Monday, May 30, 2016

When A Foreigner Comes: Sermon for Sunday, May 29th

Even after fourteen years I never climb into the pulpit without a deep awareness of what a privilege it is to preach at All Saints Church. Sunday it was a particular privilege to take a great cloud of witnesses with me: friend Joe Henry, mentor Barbara Mudge, prophets Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Heschel, the inspirational Dr. Susan Partovi, my daddy and  -- of course -- Jesus. [YouTube link]

Inspiration comes in many forms … Including music, scripture, nature, poetry … and (sometimes) in Facebook posts.

The following words of deep truth were ones my friend Joe Henry posted on his Facebook page the day Prince died … and I snagged them and saved them because they spoke to me so deeply in that moment I knew somehow they would continue to speak to me and they have.

I have ceased distinguishing
between the religious and the secular,
for everything is holy:
our courage and humility,
our senses both lost and found;
our love and our lust…
all that shall swoon and couple,
leaving in their wake the real hope that,
late as is the hour –
with as much as we have been given
and have squandered;
as little as we might deserve it,
though we stomp and plead—
there may yet be more on offer:
God willing,
just one more song
sung into high rafters
before we are finally called
to quit and disperse.

What a deep truth does is draw us into deeper truths. And one of the deep truths this reading continues to draw me into is challenging the false narrative of either/or that has so permeated our civic, cultural and collective discourse that we seem to have lost the ability to apprehend the in-between or the both/and – succumbing to the misapprehension that unison is a requirement for unity, that differences equal divisions and that being agreed with is a criterion for relationship.

And that deep truth leads us into the deeper truth which Martin Luther King, Jr. named as the “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” where whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly; and I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This is the inter-related structure of reality; the place where there is no distinguishing between the religious and the secular the place where everything is holy -- the place where everything is love.

It is what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven -- proclaiming – by word and example— that it was already within and among us. It is what we pray for every single time we pray the words “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

And … it is a journey.

Some might argue it is the journey humankind has been on since “In the beginning …” And my seminary Hebrew Scripture professor would be one of those making that argument.

In fact, he made it in almost every lecture I ever heard him give. Dr. Jim Sanders – now 89 years young and still lecturing in Claremont – is an extraordinary scholar, teacher and preacher … and one of the translators of the Dead Sea scrolls. When I sat in his classroom – over twenty years ago now – he stressed over and over and over again the importance of what he called “the monotheizing process” … (and I quote:)
Critically moving from the older passages through to the later, careful readers are able to trace a process that is best called monotheizing. In effect the first commandment of the Decalogue, the first of Jesus' two great commandments, and the Qur'an's clear mandate fashion an imperative to continue the monotheizing process that is not yet complete but that enjoins adherents of each to live life in the belief that there is but One God of All.
To be clear – this is not a process of God changing God’s mind but a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of the infinite nature of God’s love, justice and compassion.

We can actually see a version of that process at work in the lessons appointed for us this morning.

In the first – the reading from I Kings – Solomon prays that “when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house” that God should hear those prayers and “do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.” A huge step forward from “when a foreigner comes kill him or enslave him” – which would have been much more in alignment with the world as it was in 500 BC. No. It’s when a foreigner comes, hear their prayer.
Then – fast forward about 500 years and we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a foreigner who comes to him. This time it’s a Roman centurion seeking healing for his very sick servant – and Jesus … amazed by his faith … heals him. When a foreigner comes, don’t just ask God to hear his prayer – heal him.
And if we travel further into the scriptural story we inherit – beyond the lessons appointed for today into Paul’s Letter to the Galatians – we hear these words: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one.”

Remember the part in last week’s gospel when Jesus told us the Holy Spirit was coming to lead us into all truth – some of which we weren’t ready for yet? The same Holy Spirit he told us the week before – on Pentecost – would equip us to “do greater works than these?”

That is what we see at work in these ancient stories of faith: the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth -- at work helping us grow more fully into the understanding of the One God of All. Taking a giant step forward from “when a foreigner comes …” to “There are no foreigners. We are all one.”

And so the “therefore” for me this morning is that because the One God of All is alive and at work in absolutely every human being – therefore -- to paraphrase Joe Henry:

We are called to cease distinguishing
between the foreigner and the homey,
for everyone is neighbor everyone is family
everyone is holy.

And just like the monotheizing process Professor Sanders taught was “was not yet complete” we are not “there yet” in the process of living into that call – not by a long shot.

Instead we are surrounded by polarization and polemic that seems to sink exponentially lower with every news cycle. The venom, vitriol and ad hominem attacks during this election cycle have taken on a toxicity that transcends party and ideology. And the search for common ground to unite has been abandoned for the search for differences to leverage into division.

I should probably offer a brief disclaimer at this point – although it will likely not come as a great surprise. I’ve always been a political animal. I think it was in our family DNA. The values my parents raised us with included a deep love of this country and its foundational values of liberty and justice for all — and they instilled in us a deep sense of our responsibility to participate in the political process.

We watched conventions together — crunched up on the old couch in the den in front of the black-and-white TV with the rabbit ears, where also we stayed up late following election returns. I remember explaining the Electoral College to classmates on the elementary school playground because my daddy explained it to me.

He also explained the genius behind our Constitutional Democracy with words I still remember fifty years later:
“We have a system of government that at its best protects us from ourselves at our worst,” my daddy said. “Because at our worst every man is on the same side … and that’s the “me” side. He will vote for what’s in it for himself – and forget that we are all in this together.”
My Daddy was “spiritual but not religious” long before it was actually a thing … but that moment was arguably my introduction to what I would eventually come to understand as the theology of the myth of the separate self.

And outdated gender pronouns notwithstanding, it was my initiation into a polity framed by the network of mutuality – into a worldview of an inter-related reality where the most important question was not “what’s in it for me” but how – together -- can we become a more perfect union.

I wonder what my Daddy would make of where we are today.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel was the one who famously said “in every moment something sacred is at stake” – and there are some moments when that truth seems so much more pronounced than others.

We are, I believe, collectively in one of those moments as a nation.

And our challenge, in this moment, is to be an antidote to the toxic narratives that surround us. Our task -- in this moment -- is to refuse to settle for being ourselves at our worst by claiming the high calling to cease distinguishing between the foreigner and the homey and to build a world where everyone is neighbor everyone is family everyone is holy.

And in spite all that conspires to tell us how impossible that is if we’re paying attention; if we’re lucky; if we’re blessed -- there are moments when our lives touch the lives of those who are being the change we yearn to see and remind us who we are when we are ourselves at our best.

I got the gift of one of those moments last week in a video called “Skid Row Doctor” – the story of Dr. Susan Partovi who works on L.A.'s Skid Row -- the most densely concentrated population of homeless people in the country.

The video chronicles one day in the life of a doctor who has chosen to work in the streets with the sickest of the sick meeting people where they are quite literally incarnating love, justice and compassion in a place described as “an ocean of staggering need.”

In her work and witness in the streets of Skid Row Dr. Susan Partovi lives and moves and has her being in a place where there is no foreigner where there is no human being beyond dignity, respect and hope. where – in her own words -- “If you treat people like human beings, they show up like human beings.”

And there – for a moment – in an online video about a doctor on Skid Row was the glimpse of the inter-related structure of reality; the place where there is no distinguishing between the foreigner and the homey; the place where respecting the dignity of every human being is not just a promise but a practice the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven the place where everything is holy -- the place where everything is love.

I want to close with the words of a beloved friend, mentor and teacher: The Reverend Canon Barbara Mudge – former vicar of Saint Francis in Simi Valley – and the priest who sponsored me for ordination on June 1, 1996. Barbara died this week after a long illness and among the many things I remember about her was “her” dismissal – these words she said every time we ended worship at Saint Francis:

The holiest moment is now.
Fed by Word and Sacrament
Go out to be the church in the world.

Show the world – like Joe Henry – that everything is holy.

Remind the world – like Martin Luther King, Jr. – that I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.

And serve the world – like Dr. Susan Partovi – as beacons of love, justice and compassion.

Go. Amen.

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