Homily: June 26, 2016
June 26, 2016, YEAR C; Rev. Cindi Brickson
I thought perhaps I would preach this week primarily about the text from Galatians:
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things… If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Especially dwelling in examples of people we know who embody the Spirit in their love or joy or peace…We all know such people. I could ask you: close your eyes and imagine this person of great gentleness or faithfulness or kindness, sitting right next to you. How do you feel when you are with him or her? I could even ask you to share that with someone close to you. This would be a lovely sermon, and I think we would end it feeling really good. Who among us does not like to be in that place? And what newly ordained priest would enjoy sharing this good news?
The trouble is that every time I have read the Scripture this week, the piece that continues to hook me is not that nice piece. In fact, it is not a nice piece at all. It is the conversations of Jesus and his followers. Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” and “no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Wow. Theses are not good examples of peace, joy, and patience. This Jesus seems harsh and driven and perhaps even unkind. I find myself puzzled by his words and really, by the underlying attitude. I feel drawn to this puzzle and compelled to dig into it. So…welcome along to the inside of my thinking and feeling. Let’s dig.
When I am stuck, trying to understand Scripture, the question I ask myself is this: what is the writer trying to communicate to me about faith. I try to let go of other details and focus on the most important piece: the faith message.
It seems to me that the conversations with Jesus and his would be followers are about the costs of discipleship. If we follow Jesus, we should know: like Jesus, we likely will not have a comfy place to lay our heads; if we follow Jesus, we will not be allowed to choose to be in the world, to return to our families, even to bury our dead; if we follow Jesus we cannot choose to remain in the comfort of our important careers, whether that be as a careful farmer steering a plow or as a successful business person. To be a disciple of Jesus has a cost attached to it. To be clear, most of us would identify this as a high cost.
That all seems …difficult… to me. Its not that I don't want to be a follower, its just that I’d like to be comfortable.
It also seems to me that the good news of this passage is actually found in the broad invitation of Jesus. Anyone who wants to embrace the difficult work of discipleship, is welcome. in these and other stories, Jesus offers the opportunity for discipleship to everyone who asks. “come follow me.” The decision to embrace discipleship lies in each one who asks, regardless of their age, class, gender, education, position… “All are welcome” seems a real value that he lives and preaches, not just a catchy hymn title or merely words for a banner to hang in our churches.
In my experience this is a core value in the Episcopal Church as well. It is certainly my experience of the people of Gethsemane. I was warmly welcomed when I came here, feeling very much like a refugee. Most of the time, this too has been my family’s experience. The people of Gethsemane welcomed us. First, you said, “come in”. Then you said, “join us”. “Roll up your sleeves, because we are the people with a mind to work.” In one experience, I came to understand not only being welcomed, but being invited to be part of the community and expected to dig right in. There is blessing on both sides of this equation, in the invitation and in the expectation. My son Michael’s experience with communion is a great example of both sides of this equation. When we first come to Gethsemane, Michael was a little boy, about 3. He had never received communion. The invitation for him to come to communion was plain. For a few weeks, Michael resisted coming to communion with us. But eventually, the week came when Maggie said, “Michael, are you going to communion today?” And Michael said, “Yes. I gonna b(l)wess the church guy.” That is, yes, I will go to communion. And in the same moment, I will offer in return a blessing. And that is exactly what he did: he got into line and waited his turn for communion. When he got to the front first he offered the Church Guy a blessing, and then he took communion from him a few weeks later. Michael understood and lived the invitation and the expectation in that moment, and our priest received a blessing from an unexpected source, because we invited it and he could accept it.
A little boy in line to receive communion might seem an unlikely source of blessing, but from Michael, we can remember what happens when all are welcome: those who accept the invitation offer blessing to us. All kinds of blessings, as we welcome all kinds of people.
Today we will sing the Table Prayer. It is not the usual way we celebrate communion, but it it a clear way to create eucharist - that is, to offer thanksgiving - all together. The composer deliberately wrote this music to highlight the power of including all of our voices as we celebrate together. It was a conscious decision to pray in this way today, on a day when the issue of inclusion is so present in our church and in our neighborhood.
The invitation for this kind of radical inclusion is also a vision that has been set to music in a hymn called “A Place at the Table”, our communion hymn today. The words are written by Shirley Murray and music by Lori True. Murray was in the habit of writing sermon songs for her spouse, who was a methodist minister. Apparently his messages often spoke to fairy edgy, contemporary topics and the methodist hymnal did not quite capture that for him. She is a very successful songwriter and her works are widely published. Her hymns address issues such as peace, justice, human rights, inclusiveness, gender equality, environmental concerns, and social responsibility. This particular hymn was born of her work with a document produced for the General Assembly of the United Nations, for the December 1948 meeting. This document is the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. When she spoke of it, Murray said: “…this hymn address human rights: the right to shelter, safety, food, and later, the right to a job, to freedom of speech and worship. I've tried to put them in a context which relates directly to the Gospel, but without excluding those who are not of the Christian faith…” The lyrics begin:
For everyone born, a place at the table, for everyone born, clean water and bread, a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing for everyone born, a star overhead, and God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace: yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!
It continues to name groups that have a history of being marginalized: for woman and man, for old and for young, for gay and for straight, for just and unjust…
All these are the people who I imagine Jesus would invite to be his disciples. All these are the people we are called to welcome and include and be blessed by each day.
And with that image, I think we are back to where I started this sermon: knowing the blessings that might come from the people we know who embody the gifts of the Spirit…love or joy or peace; patience or generosity or self control. The only trouble with this idea is: Jesus called everyone. I have some personal discomfort with “everyone”. If I am honest, I would struggle to be welcoming to “everyone”. I believe this is true for each of this here, that we have people in our pasts with whom we prefer not to sit at any table.
Whether we can admit that this applies to a single, specific person we know or a whole group of people we lump together such as a political group or a sexual minority or a religious or ethnic group, the truth is: we are not 100 percent welcoming, not one of us here. It is a challenge. But the Jesus Christ of today’s gospel invites us all to be disciples. The Jesus Christ of today’s gospel invites anyone and everyone to be disciples. Those invited include all the people inside of this room, and all the people outside. It includes those whom we know to be comfortable inside this room and those who would struggle to be here. It includes those who we may or may not accept. In the words of our communion hymn: For everyone born, a place at the table.
I know we make a sincere effort to live into this calling each week. We articulate it as: “This table is hosted by our Lord Jesus Christ who welcomes all, no matter your race, class, gender, orientation, belief or no belief at all.” Our gospel challenge this week is to live the call to discipleship in a radically inclusive way. It is to accept the opportunity to be blessed by a young child or to offer thanks together at your table or to recognize the discipleship of one with whom you are not really comfortable. Make no mistake, this is a daunting task. As a community, I think we do good work in this arena. We are doing good things here. And we are invited again today: to strive to do more, to give our best, to build justice and joy.
Todays gospel asks you: How will you follow Christ this week? To whom will you listen? Who will you invite? From whom will you receive a blessing?