Mary Sulerud - Sermon - 12/4/16

December 4, 2016

The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

“The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Thomas Merton

He has become a caricature of himself, this prophet of gloom doom and the end of the world. His description in the Gospel of Matthew amplifies this with a person dressed in camel hair, eating such food as the desert provides, locusts and honey. This was the prophet that people went to the wilderness, not just to see, but to whom they confessed their sins. He preached repentance. What could that mean, being sorry, trying to do better or be better, feeling judged and found guilty, unworthy or fearful of an angry God’s wrath, who must be something given the attitude, the preaching, the smell of God’s prophet before us.

I think John the Baptist was a tough sell then and in every age. I think it’s particularly difficult here when I look around at a congregation that has mostly fled to this church because they don’t want judgment or to be judged. Many of us are in recovery from Christian judgment because we are women, or divorced, or LGBTQ, or looking for an honest conversation about race, or finally had enough of conservative, literalist and fundamentalist moral values and interpretation of Scripture and the church’s traditions. Yet John the Baptists preaches judgment, God’s judgment, and how is this supposed to be different from any other judgmental-ism we have experienced, given this rhetoric, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come”?

This is where all of the descriptive geography and John’s harsh weirdness in this Gospel of Matthew are profoundly helpful. John is in the wilderness. This is the place where the people of Israel got it profoundly right about God and terribly wrong as well. The point of all that wandering was to learn to trust God and truly listen to God and not their old ways of enslavement. Whenever we are in the wilderness we are on God’s alien and unsettling turf, not our own. We are not wondering or wandering around our own sorry standards of moral worthiness. John challenges all entitlements in all times and all places—bloodlines, position education and gender just to name the vipers in the gospel today. John also wants us to know that who we are and what we do matter to God!

John challenges us to repent, meaning that God’s desire is to align us in a life in Christ. That has almost nothing to do with our moral failings and almost everything to do with God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image and likeness in the same way that God can make a life-giving branch grow from a dead old stump according to the prophet Isaiah. It is fine to renounce our judgmental ways, but in doing so we need to be on our toes. If we expect God to cherish us for who we are, the we need to be responsible for what we do. We have great expectations of God and God has great expectations of us too.

Whether or not we preach much about sin in this pulpit, we all know what it is to have fears, to be broken by life to have a prevailing emptiness and disconnection with the living God. The people went to John and confessed all of this seeking to stop hiding in all those broken places, renouncing what had hold of them that wasn’t from God, and instead in the words of Paul Tillich accepting “the courage to live as accepted for who they were.” That’s our invitation too, to empty ourselves of everything that keeps us from seeing and accepting that God loves each and every one of us, as each one of us is, not as we think we should be. In baptism God claims us and we give glory to God just by existing.

 

The geography serves us in another way too. It is easy in every season and especially in this one to think that we are living according to the slogan, “Let’s make church great again! We hear it when we say how much we want the pageant to be just what we remember, or the decorations, or the worship. We hear it when we push out a time of longing and expectation and rush to the manger. Being in the wilderness makes us pay attention to not yielding to our sentimental, warm and fuzzy feelings that our guest speaker this Advent, Tim Sabin, rightly noted, to do is to make moral and religious fascists of us all. As teacher and preacher David Bartlett states, “Nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude.” John’s harsh invitation like the geography and circumstances around him is all about allowing there to be space for God’s faith, hope and love to be firmly planted a new in each of us.

What that looks like may be something like this, living in a community that breaks with the past where it is fundamentally in error. It is living looking ahead and looking back at what really was God speaking, not us. After all, John would have had little to say had it not been for the prophet Isaiah centuries before him! It is welcoming one another and the stranger because we know what it is like to be welcomed by divine love It is encouraging one another to trust God. It is living for the poor in ways that give them the right to shape their own decisions without fear, brutality or violence. It is judging with equity and righteousness, as Christ did. Now that’s a dangerous statement! Yet I know when I am doing this as Christ would when I also pay real consequences for a vision that is “offensively inclusive”, when I choose to hope rather than yield to despair because I believe and put my trust in the promise of God to keep the promises of God.

“The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” May it be so for me and for you.

Mary Sulerud - Sermon 11/20/16

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

The Feast of the Reign of Christ

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

If we are at a loss as to what happens to us in relationship to Jesus when he dies, the writer of the Letter to the Colossians makes it clear that through the cross we are literally transferred from being ruled by the powers of darkness, specifically sin and death, to the rule and reign of Christ. It is this message of reconciliation and forgiveness that we celebrate on this feast day, the end of our church year. It is the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection that gives Christ first place in everything in this world.

 I suspect that most of us who awakened on the morning of November 9, 2016 did not feel as though we had awakened amid the rule of Christ, or Christ in all and all. If ever there was a moment in which I awakened knowing that I am, and that we are, accountable to Christ alone it was that day. I awakened knowing that all these years my faith has been all about fitting Jesus into my world view or the world view of a liberal democracy or benign capitalism. This reality was done. I was deported completely and utterly from one kingdom and its world view into one in which if I am to have faith and hope and exercise true reconciling love, then it is Jesus Christ alone who can shape my worldview, our world view. This doesn’t come without struggle.

The failure of faith takes many forms, it can be as simple as engaging only in the rituals and not enacting them in discipleship. It is thinking that simple benevolence will challenge and change the world that denies justice and freedom as a daily exercise of power and dominion. It is seeking our place among the strongest rather than the weakest. It is choosing the convenience of denying our commitments rather than living up to them. It is refusal to take responsibility for doing the work of justice and peace as partners with God in the work of redemption and reconciliation. Yet, the smallest and the greatest failures do not remove us from this gift of Christ’s salvation. To receive this forgiveness, we must be brought to the end of our possibilities.

Extreme emotions put us front and center in this gospel that tells us about Jesus our king. People are tormented by decisions, distress—both those who lost him and those who wanted him put to death—the core of that distress was the fitness of Jesus to be king.  We want to look down on those who killed Jesus as embodied by an executed thief who lashes out in anger. Jesus does not do this. He asks for forgiveness for those who executed him. To the thief who asks for mercy Jesus promises paradise today. This is the Jesus to whom we confess, “yours is the power, and the kingdom and the glory”.

This picture of Jesus Christ as king shows us that self-emptying is not self-destruction. Jesus shows us that it is an active readiness to serve God’s purposes. Jesus shows us that God’s peace is won not by weapons and force, but by conversion and transformation, by the utterly faithful acceptance of the most radical rejection we can offer. Today we meet the world as Jesus does. It is a world too full of unreconciled pain and exhausted compassion that can only be addressed by this terrible death, and we know the resurrection that follows. Our contrition, our repentance may take the form of tears, or stilling those impulses to betray, deny or be swayed by the crowds. Like the thief we are to participate in a life-giving world in which we are sent from the cross to be healers who do not flinch in the face of suffering. We must enter our public and private Jerusalem with the mind of Christ who died in solidarity with us at our worst and with a hope that had no assurance of vindication. God had the courage to trust this empty moment, so must we.

Today you will be with me in paradise, promises Jesus. This is not simply a promise of the future. It is the promise of this moment. This means if you are lost, today you are found. If you are on the outside of the wealth and power of this world, you are here at God’s table and worthy of God’s feast. If you have squandered all grace, hope, mercy and love, today your return is celebrated. Today we are invited to be full participants in upholding God’s restorative justice. This means holding the rulers of this age at arms’ length or the width of the cross. This means upsetting the apple cart to empower all people to know themselves as God’s children.  This means always living from a place of love and not fear, respecting the dignity of those with whom we agree and disagree, for “what we focus on will become our reality.” This means forgiving those unworthy of our mercy because God loves them too, like thieves on the cross and those who would put Jesus to death. It is always remembering that as followers of Christ our true roots are in and among the people who matter the least to the world, the poor and the oppressed and upholding God’s justice for them. For these are our deepest values. This is our common ground as followers of Jesus Christ the King.

We are so weak, and God is so strong. And God’s love and grace are sufficient for all. Thank God that God gives grace and I do not. God give us the courage to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

 

 

Mary Sulerud - Sermon - 10/23/16

The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Several weeks ago in an adult forum session an Emmanuel member asked a very important question, “What is being done to contact and invite the people who are no longer here?” I had a ready answer as anyone who had been put on my radar screen I had either called or sent an email explaining a bit about the transition here and inviting them to come and see.

The question has lingered with me uncomfortably since that morning, in part because I don’t know who left and why, because I don’t have any coherent plan to reach out, and because my pastoral experience tells me that chasing folks is a very delicate dance that has proved not very fruitful. If I am very honest I need to own that it is not entirely my ministry to do. It is one that we share.

If we take all those parables about the shepherd going after the single lost sheep seriously, then we also have a call as people who have a very open and welcoming front door to attend to those who may drift away out of the back door. We share in that call because we all know what it is like to stand in the corner because something or someone has sent us away, because dreams get broken, because we have been neglected or profoundly misunderstood, because we have felt disliked, disconnected, unwanted, unworthy and uninvited. We are called to share in this ministry of tending those who are far off because we know who is in the corner or the margin of this life because of poverty, injustice and absence of a civic will to be present to those who have real and systemically reinforced problems like mental illness, homelessness, joblessness and addictions. Add our endemic racism into the mix and you can see how easy it is for so many to slip away.

We share in this ministry of welcoming back those in the corners of our lives and life in this community because speaking personally here I know all the times I have stood before God and justified myself in these words:

I thank God that I am not like that neighbor who is clearly by the lawn sign is in the other political party.  Thank God that I am not like all those candidates running for public office. I thank God that I am not like that person pulled over by the highway patrol. I thank God that I know better than… I thank God that I am not like…you can fill in the blank however you would like. Clearly in each of those statements putting someone into the corner of this life.

Remember that I once said that the simplest and plainest meaning of the word justify is to “adjust or space (lines or letters) to the proper length in printing.” No writing can justify itself. We have to set margins for this to work. The same is true before God. I can’t justify myself because not only is it spiritually impossible to do what only God can, the moment I even start down that road I start suturing closed my very self from being present to the grace and mercy of God. That’s hell for me and everyone within earshot of that prayer.

What is to be done then? This parable besides reminding me that I am in a continuous recovery program from my ego, points out that our status before God is not about what we do. It is about what God does, pouring out grace and mercy on all, loving steadfastly all of us even when we are demonstrating an amazing inability to contain ourselves. In a parable about two people one walks away justified simply because by confronting his own brokenness and estrangement from God, asking for God’s mercy without excuses, he opened his life to receive and to trust the mercy he so desperately needed.

We gather today before the God who offers us self-giving self-sacrificial love. The best way we can pray I thank you God that I have been given this love is to give it to one another, and especially to offer it to those who have wandered to the margins or the corners of our own lives, the life of this community called Emmanuel and this city. Like the communion we share this love is the food we need to journey together, to endure and persevere amid the joy and the challenge of being in a time of transition.

In the end, while I know the story of the last often difficult and sad two years, I don’t know very much about why people walked away from this community and this life in Christ. I remind myself each day about all of it to assume nothing. Because I also believe that your life needs to be grounded in your deep sense that God is with you and not whoever is your rector, no matter how good or bad, I think this is a time in which we together exercise another kind of stewardship. Who felt consigned to the corner in the life of this place? Take a moment to say a prayer for anyone you remember and do not see. Then pick up the phone and text or call. Go to your computer and send an email. Tell this person that he or she is missed and loved, and finally say come home, we would love to see you.

In a world in which the consistent message to those who are hard for us to know, to respect, to imagine living with, let alone, loving, it is the church that is to be the place where all are welcome and none are despised. I thank God that you are here today. Let’s thank God today for those who are not with us as well. God’s mercy and love is also theirs. Amen.

Mary Sulerud - Sermon - 10/9/16

The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 11; 2Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19


A number of years ago there was a very short-lived television series about two single mothers and their struggle to raise multiple children in a shared household all the while staying reasonably connected to their former spouses and dealing with a wonky job market that made very little space for children who got sick, pets that had accidents all over your shoes as you walked out the door, missed school buses—you know the stuff of everyday life. It was a comedy that I think didn’t get much traction because as amusing as it was, it was too close to home for too many people at a time when television didn’t yet have access to niche markets through places like Amazon and Netflix.

One episode, the one closest to Halloween, was particularly memorable because they created a house of horrors in their home for the neighborhood kids to tour and the rooms were priceless, containing children with computers that only accessed their homework; children doing everyday chores like taking out the garbage and emptying the dishwasher and my personal favorite, a room full of children commanded to write thank you notes to all those family members who had sent you good things and the wildly inappropriate set of weights for the 6 year old. The latter of course played into every memory I have as a child of my mother keeping me from gifts until the thank you notes were written, yes even for those things that were really not welcomed or inappropriate.

What this television show captured perfectly is the extent to which I associate giving thanks and gratitude with the duty I must fulfill. I suspect that I am not alone in that. We work overtime sometimes to be sure that we show ourselves grateful to God for all that we are given as though it were one more item on the to-do list called being faithful. Actually this is precisely the opposite of what our Scripture lessons are saying about what it is to be thankful. Gratitude, giving thanks, are embodied in the words of the sursum corda which is said every Sunday before the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, “lift up your hearts”. Of course Eucharist means to give thanks and is the very word used to describe what the returning Samaritan leper does when he is healed by Jesus.

Jesus says several things worth hearing when this sole foreigner returns beside himself with gratitude. First he notes that what the Samaritan has done is move his trust, his faith in Jesus’ power to heal from ethical duty to one of joy and gratitude. It doesn’t mean that nine other lepers who were healed are being judged and found wanting for doing what they are told to do. This is so important for us to understand and appreciate. What happens is that one leper, a foreigner and outcast whose only solidarity with the other nine was likely to have been his disease, returns to give thanks with great joy. It is a spontaneous act and Jesus then says that his faith has made him well. Here I am grateful for some words Joe used a few weeks ago, this leper’s return to give thanks to Jesus, to God has made the difference in his life between being given his health, and being given a life in which the fullness of his wellbeing has been restored.

Somehow giving thanks, a spontaneous act of joy has everything to do with having a relationship with oneself, with others and with God that is deep and abiding, full of healing and holiness. I am reminded of all of the folks I know who have literally by God’s grace and medical science been cured of diseases that should have killed them long ago. Initially they were grateful and viewed life differently. Then of course life intervened in ways that had them back on the treadmill of trying to be dutiful. It is an important reminder that to be truly whole, to be healed in any sustained way we need to live lives that are thankful, Eucharistic in as many ways as possible. To do that I can’t and God can’t command that we be thankful because gratitude is part of a way of understanding and knowing the world and our relationship to God.

So what might we do to remain in a life of joyful, spontaneous and thankful living? How do we get out of the little room of horrors of writing thank you notes? First it helps me to step into the shoes of each of the biblical figures we hear about today and reflect upon where God is in that. Am I like Namaan anxious to prove myself important before showing gratitude or even being willing to accept an act f grace-filled healing that is very humble? Am I like Elisha offering what may be generous, but keeping my distance, lest I get involved in the joy, the thanks that may be lurking where I do not expect it? When I am healed do I respond only by doing what I am told, rather than engaging the one who gave me the gift with thanks?  Like Paul do I tend to be more comfortable with hardships in the call to be in community than I am with a mission that is focused on God’s loving grace and presence right now?

When I ask these questions of myself it helps me to see that I am never able to do enough or justify myself. It helps me just to stand still and say thank you. It helps me to see that I need to say thank you and those words free so much in me and all who around me when I do. In spite of her insistence on writing all those thank you note, one day when I finally plucked up the courage to ask why I had to thank a particularly difficult family member for a little gift, my mother simply had the wisdom to say, because she probably doesn’t hear the words, “thank you” enough. Maybe Mary Catherine this time it will make a difference.