My One Sermon

Like all my sermons, I feel like the words on the page are nothing like the moment in which this happened, which was powerful beyond anything I can describe. One day I’ll remember to get a video of me preaching. 

First reading

Hear these words from the prophets.

A reading from the prophet Isaiah

But now, Leah and Rachel and Jacob, hear the word of God – the One who created you, the One who fashioned you, Israel: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the seas, I will be with you; when you pass over the rivers, you will not drown. Walk through fire, and you will not be singed; walk through flames and you will not be burned. I am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer.

(Isaiah 43:1-3a)

A reading from the prophet Ezekiel

God says to Israel, “I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

(Ezekiel 36:24-28)

Gospel Reading

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

(Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

Sermon MCC Hartford
January 10, 2016 – Baptism of Jesus
Luke 3:15-22
Marie Alford-Harkey, Clergy Intern

Water plays a huge role in our scriptures, beginning with the creation stories of Genesis where we read that the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. And then God created the earth and tamed the waters by separating them into seas and the sky.

We learn that water is cleansing and healing in 2 Kings where Naaman was cleansed of leprosy by washing in the River Jordan, the same river where Jesus would be baptized hundreds of years later.

Water is also used to indicate something fearful, dangerous, and chaotic, especially in the psalms. In Psalm 69, the psalmist pleads “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck,” because being submerged in water signified being in anguish of spirit. And in Psalm 18, the psalmist proclaims that God saved them because God rescued them from the water. “You reached down from on high, you took me; you drew me out of mighty waters.”

In our readings from the Hebrew scriptures today, we see both concepts of water: as fearful and as cleansing and renewing.

In Isaiah, God tells God’s people, “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the seas, I will be with you; when you pass over the rivers, you will not drown. Walk through fire, and you will not be singed; walk through flames and you will not be burned. I am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer.”

In Ezekiel, God promises to cleanse God’s people from their uncleannesses by sprinkling clean water upon them and then promises: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Rituals involving water were important to the Jews of Jesus’ and John’s time. The concept of immersing in water to mark a change in one’s life or for purification was a common practice. To this day, Jews immerse themselves in ritual pools known as mikvehs to spiritually purify themselves before significant life events. John proclaimed that God’s realm was coming very soon, and people understood his message of repentance from sin and the corresponding outward act of purification and starting a new life by washing or immersion in water.

Later in his ministry, Jesus makes use of the symbolism of water – John’s gospel recounts Jesus telling a blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam to receive his sight. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tell us that whoever offers a cup of water to someone is offering hospitality and in Luke’s gospel he reminds us that providing a basin of water to wash one’s feet was also basic hospitality. And of course one of the most intimate moments of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples was when he took a towel and a basin and washed THEIR feet with water.

But back to today’s reading. Why is Jesus baptized by John? He doesn’t need to repent, or to be cleansed or purified.

But Jesus’ baptism signifies the moment where Jesus’ life changes. This is the moment when Jesus is commissioned by God to begin his ministry of proclaiming God’s commonwealth on earth. And note well, that this is the beginning. Before Jesus has performed one miracle, preached one sermon, recounted one parable, healed one leper, God said, “You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

“You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” These words are not just for Jesus. They are for us, God’s people. As Isaiah said, “I have called you by name; you are mine.” As Ezekiel said, “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.”

You are my own, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased. Those words are for us.

I can still remember the first time someone told me that these words were for me. I was on a 3-day silent retreat. The retreat was at a Roman Catholic convent. Part of the retreat was that I would meet with a spiritual director (one of the nuns) once a day.

So I went into this nun’s office, not quite sure what to expect from a 3-day silent retreat or from a nun spiritual director who had never met me. We talked for a few minutes and it became clear that this was serious business to her. She had prayed for all the people she would be directing on this retreat. So when she said “I’ve chosen a scripture for you for this retreat,” I was convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me though her. And this was the scripture. “You are my own, my Beloved. With you am I well-pleased.” She told me to go and sit with this scripture and imagine God saying it to me.

I was completely un-done. I read it over and over, crying every time. “You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

It wasn’t easy for me to hear that as God’s word to me. I have had to un-do a lot of the teaching I got as a young Christian. I was taught that God was always judging me and that I was always falling short. One of the scriptures that I can still recite from memory is “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I was taught that baptism “washes away our sins” but that it was still my sins that killed Jesus. I was taught that God is love at the same time that I was taught that Jesus HAD to die because God demanded retribution for my sins. This theology that taught me how awful I was did not leave a lot of room for me to hear “You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

It was pretty confusing, quite honestly, especially for a young teenager. And it’s a theology that permeates our airwaves in the United States. My own boss once said to me, “How can you worship a God who would demand the death of someone in payment for someone else’s wrongdoing?”

Good question. Short answer. I can’t. I don’t. But it took me years to arrive here. For me, the journey to finding that God who loves me, who calls me Beloved, who claims me as God’s own, began with leaving. I left Christianity when I left for college. I had been “falling away” for some time. I just couldn’t take the constant fear of judgement and the constant feeling of not measuring up. So I walked away, definitively, and called myself an atheist. I proclaimed that religion was just for people who weren’t very bright. But even with all that posturing, it took years before I could bring myself to believe that I wasn’t going to hell because I didn’t believe in Jesus anymore.

After years of inner work, I wanted to believe that I was done with Jesus. But I wasn’t.
After divorce, after coming out, after successfully avoiding Jesus for 15 years, my first lover was a Christian. We met online and I can still remember when she asked me if I was a Christian. I typed back something like, “No, I’m a lesbian.” I didn’t understand how a person could be both.

But she did. Turns out that she’d had a lot of experience with a “big gay church” in Houston where she lived. (Thanks, Resurrection MCC.) So when she moved to Toledo, we went to Good Shepherd MCC. It took me a while to settle in though. I wanted to believe that God loved me just as I am, but all that old theology kept coming up and I wondered if we were all just deluded. Slowly, God’s love won. Sunday after Sunday, I kept showing up. And Sunday after Sunday, church changed me. The Holy Spirit found her way into through my brokenness.

I stand here today confident that God loves us all with a lavish, expansive, extravagant love that is beyond all that we can imagine. That day, when that nun handed me the scripture that said “you are my own, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased,” I just kept crying in gratitude, because I knew those words were as true for me as they were for Jesus.

They say that every preacher has one sermon. This is mine. This scripture is for us. God loves us. All of us. Extravagantly. Without exception, without reservation. We are all worthy of love. We are all valuable in God’s sight, without ever having done one damn thing to prove our worth.

So hear this for yourself today. God says to you: you are mine. You are beloved. With you I am well-pleased. Amen.

Snakes in the Desert

Marie Alford-Harkey
Advent 3C, December 13, 2015
Luke 3:6-18, “Making the House Ready for the Lord” by Mary Oliver
MCC Hartford, CT

I don’t know about you, but I did NOT come to church today to be called a “brood of vipers.” I’m guessing that the folks who had gone out to the desert to hear John the Baptist didn’t show up to be called names either.

But that’s what happens. John calls them a “brood of vipers” and then asks them who warned them to flee “from the wrath to come.” You see John, like many people of his day, believed that the world was going to end soon, with the coming of a Messiah who was going to take names and kick some butt. And John has a hunch that these folks aren’t serious, that they’re just showing up to hear him because it’s sort of “the thing to do.”

Hey honey, there’s this crazy smelly prophet out in the desert everyone’s been going to hear. What do you say we take a walk out there this weekend and see what the big deal is?

Last week’s reading was about how John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” preparing the way of the Lord by making the path straight and level so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” I’d go hear that, even from a smelly desert dwelling locust eating prophet.

But this week, he’s calling the crowd a brood of vipers and warning them to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

But where is the good news? This is a question Aaron and I have been discussing throughout Advent. I’ve been rather immersed in the bad things happening in the world, looking for the joy in the pain of current events. And Aaron has been seeing miracles every day.

Our canticle for this week says, “Shout and sing for joy, for the holy one is in your midst.” So we have both – snakes in the desert, and singing for joy. Isn’t that just like life?

The world is frightening and ugly right now and we cannot ignore that. And there is joy and hope. And we dare not ignore that either.

This season of Advent makes no sense until we acknowledge how badly we need the hope for a new world that it brings. The world is broken. Humanity is broken. We kill each other out of fear and ignorance and we worship a culture of violence. We fail to act to stop it.

The New York Daily News is right – “God isn’t fixing this.” The anger and violence directed towards Planned Parenthood and abortion providers, black lives, immigrants, refugees, and transgender people shares common roots: fear and judgment. This intolerance is not isolated or random, but rather the predictable consequence of stereotyping, shaming, and the willful dehumanization of individuals and communities.

God doesn’t meet our longing for a new world with a sweeping intervention to fix the brokenness. There’s no Messiah kicking butt and taking names. Instead, a baby comes among us to teach us how to bring about God’s realm on earth. A smelly ranting prophet comes and calls us to repentance.

As Christians, we believe in the patently foolish notion that God’s commonwealth of justice, compassion, and love can come among us even as we look around and see nothing but brokenness.

How will we respond as faithful people? What can we do to challenge the culture of fear and judgment, guided by the values of love, compassion, respect, and justice?

John the Baptist calls for repentance. He calls us to turn from what we’ve been doing, to SHOW that we are somehow different by “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.” But how?

I came across this quote this week:

“Religion says God will love us if we change. The Gospel says: God’s love changes us.”

“God’s love changes us.” God’s love changes us. Not our own efforts, but God’s love. God’s love changes us. God’s love causes us to repent – to literally turn around and change direction. It causes us to respond to that overwhelming love by turning towards God. In the midst of all of the brokenness of the world and our own lives God’s love calls us to turn towards God.

John tells us that if we turn around, towards God, accepting that extravagant love, Jesus will change us from the inside out. Jesus will come and sweep out all the chaff from our hearts – all the dead things that we don’t need – and leave room for God’s love.

But even getting rid of things that don’t bring life is hard for us humans. This year April and I are sharing Advent practices with our friends Lauren and Melissa. We have several practices and most of them center around making some space in our lives.  One of our practices is to discipline ourselves off social media and screens for 30 minutes before going to bed and after getting up, and to limit mindless TV watching.

It’s amazing how much space opens up in my life when I limit social media and television. April and I are doing radical things like eating together across from one another at the table. And talking! We have time to pray together in the mornings!  It’s some kind of miracle, for sure.

But that’s not to say that it’s easy. The truth that I am discovering is that my practice of less screen time, means less mindless background noise. It means that when I’m home alone, I can’t use television and social media to distract myself from worry, or fear, or whatever it is I’m avoiding by filling my time with things that aren’t always good for me. (Not that television or social media are bad in and of themselves. But for me, in large doses right now, they distract from making space for God.)

Turning toward God means we have to overcome our fears of letting God into the dark places in our hearts and lives. We have to overcome the fear that Jesus might come and sweep out some dead stuff that we really don’t want to give up. It means that we have to trust God, and not be afraid, as our canticle says.

That’s how we overcome fear: with the knowledge of God’s extravagant, overwhelming love for us. The song you’re going to hear after the sermon is one that has been really helpful to me this Advent. The words are very simple

Don’t be afraid
My love is stronger
My love is stronger than your fear
Don’t be afraid
My love is stronger
And I have promised
Promised to be always near.

My friend Ana sings just those words over and over, and the more she sings, the more I hear the voice of God. And it just breaks me – hearing God telling me over and over “my love is stronger than your fear and I have promised to be always near.”

So what then shall we do?

Turn toward God, trusting in God’s love. Move through the fear. Then the next steps are easier. Notice what John says to the individuals who ask him, “What then should we do?” Do you have more than you need? Then share. Are you a tax collector? Do your job honestly. Are you a soldier? Don’t bully people.

John doesn’t demand anything radical. Just be the best, most generous you that you can be. Turn toward God, accept the love, and see where it leads us as individuals and as a society.

I want to believe that we are at a tipping point in our society. That we can turn toward God, toward the goodness that dwells in and among us and proclaim that we really are better than the fear, and judgment, and violence. If enough of us are brave enough to let love change us, perhaps we can change the world. Like these folks.

A collective of American Muslim leaders and groups have united to raise funds for the San Bernardino victims’ families. Let that sink in. While politicians are calling for them to be banned from the United States, to have to register as Muslim, these Muslims leaders and groups are not letting the fear win.

They say,

“We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action. Our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: “Have mercy to those on earth, and the One in the Heavens (God) will have mercy upon you.” And the Quran teaches to “Repel evil by that which is better” (41:34).”

Their goal was to raise $30,000. So far, they have raised $197,000. Because love casts out fear.

There is love and courage all around us and in us.

John says that we can find the right path and change direction. We can let go of the past, turn toward God, and become a new creation. And we can do that over and over again. And so can our world.

Today, we celebrate God’s vision of wholeness in a broken world. This is not denial nor foolishness, though it certainly seems so.  It is the gift of faith and love in which joy comes from identifying with God’s cause. God’s commonwealth of justice, peace, and compassion will come, and while we wait for our own and our world’s transformation, we can joyfully choose to act our way into a new way of being, living, and loving – we can help bring about God’s kin-dom on earth.

Love is a Verb

Sermon for Proper 26B
MCC Hartford
Marie Alford-Harkey
November 1, 2015: Feast of All Saints

First Reading: from the wisdom of Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was a mystic who lived in the 14th century. While she lay ill from the plague, she had a series of 16 intense visions which she called showings. She later wrote them all down and tried to explain them. She is famous for the saying “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” This reading is taken from the last chapter of what she wrote about her showings, where she concludes that love is what it all meant.

“‘Do you really want to see clearly the Lord’s meaning in the showings? Well then, learn it well: Love was God’s meaning. Who showed you these visions? Love. What were you shown? Love. Why were you shown these visions? For love.’ … And so I finally understood: Love was the meaning in everything God had shown me.”

Gospel: Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard Jesus and the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that the scribe answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.

My favorite part of this passage is the end, where Mark tells us, “After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”

See, before this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been in Jerusalem and has been fending off efforts by the religious elite to find some theological or political basis to bring charges against him. “Tell us by what authority you do and say these things.” “Should we submit to Roman taxation?” “What family obligations do we have in the next life?” All they want to do is find something they can use to destroy his credibility. But Jesus has been far too clever for them, turning the tables on them every time. Jesus is being tested one last time in this week’s gospel.

So the Pharisees send in one of their “big guns,” what Mark calls “a scribe.” This person is like a professor of the Torah (the first five books of our bible – the holiest of books for the Jews), somebody, in other words who was a specialist in the ways of God, who taught other people the fine points about obeying God. They take one of their most reputable and distinguished leaders to ask Jesus a question.

What is the most important commandment, the scribe asks. And he’s not asking about which of the 10 commandments is most important. Scholars tell us that there were some 613 commandments in Jewish law at that time that could be derived from or traced back to the law of Moses. Jewish people lived by these commandments, and people like the scribe helped them to know what they all were and how to follow them. So basically, Jesus had 612 ways to answer the question wrong.

But that’s not what happens. Jesus answers, and if he hesitated in front of the scholar, we’re not told about it. And he answers not with one commandment, but two, both from the Torah.

One is called the great Sh’ma from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (Sh’ma means “hear” in Hebrew) and the scripture is – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The Sh’ma was the most basic statement of faith for Israel that every devout Jew repeated seven times a day.

It proclaimed that God is not one being among other beings. God is the only one of God’s kind and it is our solemn duty to be faithful to God and God alone, to love God before all else, the duty of every faithful Jew to keep the words of God in their heart. “This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus tells the scribe. It was something every devout Jew would have known by heart.

Then Jesus quotes from another part of the Torah: Leviticus 19:18, saying that the second most important commandment is this – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells the scribe that no other commandments are greater than these.

In a surprising moment, the scribe actually agrees with Jesus. It seems that maybe he’s not here to trap him after all.  The scribe goes on to add, you’re right – these commandments are far more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices. And Jesus tells the scribe that he’s not far from God’s realm because he can see that this scribe gets it.

So here we have it – Jesus and the Torah scholar agree – the most important commandments are to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s it. It’s all about love.

I have a shirt from Resurrection MCC. I’m sure you’ve seen ones like it before. On the front is says “Got love?” and on the back it reads “Jesus said, love thy neighbor… thy gay neighbor, thy straight neighbor, thy white neighbor, thy black neighbor…” You know the one I mean.

I love this shirt. Sometimes I forget what’s on the back and get caught off guard by people’s reactions. I wore it to Rhode Island Pride, for example. There, I realized that people were surprised to see a biblical message that wasn’t being used to condemn them. It started several different conversations. I love when I get to talk about Jesus at pride events.

But other reactions happen when I’m just out in the regular world. Queer folks and our allies will smile knowingly at me. Sometimes I get the “homo head nod” – you know you know what I’m talking about. And sometimes people will come up and say, “I like your shirt,” in a kind of knowing way. I’m always hopeful that some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer person will see my shirt and perhaps rethink what they’ve been told about what God thinks of them.

So I love the point that this shirt makes, and I love the sort of public witness that happens whenever I wear it.

But there are some ways in which this shirt makes things a little too simple. It makes it sound like loving our neighbors is easy. Love this neighbor and that neighbor and the other neighbor.. and so on… and it’s all good. Like all God is calling us to do is love the people who are different from us whom we meet and like and have relationships with. But there’s more to it.

Loving God with everything we have means that we have to give everything we have to the task of loving God. Our minds, our hearts, our souls, and our strength have to be set on loving God. It is hard to maintain that kind of focus on God in our daily life. But doing so is the only we can do the other thing that is asked of us, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Of course loving our neighbors goes beyond merely saying that we love them. As one of the student clergy at our Northeast Regional Gathering preached last weekend, “love is a verb.” On this All Saints Sunday, we celebrate people who put their love of God and neighbor into action. People like our relatives, friends, lovers, and people like St. Francis and Julian of Norwich.

But it’s not easy. I often struggle with how to put my love of my neighbors into action.

Wednesday and Thursday before our Northeast Network Gathering, I was in Salt Lake City for the Faith and Family LGBTQ Power Summit. On Thursday evening, we were asked to participate in action for the Trans Inclusion Project in Salt Lake City. Our choices were canvassing – going out to public places and asking people to put their names on a list in support of trans inclusive ordinances around public accommodations – like hospitals and bathrooms for instance, or doing phone calls to raise money.

Now quite honestly both of those options sounded awful to me. Call strangers and ask for money or go out on the streets and talk to strangers and ask for signatures. In the end, I chose going out and canvassing.

All during the training I was telling my “pod” that I just knew I would be awful at this, that I was so intimidated by the whole idea, that I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do it … on and on and on with the excuses.

But then the organizers told us to write down who we were canvassing for. There was this red heart-shaped sticky note and we were supposed to write down people’s names to inspire us. And I wrote, and wrote and wrote. I wrote the names of people here today, and the names of students I taught long ago. I wrote the name of the transwoman who preached a sermon on the transfiguration at my first internship parish in Boston, and the name for the first MCC clergyperson I ever encountered back in Toledo, Ohio, who was also a transwoman.

And I went out and talked to strangers on the streets of Salt Lake City with a heart full of love and God and grace showed up in ways I could never have imagined.  We had been instructed to approach absolutely everyone – to not make assumptions about what supporters looked like. I approached to older women thinking, “This could go badly,” but it turned out that one was a lesbian and the other was her sister. I approached a group of younger people who were clearly headed off to do something fun. But they took the time for each and every one of them to fill out a card. Throughout the night, I kept having good experiences, interspersed with people telling me they were in too much of a hurry. Not one person told me they were anti-trans or anti-gay. Not one person said they didn’t care.

My favorite encounter was with a man named John who was living on the streets. When John got up from his corner and started down my little stretch of the street, I remembered that I was supposed to approach everyone. I gave my opening line: “Hi, I’m Marie and I’m out here talking to people tonight about increasing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Is that something you care about?”

And John told me that he had already signed the list with my colleague and he was so happy we were out here and his brother was gay and were we being safe? Did we need some mace, maybe? We talked some more, and I gave him $20, and we hugged.

There were so many encounters like that on Thursday night. I was blown away by God’s goodness manifested in all these people I talked to. But I would never have had the courage without God’s grace and God’s prodding to make God’s love real in action.

Every time that we act on the words that Jesus taught, we are making our love of God and our love of neighbor real. Today we ponder the ways that people have done that for us, and the ways that we can do it for others. And we give thanks.

What? Me Worry?

Sermon for the Feast of St. Francis
October 4, 2015
Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford
Matthew 6:25-34

Commentary: I don’t think the connection is as strong as I would like between the Gospel text/Jesus and the St. Francis story. But it went well. Texts are below. 

A reading from the wisdom of the poet Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

In these human words, God’s voice is heard.

Psalm 104:10-25

Matthew 6:25-33 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed God knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the commonwealth of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Today’s gospel passage makes me twitchy. It’s part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us just about everything we need to know about how to be his followers. The Sermon on the Mount includes the Beatitudes, the prayer that Jesus taught, the admonition not to judge others, the exhortation to love our enemies, and the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. While all of those aspects of following Jesus are challenging, for me, none of them are as difficult to follow as the instructions in this passage. Don’t worry? Are you kidding me, I want to ask Jesus. Do you even KNOW me?

Because I am a worrier. I am a worrier to the point that it sometimes paralyzes me. Last week, April and I were getting ready for our vacation, which we had dubbed the Great Southern Road Trip. It was basically 6 days in the car, driving down to Georgia to do a wedding and a baptism, and back, with stops along the way to see family and friends and visit DC. We had decided to take coolers with food rather than eating fast food along the way.

Now, I was all for this idea for several reasons, but I had no idea how to make it happen. For me, the idea of trying to figure out what to buy and pack – what we would actually eat, what wouldn’t spoil – was overwhelming. Added to that was the worry about how much ice we would need, how often we would have to buy or find more, where and how we would empty out the water when the ice melted, how drippy things in the cooler would get and would we remember a towel … well let’s just say I was paralyzed with worry.

Not so my wife. While she is a very practical person, she is NOT given to worry. She made a list of foods she thought we would need and enjoy on the trip (including peanut butter and jelly), and we went to the store where we bought what was on the list. She trusted that what we bought would be just fine for the trip, and that we could replenish ice and other essentials along the way. She packed a towel in the bag of dry goods, along with salt, pepper, napkins and entire roll of paper towels. At no point was she paralyzed with worry because she trusts that as long as we do the best we can, things will work out.

This is what Jesus is trying to teach us with these examples about the lilies and the birds. The word is that is translated as worry in this passage means something like “absorbed by” or “concerned with.” So Jesus is encouraging us not to be absorbed by or concerned with what we will eat or what we will wear. He tells us to instead be absorbed by and concerned with God’s reign and God’s justice and trust that when we are doing God-work, things will work out.

But much like our food packing, this is not a magic formula. We have to be about doing the work – there’s no magic. But we don’t have to be consumed with materialism. In our day, materialism takes on many forms, and is almost glorified. Money, careers, material things and cultural conformity are the values of our society. “Keep up with the Joneses! Get the latest technology, the biggest house, the fanciest car.” I bet I’m not the only person here who has spent time wondering what I’m doing wrong because I don’t have the house or car of my dreams.

But Jesus’ message is not “Do things right and I’ll reward you with Solomon’s splendor.” Sometimes I kind of wish that was the message. Follow the rules and you’ll have a nice house, or perhaps something as simple as not having to worry about food or clothing or how to pay the bills. But that’s not the message. Rather, we are told to seek God’s justice and God’s reign and trust that the rest will work itself out. So very hard.

St. Francis, whose feast day is today, took this lesson very much to heart. St. Francis is known for his love of animals, which is why churches often do pet blessings around St. Francis Day. He was, in fact, a lover of animals. He saw animals as siblings of human beings because we are all created by our loving God.

Stories about the life of St. Francis include that he preached to the birds, which would flock around him and perch on him to listen. Another is that he talked with a wolf that was terrorizing a village and convinced him to stop if the villagers would give the wolf food every day. And the wolf agreed to this plan and eventually became so friendly with the villagers that they mourned when it died. So it’s not surprising that St. Francis is often depicted all sweet and clean with lots of cute cartoon-y animals all around him.

But the truth is a little more complicated. The truth is that St. Francis probably looked a lot more like a homeless guy on the street. When Francis decided to follow Jesus, sometime around 1205, he went all in. He began by hanging around the lepers in town (the most despised people there were in that society), and after a while, Francis’ wealthy father accused him in the town court of shunning his responsibilities. Francis actually agreed with his father and the story goes that there in the middle of town stripped naked, handed his clothes to his father, and renounced his family’s money.

Eventually, he writes in his “Testament,” “God gave me brothers,” — others who were following Francis and his belief that giving up all possessions and trusting God for everything was the best way to follow Jesus. In 1210, Francis went to the Pope and asked to establish a monastic order. He was worried that the church might notice his growing band of brothers and realize that their way of life implied criticism of the wealth of the church. Which of course, it did.

By the time Francis died, he had given up control of his community, because it had gotten so large. And even before his death, the church was co-opting his popularity, building a large, grand basilica in Assisi in honor of a man who refused to own more than one tunic or any other material possessions, and for whom poverty was a founding principle of his order, the Franciscans. The church even went so far as to punish the Franciscans who wanted to remain faithful to living in poverty by declaring that anyone who taught that Jesus and the disciples lived in absolute poverty was teaching heresy.

Jesus and Francis were both radicals for their time and both were at odds with the empire and with the religious leaders of their day. And that’s where we can learn from them both. We can learn to seek out an alternative, countercultural way of living – an “alternative lifestyle” if you will. Many of us in the queer community and our friends and loved ones already understand this. Perhaps we’ve had to seek out “families of choice” when our biological families have rejected us. Perhaps we’ve been seen as radical, crazy, or too outspoken about “those issues,” and have to rely on our community to accept us and welcome us.

Living counterculturally doesn’t mean that we don’t have to attend to our needs, however. Like all created beings, we need food, and clothing, and shelter. And for some of us, or maybe for all of us at different times, finding those things for ourselves and our loved ones is our primary concern. During those times, we may feel that seeking God’s reign and God’s justice is a luxury. But if all of us Jesus followers are first seeking the realm of God, living in the countercultural way of St. Francis and Jesus, we will be there to help our siblings who need us – to be their family and their community. That’s what it means to seek God’s reign and God’s justice in this world.

St. Francis believed that we are all a part of creation – none higher or lower than any other. That radical notion made him appear crazy and created a huge counter cultural family that endures to this day in the Franciscan monks. Check out our local Franciscans at St. Patrick St. Anthony some Saturday. They are still subverting the Catholic Church hierarchy by radically welcoming all God’s children.

And let’s all follow Francis’ model by living in a way that sets us apart from society in our love and care for each other and for all whom society deems less worthy.

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Sermon Proper 19B
Quote from A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
Mark 8: 27-38
Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford
September 13, 2015

First Reading
A Reading from the Prophet Marianne Williamson from her work A Return to Love

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Gospel
Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sermon

When I was in eighth grade, I wanted nothing more than to belong to the popular crowd of eighth grade girls. I wanted to fit in. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

At my middle school, the popular crowd was made up of small blonde girls. As you might guess, I was never a small blonde girl.

Not only was I not small and blond, I didn’t have what seemed to be the “right” clothes: Izod polo shirts, tight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, and thin stretchy gold belts.

My family didn’t have a whole lot of disposable income and I couldn’t seem to convince my parents that Izod shirts and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were of the same importance as, say, groceries.

And to seal the deal on my unpopularity I was ahem… shall we say… socially awkward around boys, except for the ones who were on the debate team or in band with me. Yep – band AND debate.

So to sum up: tall awkward budding lesbian nerd in Sears jeans seeks to fit in.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that it was only the Gloria Vanderbilt jeans standing between me and instant popularity. I must have talked about them a lot, because one night my Dad came home with a pair for me. God knows where he found them or how he knew my size. It still makes me teary to think about my Dad finding me a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.

As I laid down on the bed the next morning to zip them up, I was convinced that I would instantly be transformed into … dun da da da!!!…Popular Eighth Grade Girl. I’m sure you’re all shocked to hear that that is not what happened.

Tall awkward budding lesbian nerd in Gloria Vanderbilt jeans STILL seeks to fit in.

At that time in my life I assumed that my identity was completely bound up in appearances. And so I knew no other way of trying to fit in other than to try to conform to be like the people around me. There was a constant question in my head – what are people saying about me? Who do people think that I am?

And of course the truth is that people weren’t thinking much about who I was. They were all wrapped up in their own 13 and 14 year old dramas, worrying about who THEY were. But that is not the case for Jesus. People WERE paying attention to him.

When he asks the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” it’s because he knows people are talking about him, and he knows that his identity is being questioned by others. I think it’s also because he’s trying to get a handle on his own identity as well. He’s been going around performing miracles: healing a blind man, an unclean outcast woman’s daughter, a deaf man, feeding thousands of people with a loaf of bread or a fish or two, confronting religious leaders… Jesus is attracting attention, and he knows it. So he asks his friends – who do people say that I am?

He gets various answers – all of them supposing that he is someone else – the reappearing of someone who came before – John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. But when he asks Peter, he gets a different answer.

I imagine this as an intimate moment. I mean Jesus’ disciples must be all be half in love with him, right?. They’ve left everything to go following him around the desert. He’s their teacher, their mentor, their radical rabbi preaching an up-ending message that is hard to follow but so so so liberating! You know the kind of sexy charismatic leader I mean.

And so I imagine that when Jesus looks into Peter’s eyes and says “And who do you say that I am?” that Peter nearly swoons. But he knows, and he answers with absolute conviction “You are the Chosen One.”

In what must have been a wonderfully affirming moment for Peter, Jesus acknowledges the truth of what Peter said. Jesus is starting to understand that he is chosen by God for something special – he is becoming comfortable with his divine and human identity, and with the work that he has chosen to do to. He’s performing all those miracles, he’s confronting religious leaders and welcoming outcasts – he’s up-ending tradition and religious laws and he’s spreading his message of God’s preference for people on the margins of society rather than those in power.

He starts talking about where his work is going to lead. He tells his friends that he is going to be rejected by those in power, he’s going to be killed, and three days later he’s going to rise again.

Poor Peter. You can’t blame him for being upset. That part about “rising again after three days” must have sounded like some silly fairy tale to him. That’s not the sort of thing that actually happens in Peter’s world. But the part about rejection and being killed – Peter understands those things. Peter is focused on human things. He loves Jesus. He’s on board with what Jesus is doing, which can’t have been easy with all the boundary breaking. Naturally he’s distraught at the thought of Jesus’ death. It seems that the work has just begun! He takes Jesus aside says, look, this can’t be right. Don’t do it if it’s going to get you killed!

And poor Peter, who just a few minutes ago was feeling all intimate and close with Jesus, who had just gotten the answer about who Jesus is so absolutely right — now Jesus calls him Satan! Peter is focused on human things. He’s not ready to hear about death and can’t even imagine resurrection. Jesus is just starting to embrace his divine identity and do the work he’s chosen to do. And he can’t have Peter distracting him with his very human fears.

So Jesus tries to explain it – to Peter and to all of us – what it means to follow him. Here’s what he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Of all the misused passages in the bible, this is one of the most pervasive and insidious. It’s been used to try to convince black people that slavery is their cross. It’s been used to try to convince abused people that their partners are their cross. It’s been used on us – God’s queer people – to tell us that our sexuality is our cross. The theology of suffering pervades so much of our Christian culture that many of us don’t even recognize all the ways that we’ve been conditioned to put up with ill-treatment by the idea that we must suffer to be good Christians.

I’m here today to tell you that this is not the Good News of Jesus Christ. One paraphrase of the bible asks the next question this way, “What’s the use if you have everything but aren’t true to yourself? Can you put a price on being true to yourself?” This is the Good News. We are called to embrace our true identity in order to follow Jesus. This is what Jesus himself is doing – embracing his true identity – both human (he will die) and divine (he will rise again.)

Losing the life we think we have is usually painful and scary, but it allows us to find our true life. We WERE, all of us, born to shine. We WERE, all of us, born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. By letting go of our false identities, our conviction that we are somehow lacking – we can find ourselves and truly follow Jesus.

The cross is not Jesus’ identity. And despite what you’ve probably heard, the cross is not Jesus’ work. Jesus’ work is boundary-breaking healing and love. The cross is the consequence, and not the end point. And likewise for us. Following Jesus is not a call to perpetual suffering. It is a call to accept that there is often pain as a consequence of seeking one’s true identity as a boundary-breaker and a lover – yes. But it is a call to live into that true identity.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous. It is a call to be liberated from our fear, to live into our power and our light, and so to liberate others.

Song for Reflection After the Sermon

What Matters Most

Sermon Proper 17B
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Marie Alford-Harkey
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford
August 30, 2015

Back in the late nineties I fell in love with the Franklin planner system. Do you all know about these? It’s supposed to be a system that allows you to organize your life according to what matters most to you. They even had that tagline on the box: “What matters most?”

At any rate, I dove into the world of the Franklin planner head first. I loved it. I bought the book that went along with the system and went through all the recommended steps to identify what mattered most to me and what were my ultimate goals in life. See, the idea was that if you did all this, and then worked your way down from your values to your major life goals, to goals for the next 10 years, 5 years, etc, that by the time you got down to your day to day life, you would be doing that things that would eventually lead you to accomplishing your goals. You would be doing “what mattered most.” So your daily tasks were divided into 4 quadrants based on how they aligned with your goals and values – important and urgent, important and not urgent, urgent and not important, and neither urgent nor important. You were supposed to be weeding all of the unimportant stuff out of your life.

I loved the whole system. I had this thick notebook of monthly calendars and daily task lists, and daily calendars, and a section on my goals and values…. Oh it was good stuff.  And it worked great for me – for like 3 months. But pretty soon, for me, it came to be all about the lists. I loved making those daily task lists and then marking things off them. Sometimes, I would write something I had just done on the list, just for the pure pleasure of checking it off. I loved those task lists. The goals and values pretty much went by the wayside.

My love of lists, and checking things off them wasn’t new, however. I can remember how, as a young teenage Christian, I would look at lists like the list of sins in today’s gospel, and start checking things off. Fornication, – nope (I was like 14), theft – nope, murder – nope, adultery –nope (again, I was 14), avarice—weeelllll…., wickedness-hm, yep, most probably, deceit – oh yeah, that too, licentiousness – no idea but sounded like it had to do with sex so I figured I was safe, envy – oh yeah – lots of that, slander – um, definite possibility, pride – yep, folly – most definitely.

What I liked about those lists of sins in the bible was the idea that I could figure out how I measured up, or didn’t, based on which sins I had or hadn’t committed. Much like the Pharisees in the gospel, I was completely missing the point. That’s actually the whole purpose of the Pharisees in this story. They are Mark’s literary device to illustrate what it looks like to completely miss the point.

The rules that they were following did originally have a point – they were to show that they were set apart as people of this particular God. But somewhere along the way, these people forgot what the purpose was and became far more concerned with the lists of rules and laws that had their religion had developed over the years than with knowing God and being God’s people. They got distracted. Just like me and my planner – they forgot what mattered most and focused on the lists.

It’s so very human, though – just tell us what to do, and what not to do – what are the rules? We’ll makes lists, check them off… we’ll try really hard. But that’s not the point.  Back in Deuteronomy, God’s exiled people are told that they will once again follow all of God’s commandments and prosper. How can God promise such a thing? Well, Moses tells them, following God’s commandments is not too difficult for them, it is not beyond the people. No, Moses’ message from God is that the word of God is in your heart and on your lips. The word is very near to you. This is true for all of us, for we are all God’s people.

This is the point. Jesus chides the Pharisees with words from the prophet Isaiah, saying that they have strayed from what is in their hearts – “these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far away from me.”  And Jesus adds, “you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

You abandon the commandment of God – which is in your heart.

When Jesus turns to talk to the assembled crowd, this is the point of the list of things that defile a person – that the people have abandoned what is in their heart – the Word of God. They’ve gotten distracted. They have forgotten what matters most. So their actions and their character reveal it. All those sins that Jesus names – they come from inside, from forgetting what matters most, from being distracted from God’s very essence, God’s word, that is in us.

I wish I could say that this doesn’t happen to me – that I always maintain my connection to what matters most to me – to the Word, to God’s very self that dwells in me and in each of us. I wish I could say that, but it’s just not true.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a crowd sourcing question on Facebook for her sermon on “junk food theology.” She asked, “What’s the craziest thing you were ever told or expected to believe?” There were tons of responses, and I added a long one. I could have written about at least 10 or 12 examples of faulty theology that I have moved away from as I’ve gotten older. A while later, she posted again. She thanked all of us who had responded to her first question – and there were a lot of responses – and then she asked, “Now –  what are the things about faith that you’ve rediscovered? Today, what is at the heart of your faith?”

I sat there and stared at the computer for a few minutes. “I ought to know the answer to this,” I thought. I began to try to construct a “right” answer in my head. What was good Trinitarian theology? What about the Nicene Creed? How could I sum up the Anglican theology that I learned and loved in seminary? My thinky brain went nuts.

And then I stopped myself. She hadn’t asked for that. She had asked a very personal question – What is at the heart of your faith?

So I made myself stop the hamster wheel that often takes over my brain. I stopped trying to find the right answer and I looked deep inside and asked myself that question – today, what is at the heart of your faith? At the heart? Not what would be the acceptable answer to someone else, but what is, honestly, at the heart of my faith? And that’s where I found the answer – in my heart, not my spinning brain. It came out easily and fully formed, because it is the word that is very near me. I wrote, “My faith is in Jesus who came among us as human and by the very act of incarnation redeemed humanity. My faith is in God whose love for all of us is impossibly extravagant. My faith is in the Holy Spirit, who dwells in and among us, breathing God’s breath into us.”

That moment and that statement were so profound for me. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I paid attention to the faith that is in me – to what matters most to me. I got caught up in going to seminary and pursuing my call and working for justice and all kinds of things that are informed by that faith, and many more that are not. Somewhere along the way, I got completely distracted. And what happens when we do that? When we forget what matters most? Well, the power of that list of sins that Jesus gives in today’s gospel is that they are so us – so human – so particular. Have I been envious? You betcha. Greedy – yep. Deceitful – yep. Foolish – absolutely. Prideful – without a doubt. Whenever I am not connected to the Word that is in me, those very human sins show forth in my life.

And the opposite is also true, of course. Lately, I have seen no better example of someone who connected to the essence of God inside himself than Jimmy Carter. This man’s character has been revealed in his actions for a very long time. Right after his presidency, he founded the Carter Center to advocate for human rights. He’s a key figure in Habitat for Humanity and has continued to build houses well into his 80’s.  He is devoted to Jesus and to human rights. He left the Southern Baptist church – a church his family had been a part of for three generations – over its opposition to women as pastors. But he didn’t leave his faith. As we all now know, he still teaches Sunday School.

And now we see his grace in the face of his diagnosis of brain cancer. He talked to the media about how he felt when he got the news. “I was surprisingly at ease. I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t go into an attitude of despair or anger. I’m thankful. And hopeful.” This reveals a man who absolutely lives from his heart – who is connected to the Word that is in him.

Of course he’s not perfect – none of us are. All of us forget the faith that is in us – all of us are guilty of any number of the sins that are listed in today’s gospel. All of us, to some degree or another get distracted from living from our hearts, where God’s word dwells.

But here’s the Good News. God does not get distracted. God’s character is completely consistent with what is in God’s heart. And that is extravagant, perfect love for each and every one of us. So when we realize that we’ve been far from the word that lives in us, when we come back from our pride or our greed or our foolishness or even worse sins, God is there, waiting to welcome us, arms wide open saying, “Look! Here is my beloved!”

The Pastoral is Political: Standing With Planned Parenthood

Originally posted at RevGalBlogPals.

A series of misleading videos put out by an anti-abortion group has given rise to yet another movement by some policymakers to cut all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. At the Religious Institute, we have been in the forefront of the movement to remind the general public, the media, and policymakers that people of faith support Planned Parenthood.

As part of that support, we started a petition which is posted all over our social media. I realize that I should not be surprised the hate and vitriol that is being directed at us via Facebook, but I confess that I am. I am also dismayed. There are people who claim to be Christians saying that it’s too bad that we and our supporters weren’t aborted. There are people who call themselves Christians who are railing against “irresponsible women” who “use abortion as a means of birth control.” There are people who say they are Christians questioning why their tax dollars should help fund birth control for women who can’t afford it.

Quote from a petition signer.

Yes, Christians and other people of faith stand with Planned Parenthood. I am a Christian and I support Planned Parenthood because of my faith, not in spite of it. I support making contraception, cancer screening and prevention, and STI/STD treatment and testing available to all people, regardless of income, because my faith teaches me that as Christians we have a responsibility to the common good. I support access to abortion services for all people regardless of income as well, because my faith teaches me that every human being has dignity, worth, and moral agency, and therefore should be able to make their own reproductive decisions.

I know that people of good faith can and do disagree about abortion. But whatever your views on abortion, the truth is that abortion procedures make up only 3% of what Planned Parenthood medical affiliates do, and none of the funding for abortion services comes from the federal government. Another truth is that Planned Parenthood is not “selling body parts.”

These facts are pretty easy to find via a quick Google search. As I asked on my own Facebook page last week, can we not love Jesus AND check our facts? And while we’re at it, might it be possible to keep our discourse about controversial topics civil? It seems the Christian thing to do.