“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.

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.”


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.

Friday Five: What’s the Good Word?

I don’t blog nearly enough these days, so I’m playing my own Friday Five for the RevGals.

  1. What’s one good thing happening in your personal (but not TOO personal) life? My wife and I are finding that the summer has brought us more time to spend together at home. And we are planning a Great Roadtrip Vacation for September. Only she could make me look forward to driving from Connecticut to Georgia. 
  2. What’s one good thing happening in your work life? I’m getting more and more opportunities to share some of the important work that we do. Sunday, I’ll be preaching about our Gilead Sabbath Initiative at a UU church. 
  3. What’s one good thing happening in the area where you live? I’m starting to see leaves changing color. Fall is my very favorite time of the year. 
  4. 2015-08-14 11.58.44What’s one good thing happening in the life of someone you love? My wife’s ministry as a chaplain with her highly trained dog Sandy is just taking off in all kinds of ways. Folks in the administration at her job are staring to “get it.” (I can’t post a picture that includes a participant, so this one is of Sandy and April on Sandy’s first field trip with the special needs kids that April works with. They all loved the aquarium.) 
  5. What’s one good thing happening in the world? #BlackLivesMatter. This movement is causing so many of us to have very hard conversations about race and privilege in the United States. 

“Those People”

HandsIn the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that I sat with my white friends and lamented what “those people” were doing in “their communities.” It’s a comforting narrative for white people. It absolves white people of any need to look at our own complicity in an oppressive system. It distances “us” from “them.” It makes us feel morally superior. It lays the blame squarely at the feet of those who are oppressed. It offers an easy answer to why riots break out. “Those people” are thugs. “They” just don’t care about “their” communities.

Back then (not so long ago really), I felt uncomfortable with the “those people” narrative in white spaces, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how and I didn’t try to educate myself to learn how. I just remained silent and tried to “get along.”

Then I went to seminary. I was asked to examine my privilege. I met colleagues who had been doing real justice work for years, who weren’t afraid to push me to think differently. To educate myself. To acknowledge that I benefit from white privilege and a racist system.

I can’t un-learn those things. And for me, following the liberating gospel of Jesus means that my call does not permit me to ignore systems of oppression any longer.

I understand the temptation to talk about “those people.” But I beg of you, don’t succumb. Instead, listen. Look for news sources beyond CNN and Fox and MSNBC. Look for the voices of activists. Don’t be seduced by easy answers. Don’t buy into the narrative that “those people” are thugs. The real story is so much more complicated than that. You can begin here.






Tear Open the Heavens Sermon

Sermon Advent 1B
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford, CT
Marie Alford-Harkey, M.Div.
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

“And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake!”

Today begins the season of Advent, the season of waiting.

There is a kind of waiting that most of us don’t mind. It’s the kind of waiting that is joyful anticipation – waiting to see those we haven’t seen in a long time. Waiting to see the delight on the faces of those for whom we have made or chosen thoughtful gifts. Waiting to revisit our most cherished traditions, songs, foods, and rituals. Waiting for the good things that we know are coming.

But there is another kind of waiting that is much more difficult to endure. There is a waiting that feels more like dread. Waiting for news – and not knowing whether it will be good or bad. Waiting for hope and yet doubting that there is any. Waiting for healing that may not come. Waiting for answers, and not knowing when or if they will come. Waiting for life to get better. There is a waiting that is, quite frankly, painful, destabilizing, and hard.

This is the waiting that makes us cry out to God – tear open the heavens and come down! Can’t you see that we need you here? Tear open the heavens and come down! You can show yourself in power, you can make the nations tremble, you can surprise us with your awesome deeds, you can make the mountains quake – come down!

That kind of waiting, that kind of longing, is real for so many people today.

We have sick relatives and friends or maybe we ourselves are sick. We are waiting for a decent-paying job, and worried about putting food on the table. Our hearts are breaking because Ebola is spreading in West Africa, now in Guinea. We lament that schoolchildren are missing in Mexico and Nigeria.

Perhaps most urgently, we feel the unrest manifested in the protests that are happening in Ferguson and around the US to assert that Black lives matter.

The announcement that police officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown has sparked new protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The outrage over the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio because he was playing with a realistic-looking toy gun in a park has added to the sense of hopelessness.

There are so very many things to be said about these unfortunately not isolated events, and many of them have been said by people who are, perhaps like many of you, reflecting deeply on the sin of structural racism.

I have a Facebook Friend who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He has two Black sons. He is White. On the day that Tamir Rice was killed, he posted this.

“I had a very shiny chrome/steel cap gun at his age, and used it in public parks – I am (just like) Tamir Rice.” A friend of his replied, “And you don’t dare to let your son have one.” My friend answered, “You’re right- I had that conversation with the two younger boys at dinner.”

This is not an uncommon story. I know of many Black mothers and fathers who have these kinds of conversations with their sons. Those of us who are White, who enjoy the privilege of not having to have those conversations with the children we love – can we imagine what this is like for the parents of Black children?

Of course not. I can’t live another person’s reality, no matter how much goodwill I have.

Another Facebook friend said this about the killing of Michael Brown. “If I had stolen cigars, walked down the middle of the street, refused to move to the sidewalk, got into an argument or even altercation with the policeman, I would have been subdued, perhaps beaten, would have had my feet kicked out from under me to get me to the ground, but I would never, ever have been shot multiple times and killed with my body left out in the street for hours. Because I have a white body.”

It isn’t easy for those of us who are White to name our privilege. How hard it is to admit that I benefit from a system that I never asked for, and that I don’t know how to dismantle.

But my friend is right. The numbers are stark. A report was released in October on the 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 that are captured in the federal data.

The data shows that Black young men aged 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be killed in a police shooting than White young men in the same age group.

It’s easy to get distracted by the specifics of these cases and to miss the bigger point. The privilege of having a white body is a real one. The truth that all lives are sacred is being lost in a system and a structure that privileges some people over others.

I remember when I first learned about white privilege. I was in seminary at Episcopal Divinity School, where the entire curriculum is built around challenging systems of oppression. So the first class that we all take is one called Foundations of Theological Praxis. It involves intensive anti-racism training. When I first was awakened to the idea of white privilege, I said in class that I felt guilty about all this unearned privilege that I have.

I’ll never forget what our instructor said. “We don’t need your guilt.”

She was right. Guilt doesn’t get us very far in the struggle for justice. Neither does blaming the police or blaming the victim. We don’t need more guilt, or more blame. What we need are two advent practices. We need a longing for justice and we need to stay awake.

That cry from the Israelites for God to tear open the heavens gives voice to a deep longing for justice. The world is not as it should be for them. The Israelites have finally returned to Jerusalem after hundreds of years of exile and much to their chagrin they have discovered a deep spiritual truth. Wherever they go, there they are.

Yes, they have arrived back in their promised land of Jerusalem. The temple has been rebuilt. Surely that means that the golden days of Israel’s happiness with God are returning. Except… they have brought themselves along. In the refounding of temple worship, the Israelites begin to encounter resistance from each other. There are disputes between those who have been in Jerusalem and those who have just returned. The exultant vision of a triumphant return to Jerusalem that the Israelites have clung to for hundreds of years is not exactly as they had imagined. Life is still hard. Enemies still prevail against them.

And so, once again, Israel feels abandoned. God’s people are looking and cannot find God. They beg for God to come down and vindicate in the sight of their enemies. They know they are not blameless. They admit that it is by their own fault that they cannot see God’s face, saying “You meet those gladly who do right,” and acknowledging “you were angry, and we sinned.”

And yet, these Israelites who know that they have not been the people they could have been, who believe that God is justified in turning God’s face from them – they still make an audacious request. They remind God that God is a kind parent, a potter to their clay, and that they are the work of God’s hands. And so, they say, we are all your people.

Their lament has turned to hope. Hope not in themselves, but in God’s ultimate goodness.

Our sisters and brothers – and maybe some of us – are lamenting all around this country. These prophet-protesters are calling us to remember that all life is sacred, that Black lives matter.

Mike Kinman, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, has been writing about his journey in accompanying the protesters in Ferguson. He says that the first times he was out as a clergyperson with demonstrators, he wanted people to calm down. But, he says, “I realize now that, for me, a big part of it was my own uncomfortability with the anger and my own fear at its power. But the anger is the natural result of injustice and it must be expressed. White people like me must not only allow it, we must…allow it to cut us to the core and shake our foundations. We must feel the anger and let it change us.”

Mike has friends who are police officers. And he is making friends among the demonstrators. He says that he wants the police and the protesters “…to see each other’s humanity and beauty. I want them to see each other as I see them. And I want it to happen right now because it hurts so much that they can’t. I want it to happen right now because it hurts so bad. And I hate the pain. I want it to happen right now because I want the pain to stop.”

Mike is longing for a better world. And so are the protesters. Anger at an unjust system makes sense. Mike has learned that and is allowing himself to be change by that righteous anger.

The protesters know that the world should be different, and they are forcing us to take notice as well. And so we all cry out with all our longing to God – come down! Tear open the heavens and come down! Make this different!

We who are Christians believe that Jesus did come among us. And yet, the world is still not as it should be. Racism infects us and our systems, violence abounds here and around the world.

But we too are audacious in our belief and hope in God. We too, remind God that we are all God’s people. We believe that there will be healing. We believe that wrongs can be put right. We believe that Jesus began that work by coming among us.

And like the disciples, we’d like to put our hope in the miraculous return of Jesus with power and great glory. We’d like to know exactly when Jesus is going to show up and vindicate us to our enemies.

But what we know is that we are not going to know the day or the hour. We know that all through his ministry, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is among us, not somewhere or sometime far away. He exercised his ministry with those who were oppressed and he taught that his disciples are to do likewise.

So it is our job to keep awake. To keep awake to who needs food, or comfort. To keep awake to the times when we should just show up and weep with those who weep. And it is our job to make the kingdom of God real among us by working for justice and dignity for all people.

May our longing for justice inspire us to tear open the heavens this Advent.

The Grace of Forgiveness

Sermon Proper 19A, September 14, 2014
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford, CT
Marie Alford-Harkey, M.Div.
Matthew 18:21-35

Perhaps you remember the 2006 shooting at an Amish school in Nickle Mines, PA that left 5 Amish girls dead and 5 more wounded. The story in the media quickly became about Amish forgiveness. They said they forgave the killer, Carl Roberts, but they went far beyond words. Amish people comforted the Roberts’ family. Amish families nurtured relationships with his parents, and his widow. This month, the book group is reading the book about this event. It’s called Amish Grace.

Here’s what the Roberts’ mother recalls.

On the day it happened, Henry, our Amish neighbor up on the hill, whom I call an ‘angel in black,’ came to our house. My husband [Roberts’, the killer’s, father] provided transportation for the Amish when they needed to travel by car, and he was just devastated. All day long, my husband couldn’t lift his head. He kept taking a towel and wiping it over his head—he just kept wiping the tears away and couldn’t lift his head up at all. And then Henry came, and he was the first sign of healing for my husband. He put his hand on my husband’s shoulder, just stood there and comforted and consoled him for an hour. Henry said, “Roberts, we love you,” and just kept affirming and assuring him. The acceptance we have received from the Amish community is beyond any words. To be able to have a community of people that have been hurt so much by what our son did and yet to have them respond to us the way that they have has been an incredible journey. (p. 192)

Amish people attended Carl Roberts’ funeral. They donated some of the money that they received from kind people around the world to Roberts’ family. The Amish community in Nickle Mines, PA reached out to extend forgiveness in a situation where no one would have expected it and the world was astonished at this reaction. Media stories for months on end focused on “Amish forgiveness.”

And yet the book that examines this phenomenon is titled Amish Grace. Here’s how the authors define grace and forgiveness.

“Grace, as we use it in this book, is a broad concept that characterizes loving and compassionate responses to others. Forgiveness is a particular form of grace that always involves an offense, an offender, and a victim (in this case, a victimized community). When forgiveness happens, a victim forgoes the right to revenge and commits to overcoming bitter feelings toward the wrongdoer.” (p. 151-152).

The book makes the point that the Amish extended the grace of forgiveness not because they are heroic, but because it is woven into the fabric of their lives and of how they practice Christianity. The Amish believe that what they are called to do is emulate Jesus in their actions. That explains a lot of the practices that many of us find strange.

The Old Order Amish, of which the Amish community in Nickel Mines is a part, believe that judicious use of technology, a commitment to non-resistance, mutual aid, and a yielding of one’s self for the good of the community and the Christian faith are the ways in which they are called to emulate Jesus.

In emulating Jesus’ forgiveness, the Amish believe that this parable, teaches us everything we need to know about forgiveness. They teach that forgiveness is an ongoing practice. Many of the Amish people interviewed for the book talked about how hard it was to continue to forgive when they remembered what they called “the happening.”

The Amish believe that today’s parable teaches us that God initiates forgiveness out of God’s grace to us, but if we don’t do our part and continue to extend forgiveness and grace to one another, the relationship becomes broken.

This is not because God is angry or vindictive, however. Not forgiving, not extending grace, not asking for forgiveness when we need to, allows us to hold on to bitterness and hurt and anger. And those things separate us from a loving God who cannot be angry or bitter or hurt. We aren’t asked to forgive one another out of fear that God won’t forgive us or out of duty. We are asked to forgive one another because it’s the surest path to the reconciliation of all people to each other and to God. Because it’s the surest path to healing and wholeness for ourselves and others. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what someone did was right or that it’s ok with us. Forgiveness means that we have decided (and perhaps continue to decide) to allow ourselves to move on from the pain.


I joked that I was going to title this sermon “Don’t be a jerk.” Because on a day to day basis, when we’re not talking about forgiving a monumental wrong, that’s what grace and forgiveness look like. “Don’t be a jerk.”

When I was a high school teacher, the classroom-appropriate way I expressed this was, “Be respectful.” I had 5 classroom rules and this was the first one. I always told my students that it didn’t just apply to them, but to me as well. I can still remember when I had to apologize to a whole class of students for being a jerk.

I had scolded them like crazy the day before because of their bad behavior with a substitute teacher. I had used phrases that I told them we would never use in my classroom, like “You all know you’re supposed to sit down and shut up when a sub is here!” I never, ever allowed my students to say “shut up,” and I never said it either. Well, almost never. I raised my voice. I pretty much modeled everything I had told them was NOT respectful.

The next day, the day after that lecture, they came into my classroom, still abashed. I could tell they were trying to sort out whether I was going to continue to be angry. But it had not taken me long after they left my classroom the day before to realize what I had done. And so I began the class by apologizing to them. Their eyes went wide. They were as attentive as I could ever have wished. They were absolutely unnerved by the idea of a teacher apologizing to a class. It was kind of touching, really. So I asked them to forgive me, they mumbled like the embarrassed teenagers they were, and we went on with our lesson.

But I noticed that the apology had made a huge difference in our relationship. They had the power to forgive me or to decide to be bitter and sulky and see me as just another example of an adult who didn’t practice what she preached. Those kids became my most enthusiastic class, and I believe it was because they chose to forgive me. They trusted me, they worked hard for me. They did silly skits and sang silly songs and allowed their teenage cool to be replaced with a spirit of fun and playfulness.

So what I mean by “don’t be a jerk,” is that we Christians need to practice extending grace and forgiveness to one another, all the time, in things big and small. It changes our relationship with God and with one another when we do. Sometimes, that will mean reconciliation with the person that wronged us. Many times, it won’t. But we can choose to let go of a desire for revenge and bitterness, even as we move forward in our lives.

And we can choose to let go of judging one another.

In the activist communities that I’m a part of, we often engage in what my friend Christian calls “spectacular displays of distrust and hostility.” He goes on to describe how we do this to each other. “We shoot accusations like arrows from the safety of our Facebook chairs, far enough away to avoid getting splattered with the mess. Simply disagreeing with a person’s ideas or interpretation of an event is immediately labeled as bullying, slander or worse.”

This is true in most of our daily lives, isn’t it? It’s so easy to criticize other peoples’ actions and motives. We often assume the worst about our interactions with another person. We take things personally. We don’t even stop to give people the benefit of the doubt, to lead with love, or at least with curiosity. It’s almost as if we look for ways to be hurt. This is exactly the opposite of what we are called to do.

Imagine if we tried leading with grace and forgiveness, for the big things and the small ones. And imagine if we tried it not just with other people. What if we tried leading with love and grace and forgiveness toward ourselves as a spiritual practice? Many of us have been brought up to believe that God sees our sins, all the time, and that those sins make God angry, and that God then judges us because God is angry. But what if the reason our sin disrupts our relationship with God is not because God is angry, but because God is perfect love?  God sees us as good, so before we even ask, God has forgiven us.

Let that soak in for a minute. Imagine yourself as God sees you: good, cherished, loved to your core. Even the parts of you that you hide from yourself. God’s perfect love you, all of you, in your glorious potential. If you can open yourself up to even consider what that might feel like, then that, my friends, is the grace from which forgiveness flows.

Let’s begin to believe in the deep well of love that God has for us, and then let’s absorb and live in that grace and forgiveness that God extends to us. Then we can naturally extend the same to others. Amen.