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Category: Sermon

Perpetua the Every-Woman

The following sermon was preached at the University Chapel at Glasgow University for the Feast of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. The gospel text was John  4:1-26 (Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.)

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Imagine the scene: Crowds of spectators flooding the stadium to watch the brutal torture and murder of people guilty only of faith in “the wrong God.” Wild beasts and soldiers bearing arms are set to task, tearing the martyrs apart in front of the glee-filled assembly. Sounds terrifying, but not unbelievable – which I think is the scariest part of the whole scene.

Today we memorialize the martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua – two women imprisoned in northern Africa in 203CE and put to death along with 3 male companions after their baptisms in the prison. As the lore goes, Perpetua was a widowed young mother and noblewoman who was in her catechumenate (time of study before being baptised into the faith) when she was arrested. Felicity, a pregnant servant, was arrested alongside Perpetua and is said to have given birth in prison before the sentence of death was carried out. Perpetua’s father tried to intervene several times, but each time Perpetua refused to deny her faith in order to be released.

We have record of their story by virtue of what is thought to be Perpetua’s diary. Perpetua spent her time in prison recording testimony of her faith and her visions of a miraculous life to come in Heaven.

This testimony, or diary, reminds me of another such document that we have in more modern literature – the Diary of Anne Frank. Frank, who was imprisoned in a different way – in an effort to keep her and her family safe, dreamed of a better life when she might once again be free to experience all that the world had to offer.

And further, as I think about the plight of these women: Perpetua and Anne, my mind is brought to Pakistan, and the then 15 year old girl, shot in the face by a Taliban soldier who was sent to kill her for speaking out as an activist for equal access to education for women and girls. Malala Yusafazai, now 19, lives in Birmingham and continues to fight for equal access to education. From there my thoughts travel to Syria and to Bana Alabed, the 7 year old girl who took to twitter to tell the world, 140 characters at a time, about the atrocities happening in Aleppo.

The list goes on and on and on. Throughout history, women like Perpetua have fought to get their stories out even in the face of unspeakable odds.

In our lesson from John’s Gospel we hear of one such woman, whose experience is recorded by our Gospel writer. Though her name is not preserved, as was so often the case with stories of woman in the scriptures, her encounter with the Living God in the person of Jesus Christ, illuminates for us the life changing power of meeting God face to face.

The Samaritan Woman learns from Jesus about a new type of water – of living water – that quenches the deepest thirst of our souls. She desires this water and Jesus tells her how to obtain that well of eternal life. Jesus demonstrates that he knows this woman in all ways, both her sins and her virtues, yet instead of condemning her, he tells her how she might be atoned. He offers her a path to a better life instead of condemning her to death by beasts or gas chambers or Taliban fighters or cluster bombs. Jesus reaches out his hand in love and offers the Samaritan woman another way.

What would happen if more people responded to difference the way Jesus does in this story?

The fact that this woman is a Samaritan matters. Many of us likely remember the story of the “Good Samaritan.” A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead by the roadside. A priest and then a Levite (both presumably good, Jewish men) pass by the man, crossing the road to avoid an encounter. But then a Samaritan comes by, stops, and takes the beaten man away to safety.

The Samaritans practiced a form of Judaism that was outside of the mainstream and was considered unorthodox and blasphemous. Thus, the Samaritans were often thought of, in biblical times, as a crowd worshiping the wrong way and thus not people you wanted to fall into company with.

So, who are the Samaritans today?

I guess it depends on where we are looking: In the US the Samaritans would probably be the illegal immigrants who are being rounded up and deported without due process or they might be the Muslims who are being denied entry to the US simply because of the God they worship. In Britain, the Samaritans might be those who voted for, or against, Brexit – depending on what side of the political arena one finds ones self. They might be the immigrants wondering how long they will be welcome here after we leave the European Union. In Glasgow the Samaritans might be the Protestants, or the Catholics, once again, depending on which side of sectarianism one finds oneself.

There are Samaritans everywhere we go – who they are is determined by where we live.

In many places, the Samaritans are the women who are striving to get their stories out into a world where gender is still a major factor when considering what rights an individual is entitled to.

Today we commemorate Perpetua and Felicity for their strength and courage in the face of a world that not only sentenced them to death, but also a world where it is a miracle that any account of their lives still exists.

We relate to their story because women are still fighting to be heard today.

Whether it is women who were condemned for having too many husbands in biblical times (when the reverse would have been perfectly acceptable) or women who have the audacity to expect the right to be educated in modern middle eastern society, the rights of women and men are still different. But what we take from today’s lesson, is that in the eyes of God we are entitled to equality not only in this life, but in the life that is to come. The Living Water is equally available to all who seek its nourishment.

The Feast of Perpetua and Felicity is unique not only because we have an early record of the visions and dreams Perpetua experienced during her captivity and because of the recorded accounts of the peace and “ecstasy” she and her companions experienced as they were put to death, but also because the record of this occasion is the written account, authored by a woman, that survived against all odds in a place and at a time when the written accounts of woman were destroyed and cast off as heretical. Today we celebrate the lives and legacies of these two women – as they represent the every-woman.

Our call today is to look out and see where we find Samaritans in this world and to seek to give them voice. Our call today is the same as it has always been, to be the hands and heart and voice of Christ in this world and to proclaim the existence of a God of love who desires to uplift and hold close the hearts of all human beings – regardless of the markers that divide us – because we were all created in God’s own image. Our call today is to follow in the bold and brave footsteps of Perpetua and Felicity; to tell the truth, come what may, all the while seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

 

Guidelines for Living

A sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A 2017

Preached at St. Margaret’s, Renfrew

Gospel Text: Matthew 5:1-12

Let me tell you about my day yesterday – it was a rough one. We’ll start from midnight, because that is roughly when I arrived home from the airport after a few days away. It took forever to fall asleep because my dog just couldn’t settle in. At 4am – the dog started barking maniacally. I tried to soothe him – then the doorbell rang. A young woman was knocking to point out that I’d locked my keys outside in the front door to my house. I took the house and car keys inside and headed back upstairs to try to get more sleep – it did not come.

In the morning I’d planned to drive to Ayrshire to drop off a birthday present for a friend. Since we’d be near the beach I thought it would be nice to take my puppy for a run by the seashore. As I packed the car, the phone rang and a contractor who we were expecting to come on Monday to finish some work on the house called because he was on his way and couldn’t find us. Ugh. So we delayed leaving so the contractor could come 2 days early.

We finally loaded up the car, drove to the coast, bought a present, and dropped it with my friend who was home and invited us in for tea. After an hour of tea and sympathy, my husband, dog and I went out to the car to head to the beach for what would now be a very short walk before the sunset. As we pulled away from the curb something loud and metallic made a bang and the steering on the car went heavy. We drove slowly the 4 blocks to the beach, with a terrible sound coming from the front end of the car. I threw the ball for Alasdair in the sand for a few minutes while Chris looked at it.

We got in the car and I urged Chris to drive to Kwik Fit rather than starting the hour drive home. We got to Kwik Fit at 415 and after a long wait they diagnosed us with an un-drivable vehicle. From there we walked, in the pouring rain, with the dog to the train station a mile away. Took a train to Central, another train to Anniesland, and then, finally, Chris’ dad drove us home. We arrived home last night at 9pm.

Then I read the news – legal residents of the United States were being sent back to their countries of origin, without a chance to plead their case because of where they were born. Syrian refugees, living in camps in Turkey, learned that after years of waiting and vetting processes to start a new life they would have to wait longer because of where they come from. A vet student from the Glasgow Uni Vet School can’t get home after vacation because she is not allowed to fly through New York since her passport is Iranian – it doesn’t matter that she is also a UK citizen. Families are being torn apart, hope is being taken away, and all of this because of our fear of the stranger. — Oh, and a goalie from Shettleston relieved his bladder behind his goal and got a red card…

In light of what is happening elsewhere in the world, my day seems a little easier than at first glance.

The dean of the seminary where I studied liked to say that Westerners are a people who like to “feel persecuted.” When we have a hard day or a frustrating encounter we externalize it and feel put upon. We take things so very personally that when encountering real persecution we struggle to know how to respond. As Christians, we are blessed to have literal written instructions reminding us how to respond in our Holy Scriptures.

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew comes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In this section, which we know as the Beatitudes, which are so well known that they seem a poetic piece of literature rather than an instruction manual for living. They feel unattainable, while being something to aspire to. We often break them up and look at them one at a time in an attempt to try on “bite sized pieces” of them since taking them as a whole seems too challenging. We will leave that to the modern saints around us like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, or Desmond Tutu. They can’t possibly be for all of us.

And yet, they are. Jesus did not intend these instructions to be an impossible bar – he meant them as an instruction manual for living. They can be the outline for our rule of life if let go of our very Western need for perfection and instead focus on the biblical perspective from the prophet Micah to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

The Beatitudes offer us an alternative way of living. They invite us to a life of simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.

Just this past week, Pope Francis spoke in response to US President Trump’s executive order banning immigration to the US from majority Muslim countries in the context of the beatitudes. He said that one cannot be a Christian and deny the rights and needs of refugees around the world – this is spelled out for us in the beatitudes. These simple yet extraordinarily challenging invitations are the hallmark of what it means to be a Christian.

For us in the Scottish Episcopal Church they are as relevant now as they were 2,000 years ago when Jesus first spoke them. In the past few weeks, our cathedral has been showered with hatred since inviting our Muslim brothers and sisters to share in the Feast of the Epiphany with us as a form of interfaith cooperation. Additionally, Glasgow has long been plagued with Sectarianism which often prevents ecumenical cooperation from collaboratively addressing the needs in our communities. And I say all of this while recognizing that my accent betrays my status as “other” in this context where we find ourselves. I can say “us” and “we” all I want, but I fully acknowledge and recognize that I’ve only been here 9 months and there is still so much for me to learn.

We are small, but we are mighty because we are a people who love justice. The Scottish Episcopal Church has a rich history of working for justice and peace and our call today is the same as it ever has been – our call is to be a church of the beatitudes. Even when it is hard. Even when it is scary. Even when we feel like our voice is too quiet or our hands are too small. This is the purpose of our MAPing process. We are called to create Mission Action Plans that put justice and outreach at the centre of our communal life together. It is our mission as a church to live into the beatitudes.

In light of everything else happening in the world, I’d like to take another stab at telling you about my Saturday: After the blessing of 5 days in the sun, I went to bed late because my puppy was so excited to see me. A good Samaritan saved us from having our cars stolen or house broken into when she ensured we brought our keys safely inside the house. A contractor, who is often someone we complain about being late or unreliable, turned up early and did some work we’ve been needing done. My friend got his birthday present and a smile on his face. By the grace of God, our car broke, not while we were on the highway, but while slowly pulling away from the curb, only a few miles from a garage who will fix it on Monday and we were not hurt. Because of the public transportation infrastructure in this great nation, we were able to get home with only minor inconvenience. And I ended my day with a nice cup of tea, a warm bath, and finally slept safely in my bed at the end of it all.

When I look at it like that, I have a whole lot more energy to remember and speak out for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and persecuted. When I remember that my Saturday, while inconvenient, was actually a fine and potentially amusingly long day, I can also remember that when Jesus promised that comfort will come to those in need – He is talking about comfort not only from God, but God’s comfort that comes through us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are the hands and heart and voice and love of God moving on this earth here and now.

We are the collected body of Christ, called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour –

Our gay, Muslim, catholic, atheist, Jewish, poor, drug addicted, grief-stricken, persecuted, Tory, Labour, SNP, Liberal, UKIP

Neighbour as ourselves.

It can seem entirely overwhelming when we look at the news and consider what our tiny hands and small congregations can do to help – but when we remember that each voice joining together forms a chorus we can remember that together, “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”

 

Opportunity to Choose – a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent

There was recently a social experiment shared through a video online.  Forregret one full day a chalk board hung on a fence in NYC with the question: “What is your biggest regret?” written across the top. Throughout the day passersby were invited to take a piece of colored chalk and write their regret on the board. No one was interviewed; the organizers never even learned the names of those who wrote those intimate thoughts on the board. At the end of the video they highlighted that a majority of the “regrets” started with the word “not” – they were chances not taken, paths left unexplored, etc… The board was littered with what ifs…[1]

I found the video interesting and shared it to see what response it might get from others in my circles. A high school classmate engaged the question and asked another in response: What if the question they explored was phrased as a positive rather than a negative? What if they asked folks what they didn’t regret in life? Would they get the path that lay opposite from the “regret?” The path that was taken?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.[2]

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where, for forty days, he was tempted by the devil.” (John 4:1-2a)

Did Jesus regret the road not taken?

We learn in our Gospel lesson for this morning that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan. This marks the beginning of his ministry and I can’t help by think that Jesus might have hoped for a better “first assignment.” What other opportunities were in front of him at the time? What did he have to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to the Spirit’s leadership?

That’s the thing, isn’t it: Life is full of choices. In order to backpack Europe for a year after college one has to forego the internship at the prestigious company that will set you up for the future. In order to stay home caring for the ailing parent one has to pass up the opportunity to finally have an empty nest after 18 or more years of a full house. In order to become what we are called to be we have to make a hundred choices a day – and sometimes we will wonder what would have happened if we went the other way.

Once Jesus enters the wilderness his time of decision-making is far from over:

  • Turn these stones into bread or starve.
  • Deny God and have kingdoms, realms, and power handed to you.
  • Prove your worth by doing as I say or be called a coward.

Even after Jesus “passes” every test, the last line of our passage says the devil only “departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13) This implication that these trials were not the end of Jesus’ temptations on earth fly in the face of what is commonly assumed about Jesus – that he was immune to temptation in his ministry after the desert trials. But if we look to the Jesus of our scriptures: sometimes angry or hot headed, expressing frustration, retreating for communion with God – we find that our Lord was truly fully human AND fully God – he faced the temptation of decision-making just as we do.

When we come to the divergent paths in the woods we always must make a choice – it won’t always be a cut and dry, right vs. wrong decision. There are many times that we must choose between two good things. There are times when we must choose between the known and the unknown. There are times when we must chose between action and inaction; silence and busyness; companionship or desert times. Lent is a season when we choose to make choices aimed at bringing us in closer relationship to God – saying no to distraction and yes to spiritual practices. Why is it that we need a season of invitation to do this?

Probably because the temptation is too great and we need an annual reboot to remind us to: turn our hearts away from sin and towards our God. (Acts 3:19)

As we talk about turning our hearts we cannot forget that today is Valentine’s Day. But rather than making each of you a construction paper heart edged with lacy doilies, perhaps instead we should consider the life of the Saint from whom this day is set aside. There is not much reliably known about the Saint aside from the fact that he was martyred on February 14th, likely in the year 269.[3] The popular story goes like this:

vdaySaint Valentine was a Roman priest at the time when Emperor Claudius was persecuting the church in a variety of ways. Among the persecutions against the people was Claudius’ edict against the marriage of young people. Claudius believed that young soldiers in the Roman army would fight more bravely if they were not worried about wives and children back home. Thus, Claudius condemned the sacrament of marriage for all men of fighting age. Valentine believed that Claudius was overstepping his bounds and continued to marry young Christian couples in secret. Claudius learned of this and flew into a rage. He summoned Valentine who tried to convert the emperor – this further upset the emperor and Claudius ordered Valentine tortured and imprisoned to stand trial for his crimes.[4]

When it came time to stand trial, a man named Asterius was assigned his judge. Asterius’ daughter was blind and legend has it that Valentine prayed for Asterius’ daughter and she was healed of her blindness – causing Asterius to convert to Christianity. Eventually, Valentine’s trial resumed and he was sentenced to a three-part execution of beating, stoning, and finally decapitation.[5]

Just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside – doesn’t it?

It is rumored that the last letter Valentine wrote was to the Asterius’ daughter and that he signed it: From Your Valentine – inspiring the tradition of sending love notes to one’s significant other on Valentine’s day.

“What Valentine means to me as a priest,” explains Father Frank O’Gara, “is that there comes a time where you have to lay your life upon the line for what you believe. And with the power of the Holy Spirit we can do that — even to the point of death.”[6]

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where, for forty days, he was tempted by the devil.” (John 4:1-2a)

Usually when we hear that someone is full of the Holy Spirit it is a time of joy, mystery, and wonder. Yet in the example of Jesus and of Saint Valentine we learn that the power of the Holy Spirit can inspire us to walk in the path laid before us, even when that road is challenging or long. The question the experiment leaders in New York City asked was wofork-in-the-roadrded in just the right way to get the answer they were seeking. If I were to do the same experiment I would ask: “How have your regrets been redeemed?”

When asked in the negative we can all come up with decisions we’ve made that we wish had gone another way – but without each of those choices we would not be who we are today. This Lenten season, we have the opportunity to be intentional about the choices we make and the pathways we follow. What will influence the choices you make?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.[7]

 

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R45HcYA8uRA

[2] The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

[3] http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159

[4] http://www1.cbn.com/st-valentine-real-story

[5] http://www1.cbn.com/st-valentine-real-story

[6] http://www1.cbn.com/st-valentine-real-story

[7] The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Faith or Fear?

The following sermon was preached at Saint Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Dover, Massachusetts on June 21, 2015. The readings for the week can be found here; the primary text referenced was the Gospel lesson of the day.

charleston AME victims

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.” – Isaiah 62:1

I have a confession to make: my heart is broken and I’ve got nothing for you this morning but raw emotion and unfinished reflections.

I wrote my sermon early this week – it was about David and Goliath – I figured I couldn’t make someone read that incredibly long text and then not talk about it. It was about the David and Goliath story and I had this great theme: you see, the dean of my seminary liked to say that we like to claim to be the persecuted ones because it’s easier to feel small than to accept that we are big and need to work towards humbling ourselves to a point that enables us to use our power for good. We’d rather claim weakness and complain than to steel ourselves, claim our authority, and work for change. I had this week in the bag.

When I led the vestry in bible study on Wednesday night about the Gospel passage I joked with them that they could rest assured I wasn’t using their reflections to write my sermon because that was already finished. I wasn’t writing on the Gospel passage.

I felt confident about my sermon. I felt inspired. And then, on Thursday morning, I woke up to learn that the night before – while our vestry was studying the Gospel together – something horrible happened to another group studying scripture in a church several hundred miles away. That group invited a stranger who walked in to join their intimate circle. After he participated in the bible study with them, he stood up and killed 9 peaceful people because of hate – pure and simple – except it’s not simple… not at all.

We live in a nation that claims to have liberty and justice for all, yet my children will not have to grow up being taught how to avoid racial profiling by our police forces. We live in a nation that claims to be the birthplace of freedom; yet we built our economy on the backs of enslaved black citizens whom we kidnapped from their homelands. We claim to be a post-racial society, but in just the last year we have learned the names Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner who join others like Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Miriam Carey, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and countless others who have been killed for the crime of existing as black people in this free nation we call home.

I say we, because as a white woman in America today I must claim the privilege that my skin color affords me and I must chose how I will use that privilege.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning Jesus, exhausted from teaching, healing, and preaching, asks his disciples to journey to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Four of Jesus’ disciples are experienced fishermen, so when they leave the docks, with other boats nearby on the same journey, he retires to rest on a cushion in the back of the boat. Jesus has faith in his disciples to get them safely to shore, and he trusts his Father in heaven to protect them from peril.

Jesus trusts that the disciples will use their knowledge and skill to get them safely across, but when the storm comes even the experienced fishermen panic and everyone gets upset with Jesus for “falling asleep on the job.” Jesus stands, rebukes the wind and the waves, and then he challenges the disciples asking them why they are afraid – where is their faith? Jesus gives us the choice right there: will we live in fear, or will we have faith?

Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing.”

Which do we choose?

We are called to be Christ’s body here on earth. His hands, feet, heart, and mind are in each of us and we are called to act as Christ’s instruments bringing the kingdom of God closer each day.

The families of the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson preached that Gospel for the world on Friday as one by one they stood in the bond hearing and told the young man who confessed to this brutal attack that they forgave him. They named their anger – but showed the true Gospel of Love as they professed their faith, not in the words of a creed, but in the words that echo the radical love and forgiveness enacted for us by our savior.

Jesus slept on the boat not because he didn’t care, but because he was exhausted and he trusted in the skills of his friends and the care of our God. Now it is our turn to stand up in the boat and battle the winds. We are in the midst of a storm of racism – one that our brothers and sisters of color cannot simply stand up and walk away from – they live it every day. Some days might be calmer than others – but the storm is always there. As white allies we have to choose to walk into the storm. We have to choose to batten down the hatches, patch the holes, and bail the water. We all like to claim we are the ones being persecuted for this little thing or that little thing, but when we stand in the face of real racism and persecution the temptation will come to ignore it and pretend it isn’t there.

Resist the temptation. Resist the urge to walk away. Resist the urge to go back to a life that ignores the storm we are living through.

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

They are the ones living the hard work. They are the ones living lives that some judge to be less worthy than those of white people. They are the ones who live in fear of being stopped by police based only on the color of their skin. They are the ones who have to work twice as hard to get half as much. They are the ones who are expected to explain time and time again to their white brothers and sisters that racism is real and still a problem today. They are living the hard work and now we chose: Faith or Fear? Will we join our brothers and sisters in the boat or will we leave them to fend for themselves?

The name of the church where these murders took place, ‘Mother’ Emanuel AME Church, is a reminder to us all to hold fast to the faith. Emanuel, after all, means “God with us” and “Mother” reminds us that God want to be as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wing. So, on this Father’s Day, let’s trust that God, who is our Mother and Father, is, indeed, with us.* (Thanks to the Rev. Thomas Mousin for this reminder and image)

If we are Christians who truly believe that God is with us and we honestly believe it is our calling to follow Christ than it is time to get in that boat. Jesus is in the boat. Jesus never left the boat – and we can’t either – not until we all get to the other side – together.

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