Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Do we believe in a God who knows us … or a God who is trying to find us out?" -- a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016

Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me saying: 
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

The first word God has for Jeremiah. The first word of many that would not only change Jeremiah’s life but the course of an entire nation was this:

I know you.

That word, “know,” is one of the most powerful words in scripture. In Hebrew, it’s yada.

Yada doesn’t just mean “Hey -- I know that guy.” Yada means to know deeply … intimately … fully.

We read yada in Genesis when we hear that Adam knew Eve -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean? That kind of know. In “the biblical sense.”

We read yada in Exodus when God says to Moses, “I know the sufferings of my people and I have come down to deliver them.”

This is deep, intimate, vulnerable, personal and utterly complete knowledge. All hearts open. All desires known. No secrets hid.

Yada is the ultimate approach/avoidance situation of human existence. We crave being able to share and to have another know those parts of ourselves we are convinced we must hide away. We crave it almost as much as we fear the pain and shame of that intimate knowledge being turned to ridicule, betrayal and rejection. Almost as much as we fear what we thought was “being known” turning into “being found out.”

It’s ironic isn’t it? Being known might be our deepest desire. And yet being found out is so often our greatest fear.

That’s because being known is being understood. Being found out is being shamed.

Being known is living fully, authentically and without shame. Being found out is being yanked out of a closet and sucked into the deep downward spiral of shame.

Being known is about intimacy and acceptance, about love and embrace, about forgiveness and grace.

Being found out is about examination and rejection and the confirmation that those voices inside us that have told us we are no good, that we are less than, that we are not worthy of love have been right all along.

And so when the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, when God says “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” does Jeremiah sing with joy or cringe in fear? Does his heart fill with hope or did his stomach bottom out in dread.

I imagine it was a lot of both.

But God is kind. Because God doesn’t leave Jeremiah twisting in the wind, wondering if he has been known or found out. Because in the very same sentence God says even more.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

“Jeremiah. I know you. I have always known you. I will always know you. And what I have seen is so good, so beautiful, so worthy that before you even did anything to earn it, I have set you apart and am giving you a purpose to fulfill, a life to lead, a truth to tell to the world.”

God tells Jeremiah, “I know you.”

Not “I’ve found you out” but “I know you.”

And even though it takes Jeremiah a second to believe God. Even though Jeremiah’s first reaction is to look behind him, certain that God must be talking to someone else, someone older, better, more eloquent – the message sinks in. Jeremiah indeed becomes a prophet to the nations. And the words God gives him – words that become a fire shut up in his bones that he cannot help but let out (20:9) – are words that change the course of history itself.

God tells Jeremiah, “I know you.” Not “I’ve found you out” but “I know you.”

And Jeremiah believes God.

And that makes all the difference.

So the question for us this morning:

Do we believe in a God who knows us … or a God who is trying to find us out?

Because our answer makes all the difference, too.

For centuries and even millennia, much of Western Christianity has preached a God who is trying to find us out – and we have suffered mightily for it. We have turned following Jesus into the very things he railed against – adherence to purity codes, behavioral norms, and dogmatic confessions. This Grand Inquisitor God has not stood with Christ while Christ stands with us in all the fragility and beauty and imperfection of our humanity -- but instead has driven us behind masks and into closets.

Preaching a God who is trying to find us out, for centuries and even millennia, we have enshrined the Fall, not rejoicing that we are wonderfully made but cowering in fear and shame when God comes walking in the garden in the cool of the day because our very bodies – created in God’s image -- offend us, and, we assume, offends God as well.

And preaching that false God, for centuries and even millennia, we have turned the church into an instrument of fear and shame. Instead of proclaiming with Jesus that today the Gospel of liberation is fulfilled in your hearing, the church has been an enslaver, using fear and shame to subjugate anyone who doesn’t fit into a hopelessly narrow understanding of human being and expression.

Instead of proclaiming with Paul that love is patient and kind and that at best now we see in a mirror dimly, for centuries and even millennia the church has become a generator and amplifier of the moralizing certitude of slut-shaming, purity culture, modesty culture, homophobia, transphobia and the list goes on and on.

Instead of singing with the psalmist, “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed,” in the name of Jesus, for centuries and even millennia, the church has used fear and shame and even our own religious imagery to support systems that tell people with black and brown bodies to be ashamed and fearful, that refuge in the church is contingent on acting white, and that expressing fully who you are, especially any anger you might have, is not allowed.*

Fear and shame. That is what preaching this God who is trying to find us out has wrought in our hearts and in our churches. Fear and shame.

Have you felt it?

Even in this space … even in this wonderful community, have you felt the need to hide pieces of yourself in fear and shame? Have you felt unable to be your full self, to explore who that might be, to express the image of God that is upon and within you?

Even in this space … even in this wonderful community, have you felt the fear that you will be found out – that you will be discovered unworthy, an impostor Christian or less than a full and beautiful child of God because of something you have done, or believe or even who you are.

Even in this space … even in this wonderful community, is there something that when God brings God’s word to you that God is setting you apart and giving you a purpose to fulfill, a life to lead, a truth to tell to the world your first reaction is to look behind you because surely God must be talking to somebody else. Certainly God could not be giving this incredible word to you?

Fear and shame. That is what preaching this God who is trying to find us out has wrought in our hearts and in our churches. Fear and shame. And that is not only the deepest tragedy, it is also the deepest irony.

Because fear and shame have not only no place in Jesus’ Gospel of liberation, fear and shame are the biggest enemies Jesus’ Gospel of liberation knows.

Fear and shame are the very things from which Jesus’ Gospel of liberation comes to free us.

And so that is why this question – Do we believe in a God who knows us … or do we believe in a God who is trying to find us out? That is why this question is so important … and why our answer makes all the difference.

It made all the difference to Jeremiah. God gave Jeremiah a word to judge the nations – a word that plucked up and pulled down, a word that destroyed and overthrew, a word that built and planted. And yes, it was a word about how the people of Israel had strayed and fallen short, about how they had gone after other gods and betrayed God’s love for them. It was a word of calling to account for the sins they had committed.

It needed to be. Judgment is important. Our actions matter and confessing sin and together committing through the grace of God to new ways of living is how we fully live into the images of God we always have been.

But the context is always God’s grace. And God’s grace is that first word that Jeremiah heard – a word Jeremiah had to believe first for himself if he was going to say any of the others: That the God who has called us into covenant, the God who created us in the divine image and brought and brings us out of bondage is not a God who finds us out but a God who knows us.

A God who sees deep in our hearts and understands because God has been there.

A God whose dream for us is to live fully, risk boldly, love deeply, and grieve honestly.

A God who does not shame us for our sins but who stands with us in them, bearing their pain with us and calling us into new life in their wake.

A God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets ever can be or ever need to be hid.

Jeremiah believed that the God who spoke to him that day was a God who had not found him out but a God who knew him. And because he heard and believed that word, he was able without fear or shame to take a word upon his heart and upon his lips that would change the world.

And now the question rests on us. Which God do we believe in?

Do we believe in a God who knows us … or a God who is trying to find us out?

Do we believe in a God who calls us to cower in a closet or to rejoice we are wonderfully made?

Do we believe in a God who castigates us with shame or stands with us in love?

Do we believe in a God who dreams for us to join God as co-creators of a liberated world or live in fear of breaking rules that continually forge our chains.

The Word of God comes to us this morning saying, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

Imagine what purpose we could fulfill, what life we could lead, what truth we could tell to the world,

Imagine what living ambassadors of Jesus’ Gospel of liberation we could be if we could believe God knows … and loves … us, too.

*I am indebted to Elle Dowd for these thoughts about the damage the church has done to bodies. Be sure to click here and read her fantastic sermon on this same text that expands on these thoughts and links it to the killing of Gynnya McMillen. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Christ's Inaugural Address -- a sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Preached by the Rev. Chester Hines at Christ Church Cathedral at 8 am on Sunday, January 24, 2016

In scripture, Jesus starts his ministry this morning. He just won the election, in this case the selection by God as His beloved Son. He is filled with joy and the power of the Holy Spirit. If he did not know previously, He knows now He has been anointed by God to do something special. He understands He is to go out into the communities and tell the people who He is. He knows He will need to lead the people, encourage the people, empower the people. He knows His message is the message necessary for the salvation of the people.

History shows us he was willing to work hard to spread his message. He lays down the foundation of what he intends to accomplish. He begins immediately during His inaugural address to those gathered in the synagogue to paint the picture of what his platform will be; The Spirit of the Lord is upon Him because he has been anointed by God to go and do this work.

God anointed Christ just as Christ anoints each of us each Sunday through the blessing of God we receive from our priest or bishop. It is this blessing that anoints us continuously to go and do the physical work of Christ and be the spiritual influence of Christ here on earth.

Christ was created and set apart for a specific purpose. Know in your mind and heart this morning that the purpose for which Christ was called is the purpose for which each of us is called. To proclaim good news to the poor; not just the poor financially and economically but also the poor in spirit, the poor in mind and body, the poor who are shut out of the mainstream of the communities in which they live; the poor who are seen and not heard; the poor who live among us and their voices seem like a cry in wilderness unheard and unanswered. The poor who suffer from lack of resources to afford housing, food, clothing, healthcare, all of the necessities of life. The poor who live in danger of violence from others in the community, from the police, from the criminal justice system and this list goes on and on.

Even the financially wealthy are poor in spirit concerned about whether friends and family will ask for money or loans; they wonder if they get sued, they wonder if they will have enough money to last, they wonder if this person is my friend or a friend to my wealth. And lastly, many are poor because of the torment that they have all that money can buy but lack happiness and emotional comfort. Christ has come even to bring good news to all of us who suffer from some type of poverty.

Christ was sent to proclaim release to the captives. Who among us are captive this morning? Clearly we are not living in the many prisons, jails and other institutions of incarceration because we are here at Christ Church Cathedral. But how many of our minds and hearts are incarcerated by the vicissitudes of life, challenges in family, loss of employment, concern over lack of health care, concern over world issues, the middle east conflict, the worldwide economy, the terrorism occurring all over the world and in our churches, in our schools, on our college campuses. How many have been in captivity this week as the stock market bounced up and down loosing over five hundred points in one day, watching helplessly as the value of the portfolio dwindled.

Belief and faith in a God in heaven who sent His son for us to emulate can release all of us from the punitive incarceration put upon us by environmental and other life hindrances.

He has sent me to recover the sight of the blind. Jesus is not just talking about those who cannot see physically. He demonstrated he could bring sight back to the blind when he restored the sight of blind Bartimaeus. Jesus here is talking about another type of restoration; He is talking about recovering our sight from spiritual blindness to a spiritual re-awakening and seeing. He is calling you and me to turn away from the darkness of the world to the light of the world, from the power of Satan, to the power of God; to move from the trials and tribulations that blind us and keep up from having a full relationship with Christ. A relationship that gives us unlimited sight. To receive remission of our sins and to be sanctified by the grace given to us by Christ and to be faithful to our call to live a life filled with Christ. Christ is telling us to look and see that which is beyond the things that are visually present to us to the things that are spiritually present to us.

He has sent me to let the oppressed go free. Where is our oppression this morning? Is it in the addiction from drugs, abuse of medications, tobacco, alcohol; is it in the fast food restaurants, is it in the rejection from a job loss or a relationship broken, is it in chronic worries, is it in traumatic conflict, is it in the neglect we do regarding the things that are important to us which are pushed aside because we believe we do not have the time? Is it the oppression that has our children carrying guns and killing each other? Is it the oppression that has our children experimenting with all types of chemicals in an attempt to get to the next high? Is it the institutionalized power that has been historically formed and perpetuated over time; the oppression that allows certain groups of people to assume a dominant position over other groups; the oppression built into institutions like governments and educational systems; governments that illicitly charge residents in order to raise money to continue an oppressive government; educational systems that consistently look for excuses for our children not receiving an education.

Oppression is all around us and takes many forms, comes in many shapes and acts in strange and confusing ways. Oppression can enslave us and lead us into chaos and confusion which seems to have no end.

Christ continues with His inaugural address when He informs those gathered that He has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. How do we know when we have the Lord’s favor? Those who are favored by God know that God is with them and that nothing can tear them apart from His good purpose. They rest in a quiet confidence that their sins are forgiven and that they are within the plan of God. God is love and when we give and receive love, we have the Lord’s favor; God requires justice and when we have a concern for justice, peace, and a genuine respect for all people, we have the Lord’s favor; God’s holiness is the natural expression of His righteousness. God is infinitely pure and He is opposed to all sin, and that opposition to sin is constantly demonstrated in His love for our sinful world. Our righteousness is expressed every time we make the decision to live a life without sin. God has given us a covenant. This covenant is expressed in the first and second commandments. He is declaring that He will not tolerate unfaithfulness and competition with anything else. An idol can be in the form of anything that you might place in a higher priority over God. God requires that He is first in our life; when you put God first He knows your faithfulness.

Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. If you are a Christian, Christ’s inaugural address was written for you. You have been called to duty and are a part of the great administration; you have been prepared to take on the great challenges of righting the wrongs of the community; you are being sworn in, taking the oath of office to go and do and be the presence of Christ in the lives and places where Christ is absent; to go and do and be Christ in the presence of great challenge and unbelievable odds. We are called to be in the places of pain and discomfort; to be the salve of healing to those who suffer from the inequities of life. You have heard the words, we know the tasks, we are the children of a God who will never change His mind in regard to us or His calling to us; He will never write us off, never leave us or forsake us. We are a part of God's family and He requires us to do His work. Let us go forth with the enthusiastic call and doing a feverish work of peace, love and justice for all of God’s people. Amen.