“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved;” Galatians 3:23-29; June 19, 2016, FPC Holt

“Beloved is Beloved is Beloved”
Galatians 3:23-29
June 19, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

 

SLIDE 1 - Outside PulseIt was early last Sunday morning that the stories started coming in. There was a shooting in Orlando. 20 people were dead, more were injured. It happened at a gay nightclub. When we got to worship on Sunday these were the things I had heard, but no one really knew what all had happened, how many shooters, what their motivation was, or how high the death toll would climb. As the investigation continued, and still does, the numbers rose. 49 people killed, 53 injured, making it the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The story was horrifying to hear, but for a while all of these facts seemed so abstract to me, numbers and demographics. And even the fact that it was a shooting was abstract, living in a country where there are so, so many shootings.

SLIDE 2 - Dark Blurry CrowdThat’s the frightening thing, these people were numbers and demographics to the shooter as well. How else could someone be capable of such horrors? His connection to ISIS is still being uncovered, but it is clear that this man didn’t know his victims names or their stories. He saw them as other, as a threat to what he saw as good and correct.

Our scripture today says “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 in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

In these two simple verses the world’s divisive dichotomies are brought down, and a true and full inclusion is offered, people no longer known by their demographics, but as their role as those whom belong to Christ, who are heirs of God’s goodness. Belonging to Christ changes everything. We are no longer the other at a distance, we are siblings in the household of God. When we belong to Christ, we belong to one another. Each of us is God’s beloved, a label that overwhelms and supersedes every other label this world seeks to assign us.

SLIDE 4 - Love HateIt’s easy to hate in the abstract. It’s hard to love in the abstract.

Many acts of hate are done at a distance through bullets, bombs, and barricades. Actions justified through blanket definitions of “those people,” “enemy,” and “other.” Throughout this week this hate has become manifest in homophobia, Islamophobia, as well as both anti-immigrant and anti-hispanic rhetoric and action. Hatred hidden behind many of the labels that our Galatians text would renounce.

SLIDE 6 - LoveLove, however, necessitates proximity. Love is more than just the absence of hate, it requires action. Stepping out from behind the barriers requires vulnerability. It requires allowing yourself to be known and seeking to know the other. And when fear gets in your way, love requires taking the time to see as God sees. Love in the face of this tragedy looks like listening to the LGBTQ+ people you encounter in your life, donating blood, calling out the evils of bigotry, donating to organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as they respond to this tragedy, and reflecting the light of Christ into the dark corners of this world.

SLIDE 7 - VictimsAs happens in the wake of every tragedy, we hear the stories of those who are affected. With such a large number of people killed, the list of victims of the shooting came out gradually, name by name, person by person. Each one a family that would never be the same, a story cut short.

SLIDE 8 - Edward SotomayorThe very first name on that list was Edward Sotomayor. A name I hadn’t heard until a week ago, but one that changed everything about this shooting for me. You see, to my friend Tony Letts, Eddie wasn’t a name on a list, he was a dear friend. I’ve known Tony since I was 15 and met him through a program for high schoolers interested in vocational ministry. SLIDE 9 - Eddie and Tony When Tony posted on Facebook about losing his friend Eddie in the shooting, I was shocked. I knew that each of the people killed had those had loved ones, but now knew someone I cared about was one of those people. Just that quickly the world became much smaller.

Throughout the week Tony has shared stories about his friend. Eddie was 34, worked for a gay travel agency, and was known for the top hats he often wore, as well as his quick wit, energy, and kindness. He was so very loved, by his friends, but also, by God who formed him, created him, and called him “beloved.” “Beloved” is the name by which God knows Eddie, as well as each of those affected by this shooting.

I heard a powerful story this week about a synagogue in Washington DC responding to this tragedy by taking the time to support the LGBTQ+ community in their own area, seeking to make their own world smaller, and their love less abstract. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld shares their experience:

“When our synagogue heard about the horrific tragedy that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it was at the same time that we were celebrating our festival of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving of the Torah…I announced from the pulpit that as soon as the holiday ended at 9:17 p.m. Monday, we would travel from our synagogue in Northwest Washington to a gay bar as an act of solidarity.

We just wanted to share the message that we were all in tremendous pain and that our lives were not going on as normal. Even though the holiday is a joyous occasion, I felt tears in my eyes as I recited our sacred prayers.

I had not been to a bar in more than 20 years. And I had never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told me about a bar called the Fireplace, so I announced that as our destination. Afterward, I found out it was predominantly frequented by gay African Americans.

Approximately a dozen of us, wearing our kippot, or yarmulkes, went down as soon as the holiday ended. Some of the members of our group are gay, but most are not. We did not know what to expect. As we gathered outside, we saw one large, drunk man talking loudly and wildly. I wondered whether we were in the right place. Then my mother, who was with me, went up to a man who was standing on the side of the building. She told him why we were there. He broke down in tears and told us his cousin was killed at Pulse. He embraced us and invited us into the Fireplace.

We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out that we had so much in common. We met everyone in the bar. One of the patrons told me that his stepchildren were actually bar-mitzvahed in our congregation. Another one asked for my card so that his church could come and visit. The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. My co-clergy Maharat Ruth Friedman shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and she lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. After that, one of our congregants bought a round of beer for the whole bar.

Everyone in the bar embraced each other. It was powerful and moving and real and raw.

…As we were singing, I looked over at some gay members of our congregation and saw tears flowing down their faces. I felt the reality that we are living in a time of enormous pain. But I also felt that the night was a tremendous learning experience for me. I learned that when a rabbi and members of an Orthodox synagogue walk into a gay African American bar, it is not the opening line of a joke but an opportunity to connect; it is an opportunity to break down barriers and come together as one; it is an opportunity to learn that if we are going to survive, we all need each other.”

In 1 John 4, we read, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in God and God in us, because God has given us of God’s Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Creator has sent the child as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the child of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us…. We love because God first loved us.”

It is God who teaches us to love, and God’s love that draws us towards one another when the pain, fear, and hatred of this world tries to pull us apart. Our love for one another enables God’s love to be perfected in us, making us instruments of God’s love in this world.

SLIDE 13 - Lin-Manuel MirandaSunday night at the Tony awards Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, accepted an award for Best Original Score and shared a sonnet he wrote for the occasion. Here is part of that sonnet:

We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day

This show is proof that history remembers.
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger.
We rise and fall, and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer.

SLIDE 14 - Love is LoveAnd love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;
Cannot be killed or swept aside.”

We know from scripture that “love never ends.” May we allow God’s love to live in us, that all may know that each of “us” and each of “them,” is God’s own beloved. May we abandon the labels of this world to know the truth of God’s kingdom, that beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved is beloved. Amen.

“Anticipation of the Journey”; Luke 1:68-79; November 29, 2015; FPC Holt

 “Anticipation of the Journey”
Luke 1:68-79
November 29, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Today’s sermon will be a little bit different. I will be telling you the story of Zechariah, but what makes this sermon different, is that I will be telling this story in first person, taking on the perspective of Zechariah. So far we’ve heard the “canticle of Zechariah,” the joyful proclamation at the birth of his son, John, later to be known as John the Baptist. But, this story is much more interesting than a proud father’s exclamation, with many unanswered questions for us to explore. And so together let us listen to what Zechariah might’ve said and thought, and may we hear in it God’s message for our own lives as well.

SLIDE 1 - ZechariahI’m not used to being quiet. As a priest, I spend many of my days surrounded by words, teaching what other priests throughout time have understood about the meaning of our sacred texts, preaching so that those who can’t read may hear what God has told them to do, and debating with others in the temple so we can better understand.

Then the silence came, and nothing was the same. At first it was hard to remember what had happened. I’d wake up in the morning and begin to say my prayers, and my lips just moved wordlessly. I’d see a friend approach me in the synagogue and start to say hello and couldn’t even manage a squeak. Eventually it set in and I’d try different ways to communicate. I could always write things down, but not everyone could read what I was trying to tell them. Even those who could didn’t always have the patience to follow along with what I was trying to convey. After all that had happened, to be silent was maddening.

SLIDE 2 - Zechariah and ElizabethYou see, I’ve lived my whole life waiting for what was now happening. My wife Elizabeth and I had waited our whole long, long marriage for a child, someone who could carry on our legacy and family name. But at our age? Impossible. Or so I thought.

SLIDE 3 - TorahAs a priest, I’ve read over and over again the scriptures of the prophets, telling of a Messiah, one who could start a new future for us, saving us from the oppression of the Roman emperor, saving us from the oppression of our own sinfulness. And for year we’d waited for the opportunity for me to go to the Holy of Holies and offer incense. You see, we priests serve in a group, two times a year for a week we would draw lots each day for the chance to approach the temple Holy of Holies. Again and again, my lot was not called.

SLIDE 4 - Zechariah and ElizabethFor years I’ve wondered what my purpose was as a husband, and as a priest, if all I’ve been waiting for and hoping for just weren’t happening. Had God forgotten me? Was I so stuck in going through the motions that somehow what I’ve been doing has ceased to honor God? I thought God was through with me, that is, until the day of the silence. That day that changed everything.

SLIDE 5 - Jerusalem TempleIt seemed like just a typical day, traveling to the Jerusalem temple with my fellow priests. Chatting with each other as we walked, sharing our joys and our frustrations. I knew the way this worked, we would go to the temple draw lots, and I’d try my best to graciously support whoever was chosen that day. But then, my name was drawn, and I was to experience the Holy of Holies!

For all my training and years of experience, as I entered into the chamber I’ll admit my hands shook a bit. I was about to enter into the very presence of God! I knew what that space was like by rote, and had heard others talk about the stillness, but couldn’t imagine it fully until I was there. Lighting the incense I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. SLIDE 6 - AngelI looked and gasped as I saw…well, it’s hard to put it in words… but there was a presence in front of me, winged and bright and powerful. I was terrified! Wouldn’t you be?

This, this… angel spoke me, I’ll never forget this part, it said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  or he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I was shocked, incredulous, frightened, and I’ll admit, a bit angry. What on earth was this thing telling me? We’ve never been able to have a child and now, we’re being given instructions not only what to name him, but also what he should drink? This was absurd!

SLIDE 7 - Angel touching lipsI made the mistake of expressing my… disbelief and was immediately admonished. The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

I started to object again, but found my mouth would make no sound, try as I might. SLIDE 8 - Zechariah trying to talkStumbling out of the inner sanctuary into the daylight I’m sure the gathered crowd thought I was stunned. And well, I guess I was. Try as I might I couldn’t tell them anything of what had happened, couldn’t explain my silence, couldn’t explain my incredulous joy. Then after the week was up I headed home to Elizabeth.

SLIDE 9 - Zechariah and ElizabethIt was one thing to not be able to tell the other priests, but to not tell my wife? Especially about something so dear to us, so immediate to her own body, it was maddening. Try as I might I couldn’t speak a word. And my dear, darling wife, had never learned to read, so I couldn’t begin to share this story.

But soon, she knew for herself what miracle was happening within her, the family forming between us, the journey that was before us. We’ve been waiting so long, that this additional nine months of waiting seemed like nothing, but in the silence, it was so, so hard.

For so, so many years we had hoped for this, but after so many years, we dare not plan for this. Even after the birth of our child we couldn’t be sure of our own ability to support him into adolescence, or adulthood. What would be come of this child of ours, this John. His name was John. But I couldn’t tell Elizabeth that. I couldn’t share the promises of the angel. I couldn’t say a thing.

But I could listen. And in listening I heard Elizabeth weep with joy. She told me of so many times she was overlooked in the synagogue, in the town, in our own family, for not being able to be a mother. She spoke of her pain. And all I could do was hold her and listen.

In this silence too, my prayers changed shape. I was so used to talking, sharing with God the ways I had been left out, the way I wasn’t getting what I hoped for. But in the silence, I learned to listen, listen to the ways that God’s bigger plan was unfolding. The way that my meager hopes could be used for eternal glory.

SLIDE 10 - John birthFinally the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to a son, our son. The one to prepare the way of the Lord! Over the past many months I had made peace with my silence, and with the future that lay before Elizabeth and me. My incredulity had been transformed into joy, my distrust into steady belief. I knew that God had a plan for this child, our child who was so much more than ours. The one who would make a way for the Messiah.

After so much silence the family knew Elizabeth spoke for the both of us and so asked her directly what our son’s name should be. She said “John,” the name I had been unable to share with her for months, the name I had heard in the temple. How could she know his name? Surely she had felt God’s presence too. SLIDE 11 - His name is JohnWhen those at the temple for his circumcision questioned it I confirmed by writing “His name is John.” And all at once I could talk again. My voice had come back and I had so much to say, no longer bitter from waiting, no longer fearful from mistrust, I had nothing to share now but praise: And so I began: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. For God has looked favorably upon God’s people, and has redeemed them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.