Love and Justice in the Priestly Kingdom

They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.“You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:2-8

What does it mean to be God’s treasured possession? A priestly kingdom and a holy nation? We can take a few hints from the Exodus story, from our own history – and from current circumstances. 

Last week while I was on vacation – no work, no laptop, fun with my pandemic bubble of family – and I couldn’t stay away from the news. Reports of the protests around the country, the deepening and broadening conversations about racism and injustice were evident even as I avoided the news on TV and radio. Anger and anxiety seeped into personal conversations. 

In the middle of the week, one of my friends posted an exasperated plea on Facebook: 

I see a lot of well-meaning calls for love and unity, she said, but they are not helpful. When you call for love or unity right now, you are asking for a shortcut past discomfort. You are asking people to support your comfort instead of staying with them in their pain and through our common struggle. 

She had a point. I had also heard some people wishing for comfort at a time when the national conversation is anything but comfortable.  

It was the word LOVE that most caught my attention though. My friend wasn’t wrong, there are many ways to use that word, but in my faith tradition – Christianity – Love is not a way to avoid discomfort. I believe that Christianity has something to say about the current national uprising against police brutality and racial injustice – and what it has to say is based on our claims about Love, Justice, and God’s mission.  

The Exodus story – especially the passage above – bears this out. The people God had rescued from slavery were on the move. They camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses ascended to receive a message from God to the people. 

This is an in-between time. The people had left slavery, but not yet entered into covenant with God. Their future was cloudy. They knew they needed change, they demanded and worked for change, but the new life had not arrived and there were still many dangers. They were literally and spiritually in the wilderness. 

These wilderness people were not yet a community in the fullest sense. They had a common experience, yet no real structures to hold them together. But they’d started! Just before the scene described above, Moses selected elders to hear grievances and resolve disputes. There was a lot of complaining and no real end-goal for their journey. 

In the not-so-distant past, we have a similar story of a wilderness community as part of our national heritage. Harriet Tubman was nicknamed Moses for her heroic efforts to free African American slaves in the American South. She was a woman of strong faith. Her sense of the equality of all people and her bravery in leading so many to freedom were grounded in her knowledge and personal experience of the love of God. 

That love was not comfortable. Look at this painting by Kadir Nelson that depicts Harriet Tubman on one of her journeys. 


Artwork by Kadir Nelson, from Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Her shoes are off and she is rubbing sore, bleeding feet. The work of justice was hard on her body and endangered her life. Like Moses of the Bible, she endured endless complaints from the people she helped about the hardship of their journey to freedom. Like the Israelites who left Egypt, freed slaves did not find post-slavery life to be easy.

Yet that work was a work of love that she understood to come directly from God. The painting depicts her looking upward, her guidance comes from God. She is in a wilderness. A time between oppression and the promised land. When times got hard, she remembered God’s presence and God’s saving acts – and trusted that God would be faithful to her and all those she led to freedom. 

The people at Sinai also needed the reminder of God’s presence and saving acts – God tells them through Moses:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…

This reminder of what God is for us and what God does for us is the foundation of our understanding of Love. 

In some languages and traditions, you can express different kinds of love with different words. In English, we have one word for all those kinds of love. You can love your breakfast taco and the weather. You can love your children and your spouse. You can love a poem or a painting. You can love your work and your house .You can even love a cause or a policy or a way of life.

As people of faith, who believe God is love, we need reminding of what that love is. In the language of our faith tradition, in the language of Scripture, Love is Justice. Speaking from the Christian tradition, Dr. Cornell West put it this way- Justice is what love looks like in public. 

The story of God’s mission- from Genesis through Revelation – bears this out. The Christian tradition tells us that love is not about waiting or comfort at all. In fact, NOT loving is explicitly linked to poverty, all kinds of oppression – and even to exile. Jesus was and is a living reminder of this truth – that God = Love = Justice. 

So it is important for us to remember ALWAYS that justice for us is not a social movement – although it can be that as well. Justice is the very mission of God. And we who claim to be Christians are missionaries of God’s justice-making through our baptism. 

In the Sinai wilderness, the people of Israel are still becoming a community, but they are already chosen by God. God already has a relationship with them. In that wilderness, after rescuing them from harsh oppression, God is inviting them to be God’s treasured possession, to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. 

It is an invitation, not a command. The people choose to take that role. Just as we do in our baptism. And it is important that the invitation at Sinai is not to individuals. They (we)  are God’s treasured possession together. The priestly kingdom and the holy nation are one unit, a community.

So hear me when I say that the oppression that Moses guided the Israelites from, that Harriet Tubman led slaves from is not the oppression of individual people who suffered. The oppression we are witnessing in our own nation today is not someone else’s oppression. 

The oppression of the Israelites, of American slaves, of people in our own city and nation is the oppression of us all. And the work of ending that oppression belongs to all of us. Racism and injustice in any form is an oppression for everyone who claims to be part of the priestly kingdom. 

Overcoming injustice is work that happens in the wilderness. It is difficult and uncomfortable. And it is the work of Love, the work of Justice. The public face of Love. We cannot avoid this work and claim to be followers of Jesus – indeed, people who claim to be the Body of Christ. 

The invitation God extended to the Israelites at Sinai – to be a priestly kingdom – has been extended to us as well. Being a priestly kingdom and a holy nation has requirements – and one is that we are in it together. 

Accept that invitation! You will not be alone.

Based on my sermon preached for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on June 14, 2020

Mystical advice

I’ve been meaning for a long time to read Evelyn Underhill, the early 20th century English mystic. Mostly, I was intrigued about there being mystics in the 20th and 21st centuries – as if this type of spirituality is restricted to more ancient times. Reading Howard Thurman in seminary cured me of that! And now Evelyn…

Although she wrote multiple books on mysticism and spirituality, I find her letters fascinating and practical. She addressed them to friends and acquaintances who sought her advice when they faced challenges in living out their faith. I tend to imagine mystics living otherworldly lives, detached from the rest of us. But Evelyn’s letters reveal that her spiritual life was pretty down-to-earth.

In April 1939, she wrote to a friend:
“Make up your mind from the first to ignore the ups and downs of the “spiritual climate.” There will be for you as for everyone sunny and cloudy days, long periods of dullness and fog, and sometimes complete darkness, to bear. Accept this with courage as part of the Christian life. Your conversion means giving yourself to God, not having nice religious feelings.”

She reminds this person that what offends you is “religious food and drink” to another.
“Beware of fastidiousness! You are highly sensitive to beauty, and whatever branch of the church you join, there will be plenty of things that offend your taste.”

In another letter, she described what we’d today call self-compassion:
“…don’t be ferocious with yourself because that is treating badly a precious (if imperfect) thing which God has made.”

As World War II was beginning and many were, as we are in our own day, distracted by fear and overwhelmed by uncertainty, she reminds us that “Christ did not come to save us from trouble but to show us how to bear trouble.”

It’s hard most of the time to see the mystical in the efforts it takes to get through the day. Work from home, school from home, masking for every venture out, planning for things that can’t be planned. When trapped in a cycle of very earthy worries, it’s hard to see the heavenly. Underhill reminds us that the heavenly is right here in the midst of the mundane – in fact, the mundane was made in love by the heavenly. As she wrote in a 1937 letter:
“Christianity does mean getting down to actual ordinary life as the medium of the Incarnation, doesn’t it, and our lessons that get sterner, not more elegant, as time goes on?”

From The Letters of Evelyn Underhill

Sing me a Psalm

Today was supposed to have been the last day of SXSW, the annual Austin festival of music, film, tech, and more. The streets and clubs and sidewalks that would have been teeming with hipsters from around the world are empty. We are all in our various homes (those of us lucky enough to have them) hoping to delay viral catastrophe.

I am still thinking about all the songwriters I typically see during this week in my town. Craftspeople who make tapestries with words, who turn air into art. And I was thinking of them when I considered the Psalm we said in virtual worship Sunday – Psalm 23.

Psalms are songs, they use words and music to help us – individually and collectively – express deep human emotion and experience. Even when you say them, the rhythm of the words is musical. They describe a wide range of experiences from agony to joy in a way that helps us feel less lonely in our sometimes angst-ridden humanity. When you hear one person’s experience expressed in song, both you and the songwriter know – I am not alone, someone else feels this, too.

This being Austin, I talked to a couple of songwriter friends about songs, psalms, and putting your words out there for the world to sing back to you. It is interesting, Psalms, especially the 23rd that I meditated upon today, are some of the most familiar words in any religious tradition. People of many different faiths or no faith at all know what comes after

“The Lord is my shepherd…”

Here’s something to contemplate – the Psalms are songs written to God. Yet they are also a part of scripture that is, in one way or another, understood to be God-sent. So who is singing to whom? My friend Jan Bozarth says there is no better feeling as a songwriter than having your words come back at you from an audience, when other people make your words their own. The psalms make that come true in both directions: God hears words of inspired scripture come back to God from us; we hear in the psalms God standing with us in the full range of our experiences.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me

Betty Soo, whose words I often sing in my car, notes that in modern songwriting there is an imperative to put your name on your work, to own it. Even when you want to share it, there is an industry built around stamping a song as yours or mine. Not really ours. The human crafters of the psalms, however, are anonymous, their work was meant to be lifted up by a whole people, on behalf of a whole people. And yet the words of the psalms can be experienced on both the individual and community level – I am walking through the valley of darkness and so are we. My cup overflows, and so does ours.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life

 All the days of my life. Of our lives. Of our life together.
Sing me a psalm.
Let’s sing it together; it is at the very least a duet.

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

 Perhaps in song and in psalm we are always at a community festival offering our words and our very selves to each other.

 

Refuge

On Saturday, I went to my old church for a funeral. At the door, I was greeted by refugees. In the foyer, I was again greeted by refugees and directed to the chapel where the service would be held. At the door to the chapel, a refugee welcomed me and handed me a service leaflet. All of this was a demonstration of love for a women that one of these refugees described as a refuge – not her home or her gestures, but her. She was a refuge.

There were multiple generations of refugee families in the pews, men and women, boys and girls who had fled violence in in their home country because their ethnic group was persecuted. After living in a refugee camp in a second country, they were granted admission to the United States a decade ago and given a fresh start. They work hard, their children are students, they share their art with the community, they are active members of their church. They are us.

About a dozen of the refugees formed a choir and sang a hymn to honor the woman they loved and revered as Grandmother. The woman who helped them settle in a new country, who connected them to schools and community resources. Members of her family wore traditional clothing, gifts made for them by the refugees. Refugees made the food for the reception. They were a refuge for us in our shared grief.

The day before the funeral, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared that our state would not accept any refugees in 2020. None. From anywhere. No women, men, or children fleeing persecution will be welcomed here. No people seeking a fresh start will get it here. We will not receive their commitment to education, freedom, hard work, and community. We will not benefit from their company and passions and friendships, their songs and food and gifts.

There is a lot to mourn in the governor’s decision. Our community is smaller – not only because we’ll welcome fewer people, but because we are being less loving, less just. Even opposing this policy, I feel smaller for living with the practical and spiritual consequences of closing our doors and our hearts.

Lord have mercy.

Holy Innocent

When you are prey, sleep doesn’t come easily.
Rest and vigilance become unlikely bedfellows, as it were.
I learned this from my rabbit, who startles at the sound of a footstep
even from the one who feeds him. He lives in my house,
but instinct tells him predators are near.
He is like a refugee from war
a child who flinches at a raised hand
a woman undressed by a look.
A holy innocent, who accepts my
touch, even knowing Herod is out there.

 

Waiting at the Border

Text City in Matamoros

The first weekend in December, my friend Sarah and I travelled to Brownsville with a small group of others to witness and help address – in a small way – the humanitarian crisis along our border with Mexico.

The people we went to serve are asylum seekers – families who are escaping violence and persecution, who are following the rules, and who are waiting across the border for a hearing to determine if their asylum claims are accepted so they can enter the US.

We spent a lot of time preparing for the work. Preparing for the trip itself. Planning and practicing school lessons. Preparing food for Saturday’s dinner. Getting advice from seasoned volunteers.

We spent hours preparing.
Then we drove to the Brownsville bus station,
loaded all our dinner provisions into folding carts
and walked it all through the bus station, down the street, around the corner, and across the international bridge to Matamoros.

And there it was. An impromptu camp with hundreds of tents. With hundreds of people. Almost all of them are young, because the journey they took to be at this camp was long and grueling and took almost all their strength. All of them are poor because they had to leave everything they had escaping death threats.

The preparation on most of Saturday was purposeful and joyful. We were a group who knew why we were there and knew we were privileged to be there. For those of us who hadn’t been across the bridge before, we knew we were doing what we had promised in our baptism – to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

If I can make a stretch of a comparison – we were just a little bit like John the Baptist, about whom we read during Advent – a season of waiting. He is preparing. He urges others to prepare. But can anything really prepare you for a mystery? John has his doubts. We have our doubts.

The camp was both larger and smaller than I expected. It was crowded and dirty and just within sight of safety and freedom. But not close enough.

Sarah and I got to do important work and then leave. Those in the camp do not. They stay indefinitely.

It is disappointing enough that you could almost hear all of us – the helpers and the asylum seekers – asking like John when his doubts set in, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

In other words, “We thought God was with us, but this doesn’t feel right.”

To which Jesus replies – paraphrasing – Look around you. the blind can see, the lame walk, the poor have good news brought to them…
The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered, the children are taught…

In the same instant we saw the poverty and dehumanizing conditions of the camp, we also saw love.

Older children crossed the street to help us carry our loads. Smaller children hugged us in welcome.

We told ourselves that on our venture into the camp we would be the face of Christ to the refugees there – and perhaps we were.

But more certainly, they were the face of Christ to us. Jesus lives in that camp. With ten ports potties and no shower. With two meals a day and an hour of school a week.
Jesus lives in that camp.

We are in a season of waiting, that is what Advent is all about. In some ways, the waiting is how we remember that God came to us as a child. We wait for family celebrations and gift-giving, and foods that both extravagant and comforting.

In some ways we are waiting even longer for the coming of Christ again. So Advent includes reminders that our wait can include troubling times and uncertainty.

I thought about this season of waiting when Sarah and I were with people who do nothing but wait all day, every day. They wait in uncertainty, in fear.

God made us to be with each other – to be with other people, to be with God. And we know God best when we are truly with others, especially others who can reveal a little about love and about being human that we don’t know from our own lives.

They complete the picture of what it means that Christ is with us.

They need us to be Christ to them – and even more we need them to be Christ to us as we wait together. And that’s the point, isn’t it? We never wait alone. God always waits with us.

Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made.
Even ashes.
Even dust.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I remember my father’s ashes falling into the earth, covered by soil, and now overgrown by ferns and moss.
I remembered him today as I pressed ashy crosses on the foreheads of about 50 people.
Fifty times I pressed my thumb into a bowl of ashes, then touched a warm forehead with my fingers as I used my thumb to trace a cross.
Said the words.
We beheld each other with these marks of our transience.

Never alone in our heart-rending silent prayers,
We approach and gather and confess together.
Return to me with all your heart, the prophet reminds us.
We are beloved.
Even as ashes.
Even as dust.
 

 

Getting read to get ready for Easter

It’s always a challenge figuring out how to challenge yourself for Lent
Give something up?
Take something on?

Maybe the challenge is, it isn’t a challenge
Maybe it’s an opportunity
It is, after all, preparation for great joy

So, do something that brings you closer
To the one who created you in joy
And created you for joy

And remember, no one is in this alone
The fasting and praying and giving of alms
The Body does together

The Magi

All twelve days of Christmas are now over, and now we celebrate one of the most important aspects of its meaning – not only did God become incarnate, God came for all of us. That is what Epiphany is all about.

One of the remarkable stories connected to Jesus’ birth is about strangers who were drawn to him even before his first sermon or miracle. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about a visit by Magi from afar – and it illustrates for us that right from the beginning God’s incarnation is more than even the most faithful believer expected.

Now, there’s an old joke that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable and made a casserole. They would have brought gifts more useful than gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But what is striking to me about this story is not what the Magi bring, but who they are. Now, to be sure, we don’t know much. Matthew does not tell us their names, where they were from, or even how many there were. Some translations say they were kings, but most say they were Magi – scholars, astronomers, scientists.

They have the means to bring extravagant gifts, the types of gifts you bring to a person of importance and high leadership.

And probably most important, they come from outside both the oppressed Jewish culture and the dominant Roman power structure into which Jesus was born.

These visitors come to a country not their own to honor a Messiah outside their tradition. Why was it so important that Matthew tell us this story? What does it tell us about Jesus and about our own faith today?

Prior to the arrival of the Magi, Matthew starts Jesus’ story with a genealogy that links him directly to Abraham and David. He is absolutely, definitively Jewish. His birth is the fulfillment of prophecies within one particular tradition.

These visitors are clearly not Jewish or even Roman – they are possibly Persian, Indian, Arabian. Legends have given them names  – Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar – that make the point that they come from the outside and they give an important signal to those on the inside.

Mary and Joseph are in that line of faith that culminated in the birth of Jesus. They are faithful to God, to their community. They have a special role to play in the story of God coming to us, yet they are also like their forebears and their own generation. They have waited and expected the Messiah to come to them. To the people who worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and study the Hebrew scriptures. To the people who were exiled to Babylon and are oppressed by the Romans. To the people who keep the law.

What does it mean that they will share him? With outsiders?
What does it mean for us?

Our scriptures tell us that the Messiah was foretold and expected based on tradition, word, and prophecy. But God Incarnate was also revealed by creation itself. You didn’t have to hold a certain belief to know about this King. The Magi saw signs of his coming written in the stars. This is not a Messiah who will stay inside one community.

This story of the Magi at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel connects with the message at the end of the gospel. After the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples –

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…

Well, this gospel tells us that at Jesus’ birth, the nations already came to him. Outsiders. They sought, found, and honored him.

The Magi come from outside to honor the Messiah on the inside.
The Messiah, this infant Jesus, fulfills a prophecy inside a specific religious tradition.
Yet he is recognized and honored by people from outside it.

No matter who you identify with in this story, if you recognize the Messiah you’re going to have to leave your comfort zone.

If you are like the Magi, you will seek and follow the holy wherever it takes you. You will risk being an outsider.
If you are like Mary and Joseph, you will welcome a stranger and the stranger’s gifts. You will risk redefining what it means to be inside.

The story of the Magi is a challenge to Christians today just like it was to its first audience centuries ago – are we insiders or outsiders? Most of us are both. Like the Magi, we are all seekers and strangers.Like the Holy Family we are kin.

What does it mean to share this Christ child with people whose faith experiences and expectations don’t match ours? What does it mean that the Messiah came for us as well as those who find God by a different path.

When people outside our comfort zone recognize Jesus, do we see it as a threat to our institutional religion, or welcome them as people who have given up all they have to follow? I think often, we see members of our own extended Christian family as outsiders. Maybe they baptize the wrong way. Maybe their worship is not liturgical enough, or too liturgical.

As we worship together and especially as we leave our time together at the altar, consider what it means to be an insider and an outsider. This movement from inside to outside, from outside to inside – it is one we each make all the time.

When we gather for worship, we come from our lives outside in the world to gather at the table on the inside.
We bring the successes and challenges, celebrations and brokenness here, remember the stories of God’s love for us and with us. We are fed.

The altar is where the inside and the outside meet. Where strangers and kin gather.

As a deacon these past few months, one of my regular duties has been to dismiss worshippers at the end of each weekly celebration. To send them – us – back outside.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.

When you gather at the altar, what treasure do you bring from the outside to the inside – how daring is your journey to seek the truth? When you leave, when you go outside, what will you take with you from the table?

When you are inside, whom do you welcome? Are you willing to expand your understanding of the infinite God you claim to follow? When you are outside, do you see the seeker in the faces you meet every day?

Every time you take your faith out into the world
Every time you welcome the world to your faith
It is a kind of Epiphany.

The coming of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God in the Christ Child didn’t put a bookend on a prophecy long ago. It opened up the experience of God’s love to all of us – and allows us to share it with all.