

It is a complicated and continual discernment of where are we allowing Grace in our lives and actions. Where we are called to serve Christ through serving others. And where we are called to say “yes” to the Holy Trinity.

Saying “yes” can be a ministry such as serving at food outreaches like St. Paul’s CO-OP or the Open Door Dinner, being Eucharistic Ministers to those who are not able to come to church, attending the Detention Center Vigils and praying for or visiting the incarcerated, and All Soul’s Call to the development of the affordable senior housing ministry. But it can also be simple like being generous with water and protein bars or meals to those living on the streets. Or calling and checking in on someone who is enduring an illness or grief. Greeting strangers by looking them in the eye with a friendly smile; a simple act to acknowledge their holiness.

Today’s feast of Christ the King reminds us that our allegiance is to be with our Heavenly authority and not to the sins and human ego of this world. As we approach Advent and the season of Christ’s coming, where are you being called to say “yes” and serve God’s Kingdom as a vessel for Christ? Does it include radical compassion, generosity, and hospitality as Jesus instructed?

Sunday, November 26 – Br. Kevin Gore

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 26 at Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco by senior Kevin Gore. The readings for this sermon are: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23,, and Matthew 25:31-46.  

Today is the Feast of the Reign of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost.  I find this Sunday to be one of those days that carry with it so much richness in terms of subjects that I could preach on that it’s a struggle to commit to just one. Take for example, just the name of today.  The Reign of Christ the King sounds like a grand, medieval tradition that one observes in concert with countless throngs of Christians for centuries before us.  Well, a quick search on the internet will show you that in fact the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it was first called, was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the eleventh.  Not so much the ancient observance one would think.  It was instituted at a time when the world was changing, and in the eyes of the Roman Church, not for the better.  Post World War I there was an increase in secularism, communism was even more prolific, and Benito Mussolini had been ruling as Prime Minister of Italy for three years.  This feast was instituted with the hope that it would encourage people to turn more towards seeing Jesus Christ as their supreme head, the one to whom they were to be most obedient above all others.

While I think we could certainly go down the road of comparing the values of the Kingdom of God and following Jesus Christ to our own current political climate, and which path we should probably be choosing, it occurs to me that there is something far deeper here to reflect on.  Something that can help us think about how we approach (or whether we approach at all) calling this the Feast of Christ the King, and what we do with the reading from Matthew we heard proclaimed.  I can also guarantee you that if I don’t talk about the end of that Gospel, separating out the goats, and the phrase, ‘eternal punishment’, there will be at least a few of you ready to address that at coffee hour.  

I think it’s a fair guess to say that the bulk of this reading from Matthew is easy to digest; certainly in line with what we generally hold to be Kingdom values, things we do or at least espouse to do in following Christ.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, even visit those in prison.  But where most Episcopalians today might start to stare at their feet or shift uncomfortably is when we talk about the so-called ‘goats’ being sent into the eternal fire, or at the end of the verse, eternal punishment.  We generally gloss over these parts of the reading because it’s complicated when it comes to our understanding of God’s judgment.  What I want to suggest to you is this.  It’s not actually as complicated if we stop trying to make sense of God as one who punishes, and embrace an understanding of God as one who heals and loves.  This section of Matthew is not meant to be a test to decide who’s headed where, it’s a metaphysical check up to make sure you’re reflecting the love that God already has for you.  If we believe in a God who judges and punishes, then that is what we will reflect back out to the world.  If we believe in a God who loves, who heals, who acts like a sheep themself in this particular context, then that is what we will reflect back out to the world.  

Let’s stop for a minute to really think about the way we live.  How many times have you done what Jesus says here?  We’ve all done something, we’ve fed the hungry, we’ve donated clothing, and we’ve reached out to those in need and tried to help as best we could.  We are sheep.  But I suspect we’ve also walked past the person on the street and not offered our kindness.  I suspect many of us haven’t spent a lot of time visiting those in prisons.  We are also goats.  What matters is how we try to live our lives, not a final judgment that sends us one direction or another.  The point here is that if you want to live like a goat all the time, if you are going to consistently turn your back on those in need, then you will build up for yourself a place that feels separated from the Love of God.  And I’ll let you in on something.  I personally do not believe for a minute that we are ever actually separated from or beyond the Love of God.  We are only unable to experience that which we turn ourselves from.  It is turning ourselves away from sharing that love with others, it is disconnecting ourselves from our human condition with each other that brings us to a punishment, albeit self imposed.  God is always there ready to extend the Love which is asked of us, when we are ready to embrace it, whether that is now or in some unimaginable future.  

This passage allows us the open door to ponder what our image of God is, especially when coupled with the idea of ‘Christ the King’.  Do we see God as Christ the King?  What even is a king to us?  Do we see God as Queen?  Do we see God as punisher, as healer, as parent, or perhaps as a feeling or an emotion? I want to invite you to take this question and spend some time, perhaps this week, really thinking about how you see God.  What is God to you?  Because I promise you that whatever you come up with for God will be in some way what you either want to or are reflecting out into the world as your best self.  I am not fond of a lot of Greek exegesis in sermons, but I do want to share something interesting with you.  When looking at this text in the Greek, the word that is used for ‘eternal’ in relation to punishment and life has an emphasis on the idea of something that has no real beginning or end.  I would see that as cyclical.  We are never fully sheep or fully goat because we are never fully realizing the true Love of God.  Sometimes we will succeed, and sometimes we will fall short, but as long as we hold fast to that Love of God that is never changing, and shine it back out to the world, then we are doing all that we can to break the cycle of suffering that far too often can be the world in which we live.  

What is God to you and how do you live into that truth?  That is your work.  It is neither helpful or our place to fret about a final judgment when the Love of God truly knows no bounds.  Do not squander the knowledge of that Love, or forget to remind the world to what we are all called.  Some days you will be a sheep.  Some days you will be a goat.  But every single day for the rest of eternity you are held in the Love of a God that has already come to cast down the power of eternal punishment and invites you into their embrace.

Sunday, November 26 — Kathleen Moore

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 26 at St. John’s in Oakland by middler Kathleen Moore. The readings for this sermon are: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23,, and Matthew 25:31-46. 

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is on the Mount of Olives, telling his disciples about the blessed sheep who serve Christ in others and the accursed goats who do not. Of the blessed sheep he says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Do you notice something about where Christ places himself? He puts himself in the position of least of these. Christ is hungry, Christ is thirsty, Christ is the stranger, Christ is naked, Christ is sick, Christ is imprisoned … And Christ is king. This is the kind of king we are talking about when we talk about Christ the King. This king identifies with those exploited by earthly powers, by human kings. This king is asking us to be in relationship. Not to be in power.

This is the king we serve.

And it’s funny — every time I hear this story, it has been my custom to want to sit right down and properly categorize myself in the picture. Am I a goat? Well, of course I’m a goat. I miss opportunities to care for Christ in others most days … probably every day. Am I a sheep? Sometimes, sure — and those days are the best days. But here’s the thing – I’ve never, until now, considered a third option of placing myself in this story. Am I the “least of these” as well? What a place of privilege to never have considered I might be she who is fed, welcomed, clothed, tended to and visited. And what a place of pride to think I haven’t in my life been ministered to in all those ways. That I don’t depend on those gifts. You see – I assume that I have power and control – that I can somehow avoid being in the position of the “least of these.” What does it say that I don’t identify myself with the least of these when Christ the King so clearly does?

I recently read the memoir of Khizr Khan, the father of United States Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq, and awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. Khizr is man of deep faith and deep patriotism. And I was blown away by his willingness, throughout his life, to be vulnerable, to embrace his powerlessness … to be the least of these. He allowed a professor to pay his fee to take Pakistan’s equivalent of the Bar Exam. He accepted help from a cab driver, who offered him shelter when he arrived two days early for a job in a foreign country, not having enough money for a hotel room. He embraced his first boss as a mentor, letting him teach him to drive, help him buy him a car, and make sure he and his growing family had suitable housing. He gladly accepted the gift of a kid-friendly bag of groceries from a new next-door neighbor after his wife and small children arrived home from a long journey.

I found it so humbling and inspiring that Khan never thought for a moment of any of these gestures as belittling or patronizing, and he never questioned the motives behind them. He didn’t let his pride take him to those places. He accepted these gifts with true thanks, and noted the Creator’s presence in them. I wondered in each instance if I would do the same. It was a sobering exercise. Khizr and Ghazala Khan instilled in their children the value of helping people, including strangers, as they had been helped, and in staying ever-humble, aware of where real power lies, and willing to accept help themselves. Just one example – the family has sheltered recently-arrived immigrants in their own home – a practice that started when Khizr pulled his car over in concern for a woman (a total stranger) who seemed to be in distress.

This morning, Christ is telling his disciples that we are, quite simply, to care for one another. And we are to be cared for. That we are to be in relationship. Because in doing so, we recognize the power does not really lie with any earthly ruler, it does not lie with us. It lies with God. Jesus is saying this two days before the Passover, before the drama leading to the cross begins. He knows that this work of caring for one another may be simple to understand. But it will be hard, and sometimes dangerous, to live out.

The Khans’ son Humayun died demonstrating what he had learned from his parents – recognizing the real power of the Creator as revealed in love for the stranger and not hollow earthly power. In the moment of his death, Humayun held the potential of all the earthly power in the world, he represented the might of the United States military, and one word or motion from him would have spelled instant and well-within-protocol death for the man who, it turned out, was there to set off a suicide bomb.

When he was killed, Humayun had been trying to get close enough to the car to be absolutely certain the man was not, by some chance, simply a lost stranger, a confused or panicked civilian who didn’t understand the language and gestures of the American soldiers telling him to turn around. That was Humayun’s deeply engrained priority. He did not understand himself as holding any real power. He understood himself as vulnerable, the least of these. And he understood the driver in the same way. His priority was to be in relationship. Not to be in power.

This morning, Christ’s vision is for us to be in relationship. Not to be in power. This story does not portray a “top-down” approach to ministry. It doesn’t imagine privileged people reaching “down” or “out” to the other, to the poor, to the needy, to the least of these. It imagines sheep. All of us. Sheep. Doing the best we can – being in relationship with one another. So I invite us all to, yes, spend some time considering when we have been “sheep,” or “goats” (because, I venture to guess, we have all been and will be both). But also, to think about times we have been the “least of these.” When we have been willing to be the least of these. And how Christ was present in those moments. When we care for someone or allow ourselves to be cared for as the “least of these” we are proclaiming that we recognize real power – and that it doesn’t lie with us. We are proclaiming that truth: “Christ is King.”

 

Sunday, November 26 — Aaron Klinefelter

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 26 at Trinity Church in Menlo Park by senior Aaron Klinefelter. The readings for this sermon are: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23,, and Matthew 25:31-46. 

I love street art.
It reveals and uncovers something true about the world around us. Which is a paradox, right? Street art and graffiti is often accused of defacing and defaming public space. And admittedly, sometimes it does. But sometimes, sometimes, street art does what all good art and all good liturgy does – it shines a light on the cracks and crevices of life. It is precisely in these cracks and crevices, these chinks in the armor of order and uniformity, that beauty, grace, truth and the glory of God flow in.

Shepard Fairey, the street artist behind the OBEY and Andre the Giant sticker campaigns and Obama’s iconic 2008 poster, talks about how street art helps uncover what is right before our eyes, but somehow is obscured. Too often we move through our world with mindless repetition… not really noticing the world around us.

Street art wakes us up from the predictable pattern of sameness and conformity. Too often we, all of us – myself included, march to the relentless beat of consume, consume, consume. Or fear, fear, fear. Or shame, shame, shame.

Shepard Fairey grew up skateboarding and as a skateboarder he had to learn to read the urban environment. What ledge was good, what rail would work, what parking lot or pool would they not get kick out of. And street art too is an essentially urban art form. The artist has to see – really see – the urban landscape. And then the artist can up-end and subvert that landscape with something novel, fresh and new.

Visual art does this. When I’m riding the train to and from Berkeley I see amazing examples of street art along otherwise nondescript stretches of track. It makes me notice. It makes me think… what story is this telling? Who was the artist behind this and why did they choose to paint this?

Yarn bombing does this too. How many trees or lampposts or bike racks have you walked by and completely ignored? But if someone, in the middle of the night, yarn bombed that particular location you suddenly notice and pay attention anew.

But visual art isn’t the only medium for this up-ending, uncovering, re-awakening work. Street theatre can do this as well. The Embarcadero would be just any re-purposed industrial area turned shopping mall…. but the street performers make it a magical place.

This morning gospel reading from Matthew is a kind of street theatre.

Retell the story as street theatre….

At the end of all things. When all is said and done of all that can be done or said. When Jesus, the Son of Man, is on the throne. He will gather everybody from everywhere. All the nations and people and tribes and communities and cities and families. Everybody. And he’ll separate the sheep from the goats.

The sheep he’ll put on his right. And the goats he’ll put on his left.

Then he’ll say to the sheep on the right: “Welcome! You are inheriting my kingdom. You are IN! Everything that is mine is yours!”

“Because I was …

hungry and you fed me
thirst and you gave me a drink
stranger and you welcomed me
naked and you gave me some clothes
sick and in
prison and you visited me.”

But the sheep will be confused. They’ll look at the King and say, “um. what? when …

hungry
thirst
stranger
naked
sick
prison

Likewise the goats…. but…

This story disrupts and disturbs. It messes with our categories and our tally systems.

Where do we find God at the end of all things, when all is said and done of all that could be done or said? We find God in the least the last and the lost and the lonely.

This is true in the largest corporate, cosmic sense but it is also true in the deeply personal and spiritual sense.

God shows up in the cracks and crevices of life.

God is in the messy middle. Hiding amongst the dirty laundry and at the bottom of the junk drawer.

We are invited to notice God there. But more. We are invited to go there. To be there with God as God is with us …. revealing and uncovering the truest things about us.

In the end, this passage is less about a job description or a way to induce guilt – or self-righteousness. This is not a litmus test.

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples the story so they could feel guilty about not visiting more prisoners or feeding more hungry people.

He told the story so that his disciples would know that even at the end Jesus was still there with them. And if we want to find him, if we want to be with him, it is as we identify and live life with the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.

Where do we find Jesus? He’s with the kid who doesn’t fit in at the party. He’s with the mom who is at her wits end. He’s with the folks in the nursing home who didn’t get a visit this past week and those who did.

And he’s with you. He’s there when Life goes sideways, he’s there when you choose to do the hard, costly thing instead of taking the easy way out. He’s there when your marriage or relationship is on the rocks or ends. He’s there whenever we realize we too are the least the last and the lost and the lonely.

Yes. If you are looking for a job description as a Christian then Matthew 25 is a fine place to pick up some tips. Yes, if you want to know what it means to actually follow Jesus you should do these things: make sure people have clothes to wear, feed the hungry, tend the wounded, visit those in prison, and make sure every has clean, safe, abundant water to drink.

And yes, there are political and social implications for all of those. Our public life would look a lot more like the kingdom of heaven if more folks did those things.

But, here’s the rub, we’re not going to do any of these things unless we experience Jesus in our least moments. Until we know, deeply know, that we are all broken, messy humans who need each other. Until we know that we too are the least and the last and the lost and the lonely.

Then we’ll extend the cup of cold water to the thirsty soul – not because we’ve got the best water, not because we are sitting on our white horse of privilege – ready to swoop in and save the day. We’ll do it because we know that we are thirsty too. And there – right there – is where we will find Jesus.

This is the radical uncovering that we need. This is the apocalyptic reveal that our souls and our society is longing for – to discover the divine when human truly touches human. When we meet one another without pretense or pomp. When our souls commune in the mystery that is life. This is where to kingdom of heaven is made manifest.

You are God’s street art. And the glory of God oozes out of every crack and crevice in your life. And you, You are invited to meet God there… on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, November 26 – Mia Benjamin

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 26 at St. Aidan’s in San Francisco by middler Mia Benjamin. The readings for this sermon are: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23,, and Matthew 25:31-46. 

There’s a recent graduate of my seminary who claims to do his best evangelism in bars. His favorite line, he says, and you may have heard this one before—is what his says when people say to him, “I don’t believe in God.” He replies, “Tell me about this god that you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either.” He listens, then, if the time is right— “Let me tell you about the God I do believe in.”

Let’s face it, God gets a bad rap this days, especially in these parts. God has an image problem—an old white guy with a beard in the clouds problem—and titles like Lord and King don’t sound much like they would help. Yet, here we are at the Feast Day of Christ the King.

Like all metaphors for the divine, this one fall incomprehensibly short. And like most Biblical imagery for God, it also carries icky cultural connotations. No wonder some parishes have declared today Christ the Queen or Reign of Christ Sunday. Regardless of how we choose to approach the triune God today, as King or Queen or Sovereign, there is no denying there is something distastefully outdated about this feast day. I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you’d like to leave this Sunday, and all those imperialistic titles for Christ, back in 1925, the year Pope Pius XI first instituted this Feast Day.

There’s this thing about Advent, though. There’s something about this season, and the way time folds in on itself and past and present and future converge. When history reveals itself to be much more mysterious than the linear timeline we assume it to be.

Take 1925, the year of this feast day’s origin. This is the year turbulent waves of nationalism, fascism, and communism are propelling the most infamous dictators of the 20th century to power: Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and other kings, too: Ibn Saud of Arabia, Reza Shah of Persia. Across the globe, the French and British Empires brutally cling to their power over indigenous and colonized peoples. In the US, the racist Immigration Act barring immigration of Asian people to US has just been passed and our historically open borders have slammed shut. Striking Filipino workers in Hawaii have been massacred by sugar plantation owners backed by the US National Guard. Thirty thousand white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen march down the heart of our nation’s capital.

Kings and kingdoms we know all too well.

This is the context into which Pope Pius XI spoke. This is moment into which Christ’s sovereignty was radically proclaimed. In the face of all the horrors of imperialism and dictatorship and global domination, the church lifted up another way.

Tell me about the kings you know, broken and hurting world. And God listens.

And God says through the prophets of old, let me tell you about another kind of king. I myself am the shepherd, says the Lord, and I will gather up my people. I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. And the fat and the strong, the Judean Kings who pushed and bullied their own subjects, who took advantage of every power and privilege they had for their own gain? I will take their place, and I will feed them with justice.

Oppressed people of faith have known the secret power of proclaiming God’s sovereignty for thousands of years. The exiled prophet Ezekiel exclaimed it in in the time of the Babylonian conquest. The early church whispered it in the catacombs and the American slaves sung it in code in the plantation fields.

When Yahweh is Lord, nothing else is. When Jesus is Master, no one else is. When God is truly sovereign, the lowly are lifted up and the mighty torn down from their thrones. In Jesus, death is killed by death. In this King of kings, Kingship itself is dismantled.

There’s this insidious myth in America that we’ve gotten rid of Kings and kingdoms, masters and Lords. But we haven’t, have we? We just call them by different names, usually ending in -ism.

And here’s the danger with pretending there are no more Kings. Oftentimes it means we allow things, and people, and systems to define our sense of self without admitting their power over us. Or worse, when we look around and see no oppressor, it may be because we are blind to the ways we have put ourselves–or sometimes even the Church itself–in the place of God.

Here’s an explicit example. I’ve seen it over and over in the sexual harassment scandals of the past two weeks. Powerful, successful men exposed for exploiting their coercive power over younger women, colleagues, and mentees—abusing power these kings prefer to pretend they did not have.

Yet, what we cannot name, we cannot bring into the light. This Sunday is the Sunday to tell about the Kings and kingdoms we know, but oftentimes choose not to see.

And God listens.

And God says through the Gospels, let me tell you about another kind of sovereign, unlike any you’ve ever known. A tiny, weak infant who came not to be served, but to serve. A healer who sought out the sinner and turned over the tables of the loan sharks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite. A king who laid down his life for his friends.

And here in the Gospel of Matthew, in this last parable before Jesus’ passion and death, Jesus tells us of the end of days, when the true sovereign will take the throne. Then the Child of Humankind will reveal where God has been all this time: among the lost and the least.

What’s most amazing to me in this passage is that even the righteous on Christ’s right hand are surprised to learn that the true kingdom has been breaking in, all this time. Christ’s kingdom is happening in the margins, even when, and perhaps especially when, we cannot see it.

For whenever love expands our hearts and service guides our hands, Christ’s kingdom is realized and the true king is served. For that moment, we can glimpse the new coming reality when the false kingdoms of this world that keep people hungry and thirsty and estranged and naked and sick and imprisoned will be overturned.

So this Advent, let us listen to those who tell us all about the kings and kingdoms of our own time. This Advent, let us proclaim the Sovereignty of subversive love that abolishes all earthly authorities. Let us celebrate the queen who even now is overturning and opening our hearts.

 

Tuesday, October 10 – Ethan Lowery

We pray for the church and its leaders, we pray for those in discernment, for our GTU friends and colleagues. We pray for those who are without communities of faith, we pray for those who have been hurt by the church and who are looking for a way back in.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for our country.

We pray for our leaders, for our president and legislators, for wisdom and charity in their leadership, and for courage for those who are willing to protest their decisions, policies, and actions.  

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for an end to violence, war, bigotry, and greed and for relief from the insecurities of men that drive us to fight rather than to reconcile.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for relief from natural disaster, for those suffering from flood, fire, hurricane, and earthquake and we pray you, God, to soften our hearts to help those in need and to temper our own contributions to this severe climate.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for those displaced by and fearful of the fires in Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa, we pray for the strength and resolve for the relief workers and first responders.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for our community, for the homeless and underemployed, for the sick, the suffering, and those in pain, for those with broken relationships and those in isolation. And we pray for a spirit of self-sacrifice, that we would be willing to reach out to those in need. we pray for those experiencing weariness and fatigue in their studies and in their work for those struggling with distance from family, friends, and loved ones.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

We pray for all who have died, including those we now name.

Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer. 

Sunday, September 24 – Ethan Lowery

 

This sermon was preached at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Orinda by first-year Ethan Lowery. The texts for this sermon are: Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; and Matthew 20:1-16. Audio available HERE.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

I love the story of Jonah. I love it. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s moving—and it somehow manages to fit all of that into only two pages. And so last summer, I decided to teach Jonah at high school camp at the bishop’s ranch one day. And I began by asking the youth “How many of you have heard of Jonah?” and almost every had went up. And I asked “How many of you know what happens to Jonah after he gets out of the whale?” and every hand went down.

And so let me ask y’all:

How many of y’all have heard of Jonah?

How many of you know what happens after Jonah gets out of the whale?

So let me tell you the story, because our Old Testament story this morning tells us some of what happens to Jonah post-Whale.

 

God shows up to Jonah one day and calls him to be a prophet, and asks him to go to the people of Nineveh and tell them to repent. But Jonah doesn’t like the people of Nineveh, and so he runs away, and ends up a stowaway on a boat out at sea—he wants to get away from God so bad. But God sends a storm in pursuit and the storm threatens to sink the boat, so Jonah throws himself overboard in order to appease God and save the crew of the ship and is promptly eaten by a big fish. Jonah stays in whale time-out for three days until his pettiness cracks and he comes around, singing a song of praise to God. He goes to Nineveh, he says the things a prophet says, the city repents, God decides not to reign calamity down on the people of Nineveh.

But then Jonah remembers that he doesn’t like Nineveh and he gets mad again. God was going to destroy Nineveh but Jonah got conned into helping God save them, and Jonah didn’t want them saved. Jonah wanted them destroyed; he can’t pull even an ounce of pity for them. God asks him: “Is it right for you to be angry?” So God does this scheme-y little thing in order to shame Jonah. God kills the bush that Jonah was sitting under, and Jonah is sad about the bush and God basically rolls up and says “Oh you can mourn a bush but not 120,000 people?? Huh??”

Jonah had passed judgement on Nineveh, and Nineveh didn’t get what he thought they had coming. And he was mad about it. And I’m curious about this angry feeling—of having passed judgement on something/somebody and wanting to inflict harm on them.

All summer long I shared with these youth–at mission trips, at camp–my hypothesis that the Bible is an anthology of the most relatable stories of human experience. No matter what you are going through or what you feel, somebody in the Bible knows what that’s like. The Bible is about us. And so this drive to pass judgement and to see through punishment…it’s not cute… and we may want to distance ourselves from it… but it’s also about us.

I think we all know what that feeling feels like. Like… it starts out as early as the playground, where somebody takes the ball from you and you push them down, right? It’s like when the most annoying kid in your class doesn’t study and then gets the highest grade on the test, and you studied all night for a B. It’s like when that one co-worker—the one who is just downright unpleasant to everybody—gets the promotion that you wanted… or that one co-worker who doesn’t work as hard as you, who isn’t as charming as you, who hasn’t been at the company as long as you. This kind of stuff happens and something in our reptilian brain stem activates, and your face gets hot, your stomach goes cold, maybe your brain starts to buzz and smoke a little bit. That’s the feeling that Jonah is feeling! Nineveh is bad and I am good and why is God saving them and punishing me? That’s the feeling that the workers have in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Those lazy workers got the raise that we wanted… and they didn’t even work for it.

God has a similarly shaming question for the all-day workers: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” In both cases, in Jonah and in the Gospel, God has little patience for the judgment passed by us. There is a tension in these stories between God’s judgment, God’s righteousness, and our own judgment, our self-righteousness.

There are two things I wanna say about this and God’s question for Jonah: Is it right for you to be angry?

First, God asks: is it right for you to be angry? It’s not fun to be a Jonah, pouting under a bush. It’s not fun to be the grumbling laborers, with a full days wages in pocket and still a bone to pick. And in these readings, God is affording us the option to not have to feel that way. We don’t have to hold the burden of condemnation ourselves. Our faith practice… a deep rooted belief in the redeem-ability of all people can actually change our emotional state. Christianity isn’t exactly anger management… but it’s not far off, haha.

This is not to say that the Christian life is all rainbows and butterflies and soft harp music playing in the background. Christianity is not merely an exercise in positivity. We get to get mad… and we are encouraged to be mad when we see the dignity of all people not being upheld. But we don’t have to play God and to sit in the uncomfortable seat of Judge’s Chair and that ought to be of some relief to us.

Second, God asks: is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s condemnation of Nineveh is in direct opposition to God’s plan of salvation for Nineveh. The laborers frustration at their common wage flies in the face of God’s generosity. This self-righteousness clashes with God’s righteousness, and that’s a tough pill for us to swallow. Our own qualitative sense of right/wrong isn’t reliable for the people of God. We are responsible for building God’s kingdom out in the world, and not our own kingdom. We don’t get to selectively condemn folks based on Who. We. Think. Needs. Condemning. For us as Christians, we have to focus on God’s work and sometimes that might feel like we are getting a raw deal, or like other people are being treated better we are… or than we think they deserve to be.

Again, for us Christians, it all comes back to the Gospel and that, for us, means loving the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. And so everything we learn from society would have us ask the question: is this good for me? Our religion would have us instead ask the question: is this good for all of us?

And this why is so much of our national discourse ought to be so frustrating to us. We’re out here talking about global nuclear conflict and climate crisis and universal healthcare and damn near all of the commentary is happening at the level of: is it good for me and for the people that look like me? Is it good for business? Is it good for the Democrats, is it good for the Republicans, is it good for my party, is it good for America? Our terrestrial allegiance is of no concern to Gospel. We instead must ask: is it good for the marginalized and the oppressed? Is it good for humanity? Is it good for the planet?

Instead of asking

“how much tax money will it cost me?”

“but how will they earn it?”

“does North Korea have it coming?”

“but how will we maintain our status as the leaders of the free world?”

“is there enough science behind it?”

 

I wonder what it would be like if, instead, we chose to ask:

“who is hurting and how can we help?”

“are we doing our best to reconcile?”

“is this good for all of us or is it only good for me, and people like me?”

“how many people will die if we don’t do something?”

“what’s the best way for us to take care of our planet?”

 

It’s so tempting to ask the previous questions—our society teaches us to ask those questions, and to challenge the veracity of every claim. But if we’re being honest, devil’s advocate isn’t really a good look for the people of God. The devil doesn’t need more advocates, Lord knows he’s got enough of ‘em already out there in the world. Jesus needs more advocates. And we [motions with hands] are the only people for the job. And when that work gets hard and we find ourselves frustrated or ready to deviate from it, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves:

Is it right for me to be angry?

Is it right for me to be angry?

Is it right for me to be angry?

Sunday, September 24 – Mia Benjamin

 

This sermon was preached at St. Aidan’s, San Francisco on Sunday, September 24 by Mia Benjamin. The texts for this sermon are: Exodus 16:2-15Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16.

Did you bring us here just to die?

The Israelites have been through a lot at this point in the Exodus story. They’ve watched as their old homeland, Egypt, descended into the chaos of terrible plagues all around them. They left behind everything except what they could carry on their backs. They’ve trusted in a prince turned prophet, a column of cloud, and a mysterious, splitting sea. And all that has landed the chosen people here, in the desert. Lost. Starving, and afraid. So they want to know. Did God put us through all that just to have us die? Maybe we should have stayed put, kept our heads down, and made ends meet the way we knew how.

Not too long ago, I moved to live in the desert not far from where the Israelites were wandering. I had gone there on a research grant to figure out if this whole academia thing was for me. The problem was that I had my answer pretty quick. And that was a loud, resounding “No.” At first, I struggled with the motivation to write and research, set up interviews, study the language. But soon I found myself struggling to even get out the door, or to feed myself. And I knew I was losing more than just weight. It felt like essential pieces of me were wasting away. The excited parts of myself that loved to learn, that wanted to achieve something to make this whole year worthwhile—I could feel them withering in the dusty, desert air. What was I doing here? Did I leave everything behind just to fade away?

In the Exodus story, when the Israelites cry out to God, God provides. Bread from heaven, in the exact amounts they need. But what God provides in Exodus seems so simple: food to fill hungry bellies. What happens when our needs are deeper, more complex, maybe even impossible to articulate? Maybe you’ve been there, too. At some point in your life, crying out to God for the inexpressible. Maybe you’re there now.

I’m not sure what I was longing for back then. Maybe it was longing for a purpose, a life-giving path out of the desert, maybe it was just a way home. In any case, it was certainly not something that can just fall from the sky. Or even, I realized, something I could discover by looking deeper and deeper into myself.

Now this was back before the word “discernment” was part of my regular vocabulary, but looking back that’s exactly what I realized had to do. I had to stop, reassess, and yes, let go of making sure I got the big, bright future I thought I deserved. I had to move from keeping my head down and making ends meet to looking around and noticing the world outside of myself. Even if in that moment all that meant my neighborhood outside my door.

See, larger purpose I was looking for turned out to be right down the street, in a little old Melkite Church where God was already doing amazing things, bringing Jordanian Muslims and Christians together during a contentious time. I stumbled upon God providing for others, and found I had a role to play there, too. And through that work, and subsequent partnerships with chaplains, I began to hear again the call to ministry I had given up on for so long.

In Jesus’ parable this morning, we find God again making sure everyone is provided for. Granted, God’s provision for God’s people isn’t as easy as dropping manna for the people to gather. The workers receive their daily bread as wages for back-breaking work, all day in the scorching sun. Each batch of new recruits is understandably focused on staying in the vineyard, keeping their heads down, and making ends meet.

Yet, at the end of the parable, it’s also clear that in doing so they’ve missed a huge part of the story. It’s not about you! God chides the first group of workers when they complain they deserve more than the laborers who worked fewer hours. The real story is my version of justice, says the landowner. The real story is my generosity, my grace.  The real story is what I was up to, this whole time, while you were busy.

Because here’s what God, the landowner was doing. God was looking out of the vineyard and seeing the unseen. The lost, the starving, and the afraid. God was going out into the streets hour after hour finding the left behind and bringing them in. God was making sure everyone God came across got that daily bread at the end of day, disconnecting the fulfillment of basic needs from the value society places on the last and least. So I wonder, how might the story have gone if the workers stopped to notice what the landowner was up to, this whole time?

As Christians, the life we are called to is far more than making sure that we’ve gotten what we deserve. God calls us, the church, to a larger purpose—loving our neighbors as ourselves, to seeing the unseen, the unfed, the unhoused, and the unemployed, and inviting them in. The last shall be first. And here’s the thing. God’s already out there, showing us the way.

This morning I want to wonder with you, what does it look like to lift our heads up and look around to see what God is up to in our neighborhood? Who is left standing empty-handed on our streets today? It might involve pausing in what we’re busy doing. It might even take setting something down or letting go of big dreams. Taking a break so that we might better listen for how God may be inviting us to lend a hand.

In a way, that’s what my new mission is, here at St. Aidan’s, as your seminarian. I’m here to listen and look for what God is already doing in your midst. To eavesdrop on neighbor checking up on neighbor at the Food Pantry on Fridays. To listen to the hard work of moving from denial to reality to hope in Christian Ed. To pull back the layers of discernment about what our neighborhood needs sanctuary to mean.

The good news is that God hasn’t brought us here, to this point, to just spiritually wither away. Here, at this table, is the bread of heaven. Here, in this neighborhood, the life-giving, justice-making, death-defying work is already underway. Are we ready lift our heads up and see it?