Jun 262011
 

Jeremiah 28: 5-9 & Matthew 10:40-42

Let’s face it — Prophets can be a pain in the neck —-

They poke us in our comfort zones – calling our attention to the things we’d rather not think about, shattering our notions of a safe and relatively peaceful existence

– Their cries can pull the rug of complacency out from under our comfy-slippered feet;

– Planting voices in our heads that we can’t drown out with the radio on the way home from work or

– Leaving dramatic images in our minds-eye that refuse to recede even at bedtime

Now not all bad news is prophetic – but it’s the kind of thing that you kow it when you hear it

I had that experience a few weeks ago when the US Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case called Brown v Plata involving the brutal effects of extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons

I was in the kitchen cooking dinner and listening to the news when this story came on.

The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and affirming the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment provided by the Eighth Amendment and ordering an end to the overcrowding states:

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. Courts nevertheless must not shrink from their obligation to “enforce the constitutional rights of all ‘persons,’ including prisoners.” Before I had ever heard of Brown v Plata my awareness of the facts of incarceration in the US was limited – I knew that far more people of color are in jail than white people and that harsher drug laws have exploded the prison population in the last few decades. What I didn’t know was that despite a steady decrease in crime rate over the past 15 years we now incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world – (a 400% increase since 1980) more than Russia, Rwanda, Cuba, 5 times more than China or India; and that the racial impact of sentencing guidelines have been devastating- for example: the chances of being jailed in America is 1 in 4 for black men and 1 in 6 for Hispanic men versus only 1 in 23 for white men.

Now I can tell you that the particulars of the California prison case are not for the fainthearted:

In a matter that has been before the state and appellate courts for more than a decade and in which the state of California has never denied the life threatening consequences of its systems’ unrestrained overcrowding –the facts are hard to fathom, hard to take in, hard to believe about one of the largest states in America, in 2011 no less.

Indeed the descriptions of the suffering, agony and preventable death particularly among those inmates who are either physically or mentally ill sound more like something you’d picture in a third world country – a war zone or a dictatorship; not here in our America.

In his decision, Justice Kennedy wrote “For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result.”

Some of the facts in the case that he found most compelling include

— Nearly 150,000 prisoners reside in a system designed to house just under 80,000– and it has been operating at 200% capacity for more than a decade.

— As many as 200 may live in a gymnasium, with only 2-3 guards

— A suicide rate on average of one per week. A rate 80% higher than the national average.

— Inmates wait as long as12 months times to see a mental health counselor

And those are only a few of the disturbing details you will find in the decision

It would have been easiest to turn off the radio – and I admit I have done that on occasion – just turned off news of something,– some atrocity I could not bear to hear about– something I was afraid would stay with me, disturbing sleep and straining my hope in some level of basic human goodness

Doing so makes me no different from most of the Israelites who dismissed their Old Testament prophets. It’s one of the most recurrent themes throughout the OT — that of folks ignoring the pleas of God and God’s prophets to renew their covenant – ignoring the pleas of prophets like Jeremiah

He is one of the most vivid prophets of the 7th century BCE and he struggled mightily with his assignment

He was never in the inner circles of power like some other prophets –like Isaiah, but preached instead at the Temple door

He fretted openly even bitterly sometimes about the task set before him and the deaf ears in his audiences

He is one whom most Hebrew bible scholars will tell you was never really heeded in his lifetime but was much more likely thought of as a nut

Yet throughout his prophetic life Jeremiah focused on how Kings treated peasants – on how they used and hoarded their power and privilege, and how greed among the most powerful created and maintained an impoverished class. His job was to be a critic – but a critic who hadn’t lost hope for the realization of God’s kingdom, (something he learned from Moses) he was a verbal stone in the shoe, one who pointed out injustice, who begged the elite, the privileged, the powerful to imagine a different reality than the one they were pursuing – one rather in which knowing God and living out a covenant with God meant recognizing and caring for the poor & the needy not ignoring them

In a couple of short sentences we read from Matthew this morning, Jesus makes a similar and stunningly simple claim

Echoing Jeremiah’s pointed reminder that all world history revolves around the question of justice

Jesus tells us it all comes down to a cup of cold water

This simple imagery is not lost on anyone who has ever been thirsty – ever experienced real thirst – after a long hike, a game of soccer or work in the yard on a hot day. The sheer force of this analogy of our interdependence upon one another is in its physicality and that it is universally common to every one of us

It’s that real and that simple he declares

For all of our inclination toward complicating the rules and requirements for attaining salvation – Jesus insists it is really about how we treat one another- especially the “little ones” known elsewhere in Matthew and other gospels as the “least of these” the forgotten, the excluded, the marginalized, the imprisoned – Afterall –who is more marginalized and forgotten by our society than those in jail?

Through his actions- especially sharing meals with the outcasts of every kind in his day, Jesus constantly reminds us that you can’t pretend they aren’t there – act as though they don’t exist – and also that there’s a cost when we do – not just to them but to our moral beings as well

It’s hard to be asked to think about those we have relegated to the shadows – about those who have been forgotten – excluded – but there it is – exactly what he is asking us to do

Maybe that’s why the Kennedy decision came to mind when I read today’s readings and was reminded of all the times I have been guilty of turning away from news of how we fail one another, tuning out the most despairing stories of our shortcomings as a species. It makes me think that one of the greatest privileges of class, of being financially comfortable enough to live in a safe neighborhood, in a small town is just that– choosing what suffering to let in – choosing to distance myself from the real suffering and anguish of others and act as though they aren’t there

Some may think it’s a stretch to think of Justice Kennedy as a prophet – but it seems to me that his courage to stand with the little ones, with the least among us– fits with Walter Brueggemann’s definition of prophet as ‘poet of critique and of hope”. In his ruling Justice Kennedy addresses directly the practical difficulties and public safety issues posed by the order which the court handed down but also points to a higher calling based on human decency and compassion. “As a consequence of their own actions” he says “prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”

Despite a vigorous dissent from several of his colleagues, Kennedy held fast to his conviction that we are called to do everything we can to protect the basic integrity of all. His decision declares that knowing what he’d learned of the circumstances in California’s prisons meant that he could not act as though he didn’t know- he could not pretend that the inmates there – fellow human beings –deserve the conditions to which they are subjected. In his role as a Justice he felt compelled not only to call out the injustice so plainly before him in this case, but to hold up his hope in our ability as a society to end it.

We are better than this, his ruling declares, insisting that we must and we will find some way forward toward treating even the imprisoned as our brother, as the children of the God we pray keeps us all close.

Jesus’ simple words force me to think about how and when I can offer that cup of cold water

So what if I don’t know anyone in jail? – what can I do? There are options – like finding specific ways to offer support –sending books or writing letters to someone in jail, or finding ways to support the families of so many who suffer often silently under the stigma we assign in our society to having someone behind bars. Maybe too it’s just as important to hear the larger message of refusing to participate in a collective ignorance about the frightful state of American prisons, about not pretending that a prison sentence, or poverty or homelessness releases me or anyone of us from our obligation one another.

Let us give thanks for Justice Kennedy’s courage, and let us pray for the strength not to turn away from hard news about how we treat the least of god’s children, let us pray for the imprisoned, for the people they have harmed, for their families struggling outside, and for all those who work in prisons, let us ask for God’s abiding love and mercy.

Amen

 

 

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 Sermon for June 26  Posted by on Sun, 26-Jun-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for June 26
Jun 192011
 

Most Sundays during the school year we gather at 8:00 and 10:15 for worship and Holy Eucharist. Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome to worship with us.

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 Sunday Worship  Posted by on Sun, 19-Jun-11 Ministries Comments Off on Sunday Worship
Jun 192011
 

This first Sunday following the feast of the Holy Spirit has always been known in the church as Trinity Sunday. This Trinity Sunday I will not be preaching on the topic of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I will not be trying to unbraid that doctrine and make it understandable- for I have found that the harder I try to use my mind to understand the Trinity, the less I understand. So I won’t take you that direction in this sermon.

What I will do is tell you a story about what I imagine it was like to be a person encountering God as Creator, Word, and Spirit amid the community of the early church – before the doctrine of the Trinity even existed. And I will invite you to join me in making the community of the Trinity more fully known in our world.

So here is my imagined first person account of what it could have been like to meet the Trinity in early Christian community.

I was surprised to hear myself accepting the invitation.

I am not sure it I would call it luck or fate, or something in between, that brought me to that place that day. It was not my normal marketing day, but my schedule had been turned topsy- turvy by a number of unanticipated projects that week, so there I was with the throngs, being jostled and crowded. I probably would not have even noticed the small group gathered in the shade of a side alley if it had not been for some rambunctious children who in the oblivion of playing tag among the crowd upended my basket. Before any of my goods got trampled, there were 3 people there alongside me picking everything up. So as quickly as it happened it was righted again and the smiling strangers, seeing that I was harried and overheated, invited me to join them for a few moments of rest in the shade. Usually I am a very cautious person, so I was surprised to hear myself accepting the invitation. It was something in their manner of asking that spoke deep peace and gentleness to me, and after the jostling of the crowd, I knew I could use a bit of both.

Not much happened in that alley that day. The small band of friends shared some water and some fruit as we talked about the weather and the many beautiful colors and scents of the market place. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but somehow I sensed something more was happening in the group. And when they rose to leave, I was not ready to go, and so I remained seated, not knowing what to do.

Several of my new acquaintances traded knowing looks, and finally one of the women squatted down beside me and told me that they would be meeting again the next day at the home of another friend, and that I would be welcome to join them if I liked. I flushed with embarrassment – what on earth must they think of me – that I was a waif with no direction in life? But astonishingly, I found myself accepting the invitation. Something inside me burned with the conviction that I had to go and be with them again – that it would be my only chance to tap into the mysterious connection I sensed among them. I took the address and said I would see them the next day.

By the time I turned in that night, I had talked sense into myself and decided I would not go. I realized that it must have been the heat of the day that had caused me to think that there was something special about the group. They were nothing more than kind strangers, but they were after-all still strangers, and so not to be so quickly trusted. No, I would not go the next day, which was already choked full of duties that needed attending to.

When I arose the next morning I was still resolute. But as I went about getting ready for the day, making my plans, I was overcome by a sense that I must go to the address they had given me – that I must go to be with them. My normal ability to get control of my thoughts failed me – it was as if someone else was thinking inside my head, and the thought was a simple one word refrain – “follow”. At every turn I heard that refrain – “Follow! Follow!” and it was as if some unseen hand was moving me toward the door, nudging me gently, pushing each time I resisted. Finally I decided that I would just go out – fresh air might help clear my mind. But once I was on the street, the voice inside grew stronger, and the refrain changed from “Follow!” to “Follow me!”

“Perhaps,” I thought, “the deep end might not be so bad.”

I waited for the panic within me, the panic I had known so well at other times in my life, which would send me scurrying again to the safety of my home. But it never came. I thought to myself that I must be going of the deep end, but somehow I didn’t care. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the deep end might not be so bad.” And so I began running to be with my new friends.

When I got to the address they had given me, the door to the house stood open. I went in and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the half light of the house. I saw my acquaintances from the market sitting in a circle with several others. One of them rose to greet me and invited me into the circle. After a few minutes of my heart pounding nervously, I began to sense the same connection among this group that I had felt the day before, only stronger now. In fact the connection among them seemed to have a life of its own, like a live current swishing and dancing among us.

I noticed that words of prayer were being said and that something was then being slowly passed around the circle. When it reached the hand of the man next to me, I saw that it was bread. He took the bread, broke it and gave it to me. “The body of Christ,” he said.

So these were Christians. My mind raced with the tales of human sacrifice and cannibalism that the gossip mongers pedaled about these people. “The body of Christ,” he gently said again, and as I looked into his face, I saw nothing but love and I knew the gossip was not true. I clumsily took the bread and did the same for the person on the other side of me – “The body of Christ” I haltingly said. Then I turned away and shyly ate my piece.

I was not prepared for the feeling that came as I ate that bread – it was as if the presence I had sensed moving in the room moved inside of me, filling me with a sense of strength and fullness of joy that I had only ever felt before when gazing on the incredible goodness and beauty of God’s creation. “This cup was poured out for you.” He said, and I drank deeply.

Looking back now I realize that this was my first introduction to the Word and the Spirit who with the Creator reveal the depth of Divine love and care for us humans and for all creation. I am so glad I took my friends up on their invitation that day to jump with them into the deep end of God’s presence. Since that I have made a good many invitations of my own. That is how the sacred circle grows. May it be so among us! Amen+

 

 

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 Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2011  Posted by on Sun, 19-Jun-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2011
Jun 122011
 

Sisters and brothers, we are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in us!
(1 Cor 3:16) Lord, we pray, draw us into knowing the Holy Spirit in
one another just as you know it in us. Amen.

Last week we celebrated this congregation’s 300th birthday. It was a
great and joyful celebration, wasn’t it? It was wonderful to be able
to reflect on the history of events here, and rejoice that the Holy
Spirit has been in this group of people continuously, since before the
memory of anyone here. That Holy Spirit is the force that holds us
together in love through the ages. Bishop Tom told our children that
he prays each day that God might work through him to heal the world.
It’s the Holy Spirit that makes him pray for that privilege, and the
same Holy Spirit that grants his wish. It’s the Holy Spirit that
makes you a people of love and healing.

With last week being a birthday celebration, looking back with joy,
it’s fitting that this week – Pentecost – is the church’s commencement
celebration. We celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and the
beginning of the public mission of the church. In Acts we hear an
account of Peter standing before, and standing up to, a bunch of
sneering skeptics, and publicly claiming Jesus as Lord. This is Peter
transformed. Can this be the same Peter to whom Jesus had to explain
everything over and over? Can this be the same Peter who denied Jesus
three times? Teachers may recognize this Peter as a student turning
from a sophomore into a graduating senior. Something happened to him
on that day to change him. The Holy Ghost tapped him on the shoulder
and whispered, “you!” in his ear Like any transforming event, it’s a
cause for celebration. But maybe it’s a little bit humbling and
challenging at the same time.

Anna (Carolyn and my daughter) had her commencement a few weeks ago.
It was a lot of fun. She and her fellow students showed off their
work, and received their diplomas. I’m told they partied until
sunrise. Many of us have been through such fine events. You probably
remember what Anna is facing now celebration mixed with: the big
question “what next?” Commencements are like that. Reality sets in.
No more excuses. No more rehearsals. It’s time to live into your
life’s calling, time to get a job. In successful commencements, the
Spirit taps the graduates on the shoulder and says to each of us.
“You! Life begins today. Get up, go!” Hopefully the Spirit is saying
that to Anna (I confess, the Spirit is getting a little help from the
parents who love her and are proud of her.)

The Pentecost event was obviously successful for the church. The
Spirit came among them, as the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise that the
Spirit will sustain them, and us, starting now and forevermore. It
was no ending, but rather the beginning of life eternal.

Then and now, such a new beginning – such an opening up of vast time –
is a joy, but also an enormous challenge.

It happens that this week is the 30th anniversary of the emergence of
HIV-AIDS. If you remember that time, you may remember losing somebody
you knew to that fearful disease. I lost Wayne, a co-worker who had
the courage to be out back then. I remember our manager loudly and
fearfully denying that AIDS killed him, in spite of what he told his
friends. It was a confusing time.

This week Bill Hayes wrote a New York Review of Books article,
recalling a time capsule he helped assemble at a Pride parade at the
height of the epidemic. He asked people in the parade to take a
moment to write notes to the future to go into the capsule. He found
an old manila envelope with copies of some of those slips of paper.
One person wrote … “Loss, loss, loss…. The pain of loss, the relief
of the unscathed, the loneliness of being the survivors.” Another
wrote, “What it is to be happy will never be the same.” The disease
crucified Wayne and may others, and left the survivors fearful and
confused, like the disciples gathered in our Gospel reading.

But sometime during the last 30 years, something amazing happened.
HIV went from being a guaranteed death sentence to something we can
live with. All of a sudden peoples’ vistas opened up. Some had even
given away their possessions when they found they had life, not death,
before them. Suddenly the Holy Spirit was tapping them on the
shoulder saying, “You! Life begins today! Get up! Go!” One little
note to the future from a person in that Pride parade that day long
ago said “Keep struggling and fighting for your dreams. Have hope.
Have faith.” Time opened up again.

On this feast of Pentecost that’s what the Holy Spirit is saying to
the church and the world. “Have hope. Have faith.”

We’re baptizing two little people today – Emme and Sophia. Pentecost
is a fitting day for this, because it’s the day the church moves
beyond the death of our Lord. It’s the day we, the church, move
beyond death into life. St. Paul wrote, “we have been buried with
[Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as [he] was raised from
the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness
of life.”

And today is the day, For Sophia, and Emme, and all of us. Vast time
lies open before us all. Today is the first day of eternal life. And
that’s good, because there’s a lot to do. God needs these two small
children, and the rest of us, do our part to heal this world, in the
name of Jesus our Lord, friend, and brother.

Emme, Sophia, have hope. Have faith.

Amen.

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 Sermon for Pentecost 2011  Posted by on Sun, 12-Jun-11 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Pentecost 2011