Monday, November 18, 2019

Together Let Us Live Like Jesus

I had the privilege of being the preacher at the Eucharist for the 124th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in Riverside on November 16, 2019. 

Here's the video of the sermon ... text posted below:

Together Let Us Live Like Jesus
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be aligned with your love O God, our strength, our courage and our freedom. Amen.

Go. Cross Boundaries. Listen Deeply. And live like Jesus.

Those are our marching orders as we prepare to gather around this table to be fed by the holy food of new and unending life and then ask to be sent out into the world to continue our lifelong journey along the way of love.

Go. Cross Boundaries. Listen Deeply. And live like Jesus.

These words bring to mind other words – words from the Gospel According to Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Gathered today at this 124th meeting of the annual convention of the Diocese of Los Angeles,  we stand on the shoulders of many generations of thoughtful, committed people who have gone before us in the lifelong way of love … those who changed the world for the better in their lifetimes as we strive to change it in ours – who said yes to the call to be people of justice and joy; compassion and peace.

It was 1997 and I was a brand-new deacon attending the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Summit in Cincinnati, Ohio -- and the preacher at the Eucharist concluding the conference was Dr. Verna Dozier.

Biblical scholar, author, gifted educator and faithful Episcopalian Verna was 80 years old and it was one of her last appearances before the Parkinson's disease she battled took her out of public life.

After she was assisted into the makeshift pulpit in the conference center assembly hall, she paused for a long moment to survey the gathered community before she proclaimed "You are a peculiar people ... and by the grace of God may you always remain so."

She then went on to challenge us to live into that peculiarity -- into our particular charism and challenge as American Anglicans with these words: "The Church has the possibility of being the new thing that can haul the whole world into God's vision for God's creation. Our choice is to be the ones who see the new way and to follow it, or to be the ones the new creation leaves behind."

We, my brothers and sisters and gender fluid siblings, are the Los Angeles branch of that peculiar people -- and both the challenge and the choice before us in these waning days of 2019 is exactly the same as the one Dr. Dozier named for the Episcopal Church in the waning days of the last millennium.

And the good news I bring today is that we are a peculiar people with lots of practice at choosing the new way and following it ... it is part of our DNA as both Anglicans and as Angelenos.

I am a daughter of this diocese. I was born at Good Samaritan Hospital and baptized at the Old Cathedral. I spent my earliest church days following my Aunt Gretchen around while she did her altar guild tasks at a time when hats were required for women and the priests were all men. And when we reached the age where it was time for confirmation class the boys went off to be acolytes ... and the girls went off to do nursery duty.

My first diocesan convention was 1987 and my name badge read "Mrs. Anthony Russell" ... never mind that Mr. Anthony Russell darkened the church door solely on Christmas and Easter. I remember in 1992 when two women clergy literally flipped a coin to decide which one of them would run for Deputy to General Convention -- because there was no way the diocese would send TWO women priests.

Let me pause for just a moment and note how far we've come. Yesterday this diocese not only elected an awesome slate of young leaders to represent us at General Convention but all four clergy deputies are women, our first alternate is a woman and six out of the eight deputies and alternates are new deputies. So we are a diocese that is choosing the new way.

And in a story that lives on in the Sisterhood of the Red Blazer, I remember being warned by women clergy mentors to "lose the red blazer until after you're ordained" because it was "too threatening."

I tell these stories because while we are most certainly not yet done with the systemic sexism which continues to plague our church, our nation and our world it is inarguable that we have come a far piece from those days. And it is a deep joy to have over and over and over had the high honor of being part of this work of the church in the world as we have gathered convention after convention to discern together what new ways the Holy Spirit is calling us to follow -- and then finding the courage to say yes when Jesus says "Go!"

And that brings me to the Gospel lesson for today. It starts with Jesus giving the disciples yet-another-teachable-moment -- yet another reminder of what it is they are supposed to do: to serve the least, the lost and the lonely ... and that "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant."

And then they encounter Bartimaeus – the blind beggar who many tried to silence but Jesus would have none of that. Modeling what he had just taught his disciples, he called the man everyone wanted to silence and ignore to come to him … and then asked him “What do you want me to do for you?” “How can I serve you?”

Crossing the boundary others were not willing to cross, Jesus centered the man on the margins.
Jesus listened deeply to what the man needed … not assuming to know his needs but granting him agency to name that for himself.

And then when he did … we are told … immediately he regained his sight.

Our human family is in desperate need of recovering its sight. It is suffering from an epidemic of blindness … blindness to the divinity present in each and every human being. That blindness fuels our divisions and feeds our polarities – and we are the ones Jesus is calling to walk the way of love as agents of hope and healing.

Yes, the challenges before us are great, the divisions are many and deep and there is much work to do.  And yet we claim the legacy of those on whose shoulders we stand … of those who have led the way through the struggles our Big Fat Anglican Family has weathered in the past.

Of John Hines who taught that justice was the corporate face of God’s love.
Of Ed Browning who proclaimed that in this church there would be no outcasts.
Of Barbara Harris who preached that there is no such thing as being half-assed baptized.
And of our own Malcolm Boyd who challenged us always to ask: “Are we running with you, Jesus?”

Just the tip of the iceberg of those faithful, committed people who changed the world … sometimes an inch at a time … because they were willing to:

Go. Cross Boundaries. Listen Deeply. And live like Jesus.

There is another gospel I have on my heart today -- the Gospel According to Joan Chittister. Sister Joan famously wrote: “We are each called to go through life reclaiming the planet an inch at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again.”

They are words that have inspired me ever since I read them decades ago in her brilliant book “Wisdom Distilled From the Daily” and yet -- if I’m honest -- there are moments when I’m so tired from thinking about it all I’m ever so tempted  to give up on the inch much less the mile.

And when that temptation looms, I remember my son Brian and his struggle in grade school as he tried to conquer the inch in front of him: mastering the mystery of Long Division! I remember the night he proudly announced at the dinner table that he'd finally figured it out. "First you guess, then you multiply, then you subtract until you run out of numbers!" And then, pausing for effect, he announced: "So now I understand math!"

And I remember his older brother, quickly bursting that bubble with the sobering news of algebra, geometry and calculus yet to come. "Oh no" exclaimed Brian in disbelief and horror. "You mean there's MORE?????"

Yes, there's more -- for Brian and for us. And just as my mother's heart ached for him that night at the dinner table -- wanting him to celebrate the achievement, yet knowing how much further he has to go -- how many lessons he has yet to learn -- I imagine God who is mother and father to us all feeling much the same about us every time we think we're finished: every time we're tempted to think the inch we've just reclaimed is enough.

Over and over and over again we face the challenge of refusing to settle for how far we've come and opening ourselves up to where God is calling us to go.

To Cross Boundaries. To Listen Deeply. And to live like Jesus.

To live like Jesus is to literally be  the change we wish to see in the world -- and the blessing we gather to claim today is a church changed and changing -- the challenge we face is an inch reclaimed and miles yet to go.
Hear these words from our former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:

Until we can see the chasm between what is and what ought to be, we don’t have any hope of changing.  Indeed, it is the act of crossing that boundary between what is and what ought to be that gets us across the fence between fear and possibility, reconciling division, transforming injustice, urging the lost onto the road home.

These words were preached back in 2012 to a congregation of people who love their church and strive to live out the Gospel while not always agreeing with each other about how to do both of those things.

And she was challenging us – and, I suspect, challenging herself (because we know all the best sermons are actually the preacher preaching to the preacher) – to get ourselves together and get over that fence between fear and possibility in order to bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be in our church and in our world.

I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that seven years ago the world was far from perfect and we faced a whole list of challenges.

But I think it is fair to say that since then the fence between fear and possibility has only gotten taller and harder to climb and the chasm between what is and what ought to be has only gotten deeper and more treacherous to cross.

It was Verna Dozier of blessed memory who said: “Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

Today we gather together as the Diocese of Los Angeles to be fed by word and sacrament not just because we believe – but because we believe we are called to make a difference.

Called to climb the fence between fear and possibility.

Called to refuse to settle for what “is” but to work together with God to create what “ought to be.”

One more quote from Verna: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. Fear will not risk that even if I am wrong I will trust that if I move by the light that is given me, knowing that it is only finite and partial I will know more and different things tomorrow than I know today, and I can be open to the new possibility I cannot even imagine today.”

To say that we live in challenging times is an understatement – and the onslaught of breaking news makes it clear that there are even greater challenges ahead.

But we are a peculiar people. And if we move together by the light we have – knowing it is only finite and partial -- we will move forward together as co-creators of what ought to be; agents of the change we want to see refusing to allow fear to keep us from climbing that fence that stands between us and another world that is not only possible ... she is on her way.

I close with these words of Indian author Arundhati Roy as interpreted by Ana Hernandez:

              Another world is not only possible. She is on her way.
              On a quiet day, you can hear her breathing. She is on her way. 
Now …

Together let us Go.
Together let us climb that fence.
Together let us claim the future.
Together let us make the impossible possible
as we work to reconcile division, transform injustice
and urge the lost onto the long road home.
Together let us live like Jesus.

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